By Dr. Harbans Lal
A debate has recently sprung up on the imposition of restrictions on the Guru’s travels abroad. One recent write up was about the unpleasant experience of Col Anand, who attempted to bring a copy of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) from India to Canada. Letters following an article by the Sikh scholar and activist IJ Singh in the Sikh Review highlighted the deep anguish the Sikh community is experiencing on this issue. No one knows the reason for this sudden clamping down of limits on the Guru’s unrestricted availability outside the precincts of Sri Darbar Sahib Complex in Amritsar, India.
Clearly this is not about the respect that is due the Guru Granth Sahib. There is no disagreement that utmost respect is appropriate. The issue is that the current policy diminishes the ability of Sikhs and their friends worldwide to develop and cement a relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib. Only recently, I described the inspiring tradition of A Leap of Faith, the Gur-Charni_lago event, that is celebrated among the Sikhs, and urged that it be revived across all the oceans. How will our youth celebrate their Oath if free access to the Guru Granth Sahib is denied to them. I therefore wish to argue against the practice of restricting open access to the Jagat Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
TABOO OF TRAVELLING OVERSEAS IN NOT NEW
In the year 2000, religious leaders from around the world, on special invitation, graced the land of the United States to celebrate the Millennium year. I had the pleasure of being personally involved with the events held at the United Nations campus in New York and at the World Center for Thanksgiving in Dallas, Texas. Meeting and mingling with world religious leaders gave me, among other things, a real appreciation and understanding of how diverse the celebration of religiosity among world’s religions was. One particular observation is relevant to this essay.
Some denominations of Hinduism sent lower level leadership, while some other denominations completely shunned travel to participate in international gatherings. We were told that their top religious leadership was forbidden to cross waters over the continents. On further exploration, I found that travelling overseas was forbidden in those sects on religious grounds.
There is a belief in Hindu mythology that crossing over an ocean is a religious sacrilege punishable with wrath from fierce demons and monsters. Both Manu Smriti and the Baudhayana Dharma Sutra specifically advised against sea travels with severe penalties and penances.
Some who have incurred religious wrath in recent times for crossing the seas are notables like Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda, and Ramanujan, though they totally disregarded any religious judgment against them. Further, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the English suffered in their attempts to get Hindu labor across to Africa and West Indies due to this reason. The crossing of the seas was termed crossing the dark waters or Kaalaa Paani. The British finally took large vessels full of water from the Ganges on board to keep these men contended.
A Brahmin explained the taboo as follows: This is because one cannot perform his daily ‘pujas’, the three-time ‘sandyavandans’ because the sun and moon were “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Moreover, if one goes out, he would have to compromise on those religious practices, ‘touch’ many unclean people and eat food prepared by “mlecchas (non- Aryan or non-Vedic follower)”. Another reason was that India was a “Punyabhoomi (Holy land)” and the rest of the world was “karmabhoomi (Land of duty)”. Furthermore, such a departure from this land entailed the end of the reincarnation cycle, as the traveler was cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges (thus the English solution of carrying Ganges water on ships).
Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri, a noted poet who served as a priest at the Sreevallabha Temple, was not allowed to enter the temple after he returned from an overseas trip to London. The temple authorities, led by the chief priest, asked him to go a thorough cleansing, penance, and punaravrodha (reinstallation) before he would be allowed in again. Namboothiri was asked to purify himself by reciting the Gayatri Mantra 1008 times.
It is heartening that as Hindus became more educated they began to reform. Now-a-days, most educated Hindus reject the above described restrictions on overseas travel, considering it a taboo of the past and an outdated belief, although there are many Hindu sects still hanging on to this taboo. Actually this is what Hindus would say of their religion – that Hinduism is not monolithic, nor centralized or uniform, and that it has evolved over the centuries and still continues to change.
So, should we wonder if the above described Hindu taboo has started seeping into the Sikh customs to freshly invent restrictions on travels of our eternal Guru.
