One who has no faith in oneself can never have faith in God.
-Guru Granth Saheb
The voice at the other end said in a gentle tone, ‘Sat Sri Akal ji’. Having spent years in the North of India, I instinctively responded, ‘Sat Sri Akal Ji’ and continued in Hindi, ‘May I know who’s calling.’
My wife and I were checking off one more item on our bucket list by visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar. We didn’t realise when we planned this trip for my wife’s birthday that it was Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary, Gurparab, the day after. Realising later how crowded it would be, I requested Supreet, a fellow coach, a Sikh and a Coacharya learner, if she could help. Thanks to her and her father, this Sikh gentleman called from Amritsar, and said he would meet us when we arrived at the Taj, where we had planned to stay, and guide us to the temple.
In multiple ways, it was a dream visit. It evoked in me reflections on this amazing religion founded on Guru Nanak’s founding principles. As I read through its official history that the temple officials gave me, I realised how the Sikhs had gone through more martyrdom than any other community and religion that I know of, and still has emerged unbroken in spirit. From its early days Sikhs were persecuted by the Islamic Moghuls, later by the Christian British, and in later days by elected Hindu rulers of independent India. Their only fault seems to have been their inflexible belief in personal freedom, equality at all costs, a belief in one sacred truth devoid of religious implications.
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, from within the caste-ridden and religion conflicted India in the Mogul Era of around 1400 AD. Guru Nanak preached equality and respect amongst religious faiths without class distinctions. The word Sikh is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning a learner. The religion’s creed is Sewa, service to others. Unlike any other religion I know of, there is no supreme God or Gods. There is just the Holy Book, the Guru Granth Saheb, a collection of spiritual truths from multiple faiths, which is the only object the Sikhs worship. There are no rituals to speak of. In any Sikh temple, the Gurudwara, meaning Doorway to the Lord, there is free food, langar, any time of the day, and unstinting respectful service. This, we discovered to our surprise and some embarrassment included free cleaning of our footwear that we deposited before going into the temple. The only entry requirements are that you are unshod and with your head covered.
Our guide asked me as we came out of the Sanctum what else we would like to do when we were in the temple. I shamelessly said, the langar, the holy food. The Harmandir Saheb, as the Golden Temple is called, serves food 24×7, free for all who come, of any religion, race, or caste. It’s probably around 50,000 who eat here on most days and on special days over a hundred thousand. There are hundreds of volunteers, from multiple faiths, who offer Sewa round the clock. The spirituality underlying this temple and the religion is one of overwhelming humility borne of genuine respect.
Given that we were at the temple gates two days before the Guru’s birth anniversary, it was not much of a crowd according to our escort. Though there was no VIP entrance his presence allowed us to move through the not-so-big crowd, which was many hundreds, faster. There was no social distancing and as we entered the Sanctum, we were told to unmask. As I walked over the step into the shrine where the Guru Granth Saheb is placed complete silence descended on me. I was alone, at peace, and fulfilled. It was not ecstatic devotion nor cognitive wisdom of any truth. Later, my wife said she felt the same. The only other place we both had this experience was at the samadhi of Ramana Maharishi.
Many others I talked to since then seem to have experienced the same feeling. Despite a large number of people, there was no jostling, no one trying to get ahead of another, trying to linger on and be prodded out. There was respect for one another and tolerance for one another, a rare feeling to experience in India, especially now. The verses of the Granth Saheb sung in the shrine enhanced the energy. I have visited several hundred temples in India and abroad and wrote a book as well. I had rarely experienced what I did at the Harmandir Saheb.
It confuses me why such a noble religion is feared and persecuted even now. In the South of India where I grew up, there were very few Sikhs. When I went to work in the North right after graduation, I had the great fortune to meet many Sikhs. I never found even one Sikh who sought charity, nor one who cheated me or lied to me. Some may say I was lucky. I speak in comparison with many communities, including the ones I grew up in. The Sikhs, almost to a person, are honest, proud, and fearless. They don’t tolerate nonsense and falsehood. Of course, this frightens the **** of many who make their living out of deceit.
I still recall the horrors in Delhi in 1985 when the ruling party unleashed the terror of genocide on Sikhs after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guard for her sacrilege of the Harmandir Sahib. I lived within a factory premise with my family when then mobs came to our gates baying for the blood of a few Sikhs I had hidden in a warehouse, and mine as well if I didn’t hand them over. I denied knowledge of any such thing. By this time a few of our Labour Union leaders arrived on the scene, stood as a barrier, said that whatever I said is always true, and persuaded the mob to disperse. Just 6 months earlier, I had had difficult negotiations with these guys who saved my life and of the Sikhs. I remember them with deep respect and gratitude. I lived to tell the tale of those horror-filled days. The next morning, one of our workers led me to the boundary wall to see the mutilated corpses that lined the Grand Trunk railway line adjacent to the wall. Our son, about 9 then, still recalls that nightmare. Till to date the then rulers have not apologised to the Sikh community for the horror they unleashed.
This piece is my grateful homage to this great religion and its wonderful community. Perhaps I would be reborn a Sikh.