Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Are You To Judge?

As a teenager, most of my summers were spent in the gym, along with my friends, as we geared up for our upcoming Fall sports. When running and lifting weights, I always found my dastaar to be uncomfortable, so I would opt for a modified patka with a baseball cap on top. Now, before I get arrested by the panthic police, let me explain that this was not an uncommon practice (right or wrong) back then by many Sikh boys on the East Coast to wear bandanas or baseball caps during sports. Even after I moved to the Midwest after college, I carried the same look to the gym for my evening workouts.

After one of my workouts – baseball cap and all, I recall making a quick stop at the post office to drop off a package. While waiting in a long line, from the corner of my eye I saw a Sikh man standing way at the back near the exit. As I dropped off my package and headed out, I caught a better glimpse of the Singh. He was middle-aged, wore a flawless dastaar and had a long flowing beard. Although I never felt I was doing anything "wrong" with my workout attire before, I immediately felt uncomfortable and perhaps a little embarrassed. I quickly walked out, only making the slightest eye contact with him.

Weeks later while at the Gurdwara Sahib, enjoying my langar quietly and alone - as many bachelors in an unfamiliar city could appreciate - a familiar looking Singh in a kurta pajama sat next to me. After a quick greeting, it occurred to me it was the same gentleman from the post office. He introduced himself and shared a bit about his family and three children. He asked me about my work and we had a pleasant conversation. About half way through our talk, he brought up the incident at the post office and confirmed that it was in fact me wearing the baseball cap. I explained that it was only for the gym, but he didn’t seem to care too much. As we ate our langar together, he shared with me what it meant for him to wear his kakaars and how proud he feels to wear the Guru’s bana, regardless of where he is or what activity he’s doing. He had a labor intensive job, and said it wasn’t always easy to keep his dastaar, but he felt he owed it to the Singhs of the past, who gave their lives for us to stand proudly with our kesh and dastaars, to wear them at all times. He also said his children get excited when they see another Sikh at the mall or a restaurant, whether they are wearing a parna, dumalla, or the traditional Patiala style – it gives them a sense of pride – and that part of our tradition should never be replaced by a bandana or baseball cap. I didn’t say much...but listened closely. After about 15 minutes, he gracefully apologized for taking too much of my time and hoped that I had not felt uncomfortable with bringing up the topic. We then parted ways.

For the next few days, I thought about what he said and from that day forward I never wore a baseball cap again. Turns out, a parna is way more secure and comfortable than anything I’ve worn for a sport...and well, I know a 100 year-old marathon runner who can tell you a full dastaar would do just fine too :)

Now my little secret...this post isn’t really about Sikhs wearing baseball caps.

What may seem like a typical langar conversation between two strangers may not be so common after all. I can think of dozens of times in my community (and sometimes my family), where a person is criticized, judged, or slandered for doing something or looking a way that does not match with their perspective of Gurmat – all without the person in question present. Now in our highly socially-networked society, the criticism of the kid wearing the baseball cap, sporting the trimmed beard, the girl with trimmed bangs, or “did you see what she was wearing?” hits a facebook status quickly – it now spans a much wider audience in a much shorter time. So what was different about my situation at the Gurdwara?

Rather than making an episode of it, he chose to quietly approach me, engage with me, and share his thoughts in a gentle way. I could have easily been offended...who the heck does this guy think he is? He doesn’t know anything about me – my personal discipline, how spiritual I might be, how much seva I might do...just because he dresses the way he does, he thinks he’s a sant?

But none of that crossed my mind.

I guess something magical happens when someone approaches you with genuine humility.  Sometimes, just makes you humble too. And humility can make you do wonderful things – pause, reflect, open your mind, and well...change.

Often times we shun criticism directed toward us, because after all, “who are they to judge?” and the automatic follow-up, “Sikhs are not supposed to be judgmental.” Is that so true? Sure, gurbani tells us to look within ourselves and change, but what role is sangat supposed to play? Aren’t we supposed to be honest with those in our sangat, help “pull each other up” and keep each other moving toward the Guru?

The Singh was right, and deep down I knew he was right or I never would have felt uncomfortable that day in the post office when I saw him. In years recent, I’ve tried to have that gentle one-on-one conversation like the Singh had me with me during langar. Whether it was a former student of mine who recently trimmed their beard or a childhood friend who started drinking...unfortunately, I haven’t been too effective. Perhaps they weren’t able to dim their ego long enough to open their mind...or perhaps my ego was shining too bright.

Clearly, it’s the approach that makes the difference. As we learned in the janamsakhis, Guru Nanak Sahib transformed the most villainous of criminals to change their ways and follow his path – I wonder - what was it? Was it his logic and reasoning alone? Perhaps...but I believe it was also his love, his empathy, and the compassion in which he expressed it.

So I need to reach a more genuine state of humility before I offer guidance and also the same to receive it. I have plenty of people around me to point out my flaws and weaknesses, people I love and respect, people who want me to be a better person, and a better Sikh. But I can’t think of many times I’ve controlled my ego long enough to truly listen. And if I only did, like that time at the Gurdwara, who knows what might be possible? 

So for now, I will try to stay armed and ready...

Humility is my spiked club
My dagger is to be the dust of all men's feet
 No evil-doer can withstand these weapons
(Guru Arjan Sahib, Raag Sorath, SGGS pg. 628)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fighting The Good Fight

Ever since its inception, I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Sikh Coalition’s work. Early on, as each press release and victory announcement came through my inbox, I was amazed at how quickly the Coalition managed to influence and change policy. Years ago, I also had the opportunity to volunteer on their behalf while making Sikh awareness presentations at high schools in the Midwest. But in all my interaction with the Coalition, I never expected to find myself in need of their services.

