Monthly Archives: February 2011

Are You Spiritual Or Religious?

I seem to gravitate toward discussions of faith and religion.
I find myself having conversations with people regarding their beliefs and traditions all the time – on the train, sporting events, and sometimes in line at the grocery store.  Perhaps it’s the uniform that encourages the discussion – nevertheless, I appreciate hearing people’s personal way they define and practice their spirituality…well, at least most of the time.
Lately, I find myself having more and more conversations with other Sikhs about Sikhi and somewhere in the discussion they’ll say, “Well, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.”  That’s usually the point where my eyes glaze over.  Not that I don’t care about their opinions and personal views on  connecting with God, but at that point I no longer feel we’re having a conversation about Sikhi. 
I feel my definition of a Sikh and Sikhi is quite broad, but if a goal of a Sikh is to let go of our ego and become a Gurmukh (literally, face toward the Guru) through learning Gurmat (the Guru’s way), then where do all these individual views on “spirituality” fit in?
This debate over being spiritual versus religious is not isolated to Sikhs, and is actually quite popular amongst Americans who seem to be drifting from organized religion and in to a more nebulous category of “spiritual.”  And although a quick Google search will show you how passionate the debate is on either side, the definitions of what is “spiritual” and what is “religious” are still quite vague.
If I try to strip away biases each side has toward these terms, spirituality seems to be associated with developing an inner relationship with God (or higher power).  God is spoken about in more close and personal terms (in your heart rather than in heaven), there’s more tolerance of other faiths, and more references to being God-loving versus God-fearing.  But the primary focus seems to be on the individual journey to enlightenment rather than subscribing to any specific rituals, practices, or “rules.”  Religion, however, takes inspiration from the past, has traditions and customs that go back generations and is often based on scripture.  Religions provide a framework, guide, and sometimes a set of rules and/or practices to reach enlightenment.  Religions tend to have a more defined following and build structures and institutions to support the congregation.
Reflecting on these two thoughts and relating it to Sikhi, I think there is clearly spiritual elements – in fact it is one of our primary goals in life to overcome the five vices, self-realize, and recognize Waheguru within ourselves. That to me is a very personal journey – but for a Sikh, does it stop there? 
Guru Sahib also tells us to surround ourselves with saadh sangat, others who are seeking truth (or already found it) so we can collectively more further along the path.  So how “individual” is this journey after all? 
If we look at history, the establishment of dharmshalas to the initiation of the Khalsa all points to creating a sense of community, structure, and institutions.  This to me is far beyond the boundaries of spirituality’s inward journey. 
And the creation of the Khalsa, along with its discipline and uniform, is designed to take that inner spirit and proclaim to the world that we are sons of daughters of Guru Gobind Singh – and here to serve a greater good….so where does this leave us?
Where does spirituality and religion fit in Sikhi?  Or better yet…
Which are you?  Do you consider yourself Spiritual?  Religious?  Both?  Or Neither?


I’ve often connected with shabads where Guru Sahib uses “pyaas” (thirst) as a metaphor to describe his longing for Waheguru, whether he is referring to the rainbird (Chatrik) who waits patiently and whose thirst is only quenched by the raindrop:

prabh sio man leenaa jio jal meenaa chaathrik jivai thisantheeaa
My mind is attached to the Lord, like the fish to the water, and the rainbird, thirsty for the raindrops

Or in more direct forms, where Guru Sahib expresses longing for His darshan

chir chir chir chir bhaeiaa man bahuth piaas laagee
har dharasano dhikhaavahu mohi thum bathaavahu
It has been so long, so long, so long, so very long, since my mind has felt such a great thirst.  Please, reveal to me the Blessed Vision of Your Darshan, and show Yourself to me.

I guess when it comes down to it, I don’t know how it feels to have an intense longing to be with the Guru…but I do know thirst.

If we look at it in the simplest form, we all know what it feels like to be thirsty, don’t we?

Now let me think about a time when I felt the deepest thirst ever. I think of high school and two-a-day football practices in the dead of August – running sprints back and forth to the point of exhaustion. I remember feeling a thirst so intense and so deep, that all I could think about was water. My mind was consumed by it. Instead of hours, what If I had to wait for days before that first sip of water? It would completely take over my mind and body. So if I multiply this hundreds of times over, perhaps this is a glimpse of what Guru Sahib phyiscally felt being separated from his Beloved.

The Rehat Maryada defines a Sikh, but above and beyond that, I believe each of us have a definition or image in our mind of who a Sikh is. When I hear friends and family refer to someone who is “in to Sikhi”, it’s often tied to the physical appearance. To others it might be someone who spends their time doing seva, some feel it is one who is well versed in Baani or a talented Kirtani.

All those things may be true…

But I feel something has been missing in my own personal definition…and perhaps within me.


I call myself a Sikh, but am I a really seeker? And am I seeking the truth only out of my interest and appreciation of the Guru’s way (and when it is convenient)? Or is it because of a genuine yearning to be with Him?

