Wednesday, 5 June 2019

ku(REHAT)


As I stood before the Panj Pyare, they told me: “If you take Amrit, (1) You cannot remove your hair in any way. (2) You cannot smoke, take drugs, or drink alcohol. (3) Unless you have a husband, you must treat a man as either you father, brother, or son. (4) You cannot eat meat that is prepared in a way that the animal suffers.

For someone like me who was born into this lifestyle, I could have gone through life without shifting a single behaviour and still not have disobeyed those instructions. This stagnation makes me uncomfortable… because if being a Sikh means To Seek, then maybe the way I internalise the kurehat cannot remain locked in the past. My understanding of Baani is maturing, my appreciation of Kakaar is growing, my practice of Rehat is evolving, so why not that of the kurehat?

I wonder if we have gotten so stuck at the strict list of don’ts, that we have not looked further to ask of ourselves: what is Guru Gobind Singh really asking of us? What is happening in our world today that we can turn to these 4 kurehat for wisdom?

I'm now trying to reconnect with the kurehat not merely as puritanical abstinences, rather as sources of constant self-reflection, discomfort, and subsequent growth. The kurehat are, in a way, inspiring a new personal “rehat” for me.

This is probably a good time to mention that these are just reflections from my personal journey. I am not attempting to replace, rephrase, or rewrite what Guru’s actual instructions were. I am merely pushing myself to become better.

So here goes… my extrapolation of Guru’s hukam from 1699.


(1) My relationship with my BODY
[You cannot remove your hair in any way]

I AM AKAAL MOORAT.


I am sovereign. I choose to not be ruled by ever-shifting standards of beauty, especially the one first popularised by a 1915 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Because the Truth that I’m trying to live by predates magazines. And paper. And trees. And the Big Bang. And that’s where I’d like to take my cues from.

Akaal Moorat. I have been created in the image of the Divine. Before I can see “God” in all, first I need to see It in myself: what I see in the mirror is my first impression of the Divine. If I cannot accept that, then it is something I need to work on. I have been custom-made to best serve my life’s journey and purpose; I cannot think of a more empowering thought.

So there is hair, and then there is everything else. Since I am a physical manifestation of Ek Oangkaar, my conduct needs to reflect that. I need to behave consciously, to dress gracefully, to speak sweetly, to age lovingly. SO. DAMN. HARD.

This kurehat is teaching me about self-love and existing beyond transient and temporal barometers of physical appearance. It is giving me a way to look at myself as an expression of the Divine. With that intimidating ideal to live up to, hair seems like yesterday’s issue. Or maybe 1915s.


(2) My relationship with my MIND
[You cannot smoke, take drugs, or drink alcohol] 

I AM PRESENT.


I take responsibility for my thoughts, actions, and decisions. Anything that gives me short-lived injections of comfort, or short-term relief from anxiety, is unreliable. I cannot act in awareness if I’m intoxicated, so I need to protect myself from substances that dull my mind and senses.

So tobacco, drugs, or alcohol are not what’s on my mind… I’m thinking more along the lines of caffeine, chocolate, sugar, and social media. Can I function without these modern day enslavements? What is driving my moods?

Oh… and what about behavioural addictions that might affect my conduct? Can my radiant self really shine when I’m angry? What attachments restrain my ability to be infinite? Is ego intoxicating me and clouding my capacity for compassion? Is gossip and deprecating self-talk dominating my inner dialogue?

I’m unfolding this kurehat from a short list of harmful external substances to understanding all the things that poison me: both the ones that I consume, and the ones I am cultivating within.

The list is so long that I’m going to need some chocolate to help me think. BRB.


(3) My relationship with HUMANKIND
[Unless you have a husband, you must treat a man as either your father, brother, or son]

I AM SACRED… AND SO ARE YOU.


This one is often simplified to a commandment on fidelity, which brings the entire focus to the husband/ wife/ partner relationship. Building conscious relationships is something most devote a lifetime to and there is widespread consensus on the significance of this connection. Nothing for me to add.

