Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Interview with the Singh Twins

I was initially introduced and drawn to the art of Rabindra and Amrit Kaur Singh (otherwise known as the “Singh Twins”) when I saw their piece titled Nineteen Eighty-Four (after the fateful year for the Sikh community worldwide, not Orwell’s famous and for Sikhs, hauntingly prophetic book). Since then, I’ve tended to follow any news I’ve heard of their artwork, and most certainly any news of them coming to Toronto.

In September I heard that the Twins would be in Toronto for the Spinning Wheel Film Festival (SWFF). SWFF is a celebration of films made for, by or about Sikhs. It’s known for its support of art in its many forms in relation to Sikhism and has even held art competitions and exhibitions, as well as musical seminars. The Singh Twins had created an animation based on one of their paintings, Liverpool 800:The Changing Face of Liverpool. The painting was commissioned by Liverpool to celebrate its 800th anniversary. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to get to know them a little better and learn about the inspirations behind their artwork.

The Singh Twins graciously agreed to meet with me after the screening of their film. It was a beautiful day, and unseasonably warm. While I was content in asking them questions at the theatre itself, they had other ideas. About fifteen minutes later, I found myself in the iconic Greg’s Ice Cream, an institution that is well known and much loved by students who attend the University of Toronto, nearby. A whole group of friends and acquaintances made the trek from Bader Theatre to Greg’s, and we all managed to beat a huge crowd that came only seconds later. As always Greg’s flavours were the topic of much amusement (What to choose? Sweet Cream, Grape-Nut, Roasted Marshmallow?). Finally ice cream in hand, the conversation turned towards the Twins’ artistic beginnings.

Interestingly enough, while always artistically inclined and sharing a love of painting and drawing while very young, The Singh Twins never had any intention of looking for degrees in Visual Arts in university. Instead, they both attended Liverpool University to read for a Combined Studies Degree which required students to pick three subjects to study. They chose Comparative Religion, and Ecclesiastical History for the first two. Then, as luck would have it, 20th Century Art History became the third - simply because it happened to be the only other subject offered by the University’s syllabus that didn’t clash with the timetable for the other two. Resigned to this situation, the twins looked forward to the study of Art History with some excitement and much enthusiasm. But this course didn’t bring the fairy tale experience that one might think. Quite the contrary. Despite learning much and expanding their artistic capabilities their experiences in the art course turned out to become the very reason why both artists have yet to receive their degrees!

While studying the contemporaries the The Singh Twins were drawn to the Indian Miniature Tradition of painting as a source of inspiration for developing their own style of work. But when they tried to express their interests they were essentially told by their tutors that Indian art had been written off. It was apparently “outdated” and it seemed as if the tutors didn’t like the “Indian-ness” of the paintings. Consequently, the Twins were pressured to focus on particular role models and movements from western art that, although interesting enough, neither soon-to-be artist found particularly inspiring. To make matters worse, certain periods within Western Art History that the twins had always taken a great interest in since childhood - like, the medieval Renaissance and the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau movements - were not taken seriously, or, seen worthy of study by their tutors who told them that their chosen areas of interest “weren’t going anywhere.”

Finding blockades wherever they turned the Twins finally realized that something was inherently wrong with the way the course was being taught, and decided that they were not going to compromise their art especially since it seemed that the instructor couldn’t decide what to teach.

“They were telling us to express ourselves in one breath and then telling us not to [by criticizing our chosen style] in the next,” remarked Rabindra.

“It was clear they didn’t like Indian art, and they wanted to ignore the fact that so many people [famous Western artists] got their influence from other ethnic traditions,” added Amrit. “They just kept on trying to force the idea that European art was superior to non-European art.”

Criticized not only for their artistic expression the Twins were further told that it was wrong to both be interested in the same area art. First an attack on their culture and now on their similar interests – with such contradictions and outright discrimination, what choices were left? They could either compromise the integrity of their artwork, or they could challenge the notions of “correct art” that were being forced on them. They chose the latter.

“…we really started to challenge them, and started to emphasize [in our own work] the Indian-ness of the miniature paintings, like contrasting colours and flattened perspective, etc. But we depicted western scenes to show that although we have eastern influences, we live in the west.”

In keeping with their challenge to the tutors, for the final dissertation of the art course the sisters focused on how European art has non-European influences. Amrit focused her paper on the teacher and student – Gustav Moreau and Henri Matisse, while Rabindra picked out and focused on ten different western Masters. While Amrit highlighted the non-European influences displayed by the work of Moreau and Matisse, Rabindra did the same with her broader selection of artists.

