Monday, August 21, 2006

On Sikhism

Sikhism is an organized religion predominant in the state of Punjab in India. It is an offshoot of radical Hinduism and mystic Sufi traditions pravelent during the fifteenth century onwards.

Sikhism is thought to have started from the teachings of an Indian mystic, Nanak Bedi (circa 1469). Many saints in that period taught against the institutionalization of the Hindu religion and against the hegemony of the priestly classes which divided people based on caste, profession, etc. In orthodox Hinduism, the role and the place in the social ladder of a person is strictly determined by his profession and his caste (which in many cases is also based on race). Orthodox Hindus of that period also had an elaborate priestly class (membership to whcih was obviously restricted by race, caste or lineage) which wanted to maintain its power and control over people.

Spiritual and mystic saints of that period, who had no agenda to divide people, rebelled against these aspects of society. They saw the corruption that institutionalized religions lead to and propagated a message of equality, of personal effort and devotion, of the importance of individual experience, and of the authority of an experienced teacher rather than of books, idols, pilgrimages or rituals.

Most saints of that period were born in orthodox Hindu and Muslim families. Many of them, after having mystical experiences, rejected the lies being perpeterated by the religious and political rulers of that time. They formed a close group of disciples which carried on their traditions. Due to their egalitarian outlook, many people from the working classes converted to their teachings.

One of these mystics, Nanak Bedi (who is reverentially called Guru Nanak Dev) daringly rebelled against the prevailing rituals and exhorted his disciples to chant the God's name to have a mystical experience instead of following any rituals or priests. There were many contemporaries of Nanak who gave the same message but in his case, a lineage started. From his close disciples, Nanak appointed a successor to carry on his message.

The second teacher, Lehna (known after his appointment as Guru Angad Dev) carried on Nanak's message and stressed on divinity within a household existence (instead of the prevailing custom of leaving home and family for the life of a hermit).

Lehna appointed the paternal uncle of his son-in-law, Amar Das Bhalla as the third guru. Amar Das was again born in a Hindu family and regularly went for pilgrimages to Haridwar and Jwalamukhi. He was however, radical in his outlook and gave a message of social and gender equality and the abolition of cruel customs like Sati.

Amar Das nominated his son-in-law, Ram Das Sodhi, as the fourth Guru.

Ram Das, at the end of his life, nominated his youngest son, Arjun Sodhi (reverentially called Guru Arjun Dev) as the fifth Guru. Arjun Sodhi compiled the writings of many mystics including the first four Gurus and his own, into a combined text called the "Adi Granth". Apart from establishing a scriptural text, he put in place many other ritual and institutional measures amongst his disciples: Establishing a holy shrine in Amritsar (now known as the Golden Temple), authoring of prayers to be recited regularly at certain times of the day, founding of the towns of Tarn Taran, Kartarpur and Hargobindpur (the last named after his son), establishing an organizational structure of masands (authorized teachers), etc.

These measures, and some other political acts (such as helping the King's detractors) were justifiably seen as the formation of another political power center and the Guru was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Mughal King Jehangir.

Before he died, Arjun Dev, nominated his son Hargobind (aged only eleven) as the sixth Guru and exhorted him to start forming an army against the regime. Hargobind Sodhi established the Sikh seat of power, the Akal Takht. He also started behaving like a regular king with a court, royal regalia, etc. Due to his miltiary overtures and some petty squabbles with the Mughal King, he was imprisoned many times and fought many battles.

Hargobind Sodhi formed the distinct identity of Sikhs as a warrior class. He had four sons. The eldest of them, Gurditta Sodhi, died when he was 24. As was common in patriarchy at that time, the eldest son used to be the successor of a King. If he is dead, then either the next eldest son or one of the grandsons from the eldest sons are the next candidates. Hargobind called the eldest son of Gurditta, Dhir Mal, to receive the succession but Dhir Mal did not come. The throne thus passed to the second son of Gurditta, Har Rai Sodhi (who was fourteen then).

Har Rai Sodhi continued to wield temporal power over the disciples and subjects. When time came to name his successor, his eldest son, Ram Rai Sodhi, disappointed him and he nominated his younger son (or the younger son was implicitly nominated after his fathers' death), Harkishan Sodhi (then only five years old) to be the next King. However, Harkishan died of smallpox when he was only eight years old.

Various stories abound as to how the ninth Guru was chosen but the fact that Teg Bahadur was a son of the sixth Guru, Hargobind had an obvious bearing on the matter. He was appointed the ninth Guru amidst much squabbling.