In late 2007 on my way home from a business trip, I was stopped by TSA agents at the Kansas City airport who asked me to remove my dastaar. I explained to the agents that I knew my rights and opted for the turban “pat down” in an enclosed area (before the self-pat-down was an option). Although the policy was technically followed that night, I felt uneasy my whole flight home. Maybe it was how I was purposely singled out because of my dastaar, or the embarrassment of being escorted through the airport surrounded by TSA agents, or the degrading pat-down itself...whatever it was, I felt I had to do something. I immediately crafted an email to the Sikh Coalition about my experience.

To my surprise, I received a response from a staff attorney within 24 hours asking for further details. Over the next few weeks, the Sikh Coalition filed a formal complaint with the TSA on my behalf and followed it through to the end, which included an interview to be reviewed by the DHS’s Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties. Somewhere in all the correspondence that went back and forth between the Coalition and the TSA, it dawned on me...I’ve been experiencing discrimination, profiling, and hate incidents for most of my life – never did I have anyone “representing me”, never did I feel I had anyone in my corner looking after my rights, never did I feel that anyone “had my back.” I felt empowered.

And I’m not alone in this feeling...a staff member recently shared with me how a Sikh student did not feel his principal was doing enough to stop his bully. He said to the principal, “I can have the Sikh Coalition here tomorrow!” And although it took some re-arranging of schedules, the Sikh Coalition was there...and the school responded.

As my relationship grew with the Coalition, I had the honor of joining their Board of Directors last year. I was hesitant at first. I consider myself a freelancer and like to help any project with any organization doing positive work, but after attending a fundraiser shortly before the launch of the ‘Right To Serve’ campaign, I knew there was something different about this organization. The Coalition was about to take on the United States Army, an organization deeply rooted in tradition and history, with a monumental task of making a religious accommodation to the Army’s uniform policy. But even under such daunting circumstances, the atmosphere that night was different...there were inspiring speeches, people smiling and laughing - there was an air of optimism and confidence in the room that you don’t typically find in these events. That’s when I knew the Coalition was trying to build something. They were not going to limit themselves to “putting out fires”, they were here to establish the Sikh image and identity in the fabric of America...permanently.

My experience on the board has made me view the Sikh Coalition and its work through a different lens. As I've witnessed behind the scenes - on the road to securing civil rights, it can get a little bumpy. The Sikh community, although relatively small, is a dynamic one with varying perspectives. Even a simple press release or advertisement for an event can receive praise from one segment of the community, yet harsh criticism from another.

I’m often questioned by critics, “Why did the Sikh Coalition invest so many resources on the ‘Right To Serve’ campaign? All this for two or three people? Do we really expect that many Sikhs to join the military?” I would wonder similar things in the past, but what I’ve since discovered is the precedent such cases set. The Coalition invests so much time on individual workplace discrimination cases due to the Sikh uniform. If a well-respected organization like the Army with its strict guidelines on uniforms accommodates Sikhs, how could any local police department or security company not? The debate itself could end. I’m also asked why the Coalition rejects certain cases, “aren’t we here to serve the community”? Well just as easily as precedent can help us, it can hurt us too. If we take on a case without the right circumstances, a loss can set a devastating precedent that could affect our work for years - a balance must be struck.

A large part of my job is listening to our community – supporters and critics alike, as there is very valid and constructive criticism to our work. The Coalition is often pegged as being “out of touch” with the community it serves because of its lack of an institutional presence at gurdwaras. Although I don’t believe our civil rights organizations need to fit within a Gurdwara’s management structure, I do feel there’s room for improvement in communicating programs and opportunities to the communities we serve and also communicating back the sangat’s needs more regularly to the staff and board, especially the needs of our sangats in under-served communities. These are all things I hope to focus on during my tenure.

But the most difficult conversations are around budgeting and fundraising. As lucky as we are to have majority of our donations come from individual donors, as a whole - we still fall short. As a recent Pew Forum on Religious Advocacy Groups (where 3 Sikh organizations were studied) showed, Sikhs are sorely under-investing in advocacy efforts– we’re not even competitive with other communities- even though our needs are significant. Interestingly, many of the leading philanthropic foundations in the world i.e. NY Foundation, Atlantic, Soros and others have thoroughly evaluated the work of the Coalition, recognized its leadership amongst all non-profits, and as a result repeatedly rewarded the organization funds for more programming. And when we don’t meet our fundraising goals, tough questions arise...where do we cut back? Education? Legal? Community Organizing? We have long ways to go to establish the Sikh identity in this country and in my opinion - we cannot afford to compromise on anything.

In all the challenges and criticism, there have been some inspiring moments too, like how the Coalition recently took the lead in demanding an independent audit of the TSA and potential racial profiling, a letter that received signatures from 37 other Civil Rights organizations. Or when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surrounded by Sikhs) signed into law a bill -initiated by the Sikh Coalition- that will significantly enhance religion-based protections for employees working in New York City. A law that will not only benefit Sikhs, but also Jews, Muslims, and any others who wear articles of faith. Seeing Sikhs take the lead is proof that we will no longer remain quiet as victims, no longer will we have our backs against the wall. Now Sikhs will have a seat at the table, influencing policy for the benefit of our community and other communities who share our struggle.

