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For nearly a century, anthropologists have studied the lives of immigrants and their children by engaging in ethnographic encounters in which these families carry out everyday tasks. While ethnographers often focus on everyday practice, it’s important to note that the incorporation of immigrants into the larger culture ‘involves the interplay of transnational, national, and local processes’. While questions of scale are hardly new to anthropology, the dilemma has reemerged quite powerfully as ethnographers have begun to study globalization. Many recent sociological works on immigrant incorporation emphasizes multi-scale factors. In these analyses, the immigrant experience is framed in terms of assimilation and acculturation. Culture, in these analyses, is defined as the beliefs, values, identities, and traditions that individuals and groups possess and, as they integrate into the larger culture, choose to retain or leave behind.
Many anthropologists working in the field of immigrant studies have noted that places of worship may, in addition to spiritual needs, serve as community spaces where immigrants may express, maintain, or transgress their identities, as well as pass down these traditions to future generations. Participating in activities at the Gurdwara helps newly immigrated Sikh-Americans situate themselves into their community. According to the American Psychological Association, civic engagement is defined as individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Through civic engagement and seva (selfless service for god, or Waheguru), Sikhs not only contribute to the public good, but also reinforce and create individual and group identities. In this study, I will examine the larger cultural challenges that Sikhs face worldwide, focus on practices performed at a local Sikh Gurdwara and explain many of the universal themes and practices of Sikhi.
The type of seva required can vary from one Gurdwara to the next. For example, in several locations, there is a designated volunteer that takes shoes from visitors. Some of these volunteers pick up the shoes, bow to them, and even polish them. The purpose of this seva is not only to maintain cleanliness of the shoe room, but it also serves as practicing humility for the volunteer. In many Indian Gurdwaras, drinking water is offered to those in need during hot summers. Many wealthier Gurdwaras also have a place for the caretaker to stay in addition to basic amenities such as a kitchen, a bed, and personal restroom. In many Gurdwaras, there is a category of seva called ‘yard service’ which includes keeping the building, both inside and outside, clean and beautiful. While devotional services vary depending on the needs of each particular community, every Gurdwara performs Langar, which is the feeding of a nutritious vegetarian meal anyone who is present. Families at the Sikh Gurdwara take turns to cook for the community each Sunday of the month, every week of the year. According to Sikhi, seva must never be stopped under any condition. The Sikh place of worship always emphasizes that anyone, regardless of caste, creed, race, or religion can sponsor (fund) or cook for Langar Seva at the Gurdwara.
During Langar, those eating sit on the floor in straight lines, representing the Sikh belief that everyone is equal before God, and that no one has a higher or lower status in Waheguru’s domain. This concept was introduced by Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhi, designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people. This concept and ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness, and oneness of all humankind was radical in 15th century India.
In June of 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault on the Golden Temple, the most significant religious center for Sikhs in Amristar, Punjab. The attack killed thousands of civilians, and in October 1984, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination is said to have triggered genocide nationwide, and at the height of the violence, the death of Sikhs occurred at a rate of one per minute. Within three days, nearly three thousand innocent Sikhs had been murdered. In America, Sikhs do not face the same stigma as in India. However, violent attacks on Sikhs the United States has spiked after September 11, 2001. Many violent acts are followed by xenophobic remarks towards Muslims, signifying that the hostility towards Sikhs in America comes from displaced anger towards Muslims post-2001 political tensions.
Something quite important to note is the difference between Sikhism and Sikhi. The term ‘Sikhism’ was coined by Europeans during the nineteenth century and is not indigenous to the Indian lexicon. Those who take merely scratch the surface level of Sikhi will fail to recognize Sikhism as ‘what the modern Anglophone consciousness understands as the religion of Sikhs’. Sikhi refers to the ‘internal fluidity that cannot be reduced to pluralism and carries the sense of a qualitative difference through a process of ego-loss even as it maintains a particular identity’. In Punjabi, the term Sikhi means to learn from one’s guru and, unlike Sikhism, does not represent an object but a process of self-transformation.
