Sunday, August 5, 2012

On the Occasion of Tragedy: Symbols of the Sikh Faith

Today's news about the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee immediately evoked for me the memories of the Sikh friends I made in India years ago. My heart aches for the victims, for the Sikh community which has been targeted for reasons yet unknown, and for all of us who have to live in a world in which such senseless and unexpected violence takes place.

It occurs to me that few Americans know very much about the Sikh religion. Absurdly, Sikhs are often confused with Muslims--I suspect mainly just because Sikh men wear turbans in public as a matter of religious observance, and some Muslims wear turbans (albeit in a very different style). This is a bit like confusing the Amish with Hasidic Jews because they sometimes wear old-fashioned-looking hats (except that there is a much closer relationship between the Amish and Hasidic Jews than there is between Sikhism and Islam).

It is not my place to give Americans a lesson on the Sikh faith. There are better resources than me. But one of the fears I have, when a tragedy like this strikes in our country, is that we won't experience the tragedy as our own. We'll think of it as someone else's tragedy. Of course, in a sense, for most of us it is: No one we know and love has died. But that didn't stop most of us from taking ownership of the Aurora, CO, tragedy of a couple of weeks ago--in the sense of identifying with the victims and their families, of feeling an ache, of imagining that it could have been us or those we love.

But sometimes it's harder to identify with those we know little or nothing about. And so, for what it's worth, on the occasion of this tragedy I want to share a portion of an essay that originally appeared on this blog back in February 2009. That essay was sparked by the controversial termination of a Sikh IRS agent, fired for refusing to remove her kirpan--one of the symbols of her faith.

The portion of the essay I'm reprinting here has to do with a moment of friendship that I'll never forget--a moment in which I not only learned more about the Sikh religion than I had before, but in which this faith came alive for me in a very personal way.

My teacher was a Sikh my own age, a young man named Raju who I met when I was invited to attend a Sikh service at the Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship). All of this happened back when I was a college sophomore spending a semester in India with the rest of my family--mostly in the city of Dhanbad, in Bihar, where my father had a Fulbright lectureship at the Indian School of Mines. Here is the passage I want to share:

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 instead 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 (which today is actually a sacred text--a collection of hymns and teachings called the Guru Granth Sahib, since the tenth and last human Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, declared that it should be his successor). The kara 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 stand up for justice, to defend 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 misrepresentation 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 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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this. It is probably the most meaningful thing I will read about this whole unfortunate event.