Tag Archives: sikh book club

Reading for July-August: Asa ki Var

30 Jul

For the next reading, we have decided to read and discuss Asa ki Var. The primary reading would be bani itself and its translations. We meet on Aug 21 at Inderpreet’s house.

Primary reading:

To get started, a brief explanation and links to bani in Gurmukhi and its translation/transliteration in English can be found at this link on SikhiWikiwebsite.

Secondary readings:

1. Came across this piece on Asa ki Var by Manjyot Kaur posted on SikhChic. She wrote it coming out of Saneha, a seminar in NJ which was organized bySikhRI on the topic of Asa ki Var. Interestingly, Inderpreet facilitates learning about Asa ki Var at the Sidak leadership program by SikhRI and will be gone for the same this early August. Having him for this book club discussion soon after Sidak should be an incentive for many of us.

** We gather at noon and start with potluck lunch.

A Dasam Granth Weekend

10 Jun

Lightning and thunderstorms late afternoon gave way to a tranquil evening when we gathered in Marlborough to discuss the readings on Dasam Granth (DG). The objective for the evening, we decided, was to identify contentious issues surrounding DG and organize them meaningfully to get a sense of the big picture and then, if time allowed, to delve  deeper into some of them.

So here is how we mapped our conversation on the whiteboard:

"Dasam Granth Controversy"

From the readings, we identified arguments about DG regarding its

  1. authorship
  2. content
  3. status in the Sikh society, and
  4. implications, if any, on Sikh theology as understood in SGGS

These issues, which at first seem independent of each other, later turn out to be interrelated. For example, those who opine that contents of Charitropakhyan section of DG are too sexually graphic in nature believe that the author may not have been the Tenth Master. Thus, the issue of content has a direct bearing on the issue of authorship. And questioning the authorship leads to questioning the status it should be accorded in the Sikh society.

1. Authorship: The dominant view in the community is that Dasam Granth is a text by Guru Gobind Singh and which was compiled by Bhai Mani Singh after Guru Gobind Singh’s death. Hukumnamas from Akal Takht on matters related to this issue endorse this dominant view. However, those disputing this stand claim that all sections of DG were not authored by Guru Gobind Singh but some might have been written by Hindu poets of those times.  Citing the lack of authentic historical evidence, these few also dispute the claim that all sections in the current version of DG were put together by Bhai Mani Singh .

2. Content: Around 15 sections comprise the text of DG.  Charitropakhyan section is the largest section with 7555  verses with tales illustrating moral and immoral conduct. Some find the tales and the language/imagery too graphic for it to be read and discussed in Sangat. Scholars have responded to such objections (example). Some have objections about other sections too (such as Bachitar Natak and Krishna Avtaars, the argument being that these are theologically inconsistent with SGGS).

What is interesting about the Charitropakhyan controversy is that English translations of Charitropkhyan are not easily available on the internet. Websites such as these that offer English translation of Dasam Granth, however, do not provide translation of the Charitropakhyan section. I don’t get it.

3. Status: Most agree that there should be no controversy about the status of DG in Sikhism and the controversy, if it exists, is a red herring. DG is a granth, a text, and not to be given the same reverence or status as that of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS). Even Guru Gobind Singhji himself chose to not include this composition in SGGS, and strictly instructed Sikhs to regard SGGS as the only true guru after him. Two things confuse us about the status of DG in Sikhism. 1) Takths Huzoor Sahib and Patna Sahib have the prakash of DG in the same area as that of SGGS, and 2) daily, hukumnama is taken from DG too (in a manner similar to SGGS) accompanied by similar prakash and sukhasan. What message does this send to the Sikh masses?  Does this mean that DG can be revered the same way as SGGS? If not, then why doesn’t Akal Takht stop Huzoor Sahib and Patna Sahib from continuing the prakash of DG in the same area as that of SGGS?

Speaking for myself, our reading and discussion left me with more questions than answers.  More than the actual knowledge of DG – I had not read the entire DG – the readings made me aware of the discourse on DG in the Sikh society. And the way this discourse is shaping up suggests to me that the number of questions and number of people asking the questions about DG are only going to increase. Not all the questioning can be or should be construed as mischief by anti-Sikhism forces to create divisions within the panth. Many questioners I know are young, bright minds with enthusiasm and passion for Sikhi.

