Notes from Second Meeting

20 Jan

Prof Puran Singh’s poetic, lyrical, and metaphorical style is the book’s strength as well as its weakness. Strength because those in sync with Gurbani will find the style a natural accompaniment to that of Gurbani: a metaphor to explain a metaphor. However, those like me struggling to be in sync with Gurbani but still stuck at the mental or intellectual level will find the style an impediment at times. Puran Singh’s constant switching between speaking from his experiences, his opinions and from his reading of the Gurbani is very fluid. So fluid that at times when he makes a declarative statement, which he often does, it leaves me pondering about the substantiation of the statement. Is it from Gurbani? Is it his opinion? Or is it from his experiences? Does he give examples? Does he appeal to our feelings or our reasoning? I believe he employs all of these.

Different readings
A clue to reading his book can be gained from his take on reading Gurbani. In an earlier book (Sisters of the Spinning Wheel), he interprets Japuji Sahib. He does it again in his book, Spirit Born People, but with some differences. Acknowledging the differences in his two readings of Japuji, he claims that there are infinite readings of the Gurbani.

“Some of you will say this is not a translation of JapuJi, True, it is not the million readings we can have of it, but it is one of those readings. Music has an infinite number of moods, and meanings…(pg. 98-99).” “The Guru’s sayings cannot be exhausted by any amount of interpretations. A million new and varied interpretations leave them as fresh as ever. They are truly creations of art and any one of us can look at them and have his heart full of meaning and direction and love and miracle and what ever he may desire.” (pg 77)

The readings of Gurbani vary over both space and time. He doubts whether, should he try, he can once again come up with the same reading as the one he had in Spirit Born People. (Reminds me of the saying, “you cannot step in the same river twice”. But that is about the nature of everything in flux.)

On Guru and God
It was Harvinder who drew my attention to Puran Singh’s atypical usage of pronouns for Guru. When referring to the Guru, Puran Singh addresses the Guru in pronouns starting in caps, for example, He, Him, His, etc. Now this is the style that writers mostly use for referring to God. So is Puran Singh equating Guru with God? It seems so and then his style of writing about the Guru is consistent with his conception of Guru. (So far, I haven’t yet come across any other writer using that style.)

On Recitation
Bani is to be understood experientially, not intellectually. Puran Singh says he came a long distance since trying in vain to understand intellectually the significance of reciting Bani. But on experiencing the constant recital of His Name, the whole purpose of recitation made sense to him.

“What is the use of repeating His Name? It is a mechanical, tiresome task. To the restless intellect it is just so, perhaps. To the poet, how beautiful is the constant foot-fall of men who go beating a track in the trackless forest, those with soft flesh feet repeating the rhythm of going on and cutting a direction. As the feet of men fall and beat a path so my lips repeating his name cut a direction for my soul.” (pg. 59).

On Ideal State
His political-economic views on the form and governance of state are, well, um…interesting. He does not hold high regard for democracy. Not for Bolshevism either. Defends capitalism. Acknowledges the demerits of Aristocracy but regards it more useful than democracy. “(Aristocracy and democracy) are both good when good and bad when bad, the latter hopelessly so always.” [42]. And his concept of democracy has Guru at the center as the equalizing force. “It was democracy by obedience to Him. All equally obeyed the Great Will. All lost themselves in Love; no one asserted his i-ness. All dissolved themselves in Him and out of Him came out as new men. Without the Guru this democracy cannot be maintained.” [38].

He offers a sympathetic defense of capitalism from the attacks of socialism and Bolshevism.

“A man who is successful in his small blind way has some worth in him; it is not to be talked away as something ignoble. … The rich man is as much a medium of the expression of nature’s hidden purposes as the poor. So the great seers, unlike the Bolshevist and the socialist, do not rush to seek a solution of this problem in the destruction of the rich as a class, for the rich are as worthy of their pity as the poor.” [42]

On Art
My favorite chapter was the one on Arts. What is the kind of art that one should aspire for? What kind of art is genuine as opposed to mere imitation? (One that touches, that transforms people.) More on this topic later as I do not have the book on hand to provide the relevant quotes.

One other part that caught my interest was Puran Singh’s conceptualization (and here I would concur with Inderpreet who too was not sure whether this conceptualization can be traced to Bani) about the three states of existence: bread, woman and bridgegroom. Each label is a symbol:

“Bread for the physical needs of man, the animal; Woman for beauty, the mental need of man, –of the intellectual half-man on the way to self-realization; Bridegroom for the Guru or the Personal God, the spiritual need of man, –of the angel whose two wings of flight are the mind and the body. … Man the animal, cannot live without Bread. Man, the mind, cannot be without Woman. And man, the soul, is dead without the Guru. … Bread ceases to be reality where ‘Woman’ becomes reality and ‘Woman’ ceases to be reality where ‘Guru’ becomes it.” [36]

Given Organizational Behavior as the field of my work I found this section particularly interesting. It reminded me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, there were a couple of things I found problematic. This section can be best understood as Puran Singh’s conceptualization and not as something that he quotes from Bani. Secondly, in the section that discusses Woman, he is specific that he uses woman as a symbolic name for culture, but his switching between its symbolic and literal usage left me confused at times.

Veiled and the Unveiled Woman
Another interesting aspect of the book is Puran Singh’s views on women. It was Supreet who first drew my attention to his concept of the veiled and unveiled woman. He decries both veiling and unveiling: both deny the woman a personhood as each views her through the lens of sex difference. “But if veils accentuate this sex difference or if unveiling does the same, both are unholy” [85]. I came across a paper “Reinforcing Ideologies about Women” in which the author has a harsh commentary of Prof. Puran Singh’s article “Woman” that appears in an undergraduate text for Punjab University students. From what I read about the article in the commentary, I believe this article is taken from the book Spirit Born People. (I am curious to hear from Sikh women their responses to both Puran Singh’s article and the critical commentary.)

The book seeks to draw a contrast between the understanding obtained from intellect, from methods of logic and reasoning, and the understanding obtained from feelings. One way to look at the book is as a piece of art. It is an artist’s expression of his feelings. Some artists express themselves in paint, clay, or music; Puran Singh did it in words. The book is an expression of his relationship with Sikhi, with Bani. In writing this book, perhaps Puran Singh was attempting to create the art he thinks we all should aspire for: the only genuine art is that which moves people, rest all is imitation.

So did the book move me? Yes, it did. Despite the analyzing part of my mind holding itself back stubbornly, and despite what it saw as ‘contradictions’ in the book, the book did nudge me an elbow in the ribs every few pages; it did add a spring to my step.

The book can be summed up as a melody of tabla and nagarha: the nagarha beats are Puran Singh’s declarative statements (e.g., “concepts are dead matter”, “the only history is that of the soul”) and his tabla beats provide the explanatory context for the nagarha beats. The composition of this melody renders it difficult at times to distinguish between the two beats: was that nagarha or was it tabla in the crescendo?


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