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Sikh Identity: A Fading Image?

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One of the most pervasive jokes about United States Marines is how neat and particular they are. Nowhere is this concept more pronounced than Basic Training. Everything must be just so: Your rack (bunk or bed) must be made to certain dimensions, boots shined (when they used black “jungle boots”) to a specific sheen, your face shaved a specific way, every ribbon, medal, chevron, lace, thread placed exactly so, every rifle movement had to snap and pop in perfect unison.

We, the recruits, would lie in bed at night groaning about how none of these anal rules made any sense. “Why can’t I scratch an itch?” was a common complaint. The worst thing was, the Drill Instructors seldom gave us a reason…but we were always told the reason would save our lives.

Ah...the memories. And their breath was always minty fresh.

In many ways, Sikhi culture–especially the youth–face the same problem. An older generation may tell them how important it is to wear the Five K’s (comb, unshorn hair, the blade, special shorts, and the steel bracelet), but the youth are left wondering why. The problem is especially profound here in America, where the younger generation is raised as a cultural minority. They may ask themselves:

Why don’t other people observe these practices?
All my friends are talking about shaving now. Why can’t I?
Will everyone make fun of me because of my hair/turban?
I’m the only Sikh in my school. I just want to fit in and stop being looked at differently…

Regardless of the importance in wearing the Five K’s, I think these are worthy and legitimate concerns that every Sikhi family should address with their children. Growing up is about discovering who you are in the world, what your role is, and staking out that existence. If you as a parent or influential adult simply say “We wear the Five K’s because Guru Gobind Singh told us to,” then you’ll lose your kids. No one likes that answer. We didn’t like it in Boot Camp and kids today certainly won’t either.

On the other hand, there are plenty of websites and articles talking about the so-called mystic and scientific reasons behind why growing out your hair is important. Here’s one about how the hair actually serves as a neuro antenna. I’ve read several heart-felt letters from a man to his son about why wearing the Kesh (unshorn hair) and turban are so critical. Judging by the growing number of campaigns fighting to keep this tradition alive, the problem must be serious.

So my question for the Sikhi youth (and even adults) is, why not? Why be ashamed of the Kesh or the turban? If youthful vibrance is about being bold, standing out, declaring your identity, why not embrace an aspect of your culture–your religion–that historically makes you so? Guru Gobind Singh once said that he established the uniform of the Khalsa that you might “Stand out as one among millions.”

And why should you stand out? What’s the big deal about being a Sikh? A Sikh stands up. Remember how Guru Nanak spoke out boldly against the religious persecution of the Mughal invaders and demanded human equality? Or how about how Guru Amar Das, in observing strict equality, said that even the Emperor of India had to first sit among and eat with the lowest of society before meeting the Guru? Oh, and then there’s Guru Tegh Bahadur who laid down his life in order to protect the religious freedom of a religion other than his own?

And what about every Sikhi martyr–men and women–who have fought (both in legal matters and on the battlefield) for the identity you struggle with today?

When you take the Amrit baptism, you aren’t simply initiated into a faith, it’s a pledge of allegiance to an ideal and a culture. The Five K’s are your uniform.

  

Every one of the Five K’s has meaning, and I go over those meanings in this post. I admit, when I first starting wearing the Five K’s, when my beard started growing out, when I grumbled in frustration over tying the turban, I thought the very same thing that these youth do. Must I really wear this to be a good Sikh?

Absolutely.

You can’t be a Marine without the uniform and everything on that uniform has a purpose. Sikhs say the following Chandi Charitra prayer as they take the Amrit baptism:

“Grant me this strength, O God:
That I may never deter from righteous deeds.
I may fear none, when I go fighting the evil,
And with confidence in You, come out victorious.
Your Glory may be ingrained in my mind,
And singing Your praises be my highest ambition.
When this mortal frame reaches its end,
I may die fighting with limitless courage,
For the establishment of righteousness.”

