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‘Sri Charitropakhyan – An analysis of the writings of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’ by Prabhjot Singh

Charitropakhyan1

This month the Sikhi book club members discussed the article ‘Sri Charitropakhyan’ by Prabhjot Singh. This article is available as a pdf here.

This article is essentially a summary and overview of Sri Charitropakhyan which is contained within Sri Dasam Granth Sahib. It was written some years ago during a period of time when there was significant controversy over this Bani. It was clear to all the members that this article was not written to present both points of view, but was essentially written to provide evidence and enhance understanding that this Bani is in line with the rest of the teachings within Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and Dasam Bani. It was noted that the article had originally been posted on an online forum, and subsequently had been put together in PDF format for ease of reading. Some members felt that the ‘introductory’ paragraphs by the author should have been removed so that the focus was on the content of the article itself.

The article was divided into four logical sections, covering different aspects of Sri Charitropakhyan. The first of these was an analysis of Chandi Charitar (the first Charitar). There was a helpful overview on the reasons why this Bani was written, and a summary of the content. The author highlighted that each story within this text has a moral message, and essentially acts as a guide for how Sikhs should live their lives and deal with negative, dangerous or unsavoury situations. Guru Gobind Singh Ji does an awesome analysis on societal pain, criminal mentality and the problems which arise from intense lust. These issues have been highly relevant throughout time, and are potently relevant in today’s society (both within the Sikh Panth and in the world in general). Prabhjot Singh talked about the reasons why Devis and Devte are mentioned in Gurbani, and discussed the concept of Chandi as describing the source of creation (Akaal Purakh) which the members found was a good starting point for the rest of the analysis.

It was made clear within this article that this Bani was not written to defame women, but was instead written to describe the complexity and potential indescribable value of women in society. Guru Gobind Singh Ji has written a compelling criticism of a male dominated society which superficially gives women equal rights, whilst consistently undermining women and keeping them at a distance from true power. He discusses the complexity of a woman’s characteristics, describing examples of how women are driven to immorality as a result of excessive male desires. Conversely Guru Sahib also describes the wisdom of women in preventing men from becoming power-obsessed, and shows the potential strength of character that women have which ultimately is a positive force for good in a male dominated society. This is highlighted through the story of ‘Baala’ who rises out of the ashes of battle as a force for purity and wisdom.

The members found it particularly useful reading Prabhjot Singh’s summary of the story of King Charitar. Seven key points were summarised here which highlighted the main messages that any Sikh can take from this story. The members discussed that often, when Dasam Bani is being discussed, it is discussed by people who haven’t actually read any of it. As Sikhs today we are eager to have soundbites but we don’t want to do the reading and in depth analysis of whole pieces of literature written by our Gurus. In today’s society tabloid newspapers and TV shows are actually a product of the very things Guru Gobind Singh Ji has written about. If we could read Sri Charitropakhyan to enhance our own learning and adopt its messages as a tool to improve our way of living, this will make a huge difference (rather than simply reading it and discussing it for the sake of having arguments).

Guru Gobind Singh Ji clearly wrote this play as a shrewd analysis of the human condition. Too often religions lay down black and white rules of what should and shouldn’t be done. Here, the Guru describes many different aspects of men and women, both good and bad, reflecting the potential we all have for various emotions and desires. Ultimately the Bani implies that Sikhs blessed with a true understanding have the rationale and wisdom to make decent decisions, and act according to this intellect. Guru Sahib isn’t telling us in uncertain terms to do this or that, but rather is highlighting (through the art of story telling) that if you choose to go down a path where lust controls your thoughts, this potentially what can happen, giving several examples. Guru Sahib is also placing emphasis on the fact that Sikhs will undoubtedly face such dilemmas and should know how to deal with them. He provides guidance on how to be Ghar Gristhi (and interestingly this wisdom comes from character of a Brahmin’s in one of the Charitars). It is clear in that particular Charitar that Guru Gobind Singh Ji is refuting the traditions of the Brahmins.

In the last Charitar, the scenes are emotive and awe-inspiring. Guru Gobind Singh Ji brings all the concepts discussed previously together into an epic narrative. The members discussed how two lines of this are included within Rehraas Sahib, and discussed the importance of Sikhs knowing where this comes from and what these lines refer to in order to gain the most benefit from the wisdom that is in Sri Charitropakhyan. Then follows Chaupai Sahib which essentially asks for the strength to righteously enact the wisdom contained in the guidance that has preceded it. It is sad that many Sikhs would be in complete denial if they realised that part of Rehras Sahib was actually derived from Sri Charitropakhyan.

