An Outstanding Administrator and A Dedicated Exponent of Sikh Doctrines – Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston).
Dr. Devinder Pal Singh
Center for Understanding Sikhism, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Dr. Karminder Singh Dhillon is a much-acclaimed administrator, a renowned theologian, a profound scholar of comparative religious studies, a prolific writer and a Sikh thinker. He was born in 1960, at Teluk Anson, Perak, Malaysia. He obtained several academic degrees, including B.Sc. (Political Science), Post Graduate Diploma (Public Management), a double Masters degree (in International Relations & International Communication) and a PhD in Political Science. He received his academic and professional training from various reputed institutions such as Harvard University, Cambridge, USA; the University of Nottingham, and the Chartered Institute of Professional Development U.K.; the National Defense University Beijing, China; Boston University, Boston, USA; and University of Sciences Malaysia, Penang.
During his 32 years long professional career in the Malaysian Civil Service, he has served the country in several important positions. He was the Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense and the Deputy Director at the nation’s Civil Service Institute. His other positions include the Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence’ Policy Division in charge of the North-East Asia and Australia Desk; a Research Officer in the Prime Minister’s Department; and a Trainer at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs. Besides, he has also served as Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of International Studies, University of Malaysia, for six years; and at the National University of Malaysia for 10 years. Being a prolific writer, he has authored several books in the diverse fields of foreign policy, and Sikh theology. His outstanding work, titled “Dilemmas of Development: Twenty-Two years of Malaysian Foreign Policy in Mahathir Era 1981-2003,” has been published by the National University of Singapore University Press.
Since 1985, as a devout Sikh, he has been involved in Kirtan, Katha and Parchar activities. His highly acclaimed articles have been regularly published by several reputed journals such as the Sikh Bulletin, USA and Bharat Sandesh, India, and the Sikh Magazine , Malaysia, and Asia’s leading news portal Asia Samachar. Currently, he is serving as Joint Editor for the Sikh Bulletin, USA. With his exceptional writing style, he has established himself as an eminent exponent of the Sikh faith. He has created an indelible mark of scholarship on his readers’ minds through his scholarly articles as published in various reputed newspapers, magazines and online collections. Recently he has published five books on Sikhism. For his superb services to the Sikh community, he has been honoured by several literary and social organizations of Malaysia.
Besides his marvellous professional achievements, Dr. Karminder Singh has made remarkable contributions towards the authentic understanding of Gurbani through reform-oriented writings and videos. He is currently the Director of Sikhi Vichar Forum (SVF) – a Global platform devoted to logical and reason-based discourse on Gurbani. A large number of his thought-provoking articles on Sikh theology are available at www.sikhivicharforum.org. His discourses on Guru Nanak’s compositions, Jup and Sidh Gosht, are available at the Sikhi Vichar Forum and Sikh Philosophy Network websites. His most recent contribution is a 12-part Video Series Titled Sikhi Concepts which is available on the SVF website. His theological enunciations are particularly noteworthy due to their originality and rational description.
Dr. Dhillon is committed to bringing out the truths of Gurbani, logically, rationally and authentically. With his excellent professional and academic training – coupled with his devotion to Gurbani – he is eminently qualified to do so. He adheres to the belief that Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy is perennial and universal in its approach to understand Cosmology, Nature, life, and human behavior in the present scientific era. He emphasizes that Sikh Gurus’ philosophy, bani, and Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) delineate the basics of life befitting the 21st century. Keeping in view his outstanding contributions for the propagation of Sikhi, his views on various aspects of Sikh Philosophy are presented here for the benefit of readers.
Dr. Singh: You are a social scientist by training and an administrator by profession. How have you become interested in Sikh theology?
Dr Dhillon: All three fields function to benefit humanity. And the nexus that binds all three is one and the same. Thomas Aquinas used the term “Common Good” to describe this function in the 13th century. Socrates – the father of social science – used the word “Ethics” to explain that nexus. Administrators use the word “Values.” Guru Nanak used the term Divine Virtues (Naam). He used the term Naam Jupna to advocate that mankind Realize and Become Divine Virtues.
Interviewer: Dr. Devinder Pal Singh. Center for Understanding Sikhism, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Social Scientists and Administrators who speak loftily about ethics and values but are devoid of their practice end up serving private interests instead of common good. Sikhs are largely empty of Divine Virtues because we have mis-interpreted Jaam Japna as sitting in a corner and chanting on a rosary or merely reciting out these virtues; instead of realizing them.
I guess this void in all three fields got me interested in wanting to study them at various phases of my life.
Dr. Singh: What are the basic principles of Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy?
Dr Dhillon: One can talk of the primary objective of the Sikh Guru’s philosophy as contained within Gurbani – which is to Become Divine through the process of becoming Divine Virtues. The verse is Satgur Ki Bani Sat Sroop Hai Gurbani Banneay.
