Friday, December 31, 2010

Wavin' Flag

It's tradition here...

On the morning of Guru Nanak Sahib's Gurpurab, shortly after the conclusion of Asa Ki Vaar, the entire sangat makes its way outside for a short nagar kirtan around the parking lot led by the Panj Pyaaray, concluding at the Nishaan Sahib.

After a short ardaas, sevadaars leap to the base of the Nishaan Sahib and hoist a beautiful new flag, replacing the weathered one, to the sounds of bellowing jakaaray.

I've seen it dozens of times
Sometimes I take it for granted
But this morning, I wanted to see it
And despite the cold, I wanted my children to stand with us and watch it too.

I wonder if other faiths celebrate their founder's birthday by hoisting a flag.

I don’t believe Guru Sahib created the order of the Khalsa for us to be mere spectators
Simply reciting prayers, sitting in sangat - then watch the rest of life go by

He did not create a religion for us...he created a way of life
He gave us his uniform and the inspiration to move mountains
He gave us this unique look and identity, not to isolate ourselves from society
But to provide us a sense of discipline and a code to live by
So we can in turn give back to humanity

To me, this Nishan Sahib means that we are to live a life bigger than ourselves
To serve a greater cause

Why did I stand out there to watch the flag being raised?
Because that greater cause often comes at a price.

There have been so many sacrifices...
Those who gave their tomorrow for our today
So we could live our lives...
With purpose

Often times we look back at our history and take such inspiration from the sacrifices
But rarely look any further

Sometimes I wonder...what was it?

What made the Chhotte Sahibzadey, a 7 and 9 year old, give their life before giving up their faith?
What drove Baba Deep Singh to march in to his final battle win the Afghans?
What made Bhai Mani Singh endure being cut limb by limb before renouncing his faith?
What made Bhai Taru Singh choose to be brutally tortured before giving up his Sikhi?

History tells us why they did it
But what motivated them?
What inspired them?
What gave them the courage?

I believe it is the Guru's Shabad that allowed them to live such extraordinary lives
And give their life in such extraordinary ways
To live and die with dignity
And empower ordinary people in the process

The Guru's Shabad...the Word...has given our people courage for over 500 years.

So how fitting we raise the flag on the day we remember Guru Nanak
Who revealed the word to the world.

I'm not sure what kept us out there in the cold watching the Nishaan Sahib flying high
But I couldn’t stop looking at it.
I wanted my children to see it
And hold that image close
So it stays etched in their minds forever

Who Speaks For You?

In a recent news article, the SGPC has decided to respond to the many challenges Sikhs outside of Punjab face post-9/11 (better late than never, eh?). In particular, the issue of the “Turban ban” in France and the “Turban pat-downs” for air travelers in the US. How do they intend to address these issues? Creating and distributing brochures.


Brilliant!

The Tribune reports “The SGPC today decided to make foreigners aware of the Sikhism by facilitating literature in different foreign languages apart from raising the issue with the UNO and all embassies in New Delhi."  SGPC President Avtar Singh Makkar said,
We have decided to provide a detailed information about the Sikh identity, history, culture and five Ks to foreigners in their country and in their own language…We will also send brochures about the Sikh identity to the UN Secretary-General and all embassies in New Delhi.
Although I’m pleased to see the SGPC finding ways to make itself relevant for the millions of Sikhs living outside of India, at the same time I hardly think brochures is the best approach. In a related story, the SGPC is considering appointing 10 representatives across the Diaspora to “deal with the problems being faced by the community abroad.” Essentially, giving Sikhs outside of India more of "a say."

A say in what?  Who knows?

As I thought about these new initiatives from the SGPC, as well as researching their history a bit - I’m having trouble understanding the real purpose of this organization. On the one hand, the SGPC was created in the 1920’s to keep the British out of managing Gurwdaras. And in the process of reclaiming these Gurdwaras, they (along with the Singh Sabhias) ousted mahants and non-Sikh practices out of the Gurdwaras.  In addition to managing historical Gurdwaras, the SGPC also runs several educational institutions. However, the SGPC is also referred to as the “mini-parliament” of the Sikhs, as it states on it’s website. which to me is a completely different set of goals. This implies that they are the representatives and decision makers on behalf of Sikhs all over the world. Is this really the case?

So what is the relevance of the SGPC in 2011?

Do we really need the SGPC to speak on behalf of those of us living outside of India?

Do they have the resources or the influence to speak to our issues? Or should we leave these matters to the civil and human rights organizations who have the skills and experience to be effective (Sikh Coalition, SALDEF, United Sikhs etc.)

And if the SGPC finds itself with loads of time on their hands, why not get back to some of its roots and reclaim some of the Gurdwaras that have fallen in to the hands of modern-day mahants and rid the non-Sikh practices we are seeing today?  Are all Gurdwaras the SGPC is managing today falling inline with the Rehat Marayada? The same document they coordinated and rubber-stamped years ago?

Maybe they can use their resources to address issues in their own backyard, like holding granthis and parcharaks to a certain standard rather than leaving it up to the Babas to promote Sikhi. Or perhaps they could lean toward charity work and support efforts to address female feticide, drug abuse, farmer suicide, Punjab’s water crisis…take your pick!

My opinion...we’ll make our own brochures, thank you.

What’s yours?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hemming My Blessings

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

“Hem your blessings with thankfulness so they don’t unravel.” - Author Unknown

With the Guru’s grace, Spirit of the Sikh has completed its second year.

I want to take a moment to thank all of you who continue to read and comment on the blog, even though my posts have been fewer and further apart than the previous year.

I was very happy to see a lot more comments and dialogue. I hope to see more of this in the year to come and I plan to be more disciplined in responding to all comments in a timely manner and facilitating the discussions further. Often times the comments raise more profound points than the original post themselves...I look forward to hearing more of your views.

Some of you mentioned you would like to start your own blog to document your experiences and stories, but are hesitant to start or afraid you will not be able to maintain it. Consider this an open invitation to send me your pieces as a guest blogger here on Spirit of the Sikh so we can share your thoughts with this small yet insightful group of readers.

As we move in to year three, I again hope to write a little more poetry (a failed promise from last year) and share some reflections on Baani to align with some of my personal goals...Why reflections on Baani?

To keep the flame lit. 

I’ll close with Prof. Puran Singh, who explains so eloquently in his book (and the blog’s namesake) Spirit of the Sikh...
If you know Him, how can you forget Him?  Keep the flame alive.  I leave it to you what shall be the needs of the moment - within you.  You alone shall know how to keep the light of Nam burning, your heart is the shrine; the lamp of Nam is lit and it burns therein.  And in the background He stands.  You are the priest of that sacred shine.  There is silence lit by Nam.  There is the song lit by silence.  You have to pour oil, you have to trim the wick and you have to keep it burning.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lahir 2010 Tri-State: Save Punjab. Save Ourselves.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, America witnessed a cultural movement in the heart of New York City. The Harlem Renaissance brought a fresh wave of music, theatre, poetry, art and intellectual thought to the fore. This movement gave birth to the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Duke Ellington and many others who are now respected as pioneers of their genre. The Harlem Renaissance brought more than just a new style of entertainment...it put the black experience on the map – and uplifted a race that was in transition with its place in America.

On November 20 - in a stone’s throw away from Harlem - musicians, poets, and artists will gather to put the Sikh experience on the map.