Aurangzeb, the last Mughal King, wanted the Kashmiri Pandits to convert to the Muslim faith. Teg Bahadur helped the Pandits keep their faith (he challenged Aurangzeb to convert him first) and infuriated Aurangzeb. He was tortured and killed by Aurangzeb. He had nominated his son Gobind Rai Sodhi to be the tenth Guru and King.

Gobind Rai was only nine years old when he became the Guru. He was a poet as well as a warrior and fought many guerrila battles with Aurangzeb's army. He had three wives, Jeeto, Sundri and Sahib Kaur (the third one is debated). He had four sons, all of whom died in his conflicts with Aurangzeb. (Polygamy was common amongst the powerful at that time. Guru Hargobind had three wives, Guru Har Rai had seven.)

Guru Gobind Rai instituted the baptising ceremony of Sikhs, gave them a distinct identity of being turbaned with long hair and beards, and instituted many other rules and rituals (giving every Sikh man and woman the last name of Singh and Kaur, respectively).

It is not clear what happened after his death, but since there found to be no worthy successors (or maybe there were too many fights going on for the title), the holy book compiled by the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev, was made (by whom? we don't know) the perpetual Guru for the Sikh community. Sikhs consider it to be their only teacher and it is accorded the status of a living person (e.g. it is covered with blankets and quilts on a winter night, is protected from dust and flies and is always kept under cover and on a mattress).


Well, Sikhs had come full circle. From rebelling against priests, power centers, shrines and holy books, they had all these of their own now.

The drive for mystical salvation had become a social, political and military movement. The focus shifted completely from salvation to social justice, which if required, had to be achieved by violence and torture. Banda Bahadur, one of the commanders of Gobind Singh, was a cruel marauder who burnt down Muslim villages and had his army rape and pillage the Muslims.

Today Sikhism is just another organized religion, with its own scriptures, rituals, temples, places of pilgrimage, code of conduct, division between Sikhs and non-Sikhs, a distinct identity, a corrupt priest class, huge donations at the altars for worldly gains, and so on.

Sikhs used to be easily identifiable by their turbans and full flowing beards, but as more and more youngsters are giving up the custom of keeping long hair and the tying of turbans, they are becoming more homogenized in the world (which is a good thing: separate group identities do nothing but promote hatred and bloodshed).

Most so-called true Sikhs protest this seeming devolution of Sikhism (which has been happening right from the time of the Gurus, but is thought to have started when the control of the Sikh temples went to the Akali Dal in the 1970s. Akali Dal is a political party in Punjab which claims to be the representative of the Sikhs.) and want the corrupt priests to be ousted and non-political people to, ironically, occupy the seats of power (forgetting that the fight for power is the exact definition of politics).

There are endless debates about the works of the tenth Guru (called the Dasam Granth) and whether Dasam Granth should be accorded the same status as that of the Adi Granth, whether sick people should be allowed to sit on chairs in Sikh temples, whether one should recite the whole book non-stop oneself or get it recited by paying somebody and reaping the blessings of the Gurus, whether the five rules established by the tenth Guru for having a "fully baptised Sikh" are to be considered still valid or not, and so on...

Nobody looks at the history of the Sikh Gurus, sees the obvious change from a spiritual sect based on the mystical experiences to that of a crass political movement in which the throne was kept within the family, even at the expense of making a five-year old a King, at the non-radical nature of the Gurus' *spiritual teachings* (everybody praises the radical socio-economic doctrine of equality and fraternity but nobody pays attention to what the Gurus said as far as spiritual guidance is concerned).

The basic tenets of Sikh spirituality are as orthodox as that of any other Indian religion: A timeless, formless, eternal God. Rebirth, reincarnation, sins and pieties, singing of hymns and asking for blessings and forgiveness, chanting and reading the holy book as the principle spiritual practices, protesting pedantry and pretensions, having a moral code of conduct, hagiography and miracle tails about the Gurus, intolerance of any criticism, the concepts of baptising, blasphemy, of being an apostate and a fallen Sikh, of holy water and holy baths, ...

And like every other religion, Sikhs claim to have the best religion around.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Quips on Indian Traffic

Most traffic lights don't really work. And even if they do, you better watch out.

There are no standards for road signs or for lane markings or the color or the markers. Sometimes lanes are divided by yellow lines, sometimes they are white. Sometimes they are solid white, sometimes the two sides of the road are divided by double yellow lines, sometimes just a single yellow, and so on...

There are no stop signs in India. There are speed-breakers (otherwise known as bumps) instead, at the most unexpected of places on a highway or on a road. speed breakers take various forms. The simplest one is just a huge bump. Another is a series of small bumps. Then there are small protruding discs or cubes(dozens of them) covering about a meter length of the road surface.

