Saturday, January 29, 2011

From the Archives: Reflections on the Symbols of Faith: A Case Involving the Sikh Kirpan

While lecturing this past week, I found myself drawing examples from some of my experiences while I was in India, back when I was 19. That reminded me of this post from a couple of years ago. Enjoy!

Last month, a former IRS revenue agent, Kawaljeet Kaur Tagore, sued the IRS for wrongful termination. The story caught my attention because of why she was fired. They fired her because she was ordered to remove her kirpan, a symbolic item that--as a baptized Sikh--she’s required to wear at all times along with four other symbols of her faith. She refused, and so lost her job.

Although the original kirpans were full-length swords, the typical kirpan today resembles a small sheathed knife, its blade blunt since it’s meant to be symbolic rather than functional. Despite the fact that the office building where she worked was replete with scissors and box cutters that could do far more damage that a blunt kirpan, the object was treated as a weapon and judged inappropriate at the workplace.

This case is one among many similar cases—including a recent case in Denmark, in which a young Sikh was fined for violating the Danish weapons ban. The case interests me in part on a professional level, for the issues it raises about freedom of religion. But I’m also interested in it for more personal reasons.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a semester off to go to India with my family. My father was traveling there on a Fulbright—to work at the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad, Bihar—and the rest of the family decided he wouldn’t go without us. And so we all ended up in an out-of-the-way mining town. Since the place wasn't exactly a tourist destination, we were something of a novelty (my mother's pale blue eyes often inspired astonished stares).

The president of the school was a Sikh with a daughter my sister’s age, and so we were often at their house. It was one of the few places where we watched American movies on TV, since they had a VCR. Other Sikh faculty invited us for tea in their homes. One in particular invited us to attend a Sikh service at the Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship).

It was at the Gurdwara that I met Raju, a young Sikh my age. Raju became my best friend while I was India. He was a frequent visitor at the guest house where we stayed, and I was at his home a number of times (a modest place with two main rooms, a kitchen area, and a larger courtyard where many in the extended family slept). The family ran a small kiosk where you could buy everyday items such as soap and packaged cheese. I saw much of Dhanbad riding on the back of Raju’s light blue scooter, which he was expert at steering through streets crowded with rickshaws and cows, pedestrians and black Ambassador cars.

Somewhere there’s a photo of me wearing a turban wrapped in Sikh style. Raju put it on me after he unraveled it from his own head. This was something he did in order to show me the comb that he wore in his hair as well as the hair itself, a long coil that had never been cut. The unshorn hair and the comb are two of the five articles of faith, or “kakars,” that “baptized” Sikhs (that is, Sikhs who’ve been through the commitment ceremony of Amrit) are required to maintain on their person at all times. The other three are loose-fitting undergarments, a steel bracelet, and the kirpan.

Each of these items has symbolic significance for Sikhs, and Raju was patient enough to explain each to me while we sat in my little room at the guest house. The unshorn hair, or kesh, represents a commitment to respect God’s creation as God created it—that is, not to tamper with God’s intentions for the world. It also represents a guard against one of the five vices that Sikhs are committed to resisting in their lives: the vice of “ego.” Ego encompasses vanity. Vanity, an excessive interest in one’s own appearance, is really one manifestation of a broader fixation on self. As I understand it, kesh pretty much blocks any impulse you might have to fuss over your hair, and thus reminds the Sikh of the broader obligation to set aside any sort of undue fixation on oneself, and to give oneself over to God.

The comb, or kanga, is used to untangle the hair and maintain it, and as such is a reminder not only to maintain cleanliness but more broadly to preserve the hygiene and health of the body one has been given—that is, to take care of what God has given you. Also, as one combs through the length of one’s hair (usually twice a day) dead hairs fall away. This can serve as a reminder that this mortal life is a passing thing, and so can help to guard against another of the five vices: a false attachment to the impermanent things of this world.

The undergarments, or kacchera, are a symbol of modesty, but more broadly of the commitment to resist unseemly desires, especially the vice of lust, and to exhibit self-control.

The steel bracelet, or kara, is the symbolic item that the Sikh is most likely to see most often through the day. Worn on the right wrist, it is a sign of the unbreakable bond between oneself and God, and among one another, and to the Guru. It also serves as a visible reminder that one’s hands should be put to good purpose. Since one steals with one’s hand, it is a broad symbol to resist the vice of greed.

And finally, there’s the kirpan, the ceremonial sword that’s usually today little more than a blunted knife kept in a sheath. A typical pair of scissors would be a more dangerous weapon than your typical kirpan. It symbolizes the Sikh’s commitment to standing up for justice, defending the weak, and more metaphorically to struggle for what is right and good and to resist vice. The kirpan is never to be drawn in anger, and is in fact intended to symbolize the need to resist the vice of anger. We are, after all, dangerous when we’re angry. The blade stays in the sheath just as our anger stays under control. If the kirpan is drawn at all, it is in defense of oneself or another (although I doubt the symbolic kirpan would be much help in either case).

