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Ruminations Of A Convert To Sikhi:
Janam Da Firangee,
Sikhi Mai Mangee

FATEHPAL SINGH TARNEY

 

 

 

 

 

In past years, I have often used the term “Gora Sikh/Sardar” to identify myself. In recent times, I much prefer “Saabat Soorat Sardar.”

No religion begins without converts and all great religions have begun as rebellions. However, many people born into a given faith tend to overlook this fact. Converts are often looked upon with some suspicion, or considered inferior devotees.

The reverse of this is the idea that converts reinvigorate a religion – new people bring new life to it – new blood. Religious conversion has been categorized as follows: free choice conversions; death bed conversions; marital conversions; forced conversions, and conversions of convenience, such as greater opportunities for upward mobility. Examples of this were non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire or under the Mughals in India who adopted Islam, or when parents wanted a child to be admitted to a prestigious Christian school. This was fairly common during The British Raj.

Westerners, however, who develop a keen interest in Sikhism are confronted with something quite unique and challenging. The common view in the West among those few who know anything at all about our religion is that Sikhism is not known to actively proselytize, but that it does accept converts. The challenge for the Western convert to Sikhism involves, among other things, language.

My personal experience with Punjabi has combined frustration with some frivolity. I am quite proficient in the Spanish language; less so in Punjabi. However, my pronunciation in both languages has been considered excellent by native speakers. Good pronunciation can be both an asset and a liability in that people fluent in these tongues assume that I, too, am fluent, and begin speaking too rapidly for me. I use both words and hand gestures to slow both Spanish and Punjabi speakers down!

We do not proselytize as some other religions do, but since 9-11 we have been committed to educating non-Sikhs - especially in the West. In my view, parchar is very important. The great raagi from Australia, Bhai Dya Singh, once visited our south Florida Gurdwara and said something profound – I never forgot it: “Sikhism is the world's best-kept secret!”

I maintain that the world needs Sikhi – Gurbani is an oasis with a spring filled with wonderful water, but thirsty people pass it by. My wise and dear friend, Sardar Nirmal Singh ji [Camp New Delhi] suggests that we Sikhs should give up hesitation and turn more proactive in talking about ourselves, our beliefs and faith practices to non-Sikhs in the West. In this way, the good that Sikhi offers becomes more visible for others to learn from and build on for the common good.

Given that there are far more Western converts to Islam, Buddhism, and various Hindu sects, than to Sikhism, it comes as no surprise that there are so-called “white” adherents of these faiths, whereas Western Sikhs, like me, often get the “But you're a white man!” reaction to my saroop.

Once, at a Sikh owned and operated hotel, a young gori lady working at the front desk – no stranger to Sikhs – began her conversation with me with these very words! After I spent five minutes explaining to her that Sikhism is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality, or language, but a religion whose principles guiding behavior are what are central, she reiterated, “But you're a white man!”

I also get from many gora people, “Gee, you don't look like you're from India!”

I have come to the following conclusions regarding neophytes to our faith. They ought be told that Gurbani should be their priority. They do not have to immediately stop cutting their hair. The five kakkars and the turban do not have to be straightaway concerns. Sikh sevadars assisting prospective converts should point out the internal diversity within any Sadh Sangat. Point out to these people, for example, the fellow in Nihang bana with a long kirpan, and say that no newcomer should feel obligated to look like this.

Newcomers should be educated about diet. Yes, many Sikhs are vegetarians through choice, but others are omnivores with an emphasis, like me, on carnivore! We should explain why we do not eat halal and employ the jhatka method with the instantaneous killing of an animal, preferably with the single blow of a sword or knife, and that some Sikhs, only out of respect for their Hindu friends, avoid beef but are not obligated to do so.

Khalsa status can be a goal and something evolved to. This does not mean that new Sikhs should be discouraged from adopting the Sikh saroop if they are so inclined to do so.

