Monday, February 22, 2016

Homophobia has no place in Sikhism

Happenings, Feb '16
We share excerpts from a thought-provoking article by Sukhdeep Singh that first appeared in Gaylaxy webzine on February 4, 2016

Personal bias should not be passed off as Sikh ethics by SGPC

On 26th January, India’s first transgender band launched their second song along with Sonu Nigam. The song titled Sab Rab De Bande was derived from a famous shabad from Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, also worshipped as the living Guru by the Sikh community. Written by Saint Kabir, it has been included in Guru Granth Sahib and signifies the amount of importance Sikh Gurus placed on the fact that all human beings are a creation of God and are equal.

Golden Temple, Amritsar. Photo credit: Sukhdeep Singh

While the song uses only two lines from the bani, it would be worthwhile to reproduce the complete bani here:

Awwal Allah Noor Upaya Qudrat Keh Sub Banday
Aik Noor Teh Sub Jag Upajiya Kaun Bhale Ko Mandhe
(God created light of which all the beings were born
And from this light, the universe; so who is good and who is bad)

Logaa Bharam Na Bhoolahu Maahi
Khaliq Khalq Khalaq Meh Khaaliq Poor Rahio Sarab Tha’ee
(The creation is in the Creator
And the Creator is in the creation)

Maati Aik Anaik Bhaanth Ker Saaji Sajan Haray
Na Kash Poch Maati Kay Bhanday Na Kash Poch Kunbharay
(The clay is the same, but the designer has fashioned it in various ways
Nothing is wrong with the pot of clay and there is nothing wrong with the potter)

Sub Meh Sacha Aiko Soee Dis Ka Keya Sub Kuch Hoyi
Hukm Pachanay Saee Ko Janay Banda Kahiyeah Soee
(The One true Lord abides in all and by his making everything is made
Whoever realizes His command, knows the One Lord and he alone is said to be the Lord’s slave)

Allah Alkh Na Jaee Lakhiya Gur Gur Dheena Meetha
Kahay Kabir Mair Sanka Naase Sarab Niranjan
(The Lord Allah is invisible and He cannot be seen; the Guru has blessed me with this sweet brown sugar says Kabir, my anxiety and fear have been taken away; I see the immaculate Lord pervading everywhere)

And yet, as the marginalized transgender community of India was trying to gain acceptance by using the shabad and message of equality of Guru Granth Sahib, the dharam ke thekedar were out to undermine the very core message and the most essential tenet of Sikhism – equality and inclusiveness.

Major newspapers across India reported on the SGPC’s decision of not honouring Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne during her visit to the Golden Temple [in January this year] because of her support for same-sex marriage. Wynne is also openly lesbian. SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar even said that “Offering her [Wynne] a siropa would be against Sikh ethics”.

It must be pointed out that while announcing their decision not to present Wynne with a siropa, neither the SGPC nor anyone else cited on what theological basis they made the statement. One would expect that when such a body makes a decision which will affect millions of LGBT Sikhs, they would base their decision on the teachings of the Gurus, or the banis composed by them. Yet, alas, their own biases and homophobia is passed off as ‘Sikh ethics’ without quoting from any of the Granths, or the teachings of the Guru.

The first opposition to same-sex marriage from within the Sikh religion came in 2005 when Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti issued an edict asking Canadian Sikhs to oppose same-sex marriages in the country. The statements by the Jathedar in 2005 lacked complete understanding of homosexuality, which he called as “anti-human tendencies” and apart from (mis)using his position to voice his own homophobia, he or the SGPC, have never gone on to explain on what theological reasoning have they come up with such an edict. Their oft repeated statement of “Sikh religion does not accept same-sex marriage” doesn’t stand a chance if they were ever to base it on the teachings of the Gurus.

