Unitarians With Daggers

An introduction to the Sikhs

The Sikhs


By Patwant Singh


Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pp.

Sikhism, among the world's youngest religions, is also among its mostparadoxical. The trappings and imagery of the faith are unabashedlymartial: Sikh men are baptized with the surname Singh ("lion"), wear adagger (today often a miniature one) as part of their daily dress, andare renowned for their skill in the art of war. On the other hand,Sikhism was founded as a quest for religious tolerance, its holiestscriptures include writings by individuals who did not even belong tothe faith, and five centuries of intermittent oppression (some of itunspeakably brutal) have not robbed the Sikhs of their genuinecommitment to ecumenism and no-strings-attached charity.

Who are the Sikhs? Think of gentle, open-hearted Unitarians--but oneswho can kick your butt.

The essence of the faith is summed up, in all its contradictions, bythe Golden Temple in the Indian city of Amritsar. Step inside, andyou're welcomed like a long-awaited friend. Sikh and stranger alikeeat together at the pilgrims' free kitchen. The temple has fourgates, symbolizing the faith's openness to people from the four

varnas

of the Hindu caste system and the four corners of the earth. Insidethe Harmandir (the gilded center of the temple complex), white-beardedpriests chant hauntingly beautiful

ragas

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composed of verses from theGuru Granth Sahib, the "Bible" of Sikhism.

Just steps away from the Harmandir, however, is a reminder that this isnot a faith for the faint-hearted. Martyrs' Galleries display goryphotographs of militants killed in 1984, when the Indian army attackedKhalistanist rebels who had turned the Golden Temple into a veritablefortress. The carnage before, during, and after this siege is only themost recent example of bloodshed that has afflicted the Sikhs duringtheir 500 years of history. Seldom the first to start hostilities, the Sikhs have seldom let hostilities inflicted on them go unanswered.

Author and broadcaster Patwant Singh, in his book "The Sikhs," does an excellent job of setting out the history, beliefs, and ethos of his community. Singh's book succeeds because of what it does not do: It does notpretend to be a cold, dispassionate, impartial history. Instead, it isan unapologetic apologia, a celebration of a people and a faith thatwell deserve to be celebrated. Such writing is risky; far too often, abook of this sort can veer off into trite, propagandistic polemic. ButSingh's work is level-headed, fair, and not overly given to hyperbole. It does not aim to present all sides of the story, merely the story of (and from the viewpoint of) its protagonists. Singh writes of his subjects, "having opposed repression, and the tyranny of caste, a number of times in their history, they know how to stand their ground. And that is what this book is about."

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