532. The Man in Blue – Should we follow the messengers or should we follow God ?

Recently when travelling to Hasselt by bus I met a man who had served in a major Roman Catholic Monastery on the Dutch-Belgian border. And on the return trip from Hasselt to the Sangat Sahib Gurdwara I met him again.

He was friendly and open-minded. We agreed that the problems that face the Christian churches these days have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. Most of the Christian churches have emphasised too much on their structures, their hierarchies and neglected the inclusive spiritual message of Jesus.

On the way back he asked me what role Jesus played in my life. My first reaction was that that I now understand Jesus and his teachings better than before I became a Sikh. I see Jesus as a great spiritual teacher, whose teachings mostly agree with the core teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib.

I love reading the ‘dharmic’ stories (the parables) that Jesus used to teach his disciples (chelé), which like the Guru Granth emphasise Godly behaviour rather than complicated belief systems.

But I also said that I first and foremost believed in God, who is the source of the power, the insight of the great spiritual teachers. I hear God speak through the Sikh Gurus, through the Bhagats, through the Guru Granth Sahib. Similarly I hear God through Jesus and through other spiritual teachers.

I am now staying in Iver, in between Hillingdon and Slough, and I brought a small picture of Guru Nanak which is on the little press next to my bed. So I have a connection with Guru Nanak, and with the Nanak who signs off the shabads by the Gurus in the Guru Granth Sahib.

But the Nanak that speaks to me in the Guru Granth Sahib is the conduit through which I can hear the One, the All-Powerful, Omnipresent.

Many Sikhs do hero worship, and I try to avoid that. Our Guru and famous personalities from Sikh history were heroes, but they were heroes because they walked in God’s way. Their power comes from God, the words they spoke or wrote come from God.

The Guru Granth Sahib stresses this again and again. Be with God, listen to God, try to understand God’s word and apply it in your delay life. We should not follow people, we should follow God. Guru Gobind Singh also explicitly told the sangat not to worship him. Respect for the Guru leads to love for God.

This is what gives me strength, this is what keeps me happy. This is what makes me, in spite of being an ‘old age pensioner’, return from a comfortable life in Belgium to new challenges in the UK.

I also came back to enjoy the beautiful Kirtan that you can daily hear in the Southall Gurdwaré, and which help me to stick to the path, that is as narrow as the cutting edge of the sword, that leads to God.

503.The Man in Blue – Walking in Belgian Limburg

I have decided to return to Southall in July of this year and that makes me want to look back at two activities that I enjoyed very much in the area where I will have lived for two years by the time I move to the UK.

For practical and safety reasons I do not think I want to even try to cycle in the London area. Walking is of course possible in London, and walks along the Thames and the canals belong to my favourites.

But living close to the historic centre of Sint-Truiden and equally close to the countryside makes it easy to go for modest walks in the neighbourhood and longer treks in the countryside, and this is not possible in Southall.

I recently walked and photographed in the Sint-Truiden area, both a longish walk on a sunny and relatively warm day and closer to home on a cold and snowy day. Pictures taken on previous walks are already on my flickr account and the recent ones will appear there after I finally finish posting the many pictures I took during my Christmas and New-year visit to the Netherlands.

Walking and cycling are good for your health and walking is the most natural way to get from a to b.

I have seen wolves walk and wonderful dogs like Irish wolfhounds and compared with those we are clumsy and inefficient. But walking with Nihangs in Panjab showed me that humans can be efficient movers on their two feet. There is a simple law that applies both to walking and cycling: If you want to walk or cycle over any distance you will have to find a constant rhythm to move your legs in.

This does not mean a constant speed because that depends on the road surface and whether you are in a more or less flat or a hilly area. There are some good hills around here but nothing like what you find in the south of Netherlands’ Limburg or in the Belgian Ardennes.

The hills here are not challenging for walkers. The ‘dirt-roads’ offer a more serious obstacle after heavy rains, especially if you like to keep your feet dry.

Walking, just putting one leg before the other again and again has a great calming effect. Even walking through the man-made landscapes of North-West Europe you will after a while start feeling at one with your surroundings.

Guru teaches that God is everywhere, in all creatures and all plants, in rocks, in sand and clay, in the water of the rain (or the hail and snow) and in the water of streams, lakes and canals. And of course apart from the obvious animals like birds (including birds of prey), cattle, horses and donkeys there are also myriads of little ones from the insects down to invisibly small one celled creatures.

The skinny, 6 foot 3 ‘man in blue’ in Guru’s rúp strides through the landscape and feels at one with ‘The One’, the ‘Omnipresent’. But he misses Southall, and he misses his soul-brothers/sisters, and 7 days-a-week kirtan instead of Sunday only !