An important aspect of Sikhi and other South Asian religions is the concept of dharma. According to Buitenen, dharma ‘has no real adequate counterpart in the terminology of European languages’ and is difficult to define in terms of western thought for it is an all-comprising term including institutions, a way of thinking, and a way of living. However, dharma could be loosely defined as everyone’s universal birthright to attain a state of self-realization and action taken out of egoless-ness. Yet, dharma is more than this, for Guru Nanak Dev Ji states that those who have experienced this ineffable state of realization do not follow empty religious rituals but are firmly bound to dharma, the natural order that is experienced by the individual in the state of ego-loss.
Sikhi is a monotheistic religion founded by Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the city of Amristar in the Punjab region of India. It is estimated that 30 million people worldwide follow Sikhi, with the majority of followers being ethnically Punjabi. The religion has three basic principles: hard work, worshipping the Divine Name (nam japo), and sharing what one has (vand cauko). Sikhs believe in reincarnation, the idea that after this life is finished, one will take another life based on one’s karma. The law of Karma states that just as our present life is the result of our past Karma, the present Karma will determine the future life. According to Sikhi, efforts of the individual are necessary for improving his own condition. Additionally, Karma can be changed by prayer and by the Grace of God.
Initiated Sikhs, also known as Khalsa, can easily be identified, as they wear five symbolic representations of their faith, known as the ‘Five K’s’, which stand for: Kesh, or uncut hair, for the purpose of minimizing the alteration of God’s creation. Kangha is a small comb that is a symbol of cleanliness and a reminder that one’s life should be tidy and organized. Kara, a circular iron bracelet that reminds the Sikh to do God’s work, but also serves as a symbol of unbreakable attachment and commitment to God, and a reminder to follow the teachings of Guruji. Kirpan is an unusable dagger that serves as a reminder to defend one’s faith. Finally initiated Sikhs wear kaccha, a special undergarment that serves as a reminder to control sexual desire. Devout Sikhs, regardless of residing country, wear these symbols as individual reminders of their faith. Datsar, or turban, is a clear identifier of a Sikh. The turban is mandatory for Sikh men, but optional for Sikh women. The turban serves many purposes, one of which is simply keeping the hair untangled and clean, and the other is that it keeps God’s energy inside the body while praying or entering a Gurdwara.
According to Sikhi, there are four stages in spiritual evolution. The first is called Manmukh, who is a self-centered person only concerned with the material world. The second is called Sikh, and this person is anyone who sets out to learn about God, or Waheguru. Khalsa is the third stage, and is defined as someone who is totally dedicated to Sikhi, and has washed his ego to solely focus on God and the memory of Guru Nanak Ji. The fourth and final stage is titled Gurmukh, and one in this stage has achieved mukhti, or salvation, and is totally God-centered.
While there are individual identities within Sikhi, immigrants in particular often have a multi-faceted identity after moving to their new home. Sikhs do not have a particular or religious view of their ancestors, but it is important to note that nearly all Sikhs are descendants of ancestors that are originally Hindu, rather than Muslim. Until the 1980s, many Sikhs did not consider themselves as belonging to a distinct religious community. Death rites include cremation, typically on the same day of death, unless travel is required for family members. Before the body is cremated, the dead body is washed and dressed in traditional Sikh clothing. The coffin is taken to the gurdwara and placed in front of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. A Punjabi prayer is recited, reminding friends and family that death is just a ‘short sleep before rebirth and that everyone must remember Waheguru in the hope of escaping rebirth and reaching moksha’.
In the early twentieth century, Sikhs began migrating to the United States. Many recent Sikh immigrants have come to the United States as students, or with a preexisting university degree in their possession. Many Sikh immigrants have experience in higher education, not only aligning with the group’s belief of hard work, but also helping Sikh immigrants qualify for more well-paying jobs, thus making the transition to a new country somewhat easier than would be otherwise. However, it is important to note that with immigration comes not only a previous identity, but the gradual formation of a new one, making it rather difficult, if not impossible to make generalizations about the Sikh diaspora.
