Of and For Humanity

 By Esha Chaudhuri

On the occasion of Gurpurab, significant of the Sikh community celebrating the 552nd birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Sunday Shillong embarks on the journey of learning the intricate details of what goes into and behind the scenes of a community’s intrinsic service towards humanity on a global scale. Speaking with the General Secretary of the Gurdwara, Sri Guri

Dr Kamaljeet Singh

Singh Sabha, Shillong and an Endodontist and Dental Surgeon, Dr. Kamaljeet Sehdave, excerpts from the interview are as follows – 

  1. Tell us about you, who you are – Dr. Singh, the person and by profession?

First and foremost I am an Indian, a citizen of Meghalaya and a Sikh. 

As a position holder at the Gurdwara and a member of the Rotary Club of Shillong, the motto of “Service above Self “has been ingrained in me that service to mankind is of paramount importance in life.

I’m Shillong-born and bred who studied in St. Edmunds School, Shillong and later pursued my higher education from Chennai and Ludhiana, after which I came back to Shillong and worked at Woodland Hospital before getting into full-time private practice.

  1. What is your role in the Sikh Community Service?

Being the General Secretary of the Gurdwara, I have to arrange everything from scratch- the basic infrastructure ready for any kind of Community Service, overseeing and liaising with members of other communities or even NGOs to reach out to people who are in need of our help and intervention. 

During the ongoing pandemic, we have made concerted efforts to help people by raising awareness towards the COVID-19 vaccination program. Because of which, we can proudly say that our community is now 100% vaccinated in the city. 

  1. What are some of the key learnings that have been imbibed by the Sikh community from their Gurus?

There are three core tenets of the Sikh Religion – 1. “Naam Japo”- Meditation upon and devotion to the Creator, 2. “Kirat Karo” – Earn an honest living, and 3. “Vand Chhako” – Sharing ones earnings with others; which essentially means giving to charity and caring for others.

Sikhs believe in the oneness of all beings as well as the equality of everyone. 

One such example is – Langar or the community food served at the Gurdwara. All, irrespective of their religion, class, creed, sit together and partake in eating food. The Langar of all Gurdwaras is a place where all discrimination ends and humanity begins.

In Sikhism, serving is considered as worship of God.

  1. Globally, the Sikh Community is dedicated towards Seva. Is that the Guru’s way of life? Please elaborate

Sewa Karat Hoye Nehkaami

Tis Ko Hot Prapat Swami

One who performs selfless service, without any thought of rewards shall attain his Lord and Master (SGGS P286)

    Seva in Sikhism is imperative for a spiritual life. It is the highest penance and a means of acquiring the highest merit. A Sikh will often pray to God for a chance to render Seva.

In the words of Guru Arjan Dev ji, “I beg to serve those who serve you”(SGGS P 43) and “I, your servant, beg for Seva of your people which is available through good fortune alone” (SGGS P802)

Three types of Seva are – 1. That rendered through physical means – Tann, 2. That rendered through mental skill and talent – Jann, 3. That rendered through ones material wealth – Dhann

The Guru states that one who performs selfless service without desire for reward or the need to be desire less (Nekhaani) is critical in making this action fruitful; thereby rendering Seva to society.

  1. How is Gurpurab traditionally celebrated? What are the highlights?

Guru Nanak Devji’s birth anniversary is always the main Gurpurab celebrated in the country and worldwide.

It involves early morning processions ‘Prabhat Pheris’ for 2-4 days before Gurpurab, wherein devotees assemble at the Gurdwara around 4 am and then take out a procession in the nearby localities by taking turns in singing hymns and ‘shabads’ before returning to the Gurdwara

Another joyful procession known as “Nagar Kirtan” is organized one day before the Gurpurab. This is headed by the “Panj Pyaras” where they carry the Sikh flag (Nishaan Sahib) passing through the roads of the city while Holy Scriptures of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib being read out atop a moving vehicle.  On some occasions, the youth perform the ‘Gatka’, which is form of Sikh martial art, to enthrall bystanders. They showcase their swordsmanship using the traditional Sikh weapons. Traditionally, Gatka was used in the Sikh wars, which originates from the need to defend dharam (righteousness).

 The ‘Akhand Path’, which is the continuous and uninterrupted recitation of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji, takes 48 hours to be completed, which is again another important facet of Gurpurab celebrations.

On the day of the anniversary, the programme begins early in the morning at about 4 or 5 am with the singing of Asa-di-Vaar (morning hymns) followed by Katha (exposition of the scripture) and Kirtan (hymns from the Sikh scripture) in the praise of the Guru. 

