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Vaisakhi at The Pentagon

VALARIE KAUR

 

 

 

The following remarks were delivered by Valarie Kaur at the Pentagon's recent event to mark Vaisakhi, on Friday, April 25, 2014

 

 

Waheguru Ji ka Kalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh.

Thank you to the Pentagon Chaplain and Chaplain corps for gathering us here to celebrate Vaisakhi, the founding of the Sikh community as the Khalsa, a spiritual sister- and brotherhood.

This is the first-ever Sikh event at the Pentagon in the history of the United States. Today is a milestone for the Sikh community, who have made America home for more than a century, and also for our nation, a nation devoted to a vision of equality where our institutions reflect the resplendent diversity of the American people.

Today we have heard the sacred music, poetry, and stories of the Sikh faith, concluding with decorated American hero Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi's recitation of Ardaas, the foundational Sikh prayer recited in all of our worship. Ardaas resounds at every wedding and holiday, upon the naming of a child and the death of a loved one, and on every Sunday morning at gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship) across the nation and around the world.

Ardaas is a prayer and petition to God, but it is also a story of who we are as a people.

The prayer begins with the words Ik Onkar. One Reality Is. God is One. All paths lead to One.

This vision of Oneness was the divine revelation of a humble herdsman named Nanak born in the year 1469 in Punjab. It was a time of turmoil: Hindus and Muslims in conflict, women oppressed, and the poor outcaste. Then, the story goes, Nanak disappeared by the river for three days. He was thought a dead man, a drowned man, but on the third day, he emerged with a vision of unity: Ik Onkar.

Guru Nanak passed his light to nine successive teachers who led the Sikh community through the centuries, and in Ardaas, we invoke each of these Gurus by name. The tenth Teacher Guru Gobind Singh declared that our final and everlasting Teacher would be the Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of our sacred poetry, and so we also invoke the wisdom contained in its pages. Throughout the prayer, we cry together in one voice: "Waheguru!" Wahe - an exultation of wonder. Guru - the Enlightener. We express our wonderment of God who enlightens us and shows us the Truth of Oneness.

Truth is higher than everything, Guru Nanak taught, but higher than truth is the living out of truth.

After lifted up in ecstatic worship, we must not remain on the mountaintop; we are called to return to the earth to serve humanity in seva, spiritually grounded service. When we see injustice, we are never to hide. We are to stand for equality, fight for dignity, and serve others as ourselves - even when it becomes dangerous, even in the face of death.

"If you desire to play the game of love with Me," Guru Nanak calls to us, "then step forward with your head on your palm."

In Ardaas, we can hear the echoes of a people who have lived and died walking that path of revolutionary love, starting with early battles for survival against invading Mughal armies. We invoke the Punj Pyarey, the five Beloved Ones who were willing to give their lives for God when the Tenth Teacher tested us on Vaisakhi Day in 1699. We invoke the Chaar Sahibzadey, his four martyred sons, the elder two fighting on a blood-soaked battlefield, the younger two bricked alive for refusing to renounce their faith.

We invoke the Chaali Muktey, forty soldiers who abandoned their post during the siege of Anandpur but were led back by the woman warrior Mai Bhago. Donning a turban and mounting a horse with sword in her hand, she has become the Sikh model of a saint-soldier - one who loves God ever-devoted to fighting for justice on earth, who becomes the one she is waiting for.

In fact, we invoke all those who have lived with God's Name in their hearts, shared what they have with others, forgiven freely, and fought injustice. We invoke all "those Lions and Lionesses who have given their heads for their faith: who were cut limb by limb, scalped, crushed on the wheel and sawn in pieces, who sacrificed in service of our gurdwaras, who did not relinquish their faith and served with every hair and breath."

As we recite Ardaas, we remember even the sacrifices of the last century. We remember the soldiers who marched to fight Hitler's armies, soldiers like my grandfather who bravely served wearing his turban, just as seven generations of fathers before him, saving a portion of his water canteen in the deserts of Egypt and Libya to wash his long hair.

We remember those who fought for the subcontinent's independence and died in the massacres of the 1947 Partition, which carved Pakistan out of India and separated Sikhs from holy sites where we still pray to return. And we remember the men, women, and children murdered in 1984, thirty years ago this year, when the blood of three thousand Sikhs flowed in the streets of India's capitol in pogroms. In these moments of terror, Sikhs were identified by their turbans but would rather face death than give up who they were.

We are a people that have lived and suffered and struggled and still lift our heads high, Ardaas reminds us.

And so we pray. We pray for the consciousness of the divine to enter all of our people, and for this remembrance to bring us joy. We pray for the sword of justice and the bowl that feeds the hungry to triumph, so that the people will always overcome darkness. We pray for our religion to last through the ages with the gifts of discipline and discernment, truth and faith, and above all, the gift of God's presence in our hearts.

