The Table Podcast

Respectfully Engaging Sikhism

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Sukhwant Bhatia discuss Sikhism, focusing on the draw of the religion and Christian engagement.

Respectfully Engaging World Religions
  1. Respectfully Engaging Animism
  2. Respectfully Engaging Judaism
  3. Respectfully Engaging Hinduism
  4. Respectfully Engaging the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  5. Respectfully Engaging Islam
Timecodes
00:15
Sukhwant's background in Sikhism
03:30
The origins of Sikhism
07:45
What makes a Sikh a Sikh?
10:00
What is Sikhism?
19:15
Are gurus exclusive to Sikhism?
20:45
Sukhwant's journey to Christianity
23:30
The draw of Sikhism
28:10
The Sikh conception of God
30:30
How does the Gospel speak into the life of the Sikh?
37:55
Building bridges and finding common ground
42:30
Christian concepts foreign to Sikhism
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table, where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary, and my guest today is Sukhwant Bhatia, who actually was a student of mine many, many, many moons ago. You were here in the 1980s I believe?
Sukhwant Bhatia
’86 I joined.
Darrell Bock
’86, okay, and Sukhwant is here to help us on the series that we’re doing on world religions, and today the topic is Sikhism. I really think it’s a privilege to have you here because you are a former Sikh. Is that correct?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. Now, Sukhwant is founder and president of the North India Institute of Theological Studies, which is located in the province of Punjab in India, which is in Northwest India, and then he also – you’re like me; you got more than one title – is the president and CEO of Sikh Partners International, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, and so you travel back and forth between the states and India, is that right?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes, since the last two years. Otherwise we were just based in India all these years.
Darrell Bock
Mm-kay. You founded the school in Punjab – which we’ll talk about its importance for Sikhism in just a minute – back in 2003, and it took you four years to get accredited. So the school is now in its tenth year, and you’ve got about 48 to 52 students any one time?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes, total strand this year is 66, but at a time on campus will be between 48 and 52.
Darrell Bock
Okay, very good. So your first decade of existence, correct?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
Very good. Well, Sukhwant’s going to help up walk through Sikhism, and he told me a story before we started recording that I think is great. So you came to Dallas in the 1980s, and you’re sitting in the World Religions class, right, and?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Well, the first thing that happened in the class was that somebody asked me “Where you’re from?” so I mentioned I’m from India, from the Sikh background. So they asked me to just briefly share my testimony. I took about two or three minutes, and I shared, like you asked me now, and after I stopped, suddenly the person says “But then what happened to your sickness?” I said, “No, no, no, not from a sick background, but a Sikh background.”
Darrell Bock
[Laughs]
Sukhwant Bhatia
Then they said, “What is that?” and they literally discovered – I said they probably learned that in the class as a class on world religion. We finish the whole course, and there was no mention about Sikhism. So I said, “How come we are not studying about Sikhism? It’s actually the third major religion in India.” Christianity comes after that, so that was kind of interesting thing. But I’m so glad to know that since then, Dallas Seminary has included it, and I often come in as a visiting guest lecture for those.
Darrell Bock
So you have to seek out the Sikhs in order to understand what’s going on in India.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Well, people – that’s the name of the organization, it’s kind of a play on words. It says Sikh Partners, but also trying to focus on the Sikhs.
Darrell Bock
That’s great. And that actually is not surprising to me. I mean, if you were to ask me a week ago what I knew about Sikhism, I would say “I knew how to spell the word.” So my last week has been an acquaintance with Sikhism through reading, and so I’m really pleased to have you in to talk about this. Let’s walk through first your personal story. So you are a former Sikh, so you grew up as a Sikh. Does someone come into Sikhism – I mean, in Christianity you have a conversion experience or something like that. Are you born into Sikhism? How does that work?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Well, let me get back quickly a little bit of history of Sikhism. Sikhism is about 500 years old, and primarily came at the same time as the Renaissance, and it came during the 1400s when the Muslims were invading India. At that time, a group of Muslims and group of Hindus who didn’t like what was happening, they formed a kind of militia to fight against the mogul invasion. That small group grew to be today what we call Sikhism.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
But since this group was made up of Muslims and Hindus, they have to live in harmony. So they came up with the philosophy, practical life, and all kinds of things where they borrowed from Hinduism, borrowed from Islam, rejected other things, and kinda formed a new religion and new faith to live with. So that was the birth of Sikhism and it didn’t get refined till about 350 years ago, and they’re still in the process of kind of glorifying the religion to give it a theological tone, it was basically a military, a group that came together. It grew very fast. Now there are about 20 million Sikhs, and another 30 million followers of Sikhism. So it’s a good group, but it’s still about a little over two percent of the population of India.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm, and I have a source here that talks about the fact that there are about 80,000 Sikhs here just in the United States. At least that’s the number that this source is telling me. Does that sound low or high?