Do I feel that longing for his darshan? Darshan is often defined as His “presence” or “meeting”, but to me, receiving His darshan is not about “seeing him” physically – It’s about seeing like him. It’s about bridging the gap between his mind and mine…and seeing humanity through the Guru’s eyes.

Do I thirst for this? Do I feel this pyaas?
Not even close.

But I have caught glimpses.

And through His Grace, I hope those glimpses will become more frequent
That they appear in both moments of joy and sorrow
And they will become more powerful, more vivid, and string together in a way…that I don’t even know it

Schools Of Thought

A few friends and I were discussing that if a Khalsa School opened up nearby that only enrolled Sikh students and had an equal standard of education as the other schools, would we send our children?

The obvious answer seemed to be…of course!  Even if there was one hour each day that focused on Sikh History, Keertan or Gurmat, it would be way more than a weekly Sunday school or annual summer camp could accomplish.

Furthermore, with only Sikhs enrolled, I would imagine the instances of bullying due to the Sikh identity would be minimal. Seems like an easy choice, no?

Others in our group weren’t so sure.  Some wondered how would going to an all-Sikh school prepare young Sikhs to enter high school, college, or even the workforce where the outlook would be much different. Would it be hard to adjust?  Secondly, would going to Khalsa School tend to limit one’s social circle to just Sikhs and perpetuate the idea of us being an “isolated” community?  Would our children “miss out” on the learning from interaction with students from diverse backgrounds and cultures?  And lastly, if we are each to be ambassadors of the amazing principles of Guru Nanak’s way of life, should we not go out of our way to make sure Sikhs are represented anywhere and everywhere? Shouldn’t we take pride with “standing out” in a crowd?”

What do you think?

Now I’ve never attended a Khalsa School or know many people who have.  Perhaps our Canadian readers or our sangat from Delhi, Punjab, or elsewhere can share their experience.

Did you attend a Khalsa school and were glad you did?
Did you attend a Khalsa school and wish you didn’t?

A few weeks back, I saw a video that made me think of a third alternative.

To be honest, I don’t know anything about this particular Khalsa Montessori School, but the video brought a concept to life for me…what if there was an integrated Khalsa School that had such a high level of academic standards and a wonderful reputation that Sikhs and Non-Sikhs had to be on waiting lists to attend (like we often are for Catholic schools).  What if everybody in the community knew that the Khalsa School was the “place to go” for your child to be in a positive and nurturing environment built on the foundations of Sikh principles – Equality, Justice, Activism, Compassion!

Sure sounds like a place I would want to go to…I mean send my kids to 🙂

Every Breath

For my first post of 2011, I’m reminded of a little over a month ago when we gathered with a group of families to ring in the New Year with Shabad Kirtan.  After we offered an Ardaas, we all quietly sat to listen to the Guru’s hukam.  For a brief moment I wondered how was Guru Sahib going to start off our year?  What guidance would he offer us?  Then the 4th Nanak revealed his experience…

soohee mehalaa 4
har pehilarree laav paravirathee karam dhrirraaeiaa bal raam jeeo
baanee brehamaa vaedh dharam dhrirrahu paap thajaaeiaa bal raam jeeo
dharam dhrirrahu har naam dhiaavahu simrith naam dhrirraaeiaa
sathigur gur pooraa aaraadhahu sabh kilavikh paap gavaaeiaa
sehaj anandh hoaa vaddabhaagee man har har meethaa laaeiaa
jan kehai naanak laav pehilee aaranbh kaaj rachaaeiaa

Now I’ve heard enough vaiyakhia’s during Anand Karaj’s to know that the laavan does not speak to the marriage between man and woman, but instead speaks to the relationship between the Sikh and his/her Guru. But I must admit, with all the hoopla that surrounds a marriage, I’ve always found it tough to really focus on the laavan in that environment. But in this moment of calm, surrounded by my sangat, I was able to reflect. In my loosest of intepretations, Guru Sahib tells me:

 In this first step of the journey, let your actions be inspired by the Divine
and daily duties be guided by Him
Embrace baani (the word), follow his path, and all negativity will fade away
Through his guidance, reflect on His name, always be absorbed in His light
Offer yourself to the perfect, true Guru and all negativity will be dispelled
By great fortune, peace and stability is attained…His name is so sweet
Servant Nanak says this is the first round, the journey has begun

On New Year’s Day, where the rest of the world is celebrating the Earth’s circumambulation around the Sun, we instead are reminded of our circumambulation around the Guru. If we keep Him as the center of our life, the core of our journey, everything else in our lives will revolve around Him peacefully

So as I set my resolutions and plan out my goals for the year, I am reminded to lace all my actions with his qualities – forgiveness, compassion, humility…

And may I stay absorbed with his baani and always in simran, so that I feel his presence – not once a year, not even once a day…but with every breath.