Archive | December, 2008

Cow-dung on the Wall

29 Dec

Puran Singh was a scientist by training and profession (more about his work here). Even as he continued his research and publication on matters of industrial chemistry, he wrote on matters of the soul and of spiritual progress in the society. Those who read his works on spirituality see him as a mystic and a poet. Reading the book for this month, I am looking forward to know about his world-view: do science and spirituality intersect to create a common ground? Or are they two parallel universes of reality?

The first few pages of the book give a glimpse of his views on epistemology. On the topic of knowledge – and we must remember that as a scientist, he was into ‘knowledge production – he writes:

“Beware of the magic of Brahmanical philosophic analysis of everything, even the most secret and complex infinites of faith, life and love. It killed them, it shall kill you. Analysis is the opposite pole of feeling. I worship my mother, I love my wife, but what would they be if I wished to know them by analysis!” [16]

As per Puran Singh, to know something or someone by analysis is the opposite of knowing someone by feeling, by experiencing that something or someone. This becomes all the more pertinent when that something is a ‘state-of-being’ or the being itself. Matters of the soul “are beyond our analyzing intellect”, he writes.

Analysis of information (coming either from experiments based on interventions or field studies based on observations) is the core of scientific research. It involves identifying the elements of a system and the relationship between those elements. It is analysis that makes the information meaningful. Than merely knowing that A and B happened, it is more meaningful to know the nature of relationship between A and B: did A cause B? Or are A and B correlated?

Why this skepticism about analysis? Isn’t Bani all about causal relationships? Bani is both descriptive and normative: it explains why things are the way they are (for example, why people are unhappy) and also suggests desirable goals and the means to achieve those goals. And isn’t it knowledge of causal relationships that underlie those explanations and advice?

Furthermore, Puran Singh writes:

“True knowledge is not knowing, but being. Knowing is always wrong, being is always right. What I gather round me does not confine me. What I produce out of me does not exhaust me. Knowledge does not add anything to me. Ignorance does not diminish me.” [25]

Language, while enabling us to think and communicate, also restricts our thought and communication. When I think of a person in a wheelchair as being confined to the wheelchair, I forget that what is confinement to me could be freedom to that person. The wheelchair offers her freedom from an otherwise confined world. A door opens us to something, but it also locks us away from other things.

Likewise with language (but the other way round):  Does language confine our expression while seeming to offer us a medium to communicate, to express, to think? Also, isn’t the Bani an attempt to also describe the indescribable tale or unspoken speech (akath katha) and praises about Guru’s glory even while acknowledging that “gur ki mahima kathan na jayi”? When I read the following,

auAw kI mihmw kQnu n jweI ]1] [392] or qw kI giq imiq kQnu n jwie ]3] [393]

I wonder, is it something about the Creator, or the Guru, or the Saints that cannot be described? Or is it something about language itself that renders the experience (or the understanding gained) as indescribable? Or is it that language is adequate to describe the characteristics of the Guru but that experiencing the Guru renders one wonder struck, speechless?

Asking these questions reminds me of the conversation I had with the Nihang Chief at the Gurudwara Mata Sahib Kaur Ji in Nanded, India. My brother, who was with me on that trip, always made it a point to stop at this Gurudwara and wish the Nihang Singh a heartful gur fateh. On this occasion, as my brother and I took leave, the Nihang Singh asked us to visit the Gurudwara soon againcowdung-wall.

“I can’t,” I said. “I will be away for quite a while now. I am going to the US for my PhD.”

The Nihang Singh smiled. He had a twinkle in his eyes and his eyes were smiling too. I could discern the smiles clearly through his glasses.

“In that case, don’t forget to do your nitnem. Be selective about what you read. And importantly, don’t become like the philosopher who, when he went to a village in Punjab, stood transfixed in front of a hut for several hours, He stood there watching the wall on which lumps of cowdung were drying in the sun to be later used a fuel. When someone asked him what was it about the wall that he found so fascinating, the philosopher replied that he was still trying to figure out how the cows managed to get the dung on the wall and  that too in such a perfect pattern.”

The Nihang Singh was still sporting his knowing smile as we left. I’ll be seeing him in a couple of months when I go to India and visit Gurudwara Mata Sahib Kaur Ji. I won’t be surprised to be greeted with the same smile and the twinkle in his eyes asking me, “So have you finally figured out how the cows … ?”


December Book – Spirit Born People

17 Dec

spirit-born-people This month, we are reading the book, Spirit Born People, written by Prof. Puran Singh.

Here are links to some articles on the net that provide some information about the book and the author.

About the Book:

1) Book Review by Laurie Bolger (source:

2) Some notes about the book (put together by Sarbjeet from our 2nd meeting of the book club)

[For those who are planning to buy the book, you may want to check its availability and pricing at (they usually have this book and carry it at the lowest prices that I have come across. For example, this book is priced at $3.00 on sachasauda whereas it is around $18.00 on several other book-selling websites. No, I am not in any way associated with this organization.]


Also, Prof. Puran Singh seems to have led quite an interesting life: his encounter with Buddhism in Japan, with the American poet, Walt Whitman, with Swami Ram Tirth, with Bhai Vir Singh, his training as a scientist and his prolific writing on Sikhism. Wow! A lot going on there.