Sukhwant Bhatia
I think it’s very low. It could be a lot more because if you go to California, there are a lot. I’m going back and forth over there and all together what I heard that there are two million Sikhs in UK and US. I don’t know exact number of which place, but I’m sure it’s more than 80,000.
Darrell Bock
That’s interesting. Okay. So part of my point here is – and this is interesting – you know, this is actually originally a very regional religion, even though it has a very important history component to the history of India. Let’s go back. You said that Sikh is actually more important in India than Christianity in terms of its presence. What are the other dominant religions in India?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Hinduism, number one with about 83 percent. After that comes Islam with 13 percent. Then comes Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism Buddhism, all kinds of other things.
Darrell Bock
Okay. All right. So that kind of gives us some context, and of course now the chances of running into someone who comes out of a Sikh background in the United States is not as isolated as some people might think, because there are actually are, as you mentioned, a few million between the United States and the UK who are here. Probably the most distinctive feature I think of Sikhism that might help someone identify that someone is a Sikh is the turban.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Turban underneath uncut hair, because in Sikhism we never cut our hair. So that’s the primary purpose of the turban.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So let’s go back and talk about the origins of this. You said it came from about the period of the Renaissance. Is it – Nanak is the founder?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. Yes, he was actually part of Sufism, and _____ – [Crosstalk]
Darrell Bock
Which is a mystical Islam.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Which is a mystical Islam, and Hindu version of Sufism is what’s called a Bhakti movement.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So it is a combination of both. So he was basically introducing something that’ll be acceptable to the Muslim and the Hindus. So the emphasis came upon devotion and good works rather than identifying with one group or the other group. I was born to a Sikh home, so that’s why I’m a Sikh.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
But Sikhism is something that people are adopted in. They didn’t like to call it a conversion. For example, my father was raised as a Sikh by my grandfather when they were in Pakistan, but my grandfather was from Afghanistan, and my great grandfather was from Iran. But they were Muslims. They rejected Islam; that means they have to move to the east of Iran. They settle in Afghanistan. That’s where my grandfather believed in this mystical Sufism, Bhakti movement, and all, but it didn’t make any sense to him, so he rejected that, and he moved south of Afghanistan. Now we call Pakistan, but that time it was Greater India. He raised his children as Sikh. When they moved in 1947 to India, that’s where I was born, and I was born in a Sikh home. But my mom’s side of the family, they had been kind of pure Sikhs for the last 300 years, but it depends. So my dad’s side would be considered as Sikh, as my mom because of the faith and belief in Sikhism.
Darrell Bock
That’s interesting. Again, just to give some historical context, Greater India was divided, what I, think in 1948? Am I right?
Sukhwant Bhatia
’47.
Darrell Bock
’47? And the largely Muslim portion of India became Pakistan, right?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And then mostly Hindi part of India became India.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
Which is anyone knows the politics of that part of the world knows that that has always been a tension filled area because of that difference. So the difference between Islam and Hinduism has been a historic part of the region, and this was an attempt to – back in the 1460s, thereabout – attempt to establish a religious faith that few on both, but at the same time was pretty clear that we’re not Hindus and we’re not Muslims, right?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yep. That’s true.
Darrell Bock
So as we’re thinking about the core of what Sikhism is, let me ask you that question. What makes Sikhism Sikhism other than the differentiation of “We’re not Muslim and we’re not Hindi, but we are – but we have – we breathe that air to a certain extent”?
Sukhwant Bhatia
In fact, understanding that part will also explain why Sikhism was kind of excluded from what happened in India and grew, but didn’t have much impact about Christianity. Until the mid-’80s, India only had two classes, rich or poor, and as you’re aware that the cost system is so severe in India, when we were growing up – I came from upper class, came from a very wealthy home, and my understanding given to me at the time about the Christians was that Christianity’s a religion of the poor and the untouchable.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
And the idea was that those who can’t afford to be Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs, they become Christian. So Christian faith had not made any attempt to go to North India, especially to Punjab, and I’ll explain that a little while why, but the first missionaries that came to India, the primary focus was to minister to this group, which was absolutely rejected by the Hindus. They were called untouchables. They couldn’t go to a temple. They would not associate with them. In fact it was so bad that we would not allow a low class person to touch us because they were unclean. That group was the first group that became believer, and when the missionaries ministered to them, established them, the mission compound came and everything, rest of India said “Ah ha, these people never had any religion of their own. Finally they found it. It’s Christianity.”
