As a new émigré, Bapuji (one of a few titles for ‘father in Panjabi) took me around the usual landmarks of London.
I arrived in the middle of British winter from the heat of the tropics, wrapped up like a doll against the cold, the sweat dripping off me under all those layers. Bapuji could overdo the caring bit sometimes. But in those days one did not question the dictates of one’s elders. This was just as true for English families back then. Now though…sacré bleu, how things have changed! Nowadays, snot-ridden kids are telling their elders right from wrong. All that remains is for a kid to sue his parents for intellectual, aesthetic, and inescapable fear, a confetti of trauma where the penultimate charge would be the fear of being a victim due to the constant and repeated use of the wrong sexual position while the mother was carrying the child in her womb. The future is as blind as it is shrewd.
Among the many places Bapuji and I visited were vast and ornate religious dwellings, the cathedrals of St Pauls and Westminster Abbey. Bapuji showed deference in the vast wombs of these structures. I felt nothing. You may recall that I was born with ESP abilities, so I witness world from an additional spectrum. The large oversized candles adorning the catacombs left me unimpressed. These overbearing structures were not a place of meditation or of communion with ‘god’. They were commercial enterprises. Fagan draped in religious gowns smilingly enticing the entrance tithe from visitors.
Weeks later, Bapuji and I drove to Coventry. In those days, the current motorway network did not exist, and Bapuji, an intrepid adventurer, seldom took the standard route. He would always opt for the scenic route; the longer the drive, the better. Small country lanes were eye-opening. We would stop constantly to visit local shops – remember, in those days commercial enterprise was dominated by the sole trader, whose wares differed from region to region, so visiting them was like taking in the culture of the land.
A turban-wearing Sikh dressed in rather expensive three-piece suits, with a wonderful command of the English language, a humorous twinkle in his eye, a quick wit, and a deep raucous laughter that came from deep in his belly, Bapuji was welcomed wherever we went. Ofcourse, racial abuse was a given, but he would side-step it all with grace and studied indifference, and continue with the matter in hand.
At many villages, Bapuji made a point of visiting the local church. In those days they remained open, vandalism and disrespect for property having not yet crossed the pond from the US of A. Individualism had not as yet descended into ‘destroy whatever lies in your path’…that particular psyche-cancer came along some twenty-five years later.
The churches Bapuji and I visited always had a ready and waiting congregation present – the occupiers of the surrounding graveyard. Some were nice, while others were nasty and vile psyches, and all were draped in their period clothing. It is an interesting fact that the buried dead always wear clothing from their period; they may change their attire when you meet them again, but it will always be from the same period in which they lived and died. Dead tailors must be doing a roaring trade, methinks. Even their original social and class bearing is impeccably observed…how interesting.
Regardless, the local villages’ ‘places of worship’ were enveloped in a far more pure essence of worship than the commercial cathedrals of the city.
Years later, grown up and traveling on my own, I visited places of worship of other religions and dominations.
I found the Moslim Mosques to be always shrouded in a quiet, yet angry and painful, atmosphere. The Jewish Synagogues left me unmoved and I found in them no essence of peace. The African-Caribbean churches were always happy and peaceful places. The Hindu Mandirs were indifferent, their atmosphere contrived and pleasant, but lacking in solemnity and peace. The Sikh Gurdwaras were in the main very peaceful, though nowadays there are exceptions occurring and the atmosphere is on the downward spiral there too. The most consistently elegant, serene, graceful atmosphere I have found and experienced is at the Buddhist places of worship. Well done guys. I hope you do not lose your way.
Out of all the places of worship I have visited the Sikh Gurdwara is an interesting one to study. You see, once upon a time, a Sikh’s word stood for truth and honesty. Then they embraced modern governance and commercialism, and they changed.
Why and how?
Generally, a place of worship is a space of calm and peaceful introspection. But it can change, morphing for example into the kind of place that we see in the modern Sikh Gurdwara.
Let us remember that any given place of worship represents its parishioners’ changing psyche. Differences, disputes, arguments, and quarrels are part of the natural evolution of a congregation. They reflect changing social ideas, practices and mobility. But a place of worship is also the one single place where factions and groups could come together and find common ground with each other.
