What makes a good bargain and what doesn’t?
I start with two of the finest minds among the Sikhs that I have met.
First I will tell you that they are superbly well honed intellects. Then I want you to know that they are Sikhs who seem to want to practice Sikhi – and are satisfied that they do so. The question is how well do the two attributes (virtues) here intermesh in real life?
Of these two Sikhs, one is a brilliant scientist with an absolutely first-rate track record of research and several lucrative patents under his belt. Recently, he and his wife were most anxious to visit Amritsar in Punjab for a few days.
Why? Because they had a contractual agreement with the management of the premier historical gurdwara there. On payment of a handsome fee, a reading of the entire Guru Granth would be completed in their names and for the benefit of their family by the functionaries there. So the two of them just had to be there at the time and day when the last four pages were to be read.
They were willing to a pay an exorbitant sum above and beyond the usual tariff so that the airline and hotels would accommodate them.
In many Sikh homes, a reading of the Guru Granth is always in progress. My wife and I, too, follow such practice and it takes us about a year to complete the 1430 page volume. Not so long ago, when we were still new to the community and it was time to complete the reading, we decided to make a public celebration of it by inviting the community.
That brings me to the second prominent Sikh that I wish to mention – an important mover and shaker; a superbly dedicated Sikh, highly visible as a spokesman for Sikh causes and a successful businessman blessed with the proverbial Midas touch. He approached us and wondered if he could join us in the function to complete his own reading of the Guru Granth at the same time along with us.
We welcomed the opportunity to share our delight but we were not aware that his reading of the Guru Granth was also near completion. When asked, his answer floored us. "At any given time," he said, "we have many readings simultaneously going on in India that we sponsor every year so we can complete one just about any time that we wish to. We have standing contractual agreements with many gurdwaras in India; we send them the fee; they credit the reading to us and pray for us. This is how we accumulate our record of good deeds in this life – the benefits accrue to us in our prosperity every day."
I was flabbergasted.
Isn’t that what Martin Luther railed against? He saw it as the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Isn’t this what the Brahmins do every day? When the clergy insists that they are the only middlemen who can guarantee that our prayers and payments reach an otherwise unapproachable God, doesn’t religion then become a closed shop – a commercial business?
We tend to forgive such outlandish behavior traits by pigeonholing them under creative and interesting rationalizations; to wit: 1) mysterious are the ways of God and these people will change when the grace of God and Guru leads them to do so – this smacks of the classical pattern of passive-aggressive behavior that appears to be a defining trait of Indian culture; 2) these are different manifestations of devotion (shrdha) that mandate our acceptance and respect, even though such practices clearly contravene the teaching in Guru Granth; any critical aspersions on it are inappropriate; or 3) a miscellaneous box labeled "Where is the harm?"
And then my mind went to the business that I have plied much of my life. I have taught at a university where students usually become physicians and dentists – professions in which they are guaranteed a place reasonably high up in the food chain.
It is the business of education, no matter where and in what, that I want to talk about. Think with me a moment. How do we educate our children to make a living?
We enroll them in schools – the best that we can afford. The children need to complete some assignments that have to be done in class and some that must be completed at home. Home work is not done in class; class work is not done at home. But the two complement each other.
If our child is not doing so well in a given subject, we are expected to meet the teacher and explore alternative strategies to help the child. We engage tutors; we spend more personal time with home work. We create study teams. Progress is important; success is critical.
Never ever does the thought come to our mind that the teacher could read the books and complete the lessons for the child and the benefit will somehow accrue to the child. No parent or student ever claims that the child has no time for home work or even class work but that graduation is critical — so perhaps a teacher would do the work while the child stays out of class.
Such a suggestion would surely be absurd and summarily dismissed. Why? Because it is only by doing his or her own work that a child will ever learn to read or write or get the training to make a living. The child will likely not survive in this world without mastering some fundamental skills that schooling offers.
From matters of faith, I don’t intend to learn how to make a living but I surely do wish to know how to make a life.
How then can I reason that if I am too busy to read the Guru Granth myself or translate its lessons, then someone else – a granthi, rabbi, minister or priest – could be paid to do all that scut work in my behalf and that would sort of grease my way into some kind of heaven with a modicum of "godly" approval.
I know that we tend to dismiss our failures along the spiritual path with the sanctimonious "It will come as and when the Spirit moves me or the Guru wills it."
I ask you: Can we forgive our lack of progress along regular schooling and the professional path with equally glib explanations? Can I say, academic success will come as and when the teacher wills it? And I need not work so hard on it now. These would be universally seen as what they are – not so attractive or clever cop-outs.
Let me see if I can explain it a bit more simply, tersely and directly.
Many years ago, there was a time when I worked a job at night to pay my way through graduate school. Many were the days when I was too worn out to learn much from a lecture or play catch up at home.
It never crossed my mind to say to my professors: I haven’t the time to study and understand the assignments. But here I am paying my tuition. Can’t the professors read and complete the assigned task on my behalf? Of course, I promise to come for the graduation.
Many of my students in medical and dental programs pay close to $50,000 per year in tuition alone. Would it be alright if one said: I am paying all that I have and can, and I am a dedicated student; I haven’t the time (or the inclination and talent?) to do the home work and class work to master the requirements. I think it fair and reasonable that the teacher does the work in my name and the benefit comes to me. I’d be back to collect my diploma.
Or, can they offer a premium in fees and get this special dispensation?
If making a doctor, lawyer or engineer takes training and schooling that has to be completed by the student and not by proxy or by a substitute, why would it be different for making a Sikh, Jew, Christian, or what have you?
If making a living takes dedicated attention and work, wouldn’t similar logic apply to the process of making a life?
In leaving our efforts to "when God and Guru wills it", are we not forgetting that the best prayer is honest self-effort?
I would think a diploma by proxy is a bad bargain both for the individual and for society.
Guru Granth advises us that everyone receives the rewards of his own actions and to do ourselves what we need to do
Life is one business where outsourcing just doesn’t work.
It would be an unholy bargain.