After a successful event in the Tri-State area last year focusing on remembrance and inspiration from the events of 1984, the Lahir team has assembled once again for “Save Punjab. Save Ourselves.” This year’s focus is on issues affecting rural Punjab - such as farmer suicide, female infanticide, drug abuse, disease, and poverty.

I’m particularly impressed with the connection that organizers and performers have with issues affecting Punjab, many of whom were born here in the US, but as dozens of news reports filtered in over the past year speaking to the dire social, economic, and environmental situation in rural Punjab, it is evident that Sikh youth across North America will not remain silent. The bond Sikh youth feel with the land of our ancestors and history runs deep. Still the home of nearly 20 million Sikhs, any issue affecting our brothers and sisters in Punjab, affects Sikhs all over the world.

In attending previous Lahir events, I’ve enjoyed the performances by our well-known artists, but I’ve been most inspired by those poets and musicians who take to the stage for the first time. With nervousness in their voice and passion in their eyes, they pour their soul in to the mic, unearthing masterpieces hidden in journals for years...that’s what I look forward to the most. I hope to see many of these first-timers represent next Saturday

Some may ask, what does an evening of music and poetry bring to the cause? Does it really create change? I know for myself music and poetry have made me aware and feel issues that I never would have connected to any other way. K’Naan’s music has exposed me to life in Mogadishu amidst the Somali Civil war, Suheir Hammad’s poetry gives me a glimpse of life growing up in a family of Palestinian refugees. These are experiences you will not learn from news bytes on CNN. They shape my thinking, and my thinking (hopefully) leads to action.

Some questioned the impact of the Harlem Renaissance, while others felt it laid the framework for the Civil Rights movement. Will the Lahir movement and similar initiatives lead us toward bigger things to move the Panth forward? Only time will tell. But I know how I felt after an evening of listening to my brothers and sisters bring their talents to the mic - all while united in a cause...it feels like anything is possible.

Lahir: Move the Movment – Save Punjab. Save Ourselves.
Saturday, November 20, 2010 @ 6pm
NJIT (150 Bleeker St. Newark, NJ) Campus Center Ballroom, 2fl
movethemovement@gmail.com

Monday, October 25, 2010

Half The Panth

It seems to happen at every camp...

Somewhere around the last day or two, the older boys have an evening discussion about girls keeping their Sikhi saroop (not trimming, shaving, plucking etc.) and talk about whether or not they would marry a girl who kept their saroop intact. There's always a couple vocal boys who proudly stand behind their sisters and vow they would only marry a girl who kept all their kesh, while other boys are equally opposed, as it makes them uncomfortable. However, the majority seem to be indifferent - as there are many things they look for in finding a mate - self-confidence, physical attraction, that "spark"...and whether or not she chooses to remove her body hair or not really doesn’t matter. Everyone generally falls in to one of these categories - then the discussion ends, and everybody goes on their merry way. It's funny…I've sat through this discussion decades ago as a camper…and it hasn’t really evolved much.

So I started thinking...what is it like to be a young girl who's been raised to keep her kesh (all her kesh) and comes to camp only to find out that she's in the minority? It must be pretty confusing considering she was taught that this is something that Sikh girls do.

I know for me, camp was an opportunity to be around people with similar upbringings, who looked like me and shared my challenges…it was my opportunity once a year to not feel "different." How must it feel to be that girl who still has to explain herself to the other Sikhs? Perhaps she may find herself more comfortable with her school friends - after all, around them she knows she's supposed to be different.

In my most simplistic way of looking at Sikhi, I believe that Guru Sahib would not have asked anything of his son that he would not have asked of his daughter. Keep in mind, this is the same Guru who fought alongside Mai Bhago in the Battle of Mukatsar.  And if Sikh men are "expected" to keep their kesh and the rest of the Sikh uniform even prior to taking Amrit - why wouldn’t the same be expected of Sikh women?

How and when did this disparity occur? Is there question over whether Sikh women kept their saroop during the Guru's times? Is there a debate to be had over whether Sikh women are supposed to keep all their kesh in the first place? Is this simply the result of Western, Punjabi, or other cultural influences on our identity?

Or is this just a matter of us everyday Sikhs needing to re-align our perception of beauty to that of the Guru's?

I don’t claim to know the answers, but I do feel the discussion needs to emerge from the isolated camp dorm rooms and be brought out in the open.

In my conversations with women who keep their Sikhi saroop or wear Dastaars, I'm alarmed to find that many receive more support from non-Sikh friends and instead have been discouraged by their Sikh peers and elders.

Truth is...this isn't really just about kesh

It is about the rigid gender discrimination within the Sikh community.

It is about our inability to create an effective support structure for young women in the same way we do with young boys.

This to me is not a trivial matter. As the Chinese proverb goes, women hold up the "half the sky", and I believe that Sikh women - our daughters, sisters, mothers, grand-mothers, and great-grand-mothers - hold up half the panth.

And if we as a community are unable to support and encourage Sikh women who choose to make commitments toward the Guru - then we as a community have a lot of self-reflecting to do.

I believe through baani Guru Sahib has given us the ability to empower ourselves, so I implore these women, who adorn the Guru's uniform not to feel discouraged, but instead see themselves as torchbearers, reviving Sikh tradition in the footsteps of Mata Sahib Kaur.

That said, I also believe that Guru Sahib has designed the saadh sangat with the sole purpose of uplifting one another along this path...and help carry us through difficult times. Where is the saadh sangat now?

At the end of this particular camp, during the final deevan...the staff recognized two boys who recently started keeping their kesh. As they walked up to the stage, showered with jakaaray - I couldn’t help but get a bit choked up. I've always admired these brave Sikhs who fall in love with the Guru, and want to embrace his image. And immediately after, a staff member announced that one of the girls, who chose to remain anonymous, also decided to become "Saabat Soorat", a term I have never heard before referring to a girl. This is the first time I witnessed a young woman being recognized for keeping all her kesh, and I was particularly proud of how quickly the jakaaray filled the air yet again...led completely by the boys.

Perhaps that inspiring moment was only symbolic, who knows if it actually leads to change...

But given where we are as a community...even this is progress.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Inni Kaur's Journey With The Gurus

JOURNEY WITH THE GURUS, by Inni Kaur. Illustrated by Pardeep Singh, Edited by Manjyot Kaur. Sikh Educational & Cultural Foundation, Norwalk, CT, U.S.A., 2010. Fulll-page color illustrations, hardover, pp 172, $28.95. ISBN # 978-0-9827224-0-4.


REVIEW

I've always been a history buff...a Sikh history buff, that is!

I would take every opportunity I could to listen to a saakhi about our rich history. But as a child growing up in the US, I rarely found books that could truly reflect the wonder and beauty of the Gurus' lives. The history books I read were published in the early 70's, and although now I can appreciate what hard work it must have taken to translate Sikh history for children into a foreign language - at the time, I had no interest in reading these books. The stories were hard to understand, the dialogue seemed unrealistic, and for whatever reason...they didn't speak to me.

Inni Kaur's Journey with the Gurus is a series of short stories about Guru Nanak's life, followed by discussion points where the author suggests ideas and principles to emphasize while reading with your child.

I've been blessed with an opportunity to preview Journey with the Gurus along with my family, and I can say for all of us...this is a book that speaks to us!