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So that was the understanding with which I was raised, so there was no reason for me to even look at Christianity, not even look at that as a faith had it not the various circumstances that happened in my life that first made me reject Sikhism, reject Islam, reject Hinduism before I opened to even listen to what Christianity was.
Darrell Bock
Okay, now that’s interesting and we’ll come back to that. Let me make one other point before we move on, and that is I said it was a predominantly regional religion. So this was located and it was founded in Punjab, which is a particular province or state of India located in, what, the Northwest corner of India? Is that right?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. Yeah.
Darrell Bock
Right up against Pakistan. Am I right about that?
Sukhwant Bhatia
In fact, Punjab was divided into two. So there’s a Punjab in Pakistan. There’s a Punjab in India, so it’s kind of divided right in the middle.
Darrell Bock
Oh, interesting. And are the Sikhs just in one portion of Punjab or are they in both regions of Punjab, both the Pakistani and the Indian side?
Sukhwant Bhatia
If you are able to see the map, Amritsar is. It’s right about ten miles from the border of Pakistan. That’s kind of the Jerusalem of the Sikhs. That’s where the golden temple is. That’s where the hub is.
Darrell Bock
What’s the name of the city again?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Amritsar.
Darrell Bock
Oh man, I have no idea even how to spell that. [Laughter]
Sukhwant Bhatia
So that’s where it grew from, even though Guru Nanak’s birthplace and his grave is still in Pakistan, so people travel there to worship, but that’s where it grew from and spread all the way up to New Delhi. But the primary remained in Punjab, the reason because Sikhism is also an agricultural community. So that group has been kind of now they call the breadbasket of India because it is very fertile land, and so that’s where it kind of concentrated.
Darrell Bock
And is Lahore in Punjab as well?
Sukhwant Bhatia
No, Lahore is in Pakistan.
Darrell Bock
In Pakistan, okay
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so we’ve got this regional religion that started in reaction to Hinduism and Islam. So what exactly is it? What makes Sikhism Sikhism?
Sukhwant Bhatia
They took, for example, a few things from Islam, few from Hinduism. They say that there is only one God, period, but they didn’t want to name that God and they didn’t want to create a shape for that God.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so that is an Islamic influence, correct?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
But they took the softer form of reincarnation from Hinduism, and they said “Yes, there is a rebirth, but we don’t cross the breed. The humans stay human, and the animals stay animal, but there is a kind of reincarnation.”
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
“But this life is given to us to break the cycle, so our destiny as of Heaven and Hell can be decided right now.” But the distinctive of Sikhism is that they went to great length to describe the holiness of God, His character, and everything, and portrayed the sinfulness of man, but the concept that strongly introduced was that you can never ever know this God without the help of a mediator. So the concept of Guru was kind of specialized by the Sikhs, and so that’s what they basically believe in right now, but you’ve got to have your mediator. The only problem is the ten human Gurus they had in the past, they’re going to declare them as the mediator, but that’s not right because they themselves have asked for a mediator.

But what hinders Sikhism right now to look anywhere else in terms of anyone claiming to be God, even including Jesus, is that their prime doctrine say is that God cannot incarnate. But they were reacting that to Hinduism, and so that’s what makes up, but does is built on works, hard works, lots of good works, and also they form themselves more or less like the Jews. The concept was that God’s relationship is not so much with individuals, but with the community. So we as a community have to stay together. Only then we have God’s blessing, and if anybody breaks the norms of the community, you need to throw them out, kill them, or whatever. But it’s primely built upon good work borrowed from both sides, worshipping one god but no name for that god.

Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. And there’s a lot of – can I say – devotion attached to Sikhism. You mentioned the golden temple, which is the – I take it it’s the location where the equivalent of scripture is located for Sikhs, which is the work called – and I’m gonna let you pronounce it –
Sukhwant Bhatia
Granth Sahib. That’s kind of the holiest book that they believe. It actually is a compilation of, let’s say, Psalms or beautiful poetry.
Darrell Bock
It’s poetry.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Poetry.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Sukhwant Bhatia
You have to sing it. You can’t read it.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
It takes year of practice. That’s what my mother was expert in. She used to teach the young girls to read it.
Darrell Bock
So she was a reader in the temple?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes, professional reader and also professional teacher, because even if you look at the page, there’s no word division. It’s just one – words put together, letters. You have to learn to sing it to be able to get the meaning of that. So that book has become the central part, and they declared that book as the mediator, that this book will guide us in life. The concept of tithing, I was first taught in Sikhism, is called Dasvandh. Basically what it means that you’re supposed to give ten percent of everything, including your time. So everybody puts in ten percent of the time as a service to the temple. Gurdwara it is call, that you have to go there locally or somewhere else to put in your service. I remember my mom for years at 4:00 in the morning she used to go to the local gurdwara, Sikh temple, to sweep the floors for an hour. That was her tithing.