When the papers were submitted to the university for grading both Rabindra and Amrit were told that they were “super human” and “PhD standard” - displaying “a level of scholarship far beyond what was expected at BA (Hons) level”. In short, the examiner refused to accept that the Twins had written their respective dissertations themselves. He accused them of plagiarism and collusion and refused to award a mark to their work! Consequently, the Twins’ overall degree awards were severely downgraded from a ‘1st Class’ (highest possible grade) to a ‘3rd Class’ (just scraping a ‘Pass’). But, far from being discouraged, the Twins took up the issue with the university with the support of their family. While they battled for their appropriate marks, they registered for their respective PhDs at Manchester University. Having not received their official undergraduate degrees, they were only able to do this because their supervising Professor personally vouched for them both. During their time at Manchester they received a scholarship to study Sikh Art and soon found themselves in India where Rabindra took to focusing on miniature paintings within early ‘Janam Sakhi’ manuscripts, while Amrit focused closely on the more mass produced, printed imagery from the later period. Researching Sikh artistic culture wasn’t easy as Rabindra noted that they often had to face the mentality captured in the old joke “What is Sikh culture? Agriculture!”

Upon returning to the UK, the Twins were informed that their supervisor had left Manchester for a position at another university. Whilst waiting for the university to find them another supervisor the Twins decided that they might as well use the time to start trying to promote their artwork. They produced post cards of their paintings and used them to canvas museums and galleries. Although, some of the most established London galleries rejected their work, considering it “not mainstream enough” to fit in with their definition of Contemporary British art - (one gallery advised the Twins to “try the ethnic gallery down the road!”) - others did come back with offers for exhibitions and thus began their career as artists. One year later, as things on the art front were really starting to snowball for The Singh Twins, Manchester University informed them that a new supervisor had finally been found. However, it also informed them that, since this supervisor did not have a PhD qualification, they would have to downgrade to an M.Phil, rather than complete the PhD, they had registered for. Having spent three years gathering so much research, The Singh Twins found it impossible to relegate it all to just an M.Phil but when they tried to argue their case with the University, the latter suggested “if you want to do a PhD you can always go and do it at Liverpool University!”- knowing full well the Twins’ past history with them. As matter of principle, the Twins decided that they would rather not have a degree at all than be forced to pursue an MPhil.

It was a little after this time that they met an eminent scholar in Sikh Studies - a Professor and author of many books in the field, who mentioned to them that he wasn’t surprised by the constant barriers that the academic community was erecting in front of the Twins. According to him, the Government of India had sent a directive (after attacking the Golden Temple in 1984 as a part of Operation Bluestar) to the British government telling them to put a clamp down on Sikh studies throughout the U.K.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Having learned of their remarkable journey into the world of art, I turned the conversation to their painting titled “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” 1984 was a year that Sikhs will not likely ever forget. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India had the Indian army storm the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs called the Harimandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple. While using the excuse of eradicating terrorists, she openly said that she would punish the Sikhs for opposing her declaration of “State of Emergency.” The storming of the Gurdwara even took place on a day well known to have an extremely high number of innocent civilian worshippers visiting the Temple. There was also a media blackout, after which only such information was given to the media as the Indian army deemed fit. The resulting massacre and destruction has been burned in to the Sikh psyche – likely Ms. Gandhi’s goal. But while Sikhs everywhere were feeling victimized, they were being painted by the media and Indian government as terrorists.

I came to learn that it was for this very reason that Amrit had originally painted a small painting in which she presented a birds eye’s view of the fateful storming, and ensuing death and destruction. She wanted to show friends that what was happening to the Sikh community was so much more than what the media would have one believe. While the Twins were initially proud of Indira Gandhi as a strong female role model, after the 1984 storming they found themselves severely disappointed. “She had become just like every other politician in our eyes,” said Rabindra. While clearly an emotional event, it did not affect the Twins’ view of India as a beautiful and amazing country. It was clearly necessary to separate the country itself from its politicians and politics.

In 1999 for the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Khalsa, an essential part of the Sikh faith, the Twins created a larger more detailed version of the original “Nineteen Eighty-Four” painting. In it they added historical references and linked the sacrifices that the Sikhs made in history for human rights and India itself, putting it all into a context aimed at explaining why Sikhs felt so aggrieved with what happened.