In conclusion, the members reflected that this article was well worth reading. Whilst the Punjabi translations were a bit difficult to read and the editing of the article could have been improved, the content fulfilled its purpose in providing an overview and analysis of the messages behind Sri Charitropakhyan. Guru Gobind Singh Ji has provided an in depth treatise on daily ethics which is highly relevant and invaluable to help us lead better lives. Fundamentally it demonstrates the Guru’s far-reaching analysis on the power and complexity of women, and the positive contribution they can make to society, whilst holding men to account for many of the problems the world faces today. Hopefully as time goes on, more Sikhs will be able to take benefit and wisdom from this piece of Bani. This article is a good place for that journey to begin.

‘The Letters of Bhai Udham Singh’ by J.S. Grewal and H. K. Puri

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In remembrance of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in May 2019 the Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘The Letters of Bhai Udham Singh’. This book aimed to publicize some significant facts about Udham Singh’s life and foster appreciation for his personality. The book used oral evidence from those who knew him, as well as archived material and a personal collection of documents from Shiv Singh Johal who was a close personal friend of Bhai Udham Singh when he was in the UK.

The members began by discussing Bhai Udham Singh’s life, which was narrated briefly in this book. He was born as Sher Singh around 1899 and lived part of his childhood life in an orphanage. Whilst staying for a period in America, he linked with the Ghararites before returning to India. He was a close admirer of Bhagat Singh whom he regarded as a teacher. After spending some time in jail he travelled around India before being arrested again. His character was evident in this book as being passionate regarding revolution and Indian independence, as well as being confident, charming and well versed in English. Many of the members had never heard any substantiated information about Bhai Udham Singh’s life and so this part of the book was highly informative.

We also discussed the summary of modern Indian and Punjabi history which this book contained. For anyone looking for a contemporary account of how the Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha and independence movements developed the first part of this book contains a detailed and highly useful summary of the chronology of events in this period.

Bhai Udham Singh killed one of the individuals responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in March 1940 in England. Subsequently the British authorities made a specific effort to prevent his actions from being reported in order to avoid his being hailed as a hero in the eyes of independence advocates in India. Bhai Udham Singh was incarcerated until his own murder. His ashes were eventually returned to India after much difficulty and these were received with a hero’s welcome. It wasn’t until 2018 that a statue of his was erected at the site of the massacre in Amritsar.

The latter part of the book contains Bhai Udham Singh’s own letters which have been scanned in and then transcribed for ease of reading. These letters are accompanied with commentary for the reader. There are many who regard Bhai Udham Singh as having renounced his faith or heritage during this time in prison. The reality however is that he showed his sense of humour through these letters, talking about the chaplain trying to convert him and referring to the Lord Chamberlain as Mrs Chamberlain. He protected his close friends by indicating that he didn’t know them well, and signs himself as Mohammed Singh Azad, despite everyone involved knowing full well his real identity. His requests for a Sikh chaplain were repeatedly denied. The book club members found these letters invaluable in providing a closer insight into Bhai Udham Singh’s thoughts and feelings at the time of his incarceration.

In summary this book contains a good summary of events in the lead up to India’s independence, and contains valuable information about Bhai Udham Singh’s life and writings. Any individual looking to learn more about this period in history would be advised to read this book.

‘Art work in Historic Sikh Shrines: need for documentation & conservation’ by Balvinder Singh

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In March the Sikhi Book Club discussed this article by Balvinder Singh from the Guru Ramdas School of Planning in Amritsar. It was originally presented in an international symposium in Greece in 2007. The article highlights the concepts of conservation and the need for adopting this approach for historical Sikh shrines. It also describes the unique art forms which are included in our historical Gurdwaras and the deterioration of the Panth’s approach to art since the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The paper traces the history of art forms and their techniques and suggests guidelines for their documentation and preservation.

The author structures this article in the usual way for an academic piece of work, with an introduction to the concepts and basic philosophy of the Sikh tradition. He then begins by summarising the components of a Gurdwara and the spiritual significance of aspects such as the langar kitchen. The author then moves on to the discuss the evolution of art in Punjab, predominantly under royal patronage. This aspect of Sikh history is not commonly known amongst modern day Sikhs and this article provides a useful insight into the cultural renaissance which took place in Punjab during the 19th century.

Balvinder Singh then describes some historical Sikh shrines in more depth, choosing to focus on Sri Harimandar Sahib, Baba Atal Rai, Darbar Sahib in Tarn Taran, Hazoor Sahib in Nanded and Dera Sahib in Lahore. The various art forms in each of these Gurdwaras are described, including Jaratkari (inlaid stone), Mohrakashi (frescos), gold embossing and Tukri (mirror work). The technical details of each art form are described for those who are interested, and pictures are present throughout to help the reader visualise the tehniques involved.