But what about that father, brother, or son? Aren’t we also being taught to experience all relationships as sacred? To see every human interaction as divine, to relate to each other as spiritual beings, to engage humankind with dignity, and to connect with people as our own kin.

From being an instruction on how to conduct myself with just one person in my life, this has become an exercise on how to conduct myself with every person in my life.

Maybe it’s easier to just be nicer to my husband, eh?


(4) My relationship with all of CREATION
[You cannot eat meat that is prepared in a way that the animal suffers]

WE ARE ONE.


This one has nothing to do with the Sikh attitude towards meat during the times of the Gurus. This is about pain, and my part in inflicting it today. What am I consuming, where does it come from, and who suffers in the process?

Maybe several hundred years ago, when we hunted for our table, planted our own produce, and honoured the elements as ingredients to our food, maybe then the only cruel form of food production was meat prepared according to certain religious customs.

Not anymore. Ours is now a world of factory farming (an innocent phrase for cruel industrial livestock production), monoculture (replacing the wisdom of permaculture), pesticides (and all the other “cides”), deforestation (cutting trees to make space for growing food for animals that are then killed for culinary delight), water wars (drought in communities where water is diverted for large-scale food production, most of it for livestock), hunger and malnutrition (how twisted is it that the very people who grow our food lose access to it).

The living, breathing world around us is our lifeline, and the way we are living in it is unsustainable.

I used to think that the answer to all of the above was to become a vegetarian (which I already was, so again, I thought I’d aced this one). Then I read about dairy farming, battery cages, corn and soybean patents, plantation slavery, child labour in cocoa harvesting… So I thought… I should go vegan. But then there was all that plastic packaging of dairy-alternatives, cashew damaged fingers, avocado drug cartels, neo-colonisation of the Global South through native food commodification (this list grows every day) – all of which have huge environmental and societal impacts too. On the flipside, there are many communities who hunt and fish sustainably as a way of life, such as islanders and those living in difficult terrains (desert/ snow).

I do not have this one figured out. This conversation extends beyond food into every single thing we buy or consume. I may never live a footprint-free life, but I can still take what I need with mindfulness and with gratitude. And I can make better choices every day.

How unexpected that the kurehat that was the easiest for me, the one I never thought about, has now become the one that’s driving me the most. Because, well… Ek Oangkaar. Everything is interconnected. How apt that Guru Gobind Singh’s hukam takes us right back to the Beginning.

***

May we remember that our road didn’t end the day we received Amrit, rather it becomes our commitment to rise higher every single day. May it reveal that Amritdharis don’t have it all figured out, and us waving our “perfect-score” rule books at others does not make us better people.

Each of us, all of us, are on a road to somewhere. The only question is: are we still taking steps forward, or are our compliance trophies weighing and slowing us down?

He said: Khalsa Meri Jaan Ki Jaan. So much to do, so much to change, to become worthy of that praise.

Start with something? Start with Ek thing?


Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Half the Nishaan

In 1699, a woman poured sweetness into the Birth of the Khalsa.


At our Vesakhi celebration today in EspaƱola, New Mexico, the sevadars who welcomed the Sadh Sanggat into the Siri Singh Sahib’s ranch were women. The food was served and everything later cleared by women.

During the Nagar Kirtan, there were women in the Panj Pyare. Women sang kirtan on the float. Women helped carry the palki that Guru Granth Sahib Ji was on.

At Gurdwara, both kirtani jathas were led by women. When Saropas for community service were presented, 6 went to women, 4 to men, and 3 to children. The Ardas was led by a woman. A woman beat the Nagara. Women served the Parshaad, and the first 5 servings also went to women.

The most beautiful thing? This wasn’t part of some women’s empowerment initiative. No group of people sat around a table and decided that the men had to take a backseat today. It just happened. On some days there are more men at the front than women, and on other days, it’s the reverse.

