Where Unity Is Strength
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I would first like to thank the MoD for hosting this second Vaisakhi Conference, and Secretary of State for Defence Rt. Hon Michael Fallon and other guests for their kindness on joining us to celebrate one of the most important days in the Sikh calendar.

Vaisakhi, marks the first day of spring in northern India. It’s a time of new hopes and new beginnings; celebrated with colourful processions, fairs and sporting contests.

For Sikhs, Vaisakhi has an added and deeper significance. It was the day chosen by our 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, to give Sikhs a distinct identity, symbolised by the turban and symbols of our faith. The question arises, why did the Guru, who taught the equality of all human beings, deliberately choose to make Sikhs distinctive and recognisable?

For the answer, we have to go back to a cold winter’s day in 1675, when the 9th Guru, Guru Teg Bahadhur, was publicly beheaded in Delhi by the Mughal rulers, for defending the right of the Hindu community, not his own religion, but that of others, to worship in the manner of its choice. It was a unique martyrdom for the cause of religious freedom for all. It was Voltaire who said, ‘I may not believe in what you say; but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Nearly a century earlier Guru Teg Bahadhur gave that noble sentiment brave and practical utterance.

Following the beheading, the Mughal rulers challenged the followers of the Guru, to come forward to claim their master’s body. But Sikhs, who then had no distinguishing appearance, hesitated to do so. As we celebrate the Christian festival of Easter, we see a striking parallel with a key moment in Christianity with Peter’s denial that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, at the time of Jesus Christ’s martyrdom.

The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, thought long and hard about the momentary lapse of courage at the time of his father’s martyrdom. It was on the spring festival of Vaisakhi in 1699, that he decided to put the community to the test. Amidst all the fun and celebration, the Guru, suddenly emerged from a tent, sword in hand, and asked for volunteers who would be ready to give their lives there and then, for Sikh principles.

The crowed was hushed to silence fearing anyone who came forward might be harmed. A brave Sikh made his way to the Guru’s tent. Others followed.

After the fifth Sikh, had gone into the tent in response to the Guru’s challenge, the Guru again emerged from the tent, sword in hand. This time however, he was not alone. To the joy and relief of the crowd, the Guru was followed by all five Sikhs, wearing the five symbols of Sikhism, the most prominent of which is neat and uncut hair covered with a smart turban.

The Guru gave the five Sikhs Amrit (blessing and confirmation in the new Khalsa community), and said that in future, all male Sikhs would take the common name Singh, literally lion, as a reminder of the need for courage. At the same time, he declared that all female Sikhs would take the name or title ‘Kaur’, literally ‘princess’, as a reminder of the dignity and complete equality of women first taught by Guru Nanak. Guru Gobind Singh then did an extraordinary thing. He asked the first five members of the Khalsa, now known as the ‘panj piare’, to give him amrit. In a remarkable exercise in humility, master and disciple were now one.

The Guru was now confident that the infant Sikh community could now survive and flourish without a living Guru. He added the writings of his father Guru Teg Bahadhur to the Guru Granth Sahib and declared ‘Guru Manio Granth’. That is that Sikhs should follow the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib as they would a living Guru.

Today, on this anniversary of that historic Vaisakhi, we need to consider the implications of the Guru’s injunction, Guru Manio Granth to life in the world of the 21st century.

In giving supremacy to the Holy Granth over all living leaders, Guru Gobind Singh warned us against false prophets who would try to distort the teachings of Sikhism to suit their own ends. Sadly, today, many Sikhs are chasing after people who are doing precisely this, and looking to superstitious short cuts to a supposed better afterlife, rather than to ethical living.

Guru Gobind Singh’s injunction, ‘Guru Manio Granth’, that is follow the teachings of the holy Granth as you would the founding Gurus, warns us against this distortion and dilution of Sikhism and the need to be true to the ethical teachings contained in our Holy Scriptures. It reminds us not to be passive in our belief, but be active in living true to the teachings. The message of Vaisakhi is that we must not only believe in the teachings, but also let these infuse into the pores of our very being and influence our action and reaction to the world about us, at all times.

In short it’s not enough to simply believe in teachings on equality, religious tolerance and social and political justice as worthy ideals. The message of Vaisakhi is that we must make the furtherance of these ideals the central goal of our lives. We must work together to ensure that the light of the Guru’s teachings reach the furthest corners of our troubled world.