NEITHER SIKH TEACHINGS NOR SIKH CUSTOM
Hearing all the description of travel restrictions only as Brahmanwad, similar restrictions on the travels of the Guru Granth should be foreign to us and very disturbing.
I am relieved to realize that our Guru’s teachings, Gurmat, actually liberated us from such shackles – that we would never be restricted in the Brahaman way. We envision our scholars, clergy, and gurus traveling all over the world to spread the message of universality and love. Further our SABD Guru had guaranteed us its presence wherever a Sikh would reside. We must trust the prediction of the scholars of Guru Arjan’s court.
Bhai Gurdas described the whole schema of Guru Arjan in creating the volume of SGGS in Vaar 41, Pauri 21, as below.
ਗੁਰੂ ਅਰਜਨ ਪੰਚਮ ਠਹਰਾਇਓ॥ ਜਿਨ ਸਬਦ ਸੁਧਾਰ ਗਰੰਥ ਬਣਾਇਓ॥ ਗ੍ਰੰਥ ਬਣਾਇ ਉਚਾਰ ਸੁਨਾਇਓ॥ ਤਬ ਸਰਬ ਜਗਤ ਮੈ ਪਾਠ ਰਚਾਇਓ॥ ਕਰਿ ਪਾਠ ਗ੍ਰੰਥ ਜਗਤ ਸਭ ਤਰਿਓ॥ ਜਿਹ ਨਿਸ ਬਾਸੁਰ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮ ਉਚਰਿਓ॥
The Fifth Guru, Guru Arjun, edited the hymns to compose the Granth. Then he recited it to the congregation and prescribed its recitations for the whole world. The whole world would receive salvation through mindful recitation of the Granth.
The scholars in the Guru Arjan’s congregation made this prediction:
ਉਗਵਣਹੁ ਤੈ ਆਥਵਣਹੁ ਚਹੁ ਚਕੀ ਕੀਅਨੁ ਲੋਆ ॥ Balvand and Sata (SGGS, p. 968)
Your good self (Guru SABD) and your teachings are the source of light which may shine from the East and the West and spread to enlighten all continents.
BRAHAMANWAD NOT ANTICIPATED AMONG SIKHS
Little did we knew that our expectations of the Guru’s presence travelling all over the world would be sabotaged by our own Sikh clergy in our own life time, and that the Brahmanwad as described above in the case of Hinduism would seize us Sikhs too. And, to our dismay, this is happening at a time when even the orthodox Hindu organizations are themselves seriously considering backing away from this outdated philosophy.
For your reference, I am using the terms Brahmanism or Brahmanwad as a generic term, meaning the clergy-imposed religiosity, experienced virtually in every religion. So the Brahman as a generic term includes pundits, bhaees, mullahs, rabbis, and others who claim a special authority over management of their religions. Unfortunately, Brahmanwad engulfs every religion, soon after the Founder leaves for heavenly abode, but it is highly disturbing to see its occurrence in modern times. Our founding gurus spent ten lives in getting rid of such Brahmanwad.
THE LATEST EXPERIENCE
Now, I want to tell you in brief what really happened to an active member of a Canadian Sikh congregation, or rather what transpired during his visit to India. You may find, though, that the story of Col. Anand is only a repetition of the similar experiences many others have undergone in a similar quest. So I leave out the specific details, but will gladly share them with those interested.
In essence, our priestly heads of important religious organizations in Punjab and Delhi take the one seeking the volume of SGGS around the bushes for several days until the seeker loses the patients and gives up. Their demands include hiring of five initiated Sikhs to ceremonially carrying the Guru in especially prepared automobile and then special seats for the party carrying the Granth in the airplane, involving no stay in any hotel on the way. When direct demands of clergy become awkward, the seeker is distracted with one excuse or the other to his/her utter disappointment and exhaustion.
The seekers are told in so many ways that the SADB Guru could not fly overseas with only any individual. This disappoints countless visitors from abroad who go to Amritsar or Delhi with deep desires to have the Guru Granth volume to install the Guru in their homes for daily obeisance, recitation and vichaar of Guru’s hymns.
