439.The Man in Blue – Sint-Truiden to Vlissingen

On Saturday 18 September I went by bus from Halmaal to Sint-Truiden and took the train from there to Brussel Zuid (South). From Brussel there is an hourly intercity train to Amsterdam, with has its first stop in the Netherlands in Roosendaal.

The Benelux intercity has to run on two different voltages and drives on the left in Belgium and on the right in the Netherlands. In Roosendaal I changed onto the ‘stoptrein’ to Vlissingen, where my cousin Marie collected me from the station.

The trip worked out well in spite of the fact that all three trains ran a bit late and in spite of the fact that I had to wait 29 minutes in Sint-Truiden, 48 minutes in Brussel and 18 minutes in Vlissingen. I left from near the Gurdwara on the bus at 07.47 and was due to arrive in Vlissingen at 12.45. But of the official 5 hours travel I was actually waiting in railway stations for about an hour and a half.

In spite of delays and waiting time I still far prefer public transport over travelling by car, where you are a captive in a tin box and are subject to increasingly gridlocked roads, especially around Brussel and Antwerpen.

But if public transport does not improve its performance both on main and branch lines, the car addicts will keep clogging up the roads, and will keep demanding more and more roads, until small and densely populated countries like Belgium and the Netherlands are one big gridlocked motorway !

I went to Vlissingen to visit my cousin Marie, who I had not seen for years. She is the daughter of my father’s elder sister, and my family and hers have always been very close. In 1953 when our ancestral village was flooded for about a year, her father, mother, brother and the maiden aunt had to leave the island our family has lived on since at least 1200.

We lived in Roermond in the Dutch province of Limburg, where there were no floods and Marie’s family of 5 stayed in our small house with our family of 3 for the best part of a year.

As I had no brothers and sisters of my own I was very happy with the new arrivals. It was more of a strain on my parents, especially on my mother who instead of having her own way in her small house coping with a small family, was now dealing almost 24 hours a day with her husband’s family and their way of doing things.

My mother was an Amsterdam city girl, my father and his family came from a small village on what was then a rather isolated island in the province of Zeeland. She liked her new family, she liked the village, but her ways were different from theirs. And this was not a holiday stay, this lasted almost a year. Although there were tensions during this time our families remained close to each other. Years later when my mother was dying of cancer my aunt Sara (Marie’s mother) was part of the team of family members nursing her. (To be continued)

438.The Man in Blue – Three Months in Sint-Truiden

 I started writing this week’s column on the 15th of September, which is near enough three months after the 17th of June when I left the UK. Apart from some seriously annoying bureaucracy around where I can live to have a legal ‘domicile’ in this country, without which I will not get an ID card, no medical care, no use of the library and a few more related issues, I am happy living here.

There is also a serious problem with racism, with especially the radical Flemish party propagating a narrow interpretation of ‘Flanders for the Flemish’. But we must not underestimate the racism in the UK, openly propagated by the dirty rag called the Daily Mail.

I am happy here because I live near a small market town that reminds me of the slightly bigger small city where I was born. Wherever I am in the borough of Sint-Truiden (which includes the surrounding villages) I am within minutes from the countryside on my 50 Euro wonderful new second-hand bicycle.

There is an extensive network of country lanes and enough hilly bits to keep the old man in good shape in spite of the karah prasad, the mattai and the sometimes over rich Gurdwara food.

I am happy because I feel very much at home in the local Sikh community, and I have also met a good few ‘white’ inhabitants of Sint-Truiden who are not frightened of people who look different.

I am happy because I can make a contribution to more understanding between communities in this country. Many Belgians believe that turban and hijáb represent anti-Belgian values, symbolise a wish not to integrate.

Our most urgent problem is the ban on wearing of turbans, hijábs etc in many of the secondary schools. I was involved in three actions related to this problem. The first was a meeting with a Christian Democrat politician, the second the answering of a letter from the leader of the Flemish Socialist Party and the third a manifestation on one of the squares of Sint-Truiden.

Both the meeting with the Flemish Christian Democrat MP and the Action in Sint-Truiden involved Sikh youngsters, with the grey beards in the background. I have made some nice pictures of the manifestation in Sint-Truiden, which will appear on my Flickr account and on my maninblue1947 blog.

Because we are a small, mostly first generation community, the young Sikhs who are growing up here and are being educated in Belgium are the only ones who speak fluent Flemish and therefore they get a chance to play a leading role. This is important as another ‘western’ prejudice is that all young Sikhs who wear turbans or patkas are victims of dictatorial parents who force this on their children. There is plenty to do for me here, there are some real challenges here and I like it.

