Monthly Archives: December 2008

Living The Life

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!!

This year I had the opportunity to visit a few Gurmat camps and engage in a lot of interesting discussion with Sikh Youth from all over the country. It was a nostalgic experience for me to re-visit the questions and issues facing Sikh youth today as they enter their formative years and become more independent in their thinking and actions. Coincidentally, while looking through some archives, I came across an email I received many years ago. This email was special to me because it sparked a lot of questions, conversations, debates, and discussion with my Sangat, all of which helped me formulate many of the views I have today. Looking back, I’ve come to cherish those moments with my Sangat, as it forced me to introspect and challenge myself. I look forward to more opportunities as I continue on this journey.This email was a post on a listserve, responding to a specific question of “When is it okay to remove one of your Kakkars?” An answer is provided at the end, but the journey of getting to his answer is much like the journey of a Sikh…experiential. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy it.
And please note: This was written about 10 years ago by someone closer to my age, hence the reference to “Star Trek” 🙂
Akaal Sahai,
Rubin Paul Singh
I received Amrit, not because I understood the Sikh way, but because I wanted to understand the Sikh way. I realized that true understanding of Sikhi can come only if I submit to the way of Satguru Nanak. After having spent significant time reading and listening to what worldly gurus—scholars and academics of Sikhism—had to say about Sikhi, I realized the only way to truly sikh (learn), and change myself was to become a Sikh. This meant that I had to make a commitment to the Guru and receive Amrit. Amrit, for me, was the first step and a product only of my desire to change. I was reluctant for a long time because I knew that this commitment would require me to change how I live, and I really did not want to give up my lifestyle. Frankly, there have been days since I made this commitment when I have second guessed the choice I made. What I have also realized that following the Rehat, which on many a day has been a chore and quite ritualistic, has helped me to submit some part of my will. I don’t know why Guru Sahib asked me to follow the discipline of the Panth. I don’t know why I must wear articles that at times seem antiquated and meaningless. I don’t know why Satguru asked me to arise before dawn and repeat prayers that more often than not mean nothing to me—even though I know much of the literal meaning. I only know that I would like to grow, that I would like to love, and that I would like to live like Satguru Nanak. And if I have to follow a discipline that does not agree with my limited intelligence, I must will myself to follow it, especially if I am serious about emulating Guru Nanak. In this struggle to follow the Guru’s Rehat, I fail everyday – but I continue the struggle. Some days are more disheartening than others. Some days I can say that following the discipline has helped me change a little by helping me get a little more control over my anger, be a little more cognizant of my arrogance, and be a little more aware when I am being crude. Some days I feel that I have bridged a small part of the vast gap between me and Bhai Lehna, the ideal Sikh who grew to become the image of Satguru Nanak. There are moments when I find my Kesh not as meaningless symbol, but as the Guru’s Kesh. On occasion I find my Kirpan not as a symbol, but as the Guru’s gift of Kirpa (grace). On rare blissful days I see my Kanga as a mark of my Guru’s love. In every ten times I rattle through my Nitnem, may be once I connect with a line. My eyes well up with joy and my ego boundaries dissolve, and I get a glimpse of the unspeakable. So I tell myself when I doubt the commitment I made the day I received Amrit not to focus on the do’s and don’ts of the discipline, but on the love I seek to develop for the Guru. If my focus is love for the Guru, then the problems I have wearing my Kesh or my Kirpan, the agony I go through to get up to do my Nitnem are all well worth it. That I don’t follow the Rehat completely is a measure of my wishy-washy love for the Guru. At 10:30 pm when I have a choice to go to sleep and wake up at Amrit Vela to do simran, or watch Star Trek, and I choose to watch TV, I am effectively choosing Captain Kirk over Guru Nanak. Clearly even though I may claim to love Guru Nanak, my actions and my lack of willingness to change, show that I love Captain Kirk more (yuck! but true). The commitment that Amrit asks of me is much more that just wearing 5 K’s and doing Nitnem. It asks me to will myself to change; to lose my anger, my greed, my attachment to Maya, my arrogance; and that is far more difficult. If I cannot even follow the easy part of the discipline, which is largely related to my physical self, how can I even dream of conquering my spiritual self? If I cannot even submit when it comes to wearing my Kacchera and Kirpan, how can I possibly submit to wearing humility and compassion? The question that Guru Nanak asks me: “Are you ready to love?” My answer is Yes, but do my actions say that too? Following the Rehat is just one small measure of demonstrating a willingness to give up my way of thinking. The do’s and don’ts of the discipline are not important. The question is love. Some GurSikhs are unwilling to part with there 5 K’s even for a moment. Others make some exceptions. The Guru’s Rehat, as articulated by the Guru Panth, says nothing about this. So every Sikh has to look within and answer to their conscience through which the Guru speaks to a Sikh. For one Sikh taking off the Kirpan even for a moment is troubling, for another it is okay if under certain circumstances it is removed. As long as the Kirpan and the other K’s are worn and respected, each Sikh must choose for her/himself as to what is acceptable. While I am not an avid sports person, when I swim or play sports I do remove my Kirpan, but I put it back on (as soon as I am done). I am comfortable with this. I have been chastised by some Sikhs that I am too fanatical for wearing a Kirpan and by others for being to lax in following the Guru’s discipline. I listen to both; and try not to react to either. My conscience is clear. I respect the choice some GurSikhs make to never remove their 5 Ks, but don’t feel that the Guru demands this of me. At the same time, I am not comfortable with wearing mock versions of the 5 Ks around my neck. My Guru speaks to me through my conscience. My conscience is molded by my values. My values change as I reflect on Gurbani, Sikh History, the Rehat, and the view of my sangat and spirituality.
Hoping to be a constant “changer”…hoping to be a Sikh.

