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. The national 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. This institution is a part of Gurdūārās across the world.
Nānak also challenged the worth of idol worship and mechanical ritualism in the pursuit of Enlightenment, building a new path wholly distinct from Hindūism.
In 1699, the Tenth Gūrū, Gōbind Singh, created the Khālsā and formalized what Nānak started just 230 years before. The Khālsā – the combination of the Sikh scriptural canon (Gūrū Granth) and the community of initiated Sikhs worldwide (Gūrū Panth) – would become the Eleventh and eternal Sikh Gūrū.
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. The Sikh’s goal in life is to fan the ember essence of the Divine into the inextinguishable flame of Enlightenment through ongoing identification – conscious and subconscious – with the Creator. All of this is to take place in the context of family life where one earns a living by the sweat of one’s brow and distributes his or her earnings throughout the community.
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. These new names also granted Sikh women greater sovereignty, by eliminating the requirement that they adopt their husband’s last name in marriage.
The Gūrū further mandated that all Sikh men and women maintain their hair uncut and wrapped in a turban. Unshorn hair is a recognition that attempting to improve upon the creation of the Perfect is an act steeped in ego. The turban is designed to make the Sikh stand out, so that when injustice demands action, he or she cannot take cover in anonymity.
Finally, the Gūrū instructed his Sikhs to remain armed at all times in order to defend the honor of the oppressed. He taught his Sant-Sipahīs, or Saint-Soldiers, that it is only righteous to draw the sword from its scabbard when an affair is past all remedy and only when one acts in pursuit of justice. For Sikhs, the use of force is wholly inappropriate when done in revenge.
With these measures, Gōbind Singh infused the Khālsā with a Truth-melded Spirit that would become a tremor for personal and social revolution. In short, he left Sikhs with a lifestyle and not a religion.
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. Speaking with Sikhs across the South, I’ve 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 one case, a male student was locked in the girls’ bathroom after his classmates beat him, tore off his turban and unfurled his top knot of hair. In New Jersey, a Sikh student’s turban was set on fire while at school. Older members of the community also continue to suffer this brand of harassment. In Seattle, reports indicate that Sikh cab drivers are verbally harassed two to three times each day for the way they look.
In reflecting on the events of last Sunday, we Sikhs feel inspired by the Truth-melded Spirit of the Khālsā and pray for sarbhat dā bhalā – the well-being of all mankind. In particular, 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.
We even pray for the well-being of our white supremacist brothers and sisters. In all of them, and in all of you who read this, we Sikhs see the One Universal Integrative Force.
On a basic level, our capacity for empathy – the ability to feel at least to some degree what others feel totally – is what makes us human. And in many ways, Brother Wade Michael Page, the gunman in Wisconsin, was a victim, too. We all bear the burden when we allow our sons and daughters to fall into the intellectual and spiritual waste bin – and again when they isolate us from their humanity.
With last Sunday’s senseless result of this self-isolation, we must re-dedicate ourselves to connecting with each other and easing the life of this world. May we all smile and forever remain in Chardī Kalā – rising spirits in connectedness with Truth.
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.