What’s On Your Playlist?

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A few days ago, I came across a shabad that gave me pause.  Guru Arjan Patshah shares in his experience:

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In the simplest of translations, Guru Sahib says, “Many will follow Him…but few will connect.”

I immediately had this image of the hundreds of thousands of Sikhs I’ve seen at nagar kirtans, the throngs of Sikhs elbowing their way in to the Harmandir Sahib, and all the Sikhs past and present who have bowed before the Guru, all displaying so many external forms of respect.

Amongst all of them…few will truly meet Him.

It is not because the Divine is elusive; it’s because of the wall we create that separates ourselves from Him.  For me, it’s a wall constructed of kaam, krodh, lobh, moh, and ahankar.  Despite my efforts to chip away at it, I sometimes wonder if I will ever be one of the lucky ones…or will I just be a follower?

But with every challenge Guru Sahib puts before us, he gives us the tools to overcome it, he says:

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In discussing this shabad with the family, I very matter-of-factly explained to the kids that it is through naam simran and reflection that brings us closer to Waheguru.  Our 7 year old was skeptical, she asked, how does reciting Waheguru’s name bring you closer to Him?  It occurred to me that I sometimes give these knee-jerk responses without truly understanding what it means myself.  Perhaps it’s been hard-wired in to my brain to a point where I regurgitate what I’ve been taught without even thinking about it anymore.  Luckily, children see right through that 🙂  So I needed to give a better explanation….and needed to reflect on it more.

Another image came to mind.

I thought about a time on vacation once when I plugged in my earphones, kicked-off my playlist and went for a run.  It was new territory for me, so I tried not to stray too far, but at one point the path split and I had to make a decision which way to go.

I believe many of us hit that proverbial “fork in the road” in our lives too, where we have a choice to follow the guru’s path or our own.  And although it may seem obvious, sometimes the guru’s path is uphill and the weather looks bleak.  And our own path is a downhill coast and can appear much more scenic.  Some of us reach this crossroads at a major turning point in our life, while others face it several times a day.  But the question is, when you hit that fork in the road on your own personal run, what’s on your playlist?

What are you listening to?
What soundtrack is going on in your mind?

Is it filled with doubts, fears, worries, greed, and anger?
Are there tracks of jealousy, one-upmanship, revenge, or ego?

Or does it sound like this…Waheguru, Waheguru, Waheguru, Waheguru…

Does your playlist encapsulate virtues of the Divine?
Do your tracks inspire you to embrace qualities that are pleasing to Him:

Compassion
Discipline
Humility
Courage
Justice
Waheguru, Waheguru, Waheguru…

There are no guarantees that the soundtrack itself will ensure I take the right path, but it sure does increase my odds 🙂

So I’m putting my faith in simran
And my ardaas is that the simran becomes more than just tracks on a playlist and keeps playing in my head, long after I remove my earphones
I pray that it no longer becomes a recitation
But instead a state of mind
A state of being
Carrying me across
Leading me to Him


The Guru’s Own

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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.


They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds

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This evening, Sikhs from the DC Metro area gathered at Lafayette Park in front of the White House to stand in solidarity with Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa and the Sikh political prisoners languishing in Indian jails beyond the terms of their prison sentences.

It was nostalgic…

I remember being a kid 25 years ago standing in that same park, protesting the atrocities of 1984 and the human rights violations that followed.  Back then, we would shout at the top of our lungs, demanding the Indian government give us justice.  For me, tonight wasn’t about issuing any demands.  Personally…I’m done with that.

Bhai Sukha & Bhai Jinda said “The Khalsa does not worship power, rather it enters history by empowering itself.

Tonight, if even with a handful of Sikhs over a short period of time…we empowered ourselves.

There’s a saying, “They tried to bury us.  But they didn’t know we were seeds.”  Seeing all the young people who organized and led the event tonight made me realize what these seeds have blossomed into.

The passionate speeches and thundering naaray sent a clear message to the Indian state…

We’re watching you
We will not be silenced
We will continue to raise our voices
And soon enough, the whole world will be watching you
And you will be exposed for the fake democracy that you are…as Sikhs have known from the beginning

The fact that majority of the attendees were born long after 1984 inspires me, it gives me comfort that the rebellious spirit Guru Sahib has bestowed upon us is alive and kicking

It shows that we will not forget
That we will not sit quietly
That we will not “sweep it under the rug”
Or just “let go of the past”

We are Sikhs of Guru Nanak
And we’re not going anywhere
Until justice is served

#FreeSikhPoliticalPrisoners #BapuSuratSinghKhalsa #DCForBapu


Slipping Away [Spoken Word]

Time-is-Slipping-Away
Birthdays were the best

A day to relax, celebrate with family and friends
And reflect on all of my accomplishments

But this last one was different

That night of my birthday, I was awoken from my sleep
From a sound I couldn’t see, but it came from somewhere deep

The sound was getting louder; it was a sound I couldn’t block
I tried to cover my ears but all I could hear was tick-tock-tick-tock
It was the sound of a clock

I tried to sleep through it, but then I heard the door knock

A knock at the door, something wasn’t right
Who would be here for me at this time of night?