437.The Man in Blue – SRM Chapter XIII Article XXIV (q) III

This is the third article about this section of the Sikh Rehat Maryada. The previous article ended with Article XXIV sub q (1).

Sub q : The following individuals shall be liable to chastisement involving automatic boycott :

2.    One who eats/drinks leftovers of the un-baptised or the fallen Sikhs;
Who would want to do this anyway ?

3.    One who dyes his beard;
I do not like dyed beards, I do not like tied-up beards, I like it even less when beards are in a hairnet, but none of these are major sins.

4.    One who gives off son or daughter in matrimony for a price or reward;
This is serious, children are not cattle, Guru emphasises that you do not own your family. But I do not think boycotting will do anybody any good.

5.    Users of intoxicants (hemp, opium, liquor, narcotics, cocaine etc);
If you are an Amritdhari Sikh and you use any intoxicants then you break your amrit. I still do not like the idea of boycotting.

6.    One holding, or being a party to, ceremonies or practices contrary to the Guru’s way;
Wonderful, that excludes the vast majority of the Sikhs.

7.    One who defaults in the maintenance of Sikh discipline.
This is even better, can the last Sikh leaving please close the door ?

Looking at the controversial clauses on this page I have to say that the authors of the SRM have made a very poor effort here. We know that Guru Gobind Singh spoke out against the use of tobacco, we know that we should not dye our beards, we know about the people who left the panth during and after the Guru time.

But the clauses on this page are badly organised, put fairly minor ‘sins’ like dying your beard together with killing baby girls, mention tobacco twice but not under the proper heading of intoxicants, get excited about followers of people like Ram Rai, although Ram Rai made peace with Guru Gobind Singh and so on and so forth.

The authors know only one punishment, banning from the panth and boycott. There is no distinction between initiated Sikhs and those that are on the path to being initiated (who are included in the SRM’s definition of a Sikh) or between minor transgressions and major crimes. The document finishes under 6 and 7 with two catch-all clauses that are not very helpful either.

There is a widespread notion amongst Sikhs that having uncut hair is a virtue in itself, which is anti-Gurmat and otherwise makes no sense either. The Guru writes about shaven heads and long hair both not uniting you with God.

The problem is that if there was a review of the SRM now, with the panth firmly under the control of the Sant Samaj, the Badal Dal and the Taksal the SRM would become worse instead of better.

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 2:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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436.The Man in Blue – SRM, Redbridge, UK

The SRM about which I write this week is the Sikh Relay Marathon, which took place 29 September in Redbridge, North East of London. The route of the relay marathon is the training ground of Fauja Singh, the veteran Sikh marathon runner who is now 99 years old.

This year is the third time that I participated in the SRM, which allows both more professional runners and indifferent ones like me to take part. As I was one of the five members of our Interfaith Team I only had to do a bit more than one fifth of 42 km. The other benefit of a relay marathon is that you do not have to run the distance in one go, you do a lap, rest, do another lap and rest again etc.

I will publish pictures of the participants both on my blog and on my Flickr  account, so that everybody can see me and my colleagues and also teams like the Barking Road Runners and the Baba Fateh Singh Gatka Akhara, whose members are fitter and younger than me.

The most amazing participants are the Sikh veteran runners in their eighties and nineties, with Fauja Singh as their best known member. The veterans do not run very fast, but they go at a steady pace and keep going.

Our team of five had an Irish and a Luxemburg female member, two local male members, one of whom was a Hindu, and a tall skinny Dutchman who lives in Belgium and is a Sikh. Even the Gatka Akara has non-Sikh members. Although it is the Sikh Relay Marathon there is plenty of opportunity to talk to and to run together with people of non-Sikh background.

Every year the Mayor of Redbridge has to get up early on a Sunday morning to address the runners. His (or her) motivation to do this is that £ 1000 of the revenue of the event goes to the Mayor’s charity fund. The revenue consists of sponsor money from local businesses and Gurdwaré and the £ 20 registration fee that all but the foreign participants have to pay.

We missed the Scottish team that was present at previous events, but in spite of their absence we had an excellent time on the day, and badly aching leg muscles on the Monday.

Last year I had done a lot of walking and a bit of running as preparation, this year I had been out on my wonderful new bike a lot, walked some but did not run at all before the race. Cycling is an excellent way to keep fit, but you use quite different muscle groups on your bike than when running.