Hopefully, the next reading will not stretch for as long as this reading did. Is there a book or a topic on your mind you would like to suggest for the next reading?

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Next Reading: Dasam Granth & the Controversy

19 Feb

At our last book club meet, we had decided the next reading would be on the topic of Dasam Granth.  (Rendering the topic timely is Akal Takht’s recent excommunication of Prof. Darshan Singh, raagi and ex-jathedar of Akal Takht, following the latter’s stance on and public actions related to Dasam Granth).

Links to some readings on Dasam Granth for our next book club meet are provided below. To ensure that we do not rely on commentaries alone for our knowledge of Dasam Granth but that we also read it ourselves, we have included link #4 below that gives access to DG (with English translation) on the Internet.

Readings:

  1. Dasam Granth: Its history” An article by Daljeet Singh (pdf file)
  2. Dasam Granth (from the website SikhiWiki)
  3. Historicity of Dasam Granth” (A report from World Sikh News)
  4. Read Dasam Granth on the web (if this link does not work, try this alternative website)  (However, these two resources either do not provide access to Charirtopakhyan, the part of Dasam Granth that some find controversial, or if provided, the English translation of this section is missing. To read the English translation, follow this link that will take you the relevant page on the SikhiWiki website; once you reach that page, scroll to the bottom of that page and you will find links to English translation of Charitropakhyan) (Let me add here that this translation by Bindra is controversial; however, I could not find links to any other less-controversial translation on the internet. If you do, please post a link in the comment and we will look it up.)
  5. A website with extensive resources (articles, videos, etc) supporting the authenticity and significance of Dasam Granth

As with our previous readings, the purpose this time too is to get educated on a particular aspect of Sikhism – Dasam Granth – and we should take care to not get side tracked by controversies such as the one embroiling Darshan Singh’s excommunication.

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Garland Around My Neck

24 Sep

We are meeting at Supreet’s apt on Oct 3 Oct-17 Nov-21 for the September book reading discussion. The book we are reading is ‘Garland around my neck’, written by Patwant Singh and Harinder Kaur Sekhon."Bhagat Puran Singh"

You can check out some reviews and summaries of the book here:

  1. On Sikhiwiki
  2. On SikhChic

Here is the link to the website of Pingalwara Society that Bhagat Puran Singh founded for physically and mentally challenged members of the larger society.

*Update: We are moving the meet from Oct 3 to Oct-17.  Some folks are still awaiting the book in their mail. Technically this becomes an October book read, I guess.

**Update 2: With Kirtan, celebrations, etc happening on the evening of 17th, the book discussion has been moved to Nov 21.  This reading period has really stretched out. For some of us who are wont to make excuses for not completing our readings, the extension rules out that excuse. 🙂

Agenda for the Discussion

20 Jul

We will meet at Milford Gurdwara this Saturday at 10:00 am for the discussion on ‘Singh Sabha Movement’. The discussion is organized in three parts:

1] The first part of the discussion is structured around the following topics:

  • Historical background

    Khalsa College - Founded during Singh Sabha Movt.

  • Critical events that spurred the movement (e.g., four Sikh students announcing their decision to convert to Christianity)
  • Some key people involved & their contribution (e.g., Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha – ‘Hum Hindu Nahin’)
  • How the movement unfolded
  • Differences within the Singh Sabhas (e.g., Amritsar & Lahore; retaining or rejecting Hindu practices at Harmandir Sahib)
  • The role of British govt. (help or impediment?)
  • Achievements of the Movement (e.g., paved the way for Gurdwara Reform Act, SGPC, Sikh Rehat Maryada, Khalsa College, etc)
  • Controversies/debates about the movement (e.g., ‘reformist’ versus ‘revivalist’ nature of Singh Sabha Movement)

2] The second part involves applying the above learning. It is centered around the question: how do we apply the lessons learnt from the Singh Sabha Movement to affect change in the current times?

