Friday, May 20, 2011

The Great Divide

A response to "Where Are We Heading"

After reading Charanpal Singh's article a few times and the comments to follow, it occurred to me that this isn't really about Balpreet Singh or the WSO.

In fact the entire premise of the article was debunked when Balpreet commented that he wore a suit and tie to the General Assembly. And the idea that employees of a Sikh organization should reflect the "norm of the Sikh community" is absurd. If the majority of the community cannot be identified as Sikhs and violates the rehat maryada, is this the profile we should be seeking out for representatives?

Perhaps things are different on this side of the border. The way I see it, we have enough influences that are moving people away from Sikhi, so if someone chooses to celebrate their bana...more power to them!

Didn't Guru Sahib give us this uniform because he wanted us to stand out? Wearing a 16-inch kirpan may not be my personal style, but when the Kirpan or any of our articles of faith are prohibited, for whatever reason, I would expect our community to stand united, not blaming one another.

As the rest of the article and comments spiraled into a bizarre debate of what looks attractive, unkempt, smart, "scraggly" and so on...we finally hit some "real" issues of identity, assimilation, and how far we as Sikhs must go in order to adapt to our environment. Obviously, opinions vary.

I may look at someone wearing "Nihang Bana" and question the need for it. Others may look at me for keeping a "khulli dharrhi" and think I look unprofessional and unkempt, and some may look at those who wear dastaars as being backward altogether, as the necessity for a Sikh uniform is really outdated...and round and round we go. Each group judging one another, thinking they're superior over the other, wondering what "they" are trying to prove.

Years ago, I ventured across the border to attend a youth retreat in Toronto. I immediately found myself out of place with most of the male retreaters in "Nihang Bana." But what really shocked me was when meal-time came around and I found the cafeteria broken off in different groups, some only eating out of "sarab loh" dishes, while others only ate food prepared by other amritdharis who followed the same maryada.

I thought to myself, this is a Sikh retreat? I was ready to pack my bags and leave! But somewhere over the next couple days I began to engage with some of the folks. My roommate woke up well before dawn every day, washed his hair, and completed his five banis and spent 30 minutes in simran before the sun came up.

And after dinner, another group would meet and sing the most beautiful kirtan until late in the night. And when we entered the Guru's darbar and sang the theme shabad we had spent the weekend discussing, it was like one voice...we were all connected. It was one of the most powerful Sikh experiences I've had. The more I engaged with everybody , the more I realized we weren't all that different at all.

The Rehat Maryada defines the bare minimum of who a Sikh is, but above and beyond that - there are all different shades. We can fight it...or we can learn what we can from each other and leave the rest behind.

While at the retreat, during those powerful divans, I realized that amongst all our differences, we all shared one thing in common...a desire to connect with the Guru. At that moment, our clothing and eating preferences really didn't matter.

Somewhere in this debate, we overlooked something significant.

Women who wear veils were fighting for religious accommodation. And although this practice is prohibited by Sikhs, in the spirit of the Guru Tegh Bahadar, a Sikh organization felt compelled to speak out on their behalf - as no one should be prevented from practicing their religion or wearing their articles of faith freely.

Charanpal Singh called this "an altruistic act." I agree.

It's quite beautiful really.

But somehow, rather than celebrate what unites it - we'd rather bicker over what sets us apart.

It makes me wonder...where are we heading?