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.

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Vaisakhi, how Sikhs became the Khalsa

It’s the 1400s in India. In North India, in the now state of Punjab a boy is born to a Hindu family. As he grows his parents quickly learn he is no ordinary child. He refuses custom they are all used to. He talks about God a lot. He preaches a better way of life, and at a young age is very intelligent. His name was Nanak. He gathered a following as the years went by. He taught various beliefs such as respecting everyone regardless of their religion. He made claims like “there is no Muslim, there is no Hindu in the eyes of God”. He said the practise of sati, where a widowed wife would sacrifice herself on her husbands funeral pyre was wrong. He said we should live life according to three principles: Naam japna, remember His name, Wand ke chhakna, share what you have and kirat karna, live a good life. He was making both Hindu and Muslim priests and rulers question their ethics, their practices and their way of life. Not because it wasn’t good enough, but because they were not being true to their religion. This was the beginning of Sikhi, and he became known as Guru Nanak Dev ji.

Another seven Guru’s were selected in the coming years and generations: Guru Angad Dev ji, Guru Amar Das ji, Guru Ram Das ji, Guru Arjan Dev ji, Guru Har Gobind ji, Guru Har Rai ji and Guru Har Krishan ji. Each played an important part in developing the teachings of Nanak and building the ethos of what it means to be Sikh. It is said the light of Nanak was passed on to each Guru, and often in teachings and the scripture, we hear it as the teaching of Nanak which means both his teachings but also that of any of the Gurus who came after him.

The ninth in line was Guru Tegh Bahadur ji. He went to the aid of persecuted Hindu priests and came up against the Muslim ruler, Aurangzeb. Guru ji asked the prisoners to be released, and Aurangzeb made clear this would only happen if they all converted to Islam. They refused, and he beheaded Guru Tegh Bahadur ji publicly. Word of this reached his ten year old son, Gobind Rai, who was shocked that no Sikh who was there stood up to what was happening.

Gobind Rai went on to become the tenth Guru. He wanted to create an identity for Sikhs that set them apart from all other religions. He wanted to give Sikhs something firm and strong to believe in. He wanted them to be what he called Sant Sipahi, Soldier Saints – fiercely strong and disciplined but equally religious and faithful to God. Gobind Rai himself modelled what he wanted his Sikhs to be. He spoke several languages, was a poet, learned many forms of martial art, was a skilled warrior and strategist, knew scriptures by heart, could debate with learned priests and scholars and was married and had four children, all boys.

It was this time of year in the year 1699, the time of year when the harvest happens. Vaisakhi is this celebration of harvest and is one where he knew he could gain the attention of a large congregation. He sent out word that he wanted all Sikhs to come and join him at a gathering. He stood in front of the crowd, and called out to them asking who amongst them is willing to offer their head to him in the name of God? One man stood and followed Guru ji into a tent. Gobind Rai emerged from the tent with a bloodied sword. He called out again asking the same. Again one man rose. No one understood what was happening or why he was doing this. Three more times Guru Gobind Rai asked for the head of his followers, and each time only one man rose.

After the fifth, he emerged from the tent with all five men newly clothed. They were his Panj Pyare, the Five Beloved Ones. They offered their head to God because of their faith and belief. He adorned them with an identity commonly referred to as the Five K’s – Kanga, a comb, Kesh, long unshorn hair, Kirpan, a sword, Kacchera, undergarments and Kara, a steel bangle. He explained to the Sadh Sangat, holy congregation, that these five were now Khalsa. Khalsa was how Sikhs would be defined, and he gave them a greeting – Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh, The Khalsa belongs to God, Victory belongs to God.

He went further and said Sikhs will have an identity. They were to lose their given last names and replace them solely with Singh, Lion, for a man, and Kaur, Princess, for a woman. They could only be given these titles after they were baptised by the Panj Pyare, and Guru Gobind Rai then did something completely unprecedented. He asked the Panj Pyare to baptise him so he could become a Singh, from whence he became known as Guru Gobind Singh ji.

On this day, Vaisakhi was give a new meaning to Sikhs. It was the day they were given a firm identity known as the Khalsa. Guru Nanak Dev ji’s teachings were core to this. Guru Gobind Singh ji confirmed this. And after him, he said there would be no more human worthy of being a Guru. The scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib ji had the teachings of Nanak and in here all answers could be found. The Panj Pyare were made a collective from whom advice was to be sought and through whom decisions about Sikhs were to be made.

I hope this has been a useful post, and personally it has been a very affirming post to write.

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh.

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.

Bandi Chhor Diwas – significance of Diwali for Sikhs

As some of you may know, today is Diwali. In the Indian calendar this is the beginning of the new year and is a national celebration. For Hindus, it represents the festival of light. In folklore, the story goes that Rama defeated the evil Ravana in an epic battle of good over evil. He freed his consort, Sita, and they return to their kingdom of Ayodhya on this day. The story is much more expansive than this, and I’ve done it very little justice in giving such a short synopsis. Across the world, there will be celebrations of this day, mainly marked by fireworks, and passing out of sweets is common. It’s also traditionally a time of year when gifts are given to one another.

In Sikhi, though, Diwali has a very different significance and relevance. Our sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, had become friends with the Muslim ruler at the time (1619), Emperor Jahangir. After some time, Jahangir became ill, and his advisers convinced him that Guru Hargobind Ji needed to go to Gwalior, to offer prayers for his recovery. Guru Ji accepted. On arriving, he was arrested and imprisoned with 52 other prisoners (done without the Emporer’s knowledge). All were princes and rulers of their own kingdoms. Guru Ji soon improved their living conditions there, and they all became followers of his teachings.

When news reached Jahangir that Guru Hargobind Ji had been imprisoned, he ordered his release. Guru Ji decided that he would not leave unless the other prisoners could leave with him. Jahangir stipulated that any prisoner holding on to the coat of Guru Ji could be freed. Immediately, Guru Ji asked for a coat to be made that had 52 tails for his fellow prisoners to hold on to. It was made for him, and he walked out of Gwalior fort with all 52 prisoners holding on to a tail on his coat.

Guru Hargobind Ji from this day on became known as Bandi-Chhor – the liberator. The day he arrived at Amritsar was also the same day as Diwali, and as such the two events have often been celebrated at the same time. For Sikhs, we celebrate by going to the gurdwara to offer our prayers, and have some langar. Langar is the practise of providing free meals to anyone, an open affair for all who visit the gurdwara. We then light a candle to remember the day and some gurdwaras will also have a show of fireworks.

Take from the story what you will, I just like the story.

Waheguru ji ka khalsa, waheguru ji ki fateh (A Sikh greeting).