Beyond the accomplishments, I especially cherish the stories I’ve heard from staff and other board after the dinner celebrating Simranpreet Lamba’s (first enlisted Sikh in US Army) graduation from basic training, he stood to salute his superior, Captain Kalsi before parting ways...none of this would have happened a few years ago. And most recently, the story about a recent large donation from a Non-Sikh we received shortly after launching the Unheard Voices of 9/11 website. When inquiring how she learned about our work, she stated “I've been reading on facebook and the thing is the Sikh Coalition is doing great work...we need to stick together and make this country a better place.” She didn't mention any Sikh friends, acquaintances or anyone actively soliciting the donation. But she believes supporting the Sikh Coalition will make this country beautiful. This leadership role in the civil rights arena and ideal of service to all of humanity brings out the fragrance of Guru Nanak, and reminds me of why this work is so important.

I am very grateful to be part of this work, grateful to be part of this movement, and grateful to finally be able to stand before my Sikh brothers and sisters - whether at a children’s camp or my local Gurdwara - and tell them that no Sikh should be discriminated or denied anything for embracing the Guru’s bana - and if you are ever told otherwise, call us...we got your back.

To learn more about the Sikh Coalition’s work, please visit
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wisdom To Know The Difference

Remember quote books?  If not, these were the books that poetry nerds like me used to have many years ago, so we could document all our favorite quotations. I once received a quote book as a gift which on the front had Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

With all the quotations I captured over the years in my book, it was actually the one printed on the front that stuck with me the most. And I would realize different aspects of this prayer at various times throughout my life.

For me, the easiest to understand was the “courage to change the things I can” theory at least. Being a Sikh, I feel this is something I’ve learned early on. Gurbani reveals the traits, personality, and thinking of a gurmukh. I have always found myself distant from this ideal, so there is always work to do and progress to make. It’s almost hard to be complacent. If I am truly a student, I need to always be reflecting, learning, and finding ways to improve myself in order to move closer to the Guru.

Accepting the things I cannot change” hasn’t been quite as easy. Especially as I’ve gotten older and experienced more hardship and loss. I’m constantly in battle with my ego and attachment, and although Guru Sahib gives me the tools to overcome this, to rise above the five vices and accept his hukam...I still struggle.

The “wisdom to know the difference” has really just been an afterthought.  Frankly speaking, the categories of things I can change and cannot change have always been pretty black and white to me – so why the need for wisdom to know the difference?

I recently heard an audio essay titled ‘The Serenity To Change The Things I Can’ by Mark Olmstead from my favorite NPR series, “This I Believe” that challenged my beliefs and made me re-think the importance of “knowing the difference”, especially in my relationship with gurmat.

Often times when having gurmat-related discussions, with friends, at camp, or during gurbani veechar, I often find myself reflecting on the virtues of a gurmukh, not just the personal discipline but more so the internal qualities - compassion, humility, forgiveness, acceptance of hukam, seeing Waheguru in everyone etc. and conclude thinking to myself, ”Yup, it’s hard to reach that stage” and without even thinking about it, quietly tuck that away in my “accept the things I cannot change” category. It’s becomes easy for me to say, “Yeah, I’m just not there yet” and be content with that.  It’s almost as though as long as I’m being honest with my weaknesses, it makes it okay.

That charade may work for a while, but it surely doesn’t when you have children. If I want to be a role model for my children, then I need to “walk the talk.” Although other adults may sympathize with my weaknesses - my kids, however, are not interested in my excuses. And do I really want to be that parent who has to constantly make excuses for himself, anyway?

In Olmstead’s essay, he accepted the fact he had to live in a litter-filled community...until he found the courage to create change, and by doing so, started to question what other things were possible. He states, “You can’t assume to know the difference between the things you must accept and the things that you can change—you have to think about it” – I couldn’t agree more.

So perhaps I need to re-examine the things I’ve long accepted as "things I cannot change", and create some tangible goals for myself. Not everything might be possible right away, but something has to be. I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my challenge – my family and sangat are there to help me. As my wife and I recently discussed, sangat is not just people you listen to kirtan with, they are the people who inspire and encourage you on your path to the Guru…and perhaps, should hold you accountable toward your goals.

Such ruminations on change, acceptance, and well...litter, made me think of a story a friend recently shared. As a teenager in Amritsar, my friend would often run in to Bhagat Puran Singh. Sometimes he and his friends would join the legendary gursikh on his evening walks. During one of the walks, he noticed that Bhagat Ji would stop to pick up trash off the road and put it in his pocket. He would continually pick up trash throughout the course of the walk. Finally my friend asked, “BhagatJi, no matter how much trash you pick up, you will never clean all of Amritsar.” BhagatJi lovingly replied, “When it’s time for me to face my Master, he will not ask whether I’ve cleaned all of Amritsar…but he will ask whether I’ve cleaned my path

Saturday, October 8, 2011

How Bad Do You Want It?

A few months back, I wrote a post about ‘Pyaas’ (Thirst).

The argument I made was that above and beyond our external uniform, our personal discipline, and panthic responsibility - there is something else that is essential in the life of a Sikh...that desire or yearning to be with the Beloved.

In discussing this topic at a few different Gurmat camps this summer I shared a story I read about two Zen Bhuddist Monks, and how the younger/junior monk asks the wiser/senior monk, “how do I reach enlightenment?” Turns out the story is a pretty universal, as I stumbled upon it in a slightly different context in the video below. In the video, the student asks his Guru "how do I become successful?"

Being a football fan and having a terrible habit of explaining things through sports analogies. this video really appealed to me. At the end of the day, anybody can put on a uniform, but only few can live up to what that unform respresents...only few will achieve greatness.

