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

Cup-of-Tea

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:

Shabad 1
Shabad 2

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:

Shabad 3

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.


The Guru Nanak I Know

As a child growing up, I heard sakhi after sakhi of Guru Nanak Sahib’s life – from his childhood, to his travels, to the odd conversations with various holy men – but for whatever reason, I connected with none of it.  However, at the same time I was developing an interest in social justice and became fascinated with the life and works of activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.  I wasn’t interested in Sikh history…I was interested in revolutionaries.  But when I was finally able to connect the two and learned about “Guru Nanak The Revolutionary”, it all made sense…and I was hooked!  To this day, there is not a shabad I hear from Guru Sahib’s baani that doesn’t challenge me to rebel.

Rebel against caste discrimination
Rebel against gender inequality
Rebel against the oppressors of minorities
Rebel against empty ritual
Rebel against the inner enemies that keep us disconnected from Him (kaam, krodh, lobh, mob, ahankar)

Every way in which society was designed to suppress an individual, to limit their potential, to leave them powerless, Guru Sahib found a way to take the common man or woman –  uplift them, empower them, and enable them with  a connection to the Supreme, so they could ultimately challenge that very establishment that suppressed them.

This is Guru Nanak the revolutionary…and it’s the Guru Nanak I know.

But this time of year, the anniversary of his birth, is always unsettling for me.

When I look around, I see a celebration – not of Guru Nanak the revolutionary, but a caricature of him…a portly pacifist who’s become the symbol of “inclusivity.”  An old wise man who’s teachings have been replaced with our own anecdotes and opinions.  The image below making its way around the internet is symbolic of this.

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Where did this quotation come from?

Is this the same Guru that said Hukam Rajaee Chalna, Nanak Likhia Naal (O Nanak, it is written that you shall obey the Hukam of His command, and walk the way of His will)

Is this the same Guru that said Bin Satgur Kinai Na Paeeo Bin Satgur Kinai Na Paeea (Without the true guru, no one has obtained Him; without the true Guru, no one has obtained him)

Is this the same Guru that said Jo Tau Prem Khelan Ka Chao, Sir Dhar Thali Gali Meri Aou (If you desire to play this game of love with Me, then step on to my path with your head in hand)

Humble The Poet said it best this week,

This #gurpurb let’s practice some independent thought, and not digest a quote simply because it’s cute & someone put it beside an artist rendition of what Baba Nanak might have looked like. I don’t know who put those words together, but they weren’t Baba Nanak.

Refuting this quotation doesn’t take away from Sikhi’s universal message or seeing the “one-ness” in all of humanity.  But if there is one clear message I get from Guru Sahib’s baani, it is to follow your Guru and live his teachings…and we don’t need to hide from that.

So for this year’s gurpurab, let us not water down Guru Sahib’s message to the lowest common denominator, just so we can be festive and feel good about ourselves, let’s instead take an opportunity to awaken the Guru Nanak inside ourselves….to learn and reflect, to question and challenge, and to fearlessly stand with those who are marginalized, the same way Guru Sahib did and with the same humility and divinity in which he did it.  Perhaps this is the best birthday gift we can offer…

This post was inspired by Jaswant Zafar’s beautiful poem titled “Nanak.”  Never has something that sounded so beautiful felt like such a hard slap to the face.  Take a listen and spend the 4 minutes…you’ll be glad you did.


Walking The Walk

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A little over a year ago, I received a call from my colleagues at the Sikh Coalition requesting to do a Sikh Awareness presentation at a local high school.  My knee-jerk reaction was “What happened?”, “Was a Sikh boy bullied because of his dastaar?”, “Was a Sikh girl suspended because of her kirpan?”, “Are the parents involved yet?”  Surprisingly though, there was no incident.  In fact, there wasn’t even a Sikh attending the school.

Two week later, I stood before a class of 30 excited Catholic school students and delved in to my PowerPoint slides explaining who Sikhs are and what we’re all about.  When I got to the slide titled “Guru”, I asked the class, “Does anybody know what the word ‘guru’ means?”, a girl eagerly raised her hand and said, “One who takes someone from darkness to light.”  I had to pause for a second and collect myself.  Clearly, this wasn’t going to be like other presentations.  I would later find that the teacher spent the last few weeks researching Sikhi on the internet and had already taught three days of material on the basics.  I zipped through the rest of my slides as all my questions were answered with relative ease.  And rather than spending the rest of my time answering questions on “Why do you…” and “Are you allowed to…?”  We instead focused on much deeper questions:

Under what circumstances would you use your kirpan as a weapon?