But it is unhelpful to talk of basic principles for two reasons. One, the concept of basic principles is not found in Gurbani. Second, people tend to make up their own basic principles for their own reasons. The most common expression of basic principles amongst Sikhs is “Naam Jupna, Kiret Karni and Vund Chakna.” And it is attributed to Guru Nanak. The distorted meanings of each that have come to settle within our psyche notwithstanding, these “basic principles” cannot be found in Gurbani as such, and certainly not in the writings of Guru Nanak. These terms were coined by Nirmla Bhai Veer Singh. In my estimation the Nirmlas did more to distort Sikhi than propagate its true understanding. Come to think of it, one in nine persons in the world goes to bed on an empty stomach every night. One in three persons in the world is malnourished. 700 million people live on $1.90 per day. How are these people going to practice Vand Shakna to qualify as Sikhs? Why would Guru Nanak make such an improbable practice a “basic principle” of Sikhi? It is a temporal virtue yes – for those who can afford it. It is part of our humanitarian role, yes. But to link it to spirituality is to take it to an untenable realm.
Other individuals have designated other “basic principles” – all of which are equally unhelpful. Examples are Naam, Daan, Isnaan; Sat, Santokh, Vicharo, and Deg, Teg, Fateh. Reducing the divinely rich philosophy of Guru Nanak to such catchphrases does injustice to it all.
Dr. Singh: As per Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy, what is the meaning or purpose of our presence in this Universe?
Dr Dhillon: To realise the divinity that is within us, and to become Divine. Guru Nanak used the term Sachiara for such a purpose and objective. The discourse on the how and why of it, the road map, markers and directions are contained within the Gurbani of the SGGS.
Dr. Singh: What is the perspective of Sikh Philosophy about the existence of God? Can faith in God be justified?
Dr Dhillon: Sikhi does not have a concept of a God as an entity that is distinct and separate from creation. Sikhi does not advocate a God who sits up there somewhere, and runs creation. Faith in such a God has no place in the philosophy of Sikhi – even if a large percentage of Sikhs actually have faith in such a God. It is misplaced faith in a non-existant entity.
The Creator of Sikhi is within His Creation. The verse is Balhari Kudrat Vasiya. Such a Creator is not the function of faith but realization. He is to be realized within. Realization needs effort and work, not faith. The verse is Taisay Hee Har Basaiy Nirantar Ghat Hee Khojo Bhayee. The phrase Ghat Hee Khojo means to realise Him within. Creation in Sikhi is a manifest extension of the Creator. The verse is Eyk Roop Saglo Pasara.
Dr. Singh: What are the authentic sources of the Sikh Philosophy?
Dr Dhillon: For me it is the 1429 pages of the SGGS. All other sources have to be authenticated on the benchmark of Gurbani. In my own research up to 90 percent of texts such as Janam Sakhis fail the test of Gurbani. Same can be said of some 35 or so “Classical Sikh Texts” such as Suraj Parkash – all of which were composed by the Benares-educated and Snatan minded Nirmlas. All of these texts contain large chunks of entries that are in full contradiction of the principles of Gurbani – and the Sikh intelligentsia of today does not seem to have a way out of this conundrum. The only way out is to benchmark them all on the touchstone of Gurbani.
Dr. Singh: What makes Sikh Gurus’ philosophy original and unique?
Dr Dhillon: It is original because the 35 composers of Gurbani walked the path that they speak of. The evidence of this lies in the nature of the composition which is in the first person. Guru Nanak said: Nanak Gya Japey Jaye. Meaning Nanak’s Realization (Japey) is Derived (Jaye) from Walking the Path (Gya).
It is unique because it is for the entirety of mankind. There are no dogmas, rituals, rites etc. All these things are limiting because each of them rules out – from the fold of spirituality – certain groups and classes of people. If the Sikhi of today is full of dogmas, rituals, rites, practices etc – its because we got entangled in a desire to limit Sikhi to only ourselves. We are thus no longer unique, and no different from everyone else.
Dr. Singh: Some scholars claim that Sikh Gurus laid down the foundations of a new social order. Do you agree?
Dr Dhillon: The primary function of a social order is to maintain the status quo. Various components of society work together to maintain this status quo.
The spirituality of Sikhi is inherently opposed to status quo and places a premium on progress, upliftment and elevation. Guru Nanak, when defining his path said: Eyt Rah Pat Pavreah Charreah Hoey Ekees. My path (Rah) is one of upward mobility / upliftment (Pavrreah) and elevation (Charreah).
Spirituality has the ability to function within all kinds of social orders. The Gurus worked with whatever social orders existed then. That is because the Gurus knew that the human being had the inherent capacity to lift oneself out of negative and destructive social orders.