A Singh In Cheese Country


A Singh in Cheese Country
By Rubin Paul Singh

Usually, I stay away from “Interfaith” gatherings and speaking at “Cultural Day” seminars. I’m way too cynical for these warm and fuzzy “we are all one” love-fests. However, after Balbir Singh was murdered in a post 9/11 hate crime, I had a change of heart, and have since made every attempt to take advantage these opportunities.

Last week on behalf of the Sikh Coalition, I met with the students of Hamilton High School in Sussex, Wisconsin, a small Milwaukee suburb. It was an eye-opening and inspirational experience. Hamilton High School has around 1100 students, over 90% white, with only 2 South Asians. Most of these people have never spoken to a South Asian, let alone addressed by one with a Dastaar and long beard.

I met with 4 groups, approximately 80-100 students each for an hour and a half. I started off with a poem about racial profiling and the post 9/11 experiences from the Sikh perspective. After this, I lead a discussion about our origins. I asked them, “How many people have parents or grandparents born in other countries?” In some groups, nearly half the room raised their hand, the further back I went in their family, more hands went up. They were shocked to hear that I, like them, was born in this country and similar to them had roots in other countries.
Following this discussion was a brief power point presentation highlighting Sikh principles, the Sikh uniform, and images of Sikhs in various aspects of society throughout North America. After this, I broke them off in to separate groups, asked them to imagine they were Sikhs and presented them with a challenging scenario, where they as a group had to determine their course of action. For example, “You are an NYPD officer who has just been fired because you refuse to remove your Dastaar…” “You are a 12 year old school boy who is being suspended for wearing a Kirpan…” “You are watching a movie preview in a theatre, and see footage of a Sikh being harassed…”

Any of these sound familiar?

It was interesting for them and me to see how they responded in such situations, and how passionate they were in defending a Sikh’s rights. I followed-up with a role playing session, where I called upon a brave volunteer, and did an improvisational skit of a “Day in the Life” of a Sikh, only I played the belligerent passerby and THEY played the Sikh. I was fascinated to see how much they retained when I asked them questions like “Are you some kind of Arab?” “What kind of God do you believe in?” And so on. I was particularly caught off-guard when my question “Are you some kind of terrorist?” received a quick response of “You don’t see me going around accusing white people of being Timothy McVeigh.”

Interesting, huh?

I taught the kids how to say things properly, “Sikh” not “Seek”, “Gurdwara” not “Temple” and “Dastaar” not “Turban” and it was surprising to see how comfortable they became with these words, even using them in their questions. What I enjoyed most was the Question and Answer session. There were some questions that were pretty standard I expected every time:
How long is your hair?
Have you ever shaved your beard?
Can girls shave their legs?
Does the color of your Dastaar have any significance?
What holidays do you celebrate?
Do you believe in heaven and hell?
Are you wearing your Kirpan now, (and the inevitable follow-up) can we see it?

Then there were some questions that went beyond and invoked some deeper reflection:
What do you think about the War in Iraq? How did you feel after September 11th? Did you ever change your mind about becoming a Sikh? And one of my personal favorites “So…what do you think about us?”