Darrell Bock
And I’ve seen pictures of people reading the book, and then there’s this – I don’t know what to call it – behind them were – that’s fanning them, I guess, was the original purpose of it, to keep them cool because there would be – scriptures we read when it was very hot, or is there something else going on there spiritually?
Sukhwant Bhatia
No, that book is called The Living Book. It may sound funny, but every night they carry the book to put the book to bed, in a special bed, and they put water and food next to the book. It’s like leaving cookies for the Santa Claus.
Darrell Bock
Okay, I do remember reading about this. Yeah, I remember saying, “This is different.”
Sukhwant Bhatia
But the amazing thing is – a long time ago I wrote a small paper trying to compare Sikhism with Christianity, and it caused a wave, and often people accused me that I changed my religion. I said “No, I was a true Sikh because I was taught well to go and search for my mediator, and I found it, and Bible says there’s only one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ, Jesus who gave his life as a ransom for us.”
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So I traced that, that how much influence Christianity actually had on Sikhism, except that they were not trying to accept it, because that was the only neutral thing they could fine at that time, and probably even Guru Nanak had access to the literature renaissance of the time about the Christian faith.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Well, let me go back and gather some stuff. The term “Sikh” actually means disciple, doesn’t it?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
I mean, there are some fascinating points of connection in that regard, and there is this regard for this book that is basically poetry, and it leads in this devotion to God. Basically when you gather around the book and hear its reading, it’s designed to help you meditate on God.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Let’s talk about the Gurus a second. Are Sikhs the only religion that has gurus, or do gurus come from other faiths in the region?
Sukhwant Bhatia
They are. The concept of a teacher, guru has always been there, but what happened about 250 years ago or so, Sikhism divided into two sects, just like what happened with the Catholic and the Protestant church.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Half of the Sikhs believe that there is an apostolic succession so that guruship has continued, and somebody always has to be on the throne. But the other half, which is the majority, they said “No. The book is the final guru. No human being can be Guru.”
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So that kind of divide is going on, that practice is going on. The group that believed there is a human being who can be the top of the religion, that group has divided now to five or six different groups. So different things have come up, just like the comparison you can make with the Christian faith, but the large portions do not believe in any human guru.
Darrell Bock
So when someone goes to sit at the feet of a guru, they’re connected to someone of Sikh background, but it’s this one group that has this line of gurus, and there are like four or five different subsects that exist that someone might connect to.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. Yeah.
Darrell Bock
Okay, well that’s all pretty fascinating. Briefly – we’ve got about two minutes left before the break – talk about how you came to faith.
Sukhwant Bhatia
My coming to the Lord was primarily by reading the Bible, and the reason I got started on reading the Bible, because at the age of about 15, I discovered that even though my dad practiced Sikhism, but he actually was a practical Atheist. He was in the Army. He fought all the wars on behalf of India, and my mom used to say that somewhere in that bloodshed he lost his faith. So when I discovered that, it kind of bothered me, and I wanted to know that when I grow up, will I be like my father who’s successful in every way except he does not believe in God, or will I be like my mom, who her faith is everything? And that made me start looking to Sikhism. After studying it, I wasn’t satisfied. My mom encouraged “Why don’t you look at Islam and Hinduism since we came from there?”

I studied Sanskrit for eight years. I knew Pashto and Urdu, so I was able to read Quran, other religious literature, and after about three years of exhaustive study from age 15 to 18, I rejected everything because what people were practicing, and what was written in the religious books were two different things. So I lived a year in a vacuum believing that maybe my dad is right, that there is no God, or maybe he existed at one time, gave a good spin to us, and now you’re on your own. In that frustration, I was in college when I met a new student who found out that he was a Hindu, but he claimed to be Christian. So when I asked him to share with me his faith, he shared his Bible with me, and he said, “Let me explain what’s there.” The problem was that his Bible was in English, and they only spoke English in Bengali.

So he was English teacher, started teaching me English, I started reading the Bible. A year later after having read the new testament 9 times in eight months and the gospel of John 22 times, I decided to put my trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Darrell Bock
Oh, wow. So a very direct experience with scripture is what drew you to the Lord. Yeah, wow. Well, I don’t know whether you’re the only, but you’re the first person of Sikh background to engage in seminary study in the United States, or do you even know if this is worldwide, or what’s the deal?
Sukhwant Bhatia
That time I was told that I was the first Sikh onward to go for Master of Theology degree anywhere in the world, and nobody challenged that, so I don’t know if it’s still true or not, but that’s what it was.
