Sunday, January 8, 2012

Unity or Uniformity - What Do We Really Seek?

This is a video of a wide-ranging, passionate and insightful speech elaborating the concept of Gurduara (Dharamsal).  I highly recommend it.  Kindly watch the video prior to reading my comments below.

Reviving the Gurduara from Sikh Research Institute on Vimeo.
Overall, I find great resonance with these views and have for years advocated for much the same.  But it does not serve learning to simply voice agreement.  Therefore, I shall share some concerns that arose during this impressive speech by Harinder Singh of Sikh Research Institute.  The comments below are not necessarily a criticism of his speech, rather it is a consideration of our propensities vis-a-vis collective action and progress.

First and foremost is the all-too-common problem of imposing uniformity (Nishan Sahib ~26th min. of the video).  Harinder Singh asks us if a Nazi supporter would be allowed to speak from a Jewish stage, suggesting that, similarly, no purported defender of the Indian state should be allowed to speak from the stage of any Gurduara.  He contends that a Nishan Sahib represents that the institution is run under Guru Nanak’s system or the Guru’s rule, and not under the rule of any individual, or family, etc.

I agree with Harinder Singh's views on Nishan Sahib but not its implications.  In fact, I surmise that his implied selection, actually exclusion, directly contributes to  the problem - that our Gurduare are pakke (strong), while Sikhs are kachche (weak).  It is so with good reason.

No one really claims that Gurduare should be run under a system contrary to Guru Nanak's.  The problem is that people have divergent opinions about what Guru’s rule or Guru Nanak’s system implies.  But, more importantly, this problem is compounded when one seeks to silence dissenting views and to impose one’s view on others and, failing that, to exclude them for non-compliance.
For instance, hardly any voices seek to support Nazis or their genocidal policies.  But using the labels of "self-hating Jew" or "anti-Israel", etc. blind supporters of Israel (and of Israeli dominance of Palestine, illegal settlements' land-grab, etc.) have assailed and worked to silence dissenting and courageous Jewish voices of Norman Finkelstein, Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky, etc.  Finkelstein had exposed the very influential Joan Peters "From Time Immemorial" as a hoax, and has since been assailed by the likes of Alan Dershowitz and the ADL for his criticism of Israeli heavy-handedness, up to losing his job and bid for tenure at DePaul University.  Both Chomsky and Finkelstein are rarely provided "Jewish" platforms, and for their out-of-the-mainstream views to be heard one has to seek alternative media like Democracy Now!

So, is the discussion regarding the merits and demerits of Israeli policies towards Palestinians, the security of both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as U.S. foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, better served because these voices are rarely heard from Jewish platforms?  I would suggest that since an overwhelming amount of unapologetic American support for Israel, facts notwithstanding, arises from the Jewish-American community (where there is much less diversity of opinion regarding Israel, and dissenting views are tolerated far less than they are in Israel, where there is healthy debate), this debate would be best served if dissenting Jewish voices were able to consistently engage the Jewish-American community, which also happens to otherwise be among the most educated and progressive.  Labels are, therefore, reductive and do not inform us in a meaningful way.  And barring dissenting views is actually harmful to a robust understanding of issues of global import.

Similarly, pretty much everywhere I look, there is near-unanimous support for Unity along with an attendant demand for Uniformity.  How many intelligent people of influence peddle disunity?  Yet, most calls for unity are offered as inflexible positions and with contempt for “compromise” (which is really nothing more than a commitment to find a solution that will allow divergent views to unite, even if neither's preference is fully met).

Uniformity is to demand the same and to be invariable, while Unity is to act in concert, to come together while remaining free.  The two are not the same.  In fact, uniformity entails a loss of sovereignty.

I am sure that most would agree that they are for everyone having the right to express their views and to be free to disagree with each other; and, in a Sikh context, that a Gurduara is a place of learning.  Yet, when Harinder Singh emotes and raises his ire at supporters of the Indian government being allowed to speak at a Gurduara is he, albeit unintentionally, infringing upon our collective chance to learn (from a wider discussion) by limiting the scope of discussion to what is "permissible"?
Qualitatively, this approach is hardly distinct from the current Gurduara sevadars disallowing speech that challenges their positions or beliefs.  Although, Harinder Singh finds the behavior of the latter unhelpful in allowing the Gurduara to function as a center of learning, I hope that he isn't advocating for the same by wishing to control who can (or should) speak and what one can (or should) say within this “center of learning”.

The willfully blind ambition of seeking uniformity arises from a faulty assumption that one’s own (or group’s) understanding (read belief) is the only right one.  It is analogous to saying that one’s views are the true interpretation (of the Guru’s teachings, and the Way-To-Be), and that the rest of the so-called Sikhs simply need to come to that realization.  According to this view there is no room for dissenting voices.  Positions contrary to one’s own are routinely termed dangerous and an attack on one’s very existence.  There is a desire for one’s own interpretation to be hegemonic (imperial dominance over sub-ordinates).  Isn’t that the common theme in so many Gurduare today?  So, in fact, this uniformity does not offer a way out.  Rather, it just reinforces the status quo.

A way out of the current dilemma is possible by encouraging wide-ranging discussions and debates in every Gurduara.  If a Gurduara is to function as a place of learning, and not as a mere center of indoctrination, then diversity of views should be welcomed.  And especially those that make us uncomfortable.  When we meaningfully consider views that are very different from our own, we increase the likelihood of rising above and operating from a larger, and more inclusive, perspective.  This inclusion is essential for Unity.  By contrast, exclusion (which appears to be implied by Harinder Singh while discussing Nishan Sahib) leads to disunity.

