Here, from a Sikh in Canada, are some reflections on ways the Sikh religion can be enhanced in the contemporary era. Note how patriarchal attitudes have, to some degree, eroded women’s opportunities within the religion, and how young Sikhs appear to lack a commitment to the faith that older Sikhs seem have (note in these two instances similarities with other religions).
As a general rule, in the West we don’t have school systems allowing students to study Sikhism to a high level. If someone wants to learn about Sikhism in depth, he/she has to go to India. In the West, therefore, we don’t have places such as universities or training colleges for young Sikhs to learn about the religion, to receive training in the religion, and/or to become leaders in the religion. Also, we don’t have any female kathavachaks (people who can deliver religious lectures). During the third guru’s time there were about fifty female parcharaks (teachers). Even though our population is now so much larger, do we have even that many female parcharaks. We have gone backwards, not forwards, since Guru Amar Das’s time. As time and technology progress we don’t see Sikhism progressing. We don’t see young Sikhs proud to say that the gurdwara is their beacon of light.
We need to look again at our gurdwaras. For example, some Sikhs have started asking the sangat (the holy congregation) not to bow or donate during the lecture. They ask the sangat to wait until the end of the lecture to bow and donate. This is so as not to distract anyone and to bring more focus to the lecture. When you go to a lecture hall you are not allowed to come to the front if you are late. You sit at the back so no one is distracted by your entrance. This is how it works in an institution of learning. But are gurdwaras institutions of learning? Perhaps they should be more like institutions of learning.
Businesspeople evaluate their businesses to ensure they are a success. Gurdwaras usually don’t have a system to check if they have been successful. So, when Sikh children have been coming to the gurdwara for a while but don’t know anything about Sikhism, this reflects badly on the way the gurdwara is run. Schools take children, give them a learning plan, challenge them and test their knowledge and understanding. Schools with better teachers where the children learn more are the parents’ most desired schools.
A Sikh friend of mine tells the story of how he had been coming to the gurdwara for years before he knew anything substantive about Sikhism, but no one ever checked with him to see what he knew. All he knew was that he should give a donation, take kara parshad (food sanctified by prayer and distributed to everyone to emphasise equality) and then go home. If someone had asked him what he knew about Sikhism in those early days he would have said, “Nothing.” The thing to do with someone who knows nothing is not to have them sit and nod their head about something they don’t understand. That someone needs a class or a course to fill his/her knowledge gap. A gurdwara’s responsibility to the sangat is like a teacher’s responsibility to his/her students.
A problem with the gurdwara is that the “teachers” aren’t in a position to teach. The person who knows about the gurbani (the content of the Guru Granth Sahib) best is the granthi (a knowledgeable Sikh who performs the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib), but the granthi is not in charge of the gurdwara. This situation is like having a businessperson running a school when schools should be run by educators, not businesspeople. As a general rule, in Christianity the religious experts – the priests, ministers, bishops, archbishops, etc. – are in charge of their houses of worship. Gurdwaras are typically run by a committee of “lay” Sikhs with limited knowledge about the religion. There is no test or apprenticeship that establishes whether someone deserves to be on a gurdwara committee. No one checks their knowledge and/or commitment to Sikhism. The committee members are chosen in elections, but the elections are not always representative of the sangat because of vote-stacking strategies. One of my Jewish friends attends a synagogue that has an interesting system for deciding who should have authority roles alongside the rabbi. Every member of the community has an electronic ID card which they swipe when they come to the synagogue. At the time when decisions are reached about who will have authority alongside the rabbi, the votes of those who have participated most in the life of the synagogue carry more “weight”. This is a good example of people who participate the most within a community having more power/influence/authority.
Gurdwara committees are usually populated by successful businesspeople (invariably males) and not gianis (people with spiritual knowledge), granthis or parcharaks. This system has a negative impact on the the way Sikhism is taught and transmitted to the next generation. For example, the committee might want to expand existing buildings, hire more employees and/or have more akhand paaths (uninterrupted, continuous readings of the Guru Granth Sahib from the beginning to the end) for which they can charge the sangat. This might make sense to an ambitious businessperson, but not to an educator or a religious expert. While these things are, in some respects, very good, focusing on them might be misguided. During paid-for akhand paaths , the average Sikh cannot understand what is said and is therefore not learning from them. Most of the young people aren’t engaged in the all-Punjabi katha (explanations, reflections) and can therefore be found playing on their phones instead. Most Sikhs don’t know what they are doing when they undertake the lavan (wedding ceremony) or what it signifies. Consequently, most people aren’t helped by having a big gurdwara in which more akhand paaths take place. Such things might seem impressive to a businessperson who can then boast about them. However, what about the spirit of the sangat? What about young people’s understanding about the gurbani?
Many older Sikhs point out that the average Sikh today can’t tell you what the Mool Mantra (the opening section of the Guru Granth Sahib, which describes/summarises the nature/character of God) means or explain the fundamentals of the religion. Consequently, the Sikh community is not using the gurdwara as a learning institution. Moreover, there are usually no resources at a gurdwara for people who want to learn about the religion. There is rarely a library or a bookshop to get books if you want to read more.
What is needed most is engaging katha in English to get the younger people inspired by Sikhism. This is the recommendation of a grassroots parcharak.
We need a dramatic shift in focus. We should focus more on educating and inspiring the young. We should invest in libraries and learning resources, train kathavachaks and start educational programmes. Gurdwara committees have a big responsibility to make this happen because, at the present time, they have the most power.