It only took me a couple of stories for me to notice what was different about this book. Although the major events in these short stories have been told for centuries, the author however transports us to the time of the Guru, and lets us into the dialogue in between these events, as though we were sitting as witnesses, watching history unfold.

For example, we all know the saakhi where young Nanak refused to wear the Hindu janeu - a string band worn diagonally by Brahmins from the shoulder down - but what was going through his mind that morning while family and friends were gathering for the event to initiate him into the janeu?

We know the saakhi of Guru Nanak's disappearance for three days in the River Bein, but what were the locals thinking during those three days? How did Bebe Nanaki feel? Where did Bhai Mardana think his friend had gone?

And what was the mood like that early morning when Guru Sahib and Bhai Mardana left for their first udaasi (great journey)?

Journey with the Gurus takes us there and let's us experience history.

These stories introduce me to personalities I had heard of but never fully appreciated - the chief of Talwandi, Rai Bular; the Governor of Sultanpur, Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi; and the close friendship Guru Nanak had with his brother-in-law, Jairam.

But of all these relationships, it was the one with his older sister, Bebe Nanaki, that I connected with the most. I've always heard that Guru Sahib and Bebe Nanaki were very close and she was a supporting and loving sister. And as per tradition, she is proudly known as the first Sikh of the Guru, but as much as she was an influence in his life, very little is written about her.

Journey with the Gurus does justice to this very special relationship by including her throughout the entire book. I especially enjoyed the dialogue they shared shortly after Guru Sahib came to stay with Nanaki and Jairam in Sultanpur, reminiscing about their childhood:

"Vir, do you remember the hopscotch game we always played?"
"Hopscotch game?" asked Jairam.
"Bhraa ji, you don't want to know all the things that she made me do. And to top it off, she always won at hopscotch," said Nanak, laughing and shaking his head.

In another conversation, Nanaki expresses concern over Guru Sahib going to the river by himself early in the mornings. After Jairam kindly suggests that Nanak should decide these things for himself, she replies:

"Yes, dearest, you are right. I sometimes forget that my little brother is all grown up now."

It was amazing to hear Guru Sahib and Bebe Nanaki interact in a way that a younger brother and protective older sister typically would...something so many of us can relate to.

There were some other subtle messages I found quite powerful. Like when Lakhmi Das was born, Guru Nanak and Mata Sulakhani ji's second child, the author mentions how "Sulakhani's parents came as quickly as they could to see their new grandson." And how Mehta Kalu ji speaks so gently about his daughter-in-law, referring to her as a "kind and loving wife", and Mata Tripta ji chiming in: "I am so glad to see that Sulakhani is looking after her children very well."

I found the tone of these conversations refreshing and quite different from what I've read before or would have expected, given the cultural norms of the time.

Some may feel that Inni Kaur has taken some creative liberty with these stories, and may ask, "How do we know this all really happened?" To that, my response would be, "How do we know it did not?"

The major events in the stories have been retold in a creative way in modern language, but the facts as we traditionally know them are still intact. As for all the dialogue in between, I wonder why wouldn't Guru Sahib and Bebe Nanaki converse like any other brother and sister would? Why wouldn't Jairam facilitate Guru Sahib's move to Sultanpur to help his in-laws out, and re-unite his wife with her brother? And why wouldn't Mehta Kalu ji and Mata Tripta ji admire their daughter-in-law for being a good wife and mother?

I mean...Guru Sahib was such a progressive thinker and way ahead of his time; he preached equality, kindness, compassion - and influenced the masses by doing so - why couldn't such conversations take place?

Reading such a different perspective to these saakhis is like reading Sikh history for the first time. I'm glad to see the book is labeled "Volume One", because I can't wait to read the discourse between Guru Nanak and Bhai Lehna, or the conversations between Bhai Gurdas and Guru Arjan on the bank of Ramsar while scribing the Guru Granth Sahib.

And, of course, the precious dialogue between Mata Gujri ji and her four grandsons.

What I appreciate most about this book is how engaged our children were while reading it - whether it was the beautiful illustrations that kept our little ones sneaking a peek into the next page or the discussions we had afterwards that would go on past bedtime.

It was that little personal connection they created with Guru Nanak that I found so special.

And for that, I am truly grateful.

Thank you, Inni Kaur, for introducing us to the simple unfolding of our beautiful history. My children and I hungrily look forward to the next volume so we can continue our Journey with the Gurus...

Watch the Homepage of sikhchic.com for the book-launch on October 15, 2010.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who Am I?

This summer at a local gurmat camp, I ran a workshop called "Who Am I?"

It consists of a role-playing exercise where I play the ignorant passerby asking the kids about who they are and what Sikhi is all about. The goal of this workshop is to come up with our own "elevator pitch" - concise yet thoughtful answers to some of the most common questions we're asked.

No matter how many times I've facilitated this workshop, I'm always amazed at how little the campers are able to answer about very basic questions on Sikhi and Sikh practices. It doesn't even matter what kind of camp - from those that follow the Rehat Maryada closely to those who do not - the results are much the same.

In one camp, when the kids were being particularly unresponsive, I veered off my lesson plan of "How we explain our Sikhi to Non-Sikhs", and instead started asking the group of 15-17 years olds about themselves.

What kept them as Sikhs?
What made them want to follow the Guru's path?
Why did they keep their Kesh and Sikhi identity?

Surprisingly, there were still few answers. In every group, there's always one or two who raise their hands and say all the "right things" and perhaps one or two brave souls who object and say, for example, that keeping their kesh is no longer necessary, and, for that matter, neither is organized religion.  Even this perspective I respect because at least they are thinking, reasoning, and vocalizing their opinions. I'm not really concerned about either end of this spectrum, but what does worry me is the vast majority in the middle who appear to be, well...indifferent.

Out of a little frustration, I finally picked one kid in the back - a fifteen year old boy wearing a patka and asked him directly: "Tell me, why do you keep your kesh?"

After a short pause, he looked back at me and said, "To be honest, I really have no idea."

I feel my parent's generation did the best they could raising Sikh youth in a land and culture different than their own. As a child growing up on the East Coast of the U.S., I was blessed with opportunities to go to Sikh camps. I loved going to camp and being around people who looked like me and shared my struggles. I have fond memories of gathering around the camp fire with all my friends and shouting jakaaray until we lost our voices - I was inspired...but I'm not sure why.

I grew up participating in kirtan competitions, speech competitions, paatth competitions, and I constantly had the company of Sikh friends, but even in all this...there was still something missing.

Sometimes I look back at all the people I competed with in kirtan competitions, and those who shouted jakaaray along with me at camp...most of them aren't Sikhs anymore. Perhaps they felt something missing too.

As many of us grow out of adolescence - start to think for ourselves and get exposed to ideas, opinions, and thoughts that we never knew existed - our beliefs get challenged, and it takes a little more than jakaaray and first place trophies to keep us rooted in our Sikhi. Much of that external stuff eventually fades away, and we're forced to look within.

Although the cause of our current state is still a bit elusive to me, the solution however, is crystal clear. Whereas my training in Sikhi was largely external - keep your kesh, be proud of your history, and one day you may grow up into a Sikh who reads and reflects on gurbani - essentially, growing Sikhi "outside-in."

I believe the answer is to start with bani - day one, and grow Sikhi "inside out."

