We all suffer at times, weighed down with personal traumas, disappointments and regrets.
According to the Buddhists, the primary truth of all of human existence is suffering.
But in Sikhi, while our Guru acknowledges that there is much suffering in life, there is more to life and the universe than mere suffering. No, life is so much more than suffering.
The primary truth of the human condition that the Guru shows us, is that we are grand and divine. We are god-like. That is our Guru’s vision:
O mind, you are an aspect of the Divine Light. Connect with your true self.
O mind, God is with you always; through the Guru’s wisdom learn to revel in God’s love.
But how can we move from inevitable suffering to a recognition and an embrace of this divinity? How are we to transform on a personal level and as a nation in taking this next step?
The first instance of trauma that our community faced was the shaheedi (martydom) of Guru Arjan. Guru Hargobind’s response to Guru Arjan’s torture and execution has become the template of the Sikh response to trauma.
We didn’t respond by cowering with fear and disavowing our faith so that we could save ourselves from persecution. Nor did we respond in kind to dominion and abuse, becoming tyrants ourselves and engaging in communal war, destroying innocent communities in retaliation for the Mughal government’s excesses or the betrayals by some of their Hindu minions.
No, the Sikh response was unique and inspiring. There was defiance and a call to arms, but more so, there was a grasping of dignity: an affirmation of our divine nature. The Guru was tortured. The Guru’s body was broken. But the Guru was not broken. No, the Guru instead affirmed the central tenet of Guru Nanak credo: A Sikh is sovereign.
We are not just sovereign in this life or the next, or in this world and the “spirit” world, but in all places and all times and in every conceivable manner; we are free.
From that time forward, the same dignified response occurred again and again, regardless of the trauma we as a nation suffered.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this impulse was the panthic response to the Great Holocaust in 1762, the day that thirty to forty thousand Sikhs were slaughtered. It was perhaps the darkest moment in Sikh history, when half of the Sikh nation was massacred. The panth was decimated.
What remains after such a monumental tragedy? How can a community begin to come to terms with that type of loss, let alone move forward?
And yet somehow, almost implausibly, the panth not only overcame its losses but was able to free Punjab within two decades and, in the process, fatally cripple the Mughal empire, while also seriously damaging the expansionist Afghan empire. The spirit of Chardi Kala has perhaps never shone brighter.
Then, a hundred years later, we suffered a comparable disaster: the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s ended with the British annexing Punjab. We lost our land, our government and our independent army. We lost all tangible aspects of our earthly sovereignty. We had gone from having our own nation state to living as a colonized people, unable even to control our own religious institutions.
Our leadership was then composed primarily of morally bankrupt collaborators, intent on profiting from the new regime, where the wealth of our history, tradition and community was not valuable to these foreign markets.
And yet, within two decades, the reform movements of the 1870s sprang forth, then the scholarly and artistic renaissance of the Singh Sabha Movement, followed by the Gurdwara Reform Movement, and, finally, the Independence struggle.
Today, many of us ache with private and public pain, be they the relics of sexual abuse, torture, broken relationships, drug use, discrimination or a myriad of other causes. From this dark place, how do we make real the great promise of Guru Nanak: That within his house and on this path we undergo the ultimate transformation, to experience a true rebirth?
And what of our homeland today, the Punjab that Sikhs fought for, defended, and freed over the centuries? Today the waters of the five rivers are toxic. Her land is cracked and broken from drought. The locks of hair, the gift of Guru Gobind Singh that Puran Singh sang about so elegantly, have been cut in a thousand barber shops. The spirit of the Sikh has been diluted with the addict’s needle. The vision of Guru Nanak Sahib’s world, his Kartarpur, a place of unbridled Creativity, has been aborted in medical clinics, by the millions crimes of gender alone.
We are thus faced with two challenges as we contemplate the quest of the Guru’s promise: realizing rebirth in our own lives, and as a nation.
For a Sikh always has two roles to play: our own personal journey on the path laid out by Guru Nanak, and that same journey as a member of the Panth. Yet, as in all things Sikhi, there is not really a dichotomy in this seeming split.
These are not two paths – only the one. For if we are to live the principle of rejuvenation, if we are to embrace our true selves, then the panth will be reborn as well. The Khalsa Panth is not an amorphous, mystical force. It is a very real entity, made up of people. It is us. You and me. We are the Guru.
The Khalsa of the 1700s did not free Punjab overnight. The Sikhs of the 1880s did not rejuvenate the panth in an instant. There was no supernatural transformation and the end results were not guaranteed.
How were these tasks achieved then? It was the result of women and men, working together, for something much greater than themselves. These were never simply political or military movements. They were cultural and social revolutions as well, that occurred due to personal transformations. The community needed to reassess its past so that it could reaffirm its commitment to the vision of Guru Nanak. It needed to reforge Sikhi’s relationship to time and place, to reassert its relevance and its strength. Gurbani needed to be understood, Sikh history needed to be retold. Connections to our past that had been heedlessly severed needed to be rewoven, thread by thread, stronger than ever before.
And therein lies our answer. For we are not just individuals, desperately searching for truth in the empty void of existence. No, we are not even followers of someone with the light. We are the light. We are the Guru that Guru Gobind Singh himself bowed down to. When he begged the Five for amrit, it was us He was pleading with.
How does a Sikh remain in Chardi Kala? How does the Panth respond to trauma?
It responds as the Guru did.
The Khalsa does not live in the trauma of the past. It does not ask what could have been. It does not trap itself in a cycle of suffering and pain. Neither does it ignore the past. It does not pretend there was no pain or hurt. No, it acknowledges the past. It commemorates it and enshrines it. And then it asks, What can we learn from this so that we can uphold the vision of Guru Nanak? How do we realize the promise that everyone of us has the capability to transform this world for the better, while transforming ourselves?
Twenty-five years after the Great Holocaust, the Khalsa ruled over Lahore and all of Punjab was free.
Twenty-five years after the second Anglo-Sikh War, the Singh Sabha renaissance was in full force and the panth underwent a dramatic cultural and social transformation.
Here we are, almost thirty years after 1984. There will be no messiah. There will be no reckoning from heaven. We will not be made free and delivered to salvation as passive agents in the hands of some omnipotent force. Our pain will not be erased or numbed, our trauma will not be healed through some supernatural miracle.
No, sisters and brothers, stand up.
There is work to be done.
We should never forget the Master who has given us our bodies, our every breath.
With this body, with our own hands, let us complete our work ourselves.
[Santbir Singh is a Project Associate with the Sikh Research Institute. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and two children.]