To Each His Own: by RUBIN PAUL SINGH
A Response to "Where Are We Heading"
After reading Charanpal Singh's article a few times and the comments to follow, it occurred to me that this isn't really about Balpreet Singh or the WSO.
In fact the entire premise of the article was debunked when Balpreet commented that he wore a suit and tie to the General Assembly. And the idea that employees of a Sikh organization should reflect the "norm of the Sikh community" is absurd. If the majority of the community cannot be identified as Sikhs and violates the rehat maryada, is this the profile we should be seeking out for representatives?
Perhaps things are different on this side of the border, in the U.S. The way I see it, we have enough influences that are moving people away from Sikhi, so if someone chooses to celebrate their bana ... more power to them!
Didn't Guru Sahib give us this uniform because he wanted us to stand out? Wearing a 16-inch kirpan may not be my personal style, but when the Kirpan or any of our articles of faith are prohibited, for whatever reason, I would expect our community to stand united, not blaming one another.
As the rest of the article and comments spiraled into a bizarre debate of what looks attractive, unkempt, smart, "scraggly" and so on ... we finally hit some "real" issues of identity, assimilation, and how far we as Sikhs must go in order to adapt to our environment. Obviously, opinions vary.
I may look at someone wearing "Nihang Bana" and question the need for it. Others may look at me for keeping a "khulli dharrhi" and think I look unprofessional and unkempt, and some may look at those who wear dastaars as being backward altogether, as the necessity for a Sikh uniform is really outdated ... and round and round we go. Each group judging one another, thinking they're superior over the other, wondering what "they" are trying to prove.
Years ago, I ventured across the border to attend a youth retreat in Toronto. I immediately found myself out of place with most of the male retreaters in "Nihang Bana." But what really shocked me was when meal-time came around and I found the cafeteria broken off in different groups, some only eating out of "sarab loh" dishes, while others only ate food prepared by other amritdharis who followed the same maryada.
I thought to myself, this is a Sikh retreat? I was ready to pack my bags and leave! But somewhere over the next couple days I began to engage with some of the folks. My roommate woke up well before dawn every day, washed his hair, and completed his five banis and spent 30 minutes in simran before the sun came up.
And after dinner, another group would meet and sing the most beautiful kirtan until late in the night. And when we entered the Guru's darbar and sang the theme shabad we had spent the weekend discussing, it was like one voice ... we were all connected. It was one of the most powerful Sikh experiences I've had. The more I engaged with everybody , the more I realized we weren't all that different at all.
The Rehat Maryada defines the bare minimum of who a Sikh is, but above and beyond that - there are all different shades. We can fight it ... or we can learn what we can from each other and leave the rest behind.
While at the retreat, during those powerful divans, I realized that amongst all our differences, we all shared one thing in common ... a desire to connect with the Guru. At that moment, our clothing and eating preferences really didn't matter.
Somewhere in this debate, we overlooked something significant.
Women who wear veils were fighting for religious accommodation. And although this practice is prohibited by Sikhs, in the spirit of the Guru Tegh Bahadar, a Sikh organization felt compelled to speak out on their behalf - as no one should be prevented from practicing their religion or wearing their articles of faith freely.
Charanpal Singh called this "an altruistic act." I agree.
It's quite beautiful really.
But somehow, rather than celebrate what unites it - we'd rather bicker over what sets us apart.
It makes me wonder ... where are we heading?
April 13, 2011
Conversation about this article
1: I. J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 8:50 AM.
A very understanding, accommodating and comprehensive perspective. Yes, we need to exchange views and, if necessary, even disagree. Passions run high as expected, but we are, in the final analysis, on the same side. We need to keep that in mind. Thank you, Rubin, for an inclusive outlook.
2: Jesroshan Singh (Malaysia), April 13, 2011, 9:42 AM.
The men in my family inspired me to keep the turban. I am in the final stages of keeping my hair. Three months' time and it will be shoulder-length and just right to tie my kesh in a knot. The problem is I can't keep a beard. I have acidic sweat and the long beard itches a lot. I tried once and got used to it but then, again, I thought I shall move forward, one step at a time.
3: H.S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 11:15 AM.
The principle that one should stand up with others for their right to practice wrong (in this case, the veil), while at the same time claiming to stand on principles of right (against the veil) is moral dissonance.
4: Aman (California, U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 11:39 AM.
The problem I see is that without question, the Sikh identity is being challenged today from both within and without. The reason for our passion for both sides is that we ALL want to try to maintain the Sikh identity. Some of us think that we have to look clean, smooth, or in-style. Others say it doesn't matter how you really present yourself as so as long as you wear the turban and keep your beard. I have to agree with the former argument because although I think one should be able to dress and appear as they want, this does not work in this society we live in. Whether we like it or not, appearance is everything and if we want our children to keep the identity, we have to make it presentable to all. Lastly, to those that will argue that the Nihang bana is traditional, etc., in the end it (the bana) is just a statement that the wearers are trying to make. We're not at war, riding horseback, etc. It's a style. Just like any other style.
