Decoding Religion: Sikhism

Miguel Perez|Life & Arts Editor The “Khanda” represents the Sikh doctrine of “Deg Tegh Fateh,” meaning victory to charity and arms. The symbol has three parts; a double-edged sword, a chakkar and two single-edged swords.

Followers of Sikhism practice philanthropy, community service, advocate for increased exposure for South Asian religion

Editor’s Note

In an effort to further understand UTD’s diverse population, what follows is the final part in a four-part series exploring lesser-known religious communities, their traditions and their presence on campus.

Every Friday, Prabhmanmeet Singh goes to the Gurdwara Singh Sabha of North Texas in Richardson and meditates quietly to be at peace with himself and connect with God. 

Singh, a computer science graduate student, has been following the ritual since he was 10. When he first started meditating, he questioned his religious teachers about the meaning of God. 

The answer to the question, they said, was in the “Mool Mantar,” or the main vision, of the Guru Granth Sahib, a scripture better known as The Guru. 

There is only one God, and he is a singular energy, The Guru states. There is no duality in the world, but when the time dimension enters the mind, one either dwells on the past, which leads to regrets, or on the future, which causes anxiety. The purpose of meditation is to connect to God and feel his presence by focusing on the present. 

The Guru is the Holy Scripture for Sikhism — one of the top five religions in the world today — that evolved 600 years ago deep in the heart of the state of Punjab in India. 

Inside the Temple

Equality, charity and service to the community form the basis of the religion, Singh said.

“Gender equality … (is) the core principle of Sikhism and so being a girl I feel like I had so many more opportunities given to me,” said Gurbani Makkar, neuroscience junior. 

Gurudwaras, or Sikh temples of worship, have a “langar,” or an open kitchen, where food is cooked throughout the day for anyone who comes to the Gurudwara. Members of the Sikh community volunteer to serve food to anyone who comes to eat. 

At the time the religion was founded, not only did these kitchens provide free food to the poor and needy, but also symbolized equality where all people, irrespective of gender, caste or race could sit together and eat. The system overthrew the existing institution of untouchability where people from the “untouchable” caste could not eat or drink water at the same place as upper castes. 

Gurudwaras all over the world still continue the tradition, and remain open all day and night in India. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the most prominent Gurudwara for Sikhs, has more than 80,000 people come and eat each day, according to a report in The Deccan Herald, a leading Indian newspaper.

Gurudwaras are open to everyone, and people from all religions and races can attend. 

The environment is welcoming, and there are volunteers who will help first-time attendees tour the temple, said Suneet Flora, a biology senior. There are projectors that depict the history of the religion and translate the original script written in Gurumukhi to English, but no one will push the religion on non-Sikhs, she said. 

“Sikhism is not a very judging religion; it’s very open,” Flora said. “We go to the Gurudwara and I’ve seen white and black people, and they haven’t         converted but they just go there and listen to the prayers.”

Makkar and Singh are regulars at their Gurudwaras, and as a child, Singh went to the Gurudwara every Sunday with his parents. Yet, his parents told him to question the faith and not follow it blindly as an obligation, he said. 

The birth of Sikhism

Guru Nanak, who rejected the caste system and ritualistic existence of established religions early in his life, founded Sikhism, the youngest mainstream religion of the world, in 1499.

Guru Nanak showed through his life that contrary to most religious beliefs, one could be a family man and still attain enlightenment, Singh said. 

The religion developed over the next 200 years as nine other prophets, or Gurus, followed and each wrote down their experiences and teachings into The Guru.

The Guru also contains sayings from other religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, Singh said. 

“(The 10 Gurus) were never about themselves, but always about humanity as a whole,” he said. 

Most of the experiences and stories written in The Guru speak of a saga of survival of Sikhs despite mass persecution by the Muslim emperors in India at the time.  

As a result, the 10th prophet, Guru Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa order by baptizing the first five Sikhs. Since then, Sikhs are identified by five symbols, or the 5Ks. 

Sikhs keep their hair long and even keep body hair because uncut hair, or “Kesh,” symbolizes embracing and accepting what God gave, Flora said. However, men must tie their hair up in a turban while the women can leave it loose. 

The comb, or “Kanga,” represents tidiness while the long underwear, or “Kacchera,” stands for modesty. 

