My Sikh Heritage—And My Search for Truth
As told by Balbir Singh Deo
WHEN I see the hatred people have for one another because of their religion, it saddens me. Even here in India, the role of so-called Christians in politics and nationalistic wars is well known.
Why, the two world wars were fought almost exclusively by nations saying they are Christian! And the tortures and killings sponsored by “Christians” in the past continue today in such places as Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants fight and kill one another. This constant warring, along with a reputation for buying converts with food, has hardly left a favorable impression. Can you see why so many of us Indians have such a distaste for what is called Christianity?
At the same time, I’ve been saddened to see the hatred Indians have for one another because one may be a Sikh rather than a Hindu or a Hindu rather than a Muslim. True worshipers, I thought, should love even those who believe differently. Particularly shocking has been the terrorism involving Hindus and Sikhs during the past few years here in India.
Despite the continuing episodes of violence, however, neither I nor my three older brothers and my sister-in-law have felt great fear. My sister and her husband, too, felt protected from the violence. Why, since all seven of us were raised as Sikhs? Before explaining, let me tell you something about the Sikhs.
The Sikh Religion
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion with its own scriptures, initiation rites, marriage and funeral ceremonies, and places of pilgrimage and worship. The world’s 15 million Sikhs trace their beliefs back to a 15th-century Indian guru, or teacher, named Nanak. His followers were known as Sikhs, from a Sanskrit word meaning “disciple.”
Nanak was born to Hindu parents in the Punjab region of northern India, his birthplace now being a part of Pakistan. The majority of his followers are from the Punjab, although Sikhs have settled throughout India and in other parts of the world. Britain alone has some 300,000 Sikhs.
During Nanak’s early life, Hindus and Muslims were in constant conflict, and he was deeply affected by wartime suffering on both sides. When asked which religion he would follow, he replied: ‘There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman, and the path that I follow is God’s.’
Although not intending to establish a new religion, Nanak became the leader of a religious movement. Like others of his day, he taught that the caste system prevailing in India was evil. He summed up his message in three basic commandments: Work, worship, and give in charity.
The Final Guru
Believers in Guru Nanak understood that it is through the guru, or teacher, that God reveals himself. This necessitated successors, so over a period of some 200 years, ten different gurus took the lead of the growing number of Sikhs. Finally the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, indicated that his successor would not be a man. Rather, the sacred writings of Nanak, later Sikh gurus, and Hindu and Muslim “saints” would take the place of human gurus. These writings, collected into a book known as the Guru Granth Sahib, came to be viewed by Sikhs as the word of God.
The Guru Granth Sahib book is given the same honor and respect that the former human gurus received. The book is displayed and read in a special room in Sikh homes. Within the gurdwaras (places of Sikh worship), there are no idols or formal services, nor is there an altar or a pulpit. The Guru Granth Sahib is placed upon cushions on a raised platform and covered by a canopy. Its verses are read and sung to listeners.
Gobind Singh, the last human guru, also formed an organization called the Khalsa (pure ones). This is a special brotherhood of Sikhs who are willing to commit their lives totally to religious principles. In order to eliminate any caste distinctions indicated by their previous surnames, Khalsa members took the surname Singh, meaning “Lion.” Female members of the Khalsa assumed the surname Kaur (Lioness and Princess). Such surnames are at times followed by an identifying family name.
The wearing of the five K’s was also required in order to distinguish male Khalsa members by their appearance. First, kesh, an uncut beard and long hair neatly wrapped up on the head. Second, the hair was secured with a kangha, or comb, and normally covered by a turban. Third, there was kachs, or short pants, worn as an undergarment, and, fourth, kara, a steel bracelet. Finally, a kirpan, or sword, was carried for the defense of religious beliefs. These five K’s constituted an identifying uniform, separating the Sikhs from other Indian groups. Although sometimes modified, Khalsa members continue such traditions today.
Unlike Hindus, who have many gods, Sikhs believe in one god. Sikhs also reject asceticism, fasting, and vegetarianism. But like Hindus, Sikhs generally feel that man is bound to a cycle of rebirths unless released through enlightenment. The word of God, imparted by the guru, is believed to be the only means of such release. It is thought that man’s ultimate purpose is to be united with God, free from the physical body.
A Personal Search
Though raised as a Sikh, happenings in my life raised questions. At the same time, the upbringing by my father allowed me to keep an open mind as I encountered ideas different from those of our family.
My mother died when I was seven years old. This left me feeling helpless and confused. Relatives tried to console our family, saying, ‘Remember that the good die young’ and, ‘She is at peace in heaven.’ I would write her letters and then burn them, hoping that by this means she would come to know how much we missed her. Still I felt an emptiness, as I had no hope of ever seeing her again.
As I grew older, I more seriously investigated Sikhism, regularly reading the Guru Granth Sahib and fervently praying to Guru Nanak. Although we believed in one god, it was common for us also to pray to Nanak, whom we viewed as one who could help us come closer to God. Still, I puzzled over why people did bad things.
Desiring that we have the best education possible, my father sent us to a “Christian” school. While a few professed Christians seemed sincere, it was easy to see the hypocrisy among the majority of them. We and other non-Christians at the school were told that the cost of our education would be covered by a foreign sponsor if we attended church and took part in its activities. Such offers appeared like a bribe to me.
