Often questions have begun with “I don’t know anything about Sikhism…” That’s fine, Sikhs are not into converting people, so they have also not been too good at spreading information about Sikhi. If you watch western news, I can only imagine what you believe of the Sikh faith and its followers. However, know that what is published from time to time has a bias, similar to the bias about Russians during the cold war and the bias about Muslims in our present time. Bias is so often poison and it is killing us.
Yes, yes, I hear the questions. I get them everyday, not only from those who are not Sikh but from those that are. How does a western woman just decide to become a Sikh? I didn’t just decide. Why Sikhi? Ready for a circular answer to that one – because I am a Sikh. You must have married a Sikh man, right? Nope. My partner was Catholic by birth and Buddhist in practice and I’ve not remarried. What about honour killings? Huh? What? You’ve got to be kidding me. You were born Christian right? Um, no, not really. Why isn’t Christianity (the apparent “faith of my people”) good enough for you? Because I never bought the message of Christianity and was never a Christian. I was a Buddhist until I wasn’t. What about those guys in Afghanistan? There may be Sikhs in Afghanistan. I don’t know, haven’t seen a census on the numbers. We’re talking about Sikhi here, let’s stay on track. Sometimes, now that I have begun wearing items that identify me as a Sikh, I just get stares. The stares are most difficult because staring means you’re keeping the questions to yourself. I can’t read your mind so if you have questions, just ask. You won’t hurt my feelings or offend me with a question.
Seriously, ask away. I promise that you will get better answers than the attempt at humour above.
To understand the spiritual path that I’ve been on, you may need or want a bit of background, so here it is:
I was born into a family that claimed Christianity as their faith. I was the second child of four, all daughters. When I say they claimed Christianity, they didn’t exactly follow the tenets taught in the Bible or follow the teachings of Christ. They were hateful toward others different from themselves – other faiths, other races (particularly the “brown” races), other sexualities. I grew up in a home where hate seethed through the walls and permeated the air. Though they would occasionally speak of Jesus or God or the Bible, they had a very different view of the message than I had.
And there was the problem in my family. Instead of preaching a message of love, they lived one of hate. They had the misfortune of having a daughter who didn’t hate though. What a challenge I posed to them, I imagine. On the rare occasion that I attended Sunday school, they would speak of the Commandments and I knew I would have to burn in hellfire because there was one that I could never follow – “Honour thy mother and thy father” was going to be a huge issue for me, because even then I refused to honour hate. Whatever good there was in them, whatever I could honour, was buried beneath too much poison.
I remember watching the news during the fall of Saigon. I’m not sure whether my parents realized that I was paying attention. I vividly remember that I was no more than five, almost six and I was horrified by what I was seeing. The news broadcast showed footage of the evacuation of the American embassy at Saigon. Helicopters came and went. It was a sunny, bright morning halfway around the world and I couldn’t understand why the soldiers seemed to just ignore the crying, screaming masses of people outside of the wrought iron fence. Didn’t they see that these people were hurting and wanting help? I cried along with the children a world away from me, pressed up against that fence. My parents turned to me and told me to stop crying. “They” had done this to themselves, its what “they” deserve. “They” can’t rule themselves so “they” can go about the business of killing one another. “They” are on their own.
That wasn’t right. That couldn’t be right. “They” are people. “They” don’t deserve to just be killed. “They” are just as smart and capable as we are, so “they” can govern themselves. And what did any of that have to do with the children, women and men pressed up against that fence? What was wrong with my parents, I wondered. How can they be so mean to people they don’t even have an idea about? Why can’t they just stand up and help them? How can they watch that anguish and feel nothing? I wanted to believe my parents were good people, so I asked those questions and tried to reason with them. A five year old taking on people in their thirties, her parents no less… I wish I could say reason won the day.
As I grew older and the messages of hatred just kept coming, I knew there was somewhere else I was meant to be. We disagreed on evolution, apartheid, rights of alternative sexualities, rights of other races, the value of great men like Nelson Mandela, the goals of socialism. There was nothing we could agree on and nothing we shared. I had grown tired of the abuse as well, which came along with the messages of hate. Fate agreed and I left that home at 14 years old and never looked back.
I wish I could say that the hate ended there. That my family was some sort of anomaly. They aren’t. There are people like them all over the world and at times, their numbers seem to grow so large that I lose faith in humanity.
Somewhere along the way, shortly before I met my partner, I found Buddhism and I was a practising Buddhist. The messages of love, learning, service and compassion spoke to me. I believe whole heartedly in the message of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama. Yet there was something missing for me still.