Now, I understand why I wear these items. I understand who I am as an honorary Sikh and who/what I stand for. A Sikh defends the weak, fights for the oppressed, and stands as a beacon of stability, valor, and honor. When there’s a Sikh wearing the Five K’s in the room, you know he/she has you covered. By the same token, the uniform of the Khalsa (a baptized Sikh) isn’t to be worn lightly. This isn’t something do just because your parents did. Each baptism is a unique declaration of faith and fidelity to God and mankind to uphold honorable values. You may be a part of the Panth (world community of Khalsa), but you are an individual sentry on the watch against tyranny.

Me speaking at the Charlotte gurdwara about my Sikhi experience and Sikhi identity.

If you are a Sikh youth and wavering on this issue, I humbly suggest you really explore your reasons for not wearing the Five K’s. Go to your parents, find older Sikhs who’ve gone through the same issue, read the example of other Sikhs, and go to Waheguru–that wonderful light which dispels all darkness–for guidance. You don’t have to wear the Five K’s to be a good person, but if you want to be part of the “Army of the Lord,” you have to wear the uniform

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa!
Waheguru ji ki Fateh!  

(To God belongs the Khalsa, To God belongs the victory!)



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abowen

posted May 4, 2012 at 10:36 am


Puneet,

Thank you! Sat sri akaal!



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Puneet Kaur

posted May 3, 2012 at 11:38 am


Waheguru ji ka khalsa
Waheguru ji ki fateh
Sir
I do Not have words to explain ,that how in such a short span of time you have gone That Deep into something like a Religion ,which takes people YEARS to Explore and go that far and not Only that,you are even side by side, trying your level best making sure NoBody feels ashamed of their religion and faith and keep exploring it further as much as they can…..
YOU ARE A WONDERFUL PERSON, MAY GOD BLESS YOU WITH ALL GRACE AND RESPECT



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Ranbir

posted September 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm


This article is definitely inspiring. I believe that those of you who say that hair does not make you a better or lesser Sikh, are just making excuses to not grow your hair and keep your Bahna. It is true, your heart and your deeds are very important, but you need to take it to the next level as Guru Gobind Singh Ji did. A true Sikh is strong as steal, steady as stone, has a heart of gold and as much humility as possible. These things are what we should have on the inside. On the outside, we must keep our Bahna in order to truly be one with nature and bring us physically closer to the Guru. Be strong and true on the inside to the outside. This is from a Sardar who is 1/2 Punjabi, 1/4 filipino, 1/4 Spaniard. If I could do it and so many American converts can do it, Punjabis should have no problem doing this too. Guru Fateh!



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HSB

posted September 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm


Comments to asingh…

Yes, Sikhi is much more about character then rituals. The very concept of Sikhism is about destroying rituals for salvation and make it more about your actions and your sense of being one with the world.

However, the ceremony performed at the Gurudwara is the Anand Karj. It is a ceremony for bliss, a rite if you will, that takes you on a four-step journey. Within its words and within its passage, you promise to upheld the word of the Guru (the bani), to support each other through the journey, to love and be compassionate, to adopt the holy guru and his sadh sangat as a way to move forward. A non-sikh, or a keshdhari sikh is more then welcome to make this rite as this pledge is free to be taken by anybody.

But the pledge is quite useless, if you inside are not ready to accept the words of all of the 10 gurus, including the 10th guru. The uniform is there to remind you of who you are, what pledges you have taken, so that it stays your hand, stops your feet, when you stray outside the prescribed path. It plays as a moral reminder, and is a beacon to others to follow.

If you cannot accept this first step through initiation, you are not going to have much luck with the rest of the way.

Regards,
HSB



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Ishna

posted September 21, 2011 at 11:53 am


Awesomely written, thanks for the inspiration!



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abowen

posted September 19, 2011 at 11:21 am


Asingh,

That is indeed a nice spin ; )

And I totally agree. Sikhi or any other faith isn’t how you look, but your character. After all, the word “Sikh” means “student” or “disciple”, does it not? So I’m with you, it’s someone devoted to learning about Waheguru and the world around them. The appearance of the Five K’s on the other hand, is important, I think, because it signifies that uniform and by extension the intent to keep the principles of Sikhi. But no, I don’t think one must keep Kesh or any other outward expression to devote one’s self to God or brotherhood. Thanks!