Click on to read more about ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’


Fast forwarding a few years and we come to ‘The Making of Liverpool’ animation, the reason why the Twins are in Toronto. In 2005 the Twins were commissioned to do two paintings by their home city of Liverpool - one (titled ‘Liverpool 800:The Changing Face of Liverpool’) to celebrate the City’s 800th birthday and the other (titled ‘Arts Matters:The Pool of Life’) to celebrate its status as ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2008. ‘Liverpool 800’, which depicts Liverpool’s 800 year history and achievements, was officially unveiled to Prince Charles in April 2007 and is now permanently installed on public display in one of the City’s most famous buildings, St George’s Hall. Responding to public requests to know more about this work and the story it told the Twins decided to use the medium of animation film to bring the painting to life. They applied for funding from the Arts Council England. Upon receiving the funding they worked closely with a Liverpool-based company called Sparkle Media (who had already animated small parts of the painting for use in the official ‘Capital of Culture’ opening ceremony) to make their vision into an animated reality. I can personally say the end result, ‘The Making of Liverpool’ was extremely entertaining, informative and artistically inspiring.

Click on to read more about ‘Liverpool 800:The Changing Face of Liverpool’ and ‘Arts Matters:The Pool of Life’ paintings

Click on to see a BBC news broadcast about ‘The Making of Liverpool’ animation.


It’s clear that Rabindra and Amrit faced many obstacles which they clearly worked hard to overcome. Their adversity, determination, and unwillingness to yield to pressure that would have them corrupt their artistic expression is nothing if not admirable. What advice then could they offer young Sikhs or anyone else aspiring to become artists? A career path that is often considered unprofitable or unrespectable, especially in the Indian community, art is not an easy profession to pursue.

Luckily for the Singh Twins their family was very supportive throughout their many ordeals, and especially in terms of their career choices. They also received much support from their community because of the content of their art. If anything the hardships they faced were in terms of having galleries show their art, especially since its unique style didn’t allow it to fit the mould. In this light both artists say that in order to succeed, it is important for one to think of art as a business, to be focused, disciplined and proactive in constantly looking for ways of diversifying and promoting ones work without being too bothered by the rejections. At the same time it’s important to honour the integrity of ones own artistic expression and not change just to fit in.

“Just be true to yourself and if you really believe in what you’re doing you have to disregard the criticism and rejection,” advised Amrit. “At the end of the day, that’s what produces art which lasts, which speaks to people and has meaning. And that kind of art comes from the artist’s soul, rather than being driven purely by commercial reward or bending to the dictates of others.”

“Don’t worry too much about the ‘no’s added Rabindra, “because in the end its going to be that one “yes” that’ll get your foot in the door.”

Authors Note: The only way to understand the determination and tenacity that The Singh Twins employed throughout their lives is by putting it all into perspective. These two individuals were presented with numerous barriers set up, first, by the ingrained prejudice of the institutions they studied at and, later, by none other than the formidable machinery of the Indian government – and they overcame every single one.

When you can take the government of India, you know you’re good.

Click on to see more of the Singh Twins’ work on their website Gallery

General link to The Singh Twins website:

Friday, March 23, 2007

Sikhism the Green Religion

With the commencement of spring and the rebirth of plants and nature, I thought it would be interesting to contemplate Sikhism and the environment….

Saffron has always been the Sikh colour. Saffron and Blue. Deep navy blue, even indigo. These colours together are enough to arouse memories or thoughts of the Khalsa, nagar kirtans, and Sikhi in general. Though Sikhs are told to admit all colours to be equal, like all days, all religions, all occasions, etc., it would be futile to deny the potency of the afore mentioned colours in arousing spirit and sentiment in those who have any connection to Sikhi whatsoever. Today I would like to add another colour to this faith, this way of life. That colour is the colour green. It might just be coincidental that saffron and blue mixed make green. Then again, it might not.

Green, the colour of nature, the colour of all that is yet young and vibrant, is the colour of the earth and the environment. Indeed, it has been flagged by the environmental activists everywhere, whether the issue be excessive fishing and hunting, or logging and pollution. Green Peace, is world famous, and the Green Party is certainly gaining momentum in Canada. Today more and more people are coming to realize the importance of not being selfish when it comes to this earth. They are coming to realize that instead of simply an optional act of good will it is in fact the duty of the worlds citizens to take care of the earth. The very earth that has sustained humans, and that humans repaid by plundering and violating. Being green is becoming more and more popular and even easier. The word is out. Its official. Green, is in.

