A Discussion with Baba Iqbal Singh, President of the Kalgidhar Society, India

With: Baba Iqbal Singh Berkley Center Profile

December 10, 2010

Background: The context for this discussion is preparation for a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The consultation is an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, Washington DC, with support from the Henry R. Luce Foundation. Its aim is to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more importantly, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was conducted by telephone between Michael Bodakowski (WFDD), Sara Singha (Berkley Center), and Baba Iqbal Singh. In this interview, Baba Iqbal Singh reflects on the role of his organizations in providing values-based education, and what that means for the development of society in general. He provides the background information about the Sikh religion, its teaching and philosophy, as well as on the gender challenges facing northern India, and how his organization is combating it.

Can you tell us about your personal background and history, and how you came to your present position as president of the Kalgidhar Society?

I was born into a well-to-do family of farmers in a village near Gurdaspur, Punjab in 1929. Even from early boyhood, I have been blessed with a sense of detachment from the world and its alluring temptations. As a small boy, one of my favorite pastimes was to listen to and later to read the stories of ancient saints like Dhruv and Prehlad (both boy-princes), and other sages, seers, saints, and the Sikh Gurus. This kindled in me the desire to walk the same path as they. As a boy, I would go to the rooftop and make an offering of half of my food to God, whose presence I could feel but whom I could not see. Over time, this ritual gradually built within me a deep sense of sharing. I would read about the Sikh Gurus and the sacrifices that they and their families had made, including the sacrifices made by their children—some as young as 7 years old. In the sixth grade, I heard the stories about Sanghamitra and Mahendra, the daughter and son of King Ashoka, the renowned Buddhist king of ancient India (304-232 BC); and how they chose a life of celibacy and meditated on the Buddha’s teaching and spread them throughout Asia. This story touched my heart, and I too decided to remain celibate and dedicate my life to meditation on the divine teaching of Guru Nanak and spreading his message.

I completed my secondary education at the Government High School in Gurdaspur, Punjab. I then thought about various careers that would help me serve mankind, including medicine and agriculture. Finally though, I decided to pursue a career as an agricultural scientist with the idea that I would help poor farmers raise their incomes and help humanity at large by increasing food production.

In 1945, I joined the Punjab Agricultural College and Research Institute, Lyallpur (now in Pakistan) to purse a course of study leading to a B.Sc. in agriculture science. After the Partition in 1947, the college was temporarily shifted to Amritsar, where I received my B.Sc. in 1949. During my final year of B.Sc. at Amritsar, I met Sant Teja Singh, MA, LLB (Punjab), AM (Harvard). This learned saint had secured the top position in the Panjab University examination of 1900. After completing his studies, Santji joined the All India Civil Services, but was unhappy with the job and on the advice of his Commissioner (an Englishman), he joined the renowned Khalsa College at Amritsar as vice-principal in 1903. Here he met the celebrated Sikh saint Sant Attar Singh Mastuana Wale and became his disciple. Sant Attar Singh was the first saint in the Sikh faith who laid emphasis on providing values-based education to children. He established the first college for girls in Mastuana, near Sangrur (in the erstwhile princely state of Jind) in the year 1906 and followed it up with a boys’ school and college in the same year. Answering the call of his master, Sant Teja Singh resigned from the post of principal of Khalsa College, Amritsar in 1906 and offered his services at the feet of Sant Attar Singh for imparting values-based education. Sant Attar Singh’s vision was a unique combination of the spiritual education of ancient India and the technology-based education of the West, the synthesis of which produces values-based education. He asked his disciple Sant Teja Singh to visit Europe and America and study their scientific models of education. Accordingly, he first joined the University College, London and then the Cambridge University. After completing some semesters, he shifted to Columbia University in New York and finally completed his master's from Harvard University. Despite obtaining the latest education from all these prestigious centers of higher learning, he did not join any renowned educational institution in India. Instead, under instruction from Sant Attar Singh, he started teaching in a primary school in Mastuana village, implicitly obeying the orders of his Divine Master and shedding the egoistic instincts of the mind of a highly educated person.

It is worth mentioning here that when all the Hindu saints, political leaders, rajas, and maharajas of India decided to set up the Banaras Hindu University, they approached their learned leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to persuade Sant Attar Singh to lay the foundation stone of the university. Sant Attar Singh acceded to their request and laid the foundation stone of the first college of the university on December 24, 1914 and asked Sant Teja Singh to serve as its first principal in 1920. However, after a brief spell there, Sant Teja Singh was called back to Mastuana as the maharajas of the princely states of Patiala, Nabha, and Jind wanted him to lead the movement of establishing the educational institutions in Punjab.

