Judgement, Criticism, The Mind, & Being a Sikh

This weekend I have been thinking about various things, watching my thoughts, and how my mind reacts to different things. I wanted to share these thoughts since I know they are common issues that many of us face, and hopefully it will make you think differently about similar things that you deal with in your life.

On Saturday Baba Iqbal Singh (Kalgidhar Society, Baru Sahib) visited us here in Espanola, New Mexico along with four young female students (and a few other guests) who tour with him.

To this point I had heard the name "Baru Sahib" and Akal Academy, but knew very little about the organization and what their schools were like. Before Baba Iqbal Singh arrived I was talking with someone else in the room who was telling me about the school and how boys and girls dressed exactly the same (not being able to tell if the person is a girl or boy). I also heard that there were no mirrors in the whole school (I think to prevent vanity/ego/self consciousness). I wondered how they tied their own turbans. Then later on Babaji was telling all of us about the school and how the senior children start their morning at 12:30am in the morning and finished their Amritvela sadhana at 4:30am! He went on to describe how the children were very well behaved and obedient and that many of the graduates of the school have achieved a lot in life. He "painted" a picture that appeared too good to be true as if it was a sales pitch of all the good things. I couldn’t imagine kids this way. In my mind I started wondering if the kids were happy there, or if they felt repressed or forced by their parents to become the "perfect Sikh". (Keep in mind, these thoughts were not based on any real experience except for hearing a few things about the school and talking with two students for a few of minutes). I remember going to boarding school in India and being punished harshly if I was late for Gurdwara or didn’t wake up for morning Sadhana. It wasn’t a positive experience for me and many others (Though, I turned out OK, didn’t I?) Maybe this was why I was thinking about the school in this way because of my own experience in boarding school.

In relation to the school program It was interesting as I watched my mind and the thoughts that came into my head. I started to think critically about some of the things and how extreme/strict the school sounded in some areas. I thought about how a school like this probably wouldn’t be possible in western countries because of the cultural differences and less obedience. I remember when I went to boarding school in India (1983-1993) all of us "western" kids were the biggest troublemakers. Most of the Indian kids did as they were told, but it was the apposite for the western kids. Being raised raised in America was a huge cultural difference. It was natural for us to question authority, and "stand up for our rights" as is a big part of the American history. This created a very different atmosphere for the teachers and the school to deal with. 

Anyways, my point of bringing this up is not to poke at Akal Academy or look for fault. In the process of the day I started evaluating why I was thinking certain things and realized that this was very much like how people react to "3HO" or so called "American Sikhs"/yoga/Yogi Bhajan. It normally starts with someone knowing little (or nothing) about us, and then hearing some tid-bit of information from someone, and then a critical judgment follows. I think another factor is that when someone appears to be doing something good (especially in the religious world) people are often critical of them (especially if they are doing something more disciplined then them self). I was surprised to watch my thoughts being critical without any real reason or much interaction with these people. The main issue was that I perceived them as doing something different than my experience as the "correct way". To me this is the crux of all the criticizing and judgment (especially in the Sikh communities!). Everyone has their own understanding and opinion about how something should be done and what is right and wrong. Many of us are raised and taught differently. I consider myself very open minded, so was a bit surprised by my initial feelings and wanted to delve deeper into what was triggering these thoughts. The positive thing is that I was conscious of this and felt like I was watching my thoughts on a television, and able to evaluate why I felt this way.

Lunch with Baba Iqbal Singh and guests was a very formal meeting, and during lunch many of us shared our background, and people from the different local Sikh companies and organizations shared information about what they do (I talked a few minutes about SikhNet). We told stories and shared experiences from our different origins and backgrounds. 

In the evening was the real opening for me as we had a cozy get together with the guests and sangat at someone’s house. We started with some kirtan celebrating Guru Gobind Singh ji’ birthday and then when the guests arrived the Akal Academy Girls Jatha played some beautiful kirtan. It was inspiring to see them playing together with the same type of stringed instruments that were played by some of the Gurus and Bhai Mardana. Their voices were so strong and powerful as they sang four different shabads. Charanjeet and me were sitting right up front and her eyes were fixed on them as she had never heard anything like this. Baba Iqbal Singh ended each shabad summarizing the meaning. Before we had dinner Avtar Hari Singh gave a nice slide show presentation about the Kalgidhar Society. It gave us an overview of all the different work that this organization does, as well as the impact on the students and goal of the schools that are all over the Punjab. After getting to know them better and processing why I was thinking this way I was able to see them for who they are (without clouds of doubt and judgment). It was impressive to see the extent of work that they do in India. I am thankful that they took the time to come and visit us so we could learn about this organization and form bonds of unity. Next time I go to India I would like to visit one of the schools to experience it for myself.