How does the khalsa panth discuss and resolve issues affecting Sikhs globally today?

Is there a process for repentance in the Sikh faith?

Can someone from the LGBT community take amrit?

If a Singh is a lion and a Kaur is a princess, how is that a reflection of gender equality?

Do you think Sikhs should have a separate homeland?

It was a fantastic discussion, and it forced me to reflect as opposed to giving the “canned” answers I typically give in such presentations.  And in the final minutes, I was asked about my favorite local sports teams and hip hop artists.  Although the teacher was slightly embarrassed, I welcomed it, as clearly the students no longer saw me as “the other” walking in to their class room with a turban and long beard, but someone who was like them and someone they wanted to further connect with.  I have visited the school every semester since, and our presentation is now part of their standard world religions curriculum.

I try to minimize the time in these presentations on “de-mystifying the kakaars” and instead focus on the dangers of “othering”, the practice of looking at people who are different (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), as “them” and not one of “us.”  In its most basic forms, it prevents us for learning about one another and finding those mutual values that foster relationships and creates partnerships.  In it worst form, it causes violence where innocent people are hurt or killed.

13 years ago, when I started doing Sikh awareness presentations, it came from a place of fear…fear for the safety of my community.  My presentation sounded like “Hey, we are American just like you.”  Not anymore.  Now my presentation sounds like, “Hey, we are American, and we are different…and that’s okay.”  In fact, every immigrant who steps foot in this country brings a set of values and traditions to their community – and we can either be afraid of it, isolating them, or we can engage with one another, learn about what makes each of our traditions great. When we do this, we then find ways to partner with one another to build better neighborhoods and healthier communities.

In the case of Sikhs, I make it crystal clear to the students, when you see a Sikh…know that they live a disciplined lifestyle, they spend a good part of their day reflecting on God, and they have a passion for service and social justice.  That should be the first thing that comes to your mind.  If you’re going to stereotype us for anything, stereotype us for that.

This experience of presenting at schools has taught me a few things:

  1. We need better materials for non-Sikh educators on Sikhi available for free on the internet.  And we should work with Sikh and non-Sikh educators in doing so.  More to come on that from the Sikh Coalition…stay tuned!
  1. We can’t do it alone.  I have always said (especially on this blog), that the role of educating people on Sikhi is not solely the responsibility of civil rights organizations or public relations firms.  It will take all of us, but what I’ve since learned, is that it will take more than all of us. There are resources outside of our community, all around us, who have the capacity and desire to help…all we need to do is ask.  And where better to start than educators?  I have always had tremendous respect for the teaching profession, but I’m especially amazed at teachers like the one at the school I visited who decided to teach “outside the book”, to do his own research, and bring in speakers face to face, so we can truly break down barriers.  This particular teacher also arranges a trip to the local mosque every semester, where 30 Catholic school students witness Friday prayer.  Over lunch, I had to ask him, “Even after bringing in a Muslim speaker, did you still feel it was necessary to take the students to a mosque?”  He said, “You know, last time we went to the mosque, in the middle of the prayer, a man was so overwhelmed, he broke down in tears…you can’t teach that in a classroom.”  And he’s not alone, months later another inquiry came in from a Social Studies teacher to our Gurdwara’s website with an identical curriculum that we also now contribute to every semester.  These teachers are not simply educating, they are building bridges and creating change.
  1. PowerPoints aren’t enough.  For years I’ve stood in front of students pointing at slides talking about how our faith revolves around service and social justice.  But at some point, I’ll need to ditch the slides and get to work.  It makes me feel so proud when I see gurdwaras and Sikh organizations coming together for a charity event or seva project, but for me personally, I feel I need to take that next step outside of the Gurdwara too, and work shoulder to shoulder with other activists in solving our community’s most pressing needs.  Whatever the cause is – climate change, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, hunger, I need to join the movement around me and wear my kakaars fearlessly.  Not only does it deliver more impact to the cause, but it educates others about the “students of Guru Nanak” without even uttering a word.  When it comes to educating others about Sikhi, we do not have an “image problem” and we don’t need to re-brand ourselves. Guru Sahib gave me the perfect brand – the god-connected-humanity-loving-injustice-fighting-student…I simply need to live it