When I first met Sant Teja Singh and noticed his humility and dedication to the spiritual life, I knew at once that I had found my teacher. From him I learned the importance of imparting values-based education. He inspired me to serve mankind without any selfish motive.

After obtaining my M.Sc. in agricultural science, I joined the Department of Agriculture with the Punjab government. At that time, Sant Teja Singh was very keen to establish a spiritual center at Baru Sahib, a village in the Himalayan region of Punjab, to fulfill the wishes of his Divine Master, the late Sant Attar Singh. During the trifurcation of the Punjab state in 1965, I therefore opted to join the Agricultural Department of Himachal Pradesh, so that I could easily render service to fulfill the vision of my spiritual master. This center at Baru Sahib was established in 1956, according to the directions of Sant Teja Singh. His vision was to uplift the downtrodden and provide them with values-based education combined with spiritual education. In 1965, Sant Teja Singh formed the Kalgidhar Trust to manage this spiritual center and in accordance with his will, I became the President of the Kalgidhar Trust/Society to carry forward the divine mission. All this while, I worked with the Agriculture Department of Himachal Pradesh to help the poor farmers increase their productivity and improve their quality of life. I retired as Director of Agriculture, Himachal Pradesh government in 1987.

We started our first school at Baru Sahib in 1986 with only five pupils. It has now grown into a fully residential senior secondary school with 1400 students from all over India and 16 countries around the world, but mostly from the USA, Canada, and the UK.

During the course of my career as an agricultural scientist, I had to work among government ministers and bureaucrats, who would be too willing to resort to corrupt methods and unscrupulous dealings and manipulations to get their desired objectives, but I remained simple-minded and focused on my work and managed to win over all my detractors, who later became my well-wishers. Soon the state machinery started recognizing my sincere work and began addressing me as Gyaniji (the learned one). The motto “work is worship” as taught by my divine master became an article of faith for me. And I found that things always turned out to my advantage, as if a divine force was at work to protect my interests. My study of spirituality also convinced me that it was only faith that made path-breakers in the spiritual field and in society at large.

Please expand on values-based education, and what it means to you and your work?

Broadly speaking, there are three types of education. The first type focuses only on literacy without any moral content. I believe the merely literate person is the most egoistic and selfish because he is taught no moral values and thinks only about himself. Most schools, colleges, and universities around the world impart literacy and not values-based education.

The second type of education is values-based, where you combine literacy with moral, ethical, and religious instruction—which is far more holistic. An individual who has gone through this type of scholastic career starts to think about the needs of others and begins to see himself connected to them and has a very broad outlook. Such a person is more likely to help others without any consideration for his own needs because he begins to see the “One in all and all in One.” After all, the divine reality (God) is one for all faiths.

The third type of education is the spiritualized education with divine wisdom for which you have no need to go to any school, because the divine knowledge of the universe springs from within. None of the prophets or the founders of the great world religions went to any university to learn the lessons about the Divine. One only needs to delve into the scriptures of the great religions for this type of education.

Our organization combines spirituality with literacy (basic education) to impart values-based education to students. As a result, our students are free from drug/substance abuse and the use of alcohol. They are thus able to focus their minds on study, sport, and the well-being of others around them. Values-based education is the real need of the day to produce good upright human beings, who can inspire others to tread on the divine path and serve mankind selflessly. The effects of our values-based education have been far-reaching. Our students have helped reduce tension in their homes by counseling their own parents. In some cases, they have succeeded to keep their parents from divorcing. We are convinced that values-based education is the best way to enable society to move forward and bring about sustainable development in the world. Through such education, we will be able to harness the energy of the youth and persuade them to work for the betterment of the world now in turmoil.

How do your schools fit into the overall government education system on a practical level?

All our schools are affiliated to India’s Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) based in New Delhi, and we collaborate with the government on a regular basis, but we are neither government-funded, nor do we receive financial support from any other organization. The language of instruction in our schools is English, but we also teach other languages like Hindi and Punjabi. The government is happy with what we are doing in our schools and we are happy to have their support.

Where do your students come from, and from what faith backgrounds are they from?

