Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Answering Questions, Living Up to Your Identity

Growing up, I always felt a pressure to represent Sikhi well. In my mind, the question would be “ what if this is the only Sikh person that this individual meets/has met, and I don’t answer their questions adequately?”

Being the only Sikh in my class, I would get asked tons of questions. About my beliefs, about my long hair, about my clothes if I was wearing something traditional. For a child, it’s somewhat overwhelming. It points out the fact that you are different. I recall a simple project in elementary school: bring a family photo to class and talk about it, pass it around. Well in our family photo we were all wearing traditional clothes. I got SO MANY questions. Over time, I think I just got used to the fact that I would have to answer the same questions over and over. And have a bunch of random people asking me questions about my hair wherever, whenever- at the mall, airport, etc., at the most inconvenient of times. But those were the simple questions. Those were the easy ones, those were the ones that I was prepared for.

As I have grown up, the questions are harder and more complicated. Rooted in religious and cultural issues. Someone asked me a couple of years ago “If your parents don’t approve of who you want to marry, will they kill you?” with a serious and curious expression on their face. They weren’t joking, they really wanted the answer. I’m sure the shock was probably still evident on my face, despite my efforts to keep my jaw from dropping in horror! In my mind I was thinking: how could you ask that considering I don’t know you that well, you are making some serious judgments about my culture/religion and family; if you knew my parents, you certainly wouldn’t ask that; that is so offensive right now I don’t know how to reply. But somewhere within myself I managed to realize that it was so much better that they he was asking instead of assuming. That he had the courage to put his thoughts to words, and even though it stings, it gives me a chance to correct his assumptions. Wouldn’t it be so much worse if he had just gone on thinking that? Now my answer doesn’t come out angry, defensive, like an attack on the person asking, closing down communication when it’s actually an opportunity for learning. (Of course these questions come at the most inconvenient of times... I had just written one exam and was about to write another!) 

Since then, I have realized that people asking questions has helped me learn. Learn about myself, learn about my religion. Learn about the cultural contexts in which this is all happening. I do my best to share what I learn. I become less concerned about answering perfectly, as if I knew everything, and more interested in answering to the best of my abilities and taking the time to think more about it later, dig deeper. I use it as an opportunity to ask other people questions, and to ask myself more questions. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Guide to attending the Gurdwara/Sikh Temple

Nishan Sahib image from
A Sikh temple is also called a Gurdwara. Here is a guide to attending a Sikh temple. 

There is no smoking, consumption of alcohol or drugs on the temple premises. When you attend the temple you will notice that there is a triangular orange flag outside the temple. This is called the Nishan Sahib. The nishan sahib helps for people from far and wide to be able to find the temple.  It has a khanda (the symbol for our religion) on it. The double edged sword itself in the middle is also called a khanda. And there are two kirpans (swords) on either side and a chakkar or circle.

The double edged sword symbolizes divine knowledge/one God.The two kirpans represent the balance between Piri (spiritual sovereignty. It reminds us of our spiritual role in praying, etc.) and Miri (political sovereignty. It reminds us of our worldly roles in fighting against injustice).The circle inside symbolizes God without beginning or end, and a symbol of oneness of humanity

Khanda, image from
Inside the temple there will be an area to put your shoes. Men’s and women’s sides will be opposite to each other. After you remove your shoes, you should wash your hands and cover your head (no hats please). There are head coverings provided if you don’t already have one. We remove our shoes and cover our heads as a sign of respect. When attending the temple it’s important to wear something comfortable yet modest as you will be sitting on the ground.  

In the front of the main hall you will see the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. These are our holy scriptures. There were 10 Gurus in Sikhism and the 10th, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, passed on the guruship to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, therefore we treat our Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji as our living Guru. It has the writings of the Sikh Gurus, and also many Hindus and Muslims. You will notice the scriptures are covered in a cloth. That is called the Ramala Sahib and is changed every week. When you walk up to the Guru Granth Sahib Ji you can stand and say a prayer and offer some money if you’d like. Then you will bow down to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Note we are bowing down to the Divine light and knowledge of the Guru, not the physical book. We do not do idol worship in Sikhism. Just as a king sits on a throne, we have a Manji sahib for the Guru Granth Sahib. The canopy above is called a chanani. You may have observed that there is a person standing behind the Guru Granth Sahib waving a Chaur Sahib. This is used to fan the Guru Granth Sahib out of respect, just as young people used to wave fans for their elders in their homes and people waved them for the emperors.  

Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Image from 
The men sit on one side of the temple and the women sit on another side. (The explanation I have heard is because of opposite polar energies, and because it helps to keep people focused. But I think it’s probably more cultural than religious, as some Gurdwaras do not follow this.) We sit on the ground for equality. It’s important to remember not to sit with legs extended/feet turned towards the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, or stand with your back turned to the Guru Granth Sahib as this is considered disrespectful. It’s okay to turn around and walk back to your seat, etc. though. 

