Sikhism & Word Concepts

Sikhism & Word Concepts

Gurmukh Singh OBE

The psychology of language (A theo-national viewpoint)

Was the foundation of Hindutva, resulting in the partition of the Indian sub-continent, laid down by the surreptitious introduction of Vedic terminology into the language of the Indian National Congress? In his Saachi Sakhi, late Sardar Kapur Singh thought so.

Let us first look into the question of language psychology.

“Wordpower is to the mind what horse-power is to a car... In the mind we have words which take ideas and group them together to make them tangible and usable. Words are convenient packages. With the right word you may express a complicated idea that would be difficult to express without that word.”
Says the well-known Edward De Bono in his introduction to “Word Power”.

I recall reading about an experiment reported in a science journal some years ago. A human child and a baby chimpanzee born at about the same time, were brought up together in the same environment. In the first six months the baby chimpanzee was well ahead in learning and doing things while the human child appeared to be content with making inarticulate sounds. However, things started changing quite dramatically once the human child started uttering and understanding words. Poor chimp ! If only it could speak.

It has long been established that we think in word patterns i.e. words act as triggers for certain thought patterns which have meaning for us and we act and behave accordingly. Words arouse feelings and add quality to emotions and passions which make up the common characteristics, the ethos of a community sharing the same language. Language and cultural values have a direct relationship as the second and third generation children of immigrant communities in the west are finding out. They are unable to associate themselves with their “root” cultures due to weakened language links.

The fact is that words cannot be translated accurately from one language to another as a truly bi-lingual person would confirm. It would be difficult to convey in another language the exact connotative meaning of many Punjabi words some of which would rouse immediate feeling or emotion in a Punjabi: words like darshan, nihal, sewa and barkat, or expressions like Karak kalejay mahen, Sarbat da bhala or Kurbaan jaon. Translations do not create the same thought patterns or rouse the same feelings and emotions. How could one possibly experience the original message of the Guru or experience the Punjabi romance of Hir-Ranjha or Mirza- Sahiba(n) in English? That is the reason for the great sensitivity which attaches to the question of language.

Western children of ethnic minority origins are finding it increasingly difficult to associate themselves with their “root” cultures, not necessarily because these children are living in the West, not because they speak English, not because they are bombarded with Western ideas through Western media, but because they no longer speak their cultural languages. They no longer experience the thought patterns of their immigrant parents which can convey to them the fullness of their own literature, classical music, poetry, humour, relationships and other cultural aspects.

As an example, the romance of Romeo and Juliet can only be understood and felt in English and the romance of Hir-Ranjha can only be fully appreciated in colloquial Punjabi. Punjabi children in the West who do not speak Punjabi have therefore lost an important cultural sense-ability. Children who still speak their ethnic languages are also more likely to appreciate their own cultural values. In fact, the bilingual types are better able to appreciate their own and the majority community’s cultures. It is these latter types who add to their own personal values most constructively. They bring about a healthy and evolutionary interaction of cultures without detracting from the ethos of any community.

We can now briefly return to Bharat Maata (Mother India), and how apparently such warm sentimental expressions sowed the seeds of division. At pages 70to 73 of his great work, Saachi Saakhi, Sardar Kapur Singh gives a researched account of how the Hindu majority leaders of the Indian National Congress started introducing Vedic terminology into the language of the national freedom movement. Leaders like Bal Gagadhar Tilak (who was succeeded by Mahatma Ghandi) were also very religious people. By design or by accident they carried their religious convictions and terminology into what was supposed to be a national level secular political arena.

The Hindu Goddess Kali (Kalika-Mata) was identified with Bharat-Mata (Mother India) at a time when the horrendous rituals and practices associated with Kali cults were receiving universal condemnation. “We have to save the rising generation from walking in false paths and to guide them into right ones.” (Lord Curzon speaking at Culcutta University in 1901.)

As was to be expected, the Muslims reacted almost immediately to such backdoor Hinduisation of the professed secularism of India and the National Congress. So did some Sikh intellectuals like the great scholar Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha who published his famous book “Ham Hindu Nahin” (We are not Hindus). The rest is now part of the history of India.

What about Punjab? The Punjabi language has evolved as the language of the Muslims and the Sikhs of Punjab. To my knowledge, no great work of Hindu literature has been written in Punjabi by a Punjabi Hindu. Unlike the Muslims and the Sikhs, even though Punjabi has always been spoken by Punjabi Hindus who probably number more than the Punjabi Sikhs, for communal reasons alone, they have not regarded Punjabi as their cultural language. As a result over ten million of them disowned Punjabi language in the census held in 1951. “It was a misrepresentation of colossal magnitude in Indian History.” (Hindu Sikh Conflict in Punjab- a report by non-Sikh Indians produced in December 1983). The creation of a mini-Punjab in 1965 after much agitation and the what followed was a direct consequence of betrayal by Punjabi Hindus of their mother tongue. The cultural impact of such estrangement from own language becomes apparent today: unlike Punjabi Hindus, Gujarati, Tamil and Bengali Hindus enjoy rich language based cultures.

However, languages, religions, communities, rich cultural varieties and skin shades do not divide. Political games do! The relationship between language and the cohesion and progress of a community is clear. It also explains why people are, quite rightly, so sensitive about their language rights in a multi-cultural society.

Let young Sikhs, parents and institutions ponder these issues. Punjabi language is our way of life and the common bond which keeps the community together. It is the way we think, behave and enjoy our cultural lives; it complements the study of the host national language by providing our children with the tools for cultural discernment. It makes the process of cross cultural interaction smoother without giving up what is our own.

Punjabi is the link between our present environment and our rich past - our roots. Only Punjabi language will convey to us Guru Nanak’s pain when he tried to explain to the vaid (doctor) "Karak kalejay mahe(n)".
Translation will not do.

End note: When writing the above, I am also conscious of the special effort which American and other converts to Sikhism (through inner conviction) make, to study original key Gurbani Word-concepts and experience Gurbani Kirtan (Sikh music) to Gurbani raag bases. Children born in Sikh families in the West are in the same position as these Sikhs who accept and adopt a Sikh way of life after deep study. They are the true Sikhs according to the Gurbani definition of Sikhism as "Sikhi sikhia Gur vichaar" (Sikhim is the study of the Guru's Teaching.)

The above discussion about the psychology of language, which is closely associated with culture, ethos and other characteristics of a "people" (qaum), would also have a bearing on the distinctive Sikh non-racial "ethnicity" as defined by the UK's House of Lords in the famous Mandla Case (1983).

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
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