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abowen

posted September 19, 2011 at 11:17 am


Jasleen,

Thank you so much for stopping by!



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Asingh

posted September 19, 2011 at 5:17 am


Now, would want to put a different spin to it..

Do you need to look different to make a difference…is Sikhism or army of the lord about “Identity” or how you look…Sikhism is about learning more than anything else…finding myself within me..

“kesh is in Sikhism, Sikhism is not in Kesh..its much more than that….”

So when a gurudwara refuses to marry a guy who doesnt keep kesh…thats like the most discriminatory thing ever..



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Jasleen Kaur Dhir

posted September 19, 2011 at 3:23 am


What a great article. Loved the inspiring thoughts and thank you for sharing!



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abowen

posted September 18, 2011 at 8:52 am


Jasdeep,

Carry on, devil-dog! Ooo-Rah!



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Jasdeep

posted September 18, 2011 at 6:57 am


Ah! Sweet a Marine! I was with 3/5 Kilo company!



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abowen

posted September 18, 2011 at 12:06 am


Anand,

Hey there! Each month presents its own issues, but I’ve never asked anyone “to be like me.” The statement (which is now deleted) was made as a pointer. Every month in turn has a “Social Issues” week in which yes, I often present a challenge to open the channel of talks on whatever issues might be facing that particular faith. That’s part of looking into religion, I think. If one wants to be part of that faith, there are certain obligations they often must follow. But again, I’ve never (nor did I in this post) ask anyone to be like me. Why would I want/need a Mentor or ask for the advice of folks on the Facebook page if I had it all figured out? Just here to learn, my friend, and sometimes things get lost in translation, as they say. I think this weekend was a good example of that, however no one at the gurdwara I visited (where I said the exact same thing) took issue with my statements. Different people react in different ways.

Thanks for stopping by!



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Anand Singh

posted September 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm


andrew, in previous months did you issue a similar challenge to the youth of the other religions to be more like you. If so, how did the adherents react to your challenge?



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 11:48 pm


Kiran,

No problem. Facebook is a little off sometimes : )



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 11:46 pm


Kiran,

It wasn’t just me who felt that way about how you adressed the issue and spoke to me. Others on the Facebook page felt the same way. It’s also telling that out of everyone I’ve spoken with on this very topic, including the dozens of Sikhs at the gurdwara, the members on the Facebook page, and those who’ve commented here, you are the only one who has acted in this way. Some have even called you out on it. And as far as me patronizing young Sikhs, check out the recent comment by a young man named Rajitmeet. He contacted me today and we spoke on the phone. He was inspired by the very post you took issue with and asked if I would speak at his school about the very same thing. We’ll hear more from him later, as we are partnering on his efforts.

So you don’t agree with me. That’s okay, Kiran. But this cannot go on. I don’t want others commenting on your every reply and challenging you. Has this marathon been enough? Look! A young Sikh contacted me because he see’s that people are trying. That’s what this is about. I extended my hand before and I’m doing it one more time. Let’s stop it right now because it’s going nowhere.



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 11:40 pm


Rajitmeet,

It was so awesome talking to you today! I can’t wait to work with you on your project.



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Kiran Kaur

posted September 17, 2011 at 10:24 pm


“I do wish that you hadn’t made the decision to delete our facebook exchange on that question.”

Delete this part of my post, I see that the post is showing up on facebook now, for some reason, it wasn’t showing up there before.



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Kiran Kaur

posted September 17, 2011 at 10:14 pm


“But nothing compares to the palpable anger and indignation you’ve shown toward me.”

Andrew, it’s telling that you would think that about me, whereas, I have felt so marginalized in my exchange with you. I’m sure you would find it surprising that I was in tears as I read some of the posts that you wrote in reply to my answers to your question “why not”. And tears fell further, as I wrote trying so unsuccessfully to get you to understand how patronizing and condescending that question you pose to the Sikh youth is, especially when it comes from someone, who has the luxury of being a Sikh only for a few days; and further when, your defense of your question turned into some “mandate” that you were called upon to take up – a “challenge” or a “call to action” as you later called it. Alas, marginalized people do tend to be dismissed and further marginalized as being hostile and angry, or needing some lessons to learn, usually, by those with white male privilege. I do wish that you hadn’t made the decision to delete our facebook exchange on that question. Perhaps, we could have both learned something from reflecting upon our unfruitful exchange.



