Sunday, August 11, 2013

We're Moving!

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!!

Just wanted to thank everybody for reading and commenting on the Spirit Of The Sikh for all these years.  It's been an amazing experience learning and growing with my sangat through this blog.

In order to take advantage of some cool features, I'm switching over to a new site and will be closing down this site in the next 30 days or so.

I hope I can count on your continued readership and contribution!

Please visit, follow, and update your links to:

Thanks again

Akaal Sahai,
RP Singh

Monday, June 17, 2013

There's No "I" In "TEAM"

I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."  -Michael Jordan

It was bound to happen at some point.

I was hoping somewhere in my graduate studies I would bump in to some concept or idea that I could relate to my interest in Sikh thought, and sure enough it happened in the oddest of places...a business ethics seminar.  In reviewing David Brook's New York Times article titled "If It Feels Right", Brooks finds that young people in America are mostly disconnected from any moral sources, and as a result find youth in an “atmosphere of extreme moral individualism -- of relativism and non-judgmentalism.”  This doesn't mean they are immoral, but their morals are based on "what feels right."  

At first, I was relieved that this phenomenon was not limited to Sikh youth.  As one who has been working with Sikh youth for a good part of my life, I've noticed this growing trend of "moral individualism" and "non-judgmentalism" when it comes to their Sikhi and dynamics within the larger sangat.

I've seen it time and time again...a young Sikh makes a commitment to further their Sikhi development, say grows out their hair, receives amrit, charni lagna, or begins wearing a dastaar.  They are happily willing to receive the support and encouragement by their sangat as they begin this new journey.  However, if they fall off the path, or back out on their commitment, all bets are off.  That same sangat feels threatened to say something at the risk of being "judgmental" and often times the struggling Sikh themself casts everybody off with a "hey, leave me alone…this is my personal journey" attitude.  But is it though?  And is that all your sangat is supposed to be?  Just people to listen to kirtan with and cheer you on during good times?

Sure, I do believe the journey of a Sikh is largely personal.  It’s about building and developing that relationship with the Guru through personal discipline, simran, and reflection on gurbani.  However, there is a very public aspect of Sikhi too that is quite unique.  Let's face it, Guru Sahib gave us a distinct uniform that not only reminds us of our principles every time we look in a mirror, but it also proclaims to the world who we are and what we believe in.  And if I am going to publicly don the uniform of my Gurus and the heroes that followed, shouldn't I be held accountable by my sangat when I misrepresent it?  If I have willingly knelt before the Guru and offered my head, shouldn't my sangat challenge me when I break that commitment?  So It begs the question...where does accountability end and judgment begin?

Some say it depends on the approach...those who are humble, loving, and compassionate in their criticism are okay, while the others are just being judgmental.  As I've stated in previous posts, I do believe sangat should be kind and compassionate when trying to guide their fellow brother or sister back on track, but realistically, it won’t always happen that way.  And how often are most of us willing to graciously take criticism regardless of how it is delivered, especially for something that means so much to us as our Sikhi?

There is one thing about being a student I know for sure...I will fail at some point or another.  Maybe once, maybe many times...It's inevitable.  But if I believe my path is true, I simply cannot throw my hands in the air and give up every time I fall, nor can I dismiss everybody around me in fear of being judged.  I need to check my own ego at the door, and humbly take the criticism and advice from my sangat…because if I believe they are my sangat, than I have to believe their intentions are good and that we're all in this together.

In my days playing football, I recall what it's like to have the ball slip through my hands on an important play and feel like I've let my team down, as we'll as myself.  But something interesting happens immediately after that.  The coach rarely puts you on the bench after a botched play, instead he puts you right back in.  Why?  So you don’t dwell on your mistake and instead get right back out there and rebuild your confidence.  Similarly your teammates may be disappointed, but they'll still give you some tips on your technique and cheer you right back on to the field.  And on the way back to the huddle, you have no time to wallow in despair or let your ego get the best of you - because after all, it's not all about you…you play for a team.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Where Are You From?

Over the past week, the following video from YouTube's Comedy Week (Co-directed by David Neptune and Ken Tanaka) made the rounds on the social networks.  I thought it was brilliant as the beginning dialogue perfectly captures a conversation that I, and apparently many other Asians, have on the regular.

As Sikhs, this dialogue happens all the time without much notice.  After all, as interactions with strangers go, these are not so bad.  But what's troubling about the question of "Where are you really from"  is the assumption that we really can't be Americans and that an American must look a certain way.  Perpetuating the idea that we are "the other."

