THE SIKH REHAT MARYADA (Punjabi)

By Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan

Published by Khalsa Pracharak Jatha, Barking, Essex, UK

Also available from Singh Brother, Amritsar

Pages: 240 (Price not stated)

Review by I.J. Singh (New York)*

Human beings are social animals and, in time, any society’s way of life evolves into a codified set of traditions and laws – a code of conduct. For Sikhs, this code of conduct evolved gradually, over several centuries, from the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, who started the process of delineating Sikhism as an entity independent of its neighbors’ beliefs and practices, to Guru Gobind Singh, who formally established the institution of the Khalsa in 1699. 

A religion, in its final analysis, is a way of life that makes possible the formation, survival and growth of human societies. A society collectively determines what constitutes right conduct or what deserves censure, and also in what form such disapproval is expressed.

We generally know how simple yet universal is the message of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Nanak indeed empowered the powerless.  What, then, is the Sikh Rehat Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct)?  What does it say?  How and when did it evolve into a written document?  A Sikh, and even a non-Sikh who wants to understand his Sikh neighbors, cannot be but curious about these matters.  It is a riveting tale; the London based Giani Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan tells it well, though some questions remain unanswered.

It is not entirely unexpected or odd that the formalization of the Sikh way of life into a written structure approved by the Sikh community and its representatives took another two centuries after the canon was sealed and the Khalsa discipline established. History tells us that agreement on major issues of Christian doctrine and dogma, for example, did not occur until several centuries after Jesus Christ.  Living religions evolve, and their practices achieve clarity only over time, even centuries later.  Some matters that appear settled at one time may continue to vex believers and may be revisited and re-explored years later.

During the two centuries of the Gurus, Sikh belief and practices evolved and matured.  The subsequent two centuries left the Sikhs little peace or leisure to formulate their way of life into a coherent whole.  In the meantime, many contradictory practices, often drawn from the large religious traditions of Hinduism and Islam, that surrounded Sikhs, a small minority, wormed their way into the Sikh way of life.

Sikhs wrested control of their historical gurdwaras only in 1925-26, after a titanic struggle that shook the British Empire to its core. The next step was quick but equally significant.  On March 15, 1927, a general body meeting of the SGPC at the Akaal Takht appointed a 29 member subcommittee, convened by the Jathedar Akaal Takht, Bhai Teja Singh, to explore Sikh teachings, traditions, history and practice, and prepare a draft of a “Code of Sikh Conduct and Conventions.”  It is important to note that the list of members was a veritable Who-is-Who of the Sikhs of that time.

Two years later, in April 1931, a preliminary draft was distributed to the Sikhs and their opinions solicited. The subcommittee reconvened on 4-5 October 1931, January 3, and again on January 31, 1932.  Inexplicably, the number of attendees declined to 13; an additional 4 members appeared at some meetings.  (How were they appointed?)  On March 1, 1932, four members were dropped from the subcommittee, and an additional 8 members appointed to it.  (Of the four ousted from the committee, Giani Sunder Singh died, Babu Teja Singh was excommunicated and an edict issued to deny Bhai Lal Singh the right to offer prayer at the Akaal Takht.  What happened to the fourth, Bhai Mya Singh is not stated.)Of the 8 new members, 5 are named; three are listed only by their titles.

Agreement on the draft remained elusive.  On May 9, 1932 only 10 members attended the meeting; at the September 26, 1932 meeting, 9 members were present.  (Was this a quorum?)  On December 30, 1933, a conclave of the wide spectrum of the Sikh nation, somewhat akin to Sarbat Khalsa, was convened at the Akaal Takht. President of the SGPC, Partap Singh Shankar, presided; 170 Sikh representatives attended it, only 9 were members of the subcommittee originally appointed for the purpose. After two days of heated discussion, agreement still eluded them. Then a 50-member (48 named members, 2 remain anonymous) subcommittee of the SGPC that included representation from Stockton (California), Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia, with opinions from 21 additional correspondents, approved a draft Code of Conduct on August 1, 1936; SGPC ratified it on October 12, 1936. This Code was implemented while suggestions and critique continued to pour in. The general body of the SGPC approved the document on February 3, 1945, and an 8-member subcommittee met on July 7, 1945 to fine tune the Code.

In drafting the Sikh Code of Conduct, the scholars drew upon the teachings in the Guru Granth, as also the unbroken oral tradition and practice.  They also examined various historical documents to ferret out the common thread in them.  These documents were the Guru Granth, the writings of Guru Gobind Singh, the poetical works of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal, the available Janamsakhis, Bhagat Mala (Bhagataavli, Bhagat Rachnaavli), Sarabloh, Rehatnama Bhai Chaupa Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Prehlad Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Desa Singh, Rehatnama Bhai Daya Singh, Gur Sobha, Prem (Param) Sumarag, Sau Sakhi, Mahima parkash, Gur Bilas, Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Sri Guru Panth Prakash,Gurmat Prakash( Bhag Sanskaar), and the many Hukumnamey of the Gurus that are available. 

Clearly many of these sources and documents are, at least in part, apocryphal, yet they provide rare historical information on Sikh doctrine and practice.  The task of the subcommittee was daunting indeed – how to sift the wheat from the chaff.  How best to capture the common thread that runs through much of Sikh history while discarding what was obviously an accretion and even contradictory to the common body and continuity of doctrine and teaching?