I'm convinced that fostering a gurbani-based environment at our camps, Khalsa schools, Sikh Student Associations, and, most importantly, our homes, is the best way to engage with the next generation of Sikhs, so that they can individually and collectively create connections with the Guru.

So maybe this means that the SSA substitutes one if it's monthly meetings for Gurbani Vichaar, or our camps and Khalsa schools build their lesson plans on reflective exercises around a shabad, and perhaps as we put our sons and daughters to bed every night, we help them find strength and courage in a shabad in the same way they do with a saakhi.

By cultivating that inner relationship with the Guru - through shabad, simran and reflection - I believe the external aspects of Sikhi will fall into place. We will then always be fulfilled and our questions will always be answered.

A friend once said to me, if we want to see our reflection in the lake, the water must first be still.

May Guru Sahib bring that stillness in our lives, so that we can realize who we really are.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Save The Gurdwara


I’ll admit...when I first saw emails and facebook posts titled “Save The Gurdwara”, I immediately dismissed it, thinking it was yet another mismanaged Gurdwara falling in to bankruptcy or one group trying to overthrow another. But after I read the website and confirmed some of the details with contacts in Austin, I was shocked by what had occurred.

By now most of you know that in 2007, the city of Austin, Texas approved the building of a permanent Gurdwara on land the Sikh community had purchased back in 2003 and where they’ve since been having regular weekly services in a makeshift home. Shortly after construction began, a couple who recently moved nearby the Gurdwara (the Bollier’s), filed an injunction to block construction on the grounds that it would be an eye-sore, increase traffic, and lower property value. In March 2009, a district court denied the couple’s injunction in favor of the Austin Sikh community and construction of the Gurdwara was allowed to proceed. Unfortunately, this victory would be short-lived. Sixteen months after the original victory and construction now complete, an appeals court has overturned the lower court’s ruling and has ordered the entire structure to be torn down – needless to say, the Austin Sikh community is devastated!

As many of us would, I immediately thought this was a blatant act of racism, but as I read the website several times, I noticed there is no accusation of this being racially-motivated. I applaud the Austin sangat for taking the “high road” and not pulling the race card until there is clear evidence of racism or bigotry, but I must say...it sure does smell like it! I mean, “Lower their property’s value?”…really?

Somewhere in all the disappointment and frustration of this situation, I am still impressed with how Sikhs manage to come together in a time of need. Emails are circulating through all the networks, people are dedicating their facebook pictures and statuses to the “Save the Gurdwara” movement, and some of our talented MC’s have written songs to help rally and inspire the community.

I appreciate how the Austin Sikh community has managed to re-group and pull themselves together after this upsetting news. Rather than being reactive, or publicly lashing out – they have instead decided to step back and collect funds. It is through these funds they can assemble a professional legal team that can best represent them in what is likely to be a long and ugly court battle. This is a very proactive and strategic approach, as I’ve seen other communities in similar situations only appeal for funds once the community is bankrupt and already begun to compromise the quality of their legal effort.

In a time where “ethnopphobia” is running rampant through politics and political discourse, it very likely this case will gain media attention throughout the state of Texas, and possibly the national stage. So in this relative calm before the storm, I think we must pause and ask ourselves...what would Guru Sahib do? How would he guide us? What does Baani tell us? What examples from the Guru’s life history can we reference?

One thing that always fascinated me about the sakhis of Guru Nanak was the way in which he influenced others. He did not use physical might, but chose words instead. But even more than his words, it was the love in which he expressed them, it was his uncanny ability to relate and connect with people from all walks of life. He had a personality and a “fragrance” about him that made people want to follow.

We now have an opportunity to share the Guru’s radiance.

We have an opportunity to show the world exactly who Sikhs are and how wonderful it would be to live near such a loving, compassionate, and socially active community.

I have faith that cooler heads will prevail. Let’s not forget, it was the Texas Board of Education who recently voted to include information on Sikhs and Sikh practices in the state-mandated curriculum for public school students.

The Austin Sikh community must be assured that the 25 million Sikhs all over the world stand behind them in solidarity. That said, the financial responsibility for this case should not fall on their shoulders alone...this is our fight...and I encourage everyone reading this to make their donation at http://www.savegurdwara.com/.

I’m sure that if we not lose sight of what this is all for, and keep the Guru as our guide – with His grace – the Sikhs of Austin will open the doors of its new Gurdwara to the public soon, and welcome the whole community with open arms to celebrate...even the Bollier’s.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Good PR

Many years ago, I attended a demonstration where thousands of Sikhs gathered in the city. Onlookers were curious as to who we were and why we had gathered. As I was handing out information pamphlets, a passerby approached me, took one of the pamphlets, quickly looked it over and in a thick British accent said, “Ah yes...Sikhs! Wonderful religion...wonderful people...brave soldiers...” Then he leaned over to whisper something in my ear and said “...but whoever handles your public relations sucks!”

As I see patterns and trends on the way Sikhs are portrayed in the media, that incident always comes to mind. Seeing how positive acts from Sikh individuals rarely mention the word “Sikh” yet negative acts from Sikh individuals turn in to an “exposé” of our community, I started to wonder how non-Sikhs were learning about us and what can we do to proactively present a more accurate image.

Here in North America, our approach to public relations and education is largely reactionary. After a violent event at a Gurdwara, we explain to the public how Sikhs are not violent. After September 11th, we explained how we’re not terrorists. It seems we spend more time explaining who we’re not rather than who we are.

There are some positive efforts as well. Traditionally, many Sikh communities flood the interfaith networks as a means of outreach. I’ve participated in many interfaith events over the years, and although it may be beneficial for relationship building and dialogue, its impact on educating large parts of society over time is debatable.

In the past few months, somewhere in the plethora of press release emails I receive from Sikh organizations, I learned of two significant initiatives by the Sikh Coalition that seemed to pass quietly without much fanfare.

On May 21, the Texas Board of Education voted to include information on Sikhs and Sikh practices in the state-mandated curriculum for public school students. This is the first time Sikhs or Sikhi has ever before been included in a state-wide curriculum. Convincing a fairly conservative state like Texas to incorporate Sikhs in to their curriculum is an impressive feat in itself, but even more encouraging is how influential Texas is for textbook manufacturers. The Sikh Coalition press release states:
Experts estimate that the decisions made by the Texas Board of Education affect the textbooks used in 46 other states because it is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the nation.
This accomplishment shows that by being proactive and working at a grassroots level to mobilize the local community, establish strategic partnerships, take a professional and systematic approach, and patiently work through the process – people will listen and policies will change. This is a major achievement – what better way to educate people on Sikhs and Sikhi than through the school system?

Another impressive initiative is the Sikh Coalition Presenter’s Course that was launched this past February in New York City. After a rigorous application and interview process, 15 students are selected to participate in an intensive 3 day training course led by a public speaking expert and Sikh Coalition staff members. Those who complete the course and pass their evaluation become certified Sikh Coalition presenters. In addition to public speaking skills, presenters are trained to deliver a standard presentation on Sikhi that has been reviewed, discussed, and vetted at length. Certified presenters must make 2 public presentations a year to maintain their credential and are regularly provided updates as materials are revised. Rather than re-inventing the wheel every time a presentation is needed, now one community can have several resources prepared with a standard presentation and consistent message. Imagine having 15 people in your community who can respond to any incident at a school or workplace with such a presentation, or better yet, proactively seek out opportunities to educate! Check out the YouTube video to learn more about the course. Other cities have already inquired on how the presenter’s course can be brought to their community.

