Don’t Just Look … Search Inside

By Harbans Lal, PhD., D.Lit. (Hons).

The Indian Diaspora community in Nova Scotia invited me to a picnic during a visit there one summer. After a tasty meal, a group of people sat down and engaged in a conversation about the Guru Granth Sahib. It was a healthy dialogue, and all were pleased to learn something new.

Towards the end, a woman dressed in Western clothing requested the opportunity to ask me a personal question. “Being a Hindu, how did you get so deeply interested in the Guru Granth?” she asked, with thought-provoking intentions.

I knew the answer, but I intended to provoke further dialogue. I countered, “for the same reason that I find you, as a Christian, being so interested in Sikhi.” “No my friend, I am Sikh and not a Christian, and my parents were faithful Sikhs in Punjab. “They raised me in the Sikh tradition which I continue”, she responded with pride and confidence. But she was a bit startled and asked, “Why did you think I was Christian?”.

I offered my apology for being mistaken in stereotyping her. I told her I was wrong about her religious identity because of my upbringing. In the community where I grew up, a woman with a Western hairstyle and wearing Western clothes would always be taken as a Christian as only they looked like this. I told her I readily accepted her as a Sikh. I continued to tell the friends gathered around that I was Sikh also, even though I may look like a Hindu to some.

I was born in the House of Guru Nanak, and my parents took me to Gurdwara Sri Panja Sahib in Pakistan for the naming ceremony. The Guru and the congregation gave me my name, Harbans Lal. The surrounding community gave me my dress, which changes from time to time depending on the culture I live in.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
No, they are not a Sikh couple, but Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan with his Muslim wife at home is the library.

The disconnect between faith and external perceptions is not my view, l learned it from my Guru. The lesson is that we should see others independent of stereotypes. Before I cite the Guru Granth, let me cite an example from Hindu scripture, Ashtavaker Geeta. I will abbreviate the story for lack of space here. Giani Harinder Singh narrates this story in detail often in his exegesis to illustrate the topic under discussion.

Ashtavaker, Amused

AshtavakerThe celebrated King Janak held a debate of Hindu scholars on a religious subject and offered cows decorated with gold plated horns as a reward to the winner. A 12-year-old boy, Ashtavaker, who had developed a reputation for a high scholarship at a young age was invited. On the day of the debate, because of the long distance travel, the boy was late entering the court when the contest was already reaching its climax.

The pundits saw the deformed body of Ashtavakra moving in a funny way and began laughing. In fact, the whole meeting broke into laughter, and then Ashtavakra also began to roar with laughter.

King Janak asked the boy “Everyone else is laughing. I can understand why they laugh, but why did you laugh, my son?”

Ashtavakra responded – I expected to speak to an assembly of extraordinary scholars. Instead, I found a gathering of charmers and cobblers (people who worked with animal products including skinners, butchers, skin and bones traders, shoemakers, etc.). Therefore, I could not control myself from bursting into laughter. What are all these cobblers doing here?”

A profound silence fell over the meeting. Butchers? Skinners? The king asked, “What do you mean?”

Ashtavaker2Ashtavakra said, “They assessed me by only seeing my skin, my body and clothing. They failed to see the real me. Your Majesty, in the curve of a temple, is the sky curved. When someone smashes the pot, does the sky shatter? The sky is beyond the shells, which enclose it. They did not wait until I presented who I really was and just began laughing. My body is twisted, but I am not. Look inside me. You will not find anything more straight and pure.”

It was a very startling declaration, and there was complete silence. Janak was impressed and astounded: “You are absolutely right, why did I gather a crowd of animal skinners?” He became repentant and felt guilty that he too had laughed.

That day the king could not manage to say anything more, but the following day he went to Ashtavakra, dismounted from his horse and fell at his feet.

The day before he had asked, “Why do you laugh, my son?”. Ashtavakra was a twelve year old boy, and Janak had considered his age. On this day he did not notice his age. He fell at Ashtavakras’ feet, spread-eagled in prostration, and Janak eventually adopted Ashtavakra as his Guru.

What Guru Granth Says

The  Guru Granth has many verses warning us against profiling people based on their looks or external garb. For now, I will cite only one of those verses.

ਜਿਨ੍‍ ਪਟੁ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਬਾਹਰਿ ਗੁਦੜੁ ਤੇ ਭਲੇ ਸੰਸਾਰਿ] SGGS, p.473
In this world, the meritorious are those who are silky inside (virtuous, caring, spiritual), though they may look like rags (downtrodden, noncompliant) on the outside.

In conclusion, I wish to say that you should be mindful and not stereotype someone when you see their appearance, religious or otherwise. They may be very different from what you expect. Before you complain, speak your mind, or send a belligerent email, pause. Ask yourself if you really know where the person is coming from. Try to rephrase critical thoughts into positive ones, or at least neutral ones. Don’t let your mind scan for negatives. Instead, look for the goodness inside.