Between Gap Ads And Hunger Strikes

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It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”      – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This time a month ago, Sikhs across the country were engaged in debate over a Gap ad.  Opinions ran the gamut.  Some Sikhs were uncomfortable with the ad as the woman placed her hand on the dastaar, others were vehemently opposed to a Sikh being portrayed in any lustful way.  Some Sikhs thought the ad was cool and took a picture of it at the local mall.  Others were so overwhelmed by Gap’s decision to feature a Sikh model, they organized thank you tributes and facebook pages to express their gratitude to Gap.  And more recently, there’s been debate over the hypocrisy of Sikhs to glorify a company that has a history of poor treatment of its workers.  And then a counter-argument that those who are accusing Sikhs as being hypocrites are really just being over critical…after all, it’s just an ad.  What’s more surprising than the wide range of views, is that everyone had an opinion.  It was discussed, sometimes heatedly, at just about every Sikh event I went to.

In the midst of the Gap ad debate, A Haryana based Sikh – Gurbaksh Singh, went on hunger strike at Gurdwara Amb Sahib (Mohali) near Chandigarh to seek the release of 6 Sikh prisoners who have already served the terms of imprisonment to which they were sentenced by Indian courts…I repeat, “already served the terms of imprisonment.” With all the issues Sikhs throughout the world are debating today, Bhai Gurbaksh Singh decided to risk his own life to bring to light the plight of Sikh prisoners languishing in jails and the imbalance of justice toward Sikhs in India. As I’ve been following the story, I wondered…where is the outrage?  Where are all the tweets, lengthy facebook discussions, signs of solidarity, online petitions and calls to action the Gap ad drew?  Our brothers and sisters in Punjab, UK, and Canada have mobilized their sangats, but Sikhs in the US have been largely quiet in comparison.  As Bhai Sahib enters the 35th day of his hunger strike, those same circles that argued over the Gap ad do not know who Gurbaksh Singh is let alone feel compelled to act.

Over the years, I have engaged in many debates over my views on the state of the panth, 1984, and the dire situation of Sikhs in Punjab.  I would often walk away from these debates in frustration…but not anymore.  I’ve grown to appreciate people’s different views.  Because when you are debating, there is concern and thinking.  People who think and are concerned can change their minds, and even if they don’t, they continue to mould their opinions and help me shape my own.  To me, the biggest threat we face as a panth today are not the people with opposing views, but the people who remain indifferent.  Those who can easily dismiss the current state of Sikhs in Punjab as “not my problem.”

I’m too cynical to believe in complete panthic unity.  As I read through history, I can hardly find a time where Sikhs were completely united.  But there have been times, even in my lifetime, where there have been glimpses.  And when we’ve been united, we have moved mountains.  Let this be one of those times…

Learn more about Bhai Gurbaksh Singh’s fight

Reach out to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations to gain international support.

Call leaders of the Punjab government and Sikh institutions in Punjab and urge them to act!  – Click on the image below:

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Gurpurab: A Celebration Or Call To Action?

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For my 100th post, I’d like to share a speech I delivered at the gurdwara this past Sunday for Guru Nanak Patshah’s gurpurab.  It asks us to reflect on what a gurpurab is…a celebration or call to action?

Baba_tare_3

Baba liberated all four directions and nine divisions of earth.
Gurmukh (Guru Nanak) has emerged in this kaliyug, the dark age.

As a kid growing up, I never had much interest in Sikh History.  I would sit in khalsa school doodling on a piece of paper or staring out the window as our teacher would read us the same janam sakhis I heard over and over throughout my childhood.  I was, however, very interested in American history, particularly the civil rights era.  Activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X particularly inspired me because of their passion for social justice. I wasn’t interested in Sikh history, but I was very interested in revolutionaries.  It wasn’t until a gurmat camp I attended in my teenage years that I was really introduced to the life of Guru Nanak and came to realize that Guru Sahib was the ultimate revolutionary.