In this respect, I would like to revisit three lines from the shabad above:

Maati Aik Anaik Bhaanth Ker Saaji Sajan Haray

Na Kash Poch Maati Kay Bhanday Na Kash Poch Kunbharay

Sub Meh Sacha Aiko Soee Dis Ka Keya Sub Kuch Hoyi

These particular lines (refer to their meaning above) are nothing but celebration of diversity in nature. These lines assert that different people have different traits, and there is nothing wrong with either those people, or the Creator who made them, and God resides in all of them. These traits, among other things, would also include sexuality. Yet, the high priests of Sikhism have been too blinded with their own homophobia to look at how Sikhism embraces diversity and doesn’t discriminate among humans. There are countless other hymns, shabads and banis that exhort the message of universal brotherhood and human equality.

Another great virtue of Sikhism is the emphasis on self-acceptance. Sikh philosophy also exhorts its followers to accept the ‘self’ that God created. It is this philosophy that forbids them from cutting their hair or trimming their beard, and changing their true god-gifted self. Acceptance of one’s sexuality, which is inborn (and may I say god-given), is thus also essential to the acceptance that Sikh teachings preach. When leaders of the SGPC issue statements condemning homosexuality, they are basically asking LGBT Sikhs to not accept the way God made them, and any attempts at ‘changing the sexuality’ are nothing but going against the will of the Creator.

Sexuality is a human trait

The SGPC chief says that offering a siropa to Wynne would be against “Sikh ethics”. Which particular Sikh ethics would have been violated by honouring her? Was she being denied a siropa because she is a lesbian, or was it because of her support for same-sex marriage? In the absence of any clarity, one must look at how this decision went totally against the ethos of the Sikh religion.

If she was being denied the honour because she was openly lesbian, then there could not be a more shameful act on their part. All throughout their lives, and through their teachings, Sikh Gurus have taught about treating everyone equal. At a time when caste, gender and religious discrimination were at their peak, Sikh religion taught the concept of langar to uphold the principle of equality between all people of the world regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status.

While in keeping with Sikh traditions and norms Wynne was not stopped from visiting the Golden Temple or the Langar Hall, if the decision to not present her with a siropa was because of her sexuality, it is akin to discrimination, something Sikhism clearly forbids.

If even for a minute one assumes that her sexuality stood against Sikh teachings, one must ask, has the SGPC ‘never’ offered siropas to people who drink alcohol, or smoke or have cut their hair short? Surely these are things which Sikhism clearly prohibits, and a person engaging in these is going against Sikh ethics. Many world leaders and eminent personalities have been honoured with siropas at the Golden Temple. If Sikh ethics weren’t violated then, how are they getting violated now?

The other, and the more widely shared view of the decision to not honour Wynne with a siropa was that it was because of Akal Takht’s opposition to same-sex marriages. Wynne, it was reported, is a strong supporter of same-sex marriages in Canada. It is ironic though that SGPC or Akal Takht should oppose same-sex marriage, given that Sikhism prescribes a gristi jeevan (married life), unlike many other religions where brahmacharya / asceticism is given a higher status. The Sikh marriage ceremony, called anand karaj means blissful event and marriage is considered a union of souls. Soul in Sikhism is genderless, and the lavan (marriage hymns) sung during the wedding are more about commitment to God and are genderless as well. It is baffling then that the same gristi jeevan is being opposed by SGPC for couples who happen to be same-sex.

Naam japo, vand chhako, kirat karo, meaning ‘meditate’, ‘share with others what you have’ and ‘lead an honest life’ are the three main pillars of Sikhism. The Sikh religion also places a great deal of importance on seva or serving humanity. This is a religion which has always stood up for the rights of the persecuted and minorities. It is the only religion whose holy book Guru Granth Sahib incorporates teachings from saints of other religions as well. The 9th Guru of Sikh religion sacrificed his life to protect another persecuted minority.

Yet today, in stark contrast to all that which forms the heart of this young and beautiful religion, those who are supposed to hold up the values of these religious teachings, are turning their back to another persecuted group, another minority – the sexual and gender minority. One must remind them that this blatant homophobia is not condoned by Sikhism, and they should stop passing off their own personal biases as Sikh ethics. A true Sikh is a learner, probably it is time they start learning a few things about sexual minorities as well.

The original article Homophobia has No Place in Sikhism can be read here.

Sukhdeep Singh is a Facebook addict who works as a software engineer by day and transforms into a writer at night. He is the founder and editor of Gaylaxy magazine.

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