The festivities are then followed by the community feast called Langar – a free and communal lunch where the food is offered in the spirit of Seva (service) and Bhakti (devotion).

This is not the end of the celebrations. Night prayer sessions are also held in some Gurdwaras that begins at sunset when Rehras (evening prayer) is recited followed by Kirtan till late night. At 1:20 am (also believed to be the birth time of Guru Nanak) the devotees sing the Gurbani, which refers to the compositions by the Sikh Gurus from the Guru Granth Sahib. The celebrations culminate at around 2 am in the night.

  1. How many people serve in the committees? How is work delegated? What is the role of the youth and other genders in your community service?

  The Managment Committee consists of 8 elected members that comprise a President who leads the Members of the Gurdwara, 3 Vice Presidents, General Secretary, Treasurer, Joint Secretary and an Assistant Treasurer. Additionally, there are 5-11 Nominated Executive Committee Members and Advisors who are usually Past Presidents of the Gurdwara.

 Work is delegated as per the portfolios of each elected member while the nominated members are usually the heads of various sub-committees which play and important role in the day to day activities. 

The youth plays an extremely active role – starting from organising and hosting programmes based on religious or cultural ethos, helping in and getting supplies to the needy. The youth are the torchbearers of the Gurdwara and without them the enormous work done during the pandemic would not have been possible. Sikhism strongly believes in gender equality and therefore the role of the other genders is similar and there is no discrimination in the roles played by them.

  1. In the peak of the pandemic, apart from authorised help, the Sikh community was seen actively organising for beds, oxygen cylinders et al. Please tell us how this was executed. 

During the second wave of the pandemic, what we witnessed was an acute shortage of oxygen all over the country and we knew that in the coming months it would surely affect Shillong and Meghalaya.

Keeping this in mind, we started the “Oxygen Langar” at the Sikh Centre adjacent to the Main Gurdwara, which is an auditorium that doubles up as a parking space for Sunday devotees.

We started with 5 beds initially and managed to procure 5, 10 litres oxygen cylinders and 2 oxygen concentrators at and very high price owing to the demand that oxygen cylinders were selling in the country at that time. This centre was open to all.

As the demand for oxygen grew, we increased the number of beds to 20 and added 10 of 60 litres oxygen cylinders to the existing 5.

The problem arose when we then realised that only oxygen was not enough and that COVID positive patients needed to be placed to be admitted at; for which we got in touch with the Health Ministry and Department and they helped us with their doctors, nurses, cleaners, who were stationed at the Gurdwara round the clock. This is how we finally had our “Oxygen Langar” and Corona Care Centre .

  1. During the hard days of COVID, how did the community reach out to the people in Shillong? How many people benefited from it?

During the first wave of the pandemic the Gurdwara was actively involved in reaching out by distributing food packets consisting of freshly cooked vegetarian meals daily to a maximum of 700 food packets a day. Apart from the cooked food packets, we also started distributing essentials – rice, dal, potatoes, sugar and salt in bulk to far flung villages, inaccessible by vehicle in and around Sohra.

The cooked food was daily distributed by four different teams of our volunteers to the shelters, orphanages, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, slum areas in and around Shillong and to many homeless people. 

Two teams of our youth members also executed the raw ration distribution. Both these programmes went on for almost 100 days at a stretch and the number of beneficiaries of cooked meals was approximately 40,000 people whereas beneficiaries of raw ration included 16 villages.

  1. Whether there’s a refugee crisis, food shortage and starvation, Sikhs have been lauded worldwide for their commendable quality in service to humanity. How would you extend some of these to other citizens?

The Sikhs are always ready to help their fellow beings. It is an inherent trait that all have and Seva is foremost for us all.

We request all other citizens to join hands with us in any kind of food shortage, pandemic, flood situation, and bring peace and tranquility to all affected.

  1. On the occasion of Gurpurab, what message, on behalf of the Sikh community would you like to impart to our readers?

As we celebrate the 552nd birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji, may we strive to emulate his ideals of peace, love and service to all. While the celebrations won’t be the same this year let us do all we can to work towards a more equal and just society. 

As Guru Nanak Dev ji once said, “Before becoming a Sikh, a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Christian, lets become a Human First

A dentist by day and server of humanity all year round, Dr Sehdave is representative of the Sikh community, dedicated to the enormity and yet humbling service to mankind through numerous ways. Personifying teachings learned and imbibed so deep that it is considered a carry over from one generation to the next, upholding what they refer to as “duty – Sikh word”. Therefore, setting an exemplary example for others to learn and follow beyond religious ties and bounds. 

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