Wherever social injustice existed, Guru Sahib spoke out.

Whereas society was delineated by caste, designed to keep power with the few, Guru Sahib created a parallel society based on equality, sharing, and dignity.

Whereas women were positioned as lower than the lowest caste, Guru Sahib empowered women by prohibiting practices that lessened their role or potential.  And when the manji system was established, women were not only active participants, but also held leadership positions in the sangat and were expected to help spread Guru Sahib’s message.

Whereas religious discourse was only reserved to the highest caste, Guru Sahib spread his new message to the masses, so that everyone could be inspired.

Every way in which society was designed to suppress an individual, to limit their potential, to leave them powerless, Guru Sahib found a way to take the common man and uplift them and empower them, so they could ultimately challenge that very establishment that suppressed them.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world with rigid inequality – all kinds – race, gender, socio-economic, even caste.  And we only have to turn on the evening news for a few minutes to see what dictator is oppressing a minority somewhere in the world.  So I would submit that Guru Nanak’s revolution is not complete.  In fact, it was Guru Nanak in his 10th form that established the khalsa with the intention of continuing Guru Nanak’s revolution in our modern day.  And if you agree with me, then we must re-think what today really means to us and how we celebrate our gurpurabs.

Guru Sahib began a revolution…he did not tell us to go off to the hills in seclusion and meditate all day.  Instead he wanted to us to live in this world, to inspire ourselves through baani, simran, reflection, to live a disciplined life according to his teachings, so we can ultimately continue out his mission…and serve humanity.

So if today we simply listen to shabad’s written by Guru Nanak and all of us wish each other gurpurab di mubarak and go back home and on with our lives, then we will have done a great disservice…we will have missed the point.  In Sikh tradition, we don’t just celebrate…we reflect on the Guru’s teachings and try to live it.  Our gurpurab is not a celebration…it is a call to action.

When I ask the kid’s in our class or at any camp, what do you think of when we say ‘Guru Nanak’?  The answer is almost always the same – Naam Japna, Vand Chakna, and Kirt Karni – the three golden rules.  Although I grew up with these same golden rules, I wonder, where did it come from?  I’ve read books dating back 100 years that refer to these same golden rules, but of Guru Nanak’s entire body of work, who decided on these as the golden rules?  And why did we limit ourselves to these three?  Perhaps it is because they can easily be checked-off – if I do my paath, share, and not cheat people for money, I’ve accomplished all three, right?  But 500 years later, with the challenges we have before us, I argue we need to add to this list of golden rules – for ourselves and for our children…it’s time we up our game.

From my understanding of Guru Sahib’s baani and history, there are some powerful concepts that should also become part of our daily lives and discourse.  I will offer a few:

  1. Social activism.  During Babur’s invasion, Guru Sahib did not sit quietly.  And although he did not have an army behind him, he used his pen and his voice to speak out, and called out Babur for the tyrant he was.  Today, there is injustice all around us.  And I was impressed by the GNFA Khalsa School students who remembered Bandhi Chor Divas  last week by writing 115 letters for Amnesty International to free an innocent political prisoner in Angola because he wore a t-shirt protesting the president…this is the way we celebrate.
  2. Putting our faith in to action.  Whether it was Guru Sahib challenging the worshippers in Hardwar throwing water to their ancestors or Guru Sahib in Mecca challenging the Qazi’s on the focus of their Namaaz…and he could just as easily been talking about me with my mutha tek…when I bow my head am I really submitting my own head, am I letting go of my own ego, am I letting go of my own intellect and accepting his way?  Or is it just an empty ritual?  So what do I need to do make my prayer more genuine, what do I need to do to put meaning to my actions?  Guru Sahib boldly speaks to this in Asa Ki Var when he says:akv
  3. Self-awareness.  Letting go of my ego long enough to look within myself, to reflect on my shortcomings and make change.  Letting go of my ego long enough to see the oneness of all, to see Waheguru in all beings – whether it is people of different races, faith, beliefs, people who love, people who hate…seeing Waheguru in everything and everyone and therefore having compassion toward all.
  4. Humility.  The 1st graders are learning about Guru Sahib’s interaction with Bhai Lalo and Malik Bhago.  I’ve heard the sakhi hundreds of times, but last week hearing it again, it hit home.  When given the chance to dine with a king, Guru Sahib refused.  He preferred the company of Bhai Lalo, the poor carpenter…for what reason?  And it makes me wonder in my struggle for success and to provide the best for my family, am I spending enough time with the Bhai Lalo’s of the world…what am I missing?  What lesson could I be learning?