So how can Sikhs fit in this new Green invasion? What role does this responsibility play and how can we make a place for it in out Sikh way of life? What does the environment have to do with spirituality anyway? Or with the Gurus teachings for that matter?

These were questions I asked myself time and time again. Then one day I was asked to represent the Sikh aspect of an environmental group. Rather then wonder about these questions, I was now forced to find the answers. And like almost everything else, the answers were waiting to be understood from the moment I had started reading the Guru Granth Sahib. Not only was I forced to accept the undeniable relationship between spirituality and the environment, but was also amazed at the science presented to us by our Guru. Literally.

So lets start with the most famous of environmental issues. Pollution. While there may not be explicit calls against polluting the oceans, air, and earth, there were definitely words that would make us think twice before doing so.

Regarding these three elements, Guru Ji says on Page 8 Line 10 of the Guru Granth Sahib:

“Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all.”

If we can learn any primary values in Gurbani, some of the first would be to learn of the importance of the Guru, and ones mother and father, who are in reality, a child’s first Gurus. Guru Nanak tells us here that Air is our Guru, water our father and the earth is our mother! Would anyone dare disrespect the their guru and their parents the way that we do the air, water and earth? All of these elements are sacred to us – or at least should be.

Further on in more detail the Guru reveals how scientifically forward thinking and understanding our Gurbani is. On page 19 Line 18, Guru Ji says:

“From the True Lord came the air, and from the air came water.”

Today every seventh grade child (possibly even younger) likely already knows the reality and science of condensation. Gases in the air raise and accumulate to a point at which they bond and form water droplets when then come down on earth as rain. From the air came water.

And yet we are further told in Asa Di Var, of the qualities of the water. On page 472, line 14, the Guru tells us:

“First, there is life in the water, by which everything else is made green.”

Not only did the Guru explain to us, molecular activities, but also went on to help the layman understand the concept of micro-organisms, and also then the more obvious immediate effects of water.

Having spoken of air and water the Guru goes on to say of the earth on page 7 line 12:

“…in the midst of these, He established the earth as a home for Dharma.”

The earth as a home for Dharma? Would we throw garbage left right and centre in a Gurdwara? Or even a church for that matter? Would we pollute the air inside so that worshippers had no pure air to breath? What about poisoning the water in langar, so that they had no energy to pray? I think not. Then why do we do it to this earth, which, as the Guru tells us, was established by God as a home for Dharma? While many may take Dharma to mean religion, they would not be totally wrong in doing so. But the more literal meaning is “duty”. I think the word was put in a perfect context in this case.

And the Trees? The plants? Nature? Guru Ji tells us on page 223, line 16:

“The Lord is among the trees and the plants, within the household and outside as well. 1”

And yet we have no problem in wasting loads of paper, and wiping out hectares of plants. That is someone else’s problem. It’s so far away, and has so little to do with me. But we are told by our Guru that God resides within these creations. Caring little or not at all about the welfare of the future of this part of our environment is caring little or not at all for Waheguru. I do not think that the path of the Gurmukh lies apart from one of the environmentalist. Indeed they seem to be very much aligned.

We are shown time and time again, in the Guru Granth Sahib that God pervades in the air, water, earth, trees, wind, and in essence out very environment. We are even told of the close familial ties we have with the elements as they are Guru, Father and Mother. So when we disrespect our environment, we are in actuality disrespecting our family.

“The devotees are in harmony with their God; He is in the water, the land, and the sky. 1” – Page 748 line 3

“The Lord is totally pervading the water, the land, and all space. He is contained in the forests as well.” Page 133 line 13

“O Nanak, He is pervading and permeating all places, the forests and the meadows, the three worlds, and every hair. 2” - Page 966 line 9.

“Behold God in all the earth and sky, in the water, on the land, in the forests and mountains, and in the nether regions of the underworld.” - Page 299 line 16

All of these quotes are from the Guru Granth Sahib, which we accept as the absolute and infinite Guru. Finally one quote which I would like to bring direct attention to is:

“If someone is going to teach me something, let it be that the Lord is pervading the forests and fields.” – Page 92 line 12

So it seems to me that Environmentalism and care for the earth is not just a path aligned with the Gurmukh’s. It is the Gurmukh’s path. How can one possibly disrespect the same environment that the Guru pays such tribute to?

I don’t think the issue is how many activist groups we join, or whether we try and have our governments pass environmental laws. I think the issue is rather us as Sikhs learning that the Environment is a rather large part of our religion! Its time for us as a community to be come more environmentally conscious and aware. Once we are, we will find ways to work forward, and act in this new found consciousness.