Making the transition into the 20th century Sikhs were subject to a social, commercial and a global awakening – a mobility metamorphosis. Ofcourse there were going to be disputes and disagreements about the relative merits of embracing the future or holding on to the dead wood of the past. The elders refused any dilution of the past, and saw the coming changes as harbingers of a weakened Sikh ethos. The youth wanted a more malleable environment. Quarrels arose, factionalism became entrenched, and the spectre of a large-scale violence loomed. The Sikhs were living under British ignorance and misunderstanding of how non-European social communities evolve, and of course lacking patience the British got themselves involved in Sikh Gurdwara affairs. Sitting in the driving seat, fuelled by the masterful intelligence called ignorance, the British used the barrel of the gun to impose on the Sikhs an utterly unreligious and anti-Sikh-ethos set of practices.
The Brits imposed elections on each Gurdwara. In one single stroke, they threw out the seasoned and the pious, who had ultimately always carried the day, and brought in the failed social politician. The politician-idiot, with mega-ego as his brotherly-advisor, seeking self-importance, and realising that he stood zero chance in the world of real politics, groomed and charmed the parishioners into voting for his brand of Sikhism.
The original Sikh ethos died. A new socio-commercial Sikh ethos was born.
Like cancer, which when it spreads, weakens and lessens the durability of the old original cells, so was the fate of the Sikhs with the introduction of Gurdwara elections.
Such have been the changes accepted by the failed social politicians who are at the helm of the Gurdwaras that the small side-arm kirpan, always carried by the ordained seer-Sikh (Khalsa), has had its defensive effectiveness nullified, having been reduced from nine inches to six inches. On top of which, British interference – eagerly accepted by the elected Gurdwara pseudo-leaders – means that langar, food which is respected for the fact that it is imbued with the Grace of the Divine, is now cooked according to English health and safety regulations.
The political-cowards who comprise the trustees of Sikh gurdwaras actually try to outdo each other in how they jump when asked by their British masters, such is their desperation to be liked and spoken about nicely by the British authorities.
What religious/spiritual stupidity.
I need to explain what is meant by ‘stupid’ when uttered by those of my background. We divide consciousness into three groups: the first group is the 1% of the population who acknowledge their own ignorance about most things. The second group is the 1% who are called the wise, but who rationalise that what they know in the scheme of things amounts to next-to-nothing. The third group is the remaining 98%, who know very little but claim far deeper knowledge, and we call them the stupid. I am going to illustrate my point using the example of the April-May 2014 ‘election’ for the management committee tasked with running a Sikh Gurdwara known locally as Hibernia Gurdwara, Hounslow, UK (its fuller title can be googled).
Where once upon a time a Sikh’s word was his/her bond, now we have a prime example of a regrettable and new global Sikh phenomenon happening at the Hibernia Gurdwara ‘place of worship’.
Let me summarise some of the conditions of elections for this ‘sanctuary of Sikh worship’. The first point is that an outside body will oversee the election. Sikhs, who the world over were known for their honesty and truthfulness now do not even trust each other. This means that not a single Sikh at this place of Sikh worship trusts their fellow Sikh.
Another condition of election is that a clean police criminal check report be presented for scrutiny. Yet another is that non-refundable fees have to be paid by those standing for election. Furthermore, one must be a registered member of the Gurdwara, and provide bio-data documents in support of one’s application to register. Other conditions for elections to this Gurdwara may still be available on their website, and they make for fascinating reading.
The one thing that stands out in all of this is that the Gurdwara is not a place of free Sikh worship. It is a members only organisation. You have to be a listed member of this place of ‘god worship’ or else…
I refuse to sign-up to any type of ‘God card’ carrying members-only club or organisation…clearly I shan’t be welcome in heaven unlike the motley crew.
Simply adding a word to what is simply a members club in order to denote it a place of worship does not make it a place of worship any more than the ‘Muslim Parliament of the UK’ is a parliament in any way, shape or form, or calling 400m sq shop a superstore makes it a superstore.
The point that the failed politicians who grasp for power in Gurdwaras cannot recognise is that, unlike them, the general public is clued up about what passes for an acceptable religious functionary. The community has always been well up to date on who has a criminal record, and what type of crime it refers to. But what the congregation did was choose their own representative based on that person’s religious and seva credentials.