Darrell Bock
Mm-kay. And then of course you’ve established this ministry to teach Christianity in the part of the world that you’ve come from. Let’s talk a little bit about Sikhs and kind of what orients them to God. How would you describe what the draw of Sikhism is? I mean, obviously there’s – I’m looking at this from the outside. One of the things is that it seems to be a very regionally focused religion, that it is almost a form of regional pride. You know, I’m a Texan. And so Texans have certain qualities about them. So it seems to have that dimension to it, but there’s got to be something beyond that.
Sukhwant Bhatia
That’s true, because I still use my wild card that I’m a Sikh. Because people are very proud to be associated with Sikhs, and the religion has kind of given them a pride. There’s a very strong sense of community. One statement that’s often made is that you’ll never, ever see a Sikh beggar in India because the community will not allow it. They say, “What do you need? What do you need to get back on your feet?” So that was one thing, the sense of community. The second, there’s a sense of charity. Every Sikh gurdwara, Sikh temple, is open 24 hours. There’s free food any time you go. Any new town, you can go into if you don’t have a place to stay, you can always go to gurdwara. You’ll get a place to say. You’ll get food, and if necessary, you’ll also get transportation if you need to. So it was kind of a community sense of religion. Even when they have grown to such a large thing, they’ve been able to maintain that. So that is very attractive to people, and once you receive the gift, you want to give it one day. So that’s one aspect.

Second, the Sikhism gave them something, which was nondivisive. So they didn’t have to define things like “Are you Hindu or are you a Sikh?” It gave them a lot of room. Okay, there’s one god and you only believe in him, but we don’t have to have a name. So the emphasis became upon your faith. So “How much faith do you have in your faith?” was kind of the emphasis, and purely on good works. So they kind of masterminded on that that these good works are not just putting a penny here and then putting 20 over there, but generally producing to become a productive citizen, you’ve become a proud neighbor –

Darrell Bock
So it’s a highly ethical faith.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes, it is. It is.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Sukhwant Bhatia
And in Punjab especially, another phrase that goes over there is that if you have to have one friend, make sure it’s a Sikh. But the opposite side is also kind of true. The Sikhs were a militant group. At one point, just two percent of India’s population made 30 percent of India’s armed forces was made of Sikhs. So they are still very aggressive, militant; they would not put up with any nonsense. In fact, often time when there’s been a trouble in Punjab for the Christians, it’s the Sikhs that come to our rescue. They said “We are also a minority group. You can’t do that.” And they’re willing to fight and willing to die for the faith. So all those things have made people very attracted toward Sikhism. It’s a hardworking group, care for one another, and –

So what happens is part of our presentation of the gospel is historically – if I may move a little bit further – when the missions were born with William Carey, that time he was commissioned to do three things. He said “Missions means do charity, healing, and liberation” and desperately we needed that in India. But the sad part is that that excluded communities liked the Sikhs because they didn’t need any charity. They didn’t need any free healing camps or something like that, and also they didn’t need any liberation.

Darrell Bock
‘Cause they took good care of themselves.
Sukhwant Bhatia
They’ve already had that. So it was not a community in crisis, and often time it presented Jesus as the quicker fixer, that if you have a problem, he’ll fix it. So it was William Carey who said that we need to start the gospel from the top down, not from the bottom. I mean, that time nobody listened to him, but what has happened is as it was, there became a disconnect that they did not find any attraction in Christianity because this Christ was presented only for the poor and the one who needed help rather than the some who had been fine, who had been devoted, who had been searching for this unknown God, and somebody didn’t make the connection there.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. I’m going to come back to that. Let me ask you one more question about Sikhs. You’ve talked about the fact that God is unnamed, but what kind of conception is there of God? ‘Cause if you’re coming out of a background that’s kind of a fusion or at least is wrestling with the relationship between Muslims and Islam and Hindis, the conception of the transcendence very different out of those two backgrounds. So how does that work? How is God conceived of among Sikhs?
Sukhwant Bhatia
They use terms like “Satguru”, “Satnam”, which basically means “true mediator”, “true guru”, “the truth”, and they gave the shabad, which means “the word”. They literally what we believe in the Bible that the written word actually became incarnate, but does not incarnate into flesh, but incarnates us as human being in our heart directly.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So those concepts that they borrowed from Christianity – so today their word of God, the Granth Sahib, is a living word, so they have started worshiping that book. So if you look for any kind of a symbolism that they portray what their faith is, then the book has become that symbol.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and even the pictures I’ve seen of the design of the way the altars work – it’s a lifted – at least in some of the pictures I’ve seen, it’s a very lifted up location where the book is elevated over the people who are sitting down underneath. So even the architecture is designed to reinforce the point.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes, and everyone goes inside, they bow down before the book, and they worship and everything and all that.