One final point comes to mind. It may be small, but I feel like it might have a possibility of merit. We so often hear the Guru refer to God with the word “Har”.

“Obtaining the Name of the Lord, Har, Har, they are satisfied; joining the Sangat, the Blessed Congregation, their virtues shine forth. 2” – Page 10 line 5

The similarity between this name and the Punjabi word for Green seem to me to be uncanny. It looks like the colour Green is already taken – by none other than God.


Spread The Word

There are few religions that can claim to truly be accepting of other religions. The linear religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their pure forms reject any and all other religions as means to salvation. Buddhism while not claiming to be the only path, does not claim other wise. Finally we come to the Bah’ai faith, which claims that all the world in one and all its people are one. In fact Baha'u'llah a prophet of the Bah’ai Faith said

“Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind”. (his kind being the Humankind)

In fact, Bah’ais believe that God has sent different prophets throughout the ages as messengers. While this does indeed seem to be the ultimate statement of acceptance of all religions, even this acceptance has been defined. The accepted prophets have been listed. They are :

Adam (? BCE)
Abraham (? BCE)
Moses (1456 BCE)
Krishna (1249 BCE)
Zoroaster (1000 BCE)
Buddha (757 BCE)
Jesus Christ (34 CE)
Mohammed (613 CE)
The Bab (1844 CE)
Baha'u'llah (1863 CE)

So we see that it is indeed hard to find a religion that is all accepting. Yet when we look at Sikhism we see that it does not define its acceptance by specifically telling us who is right and wrong, or which religions are true and which false…which prophets are God’s and which not. The Guru is very simple, he says, “Jinee Naam Dhiaya, Gaye Masakt Kaal. Nanak The Mukh Ujjaleh Keti Chhuti Naal.”
Those who have meditated on the Naam, the Name of the Lord, and departed after having worked by the sweat of their brows-- O Nanak, their faces are radiant in the Court of the Lord, and many are saved along with them! 1

It doesn’t matter. Be a Jew, be a Christian, be a Muslim, be a Buddhist, be a Zoroastrian, be whatever you want to be. But remember God, and be honest and hard working.

As if this wasn't enough, the Guru went beyond the call of duty, and included the writings of other religious leaders within the Guru Granth Sahib, and declared those writings to be sacred.

So with such an amazing Universal and uniting message – why is it that Sikhs are still looked upon as followers of extreme Islamic sects? Why is it that no one really knows what exactly we believe in?
Recently, there was a road rage incident involving racist remarks towards a Sikh man, in Brampton. The very place that is known as a smaller Punjab. If we couldn’t spread the word in such a densely Sikh area such as that, what exactly are we doing wrong? Nothing-that’s what. We are doing nothing, and that is exactly what is causing the problems.

We are not spreading the "word"-so to speak. We are not integrating and helping other understand our religion. If we really were doing job worthy of any sort of praise, why would a reporter from CNN film Dixie Rd. Gurdwara, and call it a mosque on national television?

I cannot deny the fact that there are some absolutely amazing groups doing amazing work. The Sikh Coalition and others have been working literally day and night to give the Sikh community a voice. But how much can they do alone? We need to levee en masse! EVERY Sikh should have simple flyers explaining their religion in their cars at ALL times. Give it to police officers, to customs officers, bus drivers, anyone at all.

Further, we as Sikhs need to learn that Gurdwaras are not just for controversial elections, fights, court cases, the daily dose of kirtan or paath, or even Punjabi classes. While some of those are very important there is also another calling for our houses of worship. While serving our community spiritually we must learn to use Gurdwaras as Houses of enlightenment for non Sikhs. Let every Gurdwara have special literature. Let every Gurdwara participate and even HOST mulifaith Dialogues.

In fact, it should be incumbent upon our Gurdwaras, to have flyers, leaflets, and pamphlets ready at all times, for anyone to take and keep at hand, to take to work, school, or anywhere else. Our Gurdwaras should be our community centres, where we congregate not only to listen or eat more free food, but to also forge bonds between ourselves and our community and educate ourselves and others of our religion.

It is unfortunate that we rarely use our Gurdwaras for these practical purposes. Once while attempting to host an interfaith program at a Gurdwara, and giving a tour, there were a few of elderly men and women who were unaccustomed to sitting on the ground. When a few sevadaars brought seats for them to sit on at the back, they were immediately verbally attacked. Seats in the diwan hall? Not a chance! Seats in the langar hall? Absolutely not! We as Sikhs show that everyone is EQUAL, so every one MUST sit on the ground.

