Tag Archive for 'Sikhism'

The story of the turban

Sikh art: reflections of a unique, spiritual identity

From HuffingtonPost.com

While Sikh art largely celebrates the unique spiritual and secular identity of the Sikh people, it also reflects the artistic diversity of the Punjab region (an area now divided between India and Pakistan) where Sikhism originated. From social customs to costumes, to the painting styles of the Mughal dynasty and other kingdoms in the region, Sikh artists synthesized a wide range of elements to create their own distinct imagery.

The followers of Sikh religion are disciples of 10 esteemed gurus, or teachers, the first of whom was Nanak (1469–1539), Sikhism’s historical founder. Although Hindu by birth, Nanak’s teachings are centered on the concept of one sovereign god and Sikh beliefs embrace aspects of other religious traditions, including Islam. Nanak has said, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” His life and teachings are compiled into texts known as janam sakhis (life stories)n The paintings in illustrated versions of this text bring to life the guru not only as an older spiritual leader, but also as a young man. more

A skeptic’s guide to reincarnation

Hartosh Singh Bal in 3quarksdaily:

The Karmapa sits cross-legged on a throne facing several rows of monks, mostly Tibetan and male, arrayed on the floor according to rank. The rows behind the monks are the lay deity, most Western and female, gathered here to hear him preach during his annual sojourn at Sarnath, just a few miles from Benares. A life-size picture of the Dalai Lama looks down on him, above and beyond golden against the vivid blue, yellow and oranges of the murals on the monastery walls a giant statue of the Buddha dwarfs them both.

He is speaking at the Vajra meditation centre, across the road from the centre is the boundary wall of the deer park where the Budha first preached the dhamma almost 2,500 years ago. I am in the audience because a series of ham-handed interventions by the state government of Himachal Pradesh, the state where the Dalai Lama has dwelt in India after his flight from Tibet in 1959, have managed to rather implausibly brand the Karmapa a Chinese spy, the others in the audience, pained as they are by the charges, are here because they believe the 26-year-old seated before them is seventeenth in the line of reincarnations that date back to the first Karmapa born in 1110.

Since then, they believe, each Karmapa has left a message foretelling where he would be reborn, and senior Lamas of the Kagyu sect (one of the four important schools of Tibetan Buddhism including the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school that attained political power in Tibet in the seventeenth century with some help from the Mongols) have set out in search each time a Karmapa has died. The idea became central to Tibetan Buddhism and was slowly imitated by other schools. The Dalai Lama lineage starts hundreds of years later, which is why the current Dalai Lama is but the fourteenth in the chain of reincarnations.

The system has given rise to an elaborate web of interrelated reincarnations comprising the important lamas of the various sects. When a young boy is identified as a reincarnation based on a set of signs and portents, he is brought to be trained at a monastery, usually by the very men who had been taught by his predecessor, and when they die it is he who will identify their reincarnations. Unlike a western observer, the concept is not alien to me, quite the contrary. Among my people, the Sikhs, it is the tenth guru – Gobind Singh who brought the line of living gurus to an end by vesting that spiritual power in a book that is largely a compilation of their writings. More:

A Sikh temple where all may eat, and pitch in

Lydia Polgreeen in The New York Times:

Amritsar: The groaning, clattering machines never stop, transforming 12 tons of whole wheat flour every day into nearly a quarter-million discs of flatbread called roti. These purpose-built contraptions, each 20 feet long, extrude the dough, roll it flat, then send it down a gas-fired conveyor belt, spitting out a never-ending stream of hot, floppy, perfectly round bread.

Soupy lentils, three and a third tons of them, bubble away in vast cauldrons, stirred by bearded, barefoot men wielding wooden spoons the size of canoe paddles. The pungent, savory bite wafting through the air comes from 1,700 pounds of onions and 132 pounds of garlic, sprinkled with 330 pounds of fiery red chilies.

