I spent last year studying at a university in New Delhi, India. During my time there I had the opportunity to travel to the city of Amritsar in the northwestern state of Punjab to visit the Harmandir Sahib (more commonly known as the Golden Temple) which is the holiest shrine in the Sikh faith. I visited many places in India during my stay, but the Golden Temple stands out as a favorite. As a visitor it was not hard to understand why the Golden Temple is the most visited place in the world with around 6 million visitors each year.
Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion with approximately 26 million believers worldwide who practice a faith founded upon values of equality, service, and hard work. Sikhs first immigrated to the United States from their home in India’s bread basket – the agricultural state of Punjab – in the 19th century. They came to farm, and work in lumber mills and railroads. Since the late 1800s the number of Sikhs in the U.S. has grown to near 700,000.
A Sikh house of worship is called a Gurdwara and it is a place of prayer and hospitality. The first Gurdwara in the U.S. was built in 1912 in Stockton, California. Among the principles of the Sikh faith is a belief in the equality of all human beings and a rejection of discrimination based on caste, creed, race, or gender. These principles are reflected in the fact that Gurdwaras are open to all people.
Visitors to Gurdwaras are encouraged to partake in a langar, a community meal, which is one of the central practices of the Sikh faith. The Langar Hall (community kitchen) at the Golden Temple in Amritsar serves a free meal to some 80,000 visitors on an average weekday and 100,000 each day on weekends, making it the world’s largest free serving kitchen. There people of all classes, colors, and creeds share a meal together, the ultimate embodiment of the Sikh principles of unity and equality. The community kitchen is run entirely by volunteers from the global Sikh community. Volunteers wash dishes, peel and chop vegetables, and serve a diverse crowd of visitors who come from around the world and represent multiple faiths and all walks of life. I had a meal there when I visited and have never seen a group of people work with more efficiency or devotion to create a community experience. In addition to hot meals, all Gurdwaras provide free housing to visitors. So strong is the Sikh community’s dedication to service that there are hundreds of thousands of names on the waiting list to volunteer at the Golden Temple.
Sikhs follow the teachings of their sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is a collection of writings created by ten gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh who lived between 1469 and 1708. Sikhs consider Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book, as the eternal Guru or the teacher of the Sikhs. These Sikh scriptures are unique in that they were written by the Gurus during their own lifetimes.
The first Guru and the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev believed in truthful living and shared: “truth is high, but higher still is truthful living.” He created the three pillars of the Sikh faith that all Sikhs believe and follow:
Kirit Karo – work hard and earn an honest living Vand Chhako – share your earning with others and do community service Naam Japo – remember God’s name and be thankful for what you have
Sikhs worship with daily prayers and regular community gatherings. It is one of the first faiths where women and men are regarded as equal and have equal privilege to lead prayers at Gurdwara and in the community. Many confuse the Sikh faith with Islam or Hinduism. While the first Sikh Guru was raised in a Hindu family, he rejected the Hindu caste system and declared the unity and equality of all peoples as a tenant of the faith. Similar to Hinduism, Sikhism does not actively practice or advocate conversion.
In addition to prayer, Sikhs have a unique way of dressing which reflects their devotion. Sikh men keep their long hair as an act of commitment and acceptance of God’s will. Sikh men and a few Sikh women wear a turban signifying sovereignty and as a reminder to protect and serve others and live their faith. A baptized Sikh is required to wear Five K’s as articles of faith at all times:
1. Kesh – long unshorn hair as acceptance of God’s will
2. Kangha – comb to keep hair groomed and tangle-free
3. Kara – an iron bracelet reminding one of unbroken circle of truth
4. Kachera – under-pants for practicing self-control and chastity
5. Kirpan – a sword for upholding dignity and freedom for all
Confusion, ignorance, and hate provoked Sunday’s attack at the gurdwara in Wisconsin. Many media sources are reporting that the attacker targeted the gurdwara believing it was a Muslim community. Since the 9/11 attacks the Sikh community has been a target of more than 700 hate crimes, many of which were fatal, because of this ignorant confusion.
Many may be surprised to know that 99.9% of all Americans who wear turbans are Sikhs. However, any Sikh will tell you that pointing out the confusion of Sikhs for Muslims is missing the point. As a community of believers who are devoted to the equality of all members of the human family, Sikhs do not accept hate or violence perpetrated against any group.
Navneet Narula Singh is a and close friend leader at United Sikhs, a UN-affiliated NGO dedicated to global human development. He shared with me, “I reject the notion that people are bad. I believe that people care and we will overcome this as one strong American community. I will continue to pray for everyone, even those who hate and commit these acts of violence. Today, more than ever, I believe in us.”
The community of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that was attacked reflects this statement in its prayers for the victims and their families, the police who responded, as well as the man who killed because of his hatred. One of the first moves the community made following the attack was to launch a fundraising effort for the victims and the wounded police officer. In just under three days more than $100,000 in donations has been generated.
My friend Navneet tells me this tragedy is also an opportunity for us to all come together as one people. Today, we can all say we are Sikhs, we are Americans, and we must vow to become that human race that cares for one another’s well being.
There is a principle in Sikhism called chardi kala which means “to live life positively, in the highest rising spirits.” This moment is an opportunity for all of us to come together, to educate ourselves and try to better understand one another; to treat one another with respect and kindness. In a time when too few of us know our neighbors, our mail carrier, our coworkers – really know them as people – the urging from our Sikh brothers and sisters is to reach out and build those bridges.
The real question you must ask yourself is: What is my role?