Send all communications to:

Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons)

Professor Emeritus  & Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, 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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26 thoughts on “Don’t Just Look … Search Inside

  1. This is a very timely and relevant information about the Sikh literature on not profiling individuals based upon their garbs and outlooks. Currently, there are misconceptions prevailing among the western political leaders that you could easily judge a person’s character from a dress he/she wears, from their gait or by the colour of their skin. These are baseless identification criteria and must be categorically rejected. All people should be educated about world cultures, their beliefs and philosophical symbols. I believe in the teachings of Guru Nanak and in the Adi Granth that we must respect and honour values of each person and the worth of all living beings. We should judge individuals by their action and not by their dress.

    This was truly a very informative essay for which I remain grateful to Dr. Harbans Lal.

  2. Excellent article, it encourages us to think, before we speak. If we follow the intent of the article, we can easily tell a real person inside. I believe Bhagat KABIR has a Shabad, titles, “Gallen jinn jap mallian.. . . . .Bananas ke thug” on the same theme.

  3. Articles of this magnitude have failed to change Humanity as The House Of Naanak intended over 500 years ago ! The followers of Guru Naanak have completely failed to share the universal, timeless and truthful teachings of the Great Naanak with the wider morbidly superstitious and sectarian world and we find Humanity and beautiful planet Earth on the edge of oblivion ! Outward appearance is not that important but religious clothing or dress is not appropriate for Human Beings who want a one race from one creator ideology because all religious articles of Faith apart from the Sikh 5 k’s are from mythology, paganism and the occult ! That’s why the Sikh stands out from ordinary Human Beings, to show we have no sexism, racism, colour prejudice or any designs on being just for our diaspora but instead for Humanity itself !

    1. Thank you for your comments. I join you in your wishes as you stated that we “stands out from ordinary Human Beings, to show we have no sexism, racism, colour prejudice or any designs on being just for our diaspora but instead for Humanity itself !”

  4. Thank Harbans Lal ji, this is a very good and informative bloc,Although I am a Muslim, still I believe That Baba Guru Nanak ji was a great scholar and believe in humanity. I pay my respect to him.

  5. A very thought-provoking article.
    SIKHISM lies inside rather than in outer garbs. I am attaching an article for your kind perusal and advice.
    Need for Inter-Faith Harmony!!!
    SIKH Faith-Sri Guru Granth Sahib(Sikh Scriptures)-for World Peace and Harmonious Community living!!!!
    True Sikhism lies in High Human Values!!!
    I feel very proud and flatterred about Sikh Faith, on seeig Selfless Service at Jorha Ghar and Langar(free kitchen), etc., at Gurdwara Gobind Dham, here in Ahmedabad. Many clean shaven devotees(including sweet children) with small patkas covering their heads, faithfully serving with heart and zeal much greater than mine!!!
    With such exemplary human service, Sikhs can win the whole world over to Sikhi(Sikh Faith), the best Art of Living in the light of Sri Guru Granth Sahib(SGGS)!!!
    Guru Nanak had Welfare of the whole world in mind. He advised people to be true to their own faith. Love, Truth, Service, Equality, Humility, Respect for Womankind, etc. and acceptance of God’s Will, are a few of the essential requirements!!!! Any person who truly believes in and actually lives the holy Bani(sayings) of SGGS in his life, is a True Sikh, at heart, irrespective of his outer appearances.
    How shameful would it be for Sikh Faith, if apparently a full fledged Sikh with unshorn hair and Turban on, were to act against the holy Shiksha(teachings) of SGGS and bring Disgrace!!!
    It is the Inner Values, which are more important than one’s outer appearance. For example, in a nut, one is interested in Kernel, not the Shell.
    Sikhism is True Humanitarianism!!!
    ‘Ek Pita, Ekas ke Ham Baarik’, the Universal Sikh Doctrine, elevates us ALL(human beings) to belong to ONE COMMON FAMILY. Let us widely spread the Great Spiritual Wealth enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib(SGGS), the Universal Preceptor of entire Humanity, for Peace and Harmonious Community living!! Many International Luminaries, whie lauding SGGS, have chided Sikhs for their failure to openly share this rare Spiritual Wealth with the world, for its Good.
    Inter-Faith conflicts/terror/fanaticism/ dogmatism, etc., causing untold misery in the World, must end completely!! SGGS shows us the way!!!
    ‘Sarbat da Bhala'(Welfare uto All), is one of the Universal Sikh Mottos!!!!
    With Love and Best wishes!!!
    Gurbaksh Sigh Oberoi.