The current restrictions rule out completely any access to SGGS volume for Sikhs living outside India, be it Europe, UK, North America, Africa , Middle East, or South East Asia. Even within India, it will be very expensive to have five initiated Sikhs travel in a specially prepared van to deliver the volume of the Granth, say, in Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, or Bangalore by road.
It is not my purpose to criticize any particular person or organization, but rather to blame the system that our clergy have instituted to invoke restrictions. They make it very difficult, if not impossible, for any wisdom seeker to take home a copy of our sacred scripture particularly when flying overseas.
It is this very fanaticism that resulted in removing the copies of the Guru Granth from Indian Embassies and university libraries throughout North America. This deprives access to millions of people to the Guru Granth for reading or research. All this has been done in the name of “Satkar (reverence) for SGGS.”
According to reports I receive from seekers of the Guru Granth, there appears to be a well-thought out sinister move under way to sabotage direct access of individuals to the Guru. Why else would Sikhs living outside Punjab, particularly outside India, be denied the opportunity to have SGGS at their residence – the opportunity to be able to recite SGGS themselves (do Sehaj Path), to initiate the children to the Guru, and to take into their heart the divine wisdom contained therein (GuruMat).
WAS RESTRICTING GURU EVER A TRADITION?
To the contrary, the compiler and composer of SGGS, Guru Arjun, advised that the Guru’s Word or composition may abide with every soul everywhere.
ਗੁਰ ਕਾ ਬਚਨੁ ਬਸੈ ਜੀਅ ਨਾਲੇ ॥ SGGS, p. 679
Then the scribe of the Granth, Bhai Gurdas, predicted that the home after home would serve as the abode for the Guru Granth.
ਘਰ ਘਰ ਅੰਦਰ ਧਰਮਸਾਲ ਹੋਵੈ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਸਦਾ ਵਿਸੋਆ॥ ਬਾਬੇ ਤਾਰੇ ਚਾਰ ਚਕ ਨੌ ਖੰਡ ਪ੍ਰਿਥਮੀ ਸਚਾ ਢੋਆ॥ Gurdas, Var 1, Pauri 26.
DO SIKHS EVER IGNORE THEIR GURU’S INSTRUCTIONS?
Of course, not! The Guru Granth volume was first installed as Pothi Sahib in 1604 and it was canonized as SGGS in 1708. Since then the sacred volumes have been transported by whatever means available to the various parts of the Indian subcontinent. No one ever reported any sacrilege being committed anywhere in those days. One is at a loss why the Satkar (reverence) is being made an issue now.
We should refresh our memory of the days when the sacred volume of SGGS was carried in a leather holder slung from the saddle of a horse during the 18th century. Many of us are both well past our seventh decade and have seen during our lifetimes SGGS volume packed in a suitcase being transported on a Tonga (horse buggy), bus, train or horseback, all in the lap of the faithful.
It is not even a couple of decades ago that the restriction on the Guru’s travel was first heard. Before then, the SABD Guru was transported and distributed freely among the Sikh congregations and the homes of individual wisdom seekers.
GURMAT AND SIKHISM ENTERING THE WORLD WITHOUT BORDERS WITH SGGS’S UNRESTRICTED ACCESS
Let me illustrate with the case history of Christian minister, Rev. Dr. H. L. Bradshaw, of Oklahoma City. He developed a fascination with Sikhism through some Sikh students he met at the University of Oklahoma. He began to write articles on Sikhism that were published in Sikh media including the Sikh Review. He then made a pilgrimage to Amritsar where SGPC met with him and gave him books on Sikhism to take back. He was also given a copy of the Guru Granth to carry in his suitcase in order to establish a Sikh congregation in Oklahoma, which he did.
Soon after his Amritsar visit and publicity of his starting a Sikh congregation, I heard from SGPC, asking me to visit Dr. Bradshaw to help him where needed. If my memory is correct, I visited Dr. Bradshaw in 1959 and spent a night at his home.