5: K. Singh (MA, U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 11:51 AM.
It is these articles that make me really think about where we are heading and the vagaries of our uncertain future. We must not attack each other, but come together to join as one united front to grow and show the world who Sikhs are. As Rubin Veer ji talks about in the article, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what kind of dishes you eat from ... it matters how we all come together to become One with the Guru and form a sangat. We are at a point now where the panth is weak and many are turning away from the Guru, some because of these reasons stated in these few articles. We must look beyond that and move and grow.
6: Damanjit Singh Gill (Santa Cruz, California, U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 2:58 PM.
Thank you so much, Rubin Paul Singh. It's like you took the feelings out of my mind and put them in perfect words. This article totally made my Vaisakhi. I love the image of the Rehat Maryada being the base, and all our personal efforts past that being different shades. Ultimately we're all colored in that same "rungg" of love for our Sikhi, our Guru, our Waheguru. We present that color in so many different ways. If anything, our shades, our interpretations and expressions of the same Truth, should not be divisive, but beautiful and unifying phenomena.
7: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, CA, U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 3:48 PM.
The opposition from outside is mainly due to ignorance about our traditions. Once explained, people understand and accommodate. Opposition from inside is due to a complex and a desire to conform. Keeping an open beard and sporting a Nihang turban does not make one less than neat. I was the only Sikh with bana living in South Africa, representing my company during the apartheid era. All I found was respct and friendship. I never felt belittled on any occasion by the white minority.
8: Ravinder Singh (U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 5:13 PM.
Thank you, Rubin Paul Singh, for your article. You have summed up exactly how I feel and exactly how Sikhs should be. Let's stop judging each other and start working together. Sikhism is an open-minded way of life. I personally think it's great that we all practice slightly differently - just shows how amazing Sikhism is!
9: T. Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), April 13, 2011, 8:35 PM.
I strongly agree with this article in that we should be accepting of one another. We shouldn't be fighting unnecessarily with one another. By being judgmental and criticizing one another, we are only creating tension and hostility within the community. By criticizing others, by claiming we are better than them, we are feeding our ego and moving away from the Guru. Too many people focus too much on others, and not enough on themselves. By doing our bani every day, by changing the way we live, the way we act, the way we talk, and even the way we think, we can become better Sikhs. The more we understand bani, the more these things will become clear to us. Improving ourselves in the biggest ways is the best way to improve the panth and help it grow. Ignorance fuels too many of the world's conflicts. Before we argue with one another, we should try to learn all that there is to know about the topic, and we should always remember that gurbani has the answers for all questions. We can only begin to stand up for what is "right" after we truly understand what "right" is.
10: Manjeet Kaur Shergill (Singapore), April 13, 2011, 8:36 PM.
Sikhs spend far too much time with the external form. It's kind of like a woman taking too long powdering her nose. Some people tolerate that kind of indulgence, some people just get quite annoyed.
11: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), April 13, 2011, 8:56 PM.
Ravinder ji: I agree with the message in both these articles in their own light. I cannot help noticing how our responses turn into a 'khichree' (a mixed chow). Soon we will conclude by applauding our diversity of opinions in this case. I must be naive but I anticipate some kind of outcome. The essential items of the Sikh dress are kesh, kangha, karra, kirpan, with kachhehra worn under the clothes and a (not too large) turban. All the other clothes, ornaments and layers, are optional and thus, someone wearing only these, dressed in a western suit, is no less a Sikh than someone wearing a multilayered turban, beads, swords, etc. Freedom to be diverse, as lauded by Rubin above, is excellent. But, sadly, people judge first by the appearance and, often, appearance is the only representation we have among those who are (or want to stay) unfamiliar with us. The discussion here appears to ignore the ugly reality of media manipulation. I do not mean to minimize our battle against assimilation, but an attorney who goes to plead, in a western court, that the Sikh kirpan is not a weapon, must not go to the court dressed as a Nihang warrior. He says that he did not, and I have no reason to doubt him. But if the media has pictures to show him dressed as a Nihang warrior, did he expect the media to show how properly he was dressed for the court or, the picture to suit their own agenda? Public figures need to be vigilant and need to cleverly preempt such manipulation. Let someone catch Mamnohan Singh in his pajamas and a patka and I can guarantee that the western media would be thrilled to show it, and will show him much more often than, his minimal representation now with turban and conservative clothes. It is said that Guru Gobind Singh also once declared, 'Jaisa des taisa bhes' - meaning, dress according to where you are. We must not forget that public figures do not have the freedom to dress as they please. This is not being close-minded or judging anyone.