Finally the author discusses the present (often shabby) condition of several of these art forms. For example, the increasing pollution in Punjab has affected the colour of many of the marble works which are present in the Gurdwaras and these now require examination and restoration if they are to be preserved. Examples of good preservation techniques are also highlighted and accompanied by pictures. A number of potential guidelines are presented at the end of the article to act as suggestions which will help in the conservation of our rich architectural and spiritual heritage.

Whilst it is unclear what impact this article has had on the conservation of Sikh heritage in Punjab, it is clear that this is an excellent piece of work which summarises some of the key unique aspects of our art history.

‘Discourses on the beyond’ Part 1 by Sant Waryam Singh Ji

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In February the book club discussed the book ‘Discourses on the beyond’ Part 1 by Sant Waryam Singh Ji. The book begins with a summary of Sant Ji’s life, providing some context to the publication of the Atam Marg magazine which he founded. This book was part of an English section of the magazine. The book is divided into five sections, covering different aspects of spirituality:

– The discourses of Sant Ishar Singh Ji of Rara Sahib

– The path of the saints

– The ladder of religion

– Guru Gobind Singh Ji

– Guru Granth Sahib Ji

Some members of the Sikhi Book Club felt that the book lacked structure, whereas others felt that the way it had been written was advantageous, because it was written in an easy-to-read manner which was more flexible for the reader. Whilst there was no doubt that this book included some technical terms, for the most part the readers found that these were explained as the book went along.

All the members felt that this book was a hidden gem full of spiritual wisdom. It was well written and straightforward to read, if deep at times. The start of the book describes a question and answer session with Sant Ishar Singh Ji, and the answers are the ones which Sant Waryam Singh Ji has documented. Questions such as “What are the main barriers on the path of truth?” Each answer was extensive and was related to Gurbani, providing the reader with an overview of the topic from the Guru’s perspective. Some of the answers to the questions asked by the sangat were linked with Vedant dharam e.g. reference was made to Arjun & Krishna’s conversation in the Gita as a way of explaining the difference between the mind, intellect and ego and how these are distinct from Atma.

Sant Waryam Singh Ji’s descriptions were blunt and to the point at times. He describes the different spiritual states we are all in which be a bit of a wake up call to the reader. The importance of Sadhsangat is described and the attributes of Maya are discussed. References are made to other texts such as Sri Suraj Prakash. Sant Ji provides advice on the roles of good deeds, actions and the balance of external worship with inner wisdom. The book does contain some careful critique of the psychology of Sikhs of all shapes and sizes, and can be a difficult pill to swallow but it fulfils its purpose which is to wake the reader from spiritual slumber.

One of the topics in the book was how to recognise a saint, and the book touched on the fact that the world contains many saints who outwardly don’t appear to be saints. These are saints in cognito. The key message here was to treat everyone like they are a saint, and then the saints will come to you. The book club members had a discussion as to how this advice might be adopted on a practical level and how this works when there are negative influencers who use the status of saints in order to compromise the integrity of the Panth.

One of the most important aspects of this book is when Sant Ji outlines the steps that should be taken to do good. This includes the act of self-reflection every day, taking stock of what good has been achieved each day and what seva has been done of others. Unfortunately nowadays we don’t naturally self-reflect and this habit is at the core of leading a spiritually fulfilling existence. Similarly Sant Ji discusses the intentions and the mindset behind straightforward daily tasks such as bathing, eating, living. These things can become a source of contention for Sikhs who argue about differences in Rehat, but ultimately whilst these are important, we shouldn’t become obsessed by them.

In summary this book was well worth reading, and contains some significant pearls of wisdom which were highly valued by the members of the book club. Hopefully in future we will read some of the other books in this series.

‘Sikh Leadership: Established Ideals and Diasporic Reality’ by Harinder Singh and Simran Jeet Singh

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This month the Sikhi Book Club discussed the article ‘Sikh Leadership: Established Ideals and Diasporic Reality’ by Harinder Singh and Simran Jeet Singh published via Trinity University in association with the Sikh Research Institute. The article can be found here.

The members began by sharing their initial thoughts on the article, with some saying that they felt it was a very important and thought-provoking topic, whilst others felt that the article lacked sufficient depth and solutions. There was discussion on how we portray our Gurus in a public sphere such as this journal or in the media. The authors described the Gurus as ‘Guru-Prophets’ which some members didn’t like, as they felt it did not do justice to the significance of the Gurus and was an attempt to use non-Sikh language to characterise the Gurus. However others felt this was a relatively minor issue. The members reflected that leaders often arise out of the frustrations of the public or sangat, and that in many modern day examples leaders are born from social injustice.