The iron bracelet, or “Kara,” worn on the wrist, symbolizes the infinity loop. Whenever it hits a flat surface, as it will when one places his or her hand on the table, it makes a clanging sound that reminds Sikhs of God before they make any decisions, Makkar said. 

 The “Kripan,” or sword signifies the right to defend oneself, a symbol that represents the valor and chivalry of the Sikhs.   

Baptism, or taking “Amrit,” is not mandatory. Once a Sikh is baptized, however, he or she cannot drink alcohol or consume meat and must pray at a fixed time every day. 

While Sikhs who are not baptized can choose to keep their hair long and wear the bracelet, only baptized Sikhs can carry a sword, Singh said. 

Sikhs can choose to be baptized whenever they want, however, whether or not they can be baptized is a decision that is weighed against how responsible the person has been in the past to ensure they don’t abuse the power of the sword, he said. 

Sikhism today

Singh grew up in Punjab, a state in northwest India. The state is home to more than 19 million Sikhs or about 19 percent of the nation’s population according to the Indian Census of 2001, the most recent available census.

Makkar and Flora both grew up in the United States, where Sikhs form a very small minority. The American Religion Survey of 2011 from the United States Census Bureau reported 78,000 people that identified themselves as Sikhs in the country. 

While Makkar grew up practicing the religion and attending Gurudwara every Sunday, Flora grew up relatively detached from Sikhism, because most of the places where she lived did not have a Gurudwara nearby. 

When her family moved to Dallas in her late teens, they started attending Sunday Gurudwara, and slowly, she found herself able to relate to the stories in the Guru, she said. 

While both Makkar and Singh associate themselves and their way of life with Sikhism, Flora chooses to not define who she is by her religion. 

All religions teach the same values, Flora said, and Sikhism allows her to practice the religion without necessarily overtly identifying herself as one. Flora has her hair cut short, but she wears the iron bracelet. She goes to the Gurudwara often, but not every Sunday, and she enjoys the stories in the Guru. 

“I think that should be true of every religion — I don’t think it should define (you),” Flora said. “It’s what I believe, but I don’t think people should have to know that I am (a Sikh).”

Yet, she questions her faith and prefers scientific explanations to spiritual ones. 

While the “langar” is a good way to serve the community, Flora said most of those who eat at the “langar” in the United States are affluent Sikhs. She is a strong advocate of community volunteerism and said she hoped Sikhs in the United States would eventually start serving the community outside of the Gurudwara, too, including feeding the homeless and the hungry. 

Post 9/11, Sikhs were often confused for Muslims because of their turbans and both Flora and Makkar have experienced the veiled hostility when TSA officials and others would stare at them at airports. 

It made her and her siblings feel very isolated, despite the fact that they were all Americans, Flora said. 

“It honestly gives you appreciation to not judge other people,” Makkar said. 

After the Oak Creek shooting in the Wisconsin Gurudwara in 2012, which killed seven people, the media focus was more on the religion and what it was, but it brought a lot of awareness, Makkar said. The TSA have since had more training on how to handle a turban without having to take it off.

Makkar herself is part of a national group called the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization. The organization works toward human rights for all people, particularly Sikhs so they may practice their faith with freedom and interact with the local community. Part of their outreach involves going to kindergarten and elementary schools and raising awareness about the Sikh religion, Makkar said. 

Makkar and nine other students recently created a Facebook group for the UTD Sikh Student Association. The group now has 40 members, including Singh and Flora, and has started the process of becoming a student organization on campus, with neuroscience professor Brenna Hill as their adviser. 

Starting next fall, they hope to be a student organization on campus and are planning to host events like “Tie a Turban” day and the Baisakhi festival to raise awareness about the religion on campus, Makkar said.

Despite the challenges Sikhs face in the United States, what keeps them going are the stories of their Gurus fighting emperors with a band of a few hundred men, the stories of how the ninth Guru was executed and how the Sikhs persisted in resistance as they struggled to keep their faith alive. 

One of the biggest edicts of Sikhism is “Nirbhau Nirvair,” which means take on everything without fear as God does, Makkar said. The other is to hate no one and have no enemies, and the essential message of peace and tolerance has helped her deal with conflicts on a day-to-day basis, she said. 

“My father always taught me to be courageous, that if you want to do something go out there and do it, but also be prepared to face the consequences,” Singh said.

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