You might ask – why is education so important? Sikhs have settled here for over a hundred years with our identity intact, Sikhs have been elected to public office and hold senior corporate positions, why waste the resources? Or as some commenters have challenged me in previous posts, “who cares what the goray think of us?” That attitude might be okay for some people...not for me.

As long as Sikh passengers are being profiled, Sikh kids are being bullied, and Sikh taxi drivers are being attacked...then we have a job to do. And even then, I don’t want my children and grandchildren to simply “settle” here in the US and still be looked at as foreigners. I want Sikhs to have a voice and be recognized as the law-abiding citizens and the community activists we are. I’d like us to be viewed as a powerful and influential community who must have a “seat at the table” in policy decisions. Unless people know who we are, what we’re about, and what we stand for, how can we expect to be heard and have our issues addressed? All of this requires us to shift our paradigm when it comes to education and congratulations to the Sikh Coalition for taking the lead and being proactive!

Now what can you do? In addition to bringing the presenter’s course to your community, what changes can you make at your local Gurdwara? Gurdwaras are still a good place for education and outreach. What about the creating a “Welcoming Committee” that prepares materials for non-Sikh visitors, facilitates organized tours, and perhaps invites community groups and neighbors to visit the Gurdwara? What if this committee organized charity or social events for their local surrounding community to participate in? Anybody have any other tangible ideas to share?

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Tragic Loss

Here on Spirit Of The Sikh, we’ve recognized accomplished Sikhs who have excelled in their field, and by doing so - presented a positive image of Sikhs and the Sikh way of life – academics, athletes, politicians, artists, the list goes on and on. Often unnoticed though are everyday people, who build individual relationships with those in their community, and spread a spirit of goodwill through their kindness and generosity. Unfortunately I learned of this gentle soul, Prabhjot Singh, too late. May Waheguru always be with him and strengthen his family while overcoming this terrible loss.



The video appears to be having difficulties.  Here's a news report of the tragedy:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/17/AR2010061706402.html

Also, here's an update on the arrest of the two suspects:
http://www.wjla.com/news/stories/0610/749381.html

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sharing The Guru's Gift

A few weeks back, we attended our first Sikh Parade of the season.

Like every year, we love making the trip downtown to join our sangat and spend a beautiful spring day outside celebrating Vaisakhi. Amongst the sea of kesri dastaars and chunnis, there was keertan, gatka, and jakaaray filling the streets.

As we began marching down the main avenue, I started to notice the passerby’s reaction to us. Some were irritated they had to wait for us to cross the street, some took out their camera phones to take pictures of us, but the vast majority looked, well...confused.

And who can blame them?

None of our floats and few of our signs would make any sense to a non-Sikh. The overlapping keertan, jakaaray, and political slogans were obviously all in Punjabi. And there was little to no interaction between us and the onlookers. I wondered, why did we come here to do this?

If our purpose was to have a nagar keertan and to celebrate Vaisakhi in our own traditional way, then why waste the time and money to do it out here? Why not just do this on our own Gurdwara premises? But if our purpose was to educate the greater community on who Sikhs are, then what exactly were we doing to accomplish that? Sure, many people were taking pictures of us, but was it because of the spectacle we created? Or because people were so happy to see the Sikhs that they’ve heard so much about – followers of Guru Nanak, brave soldiers, and defenders of the downtrodden? Which do you think?

If we were so interested in educating others about us, perhaps we could have delegated volunteers to walk through the sidewalks handing out information cards (no bigger than an index card), explaining who we are and what we’re celebrating...or at least hand out free water bottles with labels reading “Happy Vaisakhi from the Sikh Community” and maybe they’d be encouraged to learn more about us later. Given the recent news regarding Sikhs in the US and Canada, we could really use all the positive PR we can get. And since we’re already here marching through a major metropolitan society, why not take advantage of it?

As the parade went on, I started to grow more frustrated. I kept thinking, Sikhs have been in the US for over 100 years, is this really the best we can do?

Toward the end of the parade, as we all congregated at the park to listen to shabad keertan and speeches, a young couple riding bikes passed through. Since it is common for festivals to occur during this time of year in the city, the couple decided to stop and check out what was going on. They parked their bikes and sat right behind us to take in the sights and sounds. After observing the crowd, interacting with our kids for a bit, and seeing folks come back from the langar tent with plates full of hot food, the woman got up and said to the man, “Looks like there’s food over there, I’m going to get something to eat.” The man replied, “Do you have any money on you?” My wife then kindly interrupted and said “You won’t need it, it’s our free community kitchen...it’s called langar.” The woman smiled and said “Well that’s nice” and made her way to the langar tent.

Somewhere in all my cynicism, I lost sight of why we were there. We were there that day to celebrate the Guru and his gifts. And in all of Guru Sahib’s brilliance, his gift of langar is still finding ways to bring people of all races, religions, cultures, socio-economic groups, and beliefs together to share a common meal.

I looked around...I saw how efficiently the sevadaars were managing the langar line. For a moment, I thought about all the men and women who woke up early that morning to make food for hundreds of people. I noticed all the humble volunteers who swiftly filled everyone’s plate with a smile on their face. Then I saw all the sevadaars who were quickly picking up the trash and recyclables and disposing of them properly, leaving the park spotless!

If I looked close enough – there was love, service, and humility all around us – and if this is what passersby learn about Sikhs, then all is not lost. In fact, this is the essence of who we are...and no pamphlet is going to show you that.

There is a lesson to be learned here...even outside of just our parades. So often we try to find creative ways to explain to non-Sikhs exactly who Guru Nanak’s Sikhs are, when sometimes, all we need to do...is show them the Guru Nanak in us.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Where I Belong

There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don't you?
You feel the separation from the Beloved.
Invite Him to fill you up, embrace the fire.
(Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī )

I love this time of the year.

The harsh east coast winter is now a distant memory, flowers are blossoming all around, and the warmth of the sunlight on my face is revitalizing.

My community is rejuvenated as well.

Our gurdwara is busily preparing for Vaisakhi celebrations - nagar kirtans, gatka demonstrations, and special kirtan programs are all in the works.

But out of all the celebrations, festivities and ceremonies to come, there is one that often goes quietly unnoticed, yet holds a special place in my heart - the annual amrit sanchar. Week after week, announcements are made for aspiring Sikhs of the Guru to sign up and be ready to "offer their head."

It is always inspiring to see members of my sangat prepare for this special day. Seeing all of this reminds me of my own experience.

Although I grew up with many Sikh friends, none of them were amritdhari, so learning about the discipline and lifestyle of an amrithdhari at camps was fascinating to me. I used to think how cool it would be to join the Order of the Khalsa...the Guru's army! At the same time, the whole process and experience was a bit of a mystery to me.

So when I reached adolescence and started going to camps with amritdhari counselors and attending retreats with amritdhari Sikhs my age from all over the world, I was overwhelmed. I couldn't wait until the classes and lectures were over, just so I could sit and talk with folks and learn about their experiences. I tried to absorb as much as I could.

I would ask all kinds of questions...What inspired you to take amrit? What was it like? How did you prepare? When did you know you were ready? Has it been difficult to maintain your rehat? Have you ever had second thoughts about your decision?