The Gurdwara functions as not only a place of worship, but as a place for meetings and cultural gatherings for Sikhs. The first Gurdwara, The Golden Temple, which now lies in the Narowal District of west Punjab. Everyone is welcome in any Gurdwara, and it is said that one should always receive peace of mind after entering. Worship centers were built so Punjabi Sikhs could hear Guruji give spiritual discourse and sing religious hymns in the praise of Waheguru. As the Sikh population grew, Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru introduced the word ‘gurdwara’. The word ‘Gurdwara’ literally translates to ‘Gateway to the Guru’. The particular Gurdwara I studied is located near a predominantly Sikh neighborhood, but many others live much further from this cultural hub and house of worship. Many families will travel long distances for special occasions, for example the birthday of Guru Nanak, due to the limited amount of Gurdwaras in each family’s relative proximity.
Discipline and procedures in Sikh house of worship may vary per individual Gurdwara, but many themes, projects, and ideas are universal. The main worship services occur two times a day, morning and evening, but depend on local needs. The Gurdwara may be open the whole day or may have designated operating hours. Wealthier Gurdwaras, particularly in India, provide visitors in need temporary shelter, food, bed and bedding, free of any cost to said person. Many wealthy Gurdwaras even have their own nonprofit organizations such as orphanages.
A Gurdwara has no specific design, as there is no official blueprint for Sikhs to follow in building a new center of worship. Usually, however, it has a central dome at the top and smaller domes may exist on the sides. However, the Sikh flag is always in front, signifying that the building behind it is indeed a Gurdwara. The flag is a triangular, saffron-colored flag with the symbol called Khanda. The symbol has a double-edged sword depicted vertically, a symbol of divine knowledge. The circle around the Khanda is called a chakkar, symbolizing the eternal perfection of God. Finally, two single-edged swords that cross at the bottom sit on either side of the khanda and chakkar represent the integration of both spiritual and temporal sovereignty together, and show the equal emphasis that a Sikh need place on both spiritual obligations and obligations to society. Inside of this particular gurdwara, the symbol named Ik Onkar is present in many places throughout the building. It translates to “There is Only One God,” which are the first two words in the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, and is one of the cornerstones of Sikhism.
As you enter the Gurdwara, there is a place to place one’s shoes, a sink to wash your hands, and, in the case of this particular Gurdwara, a shelf of complimentary head coverings so that one may enter. In the front of the worship center, few special persons may sit in the front or be on the stage itself during special celebration. There is often a designated place for Ragis, or devotional musicians to sit during a worship service. Depending on the location, Ragis may sit on the stage itself, but they will always sit on a on a raised platform that shall not be higher than the seat in the center for Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), which lies in the center of the stage on the highest pedestal. The stage should not be backlit with artificial or natural lighting, but the Gurdwara I have been studying does. Because of this, I concur that some of these ‘rules’ are merely guidelines. Above Guru Granth Sahib lies a Chandova, a canopy that is attached to the ceiling, symbolizing respect for the holy book.
The Sikh Association of the state was founded in 1984, then focusing on raising money to build their own Gurdwara. Construction of the present building began in 2000 and was completed in May 2002. The Foundation is quite involved in the local community, in ways that include, but are not limited to: creating educational films to make people aware of Sikhs and Sikhi, holding a Punjabi cultural program at a local high school, and coordinate activities with other Sikh institutions. The Association also has a Punjabi language school, available to anyone over the age of six for a small fee under thirty dollars per semester. The association also offers a scholarship (with an undisclosed amount) for all students wishing to pursue graduate or undergraduate studies in a degree granting program in a service area related to Sikhi.
While Sikhi remains the world’s youngest religion to date, Sikhs have experienced certain violence that is disproportionate to their age and relative size in comparison to other world religions. However, the Sikh commitment to nonviolence, hard work, dedication to their God, and acceptance of all is what allows the religion to survive in the face of adversity. Certainly, Sikh immigrants have identities that are multi-faceted and can change quite drastically according to the situation. Although much is not understood about Sikhs from the outside world, the community itself is founded on the principle of acceptance, charity, and love for others, with much detail still to be discovered by ethnographers such as myself.
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