No Garb Defines a ReligionBhai (Dr) HARBANS LAL
I was invited to a picnic involving the local Indian diaspora community in Nova Scotia, Canada, one summer. After the tasty meal a group of people sat down and engaged me in discussing the Guru Granth Sahib.
It was a healthy conversation and everyone was pleased to learn a number of facts of which they had hitherto been unaware. At the end, a woman dressed in a western dress asked me for permission to ask a personal question.
“Being a Hindu, how did you get so deeply interested in Guru Granth Sahib?” she asked.
I had an answer but I decided to provoke further dialogue on this frequently asked question. I countered: “For the same reason that I found you being a Christian so interested in Sikhi.”
“No, my friend,” she replied hastily. “I am a Sikh named Navinder Kaur (I’m not using her real name here). My parents were staunch Sikhs in Punjab. They raised me in the Sikh tradition which I continue”.
And then she hastily added: “Why do you label me Christian?”
I offered my apology for being so wrong in stereotyping her based upon her looks. I told her that I was mistaken about her religious identity on account of my bringing up. In the community where I grew up, a woman with cut and styled hair plus wearing a western dress would always be taken as a Christian as only Christians would wear those external looks.
I also told her that I would readily accept her as a Sikh for the reasons that she
gave me and corrected me. About myself, I continued to tell the friends gathered around me that I would claim to be a Sikh for the same reason, even to some I might have looked Hindu.
I was born in the House of Guru Nanak and was taken to Gurdwara Punja Sahib (now in post-Partition Pakistan) for my naming ceremony. The Guru and the congregation, then, gave me my name, Harbans Lal. My surrounding community gave me my dress that changes with the culture that surrounds me from time to time.
This is not just my view but l learnt it from my Guru. The lesson is that we should view people independent of the stereotypes.
Let us go to another related subject.
When discussing certain teachings of Guru Granth Sahib in the class room, a professor raised the question, “When do you think about race?”
I shot up my hand immediately: “I think of race whenever it appears as a question on a blackboard, on a college admission application, or when it is presented to me on the forms we fill out, public and private, over the course of our lives.”
My response was met by a bit of laughter, but I was dead serious. In fact, that question had been posed right around the time the U.S. Census was in full swing. I had the luck of the draw in receiving one of the long-form questionaires, the 10-page version, and I was a bit surprised when one of the questions asked me to identify my race. I didn‘t think this was even a valid question, and I had good reason to believe so. My Guru told me that my race was the human race. I filled the form accordingly.
I read somewhere an account of another individual perplexed with the question of race. He gave the following account.
I have always been interested in my family roots since I can remember, and after reviewing my family‘s past, I can never segregate myself to one particular race again. I know for certain one of my grandmothers is a Swede through and through. My grandfather is a mixture of Norwegian, English, German, Irish and Italian. This is so on my dad‘s side alone: six different ethnic groups interlaced throughout my DNA.
It doesn‘t stop there. My other grandmother is almost strictly of Bohemian origin, and my other grandfather has a grand mixture of various ethnicities sprinkled throughout his genes. On his side there is documentation, both written and verbal, that I have even more German and English heritage, some Scottish ancestry, a bit of French/Canadian and a portion of American Indian as well.
I found 10 total ethnicities, nationalities or whatever you want to call them, within my genetic code. How on earth could I consider myself just one race? I could label myself as a ‘European American‘, but that is inaccurate. A ‘third-generation American‘? But that wasn‘t an available answer either.
I‘m not interested in dealing with such categorizations or stereotypes. I‘ll leave it to the pigeon-holers of the world.
During Hitler‘s rise to power and throughout his crazed totalitarian reign, he thought he could identify and categorize different races. His stereotypical attitude, coupled with his absolute lack of rational thought, was enough to force this world into one of the greatest wars mankind has ever seen.
Of course, I do not mean to compare the people who ask you to identify your race with Hitler, but I do want to remind ourselves that the ramifications of dividing us up into separate races has dire consequences, as history has proven.
I was told throughout elementary school of the injustices and the outright foolishness of stereotyping people. Ever since I‘ve joined University, I‘ve given the idea of ‘race‘ no thought whatsoever when judging others.
So, am I living in some sort of an isolated bubble? Of course not. It‘s the constant drilling of others that propels many of us to believe we should be thinking about race or religious categories all the time. We should really start judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Does that last statement ring a bell? It should. If you aren‘t familiar with those words, I suggest you pick up an American history book that covers the 1960s.
So why is the issue of race brought up over and over again by professors, teachers and government surveys everywhere? I was always under the impression that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led his pacifist civil rights crusade for the equality of all. He wanted us to judge each other not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.
I didn‘t notice a single question on the federal government census form or on the
university application form asking for my character profile. In the end, the census form left a bad taste in my mouth. I did eventually state I was a specific race but not according to their standards. I decided then, and still today, to look at us all as being related. That is why I chose and still choose to answer the race question as ‘human‘.
There are many different traits and ethnicities spread out all over the entire world. The citizens of the United States, from my experience, can probably take credit for having the largest juxtaposition of ethnicities than anywhere else in the world. The proverbial ‘pot‘ continues to melt generation after generation, and pretty soon character will be the only stew by which anyone will be able to judge us.
Why should we wait until later? Let us continue what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started.
And as the good doctor said, let us start judging each other “... not by the color of (our) skin but by the content of (our) character.”
Dr. King was paraphrasing what our Gurus taught us centuries ago.
December 19, 2016
Conversation about this article
1: D J Singh (USA), December 18, 2016, 9:30 AM.
"Awal Allah noor upaaya kudrat ke sab bandey / ek noor te sab jag upjaya kaun bhaley kaun mandey ..."
2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), December 19, 2016, 10:17 AM.
Spiritual values belong to all people and for all time. Basically, "All we see is HIS form" [GGS:724]. And therefore, socially no distinctions should be made between person and person.
3: GJ Singh (Arizona, USA ), December 20, 2016, 2:15 AM.
I can only hope fully identifiable Sikhs are as good Sikhs as Dr. Harbans Lal is. It saddens me to see that a Sikh is now defined more so based on appearance rather than on his principles and his contribution to Sikhism. There is a reason why 'sehajdhari Sikh' is part of our vernacular and history, as they too are Sikhs. We do our religion a disservice if and when we exclude them.