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Who are the Sikhs and what are their beliefs?

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New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

New Jersey’s first Sikh attorney general, Gurbir Singh Grewal, was a target of disparaging remarks recently. Two radio hosts commented on Grewal’s Sikh identity and repeatedly referred to him as “turban man.” When called out on the offensiveness of their comments, one of them stated, “Listen, and if that offends you, then don’t wear the turban and maybe I’ll remember your name.”

Listeners, activists and Sikhs around the country acted immediately by contacting the station to express their concerns. News outlets quickly picked up the story and the radio hosts were suspended.

Grewal is a practicing Sikh who maintains a turban and beard. Scholars and government officials estimate the Sikh American population to number around 500,000. Nevertheless for many American Sikhs, such experiences are not uncommon. As a scholar of the tradition and a practicing Sikh myself, I have studied the harsh realities of what it means to be a Sikh in America today. I have also experienced racial slurs from a young age.

The bottom line is there is little understanding of who exactly the Sikhs are and what the believe. So here’s a primer.

Founder of Sikhism

To start at the beginning, the founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, which is currently split between Pakistan and the northwestern area of India. A majority of the global Sikh population still resides in Punjab on the Indian side of the border.

From a young age, Guru Nanak was disillusioned by the social inequities and religious hypocrisies he observed around him. He believed that a single divine force created the entire world and resided within it. In his belief, God was not separate from the world and watching from a distance, but fully present in every aspect of creation.

He therefore asserted that all people are equally divine and deserve to be treated as such.

To promote this vision of divine oneness and social equality, Guru Nanak created institutions and religious practices. He established community centers and places of worship, wrote his own scriptural compositions and institutionalized a system of leadership (gurus) that would carry forward his vision.

The Sikh view thus rejects all social distinctions that produce inequities, including gender, race, religion and caste, the predominant structure for social hierarchy in South Asia.

A community kitchen run by the Sikhs to provide free meals to anyone, irrespective of caste, faith or religion, in the Golden Temple, in Punjab, India. Photo by Shankar S./Creative Commons

Serving the world is a natural expression of the Sikh prayer and worship. Sikhs call this prayerful service “seva,” and it is a core part of their practice.

The Sikh identity

In the Sikh tradition, a truly religious person is one who cultivates the spiritual self while also serving the communities around them – or a saint-soldier. The saint-soldier ideal applies to women and men alike.

In this spirit, Sikh women and men maintain five articles of faith, popularly known as the five Ks. These are: kes (long, uncut hair), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword) and kachera (soldier-shorts).

Although little historical evidence exists to explain why these particular articles were chosen, the 5 Ks continue provide the community with a collective identity, binding together individuals on the basis of a shared belief and practice. As I understand, Sikhs cherish these articles of faith as gifts from their gurus.

Turbans are an important part of the Sikh identity. Both women and men may wear turbans. Like the articles of faith, Sikhs regard their turbans as gifts given by their beloved gurus, and its meaning is deeply personal. In South Asian culture, wearing a turban typically indicated one’s social status – kings and rulers once wore turbans. The Sikh gurus adopted the turban, in part, to remind Sikhs that all humans are sovereign, royal and ultimately equal.

Sikhs in America

Today, there are approximately 30 million Sikhs worldwide, making Sikhism the world’s fifth-largest major religion.

“The Five Beloved,” a ceremonial honor guard, move along Madison Ave. near the front of the Sikh Day Parade, an annual Nagar Keertan “meditation celebration,” on April 28, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

After British colonizers in India seized power of Punjab in 1849, where a majority of the Sikh community was based, Sikhs began migrating to various regions controlled by the British Empire, including Southeast Asia, East Africa and the United Kingdom itself. Based on what was available to them, Sikhs played various roles in these communities, including military service, agricultural work and railway construction.

The first Sikh community entered the United States via the West Coast during the 1890s. They began experiencing discrimination immediately upon their arrival. For instance, the first race riot targeting Sikhs took place in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907. Angry mobs of white men rounded up Sikh laborers, beat them up and forced them to leave town.

The discrimination continued over the years. For instance, when my father moved from Punjab to the United States in the 1970s, racial slurs like “Ayatollah” and “raghead” were hurled at him. It was a time when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken captive in Iran and tension between the two countries was high. These slurs reflected the racist backlash against those who fitted the stereotypes of Iranians. Our family faced a similar racist backlash when the U.S. engaged in the Gulf War during the early 1990s.

The racist attacks spiked again after 9/11, particularly because Americans did not know about the Sikh religion and conflated the unique Sikh appearance with popular stereotypes of what terrorists look like.

In comparison to the past decade, the rates of violence against Sikhs have surged since the election of President Donald Trump. The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S., estimated earlier this year that Americans Sikhs were being targeted in hate crimes about once a week. Just in the past two weeks, two Sikh men have been brutally assaulted in California. Police are still investigating the motivation.

(AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

The ConversationAs a practicing Sikh, I can affirm that the Sikh commitment to the tenets of their faith, including love, service and justice, keeps them resilient in the face of hate. For these reason, for many Sikh Americans, like Gurbir Grewal, it is rewarding to maintain their unique Sikh identity.

(Simran Jeet Singh is the Henry R. Luce Post-Doctoral Fellow in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at New York University. In September he will become a regular columnist for Religion News Service.)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

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  • The first reaction of too many Americans—the Laura Ingraham set—on encountering someone or something different is to attack it. Heaven forbid spending some time studying what it is. How is it similar/different than what you know? How is it more/less effective in dealing with issues common to mankind? Etc.

  • Thanks for writing. Unfortunately the people that could most benefit from this piece will probably never read it.

  • The Sikhs don’t have the notion of Satan/Shaitan. So they don’t really say this or that religion is false.

    The Sikhs don’t try to derive law from their texts. If you ask them for their stance on, say, abortion, most of them will be unable to say that this or that religious text entails such and such a stance on abortion.

  • Just an observation; you started your comment with an attack. Is this not the herd mentality?

  • They will too read it, and then decide that the Sikhs are…

    Devil worshippers.
    Deluded brown people.
    Haters of The One True God (TM)
    Deluded brown people.
    Require conversion.
    Are going to burn in hell for ever.
    Stealing our jobs.

  • Without doubt, the best solution is? The Great Kibosh:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten
    seconds: Priceless !!!

    As far as one knows or can
    tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    As far as one knows or can
    tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on

    A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings
    (angels?, tinker bells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups
    calling themselves a religion.
    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally,
    Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early
    philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely
    different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for
    eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Of course not.

    But it does fit your MO, your shtick, your spiel, and your hatred for people who won’t endorse your activities.

  • Do you mean like the conservative Christians like Jack Chick in the article you just cited that won’t endorse the activities of catholics? But all done in love, of course, for your goddam theological errors.

    Last week you were accusing liberal religious people of hating religious people and religion. I guess conservative ones also hate religious people and religion.

    And judging from what I hear uber-catholics– not exactly like you, because you will unite with any religious person if they damn gay people or liberals, religious or not– you are all just in error, and will burn in hell with the liberals.

    but you just can’t help yourself, can you?* Just a little while ago, you were defending good ol’ Floyd, as he also attacked religious people. But he was only attacking fellow Christians. Give him some time. Sandimonuious of course has declared some Christians and the entire Muslim religion as being a cult.

    Or are we just to conclude that your entire mode of belief is to attack, attack, and attack? Or “what about them public school teachers”– whataboutism in its purest form, in an article about the depredations of your holy catholic church and its priest problem? Oh, that was another attack. Gotta bring up the public school teachers, because god-I-don’t-believe-in forbid that YOU ACTUALLY STICK TO THE SUBJECT AT HAND.
    Oh, well, you have responded with your vitriol some 20 times in the last 24 hours, and not one of my comments was directed towards you. I guess I have to go back to ignoring you yet again until some other outrage you post manages to attract my attention for longer than the 2 seconds it takes to realize it is yet another nonsensical, hypocritical pronouncement** from the King and the God of bobWorld.

    *no, you can’t. you are just too full of bile. **spelled a-t-t-a-c-k.
    Have a nice day, dear. Maybe, someday, the moderators here at RNS will ban you.

  • “Do you mean like the conservative Christians like Jack Chick in the article you just cited that won’t endorse the activities of catholics?”


    “Last week you were accusing liberal religious people of hating religious people and religion. I guess conservative ones also hate religious people and religion.”

    It is simply amazing the number of accusations you make of accusations that never happened.

    “Or are we just to conclude that your entire mode of belief is to attack, attack, and attack?”

    No, that’s your M.O..

    “Or ‘what about them public school teachers’– whataboutism in its purest form, in an article about the depredations of your holy catholic church and its priest problem?”

    Pointing out that different measures are being used by you and your friends for the very same thing is not “whataboutism”.

    “Whataboutism” has arisen on the left as those who disagree with you point out that you’ve moved the goalposts, and keep moving them to fit who you wish to attack.

    The Catholic Church has 12 Apostles before its founder died. One of them was an outright piker. There’s nothing new about that. A Pilgrim Church of sinners and saints is going to have some sinners. There’s new about that either.

    “Oh, well, you have responded with your vitriol some 20 times in the last 24 hours, and not one of my comments was directed towards you.”

    In a discussion group at Disqus there is no limit on what one can respond to.

    You know that.

    Stop whining about it and wear your big boy pants.

    If you’re going to shoot your mouth off, with your usual vitriol, you ought to be expecting a response or two.

    “I guess I have to go back to ignoring you yet again….”

    It never happens.

    “Maybe, someday, the moderators here at RNS will ban you.”

    If they’re banning attack specialists, you’ll be one of the first.

  • Many aspects of the Sikh community are admirable including their levels of education. personal development, industry and generosity to others. In my interactions here and in India, I have been very impressed with this group.