Living the life on the Guru’s path can be challenging...battling your own ego, jealousy, and anger can often feel like sprinting up hills. But imagine what it must feel like to stand above it all?

Whether it’s an athlete reaching his goal, a businessman achieving "success", or a Sikh trying to connect with her Guru...the question still remains...“How Bad Do You Want It?”


Saturday, September 3, 2011

With Our Heads Held High

Over the summer, I had an opportunity to visit several gurmat camps across the east coast.  There’s a workshop I facilitate for the younger kids called “Who am I?”, where we use role playing as a way to come up with clear and concise answers to commonly asked questions from non-Sikhs. The theory being - with quick answers ready, one is likely to be more confident and empowered when dealing with people and not shy away from opportunities to educate others. However, as the workshop would trail off in to questions and discussion, the focus tends to be on the more adverse interactions with non-Sikhs – bullying. In the last camp I attended, I asked a group of 35 kids (ages 11-14), “How many of you have been teased, harassed, or bullied at your school because of your Sikh identity?” Surprisingly, every hand went up. That’s right...every one.

I was I so naive?

Although I had my experiences being bullied and teased in elementary and middle school, that was decades ago! Since then, more minorities and immigrants live in America, more Sikhs live around bigger cities, and “multiculturalism” and “diversity” seem to be the buzz words everywhere in building successful institutions. I mean, we have an African American president…but has our country progressed at all with it's acceptance of different religions and cultures? And with a simple Google search on “bullying”, you’ll find so many anti-bullying resources that weren’t available when I was a kid...yet still, the problems persist. Painfully, I sat through story after story listening to how kids were called names, teased; one girl even had the bottom of her braid cut off. Another boy told a story where his friend's patka was foricbly removed and flushed down a toilet. And the worst part was...this was at a camp in the suburbs where parents spend hundreds of dollars to send their children. What about the kids who weren’t at camp? What about Sikh children who live in underserved communities? Or children of recent immigrants, what do they go through?

But all is not lost...toward the end of one of the camps, I sat through the most powerful workshop I had attended all year. A group of teenage campers from the Richmond Hill area in Queens, NY representing their youth group Sikh Youth of New York (a Sikh Coalition initiative) led a workshop on bullying for the younger kids. It was amazing to see these group of teens (some of who have experienced bullying themselves) empathize with these children, encourage them to seek assistance, and congratulating them for their courage. It was beautiful. Check out this short video on bullying by the Sikh Youth of New York, featuring some of the campers.

All of this made me reflect on my own experience.  As I mentioned, I had my share of teasing and bullying, as many of my Sikh friends did. At that time, being the only Sikh at your school was common, being the only Sikh in your city or county was more likely. I vividly recall at one point in middle school, when the teasing was particularly bad, sitting on a bench one day all alone after school feeling lost and confused. I remember I really cut out to be a Sikh? Maybe this is not for me.

Years have passed, and now I find myself leading workshops for children who are experiencing the same things I did. Funny thing is...I don’t remember what happened after I left the bench that lonely day in middle school. Somehow, I just picked myself up...and moved on. Or perhaps I wasn’t really alone on that bench after all.

agan saagar booddath sansaaraa, naanak baah pakar sathigur nisathaaraa
The world is drowning in the ocean of fire. O Nanak, holding me by the arm, the True Guru has saved me

So if you’re being bullied, know that you are not alone. Guru Sahib is always helping his students struggle their way through the rough spots.

I’m sure many are aware of the common steps to take if you are being bullied i.e. (1) tell the bully to stop (2) tell a teacher (3) tell a parent – but if the bullying persists, contact the Sikh Coalition. Turns out, times are a little different now. Schools are required to act when a bullying incident is reported and failure to act could get the school in trouble. Organizations like the Sikh Coalition and other civil rights groups are trained to hold schools accountable.

And if you’re not being bullied, be proactive! Create an anti-bullying club in your school. Who knows how many people you could be helping? By banding together...your collective voice is sure to be heard.

Remember, the Sikh identity is not something we should be ashamed of – nor do we need to apologize for it. Our uniform, gifted by Guru Sahib himself, represents the principles in which we believe – equality, justice, courage, we should stand tall and wear it proudly!

At camp, I concluded my workshop with a story of a general of the Sikh Army in the 80’s who in the midst of a war was asked “What is it that you want? You’ve lost so many men, you are outnumbered by your enemy...what is it that you are fighting for? He responded, "dho inch dee gal hai" - "a matter of two inches" meaning, our enemies wants Sikhs to walk with their heads down, looking at the ground, while the Khalsa will only walk with their heads held high, looking forward.

Stay strong brothers and sisters...Chardi Kalaa!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

No Kaur Left Behind

Shortly after a recent blog post, a few parents and I were discussing our experiences presenting Sikhi at our children’s school. One parent had an extremely positive experience when a Sikh Coalition presenter came to speak at her daughter’s elementary school. So much so, the presenter was asked to come back and speak to some of the other grades.

In hearing about this, I asked my friend’s 9-year old daughter what she liked about the presentation; she was particularly excited to show her kara to everybody and her long hair at the appropriate times. I then asked her, “How did it make you feel after the presentation was over?” She replied with something that stuck with me, “I felt so special…I wanted to cry.”

As a child, I dreaded the first day of school. Not just because of the anxiety of being around new teachers and students, but that was usually the day my Dad accompanied me and would explain to my teacher in his quick three minute speech who Sikhs are and what I was wearing on my head. Some teachers were not quite sure what to do with this information, while others were very engaging and would share what they learned with the class.

