Are Sikhs Exceptional?

By Omar Ali 29 Comments

We had some discussion on Twitter about Sikhs and I mentioned that my Punjabi Nationalist dad once said that he had thought about converting to Sikhism, but after he spent time with some Khalistani Sikhs in America, he decided their priests are as bad as ours, so he dropped the idea.

I have no idea how seriously he had thought about this “conversion” and I think it was unlikely to go too far in any case (conversion out of Islam is a very big deal; classical Islam prescribes the death penalty for it and even if that is not a serious threat, it can lead to major conflict with family and friends, including the possibility of ostracization, so it is not a decision anyone will take lightly). But this led to some discussion of Sikhism versus other religions and I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago. This friend (a Muslim doctor from Mumbai, originally from Konkan) put forward the following hypothesis:

“Sikhism is the only major religion about whose adherents you can make a couple of positive generalizations: 1. That they will not beg in the streets, and 2. That they will help a female in distress”

He said he grew up in Mumbai, among people of all religions. He expected nothing specifically positive or negative from them based on religion (i.e. knowing the religion of the person in front of you told you nothing about his possible behavior) except in the case of Sikhs. With Sikhs he felt he could make these two predictions.

  1. They will not beg in public. This may not be a huge deal, but his point was that you cannot make this prediction about Hindus, Muslims or Xtians. They may be proud, they may be beggars. But about Sikhs he felt this was true. Being Sikh had at least this much effect on their behavior. Being Muslim or Hindu had no predictable effect.
  2. His mother told his sisters that if they were ever in trouble on the streets, they should look for the nearest Sikh (e.g. a cab driver) and ask for help. She did not say to look for the nearest Muslim or nearest Hindu or Parsi or whatever. She expected that a Sikh would try to help and would risk a public confrontation if necessary. Again, this may not be universally true, but at least his mom had this expectation.

His point was that if identification as Hindu or Muslim or Christian tells you nothing about the expected public behavior of their adherents, then we can say that these religions have no measurable effect on public morality. Sikhs are not universally honest or dishonest or friendly or unfriendly, so it is not like being Sikh transforms you totally into some supra-human specimen, but the fact that you can make even a couple of predictions about their public behavior is evidence that the religion makes SOME difference.

Is this true? What do you think? And if so, what is the reason? Something about Sikhism? or something about Punjabis? or about Jats? Or this is just another invalid stereotype?

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29 Replies to “Are Sikhs Exceptional?”

  1. Begging and ascetism are highly thought of in Hinduism (as well as Buddhism and Jainism). Children grow up with stories of poor sages who live off alms and miracles that happen to them due to their selflessness.

    I think one of the reasons Indians are apathetic to the poor might be because at some level we might consider poverty as something sacred and the poor as actually having a spiritually higher existence.

    Plus you need the poor to exist so that you can feed them and feel blessed just as happens in those stories about sages.

    Maybe Sikhism also involved a rebellion against this sort of thinking?

    Just throwing around a random theory here.

    1. // Begging and ascetism are highly thought of in Hinduism (as well as Buddhism and Jainism). Children grow up with stories of poor sages who live off alms and miracles that happen to them due to their selflessness. //

      You missed that this life is restricted to world renouncers & to highly idealistic teachers & not restricted to any Varna/Jati category.

      It is not restricted to Indic religions either –
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mendicant
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhikkhu
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhikshu_(Jain_monk)

      // I think one of the reasons Indians are apathetic to the poor might be because at some level we might consider poverty as something sacred and the poor as actually having a spiritually higher existence. //

      The reasons for apathy is that people create myths to explain the contemporary world around them. It is the same reason Eurocentrism succeeded for so long i.e. modern values were defined from European experience & the interlinked history of ‘modern values’ is only recently being developed, Exploitation is still rampant even in developed world, Inequality & poverty is still part of the world which has grown with material progress, Charity is still being considered as a positive contribution & so on……..

      Indians are apathetic because they struggle to survive on their own, one only think about others when they are secure from other burdens like economic & social and both of these require material growth of every individual & family.

      // Plus you need the poor to exist so that you can feed them and feel blessed just as happens in those stories about sages. //

      Any idea from your side how we can end poverty globally ? Or else stop sitting on high horses just to trample upon others to feel good about your idealism.

      1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C4%81na

        To give you a contemporary account of how people accept the situations which seems horrendous from outside but becomes acceptable locally let me tell you about the social phenomenon of “Civility of Indifference” & by the way ‘Tolerance’ is just expansion of similar behavior –

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kgL6tlhre8

        Note the part – Time 00:13:41,050 –> 00:14:15,660
        If we follow my original line then these people no longer counted the cost or perhaps more accurately they calculated the rules of the game had changed they were playing cards for a different sense of community the kind formed by the sentiments of religious and political chauvinism rather than by the survival of a divided village community the rise of Hindu nationalism and institutionalized differentiation on the basis of religious and caste lines is the story in the villages of post-colonial India.