We have schools in the Northern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. Since government-run schools are not able to impart values-based education to the underprivileged populations in the rural areas, so our emphasis is totally on the rural masses. We help empower girls in the rural areas. Women’s empowerment is a key issue in India today, especially in northern India, because girls are looked down upon and boys are preferred, leading to large-scale female feticide and thereby skewing the male-female ratio heavily in favor of the former in Northern India. We teach and empower girls and provide them employment in our educational institutions, thus giving them hope and a sense of fulfillment.

Students in our schools come from all faiths, and they have the freedom to follow their own religion. We have no issue with anyone following their own faith or religious traditions, but students have to follow our rules of conduct. We have Hindu and Muslim students, but our code of conduct is unique and that is why our schools are popular.

Tell us in more detail about the overall work, projects, and reach of the Kalgidhar Trust/Society.

As already mentioned, the Kalgidhar Trust/Society had a modest beginning in 1986 with a simple one-room school and only five pupils. The idea was to move away from the cities and help young students channelize their energies to realize their true potential by emulating the pattern followed by the ancient sages and seers of India in their Gurukuls.

Intent on reaching out to the unreached, the Kalgidhar Trust/Society started promoting quality values-based education, primary healthcare, social welfare, and spiritual instruction among the deprived rural masses in far-flung areas of North India. Our work has been instrumental in bringing about a silent transformation in the rural environment by improving the socio-economic status of the deprived masses and inculcating spiritual values in them. The rural areas of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and backward hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh are being covered by 70 outstanding schools.

Our schools, under the name of Akal Academy, provide modern education to more than 60,000 students, mostly from the deprived strata of society. The organization has also set up a private university named Eternal University at Baru Sahib, which provides higher education in the fields of health, engineering, and other disciplines which will have a direct relevance in improving the socioeconomic status of the rural masses in the remote, most underdeveloped region of Himachal Pradesh.

We also have many other programs like De-addiction Centers (on the pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous), a modern charity hospital, an orphanage, senior citizens’ home, and women’s care centers and women’s empowerment programs (we try to rehabilitate the women and get them jobs so that they are able to be financially independent and useful members of the society.) All these centers are, again, in the backward rural areas. The Kalgidhar Society/Trust incurs an incredibly low administrative cost of 3 percent on running its institutions since we have about three hundred volunteers who work without any remuneration.

Can you speak about your hospital?

We have set up a modern 280-bed hospital at Baru Sahib which provides medical care to the rural poor from the surrounding areas. We have also established a de-addiction centre in Punjab, an orphanage, and a women’s care center. We are also running a women’s empowerment program under which we try to rehabilitate divorced or abandoned women and give them jobs to enable them to stand on their own feet and become useful members of society. All the centers are located in the rural areas.

Each year we organize four medical camps in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in which doctors from Mumbai, Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab participate and provide free medical care, including free surgeries to the rural poor. In the spring of 2010 a team of 27 doctors belonging to a Canadian organization called Operation Rainbow visited Baru Sahib and performed three hundred plastic surgery operations on patients who came from Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab.

What are the views of the Sikh religious tradition on orphan care?

Sikhism is not an ‘ism.’ It is the spiritual way of life for entire mankind. In addition to the teaching of the Sikh Gurus, the Sikh way of life recognizes and pays deference to the teachings of other divinely inspired personages, who attained the spiritual realm and beheld the “One in all and all in One.” It is worth mentioning here that Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikhs, is the only holy book in the world, which includes the writings of enlightened saints and sages belonging to other faiths.

The Guru Granth Sahib contains the hymns of six Sikh Gurus (Divine Masters). It also contains the verses of several Hindu and Muslim saints and sages, who honestly traveled on the divine path by meditating on the Divine Name and reached the Divine Realm, which is a state of supreme bliss without any fear or worry. These included 15 saints belonging to various sections of society including four Muslims (Farid, Kabir, Sadhna, and Bhikhan), five brahmins (Ramanand, Jaidev, Surdas, Parmanand, and Beni), a ruler (Peepa), a farmer (Dhanna), a cobbler (Ravidas), a barber (Sain), a calico printer (Namdev), and a merchant (Trilochan). The scripture also includes the compositions of 11 learned brahmin bards (Bhattas), who became the disciples of the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun Dev and attained the Divine status.

