Covid-19 restrictions have resulted in a huge drop in Sangat attendance at gurdwara and consequential loss of donations (ਚੜ੍ਹਾਵਾ). This trend may not be reversible and there is need to assess the impact on costs associated with gurdwaras and religious personnel.
Live-streaming of religious programmes, Kirtan and discourses, through webinars and WhatsApp, in addition to daily TV religious programmes, is becoming popular.
These services make physical attendance at Gurdwaras optional, mostly for rites of passage i.e. ceremonies that mark important events in a person’s life, and major festivals, subject to Covid-19 restrictions of course. Admittedly, virtual Sangat is not the same as the spiritual experience of physically participating in worship, Kirtan and katha, in gurdwara Sangat environment.
Regarding Covid-19 related Sangat trend away from Gurdwaras, Satwant Singh Calais, a Sikh community and youth camps activist in Australia, mentioned webinars by those like Sikh Research Institute.(SikhRI), Dya Singh of Australia and Veer Manpreet Singh reaching over 100,000 people on many occasions. He writes,
“Gurdwaras may no longer be the focal point for religious experiences and Sikhi education for next generation Sikhs. Covid has now given people time to reassess their reason to go to the Gurdwaras.”
There is almost a revolution going on in the religious sector which requires an assessment of longer-term impact at local and national and global levels.
There are small Sangats in remote diaspora places where Gurdwaras are run entirely by the Sangat. At the opposite end we have Takhts, historical and large city gurdwaras which need large sums to defray costs of religious staff and buildings. In some towns we have more Gurdwaras than we need due to community and ideological divides. Many in the name of castes and braadris are even against Gurmat. Local Gurdwaras can pool resources, reduce staff costs and use spare buildings for educational, youth and community activities.
The discipline of a new regime is being imposed by Covid-19 on the whole of the religious sector. Thousands depend for their livelihood on religious activities. There is a vast range of religious personnel from the regular granthi who perform gurdwara services, local and travelling raagis (traditional Gurbani singers) and kathakaars (exegetes) to sants and those who wear religious garbs and have become dependent on donations. The Sikhi lesson of kirat karni (earning ones living) is being taught by the pandemic leading to a leaner religious sector. Gurdwaras are looking at ways to review and rationalise their running costs.
Thousands of religious personnel including travelling raagis and parcharaks are struggling to make ends meet. There are likely to be hundreds of jathas who have families in India and who are unable to move around. They are in gurdwaras without much income from Sangat donations as Kirtan bhet. Innovative gurdwaras have already started live-streaming kirtan and katha but that does not help the kirtan-bhet situation.
The suggestion is that gurdwara committees should actively engage in fundraising for gurdwara upkeep and paying the granthis and jathas. The live streaming is a channel to request the faithful for their daswandh. Some gurdwaras have income from rented properties including shops and sale of books and religious artefacts.
To quote Satwant Singh Calais of Australia,
”We have seen that Covid- 19 has denied many raagi jathas and kathakaars to be able to earn funds and repay their cost of getting out to countries like Australia, UK and America. Sidney Sangat have raised funds for jathas to enable them to support their families. Most travel abroad without any employment agreement and depend on Sangat donations (Kirtan bheta). They get accommodation in cramped quarters [in view of Covid social distancing] and eat in the gurdwara langar. There is need for standard award structures for jathas.”
From his own experience in recent years, Dya Singh of Australia writes,
“The next generation Sangats are moving on to iPhones. Bilingual Gurbani Kirtan, katha and discussions are all on WhatsApp groups, email groups, webinar, zoom meetings and so on. Even live gurdwara programs are being on-lined. Sunday programs are on air. It is amazing how much Sikhi interaction is going on worldwide.”
The pandemic has also highlighted the mental health issues of senior citizens. Gurdwaras can do much through volunteer sewadars from relevant professions and some are doing just that.
In the context of these discussions, the last word is about those who choose to train as religious personnel, mainly granthis, kirtanias and kathakars (those who serve in gurdwaras, recite, sing and interpret Gurbani). They should have genuine spiritual commitment and aptitude, a deep sense of calling, to serve the Sangat in these missionary roles. It is preferable that members of the Sangat should themselves do Sahaj or Akhand Paatth (slow/intermittent or continuous reading of Sri Guru Granth Sahib).
Gurdwara managements should also develop standard job descriptions and responsibilities of religious personnel. They should be conversant with modern communications technology for disseminating gurdwaras services to remote Sangats. Accordingly, they should be paid well so that they do not have to worry about their families or work security.
Covid-19 pandemic is a major challenge for the religious sector but also offers opportunities for overdue reforms.
The article raises important issues for the community that do need to be grappled with.
My worry is that Covid has simply accelerated a decline and shift that was already taking place. Many Gurdwaras were already seeing a reduction in Sangat and income and were increasingly relying on a smaller pool of volunteer sewadars for daily operation.
There is another factor too that is relevant. At one time anything that happened on an organised basis in the community would be linked to a Gurdwara. But for a number of years now we’ve seen that newer generations of activists are organising sewa in new and imaginative ways - but away from Gurdwaras. For example the langar sewa organisations, community safety organisations, youth Parchar organisations etc are all largely established and run by younger professionals as organisations with little or no links with Gurdwaras.
The community really does need to understand these shifts and plan for the medium and long term. Unfortunately I see little appetite for this at the moment but remain hopeful that it will happen soon.Gurinder Singh Josan CBE UK
Brilliant piece by Gurmukh Singh on the positive and negative impacts that COVID-19 is having on the Gurdwaras and those who depend on them, either for employment, worship or for religious ceremonies, such as births, deaths and marriages. He is right to call for a big debate about how we can reimagine and restructure the networks of Gurdwaras in the post COVID world. He cautions against seeing the shift towards online Gurdwaras as temporary and he which he speculates peoples habits may have changed for good. There is no doubt that online technologies are having deep disruptive effects on all our behaviours and only those Gurdwaras that can innovate will survive. Whether it is Gurdwaras, businesses, schools and universities, or any other sector, life simply is not what it used to be and survival depends of adaptation. There never was a more relevant moment to invoke HG Wells, when he famously wrote in 1945, ‘adapt or perish’.Dr Gurnam Singh UK
© Copyright Gurmukh Singh OBE (UK)
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