        ——————————————————————–

        Now let me tell you few sociological theories as to how identities form as well as society responds –

        Identity formation in Indian subcontinent –
        https://www.academia.edu/2399492/Doxography_and_Boundary-Formation_in_Late_Medieval_India

        The Identity formation which used to happen before was restricted to sects or cults of a certain regions. The pan-region identity formation took shape when Indians first encountered a large community with common identity in Islamic empires of Indian subcontinent.

        https://www.academia.edu/35568138/Pollock_and_Weber_preprint
        Same paper behind paywall – https://mws.quotus.org/article/MWS/2017/2/6

        Ever wonder why ‘regional divides’ exists ? Why India has North-South divide & why USA has Southern-Northern divide or Latin Americas regional divides etc. One does not need identities to foster division region already does that, Identities only subsume regional ideas of ‘Identity’ to preserve regional sub-cultures.

        Go look into – ‘Spatial Identity’
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spatialization

  2. [I think one of the reasons Indians are apathetic to the poor might be because at some level we might consider poverty as something sacred and the poor as actually having a spiritually higher existence.

    Plus you need the poor to exist so that you can feed them and feel blessed just as happens in those stories about sages.]

    You are generally sensible and perceptive, but this is BS. I think a factor may be that Indic folks subconsciously attribute the misery of the poor to their past karma.. They may, and do help the poor, but in order to accumulate good karma for themselves, and less out of compassion for them?

    I say this as an Indic myself

    PS: Zach – Can you take me out of the moderation required list? I am the least “flamey” poster around here. Nothing to fear 🙂

    1. ” think a factor may be that Indic folks subconsciously attribute the misery of the poor to their past karma.. They may, and do help the poor, but in order to accumulate good karma for themselves, and less out of compassion for them?”

      Cant agree enough. This is also what i have seen in older poor folks who think that what’s happening to them is some sort of Karma and sort of internalized their poverty. The younger lot know that’s bullshit and is more willing to take matters into their hands

    2. Ha-ha-ha, it seems there is also ALS (anti lurker software) filter, not only ASS (anti slavic software) filter.

      1. PS…and thanks for opening my eyes with ‘flame posters’, ha-ha-ha. T-boys from Hewlett-Packard will be exhilarated.

  3. The only people who i have met more nationalist-rhetoric oriented about India than Hindu nationalist are sikhs.

    I dont know about any minority in any other country where a minority happens to be more “nationalistic” than the majority about their country. Its really strange.

    1. This is interesting, as here in the West most Sikhs seem to be anti-India (especially the Jats). They identify as Punjabi first and last, don’t really hang out with Indians, and bristle if someone identifies them as one. They also seem to be pro-Khalistan, and are quite supportive of Kashmiri independence.

      I’m told by Western-Sikhs that Indian-Sikhs are the same but too afraid to make their views public in India. I’m told by Hindus that Western-Sikhs are crazy and Indian-Sikhs are quite nationalistic/patriotic. I suspect the truth is in the middle.

      1. Broadly agree on what you said. But Indian-sikhs (who are not sort of nationalistic oriented) are some what hesitant but “afraid” seem too strong a word. That would be Indian muslims (to make views public ).

        But for the population percentage they have Indian Sikhs produce a awful lot of “nationalistic” Sikhs. I mean Christians are the same pops percentage as sikhs but they aren’t producing that vociferous lot.

        “They also seem to be pro-Khalistan, and are quite supportive of Kashmiri independence.”

        Well i know of Indian tamils sympathetic to LTTE cause in USA who would broadly identify as Tamils more than Indian. That;s how diasporas are , and become over time. So its not a surprise really. Something like that is happening to the Hindu diaspora as well.

      2. “The only people who i have met more nationalist-rhetoric oriented about India than Hindu nationalist are sikhs.”

        Don’t discount Jains.

        “I’m told by Hindus that Western-Sikhs are crazy”

        I only came across this group when I became active on Twitter and it took a while for me get my head around their narrative.
        In north India (outside Punjab), it’s not that big a deal to be Sikh. They’re part of the group and are generally considered ‘clean’ in terms of caste purity.
        This is unlike Muslims or even Dalits.
        If you’ve seen Gangs of Wasseypur, there’s a scene where the local Thakur politician’s wife is undecided on whether to serve tea-snacks to the Muslim guests in the same cutlery they use at home or to use a separate set.
        This kind of thing doesn’t happen in case of Sikhs.

        “some what hesitant but “afraid” seem too strong a word.”

        I think Indian Sikhs of this variety have more of a grudge against Congress and the Gandhis than the Indian state. There are popular Punjabi singers whose social media is full of content against Indira Gandhi but still perform at BJP functions. (check Gurnam Bhullar)

        1. Why would hating Indira Gandhi preclude you from participating in a BJP function? If anything it would endear you to your audience

          1. Hindu nationalists like and admire Indira Gandhi in many ways (not for her leftist politics, nor for the Emergency.) They like the fact that she was tough on national security, especially during the ’71 war. I’m also confident that they like what she did in Bluestar. The blame for the anti-Sikh riots that ensued in Delhi after her murder is blamed on the Congress in general, and to some extent on Rajiv Gandhi.

