Understanding the Sikh Way of Life

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, lower left, is welcomed by members of the Sikh community as he prepares to worship with them at the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin on Monday in Brookfield, Wis. A gunman killed six Sikh worshipers at a suburban Milwaukee temple a day earlier, before being shot and killed himself by police.

Sikh family members hug one another after the shooting on Sunday. Photo by Rick Wood-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-Zuma.

By Jay Singh Last month, I stood before 300 Sikhs at a Gurdūārā in Roswell, Ga. I stood there representing the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of an ongoing effort to curb the bullying of Sikh school children across the South. I stood there also as a third-year law student attempting to explain the law and to educate parents and children about their rights against mistreatment. And I stood there as a Sikh, in resistance to a post-9/11 status quo characterized by humanity-blinding hate and empathy-inhibiting indifference. Last Sunday, at a Gurdūārā in Oak Creek, Wis., this hate and indifference decayed in a violent flourish that extinguished six innocent lives. As I and other Sikhs turned on the television to find aerial images of a Gurdūārā besieged by commotion and emergency lights, the worst-case scenario – a scenario we’d buried deep in our thoughts – had tragically surfaced and was unfolding before our eyes. Throughout the day, I heard echoes from the 700 other attacks on Sikhs since 9/11 – echoes expressing the need for broader awareness about Sikh identity and belief. Thenational news media heard these echoes, too, and rushed to create this awareness. But whom to turn to for more information? Who could tell us more about this community, simultaneously invisible and immediately noticeable with its colorful turban and rich tradition? Ask any Sikh. The Sikh path is an endeavor to connect with Truth and to defend the honor of the oppressed. Nānak, the founder of the Sikh way of life, was born in 1469. The first Gūrū-Prophet—and the nine that inherited his Spirit—embodied a religious, social and political revolution. Nānak challenged the Hindū caste system and instituted langar halls (free community kitchens) in all Gurdūārās, where people from all four castes and all the four directions could join together in preparing and enjoying a meal together in a demonstration of common humanity. Today, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India – the most iconic Sikh house of learning – functions as the world’s largest community kitchen. It feeds 80,000 people each weekday and up to 120,000 on Saturdays and Sundays – all free of charge. Nānak also challenged the worth of idol worship and mechanical ritualism in the pursuit of Enlightenment, building a new path wholly distinct from Hindūism. The Sikh scriptural canon is perfumed by a steadfast belief in One Universal Integrative Force, conceptualized as Truth, and manifested in all beings and in all matter. With the Gūrū Granth as their inspiration, Gōbind Singh directed the Gūrū Panth to resist all forms of religious and political subjugation. He gave all Sikh males the last name “Singh,” meaning “lion,” and all Sikh females the last name “Kaur,” meaning “princess,” to erase all markers of caste that Indian last names often denote. The Gūrū further mandated that all Sikh men and women maintain their hair uncut and wrapped in a turban. Unshorn hair is recognition that attempting to improve upon the creation of the Perfect is an act steeped in ego. Unfortunately for many Sikhs, particularly younger members of the community, the embrace of this lifestyle has made them the object of misguided hate. Since 9/11, Sikh students have been bullied at an alarming rate. I have heard accounts of lockers filled with written death threats and relentless verbal harassment accusing Sikh students of being “terrorists” or members of the “Taliban.” In reflecting on the events of last Sunday…we pray for the well-being of the families gripped in grief, and for the well-being of the heroic Lt. Brian Murphy of the Oak Creek police department, who was shot numerous times during the attack. For more information on Sikhī, please visit SikhRI.org. Jay Singh is a third-year law student at the University of Washington and an intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, which is well known for its legal victories against white supremacist groups.
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