In the Sikh scripture, God has been addressed by various names, such as Hari (8344), Ram (2533), Prabhu (1371), Gopal (491), Govind (475), Parmatama (324), Karta (228), Thakur (216), Daata (151), Parmeshar (139), Murari (97), Narayan (89), Antarjami (61), Jagdish (60), Satnam (59), Mohan (54), Allah (46), Khuda (43), Bhagwan (30), Nirankar (29), Krishan (22), Waheguru (13), and Wahguru (3). (The figures within brackets indicate the number of times a particular name occurs in the holy book).

When we bow before the Guru Granth Sahib, we also pay homage to the various saints, whose verses are included in the scripture and who followed their own different faiths distinct from Sikh way of life. Thus, the Sikh way of life is a beacon of light for the whole world. It helps the seeker after truth, irrespective of his caste, creed, or religion, to tread on the divine path. According to the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib, if we seek the blessings of the Divine Lord (God), we should serve the humanity with love and devotion treating everyone equally, no matter what their race, caste, or creed.

Where do the various religions lead? These are the different paths leading to the Divine Realm, which is a state of complete peace without fear and worry. On reaching this realm, one sees “One in all and all in One.” In this state of the highest awareness, all distinctions of caste, creed, and religion cease to have any meaning. Anyone who honestly follows the principles of his own faith can attain this divine state. When all the faiths are different ways to reach the Divine Realm why, then, should we quarrel amongst ourselves and try to prove that one faith is better than the other? All faiths are equal and all lead to the Divine Realm. Any true devotee of any faith who follows the doctrine of his faith with complete love and devotion will reach his goal and become one with the Divine Reality. To such a one, there will be no real difference among the various faiths; they will be different only in name.

When true awareness comes, the desire to convert others to one’s own faith, either forcibly or through inducements, will vanish. If we follow our own faith honestly to reach the one and the only destination, there will be no conflict in the world. For example, if you want to become a citizen of Bangladesh and live elsewhere you can follow different routes to reach Dhaka. Once you have arrived at your destination, you can apply for citizenship, which, if granted, means you will be called a citizen of Bangladesh irrespective of the route you took to reach here. Needless to say, all citizens of Bangladesh are equal before the law of the land. If we perceive these ideas and follow the same for realizing the Divine within, then there is no conflict among the various faiths, because the goal is the same for all.

Serving humanity is the true religion and according to our faith, when you serve humanity, you should never ask whether one is a Muslim or a Hindu because in God’s eyes, all are equal.

The Sikh faith emphasizes on the care of orphans and the downtrodden. The Kalgidhar Trust/Society looks after many orphans, both boys and girls, offering them values-based education alongside students belonging to wealthy families. These orphans are encouraged to live a life of dignity and have a sense of belonging with the organization. They are given the same clothes and the same food as the other children. These orphans live in the same dormitories as the well-off students and no one can tell one from the other. They are provided education up to university level and are then employed as teachers in our schools.

We are not getting any grants or assistance from any source to look after these orphans. However, we could expand this program if some monetary assistance is available from outside.

What are the international dimensions of the Kalgidhar Trust/Society?

The Kalgidhar Society organizes educational exchange programs in which students from its schools visit the U.S., Canada, and the UK, etc., and students from these countries participate in summer camps at Baru Sahib. A faculty exchange program is also in place wherein teachers from leading universities abroad visit Eternal University to teach for six to eight weeks.

What is the role of faith in development in India more generally?

Government infrastructure does not reach into the far-flung rural areas and hence the rural under-privileged population feels alienated from the mainstream. Further, the government machinery is bulky, sluggish, indifferent, and irresponsive to the needs of the rural poor. Hence it has become imperative for NGOs, especially those linked to faith, to provide not only basic needs but also education, employment, and empowerment in rural India. This is also necessary to reduce frustration among these people, which if allowed to grow unchecked can lead to insurgency and terrorism.

What do you see as your role as a public religious figure working on development in India?

I think that people, especially in the rural areas, look up to public religious figures to alleviate their suffering and fulfill their basic needs. Hence, we have decided to approach development with a single-minded simple solution of providing low cost, quality education that empowers people for the future. It is sad to note that some public religious figures have resorted to exploiting these poor and simple people for their personal gains to amass wealth and riches for themselves.

How do Sikh teachings inform development work?

Sikh teachings have some important things to say about development. These teachings focus on the development of a sound body and a spiritualized mind in order to become one with the Divine. It is emphasized time and again in the Guru Granth Sahib that the seeker after truth must control his worldly desires and egoistic mind, so that he may merge with the Divine essence within and serve humanity treating everyone equally irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Guru Granth Sahib in a very simple way explains the theory of spirituality on how to become Divine: “O man! Shed ego completely, and you are God.” In other words the equation becomes: Man plus Ego equals God. In fact, whatever upheavals, including global warming, wars, and other conflicts that plague the world, are due to the egoistic mind of man, bent upon gaining control over others and over nature.