Now the video portrays the male as a complete buffoon, but in reality, I don't think it's that easy.  Let's take a minute to think about how we answer this question of "where we are from."  For years, I've run a workshop called "Who Am I?" at camps and retreats for both children and adults.  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.  It never fails when I ask the question where are you from, the majority answers "India."  Some of the adults I probed further have lived in the US for 25 years and have no connection to India.  Others were actually born in the UK, but still answer "India."  And when asking a group of 10-12 year olds, they in unison replied "India" and when I followed up with "How many of you have ever been to India?"  no hands went up.  I'm not sure if it's something innate in us that when a non-Punjabi asks us a question, we feel compelled to give the answer they want to hear rather than well…the truth.

So as I recommend in the workshop, when someone asks you where you are from, tell them where you live or where you grew up.  If they probe further asking about where your family originates from…make sure you kindly ask them the same question afterwards.  As the video excellently portrays, unless you are native american, no on is really from here.

Some may think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, what's the big deal to tell them what they want to hear, avoid the awkward interaction, and just move on.  But what's become abundantly clear to me is Sikhs are viewed as "the other" in this country.  And our civil rights organizations and celebrities like Gurpreet Singh Sarin can only do so much to change that image.  It takes each of us - one by one, face-to-face - to turn these interactions in to teachable moments.

Our appearance will always make us stand out, and proudly it should.  But that shouldn't make us any less American.  We as Sikhs have contributed so much to this country for over 100 years…in all aspects of laborers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, politicians, scientists, taxi drivers, truckers, entrepreneurs, educators, social workers, volunteers, and the list goes on and on.  We've contributed greatly to the fabric of America and are part of what makes this country great.  We've earned the right to be acknowledged as Americans...let's not let anyone take that away from us.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Your Embrace

"God breathes through us so gently we hardly feel it...yet, it is our everything."  -John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

Long ago there was a holy and devout man named Pandit Shivdat.  He was an idol worshipper and practiced renunciation.  Despite the deep respect so many had for him, he grew tired of his ways and felt something was missing in the objects he had worshipped.  He was looking for something to fill this void in his heart.  As the story goes, early one morning Pandit Shivdat sat quietly with his eyes closed on the bank of the Ganga with his heart and mind in search of God.  At that moment, a young Guru Gobind Singh Ji (at the time Gobind Rai) walked up behind him and sweetly whispered in to his ear "Pandit Ji Bo!"  After seeing Guru Gobind Singh's charming face, Pandit Shivdat forgot about the idols and gods he had prayed to, for he saw in Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, the manifestation of the one and only Waheguru.  The Pandit was liberated.  He had found the Beloved in the child.

Sharing this story with our class yesterday, I was reminded of a time many years ago wrapping up my counselor duties for the day at a gurmat camp.  As sohila ended and our kirtani led the sangat in simran, it was my job to quietly dismiss each group from the divaan hall back to their dorms for bedtime.  After motioning several groups to leave I noticed one of the boys, with eyes closed deep in simran, was left behind by his group.  I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to catch up, but he just closed his eyes and returned to his simran.  A few minutes passed and the last group had left, I tapped the boy on the shoulder again...but he wouldn't budge.  A few minutes later it was just me, the boy, and the keertani left in the divan hall - both of us waiting for him to leave.  I started to get upset at the boy for ignoring my instruction, after all, I had a lot to get done to prepare for the next day.  As I walked over to him for the last time ready to order him back to his room…I paused.  He was maybe 9 or 10 years old, engrossed in simran, and there was a look of contentment on his face that I simply couldn't interrupt.  In fact, it was a contentment that I so lacked.  Looking at this child so in tune with the divine made me realize the void I've been feeling for so long...going through the daily motions of a Sikh, yet failing to connect.  Frozen and unsure what to do, I put my things down and sat next to the boy...joining him in simran.  I'm not sure if it was minutes or hours that passed, but it didn't matter.  In that moment, all I wanted was to feel what he was feeling and wished that perhaps by proximity alone the light that shined through him would somehow shine in me.  Eventually the simran stopped.  At least it did for me, for the boy, I'm not so sure.

Looking back at that experience, I wonder...maybe that was my moment.  
Maybe that was the child-Beloved softly whispering in to my ear

And to think how close I was to missing it altogether 

Oh Waheguru, grant me the state of awareness so I that I never miss your embrace...

(Introduction adapted from Kartar Singh's Life of Guru Gobind Singh and SikhRI's Sojhi Curriculum)

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Paradigm of Gratitude

"Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul." 
~Henry Ward Beecher

About a month ago, many of us participated in the American tradition of Thanksgiving where we pause for a day of gratitude and express thanks for all we have and all we've been given.  Hours later, many of us participate in yet another American tradition, Black Friday, where we venture out in the middle of the night and stand in line at stores to hunt for deals on things we really don’t need.  This year, however, I refused to let go of "Thanksgiving" so easily.