Seva is the cornerstone of Sikh ethics and ethos. This selfless service is prized higher than my type of ability, where one has the capacity to speak in minute detail about any given religious or dharmic text. And I, in my position have to humble myself in the presence of one who is engaged in seva. So, until the British government’s interference in matters in which they had zero understanding, the Gurdwaras were managed by the devout, and at times by the sternly devout. But the common thread connecting these devotees was their desire and ambition to engage in humble selfless service (seva) on behalf of the Gurdwara establishment. This automatically included washing and cleaning the toilets; and hand-washing the used food trays, glasses, cups and utensils. The humblest and most prized of the many duties involved cleaning the footwear of the congregation.
But the modern elected-committee peacocks, chests puffed, are never seen doing these chores until elections are around the corner. These peacocks wear the full English dress of suit, boot and tie. What the elected rulers of the tiny fiefdoms to this day do not realise is that the tie stands as a symbol of the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, and it announces the wearer as a devout Christian (read more on this in my essay ‘The crucifixion tie’). Then these very peacocks denounce Sikh children who embrace Englishness or a European life-style, and they wonder what transpired to make their children turn away from Sikhism. Meanwhile, these every peacocks, themselves wearing emblems of Christianity, make sure their wives wear full Panjabi suit when attending Gurdwara. At home the man rules the roost, wearing European clothing and mimicking European behaviour, while their wives follow meekly and more often than not wear Asian clothing. Watching all of this, their children assume that Europeanism is power and freedom, and they defect as soon as they are able to Europeanism.
In Bapuji’s time, they had no choice but to wear European clothing, but nowadays no one is forced.
The only thing missing from further progression into European modernity is that Sikh men have not as yet moved to wearing the skull cap instead of their turban, and Sikh women have not yet fully argued the point that if leg skin must remain covered then tights and stockings do that job adequately, or that a wig, such as Jewish women wear when they leave the house, suffices to cover their hair at the Gurdwara.
After all, Sikhism is the most modern and flexible faith currently trading its wares. So why should Sikh women not be allowed to wear a wig if their husbands can wear European dress to the same religious function and facility?
The modern Sikh has forgotten that even after the seer-Sikh (Khalsa) has passed a resolution an ordinary Sikh woman can veto their decision and ask them to reconsider and come up with an alternative decision.
The modern Sikh has forgotten that in other faiths a woman is given rights, and at times even given equal rights to a man. This is not true in Sikhism. No rights, let alone equal rights, have been given to Sikh women. In Sikhism of old, something that has been forgotten, it is Sikh women who conferred equal status on men; men were powerless to confer equality on those who are superior to them.
Lest Sikh men forget, it is women who give us life, and mother us. How on earth can we be superior or even equal to that which gives life to Life?
This basic principle, lost in all other faiths, is the first truth of Sikhism.
So, if Sikh women attend Gurdwara in their cultural clothing, why do Sikh men wear clothing of another culture to attend the same religious function?
If Sikh men had an ounce of Sikh integrity they would never again enter or attend a Gurdwara in anything other then their cultural attire.
Will I see it happen?
Because Sikh men lack the confidence, integrity, honesty and pride in their own culture, save for wearing the glamorous turban.
In the process, Gurdwaras are fast losing the essence of purity they once exuded so abundantly. Places of worship are becoming commercial worship centers. Seva is seldom done by the elected politicians, who walk with an air of arrogance, accompanied by a personal mantra of rudeness. If approached they dismissively wave you away in the direction of another who manages a portfolio catering to your needs. This person listens but knows his decision will be over-ruled by the head-peacock, the same one who waved you away in the first place.
And in all of this aren’t I the lucky one – that even if I wanted to run for pseudo-important elections, I have misplaced all my bio-paperwork, without which the initial form to become a member of the Gurdwara club cannot be rubber-stamped.
Oh well, I’ll just have to remain a nobody.
I cannot even shed a tear at this sad poignant moment. I wonder if it is because I need to be registered as a member of a pseudo-gurdwara-club to shed a tear?!
Well, I could always approach the head-peacock for clarification, but I don’t think a portfolio exists for crocodile tears…