It is lunchtime at what may be the world’s largest free eatery, the langar, or community kitchen at this city’s glimmering Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Everything is ready for the big rush. Thousands of volunteers have scrubbed the floors, chopped onions, shelled peas and peeled garlic. At least 40,000 metal plates, bowls and spoons have been washed, stacked and are ready to go.

Anyone can eat for free here, and many, many people do. On a weekday, about 80,000 come. On weekends, almost twice as many people visit. Each visitor gets a wholesome vegetarian meal, served by volunteers who embody India’s religious and ethnic mosaic. More:

The holy city of Amritsar

James Lamont in the Financial Times:

GoldenTempleAmritsar was the first place to which Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, travelled after convalescing from heart surgery earlier this year. The dignified Singh, India’s first Sikh prime minister, went from New Delhi to Amritsar, a dusty city in north-west India, to give thanks for his life. Amritsar is to the Sikh what Jerusalem is to the Christian and Jew, Mecca to the Muslim and Varanasi to the Hindu. The Golden Temple, or Darbar Sahib, is the holiest Sikh shrine.

So it was that early one morning, dressed in white kurta, black tunic and characteristic light blue turban, Singh and his wife Gursharan walked slowly along the marbled quadrangle surrounding the Golden Temple. They entered the ornate, jewelled sanctum and listened to plaintive hymns for half an hour. It was possibly the most transported moment that Singh, or “lion” in Punjabi, had enjoyed since his deep anaesthesia under the charge of 11 doctors.

The Golden Temple sits in the middle of a sacred lake, or sarowar, reached along a canopied causeway. To wander around its edges surrounded by devotees – many of whom are pulling their clothes off for a divine dip – is to enter a slow time of gentle reverence. More:

‘Sikh women should not pluck eyebrows’

A young girl was denied admission into a Sikh-run college in Amritsar because she plucked her eyebrows. She challenged it in a court and, in a verdict running into 152 pages, the judges have endorsed the stand taken by the supreme temporal body of the Sikhs, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and said the college was justified in refusing to admit her.

The SGPC manages all Sikh minority institutions. It said a believer could not be a true Sikh – even if born in a Sikh family — if he or she trimmed hair.

According a report in the Times of India, “Saturday’s order, replete with references to Sikh history and Sikh model code of conduct, also noted that the Guru Granth Sahib is for guidance of Sikhs in their pursuit towards spiritual salvation. It does not deal with the code of conduct prescribed for Sikhs. It was the Sikh rehat-maryada (code of conduct) that dealt with issues like importance of unshorn hair.”

Sikhs are forbidden by their holy book to cut their hair. Hair is one of the five symbols (known as the five Ks) of Sikh faith: Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kaccha – also spelt Kachh (cotton underwear) and Kirpan (steel sword). Sikh women are just as forbidden to cut any body hair or even trim their eyebrows. More about the faith here.

Sikhs and casteism

khanda1Riots erupted across the Punjab region of India on Monday after a Sikh preacher from an Indian sect was killed by a rival Sikh group in Austria. Within hours of the incident in Vienna, thousands of Sikhs took to the streets, setting fire to buildings, vehicles and a train. Curfew was imposed in four towns and the army fanned out to quell the violence.

The dead man belonged to Dera Guru Ravidass Sachkhand Balan, a Sikh sect of dalits, or untouchables. Sikhism rejects caste divisions; one of its main tenets is the equality of all believers. But caste inequality is entrenched in rural Punjab, resulting in the spread of caste-based sects within Sikhism.

“In fact, all major villages in Punjab today have two gurdwaras – one frequented by the so-called ‘upper castes’ or Jat Sikhs, another by Dalits or ‘lower castes,’” writes Vipin Pubby in the Indian Express. Click here to read the full story.

Deciphering Deras

The Indian Express has an excellent FAQ on the history of deras (Sikh sects) in Punjab:

What are deras and why are they in the news? A dera is technically the headquarters of a group of devotees who follow the teachings of a particular spiritual guru and generally have a living representative of the guru who is equally revered. The representatives of the gurus, who hold the gaddi, are normally anointed by their predecessors.