But when I was 17 years old, something happened that sparked my interest in the Bible. A friend told me that wars and many other modern-day problems were predicted in the Bible. I didn’t believe that could be true, so when I was shown Matthew chapter 24, I was amazed at the things prophesied. Surely, I thought, the Bible must contain much truth.
The Witnesses Call
One day in 1976 a young man, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, appeared at our home in Calcutta. He left me a copy of the publication Your Youth—Getting the Best out of It, which I read completely through in one day. He returned and invited me to a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. I attended, and immediately I was impressed.
Although I was casually dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, there were clearly no distinctions made among those present as to clothing, economic status, age, race, or family background. And there was sincere warmth among the people. I was invited to sit in the front row, where I listened to a meaningful talk on the question, “Does the Bible Contradict Itself?” I began to study the Bible with the help of a Witness I met at the Kingdom Hall, and not long after, I was regularly attending all the meetings.
What I learned was so different from what I had heard at the “Christian” school I had attended. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not worship Jesus. Rather, they worship Almighty God, the One that Jesus himself worshiped. Moreover, I learned that God’s name, as it is given in the Bible, is Jehovah.—Psalm 83:18.
At the meetings in the Kingdom Hall, we really studied the Bible, something we didn’t do in the “Christian” school. It pleased me when I learned that there is a big difference between the Catholic and Protestant religions, which claim to be Christian, and what the Bible actually teaches. Jehovah’s Witnesses showed me from the Bible that Jehovah God condemns the support that the “Christian” religions give to wars promoted by their political leaders.—John 17:14; 18:36; Matthew 26:52; Isaiah 2:4.
Understandably, my associates began to view me in a different light. ‘It’s only an emotional experience you’re going through,’ my friends claimed. Relatives were very surprised and questioned my stand. However, learning the truth of the Bible has not been a passing emotional experience for me. Rather, it has enriched my life and given me deep satisfaction. Where else can one find such a worldwide brotherhood where each member genuinely practices love—not in words alone but in deeds as well?
My Family Takes an Interest
My family too felt that Bible study was just a fad and expected it to pass soon. Eventually, my eldest brother Rajinder decided to accompany me to one of these meetings. He was warmly welcomed and likewise was impressed by what he saw. He began to attend with me. But since our Bible interest was vastly different from our religious upbringing, neither of us openly discussed it much at home. This created some problems for Rajinder, recently married.
His wife, Sunita, began to worry when her husband went off with me to the Kingdom Hall several times each week, leaving her behind. ‘What is really going on?’ she wondered. After some discussion, misunderstandings were cleared up, and Rajinder invited his wife to join us. While at first not completely following what was being discussed, Sunita began attending meetings with us and learning the Bible.
Another brother, Bhupinder, started to take an interest in our activities and could see the value of what we were learning and applying in our lives. He too began to study. Our remaining brother, Jaspal, did not like our associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses and was fond of ridiculing me. But after some time, he came to appreciate the wisdom of Bible counsel and started studying. As a result of these studies, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1978. Rajinder, Sunita, Bhupinder, and Jaspal were baptized in 1979.
Then, after five years in England, my sister Bavi and her husband Kartar returned to India. Bavi felt that becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses was our decision, but personally she wanted nothing to do with the Witnesses. We respected her feelings and did not try to push our beliefs on her. It was not long, however, before both Bavi and Kartar began to ask us many questions. Eventually, this led to a Bible study. Their faith in Jehovah and love for him began to grow, and this served as a protection during a time of religious violence in India.
Truth Was a Protection
The night of October 31, 1984, the day of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, Bavi and Kartar hardly slept at all. By then they were living away from the rest of our family in northern India. There, many Sikhs were being killed by mobs. Some residents readily identified the homes inhabited by Sikhs—in effect giving a death sentence to their Sikh neighbors.
The following morning Bavi and Kartar awoke to a nightmare of death and destruction. Despite what was going on around them, and though they bear the surname Singh, they were not harmed. Although they were only studying, their neighbors knew them as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their home was not attacked. Likewise in Calcutta, my brothers are known in the community as ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and this has been a protection for them.
It is true that our Sikh father has not seen the outcome he expected from his four sons and one daughter. My three brothers, while helping with the family business, do not have the drive, so common among Indian businessmen, to increase transitory material riches. Their minds and hearts are firmly fixed on the lasting spiritual riches and the peaceful new earth that Jehovah God has promised mankind. One of my brothers serves as an elder in the Christian congregation. Two of us are ministerial servants. My dear wife, Lavinia, and I also have the privilege of serving as full-time ministers in India. And my sister and her husband, now living in Africa, became baptized Witnesses in 1986.
Our father has seen the fine effects that the Bible’s righteous standards have had upon us. These are things that make him happy. When he speaks of his offspring to others, he expresses pride in us. ‘Tell me what wrong my children are doing as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I will throw them out of the house,’ he has challenged.
My father has come to recognize that our efforts are toward something far more valuable and long lasting than the acquisition of fortune and prestige. And he has personally seen the protection we received during the recent time of violence. It is our fervent desire that one day he, along with many other sincere seekers of truth, will join us in worshiping the true God in a genuine brotherhood earth wide.
[Blurb on page 21]
A book known as the Guru Granth Sahib came to be viewed by Sikhs as the word of God
[Pictures of Balbir Singh Deo on page 19]
[Picture on page 23]
With my wife at the branch office in India