Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

On Vaisakhi, making the spiritual and long ago immediate and personal

People visit the illuminated Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine on the occasion of Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year, in Amritsar, India, Tuesday, April 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

(RNS) — For centuries now, Punjabis have marked the spring harvest with the celebration of Vaisakhi, and for the past 300 or so years, the holiday has also carried special significance for Sikhs. It was on April 14, 1699, that Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, called his devotees to Anandpur Sahib, in far northern India, to formalize the community of initiated Sikhs, the Khalsa Panth.

This new order has, since its founding, served as the authoritative religio-political body for the broader Sikh community. Sikhs regard the Khalsa Panth as sharing a permanent status of authority with the faith’s scriptural text, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Vaisakhi isn’t exactly a Sikh “holiday,” as Sikhs don’t consider any particular moment in time to be uniquely sacred. But it is one of the most significant days of the Sikh calendar. Every year, Sikhs from all around the world gather on this day to celebrate the historic occasion and reflect on key lessons that Guru Gobind Singh imparted.

Remembering and celebrating historical events can be tough, especially when they appear so far away in our rear-view mirrors. Sometimes, reflecting on the past leaves us feeling less connected rather than more connected.

And yes, I confess to being guilty of this feeling, despite having been trained as a historian.

In the same way, I find myself struggling to connect, temporally, with America’s slaveholding history, which began 400 years ago this year with the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. I know slavery was legal and active just 150 years ago and that the legacy of slavery and the disenfranchisement of black Americans remains alive and well today. At the same time, the very concept of slavery being generally acceptable remains so foreign to me that I have a hard time connecting to it as a real thing.

We all carry disconnects like these, and it is important that we wake ourselves up for two reasons in particular: First, we are all products of our historical contexts. We can never fully know who we are without understanding the conditions that have led us to this present moment. Second, connecting with our past can help prevent us from certain pitfalls and lead us toward progress.

As the old saying goes, those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

But I have learned from teaching history that it comes alive for most people when they feel touched by it personally. This works differently for different people. For me, I connect most with ideas — wisdom that applies to times in the past as much as it does with my own life.

This year has been good to me. My wife gave birth to our second daughter, and both of our baby girls are healthy, happy, and delightful.

At the same time, I would describe this year as the most challenging of my life, requiring intense and immersive introspection, a serious revisiting of goals and expectations, and a healthy dose of being vulnerable to criticism.

It’s been a humbling year, to say the least, so it probably makes sense that this Vaisakhi, I am drawn toward the theme of humility.

Now more than ever I am reflecting on the remarkable humility Guru Gobind Singh embodied in Anandpur Sahib that day.

Sikh tradition recalls that Guru Gobind Singh, the ultimate authority for the Sikhs, stood before the massive crowd of devotees and announced that the five who had shown unwavering commitment would be known as the Panj Piyaaray, or Five Beloved Ones. He and his wife, Mata Sahib Kaur, then prepared ammrit by mixing water with sugar. Guru Gobind Singh then administered the ammrit to the Panj Piyaaray as they kneeled before him. Through this ceremony these five Sikhs became the first members of the Guru Khalsa Panth.

After this initiation, Guru Gobind Singh, the man Sikhs referred to as the King of all Kings, kneeled before the Panj Piyaaray and requested that they administer ammrit to him. They were taken aback that their guru would show them such deference.

And who wouldn’t be? It’s a remarkable display of humility, rooted in the Sikh convictions of equality and service. Contemporary writings describe this as part of the 10th guru’s character: “Amazing, amazing is Gobind Singh. He is the guru and the servant (vahu vahu gobind singh aapay gur chela).”

In today’s parlance, we might describe this as servant-leadership, a popular model that proposes the most effective and beloved leaders are those who approach their work as service. Nothing we do should be rooted in ego or even self-promotion. Everything we do should be in service of the mission — and the mission itself is the service.

We live in a time now when the costs of self-interest and self-service are as apparent as ever. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is larger than at any other point in human history. Tribalism is contributing to the rise of virulent ethno-nationalism all over the world. And our cultural obsession with signaling virtues publicly to score social points has produced a situation where we can’t admit even the possibility that we might be wrong.

Our self-centeredness is the source of immeasurable suffering — of both our own and those around us.

How can we be better? I’m still trying to find those answers. About 10 years ago, a single sentence from the British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis helped me better understand this concept: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

For many of us, this means doing what we typically identify as service — feeding the hungry or cleaning up parks. Those are good, of course. But we need to expand our concept of service to let it enter into our daily lives — a sustained, daily, and intentional practice of service, the kind that will enable us to become less obsessed with our own selves or more concerned with those around us.

Humility. Leadership as service. Kneeling before those whom we wish to serve. That’s what I’m reflecting on this Vaisakhi, hoping to make that far-off moment a reality today.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

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