Just what is true ‘people practice’?

In Sikhi we are taught that to be in the company of others is a blessed thing. This single belief permeates a lot of our practices and customs. It’s why when you go to a Sikh home, you will always be welcomed, you will be fed, you will be given sweets, and you will be made to feel part of the family you never knew existed. It’s why when you go to a gurdwara, you will be accepted no matter the colour of your skin, or the faith you follow (or don’t). This fundamental belief stems from the power shared by our tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh ji.

In the late 1690’s, he recognised that the lineage to date of Sikh gurus couldn’t continue. There was no one else he could pass the responsibility of leading the Sikh people onto. So he made an unprecedented move, and in 1699, when he congregated thousands of people at Anandpur Sahib in North India, he showed everyone present just how much power they had. He asked for five faithful followers to sacrifice their lives for him, and he received them one by one. The gathered crowd believed these men to have died, and were surprised to discover them all emerge from a tent wearing distinctive clothing. Guru Gobind Singh ji declared these five his Panj Pyare – the five (Panj) beloved (Pyare) ones. He also declared that his Panj would from that point forward be the ones who make all decisions for Sikhs.

Another central tenet to Sikhi is the concept of sewa – selfless work. We see this most often when you visit a gurdwara. There will be people present who will make food for anyone who visits, and it is entirely free, with no concept of paying or one person being any more deserved that another. All are equal in the eyes of God. You will be served food, and your dishes cleaned after you. You are not allowed to help yourself, although you can always ask for more if available. This is because there are volunteers present who have accepted this on behalf of their community. There are some who do it consistently and regularly, and there are some who do it as they see fit.

Social science tells us that people benefit by being around others. When we are depressed, when we need support to overcome an addiction, when we need therapy, one of the common techniques is to be involved in group activities of some kind. We find support in others, we find wisdom, we find friends and we find happiness. Equally we find the antithesis of all of those – we find exclusion, we find hurtful and abusive people, and we can find loneliness. Let me make this clear now, this has nothing to do with perceived levels of extraversion or introversion, this can happen to anyone.

Sticking with the benefits of being around others, though, we find the social benefits are evident too. We create a set of norms people accept, we find ways to challenge those and create something new, we find ways to entertain others and give joy, we find ways of making things happen simply by talking.

Add social media and technology to the mix and the opportunities for finding social groups that are supportive and positive are in abundance. Speaking for myself, I enjoy being able to step into different communities of interest depending on what I’m looking for at that time. I’ve often thought about keeping seperate Twitter accounts for different purposes, and then remember that I am all of my interests, and not one of them is more or less important than the other.

And then I want us to consider working environments. We strive to make things matter. Engagement and strategic strategising of strategies for a clear strategy is the name of the game. I’m all for that, and what I remain keenly mindful of is that we aren’t mindful enough of the power of people to find their own way through things. Even when we (HR and L&D) think we’ve found ways to help people, we trip over ourselves to mitigate for risk. There will always be times when someone gets upset, and that is no bad thing. People getting upset keeps us on our toes and ensures we are as inclusive and open about people practice as we can be.

Helping people to find their own way through their day to day tasks though. That’s what we need to focus on. That’s true HR, that’s true learning and development, that’s true coaching, and that’s true organisational development.


Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji

Waheguru ji ka khalsa, waheguru ji ki fateh.

Today is the birthday (gurpurab) of the founder of Sikhi, Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. For ease, I shall refer to him as Guru Ji a lot in the post. He lived from 1469-1539. Technically he was born on April 15 according to reports. So why are Sikhs celebrating his birthday in November? This is unclear, but it is celebrated on the full moon that falls in November every year. So the date changes annually.

When he was born, the main religions at the time in North India were Hinduism and Islam. He was born in the state now known as Punjab. As a young child, he actively chose not to listen to the teachings of priests and his parents, and chose not to be indoctrinated into the practices of Hindusim. He immediately began to question his seniors about why they acted in certain ways and why they weren’t focusing on God.