At the end of each session I asked the group, “How many of you think differently about Sikhs now then you did when you entered the room?” Every time, everyone raised his or her hand. It made me think. Every day I turn on CNN and am depressed by the ugly displays of ignorance, arrogance, and intolerance. For that moment, at least for this little Wisconsin town, there was hope.

This is the second time I’ve visited Hamilton High School in the last 6 months, and in that time I’ve met with 800 kids at the school. That’s 800 kids who know we’re “Sikhs” not “Seeks”, that we wear “Kirpans” not “Weapons” and that we’re from the occupied Punjab region of the subcontinent that was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and not “Indians” or “Pakistanis.”
Hamilton High School has now made this presentation a staple in their World Cultures curriculum, and the teachers and I have slowly developed a friendship. As I left the school last week, a student walked by who was not in my presentation, and yelled out “Osama!” as he darted down the hall. Two teachers immediately chased after him, while the other opened up her appointment book to schedule my visit next semester.

April, 2003

The Blues

The following piece was submitted to the Chicago Sun-Times as an Op-Ed shortly after the Twin Towers attack of September 2001.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to partake in an old Chicago tradition, attending the 19th Annual Blues Festival in Chicago. Although I am a fan of the Blues and pay homage to the likes of Muddy Waters and BB King, there was an initial hesitation in my wanting to attend this event. Although I am American born, raised in Maryland, and an Oak Park resident for the last 4 years, my religious uniform of the Sikh faith requires me to wear a turban and long beard. Lately, I’ve stayed away from such large public events to avoid the harassment of being called “Osama” or “Terrorist” especially in environments where alcohol lessens the inhibitions of your average Chicagoan.

The gifts of my unique appearance have brought me a challenging yet fruitful experience in life, so as I grew up, the taunts and harassment had little affect on me. Similarly this past weekend, when my friends and me received taunts such as “Osama!” and “we’re watching you” I simply let it roll off. One comment, however, wasn’t as easy to let go. As we sat and soaked in the tunes of James Cotton, a man walking by looked at us and said, “It looks like the Blues travel all around the world.” Although the comment was an innocent and genuine one, and was supposed to leave me with that warm fuzzy universal feeling, I couldn’t help but feel discomforted. I came to this event as a Chicagoan, as an American, but no matter how American I was, I was still a foreigner. We throw around terms like “Melting Pot” and “Land of Immigrants” but that’s just empty rhetoric only good for TV commercials and politicians. Most mainstream Americans feel that to be an American, you must be white or black. The backlash against Arabs after September 11, and people like me who to some appear as Arabs, is an ugly example of this. It uncovered the deep-rooted ignorance and racism that exists in our society.

I believe we Americans have become a target of world criticism not because people are “jealous of our freedoms”, but because our arrogance has prevented us from sympathizing with other communities and cultures. How can we sympathize without even understanding them? It is the responsibility of schools, families and other institutions to instill principles of cultural awareness and tolerance, but also the responsibility of every American to be open-minded and not pre-judge. Since this past weekend I’ve reflected about all the harassment I have faced since I was a child and marveled on how little has changed over the last 20 years. Have we as a society made progress?

When we left Grant Park and headed to the car, a passerby yelled out “Terrorist!” Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with quick comebacks, sometimes even insulting the antagonist in the same way they insulted me, but before I could come up with snappy response, my friend looked over to him and said, “Learn more about the world!” Perhaps this is advice we can all take.

Rubin Paul Singh
Oak Park, IL

My Guru & I: In His Presence

An article of mine recently published on sikhchic

My Guru & I:In His Presence
by Rubin Paul Singh

This is the eleventh in a series of articles in commemoration of the Tercentenary (1708-2008) of the investiture of Guru Granth Sahib as our eternal Guide and Teacher.

As 2008 comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on all the “300 Saal” celebrations of the year. It was an inspiring year – and the discussion, speeches and sheer emotion of this milestone really gave me a chance to reflect on the role of the Guru in my life.

While volunteering at Gurmat camps, I always made a point to pose a question to the children, prior to leading them in to their first divan: “If you walked into this gurdwara and instead of the Guru Granth Sahib being there, say it was Guru Nanak, or Guru Amardas or Gur Tegh Bahadur, sitting there – how would you act?” How would you carry yourself when walking in? Would your mind-set be any different? Would your muthha tek take on a different meaning? Would you be more attentive and alert during the divan? Would you be more eager to listen to his words and try harder to understand him?

