Gurleen Kaur presents to the world her wonderful new tool to learn Gurbani: a set of flashcards that strive to capture the revolutionary spirit of egalitarianism, social justice, and beautify of Sikhi. This is her journey:
As we know, the Sikh worldview is shaped by Gurbani; scripture revealed in a combination of over half a dozen Sanskrit and Arabic based languages. As a diasporic Sikh, whose mother tongue is English, relating to Gurbani was no easy task. Family and friends shared the definitions of one word at a time with me, allowing my love for Gurbani to grow. Seeing my peers struggle in the same way, I imagined an educational product that could replicate this learning with more intentionality: a box of artistic flashcards that elucidate abstract spiritual concepts from Jp-Jee Saa-hib, one of the more well-read Gurbani texts. I researched the market by talking to family and friends globally and searching the Internet. After discovering that no similar product existed and receiving positive feedback from the community, I quit my job and set out to work.
I noticed that existing Sikh educational products portray a singular vision of a Sikh as a turbaned and bearded, light-skinned man. I wanted my product to be more representative so, I designed my art to be inclusive of erased Sikh communities and explicit of socially just causes. For instance, I darkened skin tones and included specific references to the Dalit caste, a group that is largely mistreated and written out of modern-day Sikh history. I included rainbows to portray an acceptance of queer communities, and drew women in positions of power. I included a Muslim woman in a hijab in hopes of sparking conversation on prevailing communal Islamophobic sentiment. I also drew a Sikh child holding a #blacklivesmatter picket sign to call for racial solidarity.
I feel that there’s a visual component that is lost in how we currently share and teach Gurbani. So, I picked words that I could bring to life through art. For example, I picked h-thhee-aar from pauri 38 which, in context, refers to tools.
The analogy Guru Nanak Sahib describes is incredible. He relates these tools to vedh (knowledge of the mysteries of the Universe; spiritual knowledge), and the ah-rnn (iron) to mth (the mind). Just as tools can be used to form iron into something more purposeful, so can knowledge be used to form the mind. In looking at the image on the flashcard, I picture my mind slowly molding into something more beautiful as it is exposed to the sounds of keertan and disciplined reading of Mul Mantr. In this visualization, I conceptualize myself and my world differently, reconsidering my purpose on Earth and what it means to be connected with the universe.
Once I had drafted images for 100 different words, I brought together friends and sevadaars in my sangat who have more extensive knowledge(s) of Gurbani than myself. They introduced me resources like SriGranth.org. Together, we read through the shteeka (translations of Gurbani) written in Punjabi and Hindi to come up with more meaningful English translations. We redefined words like paap which have been watered down through a Judo-Christianic lens, distorting Sikh world view. We thought about the purpose of each word and what Guru Nanak Sahib wished to share with us.. We translated it to the best our abilities with this intent at heart. “Paap” is usually defined as “sin”. In the set of flashcards developed, we re-defined “paap” as acting in a way that is against one’s conscience. We also kept the language gender neutral, avoiding common definitions of Vaheguru as “He” and “Lord”. Instead, we tried to maintain the integrity of the term altogether, avoiding pronouns whenever possible. Although we went through various steps to ensure the Gurbani translated was respected and translated without any misleading notions, I am confident the flashcards are still a work in progress and can be improved. Gurbani can be interpreted in so many ways. While the project is nowhere near perfect, we wanted to get it out there to get the conversation and learning going!
You can order a box for yourself at daalroti.co, or at our Facebook page ‘Daalroti Collective’. If you are a sevadaar for a camp or Punjabi school, we have fundraised some money to allow you to purchase the flashcards in bulk. Do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested! Finally, Jp-Jee Saa-hib Flashcards is simply one of many products we hope to showcase through the Collective. If you are interested in developing a product or curriculum that lies at the intersection of social justice and Sikhi, do reach out. We look forward to hearing from you!
By Gurleen Kaur
Feature photo is of Gurleen Kaur via Sandeep Kaur. Other photos are from Gurleen Kaur and Sandeep Kaur.