Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My anthem, courtesy of Guru Nanak

What I would give to have my own work convey the same feeling I get when reading this:

Infinite is the Glory, and infinite the ways to sing praise

Infinite are the deeds, and infinite the gifts

Infinite is the seeing, and infinite the hearing

Infinite are the workings of the Mind

Infinite is the variety of forms

Infinite are the edges of the universe

How many weep and yearn to find the limits

But these are not to be found

The end euldes all

The more it is expressed, the more is yet to be found

God is great and high in station

Yet higher still is the Name

If we could ever reach that height

Then only would we know the Highest of the high

Expansive as It is, That One alone can know Itself

Nanak says we are graced with the gift of the Gaze.

- Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Japji Sahib, stanza 24

Greetings from Oklahoma!

I received this email from a Sikh school teacher in Oklahoma who had requested a copy of Dastaar to screen to her students. Her feedback is one of the most powerful letters about Dastaar I've received:

Dear Kevin,

How are you? Dastaar was a HIT in the classroom! The kids really loved it, and were very sensitive to the message. They all feel smarter now because they know more about Sikhs, and they will possibly now think twice before engaging in hateful behavior towards others because of religion or ethnicity. We talked about things like, "Should people have to hide who they are because they might offend someone or because they are not like the mainstream population of an area?" "Can you look at a person and tell if they are a terrorist or not?" "Is Islam given a fair representation in the media?" "Have you ever hear of a Sikh before today?" "Would you like to see a more in depth study of other cultures and religions other than what is offered in the textbooks you use?" "Is it right to attack people because they are or might be a part of a culture that is perceived as threatening, even though they personally did nothing wrong?"

The kids were very empathetic towards the older man at the beginning of the DVD. One girl wanted to know how anyone would want to hurt that "sweet old man." We talked about how in the ignorance of the attacker's minds they were attacking the "enemy" even though Mr. Khalsa was not even involved nor is he even a Moslem. He is just a sweet old man.

I told the kids that there are Sikhs in Oklahoma, and there is a Gurdwara in Oklahoma CIty. I told them that a few people know that I am Hindu, but I also am studying Sikhism, and that I also attend the Gurdwara in Oklahoma City along with my son and daughter. I told them that I did not share my personal life and religion with many people because I did not want any backlash from living in an area where there are not many Hindus, and no Hindu teachers. I would love to be able to feel free to wear tika on my forehead every day, but I save that for the Temple. I told them that I often wear a salwar-kameez to school, and though they see it as pretty clothes, to me it is much more. We talked about how our part of the country needs to lighten up about being able to learn about other religions. We can teach in depth about other faiths without the fear of conversion. I told them that I would be happy to share all I know about Hinduism and Sikhism, and that I would never try to convert anyone, because that is not what we do. (In direct opposition to the mainstream Protestant (Baptist mostly) religions here.)

It was a very mature discussion for a group of raucous 8th graders.

Thank you for DASTAAR, it is a wonderful teaching tool. Oklahoma City is waiting for you, if you ever get a chance to come down this way!


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

New Documentary about Sikhs and Sodhi killings screening at Lincoln Center

Independents Night: A Dream In Doubt
Thurs Feb 22: 6:30pm

Admission: $10, $7 for students, $6 FSLC & IFP members.

There will be a Q&A after the screening.

A joint program of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFP.

A Dream In Doubt
Tami Yeager, U.S., 2007; 57 min
Rana Singh Sodhi and his brothers escaped persecution in India to become successful gas station owners in Mesa, Arizona. In the volatile atmosphere in the United States after 9/11, their turbans and beards, expressions of their faith as Sikhs, are mistaken as identifying symbols. Balbir, Rana's oldest brother, becomes the first victim of a 9/11 revenge killing, gunned down at his station by a man who claimed to be rooting out terrorists. As the Sikh community continues to live as misunderstood Americans, Rana Sodhi attempts to educate Phoenix residents about hate crimes, act as a spokesman for his family and community, and guard his own school-aged children from the bullying and harassment they continually face. When tragedy strikes his family a second time, Rana Sodhi’s perceptions of America come into deep focus. He questions how much more his family can endure and how they will achieve the American dream when they look like the enemy.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Japji case study

So I've picked out a passage from Japji to compare the different translations I have at hand.

Note that in the original Gurbani, each couplet is a rhyming match, an essential poetic quality to the original that none of the following translations can replicate. This is why I am told that to truly appreciate the power of japji one must recite it in its original language. Whatever I gain from these translations is but a fraction of the poetic and philosophical depth of Japji. But let's see what I can dinf out.

3rd stanza (excerpt)

translated by Arvind Mandair and Christopher Shackle:

Some sing of His power, for they have the power,
Some sing of His bounty, for they know its signs.
Some sing of His virtues, greatness and acts,
Some sing of His knowledge, so hard to imagine.
Some sing of His making, the body, then dust.
Some sing of His taking, and giving back life.
Some sing that He seems and appears far away,
Some sing that He sees all, present and here.

Rajinder Singh Vidyarthi:

Many sing His might, who have a capacity to sing that?
Many recite His bounties taking them as His signs.
Many sing His excellence and the virtues,
Others, His knowledge so hard to conceive.
Many sing His power of creation and destruction,
That, 'He takes away life and recreates.'
Many sing 'He is near at hand' others think afar.
Many sing 'He beholds us and is ever Omnipresent.'