I found that Dr. Bradshaw could not establish a Sikh congregation so he asked me to take his copy of the Guru Granth with me. He could not read Punjabi, and the students who had kindled the spark of Sikhism in him had already left the town.
Thus, I transported the sacred volume to Chicago with me in my car. We had formed the Sikh Study Circle there to meet weekly and held small congregations at the University of Chicago in the Guru’s presence.
HOW COULD I MAKE THE GURU ACCESSIBLE
In due time, Sikh students studying in universities all over the Midwest USA found out that I was honored with a copy of the Guru Granth for the benefit of various Sikh congregations. They began to ask me to lend them the SABD Guru for their Sikh functions. I traveled with the Guru to Madison, Milwaukee, several nearby towns in Indiana, Illinois, and a couple of times to Ohio where late Dr. Kharag Singh of Sikh Research Institute, Dr. Gurbaksh Singh of Punjab Agriculture University, and their colleagues were studying at Ohio University. They invited me with my Guru for Sikh celebrations. They were very appreciative and supportive of the Guru’s visits to various campuses.
A few years later, around 1975, late Sardar Phulel Singh of Takht Sri Patna Sahib had moved to Toronto. One of his missions, he told me, was to provide the Guru to where ever requested. Besides his distributing the Granth mostly directly, I recall taking the volumes of the Guru Granth from him to deliver to various sangats in a number of places in North America. All felt very blessed on the availability of the Guru in the foreign lands. They were all very thankful for this service undertaken by Sirdar Phulel Singh. Sirdar Sahib told me that he imported container loads of the sacred volumes of SGGS for distribution in North America.
Sikhism was really coming to the age of its being without borders with SGGS freely available.
Is it not a pity that the son of the same Sardar Phulel Singh was recently denied permission to take the Guru Granth volume to his home in Toronto.
BHAI KAHN SINGH TO MR. MACAULIFFE
Bhai Kahn Singh personally gave a copy of the Guru Granth to late Max A. MaCauliffe, asking him to pack it in his suitcase and take it to UK for his personal use. Giani MaCauliffe’s Muslim servant, who travelled with him must have packaged his luggage.
Let me ask our SABD Guru for instructions on its being taken from place to place to make it freely available to all.
CLOUD BURST OF GURBANI
There is a beautiful story from the times of Guru Ram Das reported by Sikh historian, Bhai Santokh Singh.
A delegation of Hindu religious scholars under the leadership of Pundit Mohan Lal came to visit the Guru. The members were well known Pundits or leaders of Brahamanic tradition. Their mission was to express their concern regarding the language and mode of propagation the Guru was using to freely spread Gurmat message among people.
They loudly articulated their concern and attempted to persuade the Guru to use the language of the religious elite, Sanskrit, in order to impart Guru Nanak’s doctrines. Further, the same elite should be given charge to further impart the sacred knowledge; the hymns of Guru should not be distributed unrestricted.
They were disappointed that the Guru rejected the suggestion and used the metaphor of rain to make his point forcefully. Bhai Santokh described it as follows:
ਬੇਦ ਪੁਰਾਨ ਕੂਪ ਜਲ ਜੈਸੇ। ਬਰੋਸਾਇ ਕੋ ਕਿਤੀ ਜੈਸੇ
ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਬਾਣੀ ਮੇਘ ਸਮਾਨ । ਬਰਸੈ ਚਹੁੰ ਦਿਸਿ ਬਿਖੈ ਜਹਾਨ ॥
The divine message, the Guru said, was like water to a thirsty person or to a germinating plant. Divine knowledge in Sanskrit or Arabic is like the water kept in deep wells. It takes effort to draw it. It can quench the thirst only of those persons only, or water only their crops, who possess the means of drawing water in this manner. No sharing was possible as the quantity thus drawn was sufficient only to satisfy the needs of the holder of the bucket.