Please come and join us next year, God usually blesses us with reasonable weather and there is always good company, you contribute to community cohesion and to charity. And you’ll get a medal and a T-shirt !

435.The Man in Blue – SRM Chapter XIII Article XXIV (p) and (q) II

The Sikh Rehat Maryada has some weak points, but considering that it was put together in Panjab at least 65 years ago, it is not a bad document. But page 38 gives the impression that on the day it was written only Taksali types were present and that Singh Sabha types had taken the day off.

Sub p : You must not associate with a Sikh who had uncut hair earlier and has cut it or a Sikh who smokes.
About cutting your hair : wearing of any of the 5 Ks does not make you into a good person, giving up one of the 5 Ks does not make you into a bad person. There is no indication in the Guru Granth Sahib that keeping your hair is a value in itself. Breaking your amrit is of course bad news.

I know a Singh who broke his amrit as he gave up 4 of the 5 Ks, but he did not break any of the other Khalsa rules and was always ready to do seva, more so than many Amritdharis. Should I boycott that person ?

Although I smoked tobacco and bhang before I was a Sikh I am very happy that Guru gave me the strength to give up these useless and unhealthy habits. But why is tobacco singled out here and not mentioned under Sub q (5). Tobacco is an intoxicant, it is very addictive and it kills.

Will boycotting smokers or others who break the rules mentioned in this section, be good for those we boycott, or good for those that keep the rules ? Our Mother/ Father has endless compassion, but should we be harsh ?

Sub q : The following individuals shall be liable to chastisement involving automatic boycott :
1.    Anyone maintaining relations or communion with elements antagonistic to the Panth including the minas, the masands, followers of Dhirmal or Ram Rai, et all, or users of tobacco or killers of female infants;

Here we find thrown together the minas, masands, followers of Dhirmal or Ram Rai with users of tobacco and killers of female infants. When was the last time you heard from minas, masands, and the followers of Dhirmal or Ram Rai ?

There are plenty ‘elements antagonistic to the Panth’ and most of them are inside the Panth, but they do their utmost to dilute the beautiful message of the Guru Granth Sahib.

The use of tobacco is bad news, as I write above, and killing of female infants before (scan and abort) or after birth is indeed a major sin, but killing your spouse or killing male children seem to be lesser sins.

Will be continued ! 

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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434.The Man in Blue – Meeting Limburgers

Last week I went on my bicycle to Hoepertingen to visit the local Gurdwara. I did not go along the main road, but followed one of the cycle routes which you find throughout Limburg. These routes are not the shortest way to get from A to B, but they do take you along nice country lanes.

Hoepertingen is part of the borough of Borgloon, just to the east of Sint Truiden. I planned to use a route north of the village and then turn right into a ‘dirt road’ which would take me straight to the Gurdwara.

 The map I have is quite good, it shows all the metalled roads and most of the ‘dirt roads’, but not all of them, and when I came to a crossing with a slightly wider road I was sure that I missed my turnoff.

I spotted a farmer and asked him for directions. He was helpful and we had a very interesting conversation. The gentleman (he was a gentle man), asked me if I believed in God, and I answered that through following Guru’s way I met with God.

The farmer had lost his belief in the ‘church’ but was still interested in God. I explained that our ‘church’ also had its fair share of dodgy characters, but I tried to follow God and the Guru Granth, which contains the light of God.

We also talked about Jesus, who did not found a Church bureaucracy with Popes, Archbishops, Bishops and other VVIPs. His followers were simple fisherman and Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were simple people too. I explained the notion of dharm to him, the importance of being righteous, to be a positive force in society.

It was not just me who did the talking, and I was not preaching at him, I just tried to explain what guided my life, trying to share my experiences. When I talked about the fact that teachings on honesty, sharing and compassion are what the world religions have in common, he agreed.

He told me about a Turkish friend of his who had invited him to his house. Like most Turkish people he was a Muslim, and my new friend had no problem with that, but he did not like it when it was made clear to him that all non-Muslims are unbelievers.  

I have had mixed experiences in Belgian Limburg. I have been called Osama Bin Laden, some idiots shouted ‘jihad, jihad’ at me and some others called me Sint Nicolaas (Santa Claus). But I also met Limburgers who were open minded and interested to learn more about other traditions.

My best experience so far was a visit to the Mosque where we sat together after evening prayers and had a very constructive conversation.