I call you to form the Saviour-people, the Khalsa, the Guru’s own, the fragrant companionship of the Knights of Heaven. – Prof. Puran Singh
It was around 3:30am on November 10th aboard Amtrak to NYC that I was finally able to connect to the live stream Sarbat Khalsa being held in Chabba village on the outskirts of Amritsar. Immediately, the sights and sounds of the gathering took me in, reminiscent of the 1986 Sarbat Khalsa video I had watched dozens of times before. And as each of the resolutions were announced, I had whispered a jakara to myself and felt a sense of hope and optimism for the panth that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I was overwhelmed.
But as the day passed and the euphoria wore off, I began to wonder how so many of the views I held in minority over the years and debated endlessly with other Sikhs all of a sudden became the views of the global panth. It made me wonder how representated the deliberations were leading up to the Sarbat Khalsa – not only by gender and geography, but also schools of thought. One of the beautiful ideals of the Sarbat Khalsa that I’ve grown to admire is the ability for Sikhs with different views to come together and deliberate for as long as needed in the presence of the Guru and reach a consensus to move the panth forward. With 30 years in between Sarbat Khalsas, how much deliberation and debate could have taken place in matter of a couple days?
Like many of you, I spent the next days and weeks having discussions with anyone I could about the Sarbat Khalsa. Some I spoke to felt it was perfect. It was the voice of the Guru and anybody who dare criticize it is anti-panthic and anti-Sikh. Then some on the other side of the spectrum felt the numbers were far lower than reported, the protocol fell short of a true Sarbat Khalsa, and politicians seeking votes hijacked the entire event. Some felt it was too political, others felt it was not political enough. And as you can imagine there were a myriad of opinions in between, all from well-intentioned and panthic-minded Sikhs. I think I felt a little of all these views over the past month, but surprisingly, the one feeling that has never left, is that sense of hope. Having seen more Sikh movements fail than succeed over my years, it is easy to be cynical, but this time…I couldn’t be.
While the Sarbat Khalsa might have fallen off most of our Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines, a handful of young Sikhs from the DMV (DC, MD, VA area) have been consistently meeting to establish a local Misl where Sikhs will discuss, deliberate, and pass resolutions on panthic matters all per the Sarbat Khalsa tradition and protocol. Last Saturday, I attended a meeting where the DMV Misl gathered to review the guidelines on how it will function – from how issues/ideas will be submitted, how they will be discussed, how people can raise objections, and how they will be resolved. We spent over 6 hours reviewing every word of the guidelines to make sure everyone in attendance was in agreement. The meeting was made up of representatives of different gurdwaras (something only youth can pull off), different Sikh institutions, and of everyday Sikhs – men, women, young, old, Punjabi, not Punjabi, Amritdhari, and not-Amritdhari. And as painful as it was for an old-school guy like me to sit through hours and hours nitpicking a document, it made me wonder about the early days of the Singh Sabha lahir, or what those early discussions might have been like when the rehat maryada was drafted.
Reflecting on the uprising we’ve seen in Punjab over the last few months, it dawned on me how important this exercise is – this is what is missing! As a panth, we have voiced our discontent with the status quo, the imbalance of justice, lack of economic opportunity, the corruption of politicians, and so much more…but how do we organize and move forward? The establishment of the Misl gives us the platform to do so at a local level. And with Guru’s grace, these Misls can be replicated elsewhere, and hopefully connected to a global network so we can truly revive the Guru-gifted tradition of Sarbat Khalsa that has guided us through our darkest of times.
During the meeting, I was reminded of a passage of one of my favorite books “Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington. In this autobiography, Washington speaks from the unique perspective as a child near the abolishment of slavery in the US. He recalls the actual days leading up to the day they were freed.
“As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the “freedom” in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”
Similarly, the idea of “Panth Ki Jeet” has always held special significance to me. But it was a concept that was either deeply embedded in history or somewhere far out in the future, almost to the point where it is purely symbolic. But as the meeting ended and we stood for Ardaas, I reconnected with these words, they sounded different to me…they were bolder, had more ring. A wave of emotion came over me; it fell like Guru Sahib’s hand was on our shoulder, reminding us that our time is now.
Several of the youth in the DMV Misl were my students at one point or another at various camps, retreats, and khalsa schools. But on Saturday, I was the student. And what I learned from everyone there was the power of Guru-inspired dialogue and what it allows us to achieve individually and as a qaum. I learned that through perseverance, patience, and humility – our potential is limitless.