My point of writing all this is to share how easy it is to quickly criticize and judge people who you know little about, OR just because they do something different than you. In the Sikh community there is a lot of intolerance for people that do things different. People judge those who cut their hair, don’t do this…or that….or do something "wrong" in their opinion. I’ve always thought of "Sikhism" being more of a lifestyle and way of life, than a religion. You can follow the path that the Guru’s laid out and you’ll reach a certain promised goal. I think of the Sikh lifestyle as a set of tools which guide you quickly along on your spiritual journey. However, this is not the case these days; Instead the Sikh lifestyle is being practiced more like an intellectual thing and book of rules and regulations that everyone feels compelled to enforce based on their opinion, as if they are the "Sikh Police". What happened to the sweetness that Mata Sahib Kaur gave to the Khalsa by putting the sugar in the water of the first Amrit Sanchar? It seems that everyone is fighting, and out to get one another. Every day when we do Ardas and bless the Gurprashad we instill the strength of steel as the Kirpan goes through it; and as we taste it we are supposed to remember this sweetness of this path and bring this sweetness to our lives and those around us. Sikhs cannot be the protectors and leaders of the world if they loose this sweetness and are always fighting. It is a fine balance.

I had a friend visit from England recently and after a few days we both realized many major differences in how we practiced some things related to Sikhi. Overall the core practices were the same, but there were some things which were different and conflicting. It was interesting learning from each other. We were both open minded so it was fine. Many of the practices in my opinion seemed a bit extreme and I didn’t agree with. However, I understood that this was how she was raised and learned Sikhi, and this worked for her. In the same way I have learned and experienced Sikhi in different ways myself (which other people might not agree with either). In the end neither of us were right or wrong. What counts is that we are on this path working on ourself to become better people.

There are so many different people from different backgrounds and one way isn’t the only way (otherwise there would not be so many religions and spiritual paths). Sikhi is such a beautiful path and lifestyle to follow. It seems somewhere along the way (maybe when the British took over India) Sikhi started being practiced like a rulebook, and the guilt complex came in with judgment/heaven/hell/guilt. Even some of the English translations of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib reflect this with the way that it is translated.

It’s no wonder so many are no longer practicing this beautiful Sikh lifestyle when at every turn they are judged and criticized. When an outsider reads about Sikhi it all sounds so beautiful, but in practice we as a a whole worldwide community have a long way to go to get back on the path that the Gurus left for us. When people think of Sikhs they should think of kindness, courage, strength, honesty, nobility, and most of all ACCEPTANCE! So much of what Guru Nanak taught was about breaking down the barriers of differences and showing that we are all One. He taught a message of acceptance, equality, oneness, and yet this practice is largely ignored. We could probably argue about the definition of a Sikh and say that someone who cuts there hair is not a Sikh. While this is not the full path that was taught by our Gurus, who are we to judge whether someone else is a Sikh or not? That is a very personal thing between a person and their Guru. We all go through our ups and downs in life which hopefully teaches us lessons and brings us closer to this Oneness/God.

Too often we focus on these outward things and try to find difference and divide rather than find similarity (black, white, brown, sehejdhari, amritdhari, this sikh, that sikh, good sikh, bad sikh). If you are Amritdhari and don’t do your banis one day…or miss something, automatically the norm is guilt for many. I look at this lifestyle as a set of tools that you practice to get certain benefits and reach a certain goal. A good story to illustrate this is the story of Guru Gobind Singh and the Goldsmith. Just as you might exercise to stay healthy. If you commit to exercise every day and miss a day I would hope that you wouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You simply failed to get the benefit from that "tool" that day, and get back to doing the exercise the next day. right? I’m not trying to make a light matter of the commitment to our Guru when taking Amrit, but just trying to show how guilt and criticism take away from this experience of being a Sikh and how it is personal thing that you work on every day. I live this way because It makes me feel good and connects me with a higher self. I don’t do it out of guilt or obligation. We are not perfect beings and it takes work on a daily basis. As long as you keep trying and working on guiding yourself back to this path when you "stumble off" then you are fine.

To summarize I’m trying to make a few points.

  1. If we are more conscious of our thoughts and our mind it is easier to make a change and be open to other people and differences. To see the oneness and sameness in each and every person in spite of any perceived differences. The first step to breaking a habit is to be aware of it and conscious when you are doing it.
  2. Just because someone practices or does something differently than you doesn’t make the other person’s way wrong or incorrect. We all relate to things based on our own experience and what is right for me isn’t necessarily right for someone else.
  3. Don’t judge or criticize people (as hard as that may be since it is human nature to do so). Instead use this energy to work on your self and become a better person. None of us are perfect. Each of us have more than enough things to work on in our own life.

Well, hopefully all this makes you think about things in your own life differently. I like to share my personal thoughts and experiences in hope that the lessons that I learn can help others the same way. Like you all, I am not perfect and am working on myself, trying to become a better person. Hopefully we can do this together!

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