Guru Ji started to preach a belief in one God. He wanted all who practised their religion to realise that all they needed to do was keep God central in their thoughts. Moreover, he said that in God’s eyes, there is no Hindu and there is no Muslim. We are all His children. His following became quite varied and he had followers from both religions. Although not aggressively controversial, the things he was saying were certainly not in line with thoughts and preaching of the day. He spoke out against a practise in Hinduism at the time called sati. This is where if a married man died, his wife was expected to throw herself onto his funeral pyre. Guruji actively made it known that this should not happen and sought equality for women.

There were three main tenets he left his followers with – naam japna, kirat karna, wand ke chhakna. Naam japna means to repeat the name of God. This means that we are meant to meditate on God when we can, repeat His name, and keep Him at the forefront of all our thoughts. Guru Ji gave us the name of God as Waheguru. Kirat karna means to live an honourable life. This means to be a householder, and carry out work which is beneficial to others. Living a life which has high social, ethical and moral values is the ideal to aim for. Wand ke chhakna means to share with others what you have. This is where the concept of community for Sikhs is core. It is called Sadh Sangat – the community of the holy. We can find counsel, help, blessings and support from the community we are part of.

As Guru Nanak Dev Ji was nearing the end of his time, he wanted to choose a successor who would continue his teachings. Although he was married and had two sons to whom he could have passed the responsibility to, he instead chose a devotee of his to pass the Gurgaddi on to. From the second to the tenth Guru, their names are:
Guru Angad Dev Ji
Guru Amar Das Ji
Guru Ram Das Ji
Guru Arjan Dev Ji
Guru Har Gobind Ji
Guru Har Rai Ji
Guru Har Krishan Ji
Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji
Guru Gobind Singh Ji

As the Gurgaddi has been passed on this fashion from one to the next, it is said the light of Nanak was present in each successor. In our teachings and the holy book in Sikhi, verses often end with a saying such as ‘Nanak has said this is the Truth’. It is worth noting, after Guru Gobind Singh Ji, he decided the responsibility of the Gurgaddi could not fall to one person any longer. As such he declared all teachings written in the Guru Granth Sahib to be the word of the Guru. In Sikhi, we call this gurbani – the teachings of the Guru.

For me, Guru Nanak Dev Ji did not just start a new way of thinking, he started a way of life which I’ve known all of mine so far. In personal reflections I will often think about his teachings, and what he wanted Sikhs to believe and do. This was a man who saw in man a desire to be good and in turn a desire to find God in all we do. Although miracles have been attributed to Guru Ji, it’s often difficult to verify these. Instead, I choose to reflect on the difference one man made to a country and the heart with which he did this.

Waheguru ji ka khalsa, waheguru ji ki fateh.

Is there a bit of Punjabi inside you?

A break from the norm of L&D type posts brings me to wanting to write about my culture. Sparked by some bhangra being played on my way into work this morning! It’s important to immediately clarify that there is a difference between being Sikh, and being Punjabi. Already confused? Sikhi is a religion, and as some of you will know, I am Sikh. Those who practise Sikhi, have defining characteristics such as the clothes they wear, and typically look something like this:

I, clearly, am not a practising Sikh. I hope to be some day, though.

Being Punjabi, though, is quite different. Punjab is a state in North India, with borders on Pakistan, close to the Himalayas and has a population of approximately 80 million.

Historically, Sikhi originated in the Punjab area, and as such many Sikhs are Punjabi. However, being a Punjabi, doesn’t mean you are Sikh. Those living in Punjab are also Hindu, Muslim and Christian. So, the commonality they share is the Punjabi identity.

I want to give you some insight into what it means to me to be Punjabi.

The music. Bhangra. That’s what it’s all about. Traditional bhangra is played on simple instruments such as a tumbi or a dhol. And there’s normally someone who will sing lyrics. The lyrics are normally meant to be quite tongue in cheek, taking a poke at Punjabi stereotypes, and also often about wooing a girl. Lyrics aside, for me, it’s the rhythm produced from the instruments that I love. You grow up learning how to dance to the music, your social circle encourage it, at parties everyone’s doing it, and it’s contagious! Not many artists have managed to break into UK mainstream music except for Punjabi MC, with Mundian To Bach Ke. Since then there have been others, but not in such a big way. Anyway, every time I hear a good bhangra song, I want to dance. It’s dangerous when sitting at my desk when listening to a good song as I’ll be mentally bopping away, trying to refrain from physically doing the same, and trying not to look like I have ants in my pants.