Darrell Bock
Hmm, interesting. Okay, so that gives us a feel. There’s one other element – we’ve talked about it being Psalms. You’ve talked about it being chanted. So worship is a very important part.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Worship/reflection I guess would be the way to describe a lot of what’s going on in the activity of a Sikh worshiper. Is that fair?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And then that’s supposed to translate in the way they live out their life.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Mm-hmm. Yep, very much.
Darrell Bock
Okay. This is actually fascinating because I did do a significant amount of reading, and you’re injecting something into the conversation I didn’t see very much of in the reading, and that is there are all these hidden connections to Christianity in what you see in Sikhism. Why don’t you develop some of that for us, ’cause I suspect that begins to also deal with the question of “I meet a Sikh. I’m interacting with him. The discussion turns to spiritual things.” What are kind of the ways in? How can the aspirations of someone oriented to Sikhism – how does the gospel walk into that space?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Good. I remember when I first started talking about my faith with my mom, her first biggest issue was “I’m not a sinner. What have I done wrong?” So that was one big hindrance to talk with her because they are taught so much about doing good works and everything and all that.
Darrell Bock
And self-sustaining, yep.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Self-sustain – yes. The second aspect of that was that – which become attractive to my mom – we were not talking about only this world. See, Sikhs talk about a lot of the world to come, and everything that they’re doing, they’re doing it for the Satiug, they’re doing it for the Swarga, they’re doing it for the heaven. What has happened in our trying to connect with the Sikhs thought the gospel, first we are trying to rectify some of the issue that had happened in the past. For example, Christ was always submitted as in crisis management; something wrong, then can fix it. Well, they were not – most of Sikh families I knew are very decent, something that we Christians would love to have a family structure like that. So it’s not that we are waiting for them to have crisis, so we can introduce Jesus Christ to them, but rather we are saying to them that “You are so religious. You work so hard in your life to seek this unknown god. Let me introduce to you who that unknown is.”
Darrell Bock
Interesting. So it’s like an Acts 17 way.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yeah, and plus for them to be able to get a picture or glimpse of this God, I take them to John Chapter 1. What a beautiful picture that the world became incarnate and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory. Nobody has seen God at any time except – when they read that passage, they say “We’ve never read anything like that” because most Sikhs have never read the Bible. They only heard about the Bible. But some of the cultural misconnect that happened, and that’s where the cultural engagement part I think that we missed in the past, because our earlier forefather missionaries were not really missiologists or anthropologists.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So what happened – when Christianity was introduced to India, it became so opposite to the culture. See, for example, in every other religion in India, when you go to the temple, you sit on the floor, you fall on your face to worship God. It’s only in the church that you sit on the chairs with your legs crossed and your hand folded like this to worship the Lord.
Darrell Bock
[Laughs] So where is the respect for the deity?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. So, that is absolutely unacceptable to people, and then there are some other culture thing that happened – for example, in a Sikh wedding, to incorporate what the culture, the bride dresses up like a Hindu bride, and the groom dresses up like a Muslim bridegroom. So that’s how the wedding takes place. Suddenly, Christianity came and they said, “Oh, you have to get married in white sari.”
Darrell Bock
[Laughs] Uh-huh.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Now, wearing white is a sign of a widow in India. People reacted to that, that “Why on a wedding day a wife will wear white?” and they say “No, that’s a symbolize of Christian wedding. You can wear.” In fact, my mom had so much of a problem when I was getting married and my wife was gonna wear white, when I tried to explain to her, they said, “If these missionaries didn’t like red, they could have picked up any other color. You know, blue, black, or mix a color, but why white, which is culturally so offensive?”
Darrell Bock
Uh-huh.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Then in Sikhism, and also in other religion, the essence of worship is the instrument that you play, and beautiful music. Well, when Christian faith was introduced, we were told that drums are the devil and that wind instruments evoke the spirit. The only instrument you can have is a piano or organ, and they were imported from outside.
Darrell Bock
Oh, wow. Uh-huh.
Sukhwant Bhatia
That just killed the worship in the local church. [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So now when we’re going back and trying to put those things in perspective, it’s this “No, no, no. It’s a cultural expression. Jesus did not come to destroy culture.” But the earlier missionaries could not distinguish what is culture and what is religious.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Another major problem that became was India was primarily a vegetarian country. Missionaries came and they said – they start eating meat and you have to eat meat, so there was no room to present Jesus as a vegetarian Jesus, and people when they read John Chapter 6, where it says “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot be my disciple” – and Hindi bad translation says “Unless you eat flesh with me and drink blood with me, you cannot be my disciple.” So immediately people said “Oh, this religion’s not for us because you have to eat meat.”