Please expand on your perspectives on gender issues in India?

Guru Nanak says: “So kio(u) mandaa aakhee-ei Jitt(u) jameh(i) raajaan.” (Guru Granth Sahih, page 473) ("Why call her bad, of whom are born great men?") He further emphasizes: “Iss(u) jagg meh(i) Purakh(u) aik(u) h-ei Hor sagalee naar(i) sabaaee.” (Guru Granth Sahih, page 591) ("In this universe, there is one Supreme Being, known as Divine Husband. The whole humanity, whether male or female, is considered His wife, i.e., worshippers.")

It is a matter of shame for us to realize that the various states in North India have the worst gender ratios in the whole country. Due to lack of education, the mindset of the people is trapped in a thought process which looks down upon the girl child as a burden. Such is their ignorance that the son is sent to the best schools but the daughter is either sent to a badly managed government school or is left un-schooled. The parents think (however wrongly) that investing in the girl child is a waste of money, because after marriage she will move out to her husband’s household and would not provide them any personal benefit. On the other hand, boys are considered their assets and breadwinners. But the grim reality, especially in the north Indian state of Punjab, is that boys are going astray and ruining their families by taking to drink and drug abuse.

We at the Kalgidhar Trust/Society have taken upon ourselves the task of rearing, educating, and finding employment for around 1,500 rural under-privileged girls every year. They are mentored intensively over four years to become teachers and are then offered jobs in our own schools. This is a unique scheme in which free board, lodging, and education is provided to the beneficiaries belonging to underprivileged sections of society, with guaranteed employment at the completion of their training.

Mass urbanization is taking its toll on the rural masses, and the dreadful results are already showing up in the widening gap among rich and poor. Poverty and illiteracy in the rural population together with the lack of proper healthcare lead to a feeling of helplessness in their lives. The Kalgidhar Trust/Society has identified these basic problems and has taken up the challenge of providing its services to the rural poor.

We have opened several rural employment centers for women wherein they are trained in sewing, embroidery, and other skills. They are provided with work and jobs outsourced from cities that enables them to earn a decent living and support their families. The strategy is simple yet effective: move away from urbanization, provide values-based scientific education and moral uplift, reach out to the underprivileged for their healthcare needs, and create economic opportunities for them.

The Kalgidhar Trust/Society plans to expand and branch out into the remote rural areas by building 500 schools and colleges for girls in the next few years. It is expected that this effort at the grassroots level will result in the socioeconomic uplift of the poverty-stricken rural poor.

Have you done interfaith projects?

We provide free education to more than 500 poor students mostly belonging to the Hindu lower castes and also some poor Muslim students. We are an interfaith religion, and in all of our development projects the notion of interfaith is implicit because we believe that development cannot be carried out by an individual or organization in isolation—all people need to work together.

What other actors inspired by faith are working on development issues? What are the strongest and weakest among them?

There are some Hindu organizations working in the field of development and some other organizations as well, but from within the Sikh faith we are the main organization working in the field of education. Providing care to orphans and widows and women’s empowerment are some of the key issues that we are trying to address. Currently we are only working in some north Indian states. We have started work in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but it will take some time before we can grow to the level that we have reached in the northern states.

What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?

We have some good relationships with some other organizations and we have a mutual understanding to help each other. We do not ask for financial help but we do help each other in various ways. When an earthquake struck Kashmir in the year 2005, we halted construction activity at all our centers and focused our attention on helping the victims. Our organization constructed about 1,850 houses for the victims of the disaster, most of whom were Muslim. Besides this, we also helped in the construction of four mosques, two temples, and a gurdwara. This relief work was praised in the government report, which was placed before the Indian Parliament. The Sikh faith does not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims and whatever we do is intended to promote interfaith understanding.

What issues would you like to see discussed in Dhaka? What are the most important gaps in knowledge?

It is a matter of pleasure that the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs has organized a workshop to promote interfaith understanding by bringing together people from various faiths and giving them an opportunity to focus their energies on the issue of human development. We request the organizers to persuade multi-national companies and richly-endowed charities to come forward and help small charities like ours with limited resources to enable them to expand their reach and fulfill their objectives.

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