The food. I love Punjabi cuisine. It is awesome! Every part of India has a different style of cooking. Sure they’re all spicy, but they tend to have very different consistencies. Typical Punjabi food tends to be quite thick and/or creamy if it’s curry based, quite dry if it’s meat, and quite spicy if it’s vegetarian. You may recognise saag, tandoori chicken or matar paneer. MMMmmm… A very traditional meal for families on Sunday’s is to have parathas… oh mama. These things can fill you up for a day.

The culture. Punjabi’s are a very social people. Everything is about socialising and needing an excuse to socialise. That’s why parties are so big, not because we know that many people, but because we love being social. Sure there might be alcohol free flowing, but that’s more of a gradual happening over time. It’s all about throwing a big bash to show off how well you can socialise. Cynicism aside, it creates for a wonderful atmosphere where everyone mucks in and enjoys themselves. Even if it’s a home dinner, you can expect 3-4 different families. And in some cases this is a weekly affair!

And those three things are at the heart of why I love being Punjabi. I’ve talked specifically about Punjab here. This isn’t to say the other states in India are vastly different, it’s akin to describing why those from North England differ from those in the Home Counties to those in London to those in West Country.

>A snapshot of a Sikh wedding

>Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh. This is a traditional Sikh blessing which translates as ‘the Khalsa belong to God, Victory belongs to God’. It is used at the beginning and end of every prayer. It is also used as a greeting amongst practising Sikhs.

My good friend Jerry was married at the weekend. He’s a captain in the Army and has found someone to whom he’s happy to share his life with and is comfortable with living an army way of life. Now the significance of his marriage is two fold. First that he had a traditional Sikh wedding on the Saturday. The next day he had a military blues wedding. Being Sikh, Saturday was no different to my own wedding day. It’s the Sunday that I’ve never experienced before and immensely enjoyed it. Anyhow, I thought it might make a good post to talk about what happens in Sikh weddings. I’ll also touch on a lot about the Sikh way of life.

Just as when talking about the Christian religion we talk about Christianity, when talking about the Sikh religion I’ll be saying Sikhi. One quick note is to mention that Sikhi is a monotheistic religion. There are ten gurus in Sikhi who provided the foundations and complete philosophy for what it means to be Sikh: Guru Nanak Dev ji, Guru Angad Dev ji, Guru Amar Das ji, Guru Ram Das ji, Guru Arjan Dev ji, Guru Har Rai ji, Guru Har Gobind ji, Guru Har Krishan ji, Guru Tegh Bahadur ji, Guru Gobind Singh ji.

There’s a lot of pre and post wedding activity that I won’t talk about as it’s mostly cultural and unimportant compared to the day itself. On the day, the groom traditionally dresses in a kurta pyjama. This is a long one piece tunic type outfit. His head should be covered and tied in a turban. He should have unshorn hair on his face. He should have a sword. The colour is unimportant. In Sikhi, the importance of the groom dressing in this way reminds him that he is a disciple of God. There are two important factors here:
1) our tenth Guru (Guru Gobind Singh ji) decreed that if you call yourself Sikh you should be easily recognisable as one and therefore should always keep the following observable: kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (a comb to keep the hair neat), kara (a steel bracelet worn on the forearm), kacchera (long shorts from waist to above the ankles), and kirpan (sword).
2) our first Guru (Guru Nanak Dev ji), believed that to live a good life you should always do the following three activities: kirat karna – your work should be positive and contribute to society, wand ke chakna – share what you have with others, naam japna – always remember and say God’s name. In Sikhi, a core part of living a fulfilled life is to marry and have a family.

The bride wears a red lengha. This is an outfit which allows the bride to sit and move with ease on the day. The main piece is a flowing dress from the waist to just above the ankles. She is modestly covered and is also required to cover her hair. Make up and the such like are mainly fashion statement as opposed to religious significance.