Guru Ram Das says:
Bani is the Guru and Guru is the Bani. And it’s within this Bani, that Amrit is found.
Thus, the Shabad (“The Word”) is, was and always will be the Guru.

History tells us that even during Guru Arjan’s time, the Granth (then referred to as the Pothi Sahib because it was yet to be completed and anointed Guru), was the center of the congregation, the center of the Darbar, even in the presence of Guru Arjan himself.
The saakhis tell us that Guru Arjan had so much reverence for the Pothi Sahib that he kept it on an pedestal elevated even from himself, and joined the Sikhs in paying obeisance to it. This tells me that it is not the person, the attire or the physical attributes that make the Guru; instead, it is the Shabad. But we call the ten physical forms (from Nanak to Gobind Singh) Guru because they were the living manifestation of that Shabad. They lived the Shabad. We sing it, they lived it. Guru Nanak was so immersed in the Shabad that the two became one.

He says in Raag Ramkalee:
Shabad is the Guru that will ferry you across the terrifying world-ocean.

So, if this is the case, how can the Guru Granth Sahib we bow before, be any different than Guru Angad or Guru Amar Das sitting before us?

We refer to the Guru Granth Sahib as the living Guru. But is it really living to me?
Some say we have it harder, because we don’t have a physical Guru simply telling us what to do, particularly since, in Sikhi, we don’t believe in “holy” persons – priests and clergy! – being the official “interpreters” of scripture. Thus, it falls upon us to make the effort to listen to, read, and apply the lessons to our lives.

At camps, I’m often asked, “What does the Guru Granth Sahib say about this or that?”
About life after death, about good and evil, about socio-political issues, such as abortion, divorce, global warming, etc., and the children are often disappointed when I can’t point them to a direct quote – a simple “Thou shalt …” – to answer their question.

To some, this is frustrating; but I find it … beautiful!

The Guru refrains from giving commandments or a list of do’s and don’ts. Instead, He has compiled 1430 pages of divine poetry that provides a structure for our life and a personal map to guide us through our daily choices and challenges. Instead of quick and fast answers – pablum, if you will – the Guru has trusted and empowered his Sikhs, to reflect, discuss and interpret the Word and form our own opinions and make ethical decisions accordingly … for anything and everything.

So, is the Guru living?

I guess that’s up to me. I can go through life and treat the Guru Granth as a mere idol and bow before it out of empty ritualism, or I can take the time to reflect on Gurbani – to think, reason, understand and genuinely act on the Guru’s teachings … and that is when the Guru comes alive.

As a Sikh, do I need the Guru in my life? This is where Gurbani is as direct as black and white:

Bliss! bliss! Everyone talks of bliss! Bliss is but known only through the Guru.
Then he goes on to say:
One who turns away from the Guru and becomes “baymukh” – without the True Guru – shall not find liberation.

The role of the Guru is to enlighten and bring us to a heightened sense of awareness, to establish that connection with the Divine. The forces of kaam, krodh, lobh, moh and ahankaar – lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride – are so strong that it is only through the Guru that we can overcome them.

At a recent camp, I asked the children what they knew about Guru Granth Sahib and I was overwhelmed with the facts and figures they threw at me. Whose writings were included, how many pages it had, what languages it contained, how many raags there were, etc.
But asked if anybody had felt any sort of connection or relationship with the Guru … no hands went up.

Throughout this festive year, there have been many celebrations, kirtan darbars, nagar kirtans, conferences and seminars and symposia, discussions and debates on all aspects of the Guru Granth to mark this special milestone – but I truly hope that we, even if we are small and isolated communities, take this opportunity to develop and strengthen our personal relationship with the Guru. I believe this one-on-one conversation, this spiritual dialogue with the Guru, is essential in our self-discovery – which is fundamental to being a Sikh.

On this very early stage of my journey with the Guru, I have learned that all roads on this path lead to within.

As the Guru says:
O my mind, you are the embodiment of this Divine Light – recognize it, O, recognize your own origin … the true origin of thy self.

I have been the beneficiary of a lot of advice and guidance in my life, but one of the most meaningful things has been what a friend once said to me: “You know, Rubin, many think the Guru Granth’s 1430 pages are about the Guru’s lives and teaching … but, in reality, it’s all about you.” And I believe this. There is not a Shabad I come across where the Guru is not challenging me, where the Guru doesn’t push me to question myself.