The answers I got varied...which shows how unique everybody's individual experience is. There were some who took this step because they had a deep connection with the shabad, others were encouraged by their friends and had been "practicing" for years. Then there some whose family members were all amritdhari, so it was just "expected"...they really didn't know any other way. Then there were others who simply had a "revelation" and walked into the amrit sanchar clean-shaven and have kept their rehat ever since.

Many I spoke to felt they had a void in their life...I remember one response vividly in a group discussion that I really connected with. When a young man was asked why he was going to take amrit the next morning, he said: "With the Guru by my side, I know I will never be alone."

Some might argue that there are right or wrong reasons to take this step...personally, I do not. I mean, no matter what your circumstances are, if your answer is to bring the Guru in to your life...does it really matter how you got there?

Sometimes the questions I asked about amrit provoked hour-long answers laced with bani, history, and personal experience...others were brief. I recall one person stopping me mid-way through my first question and answering everything with three simple words..."Chhakko, hor ki?"

During that inquisitive time in my life, I learned so much. I surrounded myself with such inspiring people and stories, I took advantage of every opportunity I could and tried so hard to learn, connect, reflect and experience. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I was a "seeker." During this time, it became harder and harder to sit in a divaan and listen to kirtan. Just about every time I heard a shabad, it brought me to tears, it was like Guru Sahib was speaking directly to me...asking me, that if I love him so much...why do I not commit to him?

It was a combination of these dialogues, experiences with my sangat, and personal reflection that led me to finally formalize my commitment and receive the Guru's amrit.

In all the congratulatory calls and emails that came to follow, I remember one friend saying something to me that stuck in my head for weeks. She said, "Be careful, although your spirit may be very high right now, somewhere in the next few months, the emotion of the event will eventually lessen and you might even hit a slump."

I couldn't imagine such a thing happening, I felt as though I was on top of the world...but sure enough, I did. After a while, I found my paatth becoming more of a ritual...something I had to squeeze into my busy schedule rather than something I enjoyed and focused on. Sometimes I would close my gutka and not even remember if I had finished the baani or not. My amrit vela discipline slowly faded away and, after time, I struggled just to meet the "bare minimum" the rehat had asked of me.

For whatever reason, I didn't feel that same "thirst" as I did prior to receiving amrit. I was purely focused on keeping my rehat and not on connecting with Waheguru. Perhaps I set my expectations too high of what life as an amritdhari would be like, maybe I was not as ready as I thought I was...or maybe I just wasn't trying hard enough. Perhaps there was a part of me that grew complacent being an amritdhari, as though I had "accomplished" something...and there was no need to "seek" any further.

Many years have passed, and although I still haven't matched the inspiration and strength I felt in those "inquisitive years", there have, however, been moments of absolute beauty. Every so often, as I race through my daily nitnem, I'll connect with a line that touches my soul. At random kirtans, I'll hear a shabad I have translated and studied before, and I will completely lose myself in it. At times, I will listen to a child recite the Mool Mantar or sing a shabad, and I'll feel the presence of the Sahibzadey around me...my eyes will well up in tears.

These experiences may be short...but I thank Waheguru for them. I pray that these "beautiful moments" will happen more frequently and string together for longer periods of time.

I now realize that receiving the Guru's amrit is not a "graduation" or really an accomplishment of any kind ... It is only a beginning. It's when a Sikh stands before the Guru and declares, "I am yours..." and the Guru lovingly replies, "...and you are mine", and everything else begins from there.

In my effort to rekindle my spirit, I have again begun asking questions.

Last April, I was chatting with a college student several years younger than me who had just received amrit a few weeks earlier. I was particularly intrigued by him as he had recently started keeping his kesh too. When I asked what inspired him to take this step, he looked at me and paused for a moment. I waited eagerly to hear his story and his experience, but instead he gave me a simple answer I will never forget.

He said, "Veerji...I'm a soldier...and this is where I belong."

For a moment, I began to think of all the soldiers who came before him. I thought about the fearlessness of Banda Singh Bahadar in the conquest of Sirhind, I thought about the bravery of Mai Bhago in the battle of Mukatsar, I thought about the courage of Baba Deep Singh in his battles with Ahmed Shah Abdali. I thought about all the countless warriors and warrior-poets who came to follow...all of whom knelt before the Guru and received his embrace.

I'm so far from all these personalities.

There is so much to learn...there are so many questions.

But one thing I do know for sure.

This is where I belong too.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It Takes A Sangat

A few years back, I went to my first Charni Lagna ceremony. Charni Lagna – literally, “at the feet of the Guru” is the traditional name of the event where a Sikh formally begins reading from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Like most Sikh ceremonies, it is actually quite simple. After shabad kirtan is recited, an ardaas is offered for the young (or old) Sikh who is beginning their journey with the Guru – then finally, he or she will read the hukamnama.

The ceremony I attended was for an 11-year old girl, who was very excited and worked hard to prepare for this day. After a few shabads were sung by the local jatha and the girl’s friends – one by one, members of the sangat came to say a few words of encouragement. One of her friends was around the same age and similarly went through this ceremony a year prior. She spoke about her own experience reading from the Guru Granth Sahib on a daily basis and how it has changed her life. Then one of her friends who had yet to take this step spoke of how she was inspired to do so soon. Then came her Punjabi school teacher, then her camp counselors, then other leaders of the community. I noted that neither her parents nor any of her relatives spoke – but instead, they just sat and listened to the members of the sangat, who individually shared such beautiful words of encouragement and praise for this young Kaur, who humbly sat at the feet of the Guru...It was quite powerful.

Finally, as the ardaas ended, there was a rare moment of pin-drop silence in the darbar hall. Then this brave 11 year old girl, surrounded by her proud parents and grandparents, read the hukamnama flawlessly...I was moved by the whole event.

Immediately after the hukmanama was completed, something remarkable happened...

As she began to turn the pages of the Guru Granth Sahib to the beginning, initiating her first sehaj paath, she began reciting the Mool Mantr aloud. Each time she repeated it, more and more people joined along. By the seventh or eighth repetition, just about every person in the hall was reciting along with her in unison. It was as though the entire sangat was offering a collective ardaas for this young girl, wishing her well on her journey and praying that she will always keep the Guru close to her.

Although this moment may have just been a short-lived gesture, to me, it was symbolic of something greater. It made me wonder what life was like in the prototypical society Guru Nanak Patshah had created at Kartarpur Sahib. I wondered what role the community played to support and guide the children. I’ve heard the stories of how everyone contributed to the langar, surpluses were shared among all, and everyone did seva for the community to create a socio-economic balance. But I have to believe that such an idealistic society did not leave parenting simply up to the parents. Instead, perhaps members of the community contributed to the upbringing of its children, and worked collectively to guide them on the right path. I wonder if it applies today...when it comes to our communities children, what is the role of the collective? When a child loses his or her way on the path of Sikhi, we are quick to blame and criticize the parents – but I wonder, is this what Guru Sahib expected of his Sikhs? Is this what he expected of his Gur-sangats? What is our responsibility in all of this?

In the mid-90’s Hillary Rodham Clinton described her vision for the children in America, in her book titled “It Takes a Village.” It spoke to the impact that individuals and groups outside the family have, for better or worse, on a child’s well-being. The saying “it takes a village” actually originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture’s proverb “Ora na azu nwa” which means it takes the community/village to raise a child. The Igbo’s also name their children “Nwa ora” which means child of the community.