These are the five symbols of faith that Raju showed to me. I don’t remember the exact words that he used to describe them. My own descriptions above draw not only on what Raju told me that first time, but also on my own reading about Sikhism in the decades since. As such, whatever misreprentation of Sikhism my descriptions express are my own—an attempt by a non-Sikh to explain the significance of these holy symbols.

As Raju led me through the five kakars, what I remember more clearly than his words was the reverence in his tone. He became very solemn as he spoke of them, and the earnest expression in his eyes was a testament to how deeply meaningful they were. They were an integral part of his identity, symbolic tokens of what he aspired to be, of his connection to a broader community and to God. Wearing them was not just an act of obedience, a response to the mandate of Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the ten Sikh Gurus and the one who called upon all baptized Sikhs to wear each article of faith. For Raju, wearing them was a matter of honor and a gesture of daily devotion.

There is little in my life that I can compare the five kakars to. The closest I can come is the Advent wreath, with its four candles for each Sunday in Advent (Norwegian Advents wreaths have only the four; although the more common Advent wreath has five). Each candle symbolically represents an important Christian virtue (peace, hope, love, joy), and it has always meant a lot to me to take time every Sunday in Advent to light the candles, and to recite the Norwegian poem that names each of the virtues in turn (in that poem, “lengsel” or yearning takes the place of love, but I have always understood it to refer to the yearning of the soul for God, the questing love that reaches out to the God who is love).

That weekly Advent ritual may be the most deeply religious and personally affecting ritual I participate in. It moves me. The act of lighting each candle, one more every week, and speaking the words of the poem (one additional verse every week), puts me in touch with my best self, that part of me that stands in an existential relation with God.

But that ritual and its symbolism are isolated to one month every year. It isn’t a daily ritual. The symbols are not ever-present, every day of one’s life, on one’s very person. I can only imagine the kind of power such symbolism has, the power to penetrate one’s deepest sense of who one is.

I saw it, however fleetingly, in Raju’s eyes as he showed me each symbol in turn, and explained to me what it meant. And then, in typical Raju fashion, he turned to me, saw his unraveled turban—and then laughed as he began wrapping it around my head. And then we went in to show my parents, who ran off to get the camera.

It’s in the light of this memory that I think about a Sikh woman being told she must either relinquish her kirpan or lose her job. I remember Raju’s earnest eyes and the tender, trembling fingers as he held up each token of his faith. I do not think that any of us can adequately assess this case without at least attempting to understand the reverent significance that the five kakars have for a sincere Sikh.

As I read some of the blogging about this case, I was struck by the almost cavalier way in which the woman’s complaint was dismissed. A common comment was something of the form, “If it’s just a symbol, why not just wear a lapel pin?” The best I can do, in response to this quip, is to liken it to someone who prohibits me from lighting my Advent wreath and then quips, “If it’s just a symbol, why not just turn on some electric bulbs?”

The power of a symbol, its psychological impact, depends in part on what it’s like. A candle that one lights with a match has a different symbolic resonance than an electric bulb. Something that can be drawn from a sheath and hefted in one’s hand has a different symbolic resonance than a bit of tin pinned to one’s clothes. And when a ritual practice works its way into your sinews through daily repetition, when the objects implicated in the ritual resemble those that were used by others long ago and far away, forging connections and community across time and space, it’s not a simple matter to trade out one ritual token for another.

I do not know enough about the IRS case, about Ms. Tagore’s unique circumstances or the requirements of her job, to make any sort of definitive judgment on this particular case. Some bloggers have pointed out that revenue agents need to visit businesses and private homes in the course of their work, and that what looks like a knife at one’s hip may create ongoing difficulties for carrying out work responsibilities. There may be safety concerns that I don’t know anything about.

But what I do know is this: We cannot evaluate this case or similar cases without an empathetic understanding of what the kirpan means to the sincere Sikh. I have Raju, and the memory of his reverent posture and solemn words, to remind me of that.


  1. What a moving and fascinating account. It seems that Sikhism as you have described it is very close to biblical monotheism. And your Sikh friend sounds like one of those Gentiles who do by nature those things required by the law, which acquits his conscience in this case (Romans 1-3).

    I don't see how God could condemn someone like that to Hell (I'm not directing this comment at you specifically, especially in light of your book! just a general comment).

  2. Some of the most spiritually deep people I've known come from the Indian subcontinent--from a variety of faith traditions. In fact, spending time in India may have done more to deepen my own sense of connection to the transcendent than any other single experience in my life.

    It also explains the abrupt end to the flirtation with a fundamentalist/charismatic Christian I'd become connected with prior to leaving for India. When I returned to the US, I was visiting with members of that group and one of them commented, "I hear that worship of idols and the Devil is rampant in India." And realized that nothing I said in response to that comment would convince them otherwise, because their concept of what constituted Devil and idol worship was so strictly defined in terms of their narrow brand of faith that it meant almost the same as "not the kinds of Christians we are."

  3. has updates on this case.

  4. I also have to the answer of this question ... If it’s just a symbol, why not just wear a lapel pins?