These are additional golden rules that I need to bring in my life.  What’s challenging about these additional rules is that they are hard.  They require me to get out of my comfort zone and change my lifestyle.  I’ve even tried to “unlearn” these rules because it is much easier to simply be happy with the way things are…but my Guru won’t let me forget, he tells me Jau Tau Prem Khelan Ka Chao, Sir Dhar Tuli Gali Meri Aou – “If you desire to play this game of love, then step on my path with your head on your palm.”

So let this gurpurab be a call to action…before leaving the darbar hall today ask yourself what are you going to do?  What change will you make?  What of Guru Sahib’s principles will you bring in to your life?  And let today’s ardaas formalize your commitment

By bringing these principles of gurmat in to our lives and developing our relationship with the Guru, the personality of Guru Nanak comes alive.  His desire to learn, his pursuit of justice, his compassion, his humility, his love for humanity…what better way to celebrate his life?

Here in America, we are constantly finding ways to explain to people who Sikhs are and what Guru Nanak was all about.  But the best way we can educate people about Sikhi is not by telling people about Guru Nanak, it’s about showing them the Guru Nanak within you.


The Kids Are Going To Be Alright

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In a few weeks, khalsa school will be starting up again…

It must have been a quick summer, because it seems just like yesterday we were quizzing our children on the punjabi alphabet and the meaning of several saakhis as they were preparing for last year’s final exam. The khalsa schools have come a long way since my time, with many of the teachers collecting attendance on iPads and posting homework online for parents to check assignments.  Lesson plans have also progressed thanks to the hard work of SikhRI and their Sojhi curriculum.  And I know the children are learning, as we see their progress first hand at home.  Looking at the progress in it’s entirety, I feel proud to say, “the kids are going to be alright.”  But it raises another question…what about us?

I come from the school of thought that a Sikh is a student and a gurdwara is therefore a place of learning. And although here in the US, we’ve made significant progress creating learning opportunities for our children, and committees proudly beat their chest over how much they are “all for the kids“, why is it that adults are ignored?  We surely don’t know it all.  I’m the first to admit having to do a little “research” in order to help my daughter with her khalsa school homework.  But more importantly, why don’t we value the importance of continuing gurmat education while in adulthood?  Sure, there are plenty who take enough from their individual learning or listening to katha, but there is a certain value to consistent and structured learning through interactive sessions by an instructor.  Without this, our children will learn and grow toward Sikhi while we remain stagnant.

Why is this important?  Any educator will tell you that lessons are most effective when parents reinforce concepts at home.  And if the parent don’t have strong gurmat fundamentals, how is there supposed to be any such dialogue?  Instructors at schools and camps work had to to inspire children to further their commitment to the Guru, and if that is not encouraged at home, all is lost.  I’ve seen it too many times where kids in our community leave camp inspired to make a change, be it wear a dastaar or ready to take amrit only to be discouraged by their parents when they get home.  It’s as though everything that was done at the camp is simply undone.

Years ago as a camp director, parents would push me to hold simultaneous parent workshops along the same theme as the children, so the parents can learn as well.  And although we tried, limited resources made it tough, and now I find myself as a parent asking for the same thing.

Incorporating gurmat education for adults in our gurdwara is no easy task.  There are certain things you need (1) a group of adults (willing to admit they don’t know it all) that are committed to attending weekly classes and completing assignments (2) a committee willing to invest resources in adult education (3) a knowledgeable and charismatic instructor who knows how to manage a class of adults with varying degrees of knowledge (4) and let’s face it…a keertan jatha who is willing to sing to a sparsely filled hall at times while parents and adults are in class.

As impossible as this seems, I had the opportunity to visit a gurdwara in Southern California that has most of this figured out.  Some of the young adults even attend the class along with their parents…and both are raving about the results!