    1. let me add another great Sikh, another great Sehaj-dhari Sikh of this period was Bhai Des Raj. In 1762 the invading Abdali attacked Sikhs, taking them by surprise. At kup (present district Ludhiana in the state of Punjab of the Indian subcontinent) Abdali massacred almost all the Sikhs except for a handful who deliberately escaped for the preservation of the faith. In Sikh history, this massacre is remembered as vadda ghalughara meaning the mammoth holocaust. Abdali also razed to the ground the Harmandir (present Golden Temple) at Amritsar and desecrated the Amritsar (pool of Immortality) by dumping into it carcasses of butchered cows and debris of the demolished buildings. Sehaj-dhari Sikhs, however, were able to replace the martyred Sikh population with new, enabling the Sikhs to regain their strength and resolve to rebuild the temple. The sarbat khalsa (national congregation of the Sikhs) met to plan for their restoration work and entrusted its management to their well-known member of the sarbat Khalsa, a Sehaj-dhari Sikh, Bhai Des Raj. According to Bhai Kahan Singh, a Hukamnama (a decree from the Khalsa) was issued directing Sikhs to obey and extend full cooperation to Bhai Des Raj to ensure the completion of the project. Thus, Bhai Des Raj was elected to lead the Khalsa and was authorized to use the Akal Takhat Seal, as was customary in those days. The person allowed to use the seal of Akal Takhat at that time was equivalent of current jathedar (authority is given only to the head of the Akal Takhat) of the Takhat. The Bhai sold his real estate, including his own residence, to contribute to the funds being collected for the reconstruction of Amritsar. Once the one room rental that he moved into, leaked because of torrential rains. His wife suggested that a construction worker be asked to repair the roof. The Bhai Ji is reported to have said, “how could you even think of using Guru’s property for repairing your own home?” Des Raj accomplished his job admirably and, like Kaura Mal, became immortal in the Sikh annals.

  6. Dr. Harbans Laljee: We appreciate your scholarship and providing us wisdom from Guru Granth Sahib and Sikh tradition through you blog and thoughtful writings that we can understand, appreciate and marvel, and embrace in humility and thanksgiving. That is what being an enlightened teacher and Sikh sevak is all about. ~ Kind regards, Kanwal Praksh (KP) Singh – Indianapolis, Indiana USA.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sardar Kanwal Parkash Singh ji. I really admire your tireless efforts and meaningful writings on introducing Sikh values to our neighbors in the West. Your writings are very timely.

  7. Thank you very much Dr Harbans Lal Ji for such a nice article. Bhai Des Raj was equally well respected SIKH like Diwan Todar Mal . To be a a good Sikh you do not have to wear traditional sikh turban. You can be a good sikh of Guru Nanak if you follow Guru’s teachings and you are good INSIDE.
    Once again thank you Doctor Sahib.

  8. With great respect and humility may we just pause and reflect as to why Guru Gobind Singh amended the Sikh ideology 317 years ago…Sikhism or the House Of Naanak had to be saved from the Islamic invaders and rulers of Punjab because successive Muslim leaders did not like a new ideology which challenged all other ideologies on their exclusivity and their cruelty to fellow Human Beings who were kept in abject poverty and slavery out of rigid dogma based on superstition and magic ! For most of these peoples, converting to Sikhi was virtually impossible because of the fear of the Mullahs and Brahmin priests ! So Guru Gobind Singh created a new movement called the Khalsa or Pure movement which was is a direct challenge to all other ideologies but particularly HINDUISM and ISLAM which all the Sikh Gurus rejected as unacceptable ideologies for Humanity and the equality of all Human Beings ! This is why only the Sikh identity is recognised as one of Sainthood and Warriorhood ! No other ideologies are praised universally like the House Of Naanak and the Khalsa ! In fact Guru Gobind Singh is so intelligent in what he created with the help of the Creator Being that 317 years on , today Sikhs are being given more praise and plaudits than ever before because Human Beings are getting more educated and learning about tolerance and are understanding why Sikhs are forbidden ANYTHING to do with other ideologies because those ideologies want world domination and the extermination or conversion of non believers or people who do not belong to their ideology ! The civil wars and famine in Africa and the middle east today with millions and millions of Christians and Muslims dying or being displaced is an affront to all civilisation and basic Human truth and decency ! Salutations to the true saviour , Guru Gobind Singh and the Khalsa who challenge and defeat the enemies of the one Human Race…

  9. Respected Dr. Harbans Lal Ji:
    Guru Fateh
    Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh Sahib gave the name “Sikh and Singh”. A Sikh means “Saint” its way leads to One God and allows one to merge into Him. Guru Gobind Singh gave a spirit of Sepahi or soldier” to stand guard to protect your honor, and self respect even at the cost of your life. If you wants to play the game of “Love” then come forward with your head on your palm. As saying goes ” A brave dies once” and coward dies a thousands time a day. Guru Nanak made the humanity aware of “Almighty God” that dwells in everything – every heart just like a fragrance dwells in a flower, or reflection in a mirror. thus in the house of Guru Nanak, every body is welcome regardless of: any age, color, creed, faith or Nationality. Guru Nanak taught that the human form was a great blessing- a gift of God. God adjudges man according to his deeds, not the coat of religions he or she wears. All people belong to one race, the human race. Sikh Prayer and Guru Ka Langar stands as a testimony.
    We pray to give you a long and healthy life to guide the Sikhs and humanity at large in the light of “Gurubani” and Sikh History.
    Dr. Piara Singh

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