493.The Man in Blue – Guru Nanak Nagar Kirtan, Sint-Truiden 23 October 2011

I do not think that there is a religious obligation to organise Nagar Kirtans on or near Vaisakhí or the birthday of Guru Nanak. But Nagar Kirtans can be used to make non-Sikhs more familiar with our beliefs, practices and traditions. Most countries in continental Europe do not have a long shared history with Sikhs, and their populations are not aware of the ‘what and why’ of the beards and turbans.

All occasions outside the Gurdwara should be used to manifest our values. This applies to the Levensloop fundraiser and the Kamal Nath demonstration that I have described in my two previous articles. It also is relevant for our annual trip to Ieper, where we remember all the young men who gave their lives in World War I, and to the Vaisakhí and Guru Nanak Nagar Kirtan.

During the Levensloop fundraiser and the 11 November Ieper parade and ceremony the emphasis should be on our visible presence and the joined remembrance of the dead of all nationalities of World War I.

During a Nagar Kirtan or a demonstration we should have banners and handouts in the local language, which make clear why we are ‘singing of Guru’s hymns in the town’, or why we are demonstrating. In this context the shouting of Khalistan slogans instead of Kamal Nath slogans was not helpful.

In the period preceding the Nagar Kirtan we used the experience of last year to get the ‘official’ part of the organisation sorted out in time and equally to get all the materials and vehicles needed in place for the day.

Last year the Nagar Kirtan was held mid-November, and it was a dark and dreary day, although it stopped raining shortly after we left the Gurdwara. This time it was a brilliantly sunny autumn day, which helped to bring more locals out of their houses.

It was a pity that the French Gatka group was not able to come, but we managed through the efforts of some of our older members, who did manage to demonstrate some of the skills involved in Gatka.

The Sint-Truiden Sikh community always honours non-Sikhs with whom we have a good relationship, varying from the mayor, someone from the local police to a representative of Masala, a group of volunteers who do their utmost to help newcomers in this country and a lady from the Naamsesteenweg who is always happy to help new residents in her area.

We honoured our mayor, Ludwig Vandenhove together with the visiting mayor of Sint-Truiden’s sister city in Nicaragua. Last year another visiting group from Nicaragua came to the Gurdwara, and asked us very good questions, showing a real interest in our faith and culture. Even in Nicaragua the awareness of Sikhí is increasing through our activities in Belgium !

491.The Man in Blue – Levensloop, Sint-Truiden 1 and 2 October 2011

‘Levensloop’ (walk for life) is a fundraiser to help people suffering from cancer. The walk started at 4 pm on Saturday and finished 24 hours later. Participants could walk or run, and the idea was that throughout the 24 hours each team would have at least one member running or walking.

Palwinder Kaur, who works in the Sint-Truiden town hall, appealed on the Sunday before to the Gurdwara sangat, which resulted in more than 50 volunteers coming forward. We wanted to support the charity but we also saw this as an excellent opportunity to show that Sikhs want to work together for the common good with our fellow human beings of whatever background.

We demonstrated that Sikhs, with and without turban, are not people who only are concerned about their own group issues.

The main ‘events’ of the ‘Levensloop’ were the opening and closing rounds, when all team members, including VIPs, took part. Seeing so many Sikhs wearing turbans walking through the park around the ‘Speelhof’ buildings was very good and we had many positive reactions from fellow participants.

Sint-Truiden is a small market town and it is blessed with some very nice parks and around it are many country lanes which are ideal for people like me who like walking and cycling. Although I have taken part in the ‘Sikhs in the City’ relay marathon, I am not a runner.

It enjoyed taking part and to notice that due to my daily cycling and walking I was in good condition. I found it easy to walk several rounds, take a little rest and start again. The response from other participants was mostly positive, but when I walked early on the Sunday morning I felt a bit uncomfortable as some of the younger walkers were not quite sober.

Apart from fundraising through walking or running we also raised money through selling parkoré. Nanak Singh, the Gurdwara cook, and his volunteers had been busy and we had enough to serve both our own people and the more adventurous Limburgers. We also offered tea and free cola. Even I drank coke, not because I like it, but because I was thirsty and there was nothing else available.

When we walked the last round the sangat started doing simran, which was wonderful.

Sikhs would do themselves an enormous favour if they were to do more seva outside the Gurdwara. The true Sikh, the true Khalsa is she or he who serves all.

Guru told us to fight against injustice, nowadays we specialise in fighting each other. Guru told us to serve all, we prefer to serve only fellow Sikhs.