On arrival at the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship, translates as House of the Lord), the families of the bride and groom formally meet each other in an event called the milni which literally translates as ‘the meeting’. The fathers meet first, adorning the other with a garland. Typically, brothers and uncles are part of the milni. The ladies do the same event but later in the day and normally in the same way. The bride and groom meet for the first time (not these days mind) and do the same. Everyone enters the gurdwara and has time to refresh themselves before entering the Darbar Sahib (prayer hall).

Every Darbar Sahib will have features laid out in a similar fashion. At the head of the hall in the centre is the Guru Granth Sahib. This is the holy scripture in Sikhi, but Sikhs regard it as the living Guru. This is because it contains the teachings of Gurus and other learned and enlightend saints from the time of the Gurus, and from past wise souls. As such, Guru Gobind Singh ji explained that after him, there would be no need for another person to take on the role of Guru for Sikhs. All questions can be answered by reading and learning about the teachings within the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib is always placed on a raised platform. It is kept encased in a plain white cloth when not being read. It is covered by a canopy. Only someone learned in Gurmukhi is allowed to read the Guru Granth Sahib. The important thing here is this is not restricted to any one person – whoever learns to read the script and lives the Sikh way of life is entitled to read the Guru Granth Sahib.

Traditionally men sit on one side of the hall and women on the other. This is not a strict observance, but done so that a focus can be maintained by both sexes.

To the side of the Guru Granth Sahib you will find a sevadar (voluntary worker) who serves prasad (blessed offering). This is often halwa, but can also be mixed sweets. The halwa is made in an iron pot called a karahi. On entering the Darbar Sahib, you step in front of the Guru Granth Sahib and bow your head by kneeling on the floor. This is of particular importance because of how Guru Gobind Singh ji initiated the first Khalsa. Khalsa means ‘the pure ones’.

Guru Gobind Singh ji, at a time of Muslim rule across North India, had a faithful following of people. He wanted to create a uniform way for Sikhs to be readily identified that was different to Hindus and Muslims. At a large gathering he asked for the heads of his followers to prove their devotion. Five offered their heads. He took them to a tent where minutes after entering blood was observed flowing out. He actually cut the heads off goats. These five were called the Panj Pyare – Five Loved Ones.

Once you have bowed down, it is traditional to make an offering to the gurdwara. This can either be money or food. You then take some prasad from the sevadar and listen to the prayers being said.

At the wedding, the groom awaits the bride to enter and they both sit in front of the Guru Granth Sahib. The granthi (person who reads the Guru Granth Sahib) addresses the sangat (congregation) and informs that everyone is to take part in the ardas (prayer) to initiate proceedings. An ardas is done at the beginning and end of every undertaking or task. Everyone stands during the ardas with hands folded. Each time the ardas has been recited, a hukamnama (Will or Order of God) is taken from the Guru Granth Sahib. This is a passage which offers insight into human life and existence and offers a focus for any situation you may be facing that day.

After the ardas, the bride, groom, and parents of both are asked to stand to do a prayer separately. The Granthi then informs the bride and groom they will do the Laavan (walking around the Guru Granth Sahib) four times. This complete piece is known as the Anand Karaj. In it’s simplest form, the four laavan depict the four stages of human consciousness seeking realisation.

Once the laavan are complete the Anand Sahib is sung. The Anand Sahib is translated as ‘prayer of bliss’. This prayer is meant to bring about a state of bliss once recited. The ardas is once again sung and then a hukamnama is read from the Guru Granth Sahib. Prasad is then given out to the congregation and this signifies the end of the wedding.

This is formally the end of the wedding. Having a reception after the event is normal these days whereas according to Sikhi the following should be done. In each gurdwara, langar is served. Langar is food made for the congregation which is free and available to anyone who comes to pray at the gurdwara. The concept of langar was put forward by Guru Nanak Dev ji to uphold the principle of equality between all people. The langar prepared is pure vegetarian and no alcohol or smoking is ever allowed on the premises.

I hope this gives an insight into what happens at a Sikh wedding and into Sikhi. I was going to add pictures but that would make this a very long post and this is already as long as it needs to be.

There’s a lot of very good websites that provide further information about Sikhs:

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.