Dr. Singh: What is the relevance of Sachiara, as envisioned by Guru Nanak in his Jap composition, in the modern context?
Dr Dhillon: A Sachiara is a Realized being. Realized in Divinity through the Realization of Divine Virtues. A Sachiara is one who had become Divine.
Its relevance in the modern context is that being Sachiara is our contribution to the elevation of humanity. A Sachiara impacts upon making the world a better place than the one we inherited.
Its other relevance is that becoming a Sachiara is practical spirituality. The Gurbani flow chart is to first understand virtues, then believing in and accepting them, then practicing and habitualizing them in our daily lives, then inculcating them and finally becoming them. All 7.9 billion people that inhabit the world can become Sachiara. That’s the relevance of Guru Nanak’s Sikhi for the 21st century.
Dr. Singh: What is the Sikh perspective on life, death, and reincarnation?
Dr Dhillon: Sikhi is a spirituality for the Here and Now. The obsession with the afterlife in pre-1469 belief systems is removed from Gurbani.
Physical death is accepted as nothing more than the return of the basic elements of life to their sources. Life itself returns to its one primary source. And this completes the cycle of life. The verse is Jyoti Mey Jyot Rul Jaya. Physical death is for everyone and nothing can or needs to be done about it – other than its acceptance as it being part of life and living. There are very few verses pertaining to physical death within the SGGS.
The death that is of concern to Sikhi, the death that can and ought to be avoided at all costs is spiritual death – or death of the conscience. The SGGS is full of verses pertaining to such a death.
Reincarnation as a process that occurs in the afterlife has no place within Gurbani. The Reincarnation of Gurbani is a redefined concept – redefined to fit the parameters of Sikhi which are delineated by Life in the Here and Now. The redefined concept refers to the cyclic nature of spiritual life and spiritual death. Human life oscillates like a pendulum between spiritual life and spiritual death. The verse of Guru Nanak is Patala Patal Lakh Agasa Agas. The oscillation is between elevated mental states (Agasa Agaas) and low / depraved mental states (Patala Patal). Our spirituality is like “now you see it, now you don’t.” The objective of Sikhi is to terminate this cyclic nature – to end the cycle of reincarnation that takes place in our Here and Now on a daily basis – and to attain spiritual life on a permanent basis.
Dr. Singh: Do Sikhs believe in an afterlife? Do they believe in Heaven/Hell, salvation?
Dr Dhillon: A large majority of Sikhs do believe staunchly in afterlife. But Gurbani does not. A vast majority of what Sikhs believe is derived from hear say. I call it “hear say Sikhi”. Their beliefs are derived from what they hear some sant, baba, clergy, ragi or half-baked parcharak tells them in the process of these people earning a living. When people earn a living by talking and narrating – they will tell you what you want to hear.
Less than one half percent of Sikhs actually read and understand Gurbani on their own in order to derive their belief systems from such undrdstanding. The key words are “on our own.” Even those few who try to understand Gurbani by relying on existing translations end up believing in “hear say Sikhi” because the root / primary / main translation of Gurbani, namely the Fareedkoti Translation, is done by the Nirmla clergy. All English translations that are available on the internet are sourced from this Fareedkoti Translation. A vast majority of these translations portray Gurbani (wrongly) as supporting discarded concepts such as Heaven, Hell and Salvation in the afterlife.
Gurbani had re-defined Heaven, Hell and Salvation as concepts that apply to Life in the Here and Now. For instance, Maran Mukt (Salvation in the afterlife) is rejected in Gurbani and Jeevan Mukt (Salvation in the Here and Now) is advocated.
Dr. Singh: Does Sikh Gurus’ philosophy encourage belief in miracles?
Dr Dhillon: Hukm is the core of Sikhi. And Hukm is inherently anti-thesis to miracles. When Guru Nanak was asked to perform miracles by the Sidhs in Achul Batala, his response – as recorded by Bhai Gurdas is: Bajho Sachey Naam, Day Hor Kramat Asa Theiy Nahi(n). Meaning: Other than the realization of divine virtues, I have no miracle to show you.
The tragedy is that virtually all the “classical texts” that were composed by the Nirmlas are full to the brim about miraculous tales, euphemistically called “sakhis”. This is what I meant when I said above that the Nirmlas did more to corrupt and distort Sikhi than any other group. It is unfortunate that these texts are still relied upon to preach and propagate Sikhi in our gurdwaras, institutions and literature. Sikhs do not have the collective will to extricate ourselves from this travesty. The outcome is that these fancy miracle tales are making Sikhi increasingly unbelievable and hence unacceptable and thus irrelevant to generations Y and Z.
Dr. Singh: How can Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy help in the cultivation of scientific temper in society?