Darrell Bock
That’s interesting, ’cause in the ancient world, the portrayal of Christians as cannibals was one of the ways to try and put Christianity off, and so it’s the same kind of feel that existed in India as well.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yeah. When we were serving in India as a pastor of a church, my wife and I made a decision that we will never cook meat in our home because if you were to invite a Sikh family or a vegetarian Hindu family, we should be able to tell them that meat has never been cooked in out pots. So we always ate out. We would not eat, cook meat in our home pots. That was the only reason they’ll come, and they’ll even eat in our home. My mom, before she became a believer – still today she’s a vegetarian, but before she became a believer, she stopped even drinking water in my house because we were meat eaters. So we had to stop that to make a cultural context with them and have the interaction with them.
Darrell Bock
Okay, now that’s interesting. So what you’re saying is there are certain things that Christians were doing by instinct that were so countercultural that it put Indians off because those life symbols – if I can say it that way, and I’ll use a British word here – were off-putting or were really things that people would go “Oh, that you shouldn’t do.” Is there any other thing that belongs in that kind of a category besides meat and the color of a wedding gown?
Sukhwant Bhatia
For example, Sikhs suffered a lot when the Muslim invaders came, and then they suffered a lot when the British came.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So in their mind what they think is “First the Moguls ruled us and then the Christians ruled us” because they could not distinguish between the British as a country and Christians. So that bitterness is there still today. What we have missed out is we have not allowed Sikhs to see that Jesus or the Bible. Christianity and the Christian faith has kind of blurred that view. So what we try to tell them is “Read the gospel of John. Read the Bible. See the Jesus of the Bible, not the Sikh Jesus of Christianity.”
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So in our connection, the similarities are so much for them to fill the gap that what they’ve been worshipping unknowingly is actually Jesus Christ, but to bring them to a point to be able to say it, that’s the biggest step that we have to take.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Now, let’s transition ’cause you’ve raised this. There are all kinds of bridges that are already – there’s a respect for God that’s already there. There is an appreciation for the moral and ethical work in life and for an integrity that’s already there. What other bridges are there between Sikhism and Christianity that if you met a Sikh you would have some basis of common ground to have a conversation?
Sukhwant Bhatia
See, the Sikhs have not seen that a respectable educated person can also be a Christian. Even today, any mission efforts that we make in India, they are still in the concept of charity, medical healing, and liberation, and we have 600 million as middle class family, and top 20 percent, most of them are Sikhs. We still are not taking the gospel to them. We are still not thinking about them. We’re still thinking about the tribals, thinking about the untouchables, thinking about the Dalit, which only like 15 percent of India’s population.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So as it is, we have completely neglected a group and missed the connection with them, so that’s one thing we are trying to do is to expose them to churches in the city, a respectable group. I have connection with people just because I have an earned PhD and just because I was educated in the US.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Some of those doors, they’ll shut them out if I was not educated person and if I didn’t have a respectable degree. So I need a lineup of people in Punjab that I can show “Here’s a doctor, here’s an engineer, here’s a business man, and here’s a professor, and look, they’re fine believers. They’re believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.” I don’t have that kind of a lineup to show. So culture that respects education, culture that respects that you’re hardworking, you achieved something, because they reject the concept of poverty. We have Christian organizations that are working among the poor for the last 40 years and they’re still poor. Sikhs will say, “That’s unacceptable. What systems have you put in place that the person is lifted out and is on his feet?” But sometimes it feels as if you want to keep certain people poor for the sake so that we can stay in business as Christians as a charitable organization.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So that is one issue. Sikhs do not like to come to the Lord and sit with a folded hand and tell them “Oh, service is on Sunday morning. Come for an hour.”
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
They say “No.” When I became a believer, I said, “What can I do? I wanna be part of the church.” I was shocked to find out the church is only going to be open on Sunday morning for two hours. Rest of the week it’s going to be locked up.
Darrell Bock
In contrast to being 24/7, yeah
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yeah. So some of those things, we need to go back to drawing board. We need to open up, open the church, let people come and sit for meditation, let them come and sit for study, and Christianity cannot be only for Sunday morning. What do we have for people on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and Let’s make the connection at that time.