461.The Man in Blue – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday

I have been in Sint-Truiden, Belgian Limburg for almost 8 months. By now I know the local Sikh community quite well, and I have found some new good friends amongst them.   

Since the 1st of January I live in a small ‘studio-apartment’ in central Sint-Truiden, but I still spent most mornings in the Gurdwara. In the late afternoon I again cycle to Halmaal to attend Rahras and Sukhasan and help Granthí Singh when needed.

What I have not yet achieved is to have a full variety of friends of all ages, male and female and from different communities. But I am making progress.

Last week Wednesday I went to Leuven. I went to see a student who is writing a thesis on the Sikhs. We met a number of times in the Gurdwara but this was the first time I went to Leuven to see her. She was at the station and we went to one of the University buildings to discuss the progress of her project.

After that we walked back to the station taking the ‘scenic route’ and I took the train back to Sint-Truiden. Nothing special happened, but we do feel at ease with each other in spite of the age difference. I enjoy talking to her and walking with her and I know that she also feels at ease with me.

On Friday I went to Hasselt to meet somebody we closely work with in the ‘campaign’ to convince the educational sector and the politicians that allowing hijáb, turban and patka in schools will not cause a revolution in Belgium.

She works for an outfit that supports organisations set up by immigrants or children of immigrants. On this visit I first met a young woman who is partly of Kurdish descent and then I spoke to the person I came to see who hails from Kosovo, and to a young Berber trainee, who wore a híjáb.

Three women of different ages, all three from Muslim countries but with quite different cultural backgrounds, and different degrees of commitment to the faith they grew up with.

This 63 year old Sikh Netherlander, born in Dutch Limburg, living in Belgian Limburg, cannot even begin to tell you how much he enjoyed talking to and listening to these fellow human beings.

You can wear a híjáb and work together peacefully with people with a different outlook on life. You or your parents may come from Morocco, Kosovo or south-eastern Turkey but you can find a place for yourself in Belgian Limburg, speak Dutch with a local accent and not lose your connection with your background.

On Saturday I went to see friends in Brussel. The wife grew up in Austria and is of Panjabi Sikh background and he is from France. Long live diversity !

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.

417.The Man in Blue – Moving to St Truiden

Since February I have been living in West London for ten years, on the 6th of May I will be 63 and on 14 July I will be a 14 year old Amritdhari Sikh.

Somewhere around June 15 I plan to move from Southall to St Truiden in the Belgian province of Limburg.

I will miss wonderful Southall, I will miss the choice of ten Gurdwaré to visit, I will miss the many people in the UK Sikh community who have become my friends and I will miss my many friends of different faiths and beliefs who I met in the course of my interfaith/multi faith work.

In Belgium and the Netherlands together there are about ten Gurdwaré. In those Gurdwaré you rarely hear the sort of kirtan that takes you to a spiritual high, the sort of kirtan that you often hear in the Southall Singh Sabha Gurdwaré.

I was born in and lived my first seventeen years in Roermond, in the Dutch province of Limburg, which is to the east of Belgian Limburg. The culture of St Truiden is similar to the culture I grew up with. St Truiden is nearer to French speaking territory and further from German speaking territory than Roermond, and that does make a difference.

I look forward to represent the Sikh community in St Truiden, in Limburg and in Belgium. I hope to be able to contribute to improving the already good relations with local government.

Hopefully the Sikhs in Belgium will be able to improve their profile in the country and to get more recognition from the Flemish regional and the Brussel based national government.

I also want very much to be part of the Sikh community in and around St Truiden and play a part in the life of the Gurdwara. But I might not stay in St Truiden for the rest of my life as I have always been a bit of a gipsy. Belgium will be my fifth country. I do not think I will match the time I spent in Amsterdam, about 25 years with an interruption of three years in Dublin.

I have thought beyond being in Belgium, but as we all know my speculations are all in vain, as I have no idea what God has in store for me. I like the idea of going to Barcelona or Valencia, an area of the world that I know quite well and feel at home in. These cities now have small Sikh communities.

Another obvious option would be to come back to the UK, with its vibrant Sikh community and its rotten climate. Financially things should be easier after I reach the magic 65 and will get small state and private pensions. But you never know what will happen, God will steer me, I will follow.

Appeal to stop the use of violence

All Sikhs, Sikh organisations and Gurdwaré should undertake never again to use violence as a means to settle differences of opinion. There is no precedent from Guru’s days for this bad practice, the Guru taught us to stand up against injustice, not against opinions that we do not agree with.