Honoring Guru Nanak — And Whoever's Hanging On Your Wall


guru_nanak_dev_jiIf Guru Nanak were alive today, the Sihk leader would be turning 544 years old — a mere child compared to Islam's 1,400-year-old Muhammad, Christianity's 2,000-year old Jesus, and Buddhism's 2,500-year-old Buddha. Still, as Guru Nanak would undoubtedly be keen to point out, he still has more than 300 years on Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of Baha'i. Whenever a religious leader's birthday rolls around, I try to think about them in human terms. About who they were during their lives, whether they were out for any glory or money, or whether they were surprised when their innermost passion brought them fame. All these men had something remarkable to offer the world; they wouldn't have gathered so much momentum if they hadn't. Nanak was devoted to providing an environment of inclusiveness — regardless of race, color or creed — and emphasized that there was but one God who dwells in all people.

One of the great recurring ironies of religion, of course, is that each time one of these visionary spiritual types waves off religious leaders and institutions of the past and discovers a new, purer version of truth, he later find himself  in the role of religious leader and his ideas the basis for a religious institution. As a young boy, Nanak was quite taken with spirituality and was encouraged to pursue his "divine" path. Around the year 1500, when he was 30 years old, he reportedly gave a speech, in which he said:

There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God's path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God's.

Five hundred years later, and the path that Sikhs follow is Nanak's.

I wonder how many families have pictures of religious leaders in their homes — a reminder, perhaps, to act according to the values they hold dear and give thanks for the opportunity to hold such values at all. Born in a different culture at a different time, the religious influences, and thus the pictures, would undoubtedly be different. But the importance of such physical reminders of devotion would probably remain. It's the same reason humans possess Bibles and create shrines and visit places of worship, I suppose — so they can more easily "access" the universal element that allows them to breathe and love and be.

I'm an aesthetic minimalist, so I don't have a lot of photographs hanging in my home — religious or otherwise — but I have occasionally thought of creating a space for pictures of the people to whom I'm devoted. The people who remind me to be the person I want to be, and who are, quite literally, responsible for my existence. The people who help shape my thoughts and lead me in the direction I want to be going.

There would be my parents and grandparents and great grandparents as far as I could trace them. There would be my sister and brother and their families. My husband and in-laws. My daughter. There would be my friends and mentors and godparents (who did a very poor job at helping make me godly but a very good job of helping make me happy.) And there would be people I don't know but who have helped me think more deeply about who I am, how I am, and why I'm here. People like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, KierkegaardNeizsche, Sartre, Freud, Darwin, Piaget, Einstein, LincolnMLK Jr., TwainHawking, Sagan, Goodall, Friedan, Steinem, Colbert, Oprah, E.T.the Buddha, The Beatles... Looks like I'm going to need a bigger house.

How about you? If not Nanak, who's on your wall?

A Political Side Note: Relax, Democrats, It's Just 'God'

LA mayor and DNC chair

Have y'all been following the buzz over the decision to drop the word "God" from the Democratic Party's 2012 platform? The drop caused a minor uproar a the convention this week, mostly among non-Democrats, who also objected to the platform's failure to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both positions were reversed yesterday by a much-disputed two-thirds vote by convention delegates. Watch how things went down:

DNC officials have tried to pass off the God thing as a mistake more than a decision, but that's hard to buy — especially when you see this Fox News interview with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who went defensive in the extreme when asked about the change. He kept saying the word change was a minor issue and distracting from the real issues. That may be true, but I still don't understand why he didn't just answer the damn question.

Durbin was right about one thing, though: The Democrats are far from being a godless party. In a survey conducted last year, not one single member of the 112th Congress of the United States self-identified as nonreligious (at least not publicly). And the majority of registered Democrats still believe in God, studies show.

Despite all this, though, secularism is clearly gaining a foothold in this country. Almost 20 percent of us are unaffiliated with religious groups, according to recent studies. And that ratio — one-fifth of all Americans! — is impossible to ignore. So would it be out of character for the Democratic party, which touts itself as valuing inclusivity, to leave religion out of its platform? After all, leaving the word "God" out of this one document doesn't make religion less important or valuable to certain Democratic voters — just as leaving the word "fellatio" out of the document doesn't make sex any less important or valuable to certain Democratic voters. As I see it, it wouldn't be outrageous for DNC officials to simply acknowledge that these things are personal matters, not public requirements.

Is that a starkly different position than the Republican party? Well, yes! But that's okay. The fact is, lots of evangelical/fundamentalist Christians have welded together their religion and politics (politigion? religitics?), and the Republican party happens to be home to most of them. The way I see it, the presence of God as a major player in the Republican platform doesn't make the Republicans bad, or the evangelicals bad (not necessarily at least!). Leaving "God" out of the Democratic platform would simply have highlighted one of the many, many differences between the two parties.

In July, Pew Research for People and the Press conducted a survey that showed, at that time, Gov. Mitt Romney trailing President Barack Obama by a 10-point margin. Broken down by religion, though, the numbers were quite different. Protestants preferred Romney 48 percent to 45 percent; Catholics preferred Obama 53 percent to 40 percent. And those unaffiliated with any religion preferred Obama 65 percent to 27 percent.

The interesting thing about that last number is that it mirrors, in reverse, the poll results for Caucasian evangelical protestants. Among these evangelicals, 69 percent said they'd vote for Romney, and 27 percent said they'd vote for Obama. Guess it all balances out in the end, right?

I learned from this morning's paper (yes, I still get some of my news from the paper) that "God" was reinserted into the platform, and I was disappointed — but not because of the reinsertion (The whole issue really was becoming an unnecessary distraction). No, I was far more disappointed that DNC officials never took the time to formulate a clear-headed answer to why it was left out in the first place.