I recently came across a pauree in Asa Ki Vaar  that I had heard hundreds of times before, but only now connected with.  To me, it shares Guru Sahib's perspective on thankfulness:

After reading this, I started to think about the loving yet critical conversation Guru Sahib would have with me about my "day of thanks."  With as many gifts as we receive each day, each minute, each one day of thanks really enough?  Instead, this pauree  tells me that thankfulness is not a day or a moment...instead it is a lens in which you view life.

Truth is, we often cannot control the events that happen around us, but we can control how we view them.  Personally, I've come across a handful of individuals in my life who have experienced tragedy or immense hardship, but when asked about it, they only emit thankfulness for the challenges Waheguru has entrusted them with.

This is where I want to be.  To be so connected with Akaal Purakh and in acceptance of his will...where all I feel is thankful.

And as a parent, with any lesson I try to teach myself, I ask what I can do to pass this lesson on  to my children.  How do I help my children view life through a paradigm of gratitude?

My wife and I have recently begun a tradition at home with our kids where right before bed, immediately after Sohila Sahib paath, each of us tell Waheguru Ji what we are thankful for.  In the first few weeks, the answers the kids gave were typical:
Thank you for my house
Thank you for my school
Thank you for my friends 

However, after several months of this, the answers have evolved:
Thank you for the heat in our home
Thank you for the dinner we ate today
Thank you for the time we spent as a family today
Thank you for making me brave
Thank you for making me a Sikh

Interestingly, I notice a similar change in my own Ardaas.

The hope here is by expressing thanks for all the big things, little things, and everything in between...thankfulness no longer becomes something you even have to think simply becomes a way of life.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How Unique It Is

"In 28 years of law enforcement, I have seen a lot of hate. I have seen a lot of revenge. I've seen a lot of anger. What I saw, particularly from the Sikh community this week was compassion, concern, support. What I didn't see was hate. I did not see revenge. I didn't see any of that. And in law enforcement that's unusual to not see that reaction to something like this. I want you all to understand how unique that is." 
--Oak Creek, WI Police Chief, John Edwards

I was late to Gurdwara on Sunday...

A visiting kirtani had just finished a shabad and was about to begin anand sahib, when our local Bhai Sahib gently interrupted him. Bhai Sahib then took to the stage and led the sangat in one more shabad, followed by simran and asked us to keep the Milwaukee sangat in our thoughts as there was a shooting at their local Gurdwara.

I thought I misheard...I wished I did.

I immediately pulled out my phone and saw my Twitter feed to find out in fact a shooting and possible hostage situation was in progress at a gurdwara right outside of Milwaukee.

It’s strange the way the Sikh psyche works. Even though a shooting was in progress at a gurdwara, for some reason, in hearing this tragic news...a gurdwara was still the only place I wanted to be.

The next few hours were a blur of tweets, emails, phone calls and conference calls...all with CNN running in the background. All of this kept me distracted...just enough to ignore the emptiness I was feeling inside. But later on that night, when I read a tweet stating “Sikhs at Oak Creek temple are providing water, food to journalists and police as part of religious tradition of hospitality”...I was overcome with emotion.

Like many of you, there are so many thoughts and emotions I’ve experienced over the last few days, nothing I can summarize in one post, but for now, I would like to focus on the resilience of the local Sikh community of Wisconsin.

From the calm and collected interviews, to the hospitality shown to journalists, police, representatives of Sikh organizations, to the resolve of the victim’s families...the only thing that comes to mind is 'Chardi Kalaa'

Over the last few days, I’ve been so amazed by the response of all the Sikh organizations and community members across the country who have so eloquently explained our way of life, our practices, and our experience in the media – on TV, radio, and print...but I believe it was the Sikh community of Wisconsin who set the tone. Before any of us could even process what happened, the eyes of America were on them in their darkest hour...and they made us proud.

Even in this tragedy, some good will come of this...we’ve seen it already. Our nation will have been educated about Sikhs at an unprecedented level. Partnerships and alliances may form between Sikh institutions and other local community and interfaith organizations, and perhaps we will some broader unity across the Panth that we’ve so desperately been lacking. And the Sikhs of Wisconsin will have had a huge hand in all of this.

Even now...only hours after after the gurdwara has re-opened, the sangat has already begun seva of cleaning up and serving langar...amazing!

Anybody who has even skimmed through a Sikh history book knows that we are a community that has experienced struggle, not just recently...but throughout our existence. And it is through this spirit of Chardi Kalaa, the collective strength of our community, and guidance from our Guru that has helped us overcome struggle and grow stronger. It always has and it always will. We all know it...but thank you Sikhs of Wisconsin for reminding us.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Leading Us Forward

Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.
--Khalil Gibran

It is tradition here during Vasakhi at our Gurdwara to ask all those who had received Amrit during the week to stand and be recognized by the sangat. This year, as the jakaaray echoed throughout the hall, I noticed an interesting pattern of those standing before me; most of the new amritdharis were girls. And last week, when all the amrithdhari students attending the Khalsa school were asked to stand and be recognized by the sangat, 25 kids stood up, and 22 of them were girls. I couldn’t help but feel inspired...for a couple reasons. I was proud of these young Kaurs, many of whom challenge American and Punjabi societal pressures to take this step toward the Guru, but more so, as a father of Kaurs, I was happy to see what great role models our community has.

