By Harbans Lal, PhD., D.Lit. (hons)
A recent Pew Research finding reported that 36 percent of the American population stated that they go to a religious place for services at least once a week. However, if you count the number actually in attendance, the figure is closer to 18%. (This was for Christians living in a certain area). This is alarming to me because the percentage is likely the same for our Sikh community. Some may say that our attendance is far less, but let us accept the 18% figure for now as we haven’t done similar surveys ourselves yet.
So two-thirds of the Sikh community do not go to Gurdwara and 82% do not go regularly. Certainly it is not a statistic that any one of us would be proud of. But I am not through yet. I’d also like to ask, how many of those going to Gurdwara take lessons and/or are self-educated in the competency of interpreting the messages and the purpose given in a typical Sikh service.
The spiritual messages are usually imbibed in the verses recited in every Gurdwara. I am talking of the message that is continuously recited to us when we are in the attendance. How many of us read and/or listen to the Guru’s Wisdom and really bond their mind with Gurmat or Guru’s teachings. How many of us use the understanding of the verses for the purpose of self-examination, self-improvement, enlightenment or even satisfaction of a mere curiosity.
From data on other religious groups, we know that, as a group, the church going people are less educated in general. Yet they are church going and are seen performing greater amounts of services than their more educated counterparts. But do they internalize what is being taught?
Here I am reminded of a sakhi (folklore story to illustrate a point) of a congregation during the time of Guru Har Gobind. A Sikh walked into the congregation when the Sikh cantors were singing Gurbani in the presence of the Guru. In the Guru’s Darbar this mischievous visitor loudly yelled some foul language and swiftly turned around to run out of the premises. A group of Sikhs chased the culprit and succeeded in arresting him to bring him before the Guru’s court. They complained that the mischief maker uttered foul language in the Gurdwara.
When the Guru asked the Sikh about the charges of serious misbehavior, the defendant denied the charges. Instead he accused the plaintiffs of telling a lie. They were not even present in the congregation, my Guru, he said. How then, could they witness my behavior or hear what I said. They are merely insulting me with their charges. If they claim to be present and attentively listening, ask them what verses were being recited at the time that I am alleged to have shouted. To every one’s embarrassment, none of the plaintiff Sikhs could recall the verse being sung at the time of their prisoner’s mischief. They were simply sitting there but not attentive to the verses being sung.
Understandably, Guru Har Gobind used this incidence to emphasize that just a physical presence in the congregation does not count. It is the spiritual tingle produced by listening to those verses that mattered.
If one doesn’t take home or critically examine everything said during a recitation of the sacred verses or, in some gudwaras, presentation of Gurbani exegesis, then we may count those Gurdwara attendees into the mix of non-reading, uneducated, disinterested, and poorly informed Sikhs. Now, this is NOT to say that most-all of the Gurdwara going congregation are, in reality, traditionally-believing, fundamentalist or conservative, status-quo Sikhs. Some take the message to heart, but most are likely non-listeners.
Whether it is with Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, Evangelicals or Agnostics, or any other groups, this IS to say that without a personal religious search and understanding, without digging deeper into the sacred verses for self-education and examination, this group will remain like most perfunctory non-reached Sikhs. Which is the same as paying lip-service to someone else’s creedal expectations. It is following robotic rites and rituals, keeping the habit of the congregation for the sake of the habit itself, and mostly, because it is familiar (family). It is what their ancestors always did. “We’ve always done it this way before.” I emphasize the word, “before.” What about NOW, and in the future?
The Guru Granth suggested a label for such Gurdwara attendees. Guru called it an animal behavior.
ਗੁਰਮਤਿ ਸੁਨਿ ਕਛੁ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਨ ਉਪਜਿਓ ਪਸੁ ਜਿਉ ਉਦਰੁ ਭਰਉ ॥ SGGS, p.685
When listening to the Guru’s Wisdom does not bring about a deep understanding of spiritual wisdom, it is like an animal who is only attending to filling the belly.
Finally, for your worthy attention and all those who wish our generations to remain connected, and remain involved in their faith, I may quote Socrates: “An un-examined life is not worth living.” If one is not listening, reading, and exploring, then one is probably not even relating. That presumes that such audiences don’t even know the value of their espoused Dharma, religion, or faith, for that matter. They do not realize that the verses being recited are connecting theology, ethics, and spiritual response to contemporary challenges.
I hope our meager Gurdwara going numbers are only guesses and not real. If they are confirmed through proper surveys, it should shock and alarm each one of us. It will be self-chosen ignorance of the treasures that we are especially privileged to inherit but to which we are paying only a lip-service. The Sikh theologian of the highest repute, Bhai Gurdas, alerts us about this sin with the help a taunting metaphor.
ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਕਹੈ ਪਾਈਐ ਨ ਅਮਰ ਪਦ ਜੌ ਲੌ ਜਿਹ੍ਵਾ ਕੈ ਸੁਰਸ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਨ ਚਾਖੀਐ – Gurdas, Kabit ੫੮੫
Any amount of utterance of the word ‘amrit’ (nectar of life) will never bestow the reciter with immortality; the immortality may be attained only by genuine imbibing of the elixir of amrit through an ingesting action of the tongue.
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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.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.
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