I couldn’t believe who I saw when I opened the door
The ninth master stood before me
And I fell to the floor
He knelt down and whispered in my ear
And what he said to me had me trembling in fear

He said:
Beet Jahai Beet Jahai
Slipping away, your life is uselessly slipping away

And then he was gone

Thinking of the 365 days that had passed
I wondered what I had done different from this birthday since the last.

This was supposed to have been my year to improve on my gurmat
To walk further on the guru’s path…but have I progressed at all?

I started thinking back on all the promises I made
Did I mean it when I said it, or was it all a charade?

This was my year to read more baani and reflect in veechar
Not rush through my nitnem while driving in my car

To wake up early in simran and keep my discipline tight
Not make excuses the next morning, because I stayed up all night

This was my year to change my perception
To change the lens in which I viewed the world
To see Waheguru in others
To practice compassion
To practice forgiveness
To stand arm in arm with those who are oppressed

Ferguson, Baltimore
This year was my year to protest in the streets
But I just keep fighting the fight with likes and retweets
Is this the Sikh that I’ve become?

Our shaheeds gave their tomorrow for my today
And all I’m doing is letting it just slip away?

No, I signed up for something more
I have a duty to the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth
And if I truly love my guru…and if I really do care
Then I have to put my effort forward and earn this uniform that I wear.

So what’s it going to be?
Another year of empty promises
Of talking about the struggle over half-caff lattes with friends
Or I’ll try harder this year
Or at least I’m being honest about my weaknesses
Or if only I had the gurus grace…

But what grace am I waiting for?
He’s given me the shabad
He’s given me sangat
He’s given me the ability to think, reason, and act
I keep coming up with excuses but I’m ignoring the fact

He’s given me everything to set myself free
There’s no one else to blame…it’s now up to me

So help me up my sister, help me up my brother
It’s now time to stand tall and put one foot in front of the other
Slipping away, it’s all just slipping away
But I’m here to answer your call my guru
And I’m starting today


Where I’m From [Spoken Word]

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So where are you from?
I’m from here
No I mean where are you “from”?
I’ve lived here my whole life.
No, tell me where you’re really from?
Oh where I’m really from…let me tell youI come from Anandpur Sahib, the city of bliss
If I don’t expound on my history I would be remiss

I come from the land of five rivers, where my masters walked
From a prison of caste slavery that my guru unlocked

I come from the buta of blood-soaked seeds
With soiled tilled by the hands of our shaheeds

I come from where simran and seva intertwine
Serving those in need with my mind on the Divine

I come from where Deg and Tegh connect
Where justice and service is the code we protect

I come from where Miri and Piri mix
Because being political and spiritual is not a problem for Sikhs

I come from where life and death collide
Where we kill the five vices to let the bani reside

I come from a serene and spiritual source
But if you compromise our rights, we’ll come at you full force

I come from where the saint and soldier meet
We are the warrior’s elite
Never fall to defeat
Our jakara so loud, our enemies have to retreat
Fueled only by the shabad, because my Guru’s complete

I come from the people who gave their lives for the qaum
Playing the game of love with their head on their palm

My collective history stretches wide and far
The story of a thousand shaheeds in each lard of my dastaar

Where I come from may be hard to comprehend
But a Sikh is not one who just goes along with the trend

I come from the school that Guru Nanak built
And he taught us to be god-connected-humanity-loving-injustice-fighting-students

So that is where I’m from and I’m a Sikh as you can see
And if you’re ever in need of help…you can always count on me

Photo Credit:  Taren Bilkhu


Filling Your Cup

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My form is but a statue, a dumb gratitude for the knot of Friendship tied by those Kings of Eternity, the Gurus who came to the Punjab, The Saviours who were gracious to love me and made me a home in the Realm of Eternal Beauty (Prema Singh, The Song of the Sikh)

An eager student approached the master violinist and asked, “Please master, can you teach me how to play the violin?” The master replied, “Have you ever played a violin before?” After a pause, the student responded, “Yes, I learned a little as a child.” The master quickly retorted, “Then sorry, I cannot help you.”

The confused student was almost sure his familiarity with the instrument and prior learning would have served as an advantage to the master, but the master was wise enough to know, that the work to un-do the student’s prior learning would have been too much of an effort. Instead, he would have preferred to work with a “clean slate.”

Reflecting on gurbani these days, I often feel like the confused student. I come to the master’s door step, bowing before Him, symbolically saying, “I am nothing, you are everything…fill me with your wisdom.” But let’s face it…my mind is already filled. It is filled with my knowledge, my experiences, my intellect and…my baggage. What room have I really left for gurmat? Shouldn’t I be coming to him with a clean slate?