Wait a second – let's look at this historically. The people who were trying to understand our religion, taking time out of their busy schedules to create a bridge between communities were quite elderly and mostly from European decent. While us Sikhs enjoy claiming our religion is the most equal of all, and the earliest of religions to command such a thing, these very same people had been practicing equality of people much longer then we had. The simple difference is this: In Europe, the climate did not allow for comfortable sitting on the ground, but rather, everyone sat on chairs at tables. In India, the heat made it much more comfortable to sit on the cool ground. Sikhism is a religion of values and beliefs, not customs and culture, and it is important that we understand that letting a few elderly people sit on chairs is not in any way degrading to our religion. Rather, if anything we are doing it a service by making others who wish to learn of our religion feel comfortable doing so. We as Sikhs can claim a lot but all in theory, while our fellow Canadians had already been practicing it. We speak of equality as if we embody it in everything we do, while one has but to ask an Amritdhari Sikh's name, and we are kept waiting to hear the Guru's gift of Singh, or Kaur. Instead we hear Bains, Randhawa, Gill, Mann, Bajwa, Chawala, Grewal, Sidhu, Parmar, Sodhi, etc. While we are still slaves to our castes and are proud of out status, these were the same people who put equality in the charter and actually made the effort to practice it. And even when there was a social difference, it wasn't nearly as horrendous and sickening as the divide that still exists today by the name of the Caste System in our community.

And yet we as Sikhs are just too stuck on our morals to allow an elderly person to sit on a chair because all are equal? Is the irony blinding anyone else?

After this very same event, a gentleman who has a Punjabi radio and television show, made the comment that – all we were doing was following around white people and trying to make sure they were comfortable, as if they were superior to us in some way. He felt that by going out of our way and doing this, we were somehow lowering our status.

That is exactly the type of ignorant thinking that we as a community must learn to overcome. When my family went to a synagogue for an interfaith exchange, we had people with top professions staying after the service, and explaining the very details of their devotional practices. They gave us a tour and invited us to dine with them afterwards. Needless to say, providing such a service was not considered degradation in any way, shape or form. If anything, it was a form of progress.

Another factor that we need to consider important, is the idea of having a status in our national community other than just rich professionals, or cab drivers, or extremist terrorists. Every year we remember the tragic events of 1984. We honour those who died so unnecessarily. We lament the "Sikh Genocide". But is that the only reason we are sad? Because it is a Sikh genocide? Or is it the Genocide that we are so horrified by? I should hope that it is the fact that a Genocide occurred, and not just because it was Sikh.
I should sincerely hope that we are saddened and horrified by the very fact that human rights just ceased to exists for anyone, not just because it happened to Sikhs.

So if that is the case are we as a community living under a rock? Over 800,000 people died in Rawanda. How many will have to die and suffer in Sudan before we notice? We need to fight for all of the worlds other genocides and massacres. Only when we start to fight for the rights of others (as true Sikhs always should), will we be recognized on that world scale. We must give to receive. If we see human rights violations in Chechnya, Israel, Africa, or any where else in the world, we must rally together as Sikhs and show the world that we will not stand for it. We must show the world that we as Sikhs know what its like to be targeted, for genocide, to be to be treated like second class citizens, in our own country, to be plotted against by our very own government. We Sikhs know how that feels, and we should not let it happen to others! Once we show the world that we really do care, only then can we can show them why we care. We can show them how our young Sikhs are being arrested and tortured arbitrarily by a corrupt police, how we STILL have not received justice for government organized riots, and literally thousands of murders.

It is important to take part in holocaust memorial days, join human rights groups such as Amnesty International, and fight for the rights of others. We must, I repeat MUST, defend our dignity, faith and honour, but we must ALSO fight for those who cannot defend themselves.
We can find no greater example in the world, than that of our ninth Guru, who showed true selfless service and sacrifice to Humanity, regardless of religion. Guru Teg Bahadur showed us that we must always rally together to help anyone in need, even if we have nothing to do with it. If it isn’t our problem we should make it our problem. Let it be so that when a Sikh walks anywhere in the world, people say, “Look! There is a defender of human rights – There is a defender of My Rights”. Through helping others achieve justice, we will receive it ourselves. A Buddhist proverb summarizes this idea very thoroughly, "When you like a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your path".
What path? Along side helping those in need, we are also helping ourselves by making ourselves known as a community that is ever vigilant in the fight against the oppression of human rights. This is one of the strongest ways to build bridges.
We must learn as a society that we have to make compromises. We have to make sacrifices of a different sort in order to spread the word. We need to build the bridges. Or at least start. We need to put in more of an effort than most because WE are the ones who are the easy targets. Not the Muslims. Us. We wear turbans, we keep the beards. Let's get out of our proverbial recluses and join the rest of society. Spread the word to the rest of society. Tell them we do not belong to the Taliban. We are not Al Quaeda. We are not even from the Middle East. We are Sikhs