Similarly, I believe it takes a village...actually...it takes a sangat to raise a Sikh. I firmly believe the collective has a responsibility to take ownership of our children’s Sikh and Gurmat development. This happens through creating opportunities for learning and empowerment, while also encouraging our young Sikh boys and girls as they achieve milestones on the Guru’s path

So what does this mean to us? Is it enough to spend a week at gurmat camp just to hang out with our friends and call ourselves “counselors”? Or can we make an honest attempt to leave a positive impression on a young child at camp? Could this summer be an opportunity to organize a gurbani veechar, “Big Khalsa Little Khalsa” event, seva project, basketball camp, or just a social trip to the movies or bowling with the local kids from the Gurdwara? Taking a step further, what about attending a kirtan or speech competition, just for the sole purpose of congratulating the 3rd and 4th place kids and those who didn’t place at all. What about simple gestures like reaching out to that struggling teenager whose “on the fence” about their Sikhi, or offering congratulations and encouragement to the young boy or girl who just started wearing a dastaar, or completed charni lagna, or received amrit?

Sikh Youth (and all youth for that matter) have so many influences…from more media sources than ever. Why not take an active role to be a positive one? If not us, than who will?

Friday, March 26, 2010

An "Amrit Vela" State Of Mind

After following some of the recent on-line debates, and discussing the topic at our local Gurbani Veechar meeting, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the concept of amrit vela in Sikhi.

To summarize the debate, many feel that amrit vela is a specific time of day (roughly three hours before dawn) where one is most attuned to Waheguru. It is the time of day where there are few distractions and one’s mind can fully focus on reflection and remembrance of Waheguru. Then there are others who feel that spirituality and reflection cannot be tied to a time of day...any time is perfect for simran, and amrit vela is more of a “state of mind” rather than a specific time. Both sides interpret various lines from Gurbani to defend their case.

I am by no means an expert on the topic. My only extended period of time waking up at amrit vela was many years ago and only for a few weeks. I’ll admit, I really enjoyed waking up before the rest of the world and designating a block of time to sit and do my paath properly, with full concentration and no other distractions – unlike now, where I often multi-task as a I rattle through my paath. However, with my poor time management as a university student, waking up at amrit vela became tougher and tougher. And after a few scary moments at the wheel driving home late at night...I decided to defer this personal goal of mine until it better suited my schedule...unfortunately, that day has yet to come.

As I got older and broadened my views on Sikhi a bit...I felt we couldn’t look at spiritual matters so mechanically. In my cursory research on the topic of amrit vela in the Guru Granth Sahib and Bhai Gurdas Ji’s Vaars, I saw many references to amrit vela, but very little explanation of it. Maybe that was on purpose. I started to wonder, when Guru Sahib says, “amrit vela sach naao vaddiaaee veechaar“, perhaps we are spending too much time quibbling over the definition of amrit vela and not enough effort on the vaddiaaee veechaar.  To me, amrit vela was more of a concept than a specific time...it is in fact the “Ambrosial Hours” the translation often states...and that time of “fragrance”, where one can concentrate on paath and simran could be any time...and certainly shouldn’t be limited to 4:30am.

I remember sharing these thoughts with a group of like-minded Sikh friends years ago...and we all agreed that this was in fact what Guru Sahib meant.

But now I’m not so sure...

Now when it comes to issues of Gurmat, and I remember those rooms full of nodding heads where we all were in agreement, I start to think to myself...what if we were all wrong?

Why do I believe that Guru Sahib was downplaying the idea of amrit vela, when there are so many references to it? Should I really be picking and choosing when Guru Sahib is being literal or not based on my own convenience? Furthermore, If a Sikh is a “disciple” and a disciple is to be...well...disciplined – then what more disciplined way can one start off their day then by waking up early?

When I think about the handful of times over the years at camps and retreats where I did wake up at amrit vela and joined together with my sangat for paath and simran before sunrise...it was so powerful. Isn’t this what my Guru wanted me to experience? And when I think about my elders and other Sikh role models who’ve influenced me over the years, why is it they all woke up before dawn as well? I guess what I’m saying is...maybe there is something to it. And unless I’ve really given it an honest try and experienced it for myself...who am I to really say what amrit vela is or isn’t?

This “literal” view of looking at amrit vela may not be popular with my friends, who still tend to see things a little “grey”, but maybe I need to start looking at my Gurmat issues like I do my politics...a little less republican...a little less democrat...and a lot more independent. It’s refreshing to see so much debate on Sikhi and Gurmat issues on the internet, but I think it’s important to look at each issue in its own context without bias, and form educated opinions accordingly – rather than just blindly attaching to a single school of thought.

So the journey continues...one day at time...and a few hours earlier :)

I would love to hear some personal experiences of others who have transitioned to an amrit vela lifestyle...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Power of His Presence


It was an exceptionally hot August...in between "two-a-day" football practices; I would stay inside, soaking in the cool air before spending another afternoon out on the field.

It was that same Summer when a young GurSikh medical student we recently met at a Gurmat camp stayed with us for a few days, as he was interviewing for a residency program at a nearby hospital. I rarely use the term "GurSikh", but this young man had the appearance, discipline, and demeanor worthy of such a title.

I didn’t interact with him much, as I was just a teenager lost in my own world made up mostly of sports and hanging out with friends...but I did observe him closely. I was intrigued by the fact he was an Amritdhari, and the only handful of Amritdharis I knew were closer to my parents age. And when we would sit and recite Sodar in the evening, it was different than the way we normally did it. It was slower, with more focus. He spoke each word carefully...as though he were concentrating more on what was being said, rather than just "getting through it."

One night, after dinner, our guest stayed back to chat with me. We talked a bit about football, and I was surprised to learn that he too played in high school. But right before I could ask him about "helmet tips", he told me that at the time, he did not keep his kesh. I was shocked! I would never have guessed. I was now even more intrigued.

We continued to talk for hours, about his experience following the Guru's path and the challenges he faced along the way. I asked him what inspired him to become a Singh, and he responded by explaining a line of Gurbani to me that I'll never forget...a line I had heard thousands of times but never understood.

bhae paraapath maanukh dhaehureeaa
This human body has been given to you.

gobindh milan kee eih thaeree bareeaa
This is your chance to meet the Lord of the Universe.

He explained that we've been blessed with this human form. This is our opportunity - our chance to surround ourselves with the Saadh Sangat, engross ourselves in Simran, and live a disciplined and reflective life in service of Him. And with His grace, we can break this cycle of life and death and merge with the Almighty.

Amazing!

This conversation was a defining moment in my personal journey as a Sikh. It was the first time I had ever had a line of Gurbani explained to me. For the first time, the Shabad was not hidden beneath loud instruments and popular tunes. Gurbani was no longer just something my parents discussed with friends. Instead, there was a clear message...a message for me. And if just two lines could answer the meaning of life, something I had always pondered – I wondered...what other questions might Gurbani answer for me?

This encounter also taught me about the value of conversation. I have been in so many environments designed to create spiritual experiences - camps, retreats, Gurdwaras - but some of the most inspiring moments I've had...some of my most meaningful "Sikh" experiences...have been one on one conversations with other Sikhs sharing personal reflections on the Guru's path.