Gurbachan Singh:

Who has the strength to sing and appreciate Supreme power?
Who can know and sing the marking rewards of the Lord?
Who can sing the greatness and excellences of God?
Who can sing His wisdom and know the knowledge of the Lord
Who can sing that creations are created and vanished by Him?
Who can sing that life is taken away and again it is restored?
Who can sing that He seems to be far away?
Who can sing that He seems to be present just face to face?

Harbans Singh:

Who has the power to sing and define God's Power?
Who can sing and describe the boons (the marks of grace) of God?
Who can sing the virtues and excellences of God?
Who can sing and describe the most difficult knowledge of God?
Who can sing God, who forms the body, and then reduces it to dust?
Who can sing God, who takes away life and again infuses it?
Who can sing god, who seems to be far away?
Who can sing God, who sees all just face to face?

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh:

Filled with might, they sing praise of the Might,
Seeing the signs, they sing praise of the Bounty,
Perceiving the virtues, they sing praise of the Glory.
Some sing praise through high philosophy,
Some sing praise of the power that creates and destroys,
Some sing in awe of the giving and taking of life.
Some sing of the thereness, the utter transcendence,
Some sing of the hereness, the close watch over all.

- Note that two of the translations phrase each line as a question. Harbans Singh includes an annotation: "The above verses have also been translated by substituting "Some" for "who" and omitting signs of interrogation." I guess the original is phrased in such a way that can be taken as either a question or a statement. The questioning quality adds to a sense of wonderment at the human capacity or lack thereof to describe and praise God's glory sufficiently.
- In the original, each line begins with the word "Gavai" which is translated as either "some sing" or "who can sing?" Most of these translations mirror the repetitive, rhythmic quality of the start of each line throughout this passage.
- God's name and gender: note that the first four translations refer to "God" in the masculine, as it is written in the original. Neither Harbans or Nikky-Guninder ascribe a gender to the almighty being described. Furthermore, it's worth noting that only Gurbachan and Harbans use the word God to address that being described -- the others, especially Nikky-Guninder, refer to it or Him in a more abstract manner. The term "God" is problematic with mainline Sikhism because it implies a deistic faith, where Sikhism is not necessarily deistic -- "God" - commonly refered to Waheguru in Sikhism - is both being and non-being, nameable and nameless. It is this very approach to understanding metaphysical reality that gives Japji its poetic power.
- Line six -- note the nuances in interpreting this idea of God taking and giving life. The translations by Mandiar/Shackle, Gurbachan and Harbans could be read as implying God's power of resurrection. Vidyarthi is a bit more vague, while Nikky-Guninder avoids such a reading by reversing the sequence to read "giving and taking of life".
- In the last line, the use of the term "face to face" in two of the translations while no mention of faces is used in the rest, makes me wonder if there was an idiom employed in the translation -- does Waheguru have a face?

I don't think I will continue using all of these Japji as I work through the rest of the 38 stanzas - by comparing all of them at once I will gravitate towards some that strike me as either more accurate or precise in their translations or more philosophically moving or poetically expressed. Still, it's been fascinating comparing all of them and seeing just how varied the translations can be.

Japjis I have known

I've been trying to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on Japji this year. It's just a way of trying to make time daily to give myself space to think about Sikhi. It's amazing how much this seems easier said than done. It's also become a way for me to reflect on my own journey and bring together the pieces of experiences and resources that I've picked up along the way.

Piece #1: I first got exposed to Japji (without quite knowing what it was) 2 years ago, when I attended Prof. Arvind Mandair's Sikhism class in Hofstra. As part of the syllabus he included his own translations of Japji Sahib as well as many other sacred nitnem and verse from Guru Granth Sahib. I read through these translations on and off for over a year, not sure quite what to make of them and what they had to do with my project, but certain that they had some value that would eventually make itself known to me.

Piece #2: Meher, my inten from last summer, gave me her book of nitnem, as translated by a Rajinder Singh Vidyarthi, printed in Malaysia(!). It was her nitnem from when she was a kid - in fact it is covered in a Baby Gap suede book covering!

Piece #3: When visiting the Sikh community in Seattle last June to do filming for the Sikh Coalition, I spent an afternoon with Parminder Singh and his family. At the end of evening prayers, Parminder offered me a Nitnem from his own home, translation by Prof. Gurbachan Singh M.A., published by B. Chattar Singh Jiwan Singh in Bazar Mai Sewan, Amritsar Punjab.

Pieces #4, #5 and #6: While attending the Toronto Film Festival last September, I hung out with Kulvir Singh Gill and he took me to the Sacha Sauda Gurmat Prachar Society, the largest Sikh bookstore in North America. There we went on a bit of a shopping spree, and I walked out with armfuls of books and recordings - including three versions of Japji.

One in print, which I've seen rather often, is translated by Harbans Singh Doabia in Chandigarh.

The second version of Japji is on a 2-Disc CD - no info on the translator is provided, but it's distributed by an outfit called Kirat.

And finally - an English language translation titled "The Name of My Beloved" by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, religion professor at Colby College.

So there I have it - no less than six versions of Japji to choose from. What's interesting is that in having so many versions, I've become more sensitive to the meaning of the texts, trying to get a real sense of the nuances. I'll try to say more about this in another post.