Dr Dhillon: The philosophy of Gurbani is anchored in logic, reason and justification. These are also the pillars of scientific inquiry. For instance, Jup Bani within the SGGS is a step by argument for the human being to acquire realization – which is the meaning of the word Jup. And this argument is presented in a logical and reasoned justification. But we will only see this facet if we strive to understand the messages within Jup Bani. A society whose spiritual parameters are anchored in logic, reason and justification will embrace and contribute to scientific progress.
The tragedy is that our “hear say” Sikhi has transformed Jup Bani (and other banis too) into a magical potion. The claim is that if you did X number of recitations per day, then problem Y will get solved. The claim is that one lady got cured from cancer by reciting Jup Bani continuously for 48 hours. The claim is that so and so “sant” obtained miraculous powers by reciting Jup Bani 1,000 times per day. The list of such ridiculous claims is long.
A society whose spiritual parameters are anchored in such blind faith based beliefs will forever see science as an anti-thesis or even a threat.
Dr. Singh: Can rational inquiry and Gurbani convictions co-exist?
Dr Dhillon: It was rational inquiry that that led me to Gurbani. It was rational inquiry that led me to understand its messages. That’s because the foundation of Rational Inquiry is that there are messages within Gurbani – messages meant to be understood, accepted, practices, applied, habitualized, inculcated and internalized. Rational inquiry is the lingua franca of the SGGS. Readers of the SGGS who approach Gurbani with the rational inquiry approach will get to its intended messages.
But a vast majority of us Sikhs approach the SGGS with the “worship” approach or the “faith” approach. The worship approach pre-supposes that the messages are not the foundations of Gurbani; but that Gurbani has an inherent “power” within it – the power to heal, to grant me my wishes, to take away my sorrows etc. And that this super-natural power will come through the worship of the SGGS. The faith approach in turn believes that the messages of Gurbani do not need to be discovered by rational inquiry. They cannot be discovered because the spirituality and intellect of the writers (Gurus and Bhagats) was simply too high for us. Only the writers know the meanings of what they wrote is an often repeated claim by those who subscribe to the faith approach towards Gurbani. The messages will come to us on their own through repeated readings, recitations and chanting – if done with full faith.
The faith of Gurbani is predicated on rational inquiry. It is hence enlightened faith. It is faith after knowing and after understanding. Kabir defines this faith by saying Jub Janeya Tao Mun Maneya. Once I know / understand, then I believe.
Dr. Singh: What are the barriers to a logical interpretation of Gurbani?
Dr Dhillon: There are three primary barriers. The first is that a non-logical, faith based, literal interpretation – complete with its Vedic cum Snatan slant – has already been presented to the Sikh world as the first ever translation and interpretation of the SGGS – in the form of the Fareedkoti Teeka in the late 1800s. We know that this translation was done by a group of Benares educated Snatan believing Nirmlas who were funded by the Fareedkot royalty. And for all intents and purposes, they have presented the SGGS as the fifth Vedas. Virtually all other translations and interpretations have relied to some extent or other on this very defective interpretation. Over the course of its existance and use over a century and a half, the Fareedkoti interpretation has rooted itself within the psyche of the Sikhs at large. Presenting the logical interpretation of Gurbani as an alternative within such a psyche is a major challenge.
The second barrier is that Sikhs – with minuscule exceptions – have relegated the task of Gurbani interpretation to our clergy. Our clergy are in most cases uneducated and illiterate. In fact, any village idiot can wear the clergy garb and become a granthi or a pathi. This garb is a ticket to oversea travel, employment and foreign country stay for many. Their only training is the memorization of some popular sakhis and faith based literal interpretations of some shabds that they have picked up while under the tutelage of their sants and babas at their deras, taksals, and sampardas. Expecting logical interpretation from such people is to expect the village cow to render Beethoven’s piece on the violin.
The logic, reason and justification that is at the heart of Gurbani will become apparent only when Sikhs take it upon themselves to seriously read, understand and interpret Gurbani – with the help of dictionaries and encyclopaedias as well as discussion and discourse with other Sikhs on the same path.
In my own experience of conducting Understanding Gurbani classes for more than a decade, I find that Sikhs who are most likely to take the path of logical understanding of Gurbani are those whose spiritual canvases are clean – in the sense that they are not tainted or corrupted by the faith-centric, literal and Snatan-slanted as well as clergy provided interpretations.
The third barrier relates to unlearning and re-learning. Adoption logical and rational interpretations of Gurbani require both unlearning and re-learning. Both are painful processes. I know because I underwent the same pangs for some five years. Cognitive dissonance sets in and many Sikhs are not able to handle the notion that all they believed for all their lives needs to be cast out.
Dr. Singh: Why do Sikh practices appear to be out of sync with the Sikh doctrines in contemporary times?