Most of my life has been spent in Gurdwaras run by Punjabis, where participation from women is restricted. Maybe I come from a small country called Malaysia and we are just an insignificant third-world nation. Maybe India doesn’t count cos gender is an even more complicated issue there. Maybe I just haven’t been to enough progressive Gurdwaras in other countries. Or maybe, just maybe, this is a real thing. Just maybe.

Prahlaad’s mother watched all this, and hoped that he noticed too. Maybe then he will remember that in 1699, a woman poured sweetness into the Birth of the Khalsa, and after that she didn’t just disappear. Her daughters rose after her, and continue to hold up half the Nishaan.

Thank you, Guru Ji, for raising your daughters to stand mighty tall. Thank you, Siri Singh Sahib Ji, for reminding us that we are strong as steel.

Happy Vesakhi, dear ones.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Marigold

In order to get to my favourite spot, I had to be standing at the gates of the Darshani Deori before they opened at 3am.

It usually takes me around 7 minutes to walk from the Ghainta Ghar to the Bridge (allowing for several episodes of weeping on the marble at First Sight and at Baba Deep Singh's Gurdwara).

January not being a busy month, I had to be at the Jora Ghar by 2.45am (allowing for time to tuck the sikka (for my shoes) safely in my bag and to switch my phone to airplane mode).

From where we were staying, the car needed to be moving by 2am (allowing for driver unpunctuality and car breakdowns, in which case I'd need to hail a last-minute auto).

The alarm needed to go off by 1.15am (allowing time for baby unexpectedly waking up and/ or a bad turban day).

In bed by 9pm. Early and light meal. No water after dinner and minimal after that (there was no way I was going to give up my hard-earned spot for a bathroom break). Every single piece of clothing laid out the night before. Plus shawl, shoes, socks, bag, handkerchief. My Type-A traits had kicked into overdrive.

All this military precision... just so that I could sit inside beloved Darbar Sri Harmandir Sahib for Amrit Vela. Specifically, to enjoy Asa Ki Vaar with an unobstructed view of my Guru. An age-old, much-loved habit. An attachment? Perhaps. 

I made it. By the time Asa Ki Vaar started, I was comfortably sitting in the front row, inches away from Guru Ji's rumalas

Except... instead of the usual stillness I was accustomed to settling into by this point, I was confronted by a wave of conflicting emotions.

Money was being thrown in from every corner... Humble offerings, or shiny, worldly distractions?   

Hordes of people rushing to get to the front, tripping over each other... Longing for divine darshan, or humankind's restless, selfish, and ruthless race to get ahead?  

The most sacred, sovereign message for this world, majestically crowned at the centre... Adorned in indescribable splendour, or lost under superficial layers of daily wastefulness? 

Royal court protocol befitting the Guru's darbar... Actions of devotion, or alienating, man-made rules?  

Men at the helm of everything: the leading roles, the soundtrack, the camera, even the money... Calls to service, or the immortalisation of gender inequality? 

Submission in all its forms: foreheads bowing on the floor, hands touching walls, fingers gathering dust into shawls... Heartfelt piety, or mindless rituals? 

Sevadar lips in constant murmur, carrying people's prayer to the Guru... Enlighteners, or intermediaries? Representation, or disenfranchisement? Access to the Divine, or the perpetuation of caste-like behaviour?

I felt disoriented, like two opposite and distinct emotive realities colliding. On one level, everything that was happening around me was so beautiful; so full of love, reverence, and surrender. It made my heart swell with light. At the same time, it was too much like the real, dysfunctional, outside world. The very one that I had tried to escape from by coming here in the first place.

This certainly was NOT part of the desired outcome of that meticulously-planned morning (cos you know, divine experiences can be programmed in advance *rolls eyes*).