The article presented the ideal qualities of a Sikh leader, including self-sovereignty, servitude, creativity, compassion and divine inspiration. After going through these qualities we discussed whether or not the concept of equality for all was realistic, and what equality really means. Are all voices truly equal and should they be? In current political times, we have examples where the masses are given an ‘equal’ voice and this has led to turmoil because not everybody is truly qualified to make significant decisions. A leader usually remains above the general masses, but at the same time has to ensure equality for all in line with Sikh principles. The example of Guru Gobind Singh Ji rings true in demonstrating the true qualities of a leader, when he bowed to the Panj Pyare and Panth as being higher than his own throne, despite being the King of Kings. The members also discussed whether it was realistic to aim for the ideals of the Guru in terms of leadership. Ultimately the members agreed that if you were going to use anyone as a role model, it might as well be the Guru as who else’s footsteps should we aim to walk in?

The book club members also discussed the fact that there is a dichotomy in terms of leaderships within the Sikh Panth. On one hand, there are many people in the Panth who shy away from leadership despite being able. On the other hand, many other people become leaders without the qualifications to fulfil this role and vie for leadership for selfish or power-related reasons. One member made an interesting point regarding communities receiving leaders that they deserve. In other words, that leaders are born of the people they represent, and what we as individuals invest in a society ultimately impacts on the leaders that are produced.

The discussion moved on to development of leadership in Punjab. The article highlighted the three authentic schools of development (Taksal, Udasis and Nirmala Panth) and the members discussed the fact that traditional schools place emphasis on a structured and extensive educational model which is not universally adopted by Sikh individuals. In fact many Sikhs now invest time in material development to a a much greater extent than anything else (for example, having 12-13 years of schooling followed by a degree, followed by work) but we are reluctant to adopt this same level of personal development when it comes to spiritual education. The article highlighted youth camps as being one way that Sikh leaders are developed in the West, and the pros and cons of camps were discussed by the members. We discussed the fact that camps are symptoms of problems within the Panth in that Gurdwaras are not necessarily fulfilling their obligations in providing spiritual and temporal knowledge and engagement, so camps are held in an attempt to provide this for one or two days but without ongoing follow up for individuals or evaluation of their effect. Nonetheless they are important methods of introducing young Sikhs to other Sikhs.

One of the members raised the question as to whether Sikhs generally feel the need for leadership. The members discussed the need for local leaders, family leaders, as well as leaders of the Panth more broadly and what forms this could take. We reflected upon the principles of leadership as put forth by Guru Gobind Singh Ji and the fact that Sikhs are enouraged to be leaders in all aspects (material and spiritual). We talked about the organisations in the USA who have formed to represent Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 and have produced scholarships and pathways around Sikh leadership and how to build confidence amongst young Sikhs today.

The members concluded by sharing their final thoughts on the article. All were in agreement that the topic was relevant and important, but some expressed frustration that there wasn’t more depth in terms of analysis of previous leaders and discussion about potential strategies for shaping leaders of the future. Perhaps this was outside the scope of this article. The members agreed that the topic of leadership was felt to be a fitting one for the occasion of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s Gurpurab.

‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, translated by Thomas Cleary

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For the last Sikhi Book Club of 2018, we discussed ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, translated by Thomas Cleary. The book can be found here.

The members began by reflecting that this is the oldest book we’ve done so far, and despite its short length, the book had many interesting applications to the modern world and spirituality. The ultimate message was about how to achieve your objectives in life without fighting. The direct translation was assisted by Thomas Cleary’s commentary on each paragraph. The principles underpinning the book were around a Taoist belief system. The book is essentially a treatise about war but is also about how to attain peace.

In terms of Sikhi, the members discussed that Sikhs should be engaged in warfare both on a spiritual and a temporal level. We have the concept of being ‘tyaar bar tyaar’ i.e. being in a state of constant situational awareness which ensures that one is ready to deal with anything. The book placed emphasis of knowing oneself before knowing (or directing) others. To truly know oneself, a Sikh has to look internally and connect with the Guru, as well as seeing the Guru in everyone around them.

It is also interesting to look through the lens of Sikh history when reading this book. There was some discussion around why the reign of the Sikhs ultimately failed and what lessons can be drawn from Sun Tzu. At the same time, some members felt that Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s method and philosophy of doing battle was on a different level to that presented in this book. For example, in Sikhi, death is not necessarily a defeat as if a Sikh is at One with Waheguru, there is no body to die. On a purely numbers-basis, Sikhs can be regarded as losers in historical terms. On the other hand in terms of quality and philosophy the Sikhs are great winners. As Sun Tzu says, what everyone knows is not called wisdom.