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11 let's remind ourselves of this need to integrate, spread, help understand and participate. Let us as a community take a vow not only to remember shaheeds, and to celebrate gurpurabs, and to have kirtan darbars and conferences. Let us take the vow that we will– spread the word!


Sikhism and Dogma

The whole world watched in horror, as the scenes of the London bombings were displayed on television. Not many waited for the official placement of blame. The answer was already on their tongues. Al Qaeda. As the week progressed, we were told what we already knew. Islamic terrorists linked to Al Qaeda had planted the bombs. What we didn’t expect was how apparently “Normal” these so called terrorists were. What made them become so extreme? Where did all this radicalism come from?

We learn that there was even a young man, hardly an adult who was a suicide bomber. What could have possessed this young being to do such a thing?

It was the constant bombardment by local imams, that Britain is an evil country. Infidels are attacking holy land. All these kafirs are breaking the “laws” of Allah.

Is this Islam? No.

Is this what Islam has been made into? Unfortunately, yes.

But why? What has allowed this to happen? When answering this question we must realize that this extreme nature does not come from nowhere. There ARE laws in Islam. There is no doubt about that. The some Sharia Laws, Hadiths and even many verses in the Quran have been very controversial throughout history. Many claim that the laws themselves are not controversial but rather the perverted interpretation makes them so. But regardless of the different interpretations, it is these very dogmas that are used as the building blocks of extremists who are trying to recruit young men and women into the fold of terrorism.

While thinking of these laws, my mind naturally wonders what Sikhism’s take is on all this. What do Sikhism’s “laws” say? Are they also controversial? But first of all – What is Dogma?

A general definition of Dogma would be authoritative religious laws, deemed to be absolutely true, without any sort of proof. An example would be that all non believers are going to hell in the after life. Many would say that one “Dogma” that all religions believe in is that of a god(s), or some supernatural power. I disagree. I do not believe that a belief in God could be considered a religious law, as it is actually the foundation of these religions, and cannot be clumped together with religious laws.

Seeing as most of these laws come from sacred scriptures and texts it is only fitting to first search the Guru Granth Sahib for any “laws”. Yet when one does read the Guru Granth, which unfortunately is not too common an occurrence, we realize that that such a search would be in vain. While one is likely to find the praise and glorification of God, a call for Simran and Kirtan, and even some words of a moral boosting nature, we cannot find any sort of “laws”. Why is this?

The Guru’s goal was not to set out how many times to pray, what to eat, or even how to eat it, but rather to create humans of such high moral character and thinking that they would be considered model citizens for any country. If there are any laws in Sikhism, they are ones of such universal nature that most if not all of them would be found or represented in the International Declaration of Human Rights or any other such charter.

I specifically mention the idea of a good Samaritan because of what these Islamic terrorists, propagate. It is good to kill kafirs (non-believers), it is right to hate the country that you have grown up in, all in the west are deserving of death and devastation.
As if this wasn’t enough, the extremists use laws, which a readily available to back up their calls for violence!

What would an extremist use to back up violence by Sikhs?..What quote would they use to justly such an act as a suicide bomb?

And yet, as I grew up in Canada it was not uncommon for me to hear of so-called, “Sikh Terrorists”. This makes me wonder how one could be Sikh and commit the atrocities that a terrorist is known to do?

The phrase Sikh terrorist is not just descriptive, but rather a sign to show that the terrorism is being done in the name of Sikhism. What part of Sikhism would condone terrorist attack, or even permit them? None. The reason for this is that there are No “Laws” of any sort which could possibly even allow some one to say that the “west is evil”, or that “all non Sikhs should or can be killed”.

