I was watching a friend’s directorial debut music video on Youtube today and amidst my laughter and admiration at the exquisite lyrics, I couldn’t help but think of the countless issues it raised within the Sikh and Punjabi community. Admittedly, it is something of a curse that I can’t consume even a light-hearted music video without considering the consequences of what I see on screen, or hear in the lyrics or feel when experiencing the piece as a whole. But this video raised a very important issue (aren’t they all?) and one that is all too often misunderstood, unnecessarily.

The song is titled ‘Babas in Paris’. Narvir Singh, a young film-maker whom we have collaborated with at Naujawani.com has created an amusing work that is both entertaining and brashly honest. Yet rather than concentrate on the video and track itself, many Sikhs and Punjabis will hit the dislike button on Youtube or voice their disquiet through Facebook or Twitter for the simple reason that the word ‘Baba’ is mentioned in the title. This upsets me because it denotes a lack of contemplation, analysis and maturity within us as a people. I am speaking in very general terms, but it is a reality we as a community must face if we are to progress and change our ways.

It has always been lost on me why people who are spiritually inspired by an individual would take offence to a complaint made about a charlatan. In truth it hasn’t been lost on me, but I would rather not believe what I am left to conclude – that many of these people don’t hold the respect they would have you believe they do, for their ‘baba’. I grew up in a family environment where we were inspired to live the Sikh way of life by an individual who is titled as either Sant or Baba, depending on who you ask. We never held this individual up to the level of Guru, or as a patriarch of any form, but we did listen attentively to his interpretation of Gurbani and the Sikh way of life. I have complete faith that he was as good a man as I believe him to be and I would find it difficult to think ill of him in any scenario, although that doesn’t mean I would see him unpunished for any criminal misdemeanours. But it also goes without saying that when people speak of fake babas, nakli (fake) sadhs or con-artist sants, I never dream for a moment that he is even in the same category as them. He was an inspiring man of Truth and many Sikhs and Punjabis will feel the same way about an individual I am sure who although being a baba is not the babas who are the subject of society’s ire.

But this raises the question as to how you determine who is fake and who is real. Again, I’ve always thought this is obvious, but the argument is that once brainwashed by a cunning trickster, people lose the ability to reason objectively. A quick lesson in ideology might help here. The word ‘baba’ originates from the Persian word for father. It was originally a title given to Sufi elders and over time entered common usage in Punjab as an affectionate term for elderly men. In a Sikh context it denotes a mark of reverence – think of Baba Buddha Ji, Baba Ala Singh or Baba Kharak Singh. All too often the word ‘Baba’ is used interchangeably with the word ‘Sant’. But they are very different. ‘Sant’ comes from the word ‘Sat’ meaning a universal Truth, self-existent, a reality. Buddhists used the term to depict something as tranquil, true or wise, whilst within the Bhakti movement it was a title for bhagats. In the Sikh context it is a term for those are considered to be the salt of the Earth and a hope for mankind – think of Sant Atter Singh or Sant Isher Singh.

In my opinion this helps us (even those who are under the illusion of a charming fraudster) define who is the real deal, and who humour like the music video below is aimed at. A real baba or sant helps the World become a better place through their deeds which command respect almost universally, certainly when looked at objectively, without religion or spirituality entering the equation. They find ways to feed the hungry, whilst the charlatans feed themselves; they build great buildings for all to share and take ownership of, whilst the charlatans amass landholdings to pass on to their kith and kin; they deliver the word of Guru Nanak, whilst the charlatans deliver only their own eulogies.

The one-time National Professor of Sikhism, Sardar Kapur Singh commented: “A class of pseudo-sants (has sprung up) … These sants are mostly illiterate or uneducated, according to the ancient prejudice that holiness accord ill with worldly learning and scholastic education …”. This sums up for me how easy it is to spot a fake baba and see how far removed they are from the real thing. The Sikh way of life holds nothing in more esteem than the process of learning – hence the name Sikh – and any person who advocates that it is not required or should not be emphasised is clearly doing the name baba a disservice. These people are a poison in our community and they should be prosecuted where wrongdoing can be proven by the authorities, but as a Panth we must also make it unacceptable for them to go freely under the guise of spreading the good word of the House of Guru Nanak. We can do this by making it socially unacceptable through music, film and the arts.

Punjab is full of charlatans who will do whatever they can for money, power and an easy life. Some of these men are businessmen, others masquerade as doctors, whilst some pretend to be spiritually inspired. The fake babas should not reflect badly on those real individuals who are inner-enlightened and work to make the World a better place. But more importantly, we shouldn’t look at them as being anywhere in the same category. This video and its sort which mock the behaviours of the fake babas of our World are entertainment, but entertainment with a purpose and I for one applaud the attempt.