Sikh teachings on human rights have much to offer to a world that has clearly lost its sense of direction. A world in which greed and profit are put before human rights; a world which daily reports of neglect of vulnerable youngster and the frail elderly; a world in which members of the so-called Security Council supply more than 80% of the means of killing in a world awash with arms; weaponry all too easily available to cruel and arrogant leaders. I could go on.

In the past, in India as well as in Europe, religious leaders often amassed power and wealth for themselves, ignoring the need for fairness and justice in society while telling the poor and suffering about promised rewards in heaven. Secular society has gone the other way, arguing that religion should be a private affair and not be allowed to interfere in a materialistic pursuit of wealth and happiness in its blind pursuit of a better life, not in the hereafter, but here and now; and the result is again, power and wealth for some and suffering and cruel hardship for others.

I’ve spent some time in building and construction, but it doesn’t need a construction qualification to understand that that a structure build on inadequate foundations will inevitably suffer damage. Similarly, a blind pursuit of material happiness that ignores the need for the ethical underpinning of society, inevitably results in the cracks in society that we see today.

True ethical underpinning means that human rights, gender equality and concern for others must predicate all we do. They should not subservient to trade and the pursuit of power and privilege as they were a century ago and still are in many parts of the world. Vaisakhi reminds us, that it is the duty of us all to demolish this divide between religious teachings and secular living.

At the same time, Sikhs are duty bound to break down the artificial barriers of superiority and exclusiveness between different faiths and show commonalities far greater and more important than supposed differences.

The task of moving society to more responsible living is not an easy one. It requires the dedication and total commitment inherent in the message of Vaisakhi.

Lord Singh’s talk at the Ministry of Defence on 19 April 2017

 

Vaisakhi 1699, the Birth of the Khalsa, inaugurated by Sikhism's 10th Guru, Gobind Singh

Vaisakhi 1699, the Birth of the Khalsa, inaugurated by Sikhism’s 10th Guru, Gobind Singh

Full Speech given by Lord Singh of Wimbedon at MoD Vaisakhi reception (13-04-16)

I would like to start by thanking the MoD for hosting us in this august and historic building, and to Mandeep Kaur, our Sikh chaplain to the armed services for her hard work organising the function.

Vaisakhi is a traditional spring festival in northern India celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest, and, like spring festivals everywhere, a time for new beginnings. Appropriately, the spring festival of Vaisakhi was chosen by Guru Gobind Singh to formalise Sikhs as a community of equals, ready to stand on its own without the guidance of further living Gurus. History records that on that historic Vaisakhi day in 1699 he tested the resolve of Sikhs, to stand up and be counted and be ready to give their all upholding the egalitarian teachings of Sikhism, no matter how daunting the challenge.

To his delight, Sikhs proved equal to the challenge. It was then that he gave us a distinctive identity to tie to us to a public commitment to live by, and if necessary die for, Sikh values which are universal values of selfless and responsible behaviour, codified more than 500 years ago; values that the West now call British values or European values. These are: a belief in the equality of all human beings, including the dignity and full equality of women; putting the concerns of others before our own, selfless service and, importantly, standing up for rights of all faiths and beliefs to live true to their own way of life

Today, many question the need for a visible identity? It’s divisive, why cannot you simply live by the principles of your faith; without a distinct identity? It is a question that is best answered by a question. Why do the clerics, members of the Salvation Army or members of the armed services have a distinctive identity or uniform? The reason is that the dress or uniform reminds us and others, of a code of behaviour to which we are expected to adhere, and hopefully deters us from behaviour that might bring the uniform into disgrace.

On Sunday, the BBC will be discussing the importance of the turban for Sikhs. A researcher asked me if we wear the turban and other Sikh symbols to please God. I replied, that God, the creator of all that exists, is not the least bothered by what we wear; it’s what we do and how we behave that is important. The Sikh turban does not in itself make us better people but it does tie us to ideals that benefit both ourselves and wider humanity. By the same token it’s important to emphasise, that dress codes rooted in culture that demeans women or suggest inherent superiority of a particular faith are worse than useless

We have recently been commemorating Easter, the time of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ, when Peter, one of his closest disciples, fearful for his own life thrice denied his association with Christ. A similar episode took place in Sikh history when our 9th Guru, Guru Teg Bahadhur, was tortured and publically beheaded for standing up for the right of the Hindu community to worship in the manner of their choice. It was a martyrdom unique in religious history. The philosopher Voltaire famously wrote

‘I may not believe in what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Nearly a century before Voltaire, Guru Teg Bahadhur gave that noble sentiment courageous utterance, by standing up for the rights of the Hindu community; those of a different faith to his own.