12: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 14, 2011, 12:03 AM.
Congratulations, Jeroshan ji, and good luck on your journey. Yuktanand ji makes a good point. In a perfect world, more emphasis would be put on our thoughts and demeanor. However, the press is mischievous and will manipulate a picture to spruce up a story. I believe this was Charanpal ji's point, but the confusion over what Balpreet ji actually wore to the Quebec Assembly distracted us from it. I also agree with Rubin Paul ji, when he says that the discussion deteriorated into a debate on personal grooming and style. I think we should carefully tread this path because there is a fine line between assimilation and selling-out.
13: Inderpreet Kaur (Sydney, Australia), April 14, 2011, 12:58 AM.
Such a great post and am really glad to see someone bring this to light in a positive way. After reading Charanpal Singh's article, the issue that glared at me was the insecurities of immigrants and the need to fit in. Being Canadian by no means translates into losing yourself and blending in with the masses. For those that have these self-confidence issues, your appearance isn't going to fix the problem. They will manifest themselves in other ways. What I find absurd is continually hearing from others, "what will they think of us". Well, people like Balpreet are "us". He is every much Canadian as the next Caucasian. The beauty of being a Canadian is that we are all immigrants at some point and what we have created is an amazing multicultural country. That does not mean we all blend in and look the same. In today's society, individuality and self expression is embraced. There are obviously people out there that are ignorant and will give you the same response if you wore purple pants or something. But why does our community continually feel the need to cater to the opinions of those few that are ignorant? We have done nothing wrong. Being different certainly does evoke curiosity, but we should foster that curiosity rather than hide from it as if we are guilty of some crime. For those who think that "this does not work in our society", that is just a plain and simple excuse! An excuse to not teach our coming generation about our heritage, and an excuse for ourselves and our children to not want to be more than what the average individual is. We should teach them that as long as you are committed and confident yourself, your Sikhi saroop will be the last thing holding you back!
14: N. Singh (Canada), April 14, 2011, 4:54 AM.
I think this article totally misses the mark! It is a matter of fact that Sikh-Canadians have generally a very negative image in the media and the public's perception compared to their American and British counterparts. For some reason, and I suspect the Air India crash had something to do with it, Sikh-Canadians have not been able to establish themselves overall as a well-to-do, refined and progressive group. Appearing in Nihang bana (and I personally have the highest regard for real Nihangs and their traditional garb) does not help us to achieve our objectives. Firstly, the general Sikh population has every right to criticize any public figure representing them. I am disappointed that the WSO and Balpreet, instead of listening clearly to the message being given to them and learning from it, have turned this issue into a 'religious' critique and a 'them vs us' situation. The WSO is there to serve the people, and not the other way around. Secondly, the WSO has no right to unilaterally take up the issue of the veil without consultation with the Sikh community. I believe Guru Teg Bahadar's message of religious tolerance is totally being manipulated and applied to suit the self-righteous decision made by the WSO. Let me ask you, would you also support Sati? ... that is a Hindu religious practice, as is casteism. The Gurus gave us direction but they also gave us the ability to live and think as free men and women. The 'let us agree to disagree' and 'accept people for what they are' argument presented here by Ruben Paul Singh just dilutes the real issue and nothing will ever be resolved by this line of thought. Communities and individuals learn by their mistakes and by criticism from their peers; that is nothing to fear and is both healthy and productive. This article just appears as a weak attempt to defend something which is indefensible.
15: Shanu Kaur (United Kingdom), April 14, 2011, 5:07 AM.
Very well written article. It's about time we celebrated our differences as well as our similarities. To the commentators who proclaim bana as damaging for the Sikh community, please explain why? I'm from a conservative white area and am a girl who wears a gol turban or a dumalla. Never in my life have I ever had to deal with prejudice, racism or discrimination. At university, I also wear this bana. In fact, I find people come to me and wish to learn about Sikhi more, when I do so. Yeah, we have a very obvious identity which makes us stand out. Which means it's imperative that we inform and educate those who know nothing or little about us. What's stopping you from going to schools, businesses, colleges, universities in your free time and showing people who you are? Yeah, at least one newspaper printed a photo of him in this bana. So what? Should we not wear salwar kameez to the gurdwara now? Are the paintings of Guru Gobind Singh damaging as well? A non-Sikh wouldn't even think that it's "medieval" dress but rather it is "traditional". Like a kilt.
16: Kirpal Singh (DaytonaBeach, Florida, U.S.A.), April 14, 2011, 9:13 AM.
When Guru Nanak visited Muslim lands such as Arabia on his mission, he dressed like the locals, as mentioned in Bhai Gurdas's poetry. Let us reflect on why! Is there any lesson in it for us in the Sikh diaspora in terms of cultural sensitivity vis-a-vis host societies?
17: N. Singh (Canada), April 14, 2011, 9:21 AM.