The service consists of playing music (usually the harmonium, but sometimes other instruments ranging from violin to sitar are used) while singing hymns. You may see men, women or children singing hymns on the stage. Children are usually in Punjabi classes on Sundays however. The Gyani (similar to a priest; he is knowledgeable spiritually and lives at the temple) will explain some of the meanings of the hymns and explain stories from our history. People in the audience will often sing along to the hymns. At around 12 pm (or later if there is a special event) we do a prayer collectively called Anand Sahib and then we stand up for a collective prayer, the Ardas. People stand with their hands folded/joined. In this prayer, we remember the sacrifices made by Sikhs before us, and we thank God for what we have, and specific people can ask to have their prayers read aloud as well.  There are parts in the prayer where we remember God by saying his name aloud, Waheguru. At the end everyone bows down and stands up again. Once the Gyani says “Bole So Nihal” (whoever utters the phrase following shall be fulfilled), everyone replies “Sat Sri Akal” (Eternal is the Lord). And then “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki fateh" (Hail the Khalsa that belongs to God, and Hail God to whom belongs the victory).  Then we sit to listen to the hukamnama, the reading of a hymn from the Guru Granth Sahib which is taken as the order of God for the day. Once this is concluded, there are usually announcements and the kara parshad/degh is handed out. This probably best described as “pudding” although it is thicker consistency, and is made of flour, butter, and sugar. It is handed out as a blessing. During the Ardas you may have observed that someone stirred the degh with a small kirpan (sword) signifying it has been blessed by the Guru. Langar is served downstairs once the service is concluded. Langar is a free kitchen. Volunteers from the community prepare the food and share it with the community. Again, everyone sits together on the floor- whether it’s a king or a poor person, for equality.  Everyone is welcome to attend.

Although anyone is welcome at the temple anytime, for those not familiar with the temple it may be best to go on Sundays when there are lots of people around to explain and there is a service. People come and go as they please, but the service on Sundays is usually from about 10-1230 and then langar is served.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Nagar Kirtan 2016

The Nagar Kirtan (Vaisakhi Parade) this year is on Saturday May 21st from 10 am to 4 pm. The parade starts at 10 am at 4298 Davis Road (Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple) and stops at the CN center parking lot from 12-2 pm for free food, speeches, gatka (sikh martial arts), etc. Feel free to invite all your family and friends!

What is this event about?
Vaisakhi is the harvest festival in India, but more importantly for the Sikh religion we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa in 1699. It is celebrated April 14 every year but due to cold weather in Prince George we do the Nagar Kirtan in May.

I’m going to provide a bit of historical background. At the time, Emperor Aurangzeb was an unjust ruler. He was destroying Hindu temples and forcing people to convert to Islam or die. People were being raped and tortured. Guru Teg Bahadur Ji, ninth Sikh Guru and father of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, sacrificed his own life fighting for the rights of all people to be able to practice their religion. After the Guru Ji was martyred, his followers dispersed out of fear of Aurangzeb. There was a big storm which allowed one man to take the severed head, and another with his sons to take the body, of Guru Ji back to their houses to perform the last rites. Guru Gobind Singh Ji became the 10th Guru.

Guru Ji announced a special Vaisakhi for 1699. Sikhs from far and wide came. He stated “The entire sangat is very dear to me; but is there a devoted Sikh who will give his head to me here and now? A need has arisen at this moment which calls for a head”(1). There was a man who was willing to sacrifice his life. Guru Ji took him into the tent and came back with a sword dripping with blood. This was repeated for a total of 5 times. The crowd was starting to disperse out of fear, but the 5 emerged from the tent. These 5 Sikhs, Bhai Daya Singh Ji, Bhai Dharam Singh Ji, Bhai Himmat Singh Ji,  Bhai Mukham Singh Ji, and Bhai Sahib Singh Ji, are known as the Panj Pyare (5 beloved ones), and were the first to be baptized into Sikhism. Guru Ji was then baptized by the five Sikhs himself. Thus the Khalsa was created. They were given a clear identity- kesh (unshorn hair), kangha (comb), kara (bracelet), kashera (underwear) , kirpan (sword) (see my previous post about the 5 K’s for more information), and the last name Singh for men and Kaur for women to unite them. The visual identity of the Sikhs was important because that no one could hide as they had done after the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur Ji, the Sikhs would be brave and accountable for their actions. The Panj Pyare were all from different castes, and this was important in establishing that everyone is equal and the caste system should not be followed.

Every year we hold a nagar kirtan (nagar means town, kirtan is singing of holy hymns) for Vaiskahi. I really liked this article- http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/anupreet-sandhu-bhamra/why-free-food-is-not-the-_b_3129187.html, which reminds us that the nagar kirtan is more than just about food. It’s about the tenants of Sikhism: Naam Japo (remembering God, which we do as we sing the hymns walking along the streets of the city), kirat karo (working hard, which we do when we come together and organize the event), and vand shako( share what you earn, which is why there is free food as there is every week at the temple). So please bring your family and friends and invite them to come join us for this event! Out of respect, please cover your head. There are head coverings available inside the temple.


Pictures from the Surrey Nagar Kirtan this year:
It was definitely a really unique experience to get to go to such a large nagar kirtan. I really enjoyed the kirtan and the feeling of connection.