It was about 5:30 in the evening on Wednesday, the 28th of November, 2012.
My wife, Gurpreet Kaur, collected our two kids from the Preschool Place & Kindergarten. Our evening supper ritual was hurried as we had to get our son, Jodha Singh, to his Tai-Kwon-Do class by 6:30.
Then we were all headed over to the nearby gurdwara in my new zip code in New Jersey.
I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling quite up to going that night. I had more than enough reasons not to: isn’t the gurpurab historically located in Vaisakh (April), not Katak (November), I argued within myself? Like any other gurpurab today, haven’t the majority of celebrations been reduced to an annual excuse for a feel-good mela?
And then, I had an easy out: am I not still physically too weak, considering that I just got out of the ER grappling with a horrendous infection?
And so on and so forth.
I walked into Garden State Sikh Association, Inc. (Yes, a corporation! And tax-exempt too!), popularly known as the Bridgewater Gurdwara.
The sumptuous spread of buffet-style snacks was extravagant; initially I resisted, given my recent illness, but eventually caved in. I overheard a refrain: “Why not indulge? It is Guru Sahib’s birthday!”
We made it to the divan upstairs where we found the kirtan was, well, routine.
Then Giani Bachittar Singh started the katha.
He is the resident Bhai Sahib of sorts. He delivered the katha with a beautiful exegesis from Guru Nanak’s bani.
Eventually I got up to head home, as it was a school night for the kids and my illness was still getting the better of my energy reserves. Preparing to exit after paying obeisance to the Guru, we heard the opening strains of a captivating shabad, a celebratory one, from the raagis.
We looked at each other, and without a word, we swung right around and headed back into the divan, to savor the delightful renditions by the jatha of Bhai Karamjit Singh Laki, Surinderjit Singh and Raghbir Singh.
Serendipity! Gani Kaur, my daughter, sat in my lap and after listening quietly to the entire shabad, she nodded: “changa hai!” – “It‘s wonderful!”
Deciding that we ought not to stay for langar, we drove home and quickly got the kids bedded down.
But now I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing with thoughts unleashed by the evening’s goings on.
It really doesn’t matter, I thought, when you celebrate the Guru, any moment or day is fine, of course. So was it that I was frustrated simply over what I saw as lost potential, of watching the gurdwara not doing more as a center of learning that it is meant to be?
But then, did I also know what I want? Why was it that I got so worked up when other folks can come with no qualms to the gurdwara, and just eat and socialize? I appreciate the sense of community and the important bonds that are formed by affirming our sangat, and I don’t think I’m a grouch who would begrudge others a little fun! So why did it feel like it mattered, why did it irk me?
What is my personal relationship with the Guru, then? Isn’t Jaswant Singh Zafar’s poem also about me being afraid of the real Guru Nanak?
* * * * *
Guru Arjan sings in Guru Granth:
“Nanak’s wisdom dispels ignorance; People rejoice as they connect with Naam.”
Am I allowing my intellect to alter my thinking and behavior?
Bhai Gurdas presents Guru Nanak as someone who came into this world to eliminate doubt. No Sikhi can exist without Guru Nanak just as no life is possible without the sun. The sovereign lifestyle of the lion cannot exist, cannot be fearless, without Guru Nanak. Do I feel his sunlight? Am I becoming fearless?
Bhai Vir Singh assures us, “as a strong wind blows away all odours, as a rain shower refreshes the countryside, as a ray of light penetrates the deepest darkness, so does Guru’s compassion bring about a transformation in life.”
Has my transformation begun yet?
Prof. Puran Singh reminds us, “the very fact that Guru Nanak himself had children and sweated and prayed for them indicated how life interested him more than abstraction.”
Do I get excited about life? Do I dwell too long in the abstractions?
* * * * *
I often wonder why we have reduced Sikhi to a mere philosophy. I recall the poet Iqbal’s warning about why Buddha wasn’t gracefully accepted in Hindustan … because the old Brahmins were too proud of their intricate philosophies.
The poet concedes that the only man – “nonpareil“! — successful in shaking the people of the subcontinent free from their day dreaming was Guru Nanak. Wouldn’t we want to learn more about the relationships of the Guru as life lessons? Not reduce everything to metaphysical notions?
What is amazing is how Guru Nanak communicates even with intellectuals with whom he is in utter disagreement: the siddhs, the naaths, the yogis, for example. Are Sikhs learning to be communicators who don’t get distracted or bogged down by dissent?
Guru Nanak won over the tyrant Babar, even when he was flush with blood-soaked victory. Are we, the Guru’s Sikhs, fighting for the rights of all — degh-tegh fateh — the way the Guru had done?
Through the creating of a caring home, Guru Nanak nurtured the insights and nurture of siblings: from sister Nanaki and, later, her husband, Jairam. Are we too entrenched in tired customs and weighed down by traditions to be able to break free and follow the Guru’s example?
It was with grace that Guru Nanak instructed the ‘enlightened ones‘, the Shamsis of Multan and the Sheikh of Pak Patan. Are we today too entangled in the forces of exclusivity?
Discover the amazing, victorious, caring and gracious Nanak every day as Harinder Singh ‘Mehboob’ did. Guru Nanak is visible in his relationships with the Creator and His Creation, as depicted so lovingly in “Journey with the Gurus“, the meditations by Inni Kaur.
* * * * *
You know the feelings that accompany the terrible loss of a friendship? The pain, the exhaustion, the burden, the restlessness, the darkness. And now apply that personally and collectively while reflecting on your relationship with Guru Nanak:
“I had a great friend; I lost that friendship for temporary gains. I did not know its value; now, I am not even worth half a coin” [GGS:963].
To my mind, this is Guru Arjan’s analysis of what is happening among the 30 million of us Sikhs in the world today.
Do we really feel Guru Nanak? We need to stop idolizing the Guru! And love him as the Hindus, the Muslims, the Sikhs, and the tribes of the world did when he walked this earth … with no strings attached. Great is he for he revealed to us the culture of Naam. Let‘s recognize … and feel his divine presence, here and now, in its pristine glory.
The author is an educator and an activist who co-founder of the Sikh Research Institute and the Panjab Digital Library.