Some may be thinking I’m making a “mountain out of a molehill” here.  And I’ll admit the ramifications of this issue are harder to see.  But in my opinion, gurmat education for adults will be the most critical thing to help Sikhi flourish here in the US.  It is imperative we create an environment of gurmat learning in both our households and gurdwaras.  And until our gurdwaras catch up, we as parents must take the initiative to create learning groups amongst friends and sangat for our gurmukhi learning and perhaps parent/child co-learning groups for gurbani.  Think about it…as Sikh families we get together all the time, wouldn’t it be nice for one of those gatherings to be themed around a shabad, with translation activities, discussion, and crafts all around that shabad?  Can you imagine the drive home discussing the shabad with your kids?  Sure this co-learning may expose what we don’t know…but we need to get over it – not only for our own personal development, but it also sends a clear message to our children that in the life of a Sikh, the learning never ends.


There’s No "I" In "TEAM"


I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  -Michael Jordan

It was bound to happen at some point.
I was hoping somewhere in my graduate studies I would bump in to some concept or idea that I could relate to my interest in Sikh thought, and sure enough it happened in the oddest of places…a business ethics seminar.  In reviewing David Brook’s New York Times article titled “If It Feels Right”, Brooks finds that young people in America are mostly disconnected from any moral sources, and as a result find youth in an “atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and non-judgmentalism.”  This doesn’t mean they are immoral, but their morals are based on “what feels right.”  
At first, I was relieved that this phenomenon was not limited to Sikh youth.  As one who has been working with Sikh youth for a good part of my life, I’ve noticed this growing trend of “moral individualism” and “non-judgmentalism” when it comes to their Sikhi and dynamics within the larger sangat.
I’ve seen it time and time again…a young Sikh makes a commitment to further their Sikhi development, say grows out their hair, receives amrit, charni lagna, or begins wearing a dastaar.  They are happily willing to receive the support and encouragement by their sangat as they begin this new journey.  However, if they fall off the path, or back out on their commitment, all bets are off.  That same sangat feels threatened to say something at the risk of being “judgmental” and often times the struggling Sikh themself casts everybody off with a “hey, leave me alone…this is my personal journey” attitude.  But is it though?  And is that all your sangat is supposed to be?  Just people to listen to kirtan with and cheer you on during good times?
Sure, I do believe the journey of a Sikh is largely personal.  It’s about building and developing that relationship with the Guru through personal discipline, simran, and reflection on gurbani.  However, there is a very public aspect of Sikhi too that is quite unique.  Let’s face it, Guru Sahib gave us a distinct uniform that not only reminds us of our principles every time we look in a mirror, but it also proclaims to the world who we are and what we believe in.  And if I am going to publicly don the uniform of my Gurus and the heroes that followed, shouldn’t I be held accountable by my sangat when I misrepresent it?  If I have willingly knelt before the Guru and offered my head, shouldn’t my sangat challenge me when I break that commitment?  So It begs the question…where does accountability end and judgment begin?
Some say it depends on the approach…those who are humble, loving, and compassionate in their criticism are okay, while the others are just being judgmental.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, I do believe sangat should be kind and compassionate when trying to guide their fellow brother or sister back on track, but realistically, it won’t always happen that way.  And how often are most of us willing to graciously take criticism regardless of how it is delivered, especially for something that means so much to us as our Sikhi?
There is one thing about being a student I know for sure…I will fail at some point or another.  Maybe once, maybe many times…It’s inevitable.  But if I believe my path is true, I simply cannot throw my hands in the air and give up every time I fall, nor can I dismiss everybody around me in fear of being judged.  I need to check my own ego at the door, and humbly take the criticism and advice from my sangat…because if I believe they are my sangat, than I have to believe their intentions are good and that we’re all in this together.
In my days playing football, I recall what it’s like to have the ball slip through my hands on an important play and feel like I’ve let my team down, as we’ll as myself.  But something interesting happens immediately after that.  The coach rarely puts you on the bench after a botched play, instead he puts you right back in.  Why?  So you don’t dwell on your mistake and instead get right back out there and rebuild your confidence.  Similarly your teammates may be disappointed, but they’ll still give you some tips on your technique and cheer you right back on to the field.  And on the way back to the huddle, you have no time to wallow in despair or let your ego get the best of you – because after all, it’s not all about you…you play for a team.