Dr Dhillon: Because they don’t feel a need to invest their time and energy in wanting to understand the intended messages of Gurbani. Because they are unwilling to unlearn and re-learn. Because Sikhs at large have broken away from Gurbani as it was meant to be – understood and followed. Because we have dulled out senses into thinking that Sikhi is all about the performance of some practices, rituals, dogmas such as chanting for X number of minutes, reciting Y number of banis, going to gurdwara, listening to kirtan during our commutes etc. Because Sikhs are comfortable with the out-sourcing of their spirituality that is the norm in contemporary times. And because we are bombarded regularly by our clergy that this “out of sync” thing is fiction, and that we are doing just fine with whatever it is we are doing. And that the Guru will give us all that we need so long as we just keep doing what we are doing (rituals, dogma etc) with full faith and conviction. These sort of self serving assurances of the earn-a-living clergy acts as opium for our masses.
Dr. Singh: Karl Marx, the German philosopher, once said that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Is Sikh Philosophy a new variety of this opium?
Dr Dhillon: Guru Nanak did not start a religion. He stood like a lone lion in the wasteland and wilderness of spirituality and humanity that was prevalent in 1469 and roared that religion was the cause of that wilderness. He used the word Ujaarr to describe the desolate situation of humanity. He held the clergy of the three then existing religions fully and completely responsible and accountable for the barren soul that mankind had come to possess. The verse is Teenay Ujarray ka Bandh. So why would he go and start a new religion? The fact that 15 Bhagats belonging to diverse religions and belief systems were allowed to sit in the SGGS is further evidence of the fact the philosophical foundation of Sikhi is not religion. If it was, then followers of religions other than Sikhi would not have been allowed a place within the SGGS. Gurbani within the SGGS stands firmly and unequivocally against everything that religion stands for –ritual, rites, dogma, exclusivity, superior than thou attitudes, dress, symbols etc.
The Gurus gave us the elixir of life in the form of the messages of Gurbani that are aimed at restoring divinity within humanity. They spent 239 years preparing this elixir, this nectar, this prescription, this remedy to restore the Ujaarr, the wilderness, the wasteland into lush green divinity.
But we Sikhs have spent the past 250 years turning Sikhi into a religion. We handed that task to a clergy class – a class that was severely critiqued and condemned by all 35 composers of Gurbani. Sikhi has become a religion that is run, dictated and controlled by the clergy. We have constructed a structure of clergy that runs from the clergy in our local gurdwaras all the way to the apex clergy at our Takhats. Our clergy appear to have become more powerful than our Gurus. They have dared to call their edicts as “hukum-namas” even. And have usurped powers that even our Gurus did not exercise such as excommunicating Sikhs.
The outcome is that we have turned the elixir of philosophy that was Sikhi and Gurbani into the opium of religion that we call Sikhi too. And we have become hopeless but willing addicts of this opium. The sword of a “hukum-nama” awaits just about anyone who gets to a threshold of being able to influence us to come out of this addiction.
Dr. Singh: In your several YouTube presentations, as available on Sikh Philosophy Network, you have provided a rationalistic and authentic interpretation of Jap bani of Guru Nanak. Can you share a few salient features of your thesis?
Dr Dhillon: Here are two salient features of my thesis.
One, that the title of the Bani, namely Jup, has been mistranslated as “chanting” and this has done a great dis-service to us Sikhs. I point out that the meaning of the world Jup is “Realization.” The bani is thus a step by step spiritual guide to bring about this inner realization. The subject of this realization within is Divinity, and the process is by way of realization of divine virtues.
Two, the many hundreds of translations of Jup Bani that are available present the 38 paurees as disconnected and disparate. These translations show, for instance, Guru Nanak jumping around from spiritual matters (Panch Parvan stanza) to the bull holding up the earth (Dhaol Dhrm), and then to advising the yogis about their ear-rings (Munda Santokh) etc. The outcome is that Guru Nanak is presented as a composer lacking coherent thought or at least possessing incoherent writing skills.
In my translation of Jup Bani that can be found both in video form as well as my book Understanding Nitnem: Jup, Sodar and Sohela – I show that every paurri is connected to the one before it and the one after it. And that every verse is connected. So in my translation Dhaol Dhrm is not the bull holding up the earth and Munda Santokh is not about the earrings or symbols that a yogi adorns. No yogi is expected to read Jup Bani, so why would Guru Nanak be writing for them? These paurris – as is the entirety of the SGGS – are meant for us Sikhs.
Dr. Singh: Prof. Hardev Singh Virk, a noted Sikh scholar, during one of his lectures at San Jose Gurudwara, USA, in 2018, argued that “Sikhism fails to impact at the global level.” Would you like to share your opinion about this statement?
Dr Dhillon: I agree with Dr Virk. I can add that the cause of that failure is because “Sikhs have failed to allow Sikhism to impact upon themselves.” We are Sikhs in name and form, but not any more than that.