Finally, we pray for humanity.

"Nanak naam chardi kalaa, tere bhaanai sarbat da bhalla."

"In the Name of God, we find everlasting optimism. Within Your Will, may there be grace for all of humanity."

The prayer of Ardaas is the song of our people, our living guide and moral compass, echoing around the globe and on American soil. Like a river flowing through the centuries, Ardaas pours the spirit of our people into our being and breathe, so that we are ever-nourished and ever-sustained. As a living document, it leaves open space at the end for us to offer our particular prayers as a congregation and silently in our own hearts.

Today, we hear Ardaas on a day of celebration but we also hear this prayer in our darkest hours.

Just a year and a half ago, many of us in this room stood in the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a house of worship that a few days before had been the site of a mass shooting - the largest act of violence on a faith community in America since the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that took four little girls.

In the days after that shooting, I watched the community tear out the blood-soaked carpets, pick up the shattered glass, and paint over the bullet holes in the walls, all to the sound of prayer.

The next Sunday, they gathered in worship and recited Ardaas. I heard the names of each of the Sikhs who had been killed and wounded in the gunfire, and we prayed for them. I heard the name of Lt Brian Murphy, who took seventeen bullets protecting our community, and we prayed for his recovery.

And then I heard a name that shook me to my core. Together, the congregation prayed for the soul of the gunman.

Ardaas gives us moral courage to endure hardship, whether in the face of hate on city streets or blood in the prayer hall, and respond with love and compassion. But Ardaas also reminds us that we are meant to face these struggles as sant-sipahi, saint-soldiers.

Once, the story goes, our tenth Teacher Guru Gobind Singh was asked by a Mughal emperor to show him a miracle. The Guru presented his kirpan, one of our articles of faith. "This sword is my miracle," he said. "But there is a difference between my sword and yours. Behind your sword lurks anger. Behind my kirpan, only compassion. Yours only doles out death. Mine rejuvenates life. Yours deprives people of their dignity, while mine saves their honor."

The kirpan is a central symbol in the Sikh faith. The kirpan is made holy only when the soul has cultivated moral courage to wield it. Today, a new generation of Sikhs is learning to wield many kinds of kirpans - the pen, the film camera, the microphone, the doctor's scalpel, the lawsuit. Many in this room - Sapreet Kaur, Amardeep Singh, Rajdeep Singh, Gurjot Kaur, Satjeet Kaur, Amandeep Singh, Major Kamaljit Singh Kalsi, Lt. Colonel Ravi Chaudhary to name a few - are using their swords to fight for an America where all people may live, work, worship, and serve their country as equals.

So today, as we commemorate Vaisakhi at the Pentagon, let us also celebrate that we are still writing our story. Let our uniform of faith - this long hair, these proud turbans, this steel karra - show that we fight for the equality, freedom, and selfless service at the heart of the American ethic. And let us go forth in the spirit of Chardi Kalaa, the sense of boundless optimism that our children and our children's children will walk even these halls of power with the wisdom and strength of our faith, helping make this world a more just and loving place for sarbat da bhalla -- for all of humanity.

Waheguru Ji ka Kalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh.

 

The author is a national interfaith leader, civil rights lawyer, and award-winning filmmaker. She is Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to equip faith communities to use storytelling for social change. She studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project.  

[Courtesy: The Huffington Post. Edited for sikhchic.com]

April 30, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Harman Singh (California, USA), April 30, 2014, 10:02 AM.

Ardaas is Sikh history condensed, without the bindings of time and space. Beautifully expressed by Valerie.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), April 30, 2014, 3:21 PM.

Valarie Kaur ji, what a beautiful re-rendering in English the message of the ardaas. One of the best towards understanding of Sikhi to invade the Pentagon. The bedrock concluding lines of the ardaas -- "tere bhaanai sarbat da bhalla" -- Within Thy Will, may there be Grace for all humanity! Keep spreading the Word, Valarie ji. It's the best, faultless interfaith message for all time to come.

3: Harpal Singh (Sydney, Australia), May 01, 2014, 12:56 AM.

Waheguru ... I'll read it many more times and will surely cry each time, just as I did reading it the first time.

4: Sukhindarpal Singh (Penang, Malaysia), May 01, 2014, 8:21 PM.

With your kind permission, I shall print and distribute this incredible interpretation of our ardaas to the children I guide in our gurdwara and sangat in Bayan Baru, Penang. GuruRakha.

5: H. Kaur (Canada), May 02, 2014, 12:41 AM.

This is beautiful.

6: Harinder Singh (Punjab), May 02, 2014, 8:35 AM.

Valarie Kaur represents the best that Sikh-Americans have to offer. Waheguru will bless USA.

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