About the Author:

1) Puran Singh: A Complete Man (source: World Sikh News)

2) Prof. Puran Singh (source: SikhiWiki. Also has the historic letter that he wrote to Sir John Simon in 1928]

3) Life and Works of Prof. Puran Singh (paper written by H.S. Virk and published in Indian Journal of History of Science. For those interested to learn more about his endeavors in science.)

Some Other Works by Prof. Puran Singh:

1) The Ten Masters (Read online, source:

2) Sisters of the Spinning Wheel (Download in pdf format, source   Thanks, Arun)

3) Spirit of the Sikhs (part 1) (Download in pdf format, source:

4) The Sikh Nation (Download in pdf format, source: Sikh Religious Society)

5) Anecdotes from Sikh History (Download in pdf format, source   Thanks, Arun)

Our first meeting: Fun and Insightful

10 Dec

I have to agree with Sarbjeet here, the book club was definitely fun and insightful. Who knew the people I would be conversing with are actually smart? Sorry Sarbjeet, I just could not help myself !

So anyways, like any conversation, there were views that were agreed or disagreed upon. The most agreed upon view was that completing this book was a greater laborious task than we had expected. More than the sheer density of information contained in this book, the writing style is based on 19th century British English. However, during our discussion, it became quite evident just how enriching this book was. Cunningham’s perspectives as a Western author puts a fresh look on our Sikh past and forces us to question the very fundamentals that we take for granted. At the same time, we could not ignore the fact that many of his assertions were based on information provided by potentially biased individuals.

Here are some points raised and conclusions drawn that I found most interesting:

1.        Similar to other literature, Cunningham describes Maharaja  Ranjit Singh as bringing glory and prosperity to Sikhs, specifically by unifying the Sikh groups and expanding the empire. But why send out Sikhs and other people to conquer other lands in the first place? The literature does not support any theory that Maharaja’s intentions for conquering states was to relieve their people from unjust kings.  Furthermore, Guru Gobind Singh Ji only used arms for defensive purposes. Does that mean that Sikhs during that time lost sight of the Gurus’ purpose of teaching us to take up arms?

2.        Cunningham portrays Sikhs as illiterates and plunderers, while being awed by their devotion to God, Khalsa, and the welfare of the people.

3.        Our glorious Sikh past, filled with many martyrs, also includes Sikh leaders who were similar to many politicians and kings with the motive of acquiring power and money.

Our meeting ended with us deciding books that we can possibly read and when we should meet. Here are two books that we are considering for the next reading:

  1. Spirit Born People by Prof. Puran Singh.
  2. Role and Status of Women in Sikhism by Dr. M.K. Gill

We would love your input in helping us choose one of these books!

First Meeting

7 Dec

We had our first meeting of the book club last evening.

Tired eyes looked at each other. Sagging backs sought the comfort of cushions. It was clear that bodies had stayed up the previous night, perhaps all of the night, to finish the book for the discussion. The student syndrome is well alive. Some bodies didn’t even show up. “I am in the same boat as you are” kind-of assurances went around. And so too – “It gets better from the second book onwards as we start getting an idea how to pace our reading.” You betcha. (Sorry Palin!). chinese-to-go

C, who was co-hosting the meeting, arrived with Chinese food for dinner and expressed shock on learning about the first round of snacks underway.

C: “Did you feed them?”
S: “Yes. Peanut butter.”
C: “Why peanut butter? There is so much other stuff that we want to get rid off!”

The reason why C was concerned about us gorging on peanut butter – (I learned this as we walked down to fetch still more bags of the Chinese food from C’s car) – was not for what it would do to us but for what we were doing to his stock of favorite peanut butter!

limca-logo“Book club meetings and junk food fest go together”, S stated as a matter-of-fact.
You haven’t seen the junk fest yet, I sighed. When I start talking about the book, it will be a junk fest on a carnival scale.
“By the way I also got Limca”, C announced, upon which I had no qualms about sucking up to him for the rest of the evening.

“So, who is going to talk about the book?”
“Aren’t we all supposed to?”
“Er, yes.”

And we did. Chomp Chomp. Talk Talk. Chomp Talk. Talk Chomp. Until H pointed out the need to keep an eye on the clock.

“I say we wrap it up by 9:50.”
“Why 9:50? Why not 10:00?”
“Alright. 10:00 then.”

And we we were quite good about it, though we wanted to continue. Well, I’m speaking just for myself here.

We concluded with suggestions for the next reading and for the next meeting.

Next reading: We are soliciting suggestions for our next reading. After a book on history this month, some of us are in the mood for a non-history topic for the next read. Also something lighter. (Cunningham’s History of the Sikhs was, admittedly, somewhat intense for the first read.)  And preferably by a Sikh author.

Two books have been suggested:

  1. Spirit Born People by Prof. Puran Singh.
  2. Role and Status of Women in Sikhism by Dr. M.K. Gill

I’ll have a separate post with links to some information about these books though I am pretty sure many of you may already be aware of – and might have even read – the first book. Meanwhile, if you know of some other books that you think may be good choice for the next reading, join the discussion and let us know about it.

Next meeting: The tentative date for the next meeting is Jan 3 or Jan 10. (Either is a Saturday). Let us know your preference.

Also, some notes from our book discussion last evening will be up soon.