Exclusions, even though clothed as reasonable propositions are a covert desire for uniformity.  Uniformity inspires willful blindness.  It leads us to ignore the obvious at our peril.  Uniformity infringes upon individual sovereignty (that each individual has value and is free to choose the course of his/her life).  Uniformity closes the door and is a product of myopia (lack of discernment or long-range perspective in planning).  Uniformity, I submit, is not a value that emerges from Gurmat (the universal principles - Satgur - and the Guru Granth).

Unity, on the other hand, is very desirable and achievable by being open to a wide diversity of views, and by allowing ourselves to learn, even though we may be uncomfortable by the dissonance they cause.  If we are to err, then it should be towards more openness.  If there is something to renounce, then it is surely our propensity to be right.  And if we are to stop something, then let us stop giving only part of our attention to views that we reject offhand.  Our energy and focus, if it is total and we are present to What Is So (and not our story about what we think it is), then we shall have understood the steps (Paurhi) on Listening (Sunai) and Deriving Value (Manai) in Jap(u) ji.  That, to me, is the Way of Nanak.


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  3. Izhaarbir Singh ji,

    Thank you for your taking the time to engage. I disagree with your take on censorship as a value derived from Gurmat.

    First, if I choose to give a speech or to write a book I will obviously decide what to say and what not to say, and I will endorse some and disagree with other ideas. However, that is in no way equivalent to my preventing an individual, with whom I disagree, from speaking/writing. The former is my sovereignty in action and my shunning the latter is born from my respect for another's sovereignty. That is on an individual level.

    On a larger note, a center of learning is a marketplace of ideas. The best way is to allow ideas to flow and if they cannot stand, then they will fall or be accepted in modified form, etc. But it is critical to have open debate where nothing is off limits.

    Second, Guru Sahib's insertions in Bhagat Kabir's or another's Bani is not an act of censorship. It is to bring clarity, and done to prevent the reader from misunderstanding the Gur. Again, censorship connotes control or suppression of the behavior of others, usually on moral grounds. By definition, control or suppression is against individual sovereignty and devalues the individual. Therefore, it is fundamentally inimical to Gurmat.

    Gurmat is about breaking bonds of external control. And the purpose of SatSangat is to engage each other; it is to be unattached to our little sense of self, and when faced with the opportunity, to identify with a universal principle (SatGur).

    When discussing, it is fruitful to engage the idea, and not to allow our opinion about the individual (espousing the idea) to devalue the idea. It does not matter who the person is. The idea must stand on its own, if we seek to benefit from the engagement. If I simply dismiss the individual and his/her ideas offhand because I have labeled him/her a Murakh, then at that moment it is I who is being a Murakh.

    In fact, you have misunderstood censorship and related it with Gurmat; also, you have misunderstood the part of the Paurhi (you have quoted) related to Murakh. Let me explain it via a couple of examples.

    Back in the 1990s, Kuldip Nayar spoke at the Sikh Religious Society of Chicago in, what would be construed as a, defense of the Gov't of India's actions. Mind you, he was not barred from speaking. But in response to his speech, Dr. Amarjit Singh from DC took the stage and made an extemporaneous case on behalf of Sikhs, in a response to Nayar. His speech was powerful and blew people away. The marketplace of ideas was in session and Dr. Amarjit Singh's ideas had a great impact.

    Please note that one reason that speech was so powerful was because it was in response to Nayar's. In the absence of Nayar, that same speech would not be nearly as powerful. In fact, I have heard similar speeches year after year, and it is an individual preaching to the choir.

    Another example of censorship is the case of Prof. Darshan Singh Khalsa, an individual with a wealth of knowledge and value for Sikhs worldwide. How has the Panth been served ever since he has been barred from taking the stage in Gurduare across the world?

    Do you see now that the problem is who decides whether someone is a Murakh or a Manmukh or anti-Panth? And these decisions can be very harmful to the Panth, because they limit the marketplace of ideas.

    …continued below

  4. Facing the reality of the Gurduare and Sikh institutions across the world, and raising one’s voice to combat censorship and narrow-mindedness is not Dhaindi Kala. Let us deal with the world As It Is, if we wish to address the issues of oppression and domination. More importantly, pretending that the issue does not exist should never be confused with Charhdi Kala.

    Lastly, Murakh is a person who is inflexible, inconsiderate and holds fast to his/her notions (usually borrowed). In Panjabi, a Murakh is one who puts his/her mouth before good sense. Guru Sahib is advising that we not get into a protracted struggle trying to convince an inflexible and inconsiderate "believer". Lujhai is to be stuck and invested in changing this person's mind. That regularly proves futile.

    So, what is the problem? Time!

    No one is a Murakh as a permanent state of being. Whatever we are, we are so in the moment. And in the next moment we may be different. This is one of the implications of Akal.

    We are to live in the now, and not in the past or the future. In fact, that is the only time in which one can truly live. But our commitment to live anywhere but in the here and now consistently leads us to trouble.

    So, barring someone because they are a Murakh is an assumption. It is prevention and not preemption.

    Please note the difference. Preemption arises from a guarantee or known fact, while prevention is an assumption and an oppressive act. To assume that we know another is to live in the past and to shut our mind to the possibility of another's transformation in the only time there is - now.

    Furthermore, to act to prevent another from expressing their views or to bar them because we disagree with them is to ratchet up our unreality. It is actually unfair and analogous with Dhaindi Kala. Don't you think?

    In fact, it is akin to putting our mouth before good sense, which would make the preventer the Murakh. A'int that a mess?