When going to the gurdwara as a child, I would always sit at the very front of the darbar hall. And as my mind would wander off (like most kid’s do), I would observe the people in line to “mutha tek.” Being the curious kid I was, I would notice the peculiarities in the way people bowed before the Guru. Although everybody may have the same reason for it, nearly everybody had a slightly different way of doing it. Some would quickly press their head against the floor and in one quick move bounce back up and spin the other way, others would kneel for nearly a minute before bowing, some would press their heads or rub their noses on the floor repeatedly, or touch the ears and eyes as they stood up – and the most intriguing to me, were the ones who would walk backwards, sometimes 30 or 40 steps exiting the hall so they would never “turn their back” to the Guru – fascinating!
As I’ve gotten older and visited many gurdwaras and homes, I still see many of the peculiarities I did as a child – mostly around how we keep Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The rehat maryada outlines a very basic protocol of how to keep Guru Maharaj in our homes, yet what I’ve seen is a lot more elaborate. Some use space heaters and lay heavy blankets over Guru Sahib in the winter or place fans nearby in the summer, some wash and change rumaalay every day, others cover their mouths and bodies up so much when near the Guru, so that no pollutant from their body could mistakenly touch a page. When I’ve asked people, especially those with very time-intensive routines, as to why they do the things they do, the answers are always the same…”I do it out of respect.” Years ago, I remember at the end of a gurmat camp, all of us campers followed Guru Sahib’s procession outside as Maharaj was being transported from the main hall to someone’s car. The space around the car was tight so many of us kids crowded around the hilly areas nearby. An Uncle scolded us for standing at a higher level than the Guru, and ordered us to “show some respect”. I thought to myself, huh? When the car drives downhill from the campsite, are we supposed to run alongside it, so we don’t remain higher? And what about gurdwaras with balconies (like darbar sahib) where sangat sits, would this be considered “disrespectful?” There was once a time where I would argue that much of this is out of ritual than respect…but not anymore. As I’ve matured a bit, I’ve learned that people’s relationship with the Guru is quite personal, and after all, who am I to stand in the way of their respect?
I can understand why someone would create an elaborate environment and routine for Guru Sahib – He is our king, so shouldn’t the setting and protocol be that of a king’s court? Or does caring so much about the external aspects drive us away from what’s important? Could this be a reason why Guru Gobind Singh Ji did not name one physical successor?
We come from a part of the world where there is an abundance of holy men, where one can serve their spiritual leader through gifts, luxuries, comforts, and service towards him. In a sense, it is easy…as long as you labor your way through the physical routine and pay your forms of ‘respect’ – you’re done. In return, the spiritual leader provides you the answer to life’s mysteries.
The Guru’s paradigm (as I understand it), is quite different. The answers lie inside you…and through baani, you will realize it. We serve our Guru when our every day actions line up with baani…not just through ritual. So if we truly want to respect him, then start with baani – read it, understand it, reflect on it, and live it!
Then what now becomes disrespect toward the Guru? There are all kinds of finger pointing these days about individuals and institutions doing “beyadbi” toward the Guru…and some of that may be true. But in my opinion, the single-most disrespectful thing I can do to the Guru…is ignore Him. When I choose to tune out the hukamnama at the gurdwara or on my drive home when I cannot remember what the hukamnama was…or if I choose not to look up a translation when the hukamnama was unclear to me. These are the things I do that are most disrespectful…this to me is “turning my back” to the Guru.
What I love most about being a Sikh, is that outside a few boundaries in the rehat marayada, I am free to define my own relationship with the Guru, so if that means I change rumaalay every day or my mutha tek routine takes 15 minutes…so be it. That said, Guru Sahib challenged us, not to be mere devotees…but to be students (Sikhs). And as we all know, no matter how much you impress or praise your teacher or how many gifts you give them…at the end of the day, it is how well you studied and understood what your teacher taught you and how you apply it to your life that counts…this is where respect begins.