For instance, Guru Nanak made the equality of gender a core principle of his messages. He spoke out in favour of women in 1469 – an era in which one could have gotten killed for such a message. He wrote bani from the female perspective to show that his heart and conscience was that of a woman. Now this should impact at the global level – that the key to gender equality is when men become women at their heart and conscience level. The verse is Purakh Meh Naar, Naar Meh Purkha.
Guess which group of human beings continue to treat woman in the worst possible ways? Guess which community has the highest distortion for the male-female ratio in the world? Members of which religion in the world conduct the most number of female infanticides in the world? Guess which community has the highest number of gender-selection clinics in the world?
All of the above is the shame of Punjab – not Africa, or the Middle East or even the rest of India. All the above is the dishonour of the land where Guru Nanak walked, lived and breathed the air. That Punjab has become the biggest transgressor of the message of Guru Nanak.
We have come to a stage where when a Sikh preaches the messages of our Gurus to the non-Sikh world, we come across as hypocrites, because the question that arises is: “Yes, that is what your Gurus said, but have you Sikhs put them into practice yourselves?” How then can any sane person expect Sikhism to impact at the global level?
Dr. Singh: Can you share any of your unique religious/spiritual experiences?
Dr Dhillon: I have none. And I am not expecting any, because Gurbani tells me spirituality is not about such things. Such things and claims of their achievements are propagated by our sants, babas and clergy to elevate themselves to fake heights in the eyes of the masses. Some claim to have visions of Guru Nanak, others are visited by Sikh martyrs, others get to have direct conversations with Guru Gobind Singh, and others have had light come out of the pages of the SGGS when they read it in the darkness of the night. The list is as long as it is comical.
Guru Nanak says Nanak Bhagta(n) Sda Vigaas. Vigaas is the word for Joy. His is a spirituality of Joy. Guru Amardas ji says Anand Bhaya Meri Maye. Anand means bliss. Joy and Bliss – I have plenty of – by courtesy of the spiritually brilliant and divinely genius messages that are contained within Gurbani. This Vigaas then is my spiritual experience.
Dr. Singh: Is Sikhism universal? If so, why has it not been so accepted yet?
Dr Dhillon: Because Sikhs themselves have not accepted Sikhism yet – in the true sense that is. When the world sees us as Sikhs in our deeds then the notion of Sikhism becoming universal will come to fruition. When the world sees for itself that Sikhs speak up and stand up courageously without fear and favor; that Sikhs treat their women with respect, dignity, love and equality; that Sikhs display a high sense of integrity, morality and uprightness in their personal and professional life; that Sikhs contribute the lowest numbers when it comes to criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, domestic violence and jail inhabitants – then the world will want to know where all this humanity and divinity is coming from. Sikhism will become universal not by our preaching about it, but by our living it to the fullest. Else it is all talk; and others are better than us in talking even.
Dr. Singh: Sikh Philosophy is 550 years old. Do we need it in the twenty-first century?
Dr Dhillon: Although brought to light in the 15th century, ours is a spirituality meant for the 21st century and beyond. But only if we put Gurbani as contained within the SGGS at the core of it all. The 21st century is an age of reason, logic, inquiry and justification. So is Gurbani. The 21st century is an era of information and knowledge. Gurbani is all about enlightenment – which is brought about by information and knowledge. The foundational block of Sikh philosophy is the Shabd. Shabd is to spirituality what knowledge is to the 21st century. A human being who shuts his mind to knowledge shuts himself out of the 21st century. Because Sikhs have largely taken the Shabd out of our spirituality, we have shut ourselves out of a spirituality meant for the 21st century. True, we worship the shabd, we sing it, recite it, chant it – but we don’t want to walk the path of its messages. Enlightenment will only come in walking the path.
Dr. Singh: As a joint Editor of the esteemed Sikh research journal “The Sikh Bulletin,” what is your thrust area for promoting research in Sikh theology?
Dr Dhillon: Its most certainly about getting to the authentic and intended messages within Gurbani. We have great researchers and writers who contribute articles and essays for publication in the SB. They are able to generate original thought. But when it comes to Gurbani verses that are quoted within their otherwise excellent work – most writers rely almost exclusively on published or online translations that are either literal or based on the problematic Fareedkoti Translation.
One glaring problem that I saw related to the incongruence of the writer’s message with the Gurbani verses that were being quoted. For instance, if a writer was advocating view XYZ and he quotes verse ABC in support of his view to advance the idea that what he or she was advocating was supported within Gurbani. The writer’s finding that verse ABC supported view XYZ was based on a translation; and not the verse per se. When the translation was defective it posed a problem in its correction by the editors who were assigned to edit. When the correct translation was inserted into the article, then verse ABC either had nothing to do with ideas XYZ, or it contradicted the idea all together.