It’s an interesting dichotomy we as Sikhs face. Like many of you, I am judged and measured at work, school, and so many other aspects of my life by my intellect and experiences. My ability to demonstrate my knowledge is how I try to give myself an edge over the others.  But when it comes to my Sikhi, none of that matters. I need to let go of all of that and see the world through Guru’s lens, not my own. I need to submit to his way of thinking, not my own. I know this makes me, and perhaps some of you uncomfortable, but Guru Sahib does not mince words. He makes it clear where gurmat fits in the gursikh’s life

Guru Raam Daas Ji shares in his experience:

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I am blind, ignorant and totally without wisdom; how can I walk on the Path?
I am blind – O Guru, please let me grasp the hem of Your robe, so that servant Nanak may walk in harmony with you

And as Bhatt Nall writes:

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So speaks Nall the poet; with your eyes, make Him your Guru; with the words you speak, make Him your Guru, your true Guru

So where do my experiences and intellect play in to gurmat? Is it a roadblock on my path toward the guru? Or is it necessary in order to process and understand gurmat, and turn the word in to action? I don’t know for sure, but my thoughts take me to a simple cup of tea…

An empty cup, a mere vessel
Essential to hold the tea, but an empty cup serves no purpose
In that cup lies a lone sugar cube
The sugar cube knows not of the cup or vice versa
But when the tea is poured in
The personality of the cup changes
It carries a fragrance
It brings warmth
And inside it, the sugar cube no longer exists on its own
It merges with the tea, you cannot separate it
And anyone who sips from that cup
All they taste is sweet

O My Guru, please fill me with your naam baani,
so that I can carry such a fragrance
so that I may bring warmth
so that my actions are sweet
So I may see the world through your eyes


Know No Bounds

Mata GujriOver the next few nights, Sikhs all over the world will be heading to their Gurdwaras or joining in sangat to remember the lives, bravery, and martyrdom of the chotay sahibzadey.  In our household, this has taken on extra meaning this year, as the recent blockbuster film Chaar Sahibzaadey has brought the personality of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s sons to life and inspired us all.  I have closely followed the discussion of the film and even some of the debate…in particular, the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji. Now this is not a critique of the film, but an attempt to engage in a broader dialogue.

Over the years teaching Sikh history to children, I’ve struggled with the story of Mata Guri Ji.  When I read history, I see Mata Gujri Ji along with Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib as the ones who shaped young Gobind Rai, the warrior-poet, who would ultimately become the father of the Khalsa.  And even with the difficult circumstances after Guru Tegh Bahadur’s shaheedi, Mata Gujri Ji played a critical role in managing affairs of the panth and inspired the soldiers at the Battle of Bhangani.  She also played an instrumental role in the training and upbringing of her grandsons.  And when Mata Gujri Ji and the chotay sahibzadey were held captive in the thanda burj for days, it was she who recited baani for them and inspired them through stories of their grandfather, father, and gurus before them.  It was she who motivated them to remain firm in their faith, so much so that when the entire fate of the khalsa panth rested on their shoulders – a 7 and 9 year old – they responded fearlessly, with such courage and bravery that they continue to inspire the Sikh nation 300 years later.  So when the worried Mata Gujri Ji, upon learning of the execution of her grandsons, is so overcome with emotion that she faints and dies…it gives me pause.

There is a part of me that appreciates the movie’s portrayal of Mata Gurji Ji.  After all, she was a human being who suffered incredible losses.  Humans are complex and it’s perfectly reasonable that she can be the stoic matriarch, yet still feel pain and sadness.  But there’s also a part of me that thinks something else…maybe we have it wrong.

In one of the debates over Facebook on the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji in the film, a friend said “You have to know true Gursikhs in order to portray them.” This thought resonated with me and made me reflect.  As human beings, our perceptions of things are bounded by our knowledge. And more so than our knowledge…our experiences.  Sikh history is no different; we can connect with it only as far as our boundaries will take us.  So perhaps as educators, storytellers, and filmmakers…our experiences have limited us.

In my pre-teen years, when I was exposed to the rehat maryada for the first time, I couldn’t imagine Sikhs actually living this discipline “to the letter.”  I could only picture images in my head of the “puratan singhs” who lived like this. And so I would dismiss the rehat, calling it “outdated” and more of a “guideline” than a code.  But then I ventured out of my circle, and I met Gursikhs who lived this discipline – to the letter – from waking up at amritvela, engrossed in simran, reciting baani, and interacting with others with such love that you knew you were in the company of guru-centered Sikhs. After this experience, this “ideal” image of the Sikh all of a sudden didn’t feel so distant.  Sometimes I reflect on the torture of Bhai Sati Daas, Bhai Mati Das and Bhai Dayala Ji at the hands of Aurangzeb and it’s incomprehensible.  But after speaking to Singhs who withstood horrific torture by the hands of the Indian State in the 80’s and 90’s, my perspective sharpens and I look at stories of shaheedi throughout our history with a different lens.  It all feels much closer. And when I listen to the accounts of mothers throughout the 80’s and 90’s whose fathers, husbands, and sons were taken or murdered before their eyes and they live on to speak with courage and remain in the chardi kalaa, I think to myself…that is Mata Gujri Ji.

So the lesson I’ve taken from this is simple, in fact it’s one my Guru tells me multiple times a day…be in the company of Gursikhs.  It will expand my boundaries.  It will not only help me connect with my Guru, but also connect me with my history in a way I never have before.