FOES & FRIENDS: Betwixt & Between - Sikh Research Institute

FOES & FRIENDS: Betwixt & Between

Over the years I have had the good fortune to work with many Sikh institutions in the United States; not too intimately, but closely enough to see their blemishes, wrinkles and warts.  I have seen them through their good days and bad.  And I include here a fair sampling of gurduaras as well as non-gurduara bodies such as SALDEF (nee SMART), Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, SikhRI, MBSK Foundation, and a couple of Sikh Art & Film groups.


Let it be clearly said that they serve their cause excellently.  Some are almost entirely funded by the private resources of one individual, family or a small group; others also draw on their attractive programs to raise public donations.  Money, after all, is the lifeblood of service, no matter how meritorious


People donate because they believe the cause deserves it.  Gurduara is the basic Sikh institution and, no matter how dysfunctional it may appear, funding rarely suffers.  Gurduaras offer the basics — keertan, religious service and langar, so donors come in all sizes and shapes


Some institutions exist to burnish our public image.  They are mostly outer-directed to present to the non-Sikh world with the richness of the Sikh message; the aim being an equal place at the table for Sikhs and Sikhi in this complex society.  With one exception, for the institutions that I have named here, because of their eye catching societal mission, donations and resources continue to pour in a steady stream.  Theirs is a sexier mission to frame it bluntly.


The one exception in the list above is Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI).  Its mission is the internal development of the Sikh community particularly in the diaspora.  It means that the spotlight is on Sikhs outside Punjab and India with the goal of developing and cementing their connection to, and understanding of, Sikhi – the language, history, teachings and traditions. The idea being that the better (more informed) Sikhs they become, they more productive citizens they will be.


So far so good!  Sounds like Utopian goals for an ideal existence that every Sikh would support.  But nothing comes without strings attached. SikhRI’s funding by the larger Sikh community as well as acceptance of its excellent programs remains somewhat problematic.


Over a decade of existence a variety of imaginative SikhRI programs such as Sojhi, Webinars, Sidak, Sneha, Workshops and Lectures held worldwide have caught the imagination of young Sikhs and educated professionals.  Yet, SikhRI continues to limp along on financial resources far less than its creative programs demand and deserve.


Sojhi, for instance, is a laboriously developed program that emerged from the blood, sweat and tears of Jasmine Kaur and Harinder Singh. It gives us a lesson by lesson, lecture by lecture curriculum for teaching and learning Sikhi just as a school would have an academic program to teach history or science. It has grade levels like any school does; it has guidelines on how to teach and how to train teachers, and it comes with standards on how to monitor student progress.  It’s the model that students face in studying arithmetic or biology, for instance.


It’s exactly what we need.  So where’s the rub? Let’s see what the community response has been and why? Obviously financial support would not be expected from non-Sikhs.  But I also expect less financial support here from Sikhs than for the other Sikh institutions that I named.  Why?


In my view two major reasons account for the financial penury of SikhRI.


SikhRI focuses on matters that are internal to the community.  We don’t easily see that better informed Sikhs are better representatives of Sikhi and would be better accepted in this society.  Such a connection is not so easy to grasp.


The second truism is that some Sikhs respond angrily/negatively about the content of some SikhRI programs or are unsure of it. Frankly, I am not surprised. Here’s why.


Let’s say I explain to a Sikh congregation that, yes the Guru Granth repeatedly asks for the boon of applying “the dust of the feet of Gurus to the forehead,” but that it does not mean this literally. Instead it is asking us to walk the path of the Guru with deep humility and devotion.  Gurbani is poetry and has to be interpreted keeping in mind the allegories, analogies and metaphors that we encounter.  What is being advocated here is a state of mind.  But we all know that there are many who translate Gurbani literally.  So it is but natural that some listeners would react negatively to our formulations.


If I insist that engagement with Gurbani requires more than bowing ones head to the Guru Granth; that it requires reading and cogitation on the Guru’s words. If I say that Guru Granth is not to be worshiped but reverently read and integrated into one’s life, then why should I be distressed that some people react unkindly to my words? After all, I am standing their lifetime of habit on its head. Remember that our readers come with passionately held positions that will be equally passionately defended.


True that we cannot water down the message here because the crux of our core mandate is to connect Sikhs to their teaching, history and tradition.


Forget not that all across this country there is a plethora of gurduara based Sunday schools that have for years been teaching a modicum of Punjabi language skills and Sikhi in a mélange of history and mythology. Their unspoken response to the SikhRI initiative is likely to be: “We founded and taught gurduara Sunday schools for years and produced your generation of good Sikhs.  Now you want to tell us we don’t know what we are doing and that we should get out of your way?”


Quite naturally the gurduara teachers feel besieged by a SikhRI that may appear to be dismissing their activities as misleading distractions.  It is not enough for SikhRI to merely argue that this is not their intent.  My purpose today is not to cavil about who is right and who isn’t.  The merits of the argument are not the issue; perception is what is important here.


The inter-generational divide has been around as long as mankind.  It is not easy to bridge, but it is critical to our future that we attempt to put a link in place. Why did I pick up this matter today? Because not only does it have ramifications for SikhRI but it is equally important to our gurduaras and the future of our community in the diaspora.


Briefly, I am suggesting that SikhRI initiative is one of a kind that deserves a welcome and serious hearing.  On the other hand the community’s history of involvement is important and needs to be valued.  Together the two hold great promise for the way forward.


Impassioned differences sometimes can enhance understanding; they are not always harmful. Witness the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics (New York Times, October 15, 2013.)  Of the three economists who share it, Robert Shiller predicted in 2005 the coming housing bubble and its danger to the economy while his co-nobelist, Eugene Fama, says “I don’t even know what a bubble means.  These words have become popular. I don’t think they have any meaning.”


Keep in mind that, no matter the subject, be it banking, chemistry or religion, if a lesson doesn’t raise a little storm in the listener’s mind then the session is likely wasted.  It is like casting a pebble on still waters; if it raises no ripples then was a stone even cast?  The same relationship holds between an idea and the mind of the student.


Reasoning thus I see that the so called foe may not be my enemy.  We may be allies on the same side of the issue since both of us want to enhance understanding of Sikhi and celebrate it.


What we need is to trust the other even though we each come from a different path, place and mindset.


If we can tolerate each other and grow together we will enrich ourselves and Sikhi at the same time – and that’s a given.  Rejecting or abusing each other is not Sikhi.  We have to treat such dissonance as the tempest in a tea cup that it is and maintain the high moral ground – for it’s going to be a long never-ending ride.  We will have to learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable and to work through our disagreements with goodwill and the patience of Job.


But in the meantime be assured that fund raising for SikhRI will remain harder, and that’s the cross that SikhRI will have to bear.


But this too shall pass.

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