What about our Guru Granth Sahib for the newcomer? I offer the following to fellow Sikhs purely as “food for thought.” Some years ago, I was very impressed with something a mullah in Egypt said. He made the point that a Western convert to Islam reading a Qur'an in English translation, but reading it with careful thought and devotion was superior in the eyes of God to someone in the Near East mindlessly reading it in Arabic and relying only on memorization based on repetition!

Repeating words from holy scriptures is not always a bad thing. As always, Nirmal Singh ji reminds me that Gurbani commends both Vichaar and Simran,  contemplation and remembrance - both have their uses in learning and living values.

It is not my intention to challenge the use of Punjabi language or the Gurmukhi script in any way. Once more, my wise and beloved friend, Nirmal Singh ji, has pointed out the issue of language needs to be examined in a thoughtful manner. No one is trying to disconnect the original language from our Guru Granth Sahib. I also, as a Westerner, appreciate Punjabi as an aid to identity in the Diaspora for youngsters to stay culturally connected with their ancestral roots and receive the message of Gurbani/Kirtan/Katha.

Many a Western convert to Sikhi has lamented the insularity of Punjabi Sikhs in their interaction with non-Punjabi Sikhs [and non-Sikhs] arguing that this prejudice is inconsistent with the message and teachings of Guru Nanak. My own experience as a Western convert to Sikhi is to have seen people marginalized when they should have been embraced.

Inclusion – not insularity should be promoted and often it is not. Sikh ignorance of and lack of interest in the ideas and experience of Western converts should be a source of concern, given the sad state of affairs in Punjab with drug and alcohol abuse as well as the persecution of Sikhs in Hindu dominated India and the Muslim-dominated countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, I want to be fair. Through the years, I have been warmly welcomed by so many Sikhs of Punjabi origin. Most people who are Sikhs are such as the result of accident of birth, I do not imply that this is insignificant. People born into Sikh families have received a great blessing from God. Those of us who are Western converts have also received a blessing from God, but have been given a different path to the same divine essence. Sadly, there are still some people from my home Sadh Sangat who still treat me as an outsider despite over three decades of involvement there and having been president for a period. This is the Sikh Society of Florida Gurdwara in Southwest Ranches, Florida.

I have written through the years about the limited hospitality guests receive. It has always saddened me to see non-Sikh guests to a Gurdwara be greeted and recognized by a committee person, but then receive only minimal attention and friendliness from Sangat members.

The excuse that language prevents cordial interaction is unconvincing. One does not have to be fluent in English to smile at a guest. A smile is a form of seva. Moreover, the infighting that occurs in Sadh Sangats often reaches local media including radio, television, and newspapers. This leaves people with a bad impression of our community. I have even witnessed verbal abuse and fisticuffs even when there are non-Sikh visitors present at a diwan.

My respected online friend, Sardar Jaidev Singh ji in America, argues that if we hate, argue, and fight each other, why on earth would anyone join such a group? All religions, however, do have their fair share of infighting. If humans were perfect, we would not need congregations as we would already have achieved union with God.

There are other positive things that counteract the negative. I have said on many occasions that my Christian wife has more Sikh friends than I have. My beloved mother, another devout Christian, worshiped at our Gurdwara for the last four years of her life and was accepted by so many in our Sadh Sangat. No one ever questioned their regular presence at a Sikh place of worship. My mother, born in Italy, said her prayers in Italian and absorbed our shabads via the translations projected on big screens. God, of course, is multilingual!

My mother always had trouble keeping a chunni on her head. Caring women helped her with this and I, across the Divan Hall, would regularly gesture to her to keep her head covered. Eventually, I went online and learned how to tie a hijab for her, which would stay on her head. I purchased several hijabs for her. The wonderful thing is that no one questioned my mother's presence at our divans. I was often asked this question only out of pure curiosity, “Is your mother a Muslim? I would reply, “No, she's a Christian!”

