On Rehat and Marriage in Sikhi – A Response
I believe that the major reason people tend to take issue with the Rehat Maryada is not because they believe the Sikh Panth has changed, but because they understand that there are parts of the Rehat that directly contradict the primary text in the Sikh faith – the Guru Granth Sahib. The issue is also a result of an understanding that the Rehat is a secondary text. It is extrascriptural and should not ever be treated as scriptural or primary in our practicing of Sikhi and interpretation of the Guru Granth Sahib.
No religion is formed in—and no religion continues to exist in—a historical and cultural vacuum. Every religious community is continuously affected by the cultural and historical context within which it exists. To argue that religious communities should not respond to shifts in cultural and historical norms is to argue for a lack of religious evolvement and betterment. There is a difference between the natural evolution of religion and the much-feared extreme of creating an entirely new faith. But I can assure you that those religious communities that move in the direction of these changes are the communities that are ultimately strengthened. In that context, it is absolutely impossible to claim that the Panth has changed because otherwise observant Sikhs have not followed the Rehat.
I do not think anyone here would argue against the statement that Sikhi is about both Guru Granth and Guru Panth, miri and piri. I also do not think anyone would argue against the statement that the Guru Granth Sahib itself is timeless and constant regardless of cultural and historical context. But the Rehat Maryada is not the Guru Granth Sahib. The Rehat Maryada is undoubtedly a document that was developed painstakingly by knowledgeable and respected members of our community, but it is also undoubtedly a document that reflects the cultural and historical context relevant to the time and place in which it was written. In religious studies, this is something that is highly debated—across all faiths, but the general conclusion that is made, and the general consensus that is agreed upon amongst scholars, is that, in cases of secondary and non-revelatory texts (which the Rehat is classified as), the material should be studied in context. If you look at Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, you will find that even the primary texts have been reinterpreted and “re-read” throughout history in ways that are relevant to the existing contexts. Abhorrent practices have continued in major faiths by virtue of not applying the context of the continued enlightenment of society. For example, it is through a lack of considering context that oppressive treatment of homosexuals, blacks, and women in these faiths has occurred in early and recent history and continues to occur today.
To use a more specific example, the Qur’an says nothing about the inequality of women—it clearly states that man and woman are equal, does not state that women are required to veil, and it actually blames the entire Fall of man on Adam.These things were misinterpreted and misconstrued in secondary texts, midrashic texts, isra’iliyyat (Judeo-Christian narratives), extrascriptural hadith (narrative accounts of the Prophet), and exegesis by members of the Muslim community who were, like any other human being, entirely influenced by their cultural and historical contexts.
Similarly, the Rehat was created by members of our community who were just as affected by their cultural and historical contexts as we are in our, as you put it, “50 mile radius” point of view. I therefore must vehemently disagree with your statement that the Rehat should not be reviewed and updated in a way that might sacrifice some of the previous codes of conduct—which frankly, fail to be relevant in our current context.
As for your statements about what makes someone qualify as a Sikh, I have a good number of counter-arguments to raise. You argue that the idea that a Sikh is anyone who bows before the Guru and calls himself or herself a Sikh is self-destructive. But this is inconsistent with other elements of your arguments concerning who is worthy enough to be able to qualify as a Sikh. Are there not plenty of Sikhs who keep their kesh and who “look like Sikhs,” who come to Gurdwara, and bow before the Guru and call themselves Sikhs who do not perform actions that follow Sikhi? Are there not plenty of Sikhs born into Sikhi that rarely come to Gurdwara and rarely remember Vaheguru in their daily lives? Are there not plenty of Sikhs who cuttheir hair and come to Gurdwara—not because they feel obligated, but because they genuinely want to come—who are moved by bani and kirtan and who perform actions of good Sikhs? Should they be entirely written off simply because theydo not keep their hair? How are the practices of so many Sikh women—of doing their eyebrows and/or shaving various parts of their bodies any different?
The issue is not that our standards are so low—the issue is that if we were to create such conservative and fanatical standards, there would not be many “true Sikhs” left. Would you qualify? I certainly would not.
The Guru Granth Sahib states that we are all on our own paths to Vaheguru, that some will struggle on their path, and everyone is simply at a different point on their path. And it explicitly says multiple times that our paths are preordained parts of Divine Will and that we are not meant to judge and condemn others for their individual paths or points in their journeys.
The Lord places some on the Path, and the Lord leads others into the wilderness
And as for “sticking the Guru in a closet and calling it your prayer room,” well, certainly one should not ever treat our scriptures without reverence. But what about those that are struggling to keep Sikhi in their hearts (like all of us) but simply cannot afford to have a designated Baba Ji’s room, or who genuinely have nowhere else to put the Guru Granth Sahib. Are those people somehow less worthy of being able to call themselves Sikh? So what if the Guru Granth Sahib is in the closet? Is the most important thing not that the Guru is woken and put to sleep every day? That hukam is taken and taken to heart? And if the Guru Granth Sahib states:
੧॥The God of Nanak is pervading and permeating everywhere. ||4||1||
Then why should it matter if the Guru is kept in the closet?