Decades have passed since that August day.  I still run in to that young GurSikh medical student from time to time - although now he is a successful physician, a family man, and still active in Gurmat camps serving as a role model to many more kids.

But this story isn't really about him.

To be honest, I wonder if that conversation was ever really with him at all.

I believe Waheguru imparts His Grace through his creation and the Guru is always with us - encouraging us, challenging us, and guiding us. Perhaps that defining moment I had years ago, was actually not a conversation with a visiting medical student at all...but instead with Guru Nanak himself.  It's funny what lengths we go to for a "glimpse" of the Guru, when in fact, the power of his presence is all around us.

Such ruminations have inspired me to seek out conversations on Gurmat and Gurbani with other Sikhs, whoever they might be...elders, children, family, or acquaintances. Whether they know a lot or a little...everybody has a story.

There is so much we can learn about the Guru's way - through books, workshops, and seminars - but to me, it pales in comparison...as to what we can learn from each other.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: A Lion's Mane


On our weekly library trips, I find myself going through shelf after shelf of children’s books trying to find something both entertaining and challenging for my young and enthusiastic readers. Often times, the books we find are one-dimensional; either instructive, or funny, or downright silly. Rarely do I come across a book that strikes a balance of being both educational and inspiring...this is what I found in A Lion’s Mane by Navjot Kaur

A Lion’s Mane is about the journey of a young Sikh boy who while discovering why he has his long mane (kesh), also learns about the principles of his faith. Concepts like patience, generosity, wisdom, and courage are all woven in to his beautiful red dastaar that guide you through the story.

In addition to the captivating illustrations, it is the simple messages that are reinforced throughout the story that I found particularly meaningful and easy for children to process. Statements like,

“When we learn something new, it makes each of us stronger”
“Being a Khalsa knight gives me the courage to stand up to bullies”

Although I have read several children’s books that touch on the Sikh experience, what I appreciate most about A Lion’s Mane, is how Sikh religious and cultural principles are raised in the context of other cultures and communities with similar principles. I had no idea of the symbolic role the lion played in Native American Hopi culture. In explaining who we are to non-Sikh communities, I think it is just as important to share how our traditions are similar as it is to show how we are different. This pushed me to learn a bit more about some of the other people and cultures mentioned. I found the glossary most useful in explaining to my children who is Wangari Mathai and what the Anishinaabe tribe is.

A Lion’s Mane has become quite popular in our sangat circle, not only for being an excellent resource for inspiring children – Sikh and non-Sikh alike – but also for Saffron Press’s commitment to being environmentally responsible (printing their books on 100% recycled paper) and socially conscious, donating a portion of their proceeds to restore sight and prevent blindness in children.

The image on the front cover of the book shows a young boy tying his dastaar in a mirror. But as he peers at his reflection, he seems himself with the whiskers of a lion, symbolizing its strength, courage and bravery. So many children struggle with their self-image and identity. And with our distinct uniform, many Sikh children find it even more challenging. I believe any book or initiative that helps promote a positive self-image and confidence in one’s identity should be both supported and celebrated.

I look forward to further publications from Navjot Kaur, and would encourage her to consider a sequel depicting the journey of a Sikh girl. Although the path of Sikhi is the same, I’m sure the experience is different. And there are few, if any, children’s books I’m aware of with a young Sikh girl as the main character.

A Lion’s Mane is definitely a hit with our kids! Truly a wonderful book...a must read!

For more information on A Lion’s Mane, Saffron Press, or to order your copy, please visit:
http://www.saffronpress.com/books.html

Monday, January 25, 2010

Combating Hunger...One Meal at a Time


"Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week, in celebration of Dr. King’s legacy, the DC Metro satellite of Kid’s Against Hunger drew volunteers all across the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area for a hugely successful meal packaging event.

Kid’s Against Hunger (KAH) is a non-profit organization with the mission to significantly reduce the number of hungry children in the United States and to feed starving children throughout the world. This is accomplished through partnering with satellite organizations who raise funds, organize volunteers, and arrange events where meal packets (consisting of soy, rice, vegetable blend, and flavored vitamin powder) are filled, sealed, and packed for a population in need. Meals are then transported through KAH’s broad network of humanitarian organizations.

I came to learn about KAH, as the DC Metro satellite was founded by a group of young Sikh professionals in the DC area only six months ago. One of the founders, Romi Bhatia, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Business with a background in microfinance, learned about KAH from a report on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer back in August 2009. "It was the simplicity of it all that initially appealed to me", Bhatia said, describing the packaging events where volunteers meet in a central location to package nutritious meals for an underserved population. “We wanted to create an avenue where the work of local volunteers, who are willing to spare a few hours, can have far-reaching impact globally.” Shortly after watching the news report, Bhatia called the KAH headquarters in New Hope, MN and was surprised to learn that of the 70 satellite locations, the DC Metro area was not one of them. By September 2009, Bhatia and others gathered a handful of like-minded people to discuss the idea. Two months later, after raising their initial funds and establishing their non-profit organization status, they held their first packaging event – recruiting over 30 volunteers and packaging 9,500 meals. Three months later for their second packaging event on Dr. King’s Day of Service, they set a goal to package 18,500 meals. However, through the flurry of facebook invites and the announcement that all packaged meals would be sent to the recently earthquake-stricken Haiti, the number of volunteers tripled, topping 100 – in which 21,750 meals were packaged. It even received coverage from the local media [see below]. "It was amazing to see such a huge turnout and so many people come together for a common goal", said Veena Chawla, a KAH-DC Metro board member and physician at a local primary care clinic. "We have to realize that it doesn’t really take a lot of money or even a lot of effort to make a difference in someone’s life", said Chawla.



I must admit, last week’s event was one of the few times I’ve seen dozens of volunteers from all races, religions, and backgrounds all diligently volunteering for an initiative that was founded and managed by Sikhs. Bhatia, however, feels this is very much in line with their satellite’s mission.

"Although the board is currently made up of Sikhs, and many of our personal reasons for doing this stem from our Sikhi roots, our goal is to bring people together of different races, ages, and ethnicities to package and distribute meal packets. We are very pleased to see the diversity in our volunteers, and plan for our board to eventually reflect that diversity too," said Bhatia.
Following the work of the KAH-DC Metro satellite since its inception, it’s remarkable how quickly they moved from a handful of people discussing a concept in a living room to producing actual results, assisting people in need. Part of their success is due to the model they chose. Rather than "re-inventing the wheel", they partnered with Kids Against Hunger to take advantage of its established infrastructure, yet they also created their own non-profit organization, where they have the flexibility to make independent decisions on their goals and even where they send the meals. More so than that, I believe it has to do with having a solid vision and a focused objective – in other words...focus on the work...and let the organization slowly build itself around it.

The KAH-DC Metro team set a goal to raise enough funds and organize enough events to package 50,000 meals in their first 12 months. They are well on their way of accomplishing that goal and perhaps surpassing it. Congratulations to KAH-DC Metro for a successful launch! I look forward to hearing more about their achievements in the future.

Check out the coverage from News Channel 8 on last week’s event [see above]. If you’d like more information on Kid’s Against Hunger – DC Metro, or would like to make a donation…please visit: http://www.kahdcmetro.org/Kids_Against_Hunger_DC_Metro/Home.html