The reputation of our langar, especially at Harmandar Sahib, has always impressed people around the world. Serving meals without charge to 50,000 people per day and hundreds of thousands on gurpurabs is amazing. I have a non-Sikh friend who visited Amritsar and was not only impressed with the langar itself but with the level of hygiene, particularly in how plates and utensils were thoroughly cleaned. Yes, one would think that the Langar would be a means of spreading our faith.

The Langar is praised by many, but when I look, for example, at the Hindus who walk down the street from their mandir to our Gurdwara Sahib for the langar, their interest is a free meal. They can get a meal at their temple, but there is a charge. To be fair, and sad to say, many Sikhs too come to the gurdwara just to eat langar.

Allow me to repeat something I have written about many times before. What are the motivations for non-Sikhs to visit a gurdwara? I suggest that there are six such motivations with some obvious overlap.

1  Basic curiosity
2  A person has a Sikh friend
3  A student in a comparative religion class
4  A person involved in interfaith programs
5  A political candidate looking for support
6  A person with spiritual thirst who may or may not know that Gurbani can quench that thirst.

Most significant in my view is the 6th motivation which we as Sikhs must address in a better fashion.

With the passage of time, established religions tend to develop new denominations and sects. Some of these evolve into completely independent groups, while others remain marginal to the mainstream. In Sikhism, there are groups such as Nihangs, Namdharis, Nirankaris, Sindhi “Sikhs,” and the 3HO [Sikh Dharma International]. Given that the first four groups have their origins in the subcontinent, what is of primary interest here is the 3HO group, which began in the West.

This group was founded by Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Yogi. There is an emphasis on Kundalini yoga, vegetarianism, but a reverence for our Guru Granth Sahib and the five kakkars remains paramount. They try to spread the teachings of our Ten Gurus, our Guru Granth, but also the teachings of Yogi Bhajan. Despite their rhetoric of outreach, they are quite insular and peripheral.

I met Singh Sahib over 30 years ago here in south Florida at the home of a devout member of our local Sadh Sangat. He predicted that I would eventually take Amrit, but it was unimportant to him that I was not in his 3HO group. As a Vietnam veteran with many comrades afflicted with drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions, I know Singh Sahib helped many of them. Even those who left Sikhism benefited from his influence. Some former members of this group have joined the mainstream Sikh fold.

I conclude this essay with a specific recommendation. When people express an interest in converting to our faith, stress Sahajdhari gradualism. Point out devout Sahajdharis. Encourage newcomers to join with other Sikhs in all religious and social activities and become active members of Sadh Sangats.

Keep Khalsa baptism as a goal.


December 20, 2017
 

Conversation about this article

1: G J Singh (Arizona, USA), December 20, 2017, 1:40 PM.

The best from you yet. I only wish that Sikhs born in the religion would agree with most of what you have written, and apply it to their lives. It would make the gurdwara a better place for Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.

2: Jasbeer Singh (New Delhi, India), December 20, 2017, 11:22 PM.

FatehPal Singh ji, all your points and observations are correct, but I believe that things are fast changing with the passage of time. The irony is that we've more and more political 'prabhandaks' and their minions at our institutions who are acting as a hindrance. But, at the same time, God has gifted us with Sikhs like Fatehpal Singh Tarney who are the true face of Sikhi to the western world. Thanks!

3: Sunny Singh Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), December 21, 2017, 11:28 AM.

Thank you for writing this great article. I agree that we should encourage people to practice Sikhi without conditioning it on taking Amrit.

4: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), December 27, 2017, 7:25 PM.

The beauty of Sikhi is that anyone can have a connect with the creator of the universe and this can happen through the teachings of the Guru through the Guru Granth. This is a powerful article by S. Fatehpal Singh ji. It reminds us that spiritual hunger has to be the number one reason for anyone to be a Sikh or learner of the Guru ...

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Janam Da Firangee,
Sikhi Mai Mangee"









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