How many deras are there in Punjab? Estimates vary but it is generally believed that there are about 300 major deras across the state and the neighbouring state of Haryana. Out of these, about a dozen have substantial following – over one lakh devotees each. There are hundreds of others which are restricted to a few villages each. More:

Partition of the heart

In The Guardian, Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, reviews Aatish Taseer‘s Stranger to History : A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands


Aatish Taseer grew up in secular, pluralist India. His early influences included his mother’s Sikhism, a Christian boarding school, and He-Man cartoons. Nagging behind this cultural abundance, however, was an absence: of his estranged father, the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer.

The best of Stranger to History is the son’s journey of the subtitle: the movement towards – and away from – his father’s world. Taseer describes the embarrassment, frustration and occasional joy of meeting his father and half-siblings, and of approaching a cultural and national identity which painfully excludes him. Alternating with this story is a more generalised journey into Islam, from the Leeds suburb that produced the 7/7 bombers, through Istanbul, Damascus and Mecca, to Iran and Pakistan. On the way Taseer observes the “cartoon riots”, is interrogated by Iranian security officials and watches the response in his father’s Lahore home to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The writing is elegant and fluent throughout, the characters skilfully drawn.


Very Difficult To Be Both Indian And Pakistani’

In Outlook, Anjali Puri interviews Aatish Taseer:

What was your father’s response when you told him you were writing a book?

He said — it’s in the book — if you are writing another filthy diatribe against Pakistan, I don’t want to have any part of it. He felt that his family had been patriots, he didn’t want anything he saw as… He granted that my prejudice wasn’t intended, he didn’t think I was trying to wilfully misconstrue the picture. But he felt that I was prejudiced and he didn’t want to be part of anything that would potentially run down Islam, run down Pakistan. And you know, the whole private story, by the time we come around to the book, this story has come out in newspapers, it is not a big secret. Everyone in Pakistan knows that I am his son. But he has tried to rein that back. In an interview he will say he has six children which is just a silly thing to say, everyone knows. Because he has dealt with this so little in his world, even the personal story is embarrassing to him.


Narinder Singh’s comic cause

Narinder Singh in Newsweek on how he took to the comedy circuit to change perceptions about Sikhism. [via SAJA]

Narinder Singh

Narinder Singh / Newsweek

I began doing stand-up to educate my fellow Americans about my religion. I wanted to show that Sikhs were not fanatical Muslims. I laced jokes with facts conveying that 99 percent of people with turbans in America were Sikhs, that Sikhism started in India 500 years ago and was now the fifth largest religion in the world. We believed in one God and equality for all, regardless of race, color, gender, religion and caste. But I was not funny.

I started reading books on stand-up comedy. After performing on each new-talent night, I stayed till the end to watch other comics and studied the audience to see how each age group reacted differently. At home I watched professional comedians on Comedy Central for hours and changed my material, making it more biting and provocative.

And a sampling

“A lot of people ask me why I wear a turban,” goes one of my jokes. “I tell them it’s because it contracepts my vices. But you know what, turbans are great contraceptives … I haven’t had sex in five years!”


Bangle law or bungle law?

A Sikh teenage schoolgirl has just won the right to wear a kada to a school that has a strict ‘no-jewellery’ policy. This is a victory for British tolerance, writes Jasdev Singh Rai in The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

The Sikh schoolgirl Sarika Watkins-Singh’s victory at the high court to wear her “kara”, the steel bangle worn by Sikhs, is a reflection of British tolerance and a common-sense approach to different cultural communities when compared to the more fundamentalist approach of countries such as France. Twenty-first century France still cannot come to grips with a turban-wearing schoolchild. But it is sad that Sarika had to go to the court at all. As her solicitor said, each generation seems to have to go through the same struggles.

All the articles and practices of Sikhs signify the various concepts of Sikh philosophy. The articles were enjoined to the Sikhs by the gurus, particularly the 10th and last of the gurus some 300 years ago. The Sikhs have dutifully maintained them.


For a history of previous cases of religious symbols at work or school, click here.