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Rajitmeet Singh

posted September 17, 2011 at 9:54 pm


Please persoanlly contact me at 323-580-1155. I am a Sikh youth. I need to talk to you please.
Rajitmeet Singh



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Rajitmeet Singh

posted September 17, 2011 at 9:48 pm


Hello my name is Rajitmeet Singh. I am 16. I got to Van Nuys High School, and I am part of the Sikh faith. I started this group called “Sikhi Chronicles” on Facebook. I would love for you to join. This group is made to help kids, teenagers, adults fight oppresion and misidentification against Sikhs. I have gone to schools with Sikh children because they have been bullied. At these schools I gave small presentations on what a Sikh is and why we do what we do. Please contact me at anytime 323-580-1155. I would Love for you to come to one of our meeting, we also support activism within this group. So our first event will be the “Aids Walk” at Los Angeles on Oct.16. Please contact me.
Sincerely, Rajitmeet Singh

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa! Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm


Kiran,

If I was so wise, I wouldn’t need Project Conversion. That’s right, it’s for me to learn. If I was, I wouldn’t drive over 2 hours one way just to be around folks who live each religion day in and day out. If I were so wise, I wouldn’t need the company of people like you on the Facebook page. What hurts is that this sort of exchange has not happened with anyone in the nine months I’m been doing this. There are many cases where I’ve been corrected, and I humbly take that correction. Go through the blog for yourself. But nothing compares to the palpable anger and indignation you’ve shown toward me. I’m not here to get everything right, I just want to see for myself who these people are so that I am one less ignorant citizen on this planet. In almost every case, people are just thankful that I’m giving of time–that I’m trying. That’s all we can do in this life is try.

I removed that passage that’s given us such grief these past 48 hours. Both of our points are served in doing so, I think. Is that enough to cool your feelings, Kiran? Is that enough for you? It’s not worth fighting over because it distracts from the purpose I’ve given a year of my life for. I’m reaching out in peace here, Kiran. Let’s work together to end ignorance, as you’ve said. Are you willing to burry the hatchet with me? Are you willing to let this wound heal?



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Kiran

posted September 17, 2011 at 8:24 pm


“We are getting negative instead of constructive here and that’s not what our Congregation is about. It stops here.”
Since that was your last reply to me, excuse me for thinking that you didn’t want to stop discuss the issue with me. Thank you for the reading lesson and all the other lessons, oh wise teacher. I’m starting to get the feeling that we’re all just supposed to starting bowing to you and any opinion that doesn’t ended praising you is not constructive.



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 7:57 pm


Kiran,

I didn’t end the conversation. Another lesson in reading carefully. I ended the negative tone the thread started to take. Indeed, Niki did a fine job articulating her point. Perhaps another lesson for the day.



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Kiran Kaur

posted September 17, 2011 at 7:45 pm


Niki Whiting, thank you for your post! I thought I was the only one who had an issue with Andrew’s question to the Sikh youth! I wish I were able to be as articulate as you in what I was trying to get Andrew to understand on the issue of “why not”. I brought up this issue and others on this post on Andrew’s PC facebook page. Although Andrew stopped the facebook discussion on this post, I hope that you will take a look at my comments there. My answer, to Andrew’s question, as a brown Sikh female who grew up in the country (& who volunteers with Sikh kids, including some who have attempted suicide) didn’t quite “jive” with Andrew for bringing up the race or other possible issues affecting Sikh youth – issues that he just might not “get”, no matter how well-meaning he might have intended to be with his question.

“So, just some thoughts from another white person. I think it’s cool that you got thumbs up from other Sikhs on this. But I do think some reflection on your unique context might help answer your (rhetorical) question.”