The Editorial Board of SB thus decided to not publish essays and articles that relied on translations such as that done by Sant Singh Khalsa MD. Beyond sending out the message that the translation was defective, the hope was for writers and researchers to put in the effort to do their own translations.
We have writers who have been doing their own translations even before the ban came into effect. Prof Devinder Singh Chahal stands out in this regard. He has always strived to provide translations of verses he uses based on his own research and understanding.
Some writers have simply moved away from quoting Gurbani verses. Others have requested that we provide them other translations that would be acceptable to SB. The point that need to be understood is that the defective Fareedkoti Translation has seeped into a great many subsequent translations. The issue is therefore not with just one or two specific translations. It is a systemic problem.
The Sikh Bulletin is a journal of repute on the basis of its reputable contributors. It therefore falls on our shoulders to try to rectify the systemic problem. The way to do that is for us contributors to not accept the existing translations without critical examination, to weigh the worth of every translation that is out there, and strive to come up with contextual, wholesome and appropriate translation of the verses used – to the extent that is possible.
Your contribution in this regard needs mention. In 2013 you came up with a comprehensive methodology for interpreting Gurbani. This paper was presented by yourself at the Montreal International Conference on Formulating Methodology for Interpreting Gurbani, in 2013 and is available online. I urge Sikh writers to get a copy of this paper written by Dr Devinder Pal Singh.
Dr. Singh: You are currently working as the Director of the Sikhi Vichar Forum (SVF) – a Global platform devoted to logical and reason-based discourse on Gurbani. Can you elaborate on some of the outstanding contributions of SVF?
Dr Dhillon: SVF contributes to the authentic understanding of Gurbani, Gurmat and Sikhi. Otherwise known as Tatt Gurmat. Our contribution is primarily in content creation. The website contains more than 120 videos and numerous articles and essays – primarily focussing on Gurbani. There is a video series on Jup Bani and another on Sidh Goshat – specifically chosen to provide maximum exposure to the spirituality of Guru Nanak. There is very considerable use of English in these videos to enable the younger generation of Sikhs to benefit.
Dr. Singh: Please accept my heartiest congratulations for your recent publication of a set of 5 books on Sikh doctrines. It is interesting to note that these books elaborate on Jup, Sodar, Sohela, Anand and Asa Di Var compositions. In your latest publications, what are the salient features of your work?
Dr Dhillon: All of these books employ a particular framework for the interpretation of Gurbani. It is termed the Gurbani Framework and its primary philosophy is that the meanings of concepts used within Gurbani must be derived from within Gurbani and not relied upon on external sources. The argument is that the SGGS is a voluminous text and the writers have taken pains to provide for such. A corollary of this primary philosophy is that all pre-existing religious and spiritual concepts that are used in the SGGS are recalibrated, realigned and re-defined to fit the canvas of Guru Nanak’s spiritual paradigms.
The Gurbani framework has ten elements and principles, namely: 1) Crossing over from the Literal to the Spiritual. 2) The Rahao Principle. 3) Context. 4) Inner Rationality. 5) Conceptual Consistency. 6) First Person Interpretation. 7) Spirituality of the Shabd. 8) Spirituality of Realizing the Creator Within. 9) Spirituality of the Self. And 10) Using Gurbani to define Gurbani concepts. The methodology is termed “The Gurbani Framework” and is used throughout all four books on Gurbani. These ten elements are elaborated in a full and complete chapter that forms part of each book.
Dr. Singh: The title of your other book, “The Hijacking of Sikhi,” is intriguing? Can you elaborate on your thesis in this book for the benefit of our readers?
Dr Dhillon: The genesis of the thesis is actually my own experience of living as a Sikh my entire life. The experience was one of an incongruence between the Sikhi that was out there in the Sikh world and the one that was contained within the pages of the SGGS. The incongruity between the two came to exist in my mind soon after I decided to study and understand the messages of Gurbani on my own. The ambiguities between the two systems turned into full blown contradictions as my understanding of Gurbani progressed.
Gurbani presented a concept of a One Omnipresent Creator that is manifest in His creation and realized within us; the Shabd as Guru; the spirituality’s focus on the HERE and NOW; a philosophy that rejected ritual and advocated obtaining salvation while still alive; a scripture that gave space to adherents of different faiths; and Gurbani’s emphasis on humanity, gender equality and the need to elevate one’s mind to Godly levels. These are just some of the defining features of Sikhi as understood from within the messages of Gurbani.