As difficult as it was to get through that introduction, it did come with a sense of relief, not only for that day but for the whole year. At that moment, everybody knew I was different, everybody knew I followed a religion that required a certain discipline. And because of that, I looked different...that was it! After that, people could befriend me, dislike me, or ignore me as they so chose – I really didn’t care. No matter how hard I could’ve tried, I would never look like the other kids, being different was something I simply had to accept. And years later, it was something I grew to love.

So many of my friends throughout my school years struggled to find their identity and develop their sense of individuality, with my Sikhi - I didn’t even have to try! I believe these experiences over time have helped develop my self-confidence, and those few awkward moments every year where my father would educate my teacher played an important role in that.

My sister and I were raised with the same Sikh values at home – but my parents never visited her classes, nor did they ever feel a need to explain to her teachers or other students that she was a Sikh. And why should they? Let’s be honest...those three minute talks with my teachers were not to promote Sikh Awareness, it was simply to convey enough understanding so I wouldn’t get bullied and want to come home and cut my hair.

It wasn’t just my sister who missed out on that opportunity, but I would guess most girls in our community did not have that same “special handling” as so many of the boys did. I wonder what teachable moments were missed? What life lessons could’ve been learned? Sure, we all have struggles to overcome during our adolescence that help build character - it does need to be because of our faith or identity. But I feel the boys of our community get that extra support and encouragement by default, whereas the girls are often overlooked.

As you can imagine, there are broader issues here, much of which goes back to the double-standards we see in our communities every day. Young boys are praised and encouraged to wear a dastaar, but what about young girls? How many dastaar bandhis for Sikh girls/women have you attended? When a boy cuts his hair, the whole community is vigilant, asking “what should we do about the boys?” but a Sikh girl cutting her hair goes unnoticed. We all praise young children (boys and girls alike), when they reach milestones on their Sikhi – learn a new Shabad, memorize their paath, etc, - but how many of us encourage the teenage girl who’s aspiring to take Amrit?

Last month, many of us read a fascinating article by Lisa Bloom about the traditional way we speak to young girls and how it sends all the wrong messages. It made me wonder if we need to re-think the way we talk to our little Kaurs. Even amongst our daughter’s Sikh friends, we are quick to compliment their clothing or ask about their hobbies and TV shows, but I rarely ask how many pauris of JapJi Sahib they’ve memorized or ask them the meaning of the shabad they just sang (or explain it to them if they don’t know it), nor have I asked any of the older ones how far along they are on their practice for Charni Lagna. Perhaps the way I interact with these young Kaurs needs to change

To be clear, I applaud how our community supports and encourages our young Singhs, but I must can we carry on that type of empowerment to our Kaurs?

At a local camp this past week, a teacher reflected about a dialogue that took place in one of his classes. In discussing the Char Sahibzadey, one student noted that Guru Gobind Singh had four sons, but did not have any daughters, but then an 8 year old girl stood up and said “That’s not true…he has me!”

This is what I want every Kaur to feel...the sense of pride, history, and love that only the daughter of a King could feel.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Out Of Service?

Over the long weekend, I had the good fortune to attend a Gurmat retreat out in the Midwest.

The theme for the retreat was the Rehat Maryada and I thoroughly enjoyed spending an entire weekend in workshops that delved in to the various components of the Maryada, like Gurmat Rehini (Living in Gurmat), Shaksi Rehni (Personal Living), Guru Panth, and Seva.

Few camps or retreats spend much time on the Rehat Maryada, and when discussed, it often gets criticized mostly due to its outdated language. And although I do agree the language could use an update and perhaps some of the more subtle points could be debated - honestly though, I don’t get hung up on that. I do feel the Rehat Maryada by and large accurately defines the discipline of a Sikh and Sikh practices. Furthermore, I respect the significant time and patience it took all involved in the process to dialogue, negotiate and ultimately agree on the final document. It was one of only a handful of events in the past hundred years that utilized concepts of 'Sarbat Khalsa' as a means of consensus building - a process and art that has largely been lost.

During the retreat, as we dove in to the correct practices of our Gurdwaras and the panthic process of conflict resolution, I couldn’t help but think how far we’ve drifted. It's almost as though "what Sikhs should do" and “what Sikhs actually do" were topics for two different retreats. How and when did such a gap occur? If such well-thought ideas were put in place with the Rehat Maryada, debated on, then approved by so many institutions – why aren’t we seeing it in action today? Why are we still trying to fix the problems the Rehat Maryada was supposed to solve? Others at the retreat noted this disparity too, and the answer that kept resurfacing was, "Well...the machinery is broken."

To a large extent, I agree.  I believe the Rehat Maryada is just as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago. And those who debated over the initial draft had a desire to bring consistency amongst our practices so we can be more united, advance ourselves collectively, and resist external influences that try to disrupt such unity. All of this applies today, especially the methods of conflict resolution and consensus building that was defined by Guru Sahib.  It simply requires a little bit of learning, humility, reflection, and faith.

But clearly...we're not there yet.

You don’t have to go too far to see it...babas run rampant, maryadas are plenty, we fight over which "jatha" is right, and we deal with conflict through storming in to Gurdwaras and beating people with cricket bats.

I believe in the machinery.  It was inspired by the Guru Granth and built by the Guru Panth.  Unfortunately is temporarily broken.

Or is it? Can it really be possible? Are we as a panthic entity simply "Out Of Service?"

Maybe it’s my post-retreat "high" or the completion of another milestone birthday - I'm not sure.  But for whatever reason...I refuse to see the glass half-empty.