Darrell Bock
Now, you said there were certain things that are going on in the Bible that Sikhs can connect to. What are some of those things? And then we’ll get to a category that says – you’ve already raised one of them – the whole idea of sin is something that just throws people off. But let’s start first with what are the bridges? What are the connection points?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Not only in Sikhism actually, this is everywhere in the world. There are two books that are missing in the religious books is the book of Genesis and the book of Revelation.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Sukhwant Bhatia
That’s what they struggle with. How did life begin and how the whole story’s going to end. We have a great listening ear the moment I talk about Genesis. In fact, I wrote one paper when I was at DTS how to use the Old Testament to share our faith with the Sikhs. They are very fascinated with what happened because they were suddenly told in between story to figure everything out, and they’re still asking question “How did life begin? Why it began?” But they don’t have the answer how it’s going to end.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
They have a very strong sense of the coming heaven, so when we discuss about just the gospel of John talking about Jesus is coming back again, because your God said Guru’s all dead and buried. He worship in the tombs. They’re very fascinated to know more about that. So that’s where we make the connection, that “Let’s talk about how God created, and let’s talk about what’s going to happen at the end.” So those are some of the major connections. In theology, what Sikhism believes and what the Bible presents, there are big connections about this life, about the blessings in this life, about having the divine enablement so we can be blessing to somebody else. Some of these are basic concept in Sikhism.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. So there are lots of bridges.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Lots of bridges.
Darrell Bock
Now, let’s talk about the harder concepts, and those are the things that a Sikh isn’t prepared or doesn’t have categories for. You’ve mentioned the issue of sin, that that was the big starting point for your mom.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yep.
Darrell Bock
And is that just because – I mean, when there’s mess in the world, how does a Sikh see that?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Well, for me and for my mom, the concept of sin was always presented that your good works can outweigh your bad works. So they knew that they had done bad things, but they always thought that we have done enough good to cover up the bad. I wrote a small track on the whole concept. It’s called “Can my good works save me?” In that one, I write three things. One is, first of all, somebody outside of us has to define good.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
You and I can’t come up with a definition of good. So my point in that is if it wasn’t for the Bible, if it wasn’t for the Mosaic Law, the world would not have known what sinning is, what killing is, what adultery is because 80 percent of the Judaic system around the world was built on Mosaic Law. So that’s where the definition came.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So when I asked a Sikh “Who taught you this is right, this is wrong?” you had to go back to the Old Testament, you had to go to the Bible. So that’s one thing. Second concept of sin was what James gave, that if you kept the n entire law and broke even just one, you’re guilty.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
To seek in the concept, finally the Sikhs understand that. Another concept was that I can’t do bad works towards God and then do good to humanity to have that written off. If I have singed against God, only God can forgive. So how is he going to forgive? So some of those are basic issues of sin, salvation, and sanctification. They are there. The problem is that when we try to present to them, they think they’re my views, they’re my ideas.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So I always open my Bible, I always have it there; I say “Jesus said this. Jesus said this.”
Darrell Bock
I actually think this is important. Another bridge is given the respect that Sikhs have for a holy book, okay, there’s a way to talk about how the Bible teaches what’s at the core of Christianity, and a Sikh will intuitively understand how that connection works.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Well Sukhwant, this has been an incredibly fascinating quick journey through Sikhism and discussion, and the thing that I find fascinating about it is are the multiple points of contact that actually exist that lay a lot of groundwork for the possibilities of a Christian and a Sikh having a meaningful spiritual conversation even though they come from very different backgrounds. Is that your impression as well?
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. Yes.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. So again, thank you for taking the time to tell us your story and to walk us through this. I hear from what you said, your mother did become a believer.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Yes. She did.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Sukhwant Bhatia
And I also want to thank you for bringing it up and talking about Sikhism because it’s very important in India. It’s very important from many aspects. I have 115 cousins, and most of them are not believers. My extended family is so rich that if they were to come to the Lord, they can finance our budget ten times within India. So it bothers me that why are they a part of Sikhism where they generously give so much money, and how come the church didn’t make an effort to reach them for the Lord first and why didn’t make them part of the church?
Darrell Bock
Interesting.
Sukhwant Bhatia
So country like India is not poor anymore, but the church in India is still poor because it’s primarily made up of poor.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Well again, thank you very much for taking the time to introduce us to what I think would be a fascinating religion and pretty fascinating journey through Sikhism, and our hope in this series is to acquaint you with a wide variety of people that you might meet with a lot of variety of religious backgrounds, and we hope you’ll join us again real soon on The Table to hear about another religion.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Thank you.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Sukhwant Bhatia
Sukhwant S. Bhatia is the President & CEO of Seek Partners International. In 1981, he came to Christ from a Sikh background after an exhaustive 4+ years of comparative study of other religions with the Bible.  He is the first Sikh convert to have graduated from DTS with a ThM degree and probably the first in the history of Christianity.  Sukhwant earned his PhD in Higher Education Administration at the University of North Texas, in collaboration with DTS. Dr. Bhatia teaches at Higher Christian Education Institutions in the least Christian region of the world, providing consultation to various ministry projects, training Bible translators and heading Bible translation projects in Hindi and Punjabi languages, recruiting and developing team leaders and providing consultation and working partnerships to international organizations in Asia.
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