    2. Don’t think this is true since rise of Modi and for the Modi brand of “nationalism”. Punjab is one state where BJP has seen major declines.
      Plus saw several Sikhs tweet that Sikhs are more anti-Modi than even Muslims and Christians- that will be some real achievement!

    3. “I dont know about any minority in any other country where a minority happens to be more “nationalistic” than the majority about their country. Its really strange.”

      they used to say this about jews in the austro-hungarian empire.

    4. never met a sikh who conciders or sees himself as ‘minority’ or someone who needs ‘special’ political care unlike muslims, xtians to some effect.

  4. I think you overrate Sikhs. Gender ratio still remains heavily skewed against females children among Sikhs. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out what is happening to these missing girls.

    Casteism is rife among Sikhs. Dalit (Mazhabi) Sikhs remain a disadvantaged group. This is one of reason why Dalit parties like BSP have a strong footprint in Punjab. In fact Mazhabi Sikhs are abandoning the religion altogether. This is a driving factor behind the proliferation of various Deras in Punjab, which are considered heterodox by mainstream Sikhs.

    1. I’ve wondered about the Sikh gender ratio for some time now, it’s worse than even ours. I highly doubt Sikhism is casually associated with female infanticide, so then the question is: what phenomena is it masking?

      1. I highly doubt Sikhism is casually associated with female infanticide, so then the question is: what phenomena is it masking?

        If not female infanticide than female foeticide. Hardly better.

        To be fair to Sikhs, this is not specificly a Sikh thing. More like Jat-Rajput thing. Nevertheless Sikhs are guilty of it.

        1. A study I saw a few years ago pinpointed South Delhi (the most affluent part of Delhi) as ground zero for sex-selective abortions. Access to modern technology and the ability to purchase its (mis)uses seems to have exacerbated a pre-existing cultural problem. What I’m saying is, controlling for class and location, Sikhs are probably no more guilty of this than their Hindu neighbors. (Granted, that’s faint praise.)

  5. None of the comments address the 2 questions Omar Ali raises. I think he is right on both counts. I have never seen a keshdhari Sikh begging anywhere in India. If there are shaven Sikhs begging I wouldn’t know.

    About Sikhs coming to a woman’s aid there is a kernel of truth there. Sikhs are generally upright – especially the blue collar ones you are likely to run into on a daily basis (taxi/truck drivers etc.) perhaps as a result of the psychological pressure exerted by their tradition.

    In what Omar Ali says about Khalistani Sikhs putting off his father (and some of the usual commenters here) that is unfair. There are lots of Gurdwaras here in the US that are run by admirable individuals.

  6. It is maybe a good place to partially repeat this comment and questions which no one tried to answer so far. While researching ancient Serbian presence in North Africa and Egypt’s historical connections with SA I found some new interesting directions for research related to JAT people in India. Before I present my findings, let see what WIKI says:

    WIKI: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Jat_Aryan_Foundation

    World Jat Aryan Foundation is an organization of the Jats that aims to serve the Jat community around the world,[1] in various aspects. It was founded in 2001 by Hoshiar Singh was its first president.

    The foundation is presided by Navjot Singh Sidhu.[1] Sahib Singh Verma served the World Jat Aryan Foundation, as its former president.[1]
    In September 2003, the foundation hosted the World Jat Aryan Congress at BELGRADE.[2] However, the foundation attracted the outburst from the External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, as the foundation was directly in touch Serbian Embassy at India, while the Ministry of External Affairs had no clue about this.[2] As the Delhi elections were just approaching, the Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, got involved to convince Sahib Singh Verma to cancel his scheduled program to attend the World Jat Congress.[2] Following the controversy, Vajpayee issued a written appeal to all the Cabinet Ministers of India to consult the Ministry of External Affairs on “issues concerning India’s projection or representation abroad, and initiatives involving foreign governments” before scheduling such events.[2] As a consequence, the congress was held in September later that year which had been scheduled to be held July.[2]

    My questions are:

    1) Why was originally decided to hold World Jat Foundation Congress in Serbia?
    2) Why India’s Prime Minister and government intervened to stop it?
    3) Why the WJF Congress was, however, held two months later?

    The best (speculation) story (3+ sentences) will be awarded with another bottle of red. Firsthand and insiders stories are equally considered for the competition.

  7. my conversion experience.. one of our relatives family converted to Christianity in Vishakapatnam and threw a party to celebrate it.. contrarily, they were not ostracized but everyone went and ate chicken biryani and prawns.. you can’t imagine in pak but also in north india, yay we are liberal..

    1. ” you can’t imagine in pak but also in north india, yay we are liberal..”

      Congrats, i guess

  8. Manual work is improper less by caste than by the exaggerated development of “leisure class” concepts and no compensating stimuli in the culture for mechanical dexterity and experimentation. The fact that work in connotations of honest toil and enterprise has never been sanctified in either Hindu or Buddhist civilizations and that no value is place upon juvenile “tinkering” and exploration cannot be laid only at the door of the caste system. Anointment of the government clerk is a product not only of caste, but feudalism, colonial administration, and the ethos generally.

    Caste in Modern Ceylon, Bryce Ryan, 1953

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