Sikh Missionary Society
Southall, Middx, U.K. UB2 5AA
Charity No: 262404
Sikh Heritage (Virsa)
Are we preserving, adding to and passing on our virsa ?
Virsa is a Punjabi word which means heritage. Perhaps the
meaning of this word is closer to what Alex Haley had in mind when he
searched for his Roots. Virsa is an individual’s inheritance in
its material and cultural totality and is therefore an integral part of
each person’s background and personality; it is one’s ancestry which
cannot be disavowed. Virsa is the foundation on which a civilised
society evolves. Realisation of Virsa is realisation of one’s total
personality. It is realisation of one’s cultural, spiritual and worldly
assets, both, as an individual and as member of a family and a
community. Each generation adds to the virsa of families and
communities for posterity.
Virsa is the main ingredient underlying the orderly evolution of human
communities. It gives one a sense of belonging, orientation, continuity
and stability. It gives purpose and direction to life. Virsa is the
material, spiritual and cultural treasure one inherits on birth and it
remains a part of conscious (or subconscious) part of the personality
of every individual till death. If properly understood it should add to
an individual’s potential for achievement. The study, understanding and
acceptance of one’s virsa is an essential process of self orientation
in the big wide world. Recognition of own virsa allows one to play a
fuller and more responsible role in the multi-cultural societies we
Those of us who migrated to western countries in late fifties and early
sixties clearly recall the lot of the black man in these societies.
Supported by human rights movements and liberal politicians like John
Kennedy, the struggle for black recognition was on. Martin Luther King,
the black civil-rights campaigner led the big march on Washington in
1963. John Kennedy paid the price for his liberal policies in the same
year. Martin Luther King was shot dead in 1968. But the black man still
had no virsa he could identify himself with. That is, not until Alex
Haley, enthused by his grandmother’s stories, painstakingly traced his
origins to a village in Africa. By doing that he had more than
discovered the origin of his own family. He had in fact discovered a
rich cultural heritage for 25 million Americans of African descent that
slavery had taken away from them.
Virsa is like the baton which is passed on in a relay race from one
athlete to the next; to drop it and to run on without picking it up is
to run aimlessly. It is to break the chain of virsa. You may be the
fastest athlete in the world, but not to pick up that baton of virsa
which is being passed on to you is to defeat the whole objective of the
sport. On the other hand, a slower athlete who is careful to grab the
baton from the previous runner in his team, will surely ensure a place
for his team at the finish.
One’s life span needs to be seen in the same way: to take part and to
compete and to ensure that the baton of virsa has been picked up and by
the end of one’s life-span passed on safely to the next generation. In
addition to what has been inherited from own family, virsa includes the
history, culture and language of own community and its place and the
place of the individual in the world community.
It is sad to see an increasing number of young and fast Sikh “athletes”
running without the batons of virsa in their hands these days ! They
are doing well materially but where have they come from and whence are
they going, they know not. Does it matter so far as they are doing
well? Study of those individuals and communities who lost touch with
their virsa over the centuries shows that it does matter; it matters
very much indeed. History shows that communities not caring for own
history and heritage have perished like flowing rivers which run into
desert sands and disappear. The thriving communities are those which
continue to understand their rich virsa and keep on building on it.
These are the clearly identifiable communities playing their full role
in the multi-cultural world community of united nations today.
The Sikhs have a rich virsa and the Sikh history is one of the most
exciting and eventful in the world. I recall sitting next to a rabbi on
a return flight from Cologne a few years ago. He told me that he had
studied Sikh religion and history and was most pleasantly surprised to
find many similarities between the Jews and the Sikhs. Both have shown
a remarkable determination and triumphed over oppression and injustice
over the centuries. He was referring to the great virsa of the two
nations which ensured their survival against near impossible odds.
The Sikh virsa is the future virsa of mankind in the areas of human
rights, the principle of “fear none and frighten none”, mutual
tolerance and co-existence in the rich cultural variety of mankind,
sacrifice for others (Guru Tegh Bahadhur, the Ninth Master gave his
life to defend another’s religion and culture), and most important of
all “Fatherhood of the Creator and Brotherhood of the created”. The
Sikh identity is an essential part of Sikh virsa. It says to mankind
that people do not become aliens by being different in appearance; that
there are no aliens on the earth or out there; just other varieties of
We were labelled as “aliens” by the western press and treated as such
by the white majority when we first arrived in these countries in any
significant numbers in the late fifties and early sixties. People like
Enoch Powell made dire predictions of “Thames flowing with much blood”
if we were allowed to stay on and build communities. There was much
talk of “assimilation” and westernising us and so on. In fact it turned
out that the virsas of the different communities had much to offer to
the enrichment of the lives of multi-cultural communities as they
strive towards highest common denominators in terms of human values.
Identification with own virsa ensures a responsible attitude through
identification with family and community values and thus a disciplined
approach to life.
Educated young Sikhs need to give more thought to their great virsa
which has brought the Sikh nation this far. History shows that the
alternative is disintegration of the community and the loneliness,
aimlessness and socio-political impotence of individuals without group
identity, culture, heritage, language or representation. The negroes,
the Red Indians, the Australian aborigines and many others have been
Are we preserving and passing on our rich virsa ? That is the question
and that is our aim, which should always be before us.
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