On a material and physical level, the book provides many pieces of useful advice on choosing your battles and assessing which ones can realistically be fought and won. It also highlights how to incorporate losses into the overall battle strategy, and how to use reward to motivate soldiers. There were parallels with some principles incorporated in Shaster Vidhya such as the importance of fluidity of movement, using different tactics to confuse and bewilder the enemy, and the use of momentum and force. Physicality and training within Sikhi is something which we commonly forget nowadays and the members collectively agreed this is something which needs a higher profile within Sikh circles.

The book ended with a chapter on the use of spies, which circled back to the original chapter discussing the importance of strategic planning. Sun Tzu placed emphasis on the importance of sharing only ‘need to know’ information i.e. sharing only essential information with soldiers in order to protect the integrity of strategic plans and also to avoid soldiers becoming disillusioned. Certainly this chapter provided many parallels with the modern day warfare, which is often now intelligence-based rather than based on physical confrontation. Ultimately all wars are wars of information now in one sense or another.

The members rounded off the discussion with a reflection on how valuable this book had been to read, given that the information within it was thousands of years old, and yet hardly utilised.

‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’ by Eckhart Tolle

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This month’s book was ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’ by Eckhart Tolle. The book can be found here. Eckhart Tolle is a German-born author who has written about spirituality and enlightenment. This book was discussed in the book club as part of our effort to read some books written by non-Sikh authors in order to broaden our perspectives.

The book began with a foreword which aimed to bust three common myths. Firstly that humanity has reached the pinnacle of learning already, secondly that humans are separate from each other, nature and the Cosmos, and thirdly that the physical world is all that there is. Arguments were presented to destroy these myths by way of introducing Eckhart’s ideas.

Following this Eckhart’s own experience was described. This was described from Eckhart’s perspective, and outlined a sudden spiritual awakening which occurred during a period of significant depression. Following this experience he spent some time detached from the material world in a state of bliss, before readjusting to living in society. The members discussed the suddenness of Eckhart’s spiritual awakening, and likened this to stories about Sikh saints who have attained enlightenment. It was interesting to note that even Eckhart had a Guru/teacher of sorts, albeit that this took the form of many different individuals from different traditions.

The members discussed the concept of enlightenment as per Eckhart i.e. that this is essentially freedom from the mind, and is not something to be achieved but already exists inside us. Sikhi also has the same concept of enlightenment/liberation during human life, and the fact that it can be achieved by anyone with the help of the Guru’s guidance.

One of the key concepts discussed was ‘time’ as a factor which contributes to negative thinking. Eckhart writes extensively about the importance of focusing the mind on the present moment, also called mindfulness. The members discussed the relationship of mindfulness to Sikhi. In some senses, mindfulness is intrinsically linked to Sikhi. For example, in Mool Mantar the words Akaal Moorat are mentioned, highlighting the timeless nature of Akaal Purakh (and the timeless nature of our own Atma). This is the part that Eckhart refers to as the ‘conscious self’. Gurbani repeatedly tells us about the importance of controlling the mind (becoming engrossed in Manmat), and ensuring that we are not a slave to our senses and emotions. Some of these themes are very similar to the content of this book, although Gurbani doesn’t reference mindfulness directly as we know it now in a Western sense.

There was debate about the relationship of mindfulness to Naam Simran, and whether these should be regarded as two separate things, or a spectrum of spiritual practice or part of the same thing. Some felt that Naam Simran provoked a very different feeling than mindfulness, and that purely living in the present moment is not what Gurbani talks about. Others felt that there was a definite role for mindfulness within Sikhi, even if on a very superficial level. All were in agreement that some of the recommendations from this book could be incorporated into every day life for Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.

We moved on to talk about some of the practical methods of identifying our conscious selves and distinguishing this from our mind. This was a difficult concept for some to grasp and we spent time unpicking what this means. Does the mind go with us when we die? If not, then what does? If people lose their minds with illnesses such as Dementia, does this mean they aren’t people anymore? In the end the members agreed that the Atma or soul was separate from the mind. The members discussed that meditative techniques are a way of maintaining our inner health, much like exercise maintains our physical health. Meditation as Eckhart describes it can result in us being more successful in identifying harmful patterns of behaviour, and letting go of these before they take hold and disrupt our lives. This is essentially meditative cognitive behavioural therapy.

The book covered many more concepts which were not fully discussed in this month’s meeting due to lack of time. Overall the members were in agreement that this book provided valuable insights for anyone genuinely interested in improving their lives on a spiritual level, Sikh or non-Sikh.