As I was lost in thought during that Vasakhi day, I was quickly shaken by yet another jakaara as the Panj Pyaarey entered the divan hall. I'm always moved by the presence of the Panj Pyaarey. I am reminded not only of my Guru’s ideals, but the struggle and sacrifice our people have endured to preserve it - and most importantly, our panthic responsibility to do the same. The sangat quickly followed the Panj Pyaarey out of the hall for Nishaan Sahib Seva and a Nagar Kirtan.

As the days events came to a close, my mind wouldn’t sit still...

I wondered why is it that we have such a large number of amrithdhari Kaurs, but in my 30+ years going to this Gurdwara, I’ve never seen a Kaur in the Panj Pyaarey.

I realize this is a contentious issue, so much so that at a retreat many years ago, locals had violently threatened to disrupt an Amrit Sanchar after finding out one of the Panj Pyaarey was a woman.

Where did we lose our way?

Is it the Rehat Maryada that prohibits it? Remember...the document written in the 1930’s that so many of us criticize for being outdated and gender-exclusive. Well, under the ‘Amrit Sanskaar’ section, it states:

There should be Parkash of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. As a minimum, six Singhs in full readiness should be present out of which number one shall sit in tabiaa and the other five shall be available for administering Amrit. These could include Singhnis as well. All of them must have washed their hair.

Despite the clear encouragement from the Rehat Maryada, the common argument here is “no women were part of the original Panj Pyaarey, why should we change that tradition now?” Although I’ve heard a lot of passionate counter-perspectives to this, the one that resonates with me most is that the Panj Pyaarey today are not representing the gender of the original Panj Pyaarey. If so, why stop at gender? Shouldn’t then the current day Panj Pyaarey represent the village the original were from? What about representing their castes too? No...the Panj Pyaarey should instead reflect the discipline, ideals, and spirit of the Khalsa...and if we are implying that women cannot meet that standard...then we have a lot of baani and history to re-read.

Often times, the resistance is more subtle. I recall years ago, a planner of a local Nagar Kirtan asked me to be a youth speaker at the event. I’m not sure what came over me that day, but for whatever reason, I quickly responded..."sure, as long as you can promise me that one of the Panj Pyaarey leading the procession will be a woman." UncleJi gave me a confused look and said, “Beta, I understand this is important to the youth...I will do much better than that...all five will be women!” Immediately I thought to myself, “what a cop out!” I knew what he meant by “all five will be women.” Yes, there will be five women dressed in baana, perhaps even carrying Nishaan Sahibs...but they will be somewhere several rows back from the Panj Pyaarey who are really leading the Nagar Kirtan. My ask is simple...why can’t the Panj Pyaarey be a mix of Singhs and Kaurs so that those who are representing the panth actually look like the panth.

Now...if you’ve been reading carefully, you may have noticed a flaw or two in my argument (it wouldn’t be the first time). On the one hand I’m saying that Sikhi should be gender neutral, so in that regard, why should I care if the Panj Pyaarey are men or women...the guru is the guru. On the other hand I’m adamant that the Panj Pyaarey should include women. Is this a contradiction? Perhaps. But at the same time, I believe that all of our ceremonies and panthic events, whether they are Nagar Kirtans, Dastaar Bandis, Amrit Sanchaars, or Anand Kaaraj’s should be examples for the community. Guru Sahib entrusted the Khalsa Panth to evolve in such a way that we are continuously motivating and inspiring the Sikh nation. And I raise this issue knowing that the decision of who is and who isn’t part of the Panj Pyaarey is not sacrosanct. I know...I've been a part of those discussions, and from my experience, it tends to be good-hearted sevadaars of the community who calls on his peers (typically the same ones year after year) to do this seva. They are our uncles, brothers, fathers, grandfathers...we know them. And all we need are those good-hearted sevadaars to shift their paradigm. Perhaps one or two may be reading this blog :)

I feel strongly about women being a part of the Panj Pyaarey, because I don’t believe my observation that day of the disproportionate number of amritdhari girls is merely an accident...rather, it is a manifestation of the Guru’s message. It is inspired by the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of the Gurus. It is inspired by Mai Bhago and her rallying of the soldiers to battle. It is inspired by the mothers from Mir Mannu’s prison. It is inspired by the women who rose above the countless abuses by the state in 1984.

This movement is not a recent phenomenon. It is the toil of our mothers, grandmothers, great grand-mothers, and their ancestors for hundreds of years.

And it is beautiful

And it is progress

So let's not stand in the way