On 31 July 1972, I was given a graceful opportunity to land on earth. Being of the Creator and Creation, I am to experience the Divine freedom while enjoying and living life to its fullest. One Universal Force, Guru, parents, family, friends, and those who I wrongly perceive as my foes (for there are none), all are part of my collective consciousness that made me what I am today.
The “horror-scope” says I’m Leo. I can’t accept my life being defined by zodiac signs. I have not quite made it to LEO (Low Earth Orbit; 100-1240 miles) though I spent substantial time flying last year. My telling of “Up in the Air” would be a bit of a different tale than George Clooney’s. My time was spent mostly “meeting” prophets and poets, by reading their revelations and creations at 30,000 feet. I also indulged in high-altitude episodes of “The Wire” (best TV I have seen in years) as well. I am thirty eight today. I take this opportunity to reflect on the last year of my existence. Uncle Sam demands tax accountability every April, what about life at large?
Last July, nearing my thirty-seventh birthday, I ventured into interpreting the Sikh vision for community building in Vancouver. It was to be a display of solidarity with the Ravidasi community in the aftermath of Vienna violence which was leveraged by opportunists to create a caste divide–an oxymoron to Sikhi, but a visible reality in this world. The aftermath of this social wedging infiltrated the larger Sikh community and the Ravidasis. Both seem to have forgotten the vision of “Begampura” – the City Without Sorrow – which is possible only when no one is treated as a second- or third-class citizen. Doctrinally, we accept all people as divine, for the One Force is within them. Our tent must be large enough to accept all people, and fight for their rights (not just the Sikh factions) even if my own lifestyle and discipline is not in-sync with them: atheists, homosexuals, immigrants, all marginalized people. What have I done towards this end?
Also on this very day in 1941, the Final Solution to the “Jewish question” was demanded by Adolf Hitler which would result in the Nazi Holocaust. The responses to this still-unfathomable act of organized hate and structured killing, ranged from the unprecedented international cooperation of the Nuremberg trials, to the recent Tarantino film “Inglorious Basterds.” The Sikhs cannot have their own Elie Wiesel, or even a Lt. Aldo Raine, when the established Sikhs remain apologetic, complicit and unconcerned with the extrajudicial killings of Sikhs, a truth well-documented by the Ensaaf organization. I survived and witnessed 1984 Sikh genocidal killings and am well aware of the continued ethnocide. Guru Nanak Sahib reminds us to identify with the downtrodden and not to ape the established. What have I done towards this end?
Last October, while in the UK, someone asked me if I knew of Udham Singh. I asked why and was told that they were looking for someone to give a lecture on him. I answered then, that I was born on the day Udham Singh was hanged for delivering justice to General Michael O’Dwyer. It was Udham Singh’s personal response to the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. He was condemned by the Indian National Congress leaders, including Nehru and Gandhi. To me, he kissed the noose so South Asians can be free. And he did so under the alias Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, displaying the freedom-loving nature of a Sikh who operates beyond boundaries, embracing all while practicing doctrine of love and justice. What have I done towards this end?
I was blessed with Gani (carefree and rich) Kaur in November. A precious female “paragon of light” whom Guru Nanak Sahib proclaims “will continue the path perpetually.” I hope to impart the richness of Guru Granth Sahib so Gani Kaur can become carefree like the Creator, and not careless like me. I was congratulated, by presumably and visibly good Sikhs, on how my family is now complete (I also have a 3.5 year-old son, Jodha Singh). My wife and I witnessed how the birth of a girl, by a large section of the community, is interpreted as the Creator’s Will, with little or passive celebration. So, had we not had a son, our family would have been incomplete?–astonishing for the twenty-first century! Transcending sexist prejudice is a global concern. There are more than 50 million women missing in the world according to the UN. We must embrace the “completeness” of all peoples, for their divine spirit rather than their gender. What have I done towards this end?
