BOOK REVIEW: Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction by Eleanor Nesbitt

Sikhism: A Very Short IntroductionSikhism: A Very Short Introduction by Eleanor Nesbitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I picked up this book before a trip to Amritsar. While Sikhs are arguably the most visually distinct religious adherents, it’s one of the least understood world religions with respect to internal aspects like beliefs and practices. And a major religion, it is. With 23 million followers, it’s between the fifth and eighth most widely practiced religion in the world (depending upon whether one aggregates traditional religions in China or Africa.)

This book offers a 150 page overview of what it means to be Sikh, and it explains it not only in religious, but also in cultural, political, and historical, terms. If one needs deep insight and great detail about Sikhism, this may not be the book for you. But it gives one the big picture quite nicely, and with a scholar’s balanced view (as opposed to that of a theologian.)

There are eight chapters in the book. The first chapter introduces one to Sikhism. Besides the basics, this chapter discusses what makes Sikhism a distinct religion, and how it has been influenced by other religions—most significantly Hindu and Islam, in that order. It also discusses what it means to be Punjabi, in contrast to what it means to be Sikh. To understand the subject of the second and third chapters, one has to know how the leadership of this religion unfolded. There were ten human teachers (Guru), and then a book of scriptures assumed the mantle of Guru. The second chapter is about the human Gurus (and mostly about the first one—Guru Nanak, with a little about the next four, and almost nothing about the last five.) The third chapter is about the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the book of scriptures that has served as the religion’s guide since the early 18th century.

Chapter four discusses Sikh religious practices–including the five K’s that serve to give Sikhs such a distinct physical appearance. The 5 K’s are: kesh (uncut hair), kanga (comb), kirpan (sword), kachh (cotton breeches), and kara (steel braclet.) While only the Khalsa (i.e. the community of initiated) necessarily practice all of these, it’s common to see at least some of these features among the community at-large. The wearing of turbans, beards (though often not completely uncut), and steel bangles are ubiquitous in Punjab. The chapter also delves into turbans, ethics, symbols, and the controversial question of vegetarianism (some Sikhs are and some aren’t.)

The fifth chapter offers a history of Sikhism over the past few centuries from the era of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century to the dire events of early 1980’s (there was a massacre of Sikhs by government forces in 1982 and in 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards, leading to yet more violence.) Chapter 6 discusses the topic of Sikhs abroad. While Punjab is consider the Sikh homeland, there are Sikhs around the world—but particularly in a few areas where there numbers are sufficient to constitute a community—e.g. in the United Kingdom. Chapter 7 investigates the theory and practice of Sikhism with regards to a few key issues of life on the Indian subcontinent including: the caste system, gender, and attitudes toward other religions. (In many regards, Sikhism is comparatively progressive, but practice hasn’t always followed the scripture—e.g. high girl child infanticide rates.) The last chapter considers the future of Sikhism moving forward.

There are graphics of several types throughout the book—most notably black-&-white photographs. There are a few helpful ancillary features including a “Further Reading” section, a timeline, and a glossary of terms.

I found this book useful, and would recommend it for anyone seeking background on Sikhism.

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DAILY PHOTO: Golden Temple Ghanta Ghar by Night

Taken on April 8, 2016 in Amritsar

Taken on April 8, 2016 in Amritsar

 

A ghanta ghar is an “hour house” or clock tower. This one is located on the northeast side of the Golden Temple (Sri Harmandir Sahib) in Amritsar in the square with the Musical Fountain.

Paul Brunton’s Search for Sages in India

Source: Kalyan Kumar by way of Wikipedia

Source: Kalyan Kumar by way of Wikipedia

As I prepare to move to India, I’ve begun to read up on this subcontinent about which I know too little. For example, I’d never heard of Paul Brunton before a week ago, but now I am immersed in his book A Search in Secret India. Brunton was a Brit who, like a number of his contemporaries living in the first half of the 20th century, struck out to experience the mysteries locked in the heart of India. Like many, he wanted to gain access to the country’s treasure, but the treasure he sought had nothing to do with material wealth or ancient artifacts. He sought living sages, and the lessons they could teach him. The book I’m reading tells the story of this search.

Something about India drives internal reflection and the spirituality that often accompanies it. It’s the home of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, as well as many non-denominational wisemen (and wisewomen) who at once can be seen as followers of no religion and believers in many religions.  Value for the unity of mind and body can be seen in the popular national practice of Yoga, which is the antithesis of mindless exercise in which one jumps on a treadmill with an i-Pod and zones out for an hour as one’s body churns through its paces. Yoga, like Tai Chi, requires one’s full attention, and that one’s movement, one’s breath, and one’s awareness are all working toward the same purpose.

So far, Brunton’s work has appealed to me not only because he is in search of wisdom, but because he goes about this pursuit as a skeptic. In the introduction he tells how he edited out the many meetings with charlatans and frauds. Charlatans always abound in the presence of sages because it’s quite lucrative to convince people that they can achieve self-improvement effortlessly through some patented approach. (I’m here to tell you that self-improvement is a struggle that requires your physical and mental energy all the way–what I cannot yet tell you is whether it is worth it or not.) If one cannot see the cloud-enshrouded destination, it’s easy to sell maps–whether one knows the route oneself or not–and many are all too ecstatic to buy a map that shows a secret route that takes them to the pinnacle by way exclusively downhill paths.  The fact that Brunton enters his quest with a degree of skepticism suggests he didn’t fall for such traps; traps that should be obvious but that appeal to those for whom the force of wanting to believe is stronger than the force of truth. [As I am only a few chapters in, I reserve the right to change this prognosis. At some point, I’ll put up a review with my final thoughts.]

I look forward to discovering whether wisdom is alive and well on the subcontinent. Hopefully, the hucksters haven’t won the war for the mind’s of seekers.