Although I don’t believe we're in the midst of another Singh Sabha Lehar by any means – I do, however, believe there are pockets of movement all around us. It may be scattered, but it's happening.

I suppose there are Gurdwaras and Sikh Institutions who use the Rehat Maryada as a basis for their operations.

I trust there are sangats in small corners of the world who do in fact use principles of 'Sarbat Khalsa' as a means to resolve conflict and build concensus.

Years ago, I heard that after several months of unrest at a Gurdwara on the West Coast, two rivaling factions within the presence of Guru Sahib bowed before the Guru, dissolved their committees, and deferred the leadership of the Gurdwara to an elderly sevadaar that the entire community respected. Since then, I’ve heard so many variations of that story, I’m not even sure it’s true anymore. Maybe it’s just “panthic” legend that people like me hold on to :)

So does this post have a happy ending? Maybe some hope for the future? You tell me...

I need your help...please comment and let me know what you, your family, gurbani group, Gurdwara, or organization does using the Rehat Maryada or the concepts of Sarbat Khalsa as a method for decision-making. Maybe some stories of panthic unity that don’t always make the front-page. Whatever you got...let’s hear it.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Where Do I Begin?

I was terrified.

I didn’t even want to leave the parking lot.
But our presentation was to start in only 10 minutes...there was no turning back.

I've done my share of public speaking - from pitching to executives in a board room, to addressing a packed auditorium...but this one had me a little uneasy.

We were told to "keep it more than 10 minutes...they lose interest after that." But what if they lose interest sooner? Or worse, start heckling? There was no more time to was "go time." And as my wife and I entered the room, they all turned to look at us - fresh out of circle time...a room full of preschoolers!

Shortly after we enrolled our daughter in her new pre-school, her teachers asked if we had any holidays we'd like to share with the kids in the class. Perhaps it was just their effort to encourage cultural diversity that prompted it...or maybe it was the questions they got after I would leave the room. I once asked my daughter, "Do you explain to your friends why Daddy wears a dastaar?" She would innocently reply, "I tried...but they don’t understand Panjabi!"

We eagerly scheduled our visit around the time of Vasakhi several months ahead, but as the time neared, I got a bit nervous - what could we really explain about Sikhi in 10 minutes...especially to 3 and 4 year olds? Frankly, I'm not sure how successful I've been explaining things to my own children, based on the questions I get re-asked on a regular basis. At the same time, my wife and I try not to get hung up in teaching facts and this age, it's more about creating an environment of sangat, simran, seva, and keertan...with hopes to build on that foundation in the years to come.  So I can understand how difficult it might be for our daughter to articulate Sikhi to her friends, even though it such a large part of her life.

In preparing for the presentation, we debated over what to cover and what to skip - should we talk about how Guru Nanak Sahib challenged the caste system? What about the compilation of the Guru Granth Sahib? The order of the Khalsa? Or our brave heroes like Baba Banda Singh Bahadur and Mai Bhago? What about concepts like simran and langar? Where do we begin...where do we end?

Ultimately, we decided to take a simple approach. After covering the three "golden rules" of Sikhi (Naam Japna, Vand Chakna, Kirit Karni), we briefly explained the uniform of a Sikh and how it reminds us to live by the three golden rules, to treat people equally, and to help those in need. We explained that rather than receiving gifts, we celebrate our holidays by doing seva (self-less service).  A few weeks before, we started a shoe drive where parents were asked to drop off gently used athletic shoes, which are then used to help support families from farming communities in rural African countries ( This really resonated with the children...and their parents too, as many of them dropped off large bags of shoes. Everyone was excited to be a part of this project.

As our ten minutes were up, I wondered if we really did justice to the path of Guru Nanak...I mean, there was so much we didn’t have time to talk much we missed. But at the same time, if years from now all these children remember was a Sikh family came to their school, they looked a bit different - but they were happy, compassionate, and wanted to help people in need...well, then all is not lost.

And as our children get older, perhaps these annual presentations will mature as well.

As were ready to leave, many of the kids ran over to the look at the pictures we brought of Sikh men, women, and families. Other children went to the poster of the "penthi" to try and write their name in Gurmukhi script. The teachers also approached us wanting to get more information about visiting our local Gurdwara…all in all, it seemed like a success.

But most important, was the huge smile on our daughter's face during the entire presentation and the excitement in her eyes as all the kids joined to sing the "Goodbye" song, which today was replaced by the "Fateh" song.

It was though a load had been lifted off her shoulders...and all her friends caught a glimpse of her wonderful world of Sikhi.

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?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Undelivered Speech

This weekend I had the good fortune to serve as a judge for a Sikh youth speech competition. I participated in such competitions quite a bit in my own youth and to be honest...I hated them!

I felt the books were boring, the questions too limiting, and the guidelines too restrictive. Or maybe I disliked it so much because I never placed well :)  Either way, I recall at one point as a teenager vowing never to participate again, after all – why should any aspect of my faith or understanding of Sikhi be measured by a panel of judges?  So there I was yesterday on the panel of judges...what can I say? The sixteen year old within me is very disappointed!

The competition itself went by quickly – speaker after speaker went up, we quickly filled out our evaluations, prizes were awarded, and I was back in my car heading home. But during my drive, I began to think, what if the judges were given an opportunity to speak today? What would I have said? What could I have offered these youth...or better yet, what do I wish was said to me as I sat in their place years ago?