But the Sikh World out there looked up to the heavens for a praise-thirsty clergy-concocted god sitting up there; prayed to that god for miracles to resolve our worldly affairs; made offerings to please that god; remained obsessed with the notion of rewards after death; considered Gurbani as a mantra to be chanted by the self or by hired hands to obtain material wealth, cures for disease as well as other askings. The Sikh world was one that made deals with god to undertake Akhand Paths, Sehej Paths and Sukhmani if god would solve our problems. The SGGS is to Sikhs was an object of worship – fit only for offering items and money. Understanding the SGGS was of no concern to these Sikhs, consequently, Gurbani ideals
such as a spirituality of virtues, humanity and equality held no importance to us. The Sikh world considered spirituality as being located within external symbols and outer garb. The Sikh believed his vices could be cleansed by a variety of rituals, offerings and deals such as pilgrimages, fixed number of paths, or dipping in pools of historic gurdwaras in India.
The only way to rationalize such horrendous contradictions between the Sikhi of the SGGS and the Sikhi of the Sikh World was to conceptualize a faith that had been hijacked from its unique path and equally distinct goals. The Sikhi of the SGGS stood as a Godly spirituality that had been corrupted into a clergy- concocted and clergy dominated religious dogma. Something had obviously gone very wrong for a very long period of time for us to Sikhs to have ended up where we did.
This book tells the story of how, when and why this happened. The title “Hijacking of Sikh” expresses my belief pertaining to the deliberate and planned nature of the corruption of our faith. Every Sikh ought to at least read this book to realize the tragedy that has befallen us.
Dr. Singh: Dr. Devinder Singh Chahal, Institute of Understanding Sikhism, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, emphasizes in his writings that rational, logical and scientific interpretation of Gurbani is lacking. He asserts that Guru Nanak’s bani interpretation in terms of a universal appeal is the need of the hour. Do you agree? If yes, then why?
Dr Dhillon: Dr Chahal stands as a scientist who has attempted to study and present Gurbani with a scientific mind. He has been consistent in applying such a framework for decades and has never wavered. He firmly believes that this is the way to give Guru Nanak’s bani a universal appeal. I see no reason why any one would disagree with such a logical preposition. He has produced a mountain load of writings for the Sikh world to digest. It is now up to us as to what we want to do with the investment, sacrifices and dedication of one man. He has single-handedly done more to promote Guru Nanak’s bani than a whole host of institutions with big budgets.
Dr. Singh: Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal, USA, in his recent book, “Guru Nanak’s Religious Pluralism and Sri Guru Granth Sahib,” has emphasized that the Sikh religion, as envisioned by Guru Nanak, is pluralistic, inclusive, and contemporary. Do you agree with his assertion and why?
Dr Dhillon: In Bhai Harbans Lal we have another renowned scientist. The thing about scientists is that they are trained in systematic and orderly inquiry. I think of them as advantaged when it comes to getting to the messages of Gurbani because that is how Guru Nanak presented his spiritual messages. Guru Nanak stated the problem statement; laid out his hypothesis, went about collecting data through his 4 long voyages, presented his findings as his own spiritual experiences and then presented the spiritual world his conclusions in first person terms. When we see it that way, then its easy to agree with the thesis of Bhai Harbans Lal that Guru Nanak is pluralistic, inclusive, and contemporary.
Dr. Singh: What is the recent project that you have taken up for the promotion of Sikhi and what are you currently working on?
Dr Dhillon: The most recent project involves attempting to provide Gurbani based meanings to concepts in the afterlife. A total of 12 short videos that cover the concepts of Death, Afterlife, 8.4 million life forms, Reincarnation, Heaven and Hell, Salvation or Mukti, Dhrm Raj, Dargah, Chitargupt and Ancestors respectively. The focus of the videos is how Gurbani had REALIGNED and then REDEFINED these concepts. It is argued that Guru Nanak RE-DEFINED – in a REVOLUTIONARY way – all these pre-existing spiritual concepts. This means that while all these concepts are MENTIONED in the SGGS, they have been given NEW Meanings. And if we intend to appreciate the Sikhi of Guru Nanak, we will need to understand the NEW meanings or REDEFINED meanings of the concepts – as contained within the SGGS.
I am currently working on two projects. One pertains to providing Gurbani meanings to everyday concepts such as Amrit Vela, Darshan, Ardas etc. The second involves the writing of my next set of books on selected banis as contained within the SGGS. These books will complement the first set of five.
Dr. Singh: Any other aspect you wish to share and which I might have missed asking?
Dr Dhillon: I would like to thank you for your immense work towards helping provide exposure to a host of Sikh thinkers, writers, academics and contributors – through such interviews. You are not unlike the cameraman who takes every shot, but never appears in any of the pictures – simply because he is always behind the camera while others are in front. Those in front matter because of the work, dedication and expertise of those behind the lens. I have always appreciated your interviews that are undoubtedly done with great thought and preparation.
Dr. Singh: Thanks, Dr. Karminder Singh Dhillon! for sparing your time to share your incisive views on Sikh theology and Sikh doctrines.