As for the tune of shabads—it is important to recognize that the tune of the shabad does not matter nearly as much as the messages contained within the shabads. The Gurus tried their best to speak—and sing—their message so as to communicate most effectively with the population at that time. The key element was never the raag—it was always the message. Certainly, the ability to sing in raag is to be valued and even encouraged. But why to the exclusion of other styles/tunes? The fact is that most people cannot sing in raag consistently, and singing in other tunes only encourages participation by a broader cross-section of people. Certainly, that cannot be discounted or dismissed.
You mention that we must not look at Sikhi only from our perspective that has been “shaped by what we have been seeing within a 50-mile radius for the last twenty years,” but that applies to your arguments about what makes a Sikh as well. There are people who are going through hardships we cannot even imagine, as we have been so privileged to be educated and well-off. There are people who cannot afford to have a Baba Ji’s room—should they not keep a Guru Granth Sahib at all? There are people who cannot get jobs unless they cut their hair, or who are teased and who simply do not have the support systems to resist breaking and giving in to those pressures. There are people who never learned how to sing shabads and don’t know any of the tunes—should they then not sing shabads at all? Sikhi is about a journey to better oneself and become closer to Vaheguru. How can we create a community where that opportunity is not even given to those who are struggling in the first place? If a Sikh is supposed to be a student throughout multiple lifetimes, how can we argue that the student should have already completed the entire learning process? Does that not completely erase the core meaning of who we are supposed to be as Sikhs of the Guru?
Now, as I address your statements on Anand Karaj, please keep the points I have made and the questions I have posed in mind.
You are correct in assuming that the major reason behind the Rehat’s disapproval of interfaith marriage is the fear of the “destruction of the Sikh community.” But you are incorrect in your very general statement that Jews do not allow interfaith marriage. There are actually two sects that do allow it—Conservative and Reform Judaism, and this is because they have come to the realization that interfaith marriage is only going to become more prevalent and common as the world continues to flatten and globalize and interfaith interaction increases. We are living in the Sikh diaspora, and that means that Sikhs will continue to interact with–and very well may fall in love with–people of other faiths. What if there are interfaith couples that do intend to raise their children as Sikhs? Would we not want to make that easier for them, rather than harder?
In your statement that in interfaith marriages in Judaism, the non-Jew is welcome to convert after a year of living as a Jew, the implication is that non-Sikhs who want to have an Anand Karaj can convert. There is one major problem with this. Sikhi is not, has never been, and never will be, a proselytizing religion. And despite this technically not being a forced conversion, requiring someone to convert before being able to have an Anand Karaj would be an indirect and passive-aggressive form of proselytization, as you would be pressuring a person who simply wants to marry the person they love to convert to a faith they may not connect with—and then you get a Sikh who calls him or herself a Sikh, but who is not internally connected with the faith at all. Is that, in your opinion, a better outcome?
Additionally, in reading the Guru Granth Sahib (pg 773-774) regarding Anand Karaj and the Lavaan, you will see that the scripture is all about the couple’s relationship with God (which we know is the same God, regardless of what faith you are associated with), and the analogy made is between the relationship between spouses and the relationship we must have with the One God—regardless of faith. There is nothing in this that discusses the faiths of the people participating, as the Guru Granth Sahib states multiple times that the true religion and the most exalted religion is to chant the Name of the Lord and maintain pure conduct. Anyone, of any faith, could apply the Anand Karaj to their lives and benefit from its teachings. There are plenty of people who are of the Sikh faith who have no idea what the meaning is behind the Anand Karaj and who are just as likely to render the ceremony an empty ritual as an interfaith couple. If the ceremony is understood and respected and valued, there should be no issue.
These issues you’ve raised as being detrimental to our foundation are only going to be detrimental if we do not know how to properly evolve in response to the continued changes in societal and cultural norms and practices. Just as other faiths have levels of orthodoxy, Sikhi has levels of orthodoxy—we have just, as a community, remained strong enough to never need to split into those levels and separate. Why would we advocate things that perpetuate differences and could push divisions so heavily that we do split into various sects?
Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s message focused on the core principles of spirituality, which are at the heart of most faiths. He proclaimed faith in one loving and just God who creates and nurtures all living beings. God as described by Guru Nanak is a formless, all-pervading spiritual force shared by all religions, who is beyond our human limitations of fear, hatred or greed. His message could not be more relevant to the globalizing and increasingly interfaith society we exist in today. We should focus on the shared essential elements of all faiths rather than the more superficial differences that separate them. This is what will strengthen us.