A few months ago, I was tested yet again by the pressure to do the things that will please people. The choices ranged from stopping my work for a Sikh organization, or to continuing, but in a way that would compromise my truest self. Addressing real issues at home, at work, or in the community is never easy. In my current vocation, I emphatically share with people that Sikhi is about here and now, to free us from whatever binds us. With the best intentions, good people tell me to obey the elders, become practical, and keep spirituality on the side when it comes to critical decisions. I do believe, when it is all said and done, I’m answerable to my Guru first, and it is my Guru who is my primary allegiance, not merely a Board of Directors at whose behest I serve. Mission-focus or values-based decisions seem to be reserved for speech-making only, otherwise they cause discomfort. I have heard that to confront issues is to be ready to lose a limb. I can be prepared for that, but how do I know which issue is worth it? The 12G Force – a term I coined to encompass the values and lifestyle of the Guru Sahibs (the Ten Nanaks and Granth-Panth) given my affinity for epical Star Wars – demands I continue to religiously develop myself and my surroundings. What have I done towards this end?
This past February I finally got a chance to visit Panchbati – Bhai Vir Singh’s summer home in Dehradun – thanks to Inni Kaur’s encouragement. Bhai Sahib’s literary work shaped my understanding of Sikhi. I was fortunate to address an audience at an academy in Delhi named for him on the topic of “Nam – Identification with the Divine.” I have come across articles attempting to reduce Bhai Sahib’s impact, to which I respond (to paraphrase Bhagat Kabir ji), “They can’t contribute anything, but libel those whose whole existence is benevolent.” Bhai Sahib was “dangerous” because he empowered the rural and urban folks alike; he worked tirelessly to develop Sikhs and Panjabis in literary, economic, and spiritual arenas. What have I done towards this end?
I was lecturing on Jathedars Banda Singh Bahadar and Jarnail Singh Bhindrawala this May and June in a tour of the US, Canada and UK. By the time these men were thirty-eight years old, both had taken on the forces of domination without worry for the consequences. And they were quite successful at it; one sign of their success is how their character is, to this day, maligned by the opposition. They were lovers in the way Asa-Ki-Var (Ode of Hope) expresses love, for they did not determine their responses based on gains or losses. Giving voice to the voiceless is something more than a task prescribed for a Sikh. What have I done towards this end?
About a fortnight ago, the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee as they call themselves) were forced to drop out of the world championships of lacrosse, a sport invented by their ancestors. Why? Because they wanted to maintain their independence as a people and a nation while they are caught between the borders of the US and Canada. It brought to mind Toba Tek Singh’s narrative of the 1947 Partition and how a Sikh died in the no man’s land between the borders of India and Pakistan. My ancestors, the inspired Sikhs of the Guru, fought to build bridges among the cultures and civilization in the land of the five rivers— Panjab. Now we are not even a party to policy decisions that affect Panjabis on both side of the British map making? What have I done towards this end?
Last week I was reminded of why I must not wait to do things that need to get done. Ajeet Singh Matharu, a very promising young Sikh scholar at Columbia University, died in a car accident. His showing at last year’s Sikholar conference remains vivid to me: Ajeet’s (invincible) intellectual aptitude, his bright Sikh spirit and rare brand of courage shone as he skillfully revealed the shallowness and dishonesty of the Sikh and Panjabi Studies programs.
Over the last few years, I had several opportunities to converse, visit, and work with him; it was a most pleasant experience. His major criticism of me was that I am not vocal enough in the community forums about the Sikhs stances, especially political ones. I hope to work on this front as a tribute to my friend. Guru Nanak Sahib asks us, “To speak the truth when it is needed.” What have I done towards this end?
It seems convenient to celebrate birthdays on a yearly basis, but amidst the merry making, I must stop to ask, what am I celebrating? Whatever I have accomplished, in the bigger picture, is it even meaningful? Guru Amardas Sahib reminds me to ask this question everyday: “O my body, what have you done since you came into this world?”
I am dumb-founded to tackle this; I do not know where to begin answering this query!
Harinder Singh is the co-founder and Chief Programming Officer of the Sikh Research Institute. He is an interdisciplinary researcher and a global orator. His passion is to learn and share the Sikh culture.