The Mughal rulers challenged Sikhs in the crowd (who then had no distinguishing appearance) to come forward and claim their master’s body. Sikhs, cowed by fear hesitated to do so and the body was removed by stealth, itself an incredibly brave action. It was this incident that years later, led The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh to resolve that in future, those who called themselves Sikhs must be ready to meet the most daunting of challenges.

Sikhs are not alone in such commitment. All of our faiths remind us to put principles before expediency. It is not always easy to stand up for basic human rights against cruel authority, but, I believe this is the true role of religion. As a Christian hymn reminds us:

Though the cause of evil prosper yet tis truth alone that’s strong.

Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong.

The hymn also reminds us that despite difficulties, with true commitment and faith, each one of us can all help turn what is described as ‘the iron helm of fate’.

We are all unique individuals confronted with varying ethical challenges in the course of our life, and with and opportunities to make a difference and work for a fairer world.

A tiny personal example. I grew up in England and first went to India in the early 60s as a newly qualified mining engineer. At the time, all States in India were allowed to have their own regional language except Punjab, where Punjabi the language of the Sikh scriptures was being replaced by Hindi.

Sikhs were angry and upset by this deliberate discrimination, but had no media voice. I thought that this was unfair—worse, not a British or Sikh view of fairness! I knew a letter in the national dallies from a Sikh would never get published, so I took on the name of a pompous neighbour in England, Victor Pendry. A legacy of Raj deference ensured that my highly critical letter was published in a national daily, causing a stir in the Sikh community. My wife knew of Mr Pendry before she ever met me. A letter supposedly from my old Head, Sylvanous Jones followed supporting Mr Pendry. Using a telephone directory, in my first interfaith initiative, letters from Hindus and Muslims rapidly followed drawing attention to the injustice against the Sikhs.

The point of the story is that in different ways, we can all make a difference by standing up to political injustice, or perhaps in combatting bulling at school or the office or workplace, and in a constant striving for greater social or political justice.

And there is much to do. Today materialistic secular society has pushed religion to the margins of society as irrelevant. In a debate in the Lords, a member commented ’religion is out of step with society’. I responded that to me, it was like someone saying ‘my satnav is not following my directions’. Religion is often blamed as a cause of conflict. It is not. It is the misuse of religious sentiment to promote irreligious ends. Religions are ethical satnavs to lead to an understanding of right, wrong and responsibility, while politicians are increasingly tempted to pander to our material desires in their attempt to win votes and allegiance.

It is not easy to go against this materialistic tide with its unthinking pursuit of individual happiness to the neglect of responsibility, but the message of Vaisakhi is that Sikhs have a duty to help move society to towards more ethical or gurmukh living.

Sikh teachings suggest that that we all fall into one of three groups, distributed in a bell shaped curve, which statistician s call a normal distribution. Physical attributes like height and weight all fall into such a distribution. It’s the same with ethical or moral behaviour. At one extreme there are the mamukhs, those who selfishly only think of themselves and are prepared to lie and cheat and even kill to achieve their ends. Then there are those in the greater middle of the curve or distribution; peacefully trying to lead their lives, but rarely looking beyond themselves, and then a smaller group, the gurmukhs, selflessly trying to make the world a better place.

The challenge of Vaisakhi is for us to resolve not only to move ourselves in this gurmukh or godly direction, but to be ready to take a stand to work towards the improvement of society as a whole. In life we all get different challenges and opportunities to make a difference. As the poet Emily Dickinson reminds us:

You cannot choose your battlefields

That God does for you,

But you can plant a standard, where a standard never flew

Our Gurus required us to go beyond lip service to Sikh teachings, and to live those teachings, taking an individual as well as a collective stand injustice against any individual or group. We can all make a difference. The message of Vaisakhi is to remind us of our potential, duty and responsibility to work for the improvement of society by working for a fairer and more peaceful world. It is an uplifting message that should determine our action and reaction to the world about us.

 

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