2016-06-30
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DALLAS, March 29--The tension is familiar to anyone who has hosted a christening, wedding, or bris in their home or any other event with social and religious significance. Now imagine maintaining that intense focus on hospitality and religious observance for 48 straight hours.

Participants in the Sikh ceremony called the Akhand Path can drop in at any time, day or night. There's a religious requirement that the kitchen always be open. And, like homebound rituals more familiar to most Americans, this, too, ends with a party.

An Akhand Path is a continuous reading of the 1,430 pages of the Sikh sacred book, the Sri Guru Granth. The ceremony, born in India two centuries ago as a reaction to persecution, has become a mark of the faith's identity in 21st century America.

The ceremony can be done for many reasons: a birthday or anniversary, the death of a loved one, a child starting college. Recently, the Suri family celebrated and consecrated a spectacular new home in Plano, Texas.

"I am married 17 years, and this is the first time I am doing it," said Haninder Suri, known as Ani to her friends. "I promised myself that I would do this when I had something big."

Shortly after 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, the Suris and a few friends prepared for the prayers that begin the reading.

"Anything good in the religion starts in the morning," Ani Suri said.

A faint aroma of hot cereal filled the small room as the turbaned Sikh priest began to chant. Gurdial Singh Paras of the Sikh Temple of North Texas sang the prayers that start an Akhand Path. (It is pronounced with the accent on the "kh." The vowels all rhyme with the "A" in "Ali," and the "th" sounds like the English "t.")

Akhand Path means "unbroken reading." Over two days, a series of men and women read the sacred text, which they revere as a living spiritual leader. Like relay runners passing the baton, each new reader recites a few lines in unison with the previous reader before continuing alone for an hour or more.

After the initial prayers, a priest blessed the silver bowl of parshad, a cooked, sweetened mix of wheat flour and butter the color of pale brown sugar, and handed a morsel to everyone in the room. Sikhism's first leaders created the parshad more than four centuries ago as a humble ritual food to be eaten by all, to make the point that all are equal in God's eyes.

An Akhand Path happens in North Texas about twice a month. Sometimes in the Sikh temples, called gurdwaras, sometimes in private homes, Sikhs observe this ritual even as other more visible emblems of their faith fade.

Although Sikh custom calls for men to have long beards and wear turbans over uncut hair, the readers and worshipers who visited the Suris over two days ranged from fully, visibly observant to closely shorn and smooth shaven.

Like members of other faiths, Sikhs in America are struggling to identify which rituals and customs are essential, said Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann, a professor of Sikh studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Cut hair or leave it long? Read the Sri Guru Granth during worship only in its original language or allow use of English translations?

"This is the first time Sikhs have had to address these issues," Mann said. "Their decisions will decide the shape of the future of the community."

Next month, he is hosting a conference that will examine the way Sikhs who have left India have adjusted their faith to their new homes. The Akhand Path has become a significant way for Sikhs to assert their unique faith and culture, he said.

"It's a show of commitment of the community to its members," said Aman Singh, a 25-year-old electrical engineer who celebrated with the Suris.

Some experts estimate that there are more than 16 million Sikhs in the world and about 250,000 in the United States, although no formal count has ever been taken. Local leaders say there are about 500 Sikh families in North Texas belonging to four gurdwaras.

Sikhism is a relatively young tradition, born in the last year of the 15th century in the Punjab region of northern India. Sikh tradition holds that its first great teacher, or guru, fell into a river and emerged three days later saying he had experienced a conversation with God. His message: The sects, castes and conflicts of the prevailing religions of the area did not reflect eternal truths.

"There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim," Guru Nanak Dev proclaimed. He planted the seeds of an egalitarian faith and was succeeded, in turn, by nine more gurus. The tenth guru, Gobind Singh, created the tradition of five visible emblems of Sikhism: uncut hair and beard, a comb worn in the hair, a steel bracelet, a specific style of undershorts and a ceremonial sword to be carried at all times.

This guru also completed work on a book of sacred writings. As he was dying in 1708, he declared to his followers that the text itself would become their guru.

Sikhs have often been embattled in their homeland. A translation of one of the faith's most commonly recited prayers includes graphic references to that history: "Think of and remember the unique service rendered by those brave Sikh men as well as women who sacrificed their heads but did not surrender their Sikh religion; who got themselves cut to pieces from each of the joints of the body; who got their scalps removed; who were tied and rotated on the wheels and broken into pieces; who were cut by saws; who were flayed alive; who sacrificed themselves to keep the dignity of the gurdwaras."

That sense of danger may have contributed to the creation of the Akhand Path. A commonly accepted explanation is that once Sikhs found a safe place to start reading, they could never be sure where the next opportunity would arise, said Manjit Singh, executive director for Washington-based Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force.

"Once they started, they would read it uninterrupted until it was finished," he said.

The Suris, Ani and her husband, Kanwar, moved to the United States 15 years ago from India. They came to Dallas in 1990. Kanwar Suri owns several transmission shops and a couple of freight ships. He is among the smooth-shaven and short-haired Sikhs. It's been a challenge to explain to his children the difficulties of balancing his reverence for his faith with his need to fit into the society in which he lives, he said.

"It's hard to explain to a child why you aren't wearing a turban," he said. Hari Pritam Singh is a vice president of the North Texas Sikh Temple. He was one of fewer than a dozen people at the Suris' home for the start of the Akhand Path. Like Kanwar Suri, he has short hair. But he wore the full turban when he came to Dallas from England in 1978 and tried in vain to find a job in the oil industry.

"When I got my hair cut, I got three job offers in the same week," he said. "One was from a company that had turned me down before" when he wore the turban.

Guruinder Singh Ahluwalia works for a local computer company. These days, Ahluwalia said, his turban and beard may attract questions but not discrimination. Assembling Sikhs for the Akhand Path and for prayer is supremely important, he said.

"We are taught that the gathering of the sangat congregation is of a higher order than the guru himself," he said.

Tanvir, the Suris' 14-year-old son, was given an important role for the end of the reading. He held a horsehair brush that he waved back and forth in the same way that a fan would have been waved over the living gurus of centuries before.

"We're losing it, long hair and turbans, not because we're losing our faith, but because we want to fit in," he said. "[Turbans] are like yelling `I am a Sikh and I'm proud of it.' We're still proud."

Tehjal, the Suris' 8-year-old daughter, skittered around the house with her friends, but took time to pay attention to the rituals.

"It's kind of different to me. It's like, I'm an American," she said.

But the intense adult attention on the sacred text did spark an interest in her, she said. "I wish I had learned to speak so that I could read it," she said.

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