After pondering these thoughts along with inspiration from a story I heard a few months back, I decided to do something I’ve never done before. As odd as it may sound, even though the event was over, I wrote my speech anyway. And, it is:

As I watched your presentations today - it dawned on me - that by listening to your six minute speech, I have no idea what you’ve really learned. I haven’t a clue what you’ve truly understood of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur’s life, what lessons you took from it, what principles you have internalized, or what aspects you’ve applied to your life. To simply put it...I cannot measure your conviction.

So instead, I judge you on your talent. How well you articulated your answers, your delivery, diction, style, eye contact, how well you “captivated” us. And at the end of the day, the most talented will win.

But I do some point in your life, you will face challenges.
And the principles you read about in these books will be realized.

See I participated in these same competitions decades ago, but many of whom I competed with, are not identifiable Sikhs anymore...even those who won first place trophies. Some have chosen to leave the faith altogether.

As a Sikh, you will be challenged...I guarantee it.  Be it external challenges, internal...or both

At such a time, you will have the choice to respond like a Banda Singh Bahdaur – with courage, with bravery, with valor...or not.

And when you face these challenges, I can assure will not be your talent that will matter

It will be your conviction

So I hope through this process you have all become better public speakers, it’s an invaluable skill to have both for your academic and professional life ahead. But deep down, My ardaas is that you have not simply read these books for the purpose of competition, but instead you have reflected on these amazing jewels of our history, you have internalized the principles you've learned…

And tucked it away for safe keeping.

So that whenever challenge comes your way, in whatever shape or form it may come…

You will be ready

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are You Spiritual Or Religious?

I seem to gravitate toward discussions of faith and religion.
I find myself having conversations with people regarding their beliefs and traditions all the time – on the train, sporting events, and sometimes in line at the grocery store.  Perhaps it’s the uniform that encourages the discussion – nevertheless, I appreciate hearing people’s personal way they define and practice their spirituality...well, at least most of the time.
Lately, I find myself having more and more conversations with other Sikhs about Sikhi and somewhere in the discussion they’ll say, “Well, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.”  That’s usually the point where my eyes glaze over.  Not that I don’t care about their opinions and personal views on  connecting with God, but at that point I no longer feel we’re having a conversation about Sikhi. 
I feel my definition of a Sikh and Sikhi is quite broad, but if a goal of a Sikh is to let go of our ego and become a Gurmukh (literally, face toward the Guru) through learning Gurmat (the Guru’s way), then where do all these individual views on “spirituality” fit in?
This debate over being spiritual versus religious is not isolated to Sikhs, and is actually quite popular amongst Americans who seem to be drifting from organized religion and in to a more nebulous category of “spiritual.”  And although a quick Google search will show you how passionate the debate is on either side, the definitions of what is “spiritual” and what is “religious” are still quite vague.
If I try to strip away biases each side has toward these terms, spirituality seems to be associated with developing an inner relationship with God (or higher power).  God is spoken about in more close and personal terms (in your heart rather than in heaven), there’s more tolerance of other faiths, and more references to being God-loving versus God-fearing.  But the primary focus seems to be on the individual journey to enlightenment rather than subscribing to any specific rituals, practices, or “rules.”  Religion, however, takes inspiration from the past, has traditions and customs that go back generations and is often based on scripture.  Religions provide a framework, guide, and sometimes a set of rules and/or practices to reach enlightenment.  Religions tend to have a more defined following and build structures and institutions to support the congregation.
Reflecting on these two thoughts and relating it to Sikhi, I think there is clearly spiritual elements - in fact it is one of our primary goals in life to overcome the five vices, self-realize, and recognize Waheguru within ourselves. That to me is a very personal journey – but for a Sikh, does it stop there? 
Guru Sahib also tells us to surround ourselves with saadh sangat, others who are seeking truth (or already found it) so we can collectively more further along the path.  So how “individual” is this journey after all? 
If we look at history, the establishment of dharmshalas to the initiation of the Khalsa all points to creating a sense of community, structure, and institutions.  This to me is far beyond the boundaries of spirituality's inward journey. 
And the creation of the Khalsa, along with its discipline and uniform, is designed to take that inner spirit and proclaim to the world that we are sons of daughters of Guru Gobind Singh – and here to serve a greater where does this leave us?
Where does spirituality and religion fit in Sikhi?  Or better yet…
Which are you?  Do you consider yourself Spiritual?  Religious?  Both?  Or Neither?

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’ve often connected with shabads where Guru Sahib uses “pyaas” (thirst) as a metaphor to describe his longing for Waheguru, whether he is referring to the rainbird (Chatrik) who waits patiently and whose thirst is only quenched by the raindrop:

prabh sio man leenaa jio jal meenaa chaathrik jivai thisantheeaa
My mind is attached to the Lord, like the fish to the water, and the rainbird, thirsty for the raindrops

Or in more direct forms, where Guru Sahib expresses longing for His darshan

chir chir chir chir bhaeiaa man bahuth piaas laagee
har dharasano dhikhaavahu mohi thum bathaavahu
It has been so long, so long, so long, so very long, since my mind has felt such a great thirst.  Please, reveal to me the Blessed Vision of Your Darshan, and show Yourself to me.

I guess when it comes down to it, I don’t know how it feels to have an intense longing to be with the Guru...but I do know thirst.

If we look at it in the simplest form, we all know what it feels like to be thirsty, don’t we?

Now let me think about a time when I felt the deepest thirst ever. I think of high school and two-a-day football practices in the dead of August – running sprints back and forth to the point of exhaustion. I remember feeling a thirst so intense and so deep, that all I could think about was water. My mind was consumed by it. Instead of hours, what If I had to wait for days before that first sip of water? It would completely take over my mind and body. So if I multiply this hundreds of times over, perhaps this is a glimpse of what Guru Sahib phyiscally felt being separated from his Beloved.