In contrast, the Guru’s Wisdom, Gurmat, was manifested in Gurbani (repository of Guru’s wisdom) in a language and mode which served like a cloudburst. It showered everywhere without restriction. It turned the crops of everyone, in every field, green; it reached mountains and valleys alike, birds and mammals alike, animals and human alike, educated and uneducated alike, poor and rich alike. (See Santokh Singh, Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Raas 1, Part 46, p. 1518. Reprinted Amritsar, Khalsa Samachar, 1954.)
STERN CONDEMNATION OF CONSTRAINING THE GURU
The Guru Granth sternly condemned those who hide their Guru behind walls of restrictions. For example, Guru Ram Das condemned those who hide their Guru behind rituals and restrictions.
ਜੋ ਗੁਰੁ ਗੋਪੇ ਆਪਣਾ ਸੁ ਭਲਾ ਨਾਹੀ ਪੰਚਹੁ ਓਨਿ ਲਾਹਾ ਮੂਲੁ ਸਭੁ ਗਵਾਇਆ ॥ SGGS, p.304.
O chosen people, O self-elect, one who hides the Guru from others is not a good person. Such a person will lose every advantage that he and others could take from the Guru’s teachings.
ਜਿਨ ਗੁਰੁ ਗੋਪਿਆ ਆਪਣਾ ਸੇ ਲੈਦੇ ਢਹਾ ਫਿਰਾਹੀ ॥SGGS, p. 308
Those who hide the Guru are wandering around aimlessly, moaning and groaning.
ਜਿਨਿ ਗੁਰੁ ਗੋਪਿਆ ਆਪਣਾ ਤਿਸੁ ਠਉਰ ਨ ਠਾਉ ॥ SGGS, p. 314
Those who hide their Guru shall have no home or place of rest.
There are reports of unprecedented restrictions imposed on the transportation of SGGS Volume from Amritsar or Delhi, where alone it is available (printing copies elsewhere are forbidden). These restrictions are going to cause damage to the practice of Sikhi in the long run. The effect is already being felt by the Sikhs living across the oceans. We call upon the Sikh Nation to find a solution.
The priestly class has not yet pronounced that the average Sikh cannot read Sri Guru Granth Sahib himself/herself so that a priest must be hired to read scripture for them. But these restrictions, in time, could take us to that conclusion. The results of this will be quite unsavory to Sikhi, Sikhism, and Sikh Nation.
The Guru never restricted Guru’s movements across the oceans so it be read by people everywhere. Restriction have only existed among religions under Brahamanic management.
Surprisingly, the restrictions being imposed are under the garb of promoting reverence to the Guru. However, any look into the Guru’s hymns or writings of Bhai Gurdas will readily reveal that the reverence lies in reading to understand the message of the sacred hymns. Any mode of reverence that restricts access to the Guru will only be a practice of Brahamanic religiosity. It will do serious harm to the future of global Sikhi.
In conclusion, let me quote our Guru directly on the issue under discussion.
ਭਾਈ ਰੇ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਬੂਝੈ ਕੋਇ ॥ ਬਿਨੁ ਬੂਝੇ ਕਰਮ ਕਮਾਵਣੇ ਜਨਮੁ ਪਦਾਰਥੁ ਖੋਇ ॥SGGS, p.33.
O Siblings of Destiny, there are only a few wisdom-oriented ones who would cognize and comprehend the Guru Granth verses; any ritual or deed done devoid of understanding the sacred hymns will waste any precious opportunity of one’s life.
ਸੇ ਮਨਮੁਖ ਜੋ ਸਬਦ ਨ ਪਛਾਨਹਿ ॥ SGGS, p. 1054
Those who do not comprehend the message of the Guru SABD are following their humanoid mind instead of being Guru oriented.
The real Satkar of SGGS lies in reading, reciting, and singing the sacred hymns oneself, vicharna, understanding them, contemplating them, believing in their guidance, and sincerely living life as per Guru’s instructions. The most awful disrespect for SGGS is either to ignore it, or to hire others to recite it on your behalf when you are not even present.
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Harbans Lal, PhD; D.Litt (hons)
Emeritus Professor and Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neuroscience, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.
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