Starting with the definition of a Sikh, in the bulk of the book, Gulshan explores briefly, but methodically, each line of the Code and every requirement of a Sikh in his or her personal and congregational existence.

Sikhism arose and flourished in the Indian culture. Sikh teachings, therefore, are cast in the language and cultural context that is largely Hindu. Now that Sikhism is a universal religion, we need to reexamine, even reinterpret the language in the context of our present reality.  For instance, the language in the Rehat Maryada may appear sexist in places.  That might be in tune with the Punjabi-Indian culture of the last century but it is contradictory to the spirit of the Sikh message of gender equality.  Also, matters of interfaith relations need clearer definition from the Sikh perspective, now that we exist in a multifaith world.

With such minor caveats, Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan does an excellent job of explaining in detail, with scriptural and historical references, the Sikh Rehat Maryada. He successfully strips it of its mystery, and frees Sikhs of the fear that many have of a document they have never read and not understood. Readers will find the Code surprisingly consistent and largely free of contradictions. The Sikh Rehat Maryada is a liberal document that needs to be liberally interpreted.

Before this book saw the light of day, Gurbaksh Singh Gulshan circulated draft chapters on the Internet.  This means that a significant part of the whole worldwide Sikh community that is spread over all continents and countries of the world got an opportunity to comment. Ultimately that is the meaning of participatory self-governance.

In all, a very valuable publication.

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SIKH DYNAMIC VISION

By Nirbhai Singh

Published by Harman

Pp:  xix + 436 PriceRs. 750.00

A Review by Ashok Vohra

One of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, concludes his magnum opus Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, by saying: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence.” What he meant was that there is a point where speaking has to give way to showing. All those who work in the areas of religion, ethics and aesthetics particularly realize this fact. In these areas, there is a primacy of the direct experience over the explanation. This is due to the nature of the subject matter and limitations of language rather than the author’s shortcoming. But many authors in the field of religion do not realize this and go on claiming the finality of their findings and explanations. Well-read and informed as Nirbhai Singh is, he does not commit this mistake. Instead, he admits that in his book Sikh Dynamic Vision, “No chapter or part thereof is finished. The book has no beginning and no end.”

The aim of the author is to make the reader aware of the need for a reinterpretation of the cipher in the canonical litereture of the Sikhs in the context of the post-modern era. He makes an attempt to “retrieve eternal message of the Gurus and the philosophers of the world” using ‘hermeneutical tools’ and analytic method as developed in the West. But he does not accept these methods in total, rather he develops their “modified model that fits into the cultural aura of the Sikh sacred texts from the philosophical standpoint.” Using these tools the author proves those wrong who believe that “Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism.” He establishes that “Sikhism is a comprehensive hermeneutical reinterpretation and understanding of the Indian scriptures and the religious traditions along with the Semitic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam without repudiating the pristine truth of them.”

The author claims that the book is “of no use for those who do not have a philosophical and critical insight into the religious traditions and the ciphers treasured in the sacred scriptures.” According to him, it is meant only for those readers who “have sufficient background of the Indian and the Western traditions,” and are “without preconceived presuppositions. Indeed, the book would be useful for all those who are interested in learning not only about the fresh interpretation of the Sikh canons and ciphers but also the method of comprehending and decoding them anew.

After giving a brief introduction of hermeneutics and analytical method, in simple and lucid language, the author applies this method to the text, context and syntax of Guru Granth Sahib. He raises questions related to epistemology, theory of being, moral issues, nature of akalpurukh, the reconciliation between theory and praxis, piri and miri, and non onto-theology (‘main’ and ‘toon’) of Sikhism and goes on to answer them. He shows that many of these problems are solved in Sikhism by resorting to three perspectives, viz manmukh - first person singular perspective; sangat - second-person perspectives; and Gurmukh = third-person singular perspective. The free movement from one perspective to the other, according the author, accounts for the constant ‘becoming’ and existential freedom of man. This is what he has designated as Sikh Dynamic Vision. According to the author the Sikh claim: “ideal man ... is in the world, but not of the world” is based on this dynamic vision. But, is this claim exclusive to Sikhism? Does every religion not uphold the same, though it may be using a different vocabulary?

It is one thing to call theology ‘a stupid inquiry about truth’ and boldly assert ‘the theologicans are enemies of real rational faith and killers of God,” it is quite another thing to give reasons for it. Surely, neither all theological enterprise is stupid and otiose nor all theologians are crooked. Had it been so, there would not have been any development in theology and religion.

The book is sufficiently scholarly, detailed, explaratory, insightful, bold and interesting so as to profit not only those readers who are in “sympathy with the spirit in which it is written” but also those who do not belong to the “cultural milieu” of the author. But the book is so repetitive that the reader can get bored. It requires a thorough copyediting. It contains a plethora of experssions like “dynamic mystic,” the human mind creates language to communicate ideas,” “hoary spiritual culture of India,” which should have been avoided. Even author’s claim that “English is not my language” cannot exonerate him of many  logical and other linguistic errors - both semantic and syntactic.

[Courtesy: The Sunday Tribune]

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