Perhaps we all need to step back and look at the bigger picture. At this moment in time, new grave sites from 1984 are still being discovered; as a community we have not faced up to and dealt with the whole scale 'disappearances' in the Punjab; currently Punjab is facing economic and social crises (drugs, farmer suicides, female feoticide, etc). This is where our attention and focus should be. Instead, the WSO has unilaterally precipitated the issue of the kirpan in Canada, with no plan or strategy in place. Now our focus, energy and money will be on that instead. Why? Was this necessary at this point and time? Again, I ask the question ... who is the WSO working for ... the Sikh community or those who want us to focus elsewhere whilst our homeland burns to the ground?
18: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 14, 2011, 10:26 AM.
Sikhi is a state of mind, decorated with the 5Ks; there are no specifications for any dress or bana, It's all up to an individual how he/she wants to present in society. We are certainly facing tough challenges on account of our greed, ego and selfishness and our negative thoughts. All these have given rise to various sects, groups, factions and so on, within the community, diametrically opposed to the basic Sikh teachings. Our community and takhts have been hijacked by akhoti and pakhandi sant samaj.
19: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), April 14, 2011, 11:37 AM.
Clearly, people take this personally. Let us not bury this into a debate of personal freedom to wear our bana. I am proud to be distinct and to stand out in the crowd as a Sikh. As an individual, I do not worry how I look but if I was to be a spokesperson for the entire Sikh community, there is no doubt that I would be careful with my words, my accent, my grammar, and with my appearance. Everyone should not feel free to step into the limelight. My friends, accepting my different look does not neutralize the picture of this difference briefly flashed in world news, mostly with a negative reference. We must not be blind that we live in a manipulative society. A public figure must be clever to use this to our advantage, instead of being bullish, walking into media booby traps. It would be foolish if a teenager proudly wore his Hollister shirt and torn jeans, his daily outfit, into the court to fight a traffic ticket. Conversely, it is appalling to see some people abandon their western clothes, don a long bana and gol turban, to appear devout when they go to their murder trial in a western court, and this is displayed on the TV.
20: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), April 14, 2011, 11:42 AM.
The kirpan issue is important and urgent (I believe that we will have to compromise. Carry a short kirpan welded to the sheath, to satisfy both parties. If we want to carry a weapon then we are free to do so openly. I am not a lawyer but for a concealed weapon, we must get a license. We are wasting our time proving that kirpan need not be considered a weapon.) And so is the turban in France. Khalsa needs to stand for its true purpose: standing against injustice and oppression, in the entire world. We are wasting too much time licking our own wounds and arguing over what to wear or to eat, forgetting the larger picture (see #17 above). We need to stand for the world. When we finally did, we chose the most inappropriate issue, the veil (something I would not defend) simply because this would set precedence in our own freedom to wear a kirpan. This is selfishness, not altruism. It is inappropriate to compare it to the acts of Guru Tegh Bahadar. We need to grow up. We need to speak out against the many ills, not only in India, but in the entire world. We are missing the chance to be visible in a positive light in relation to violence (Bosnia, Darfur and other parts of Africa and the world), human rights violations (Tibet, China, Korea and others), de-forestations, waste leading to pollution, recycling and reforestation, and waste in the developed countries with growing world hunger, just to name a few. This is where we must act, hold demonstrations, and proudly display our bana, our salwar-kameezes, our long shirts and our huge multi-layered turbans. The proper way to promote our bana is doing something good for the world to the extent that it becomes world news.
21: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 14, 2011, 11:49 AM.
I agree with N. Singh ji. There are more pressing matters pertaining to our community than Balpreet ji's wardrobe. However, I disagree with the claim that the WSO should be blamed for the kirpan debacle in Canada. Did the Quebec legislature not realize that baptized Sikhs carry the kirpan? Surely, the WSO did not just show up and demand to be let in. Why wasn't this matter brought up when the arrangements were being made for WSO to come and speak?
22: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), April 18, 2011, 8:07 PM.
Sikhs need to be more strategic, less insecure - it's not truth, it's truthful living! It's not just roop - it's "roop hey khaas". Sikhs in the West enjoy more freedom to really get the message of the Gurus right. The Sikhs in the land of the Gurus don't have that much freedom and material wealth to overindulge. The Gurus' message is simple and spiritual - don't confuse it with tribal need to dress and think the same.
23: Jaipreet Singh Chawla (Richboro, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.), July 25, 2011, 1:12 PM.
This article is thought-provoking and reinforces Guru Sahib's message that we need to rise above petty things. We need to understand the universality of Sikhi: "Aval Allah ik noor upaayya/ kudrat ke sabh bandey/ ek noor te sabh jag upjya/ kaun bhaley kon mandey". We are all made of the same earth and instead of giving this message to all, we are allowing little differences separate us from one another.