In this breakout session we will split into groups; each group will:

  • Identify a problem area affecting the Sikh society.
  • Explain the problem. [Describe the problem, list possible causes of the problem, and the significance/need to address the problem.]
  • Suggest a plan of action.
  • Identify likely resistance to the proposed plan and what can be done about it.
  • Deliver a short presentation to the other groups.

3] Wrap up.

Readings for June – Singh Sabha Movement

14 Jun

Readings on the Singh Sabha Movement.

  1. Singh Sabha Movement by Prin. Teja Singh (from the book, Essays in Sikhism) It is a small reading; don’t let the pdf file size (4.87 mb) fool you.
  2. Singh Sabha Movement by New England Sikh Study Circle
  3. Singh Sabha Movement by Gurdarshan Singh (Chapter from the book ‘History and Culture of Punjab’). Opens in Google Books. (This reading has got more numbers and dates than the above two have.)

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KEY PEOPLE & THEIR WORK: Below are some links related to people who played a key role in the Singh Sabha Movement, their work and some key events that occurred during that period.

  1. A short write-up on Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha here and here.
  2. And on the book “Hum Hindu Nahin” by Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha written during the Singh Sabha Movement
  3. On Bhai Ditt Singh
  4. On Bhai Vir Singh (from SikhiWiki) (One of his works: Sundri)

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CONTROVERSIES & DEBATES: Singh Sabha Movement

  1. “From Ritual to Counter-Ritual: Rethinking the Hindu-Sikh Question 1884 – 1915”  – by Harjot Oberoi (At the heart of the controversy is his overarching thesis that Sikhs did not have a form and identity distinct from the Hindus until the Singh Sabha Movement).
  2. “Women in the Singh Sabha Movement” – by Doris Jakobsh (from “Relocating Gender in Sikh History”)
  3. “The Historical Roots of Sikh Communal Consciousness” – by Harnik Deol (from Religion and Nationalism in India: The case of Punjab)
  4. Singh Sabha Movement – A Revival” – by Dr. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon (from the document put together by Sikh scholars across the world and submitted to the University of British Columbia).

Guru Nanak’s Mission

25 Mar

This month, we are reading the article, “Guru Nanak and his Mission” by Principal Teja Singh. This article is available on the Sikh Coalition website. The link to the article is posted below along with links to other articles that accompany the main reading.

Readings:

1. Guru Nanak and his Mission (Prin. Teja Singh) (Main Reading)

2. Founder of a World Religion (S. Kapur Singh)

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.)

Conclusion
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?

Second Meeting: A Productive Engagement

20 Jan

I have been thinking about our last book club meeting in which we discussed the book, Spirit Born People by Prof. Puran Singh. We are now getting better at this. This time we had a moderator – Supreet – who even got us some printed notes (which rhymes with ‘quotes’) that she used as discussion points. This time we also had Inderpreet – finally! – and between those two, we had people who had read that book several times over. This time Harvinder and I read the whole book. And this time we had Simran eluding the discussion by bribing us with awesome bread rolls. The discussion was helpful: it clarified some doubts but also raised more questions that I have been thinking about since. (putting them up in my next post).

That evening, despite having formally wrapped up the discussion, despite the impending snowstorm, and despite being assured that we didn’t really need the pretext of a discussion to continue gorging on those bread rolls, we continued our discussion well into the evening, which was good but – this I realized later – we missed the opportunity to do Rehras Sahib together. The discussion also spurred Inderpreet to update his blog. And as a breakthrough, it has also subsequently spawned off a discussion about getting the infant Sikh book clubs in different cities of the US  to collaborate and coordinate on their readings and resources.

After reading the book, Spirit Born people, I must have been in high spirits, even mistaking my flight from NY to Bombay for a spiritual flight. And on a spiritual flight, one is moved to share with others the bliss of experiencing the higher ground. Perhaps this subconscious desire must have been the reason I left that book in the plane for other elevated souls to read. (Some may simply say that I forgot the book in the plane; either way, Supreet, now I owe you a copy of Spirit Born People.)

Sharing some notes from our discussion in my next post.

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 … ?”