Are you familiar with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh? It comes to my mind as I read your post. :-) I sincerely hope that other folks before starting experiments like PC, will read articles like MicIntosh or tim Wise or Thandeka, who happens to be a African-American female Unitarian Univeralist minister & has written about the issues that Andrew’s post and question raises here.



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 7:20 pm


JSH,

So very true! That’s what this is all about: understanding via experience. I had no idea what went into wearing a turban and now those who do have my respect for their dedication and courage.



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_JSH_

posted September 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm


https://www.facebook.com/pages/Manjeet-Singh-Ferozpuria-Official-Turban-Page/166887470044387?sk=app_174489652597378

Not that I recommend driving (that too a motorbike) while tying your turban, but unless someone has tried wearing a turban, one cannot estimate the difficulty, patience, art and pride in donning a turban.



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Col Harsharan Pal Singh

posted September 17, 2011 at 5:24 pm


Perfect reasons to wear five Ks and declare what you are.



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm


Niki,

Indeed, one’s skin color “shades” how society sees us. I think it’s a little too simplistic though to assume that it applies to everyone except whites. In my experience, it covers all race. No doubt, “people of color” wearing specific religious articles face potential alienation–at least in more rural U.S. What’s interesting is that I’ve had several emails from many white converts to faiths like Islam who get a lot of pressure, flak, and even “excommunication” from their own families. The perception is that they are traitors. It’s wrong no matter what your skin color is.

I’m glad you brought up the issue of family as this can work in two ways. Sometimes they can be a positive support system and others, part of the problem. Indeed, I choose to wear these articles, and I admit that it may be easier wearing them than for others, but for someone of faith, that shouldn’t stop them from standing up. This of course is where help from friends and family comes in. As someone on the Facebook page said, it truly is a dual burden.



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Niki Whiting

posted September 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm


I’ll take a stab at your ‘why not?’ question. It’s possible that white privilege is shading your experience of wearing the turban this month. You may get strange looks, but you’re white. You might be eccentric, but you’re white. For anyone a person of color, standing out can be a different experience. While I’m white too, and cannot speak for Sikhs or any person of color, I can image that being South Asian and wearing a turban is a different experience, particularly in our post-9/11 world.

Another thought is: for you it is optional. As a ‘convert’ you choose this. For others, it is their lives – family, extended family, social networks. The choice to go with out involves a lot more risk. You are only wearing it for a month – not every day of your life. And you risk little when you don or don’t don the turban.

So, just some thoughts from another white person. I think it’s cool that you got thumbs up from other Sikhs on this. But I do think some reflection on your unique context might help answer your (rhetorical) question.



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Gurpreet Kaur

posted September 17, 2011 at 9:22 am


EXACTLY!!! ;)



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abowen

posted September 17, 2011 at 8:49 am


Pardeep,

Thank you!



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pardeep

posted September 17, 2011 at 4:09 am


Very beautiful and powerful.



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Gupt

posted September 17, 2011 at 2:28 am


Amazing article! thanks for posting!! :)



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abowen

posted September 16, 2011 at 10:11 pm


Taruneet,

Thanks for reading!



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abowen

posted September 16, 2011 at 10:11 pm


Navdeep,

That’s right, it’s a journey through one of 11 faiths, one month at a time. The point is to understand each faith and its people as closely as possible, that way I get to know many viewpoints.



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abowen

posted September 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm


Savraj,

My pleasure! Thanks for reading.



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taruneet kaur

posted September 16, 2011 at 9:35 pm


loved it!! :D thanks for writing such a beautiful post.



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Navdeep Kaur

posted September 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm


Wait…So Andrew, your only wearing the five K’s for a month? I mean are you trying to get the feel of Sikhi and see if you like it or do you follow a different religion every month? And if you are wearing the five K’s, are you actually Amrit baptized or again, are you just trying to get the feel of it?



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Sukhmandir Kaur

posted September 16, 2011 at 6:31 pm


Awesome article!



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Savraj

posted September 16, 2011 at 5:50 pm


Thanks for writing this piece and embarking on this journey. It really is as simple as you say — we complicate things in our heads. I’m not sure why.



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