I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the National Meeting of The Inter Faith Network for the UK (IFN) earlier this week. The IFN is a body of representatives from various faith groups around the UK. It was set up in 1987 to promote good relations between faith communities of this country. At present it is endorsed by all of its 185 member bodies. It was an insightful and productive day with discourse on a range of matters such as addressing difficult issues sensitively in local inter faith contexts; inter faith engagement and extremism; and faith communities responding to social challenges. I believe these sorts of events can only strengthen the relationship between different faith groups and provide a solid foundation upon which we can work together. It was a pleasure listening to the views and opinions of people from the different faith groups. However, I was disheartened to learn that of the 185 member bodies, there is only 1 Sikh group currently registered with the IFN, namely the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) headed by Lord Indarjit Singh CBE, who incidentally was co-founder of the IFN.
Aside from the fact that I was unable to find a list of organisations the NSO purports to represent, it is alarming to realise that the Sikhs have less than 1% representation amongst the IFN. This is most alarming because Sikh philosophy and ideology is perhaps the most significant in promoting inter faith values; not only evident from Gurbani but also apparent from the Guru’s actions and the actions of the Sikhs.
The Sikh scripture contains the writings of various Saints that were from different religious backgrounds; a scripture which Sikhs regard as the living Guru and bow in reverence of it. As well as spiritual emancipation, great emphasis is placed on social equality, freedom to practice ones faith without the threat of persecution, and recognition of humanity as being one and the same. The concept of divinity is so unique when compared to other faiths that one cannot help but think the world still has much to learn from Guru Nanak.
Concepts such as Langar are a shining example of how the Guru demolished social barriers prevalent between different sets of communities. Langar wasn’t just a place to get free food, although for some Sikhs today that is the only reason for its existence, but rather it was a statement from the Guru to bring about social change. The underlying message of Langar is to break bread with a fellow human, irrespective of their social, political or economic status. This was a revolutionary act of its time when food was deemed dirty by followers of Hinduism if the shadow of a person considered to be of low caste fell on the plate of a person considered to be of high caste.
Langar was so revolutionary that it took the rest of the world 500 years to implement. The world’s first food bank was established in the US in 1967, and since then many thousands have been set up all over the world. In Europe, the numbers grew rapidly after the global inflation of the price of food which began in late 2006. Food banks appear to have surfaced due to the economic pressures being placed on people. The difference being that the Guru’s Langar was established on principles such as compassion, equality and humility; all driven by a love for humanity.
This is but one example of how Sikh principles can change society for the betterment of all humanity. However if the Sikhs remain reluctant to share their way of life then they will only have themselves to blame. When an issue such as wearing the Kirpan, or wearing a turban through airport security arises, the Sikhs become a very reactive community. The petitions and lobby groups tour the country like a circus demanding reconciliation on matters important to them.
The approach should not be reactive, but rather proactive. Proactive in educating others about the Sikh faith; its philosophy, its history and its practices. When others learn why a Sikh is instructed to carry the Kirpan, they will naturally become tolerant and accepting. This can only be achieved if the Sikhs rediscover their ability to engage with society and not only attend interfaith events but become frontrunners of such endeavours.
Countless Sikh organisations across the globe are carrying out charitable activities and the sole basis for their work is Guru Nanak’s Sikhi. With the absence of an independent Sikh State, it is reassuring and comforting to know that the Sikhs are starting to gain recognition for their efforts in the corridors of global media corporations. I have no doubt that that work will continue. However in my view, if ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’ is to be implemented to full effect, the Sikhs need to harness more of their energy and resources towards actively participating in debates that tackle issues affecting society on a local, regional and national level. That was how the Guru started work and today we have his blueprint with which we can deliver positive change to the lives of people around us.
I feel an over-reliance has been placed on the Sikh institutions, especially the Gurdwara where the power hungry committee has tarnished the reputation of the average Sikh. The Sikh Media in the UK have chosen to follow the antics of opposing Gurdwara factions by non-cooperation, constant slander and criticism of their fellow professionals. On the contrary, a special mention should be made to the Sikhs that led food drives in Leicester last year; their efforts were mentioned by a representative of one of the member bodies that was present at the IFN National Meeting. He spoke highly of the Sikhs and expressed much adulation for their work in the area. It is therefore evident that Sikh concepts such as Langar are being recognised for tackling social issues faced by people in the UK. At a time when austerity cuts across the UK are destabilising the financial outlook of thousands of people, there is a need for Sikhs to continue providing services that can help resolve these social issues.
However there needs to be a balance between actual hands on Seva, like that carried out by groups such as the Leicestershire Sikh Alliance, SWAT London and Khalsa Aid who have shown the UK and the world at large what Sikhs do best. The balance needs to arrive in the form of engaging with different communities in an environment that allows discourse, discussion and debate. That also includes local and regional forums that may not necessarily be centred around an inter faith agenda, but could nonetheless benefit from a Sikh perspective.
The Guru was a spiritual leader, political activist and social reformer who stood up against the injustice of his time. Those choices sometimes led to imprisonment, torture and even death but he stood for the Truth. The Guru led armies into battle, built safe havens for all of creation and when the need arose the Guru held discourse with others on a range of topics. That is why the Guru was a perfect being and it is the reason why the Khalsa for me is the epitome of perfection.
Some of the most revered Sikhs after the Guruship period espoused the same traits of standing for Truth, expressing love for humanity and nature, and protecting the weak and oppressed. They drew their inspiration from the Guru’s actions and the Guru’s word. Whether it be the actions of Banda Singh to uproot an entire dynasty; the actions of Bhagat Puran Singh to serve humanity; or the actions of a certain Sant Jarnail Singh to uplift an entire Nation; the theme of standing against all types of injustice has continued throughout the annals of Sikh history.
Present day Sikhs should also draw inspiration from the actions of the Sikhs before them and champion positive social change in whichever way they can; both in the field and in the classroom.