Originally Published in Religion Dispatches on 10.10.2013
Recently, my close friend Dr. Prabhjot Singh was assaulted in an apparent hate crime near his home in New York City. Although many headlines prominently feature the word “victim,” this is not how most Sikhs would view it.
Prabhjot does not see himself as a victim, which is a perspective that makes little sense in the context of the Sikh tradition. There is no notion of victimhood in the Sikh scripture—the Guru Granth Sahib—nor does this outlook appear in Sikh memories of the past. Certainly there are numerous instances in which Sikhs have been targeted, and even massacred, but the traditional Sikh response has never been one of victimhood.
The Punjabi language—the native tongue in the Sikh homeland of Punjab—doesn’t even contain a word that equates to the concept of “victim.” Rather, most Sikhs see the spirit as enlivened by chardi kala (perpetual optimism), a notion expressed in the Sikh scripture by the fifth Guru, who writes: “No one is evil, everyone is good. There is no defeat—all is victory.”
The optimistic orientation expressed in this scriptural passage, is likewise illustrated in the following account.
In the early 18th century, Sikhs became targets of state-sanctioned persecution. The ruling elite in Punjab offered a reward for every Sikh captured, dead or alive, and official policies barred Sikhs from congregating in public settings. In the 1730s Bhai Mani Singh (1737 CE), a prominent Sikh leader, petitioned Governor Zakariya Khan for permission to gather in the historic city of Amritsar. Governor Khan acquiesced to the request on the condition that the Sikhs would pay a sizable tax in return.
According to traditions, the state authorities planned to let the Sikhs assemble in Amritsar and then launch a military attack that would decimate the community. Bhai Mani Singh caught wind of this plan and determined to make a public statement in response to the state’s oppressive practices. He denounced the government’s reneging on its word and announced his refusal to pay the taxes.
In response, the state had Bhai Mani Singh arrested, transported to the nearby capital of Lahore, and sentenced him to death. His execution was to be particularly gruesome and painful—a dismemberment, joint-by-joint. Traditions recall that the executioner pitied Bhai Mani Singh and tried to spare him the torture by dismembering him limb-by-limb instead. However, Bhai Mani Singh looked up at his executioner and said something to the effect of: “You don’t need to feel sorry for me. Follow your orders and start the execution at my finger joints rather than my limbs.”
Even today Sikhs do not grieve Bhai Mani Singh as a victim of oppression. Sikhs celebrate his service and contribution and remember the price he paid in the Ardās, a prayer that includes the words “band band katāe (dismembered joint-by-joint).” The story of Bhai Mani Singh symbolizes the Sikh commitment to battle oppression and to celebrate those who have made sacrifices to stand against injustice. Sikhs do not remember him as a helpless victim but as a heroic activist.
The narrative of victimization surrounding the story of Dr. Prabhjot Singh is overly simplistic and incongruent with Sikh traditions. He has embodied the Sikh spirit of chardi kala (perpetual optimism), and we must account for this to better understand perspectives from the Sikh community, from the celebrated memory of Bhai Mani Singh to the positive responses following the apparent hate crime in New York City.
Let us try to put ourselves in the shoes of Dr. Prabhjot Singh rather than try to make his story fit into our idea of how he should feel. We will not be able to authentically understand how and why Prabhjot has responded to the assault until we abandon the victimization narrative and embrace a framework drawing from Sikh traditions that more authentically reflects his own.