My partner passed away on December 14, 2010, more than three years ago now. When he died, I turned to my faith for comfort and to try to understand the meaning of death and the meaning of our lives. We had been so connected spiritually. I was not sure what to do about the sudden loss of that connection. For me, my concept of God was inside of him. Unfortunately, my faith provided no comfort or understanding. It also offered me no connection and so my faith was lost. Not my belief in the messages of love and compassion, mind you, but my faith in Buddhism as my guide.
So began a spiritual quest. I looked at atheism, but that was not the right fit for me. Besides, these days many atheists seem only interested in proving why they are right and why everyone else is wrong. Hardly a persuasive tact and one that does not inspire love and understanding. What initially seems like debate often devolved into judgement and a lack of connection. I looked at humanism and again I did not find a fit for me. It wonderfully fulfils the one side of the coin – a message of equality, compassion, and love for one another, mind you. I looked back to Christianity, to Judaism and to Islam, looking for a fit, only to be disappointed at the large role ego plays in these faiths. I looked again at Buddhism, but found the same centre on the self rather than on others. The core messages are there – be a good human being, for one but again, I did not find a fit for me.
I’m not suggesting here that any of these faiths or beliefs are wrong, mind you. I am not the judge of these things. I’m saying only that none was the right fit for me.
Then, two years ago, I found Sikhi. My initial reading on the faith spoke to me deeply. Sikhs are taught that everyone is actually equal – everyone. Men and women are equal, low-caste and high-caste are equal (if you think we don’t have castes here in the West, think again), the ill and the healthy are equal. In a Sikh gurdwara, everyone sits on the floor using chairs only for those who are physically unable to sit on the floor. This is a living embodiment of that belief in equality. At the langar, a free kitchen in every gurdwara, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike enjoy the same simple meal together, served by volunteers who are doing seva. Everyone is welcome in a gurdwara. Everyone. Last year, in a community in India, for example, a mosque was damaged by flooding during Eid, an important Muslim period. The mosque was not usable for prayer and would require repair before being reopened to the faithful. The local gurdwara invited Muslims to hold their prayers at the gurdwara. They lived the example set by one of the Gurus many years before when he had a mosque built because the Muslims in the community had nowhere to pray. Even Waheguru (our name for the One or God) has no sex. Both men and women may be Granthi and may read from the Guru Granth Sahib, all they need is the ability to read from it. During a Sihk marriage ceremony, both partners are referred to as brides (brides of Waheguru).
This is the message that I connect most strongly with and the message that makes me believe that I was born a Sikh but I had no idea until I found Sikhi.
Sikhs are not taught religious tolerance. Tolerance is a word that means “I’ll put up with you but you’re wrong.” Instead they are taught that there is only One. However you connect with the One is up to you, but the important thing is to connect. Sikhi is the right way for us but another faith is the right way for others. The message is beyond tolerance – we are taught that Waheguru exists in all of us, no matter our religion, colour, race, or sex. It is accepting your brothers and sisters as they are because the light of the One exists inside them.
We are taught to share our wealth with those less fortunate than ourselves and to serve everyone. As you amass wealth (in the form of money, knowledge, or other blessings) you are meant to share those things to make the lives of others better. This is another message embodied in the langar. In the langar, Sikhs of all manner perform seva (service to others) by serving meals, cleaning, cooking and washing up. They sit side by side to eat and no-one is preferred during the food service. The same meal is eaten by everyone from the homeless to the wealthiest person in the room.
We are taught to fight against injustice even if that fight cannot be won. We are taught not to fear losing our lives to protect or defend others. This is the meaning of one of the five articles of faith we are told to wear – the kirpan. Sikhs once saved Hindus from forced conversion to Islam, for example. This is perhaps what was missing most for me, as the Buddhist faith contains messages of passivity which I never truly connected with.
We are taught, because we are all equal, not to bow before anyone. A Sikh life is not about submission to anything but Waheguru and the messages of the 11 Gurus, found in the 11th living Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib. For this same reason, you won’t find idols in a gurdwara.
Sikhi is more complicated than the broad strokes I’ve given here. I hope this helps you understand why I have chosen this path. After two years of learning, I have become Sikh. I am now ready to live as a Sikh which means more questions, I’m sure. For those of you who know me personally, you will notice some changes, including wearing my kara always and covering my head much of the time. I will no longer bow when appearing in Court. All of these things will raise questions to those curious about what is happening.
If you want to learn more, there are a number of great sites you can look at. If you have a gurdwara in your community, you can also visit to learn more. I’ve just been to gurdwara for the first time recently, given that there is none in the town where I live.
Basics of Sikhi YouTube Channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lUvq8xJHKY
More basic information: http://sikhism.about.com/od/sikhism101/tp/Introduction_to_Sikhism.htm
And even more – with answers to questions http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Learning_about_Sikhi