As I sat there trying to make sense of the two worlds around me, the scent of marigolds wafted in. The rumalas were being decorated with fresh garlands, and the early morning wind caught their fragrance just so. It was deep and sweet, and filled every gap in every prayer uttered there that morning. I smelt them in my heart.



And right there, with those marigolds, Guru's lesson to me was revealed.

There is a sakhi from Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana's udasis from when they were in Multan. Guru Ji was presented with a pitcher full of milk, which he responded to by lightly placing a jasmine on the surface. The flower spread its fragrance to the milk, yet remained gently afloat, milk unspilled.

There are many layers to that sakhi... I'm simplifying it in order to draw out the one message relevant to me that morning: be a part of this world, yet apart from it. 

The world today, in all its madness, is what it is. Yet through hukam, this is the time and space that I am alive in. 

So live in it. But not just as a passive participant of life unfolding. The most important part of the story is not only to float through, but to spread fragrance while doing so. And not merely as a fragile, casual, or involuntary act, rather as a purposeful, meditative, and deliberate one. By summoning compassion from unknown depths, and forging courage from the hottest flames. By being the shining beacon, the soothing salve, and the necessary change, with every breath of life. 

Marigold. A tiny, ordinary-looking, commonplace blossom. Yet that morning, its fragrance asked so much of me. To live as Nanak did in this jagat jalanda, this world in flames: as a tireless seeker, committed rebel, immersed poet, devoted householder (though his father, Mehta Kalyan might disagree with me there), fearless revolutionary, firm friend, mystic wanderer, unchained thinker, bold truth-sayer, (this thread is impossible to draw to a close, so I won't)... To swim like Nanak through this murky, mucky world, by fiercely loving all whom I meet, unconditionally blessing all who need it, stubbornly changing all that I can, humbly bowing to all that I cannot, and even in my darkest and weakest moments, still leaving the sweetest of scents behind. 

An uncomfortable, tumultuous morning. Yet, Harmandir Sahib is my soul-song, my joy-jar, my bliss-burst. Of course I went back to Darbar Sahib the next morning. And the next. I love it for everything that it is (even if it brings me unexpected, otherworldly kalyug flashes), and as long as Guru allows me to, I will keep going back. 

Even if for no other reason than to recall this lesson:
Don't get swallowed up by the chaos.

Be that marigold. Be that marigold.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Eyk Noor. One Light.

A Daoist, a Mormon, a Free-thinker, and a Sikh sat at the edge of a long table and… (oh don’t worry, this isn’t one of those anecdotes)… and in the short space of 20 minutes discovered that they had more in common than most would have imagined possible.

The pursuit of fulfilment. The experience of joy. The comfort of community. The attainment of purpose. The sense of belonging. The tranquillity of peace. And the deep well of love.



We hadn’t specifically planned to eat together; it just happened as the group of us on the course filed into the hotel restaurant and headed for the few empty seats left at our designated table. We most certainly had not planned to discuss religion; generally people seem to skirt around it as it makes some uncomfortable (if faith is a private matter), judged (if they feel they don’t know or do enough), or affronted (cos organised religion is so last decade :p).

I can’t remember exactly what steered the conversation that way, but somewhere in between helpings of salad and sushi, somehow over the clanking of tableware and calls from the waiter, sometime in the gaps between wipes of the napkin and sips of water, the glass that guards this delicate subject shattered and out poured an exchange on divinity and purpose.

Describing all of the above, some 230 words later, you may be surprised to know that the conversation we shared, delightful though it was, is not what I wanted to write about. I presented it to credit the space and the source of the reflections that followed in the confines of my mind.

My thoughts that day were born out of a world in which the following reality prevails:

The existence of peace in the human race rests on our ability to celebrate the universality of our beliefs.

We live strange times indeed. In an age where information is borderless, I continue to be surprised by how much ignorance plagues the human race, and more specifically, how much fear and judgement is being spread, disguised as the right to protect our way of life. While the origins of this dilemma are multi-faceted, surely you would agree with me that much of this confusion would go away if we only took a moment to stand in each other’s shoes.