The Rehat Maryada defines a Sikh, but above and beyond that, I believe each of us have a definition or image in our mind of who a Sikh is. When I hear friends and family refer to someone who is “in to Sikhi”, it’s often tied to the physical appearance. To others it might be someone who spends their time doing seva, some feel it is one who is well versed in Baani or a talented Kirtani.

All those things may be true...

But I feel something has been missing in my own personal definition...and perhaps within me.


I call myself a Sikh, but am I a really seeker? And am I seeking the truth only out of my interest and appreciation of the Guru’s way (and when it is convenient)? Or is it because of a genuine yearning to be with Him?

Do I feel that longing for his darshan? Darshan is often defined as His “presence” or “meeting”, but to me, receiving His darshan is not about “seeing him” physically - It’s about seeing like him. It’s about bridging the gap between his mind and mine...and seeing humanity through the Guru’s eyes.

Do I thirst for this? Do I feel this pyaas?
Not even close.

But I have caught glimpses.

And through His Grace, I hope those glimpses will become more frequent
That they appear in both moments of joy and sorrow
And they will become more powerful, more vivid, and string together in a way...that I don’t even know it

Monday, February 14, 2011

Schools Of Thought

A few friends and I were discussing that if a Khalsa School opened up nearby that only enrolled Sikh students and had an equal standard of education as the other schools, would we send our children?

The obvious answer seemed to be...of course!  Even if there was one hour each day that focused on Sikh History, Keertan or Gurmat, it would be way more than a weekly Sunday school or annual summer camp could accomplish.

Furthermore, with only Sikhs enrolled, I would imagine the instances of bullying due to the Sikh identity would be minimal. Seems like an easy choice, no?

Others in our group weren’t so sure.  Some wondered how would going to an all-Sikh school prepare young Sikhs to enter high school, college, or even the workforce where the outlook would be much different. Would it be hard to adjust?  Secondly, would going to Khalsa School tend to limit one's social circle to just Sikhs and perpetuate the idea of us being an “isolated” community?  Would our children "miss out" on the learning from interaction with students from diverse backgrounds and cultures?  And lastly, if we are each to be ambassadors of the amazing principles of Guru Nanak’s way of life, should we not go out of our way to make sure Sikhs are represented anywhere and everywhere? Shouldn’t we take pride with “standing out" in a crowd?”

What do you think?

Now I’ve never attended a Khalsa School or know many people who have.  Perhaps our Canadian readers or our sangat from Delhi, Punjab, or elsewhere can share their experience.

Did you attend a Khalsa school and were glad you did?
Did you attend a Khalsa school and wish you didn’t?

A few weeks back, I saw a video that made me think of a third alternative.

To be honest, I don’t know anything about this particular Khalsa Montessori School, but the video brought a concept to life for me...what if there was an integrated Khalsa School that had such a high level of academic standards and a wonderful reputation that Sikhs and Non-Sikhs had to be on waiting lists to attend (like we often are for Catholic schools).  What if everybody in the community knew that the Khalsa School was the “place to go” for your child to be in a positive and nurturing environment built on the foundations of Sikh principles – Equality, Justice, Activism, Compassion!

Sure sounds like a place I would want to go to...I mean send my kids to :)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Every Breath

For my first post of 2011, I’m reminded of a little over a month ago when we gathered with a group of families to ring in the New Year with Shabad Kirtan.  After we offered an Ardaas, we all quietly sat to listen to the Guru’s hukam.  For a brief moment I wondered how was Guru Sahib going to start off our year?  What guidance would he offer us?  Then the 4th Nanak revealed his experience...
soohee mehalaa 4
har pehilarree laav paravirathee karam dhrirraaeiaa bal raam jeeo
baanee brehamaa vaedh dharam dhrirrahu paap thajaaeiaa bal raam jeeo
dharam dhrirrahu har naam dhiaavahu simrith naam dhrirraaeiaa
sathigur gur pooraa aaraadhahu sabh kilavikh paap gavaaeiaa
sehaj anandh hoaa vaddabhaagee man har har meethaa laaeiaa
jan kehai naanak laav pehilee aaranbh kaaj rachaaeiaa
Now I’ve heard enough vaiyakhia’s during Anand Karaj’s to know that the laavan does not speak to the marriage between man and woman, but instead speaks to the relationship between the Sikh and his/her Guru. But I must admit, with all the hoopla that surrounds a marriage, I’ve always found it tough to really focus on the laavan in that environment. But in this moment of calm, surrounded by my sangat, I was able to reflect. In my loosest of intepretations, Guru Sahib tells me:

 In this first step of the journey, let your actions be inspired by the Divine
and daily duties be guided by Him
Embrace baani (the word), follow his path, and all negativity will fade away
Through his guidance, reflect on His name, always be absorbed in His light
Offer yourself to the perfect, true Guru and all negativity will be dispelled
By great fortune, peace and stability is attained...His name is so sweet
Servant Nanak says this is the first round, the journey has begun

On New Year's Day, where the rest of the world is celebrating the Earth’s circumambulation around the Sun, we instead are reminded of our circumambulation around the Guru. If we keep Him as the center of our life, the core of our journey, everything else in our lives will revolve around Him peacefully

So as I set my resolutions and plan out my goals for the year, I am reminded to lace all my actions with his qualities - forgiveness, compassion, humility...

And may I stay absorbed with his baani and always in simran, so that I feel his presence - not once a year, not even once a day...but with every breath.