Lane discipline and lane markings, are non-existent. Lanes can only work in a nominally homogenous traffic. In India, one will find, in the busiest of highways in the biggest of metros, everything from bullock carts to Mercedes S Class sedans. In most places, three cars will occupy two lanes. Suddenly the lane will disappear and two lanes will become one.

There are no turn lanes. So if you are in right lane, you might very well get stuck behind a car that is waiting to take a right turn on an intersection. So, most people wisely stick to the left lane, even if they have to drive fast. When they encounter a slow vehicle, they honk at it (if unable to just overtake it by moving into the right lane.) The slower vehicle might move to the left or the right, depending on the stars. If it goes to the right lane, it will continue in it till the next honk...

One cannot be expected to follow laws if everybody else around is breaking them with impunity. Traffic cops stop you for an offense and then let you off after a bribe. It is easier to pay a bribe than to go through the legal process. Bribery to get off the hook is injustice to the other so-called common men who are following the traffic laws.

Indian roads and road-signs are not designed to deter breaking of the law. They actually encourage it.

Honking in the west primarily means either "Wake up, move" or, "Hey, what are you doing asshole." Both are exceptional circumstances.

However, in India, honking is done as a matter of course, but contrary to what many think, honking is not a harmless phenomenon prevalent due to the Indian psyche. Frequent honking actually signifies the persistent breakdown in regulated traffic and can mean either of these things on an Indian road:

"Hey look, watch out. I am coming."
(People make sudden lane changes without noticing whether anybody is already in the other lane. People drive through red lights honking loudly.)

"I am overtaking you, notice me."
(In other words, "I know you are in your own world, but be careful, I am coming into the lane next to you, so continue in your own lane and let me pass.")

"Invisible people beware!"
(Badly designed intersections need honking so that at least a warning noise is there when visuals are impossible. It is for this reason that Enfield Bullet is the safest two wheeler on Indian roads. As its ads say, "People hear you before they see you." The thump of a 350cc single cylinder. Bravo!)

"Speed up." or "Give way."
(Since the horse-power of vehicles on an Indian road is anywhere from 0 to 300, there is every possibility that both the lanes on a road are filled with rickshaws or cows or beggars or people just having a fun time spitting or haggling with the fruit vendor.)

"The light is green. Why can't I move?"
(As soon as the light turns green, the patient Indian roadster who has five cars ahead of him can't seem to figure out why, with the light green, he is not zipping at the speed of 60kmph.)

One finds an utterly remarkable device in Indian cars these days. It is the reverse-gear beeper. As soon as the car is put in reverse gear, the car starts sounding loud beeps or melodies. Now why would one need such a device? Two reasons: Hubris on the part of the driver (why look back when he is sounding such a loud beep that everybody should get out of his way) and unawareness of one's surroundings on the part of the other creatures on the road (the road is their property, what is this car which is slowly moving to and fro and honking, well he's honking, so he must want to get somebody who is in front of the car out of the way. Ater all, how do they know that his honking is for them. Oh, it is the reverse honk. Okay, sorry buddy, moving away.)

Since fuel is so expensive, so one finds imaginative ways to save it. Cars running on domestic LPG cylinders. Cars and motorcycles going the wrong way because to take a U-turn further up the road would be really expensive.

High beams!! As soon as the sun sets, a thousand suns rise on the Indian roads. Most drivers are actually unaware that there is a setting called the "low beam" for the headlights. The road seems brighter with a high beam, very nice, so why not?

Now there are many reasons why driving with high beams is so common. Firstly, Indian roads are very badly designed and constructed with an uneven pavement and usually no white lines at the road boundary. It is pretty dangerous to drive at 60kmph with only a low beam when the road ahead might have potholes the size of a bunker. The farther one can see the road, the better.

Secondly, the attitude is, "I am in a hurry and my life is more important than yours. So I need to see the road and to hell with you. If you are blinded, well, too bad. Just wait till I get past you and then you can carry on."

On many trucks one will find the painted messages, "Horn Please" and "Use dipper at night." "Horn Please" is simple enough: It just means "Honk if you need to overtake."

The second message is slightly more complicated. There are various interpretations. According to one interpretation, it asks the reader to use a low beam at night. According to another, it means that instead of honking, one should toggle high beam and low beam at night to signal an oncoming vehicle or to request a vehicle in front to "give side" (to let one pass). The irony is that the message is written in English, which a very small percentage of Indians are going to understand.

And if for some strange reason you curse the driver or the road or anyone in general, you are reminded in no uncertain terms, "Buri Nazar Waale Tu Zeher Khaale!" ("You evil eyed one! Why? Take some poison.")