Are we really so unique from one another? I look to my own and see a diverse way of thinking and living within my extended family… but the values that anchor us are the same. So what more can I say of the wider Sikh diaspora that spans the globe, and from there, of each of the 7+ billion inhabitants of this planet?

The four strangers who dined together, each plucked from a different (man-made) box, found that they were bound by common threads. After stripping away physical practices and culture-specific terminology, it turned out that they each sought the very same things as their neighbours.

Now of course madmen exist; they always have and always will. Every civilisation can name its tyrants, every sect its deviants, every ideology its oppressors. But to take the shadow of a misguided fanatic and cast it upon others just because they share a name for God, an origin, a language, or a scripture is not only a gross injustice to our fellow Earth-dwellers, but also negligence of our own capacity for compassion. Is their hate really powerful enough to overpower our love? Exactly; I didn’t think so either.

While I do not have a solution to solve the world’s problems, I can look inward and instead, reflect on the little part that we as individuals can play in the insanity we find ourselves in.

It is self-evident that the first (and heaviest) step is to recognise our oneness in every face we see. I look in the mirror and my head spins just at the thought of this monumental task, for too often do I judge, generalise, and scoff. This will be a lifelong battle, and my prayer is that every time I fall, the Guru will lend me His arm for the strength to keep on fighting, and His eyes to see through my bias and into the light that shines in each soul.

There is also a second step, which thankfully isn’t as overwhelming as the first: in this pursuit of understanding, we have learn to communicate in a common and identifiable language set in universal principles and values.

Love. Respect. Peace. Hope.

There are scores of thought leaders and activists who advocate this in words far more persuasive than my own. I follow some inspiring individuals on social media who do incredible work in bringing awareness on what values bind us together as humans. They are eloquent and charismatic, and always seem to find the right words to bridge the foggy valleys of ignorance. 

How beautiful would it be if each of us every day folk, homemakers and accountants and teenagers and uncles and sevadars, also held the key to such a language? Isn’t it time we also jumped on this bandwagon and hummed along to the tune?

My lenses are heavily tinted; my belief system is ingrained in me and as a result my worldview is always touched with a hue of the Sikh perspective. For those of us in Malaysia (others will surely have their own local equivalents), the days when Arjan walked to school with Amina, Ah Kai, and Anand are becoming far more complex. Today we live our lives on a much more evolved stage, where that traditional circle of friends has now expanded to include the Baha’i’, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, atheists, and…

You and I can create a space for communication grounded in openness and tolerance. We cannot merely rely on the presence of personalities to do this for us; each of us is an ambassador and lighthouse of our faith and has to do this for our own environments.

Do we have the tools to do this? Not just to draw out a common, value-based language when consciously listening to others speak about their beliefs, but also to project the same energy when representing ours?

While we may already hold on to universal values in our Sikh way of life, in speaking to others I wonder if our vocabulary has been limited to describing practices and dos and don’ts, as opposed to the roots, the essence, from which they stem. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to look too hard; living a principled life is the purest message from our heritage. 

We have taken this message and translated it into daily actions to serve our human existence. Perhaps along the way, in the whirlwind of just doing things, the connection to the source has faded. What we need now is stop running, turn around, look back to the starting line, and re-identify with the flag that set us off in the first place.

We need an elevator pitch, that short and sweet dive into the essence of what it means to live as a Sikh, yet in words that others can identify with. 

As we poke around in our muddled brains for some clarity, and attempt to curate the content of these conversations, I hope you’ll be guided by the truth that all our cores gravitate to the same centre, and we all live for the same things.

The pursuit of fulfilment. The experience of joy. The comfort of community. The attainment of purpose. The sense of belonging. The tranquillity of peace. And the deep well of love.

Eyk noor te sabh jagh upjeya, kaun paley, ko mandey?

How can it be any other way, when we all come from the same source?