So where did these “Sikhs terrorists come from? It was later on that I found out that these Sikhs were not terrorists by nature, but rather by label. Government abuse, murder, and other such horrible acts have lead young Sikhs bursting with frustration to also commit some violent acts. Are these people terrorists? Was their goal to scare and terrorize the public? No. There was simply pain and anguish, and the understandable thirst for revenge. Revenge on one person. Not on a whole hemisphere. Though Sikhism may not condone blind revenge as a means of justice, these youths were driven by blind passion and emotion, and hardly ever had much logic and reason left in themselves. Even in this state of being, they choose to only to persecute the doers of the act; not a whole society.

How can Sikhism not have any laws? What do the followers follow? Moral values, of trust, honesty, hard work, and many more are told to be means of reaching the ultimate goal of oneness with God, but there are no commands or orders. And yet if there is really no Dogma in Sikhism, then what is with the different, rules and customs that Sikhs must follow?

As I read articles or meet different people, I see that belonging to a certain group or Jathaa has become quite the trend. A book by so and so Akhand Kirtani Jatha valle. Or being introduced to so and so, Tapoban valle. Belonging to a certain group means following theirs rules. So with all these different Jathas we have many different rules to follow. Which ones are right and which wrong?

Well if we are to continue with the above scenario, we see that the AKJ believes, among other things, that all food must be prepared by amritdharis in order to be fit to eat. Tapoban on the other hand believes that not only must it be prepared by amridharis, but it must also ALL be prepared using ONLY Sarbh Loh utensils.

Now if one were to question, they could ask if the AKJ or Tapoban Group has heard of the story of the martyrdom of the Guru Gobind Singh’s two younger Sahibzadas. Mata Gujiri and the young children were taken to shelter when they were lost by a Hindu man named Gangu. This Gangu was considered trustworthy because he was a cook in the Gurus kitchen.

Given that this is just a saakhi, it is still a prominent one in which not many would question. Is this not proof enough that the Guru didn’t care who prepared his food? As long as the food did not cause discomfort to the body, and provided nourishment, than there was not harm in it.

The same idea continues when it comes to Sarbh Loh utensils, or Sarbloh Bibek. There is no doubt that iron is a powerful mineral which is extremely good for the body, however to suggest that all food must be prepared in this manner seems almost superstitious. It seems as if iron is given a special status amongst metals, which I’m sure was not the Guru’s aim.

There are many practical reasons that the Guru used Sarbh Loh on many occasions. One example is our Karaa. It is meant to be made of Sarbh Loh. Why? One of the most prevalent reasons that is used is because it is a substance that ALL can afford. It is humble by nature. Similarly there is no reason for Sikhs to eat using or even own outrageously expensive plates or spoons. Hence in order to continue with the spirit of equality and practicality, iron plates, spoons, bowls, etc were used. Similarly the original reason why amritdharis were commonly preferred to make the food was because one could be assured of their cleanliness, and therefore did not worry about any sickness resulting after eating the food. Today there is so much cleanliness in everything we do, that this is not a problem whatsoever.

Forgive me for just picking on these two groups who in no way whatsoever are doing wrong but are just trying to promote a Sikhi way of life. There are many other Jathaas with their own personal marayadas. To their credit, they have pulled many youth who was straying away from the Gurus path, back on the right track. And yet we hope that these youth don’t get caught up in supposed laws, or dogmas. The problem is that these “rules”, have been carried on as a rituals and has become an almost Brahminical influence on our Sikhi. When a Brahmin was touched by or even fell in the shadow of a lower caste person, it was considered that ‘Janam bhrisht ho gayaa’, or their life had gone to waste unless; some necessary rituals were performed. Similarly it seems like we as Sikhs are getting too caught up in minor details and small laws or rules, which we consider the one and only path to becoming good Sikhs.

The other day I was reading an article by Salman Rushdie titled “Its time for a Muslim Reformation”. In it, Rushdie says that the laws of the Qu’ran were made in the 7th century, and that they have become outdated by today’s standards. “Laws made in the 7th century could finally give way to the needs of the 21st”. It almost seems as if we see these complications of other religions, of reformation, and modernizations, and we decide that we should not be any less. So we start adding laws and rules to our religion, as was exemplified above. What we fail to realize is that our Guru has shown us that there is no need for unnecessary complications, and rituals, and laws. All we need is to follow universal and timeless philosophies of the Guru.

In other words Sikhism was made as a way of life. A philosophy of hard work, praise of the one and only Lord, and service to humanity. This is the beauty of Sikhism. It the Gurus’ infinite knowledge, they gave us neither laws nor orders, but rather extremely beautiful and universal poetry. Poetry which tells us how to be good human beings. Dogma, in every sense of the word, is contrary to the Sikh belief.