I often stop in my tracks while reading the Guru Granth and ask: Is it referring to me? Am I one of those ego-filled beings that it is talking about, that is, obsessed with myself and my own thinking? Am I being humble in my actions, am I truly forgiving to those who have hurt me, do I speak lovingly to others? Am I really walking the walk … or am I just talking the talk?
This is my dialogue with the Guru, and with my Ardaas and his Grace, I continue to strive to improve myself every time I stand before him.

So I hope this year will not end as just a celebration of a historical event, but instead, be the motivation for a spiritual event – for personal change, within me, within each of us … and brings us closer to the Guru.

December 24, 2008

Dancing Around Culture

An article of mine recently published on sikhchic

Dancing Around Culture
by Rubin Paul Singh

Recently, I was invited to a discussion sponsored by the Sikh Student Association at a local university titled “How Bhangra fits into a Sikh’s lifestyle: Should it be allowed or not?”
There’s been a lot of discussion on this topic on the various blogs and social networks and it has been a contentious issue, especially amongst students. Although I never had a strong opinion on this matter, the title of this particular discussion got me thinking …

We cannot deny the connection between Sikhi and Punjab. It is the land where our Gurus walked, it is the home of cities and institutions our Gurus both planned and built. It is the land where the blood of our martyrs spilled over and over again through the centuries … and continues to, even during our own generation. It is deeply tied to our history. It is the very cradle of Sikhi.

From a Gurmat perspective, I cannot doubt that one who is well versed in the Punjabi language and familiar with the common metaphors of Punjabi rural life will have a better literal understanding of Gurbani than someone like me who is born and brought up in the U.S.
However, as for experiencing Gurbani through self-realization, I believe the message is universal and boundless. It cannot be confined to any one language or culture.

Whereas the principles of Sikhi are enunciated through the lives, experiences, and writings of the Gurus, Punjabi culture cannot be as clearly defined. What is Punjabi culture anyway? Isn’t it subjective? Does it vary by which part of Punjab you are from? Do Punjabis who live in Punjab and Punjabis who live in the West have the same idea of what Punjabi culture is? So, how do we establish the relationship between Sikhi and this evolving concept of Punjabi culture?

There are many wonderful things that I personally attribute to Punjabi culture: e.g., the importance of the family unit, respect toward elders, and the close-knit communities that help one another out. And at the heart of Punjabi culture is its beautiful language, wonderful food, and spectacular art, music and poetry. From a different perspective, if you look at some of current day goings-on, you will also find a heavy-drinking, heavy-partying society, with youth deeply involved in drugs and alcohol. It is a highly patriarchal society, where female feticide runs rampant. Thus, our culture has some positives and negatives – but neither have anything to do with Sikhi. So why the question of “Does Bhangra fit into a Sikh’s lifestyle?”
Does ballroom dancing fit into a Sikh’s lifestyle? Do movies fit into a Sikh lifestyle? What about video games? What about racing cars? Where do we draw the lines? I guess that would depend on the Sikh and his/her relationship with the Guru.

The very opening page of the Guru Granth Sahib does not start with “Thou Shalt Not …”
Our Gurus gave us 1430 pages of poetry and empowered us to read, think, reflect, understand, and internalize the message – so that we can make such ethical decisions accordingly.

Personally, I loved Bhangra. I was part of my university’s first Bhangra team in the mid-90’s ,where we competed in the early years of the now famous “Bhangra Blowout” in Washington, D.C. I loved Bhangra parties and, even more so, loved performing Bhangra on stage. Today, I have no issue with Sikhs or anyone else doing Bhangra, regardless of how bad the lyrics may be. Who am I to judge?

At the same time, as I’ve been learning more about Gurmat and trying to look within myself, I’ve become less interested in Bhangra. Sure, I may take to the floor when dragged out by family members or friends at receptions, but the truth is – I don’t get that “rush” anymore every time I hear a dhol. And the poor taste in lyrics turn me off and makes me less interested, the same way I change the station when certain rappers come on the radio. Many place blame on the negative stereotypes and distasteful lyrics on the Punjabi music industry itself or specific artists, but this is risky. Just like here in the West, sex and explicit lyrics sell. The entertainment industry will always exploit this. Trying to combat this truth is a waste of time. Still, this has nothing to do with Sikhi. Just like anything else, we should be smart enough to make individual decisions on whether we should listen, buy, and support such music. The last thing we need is to bleed the lines between religion and culture, where the Jathedar of the Akal Takht intervenes and suggests new lines for some of Babu Maan’s songs. And if we make blanket statements like “Sikhi doesn’t approve bhangra” – well, such arbitrary edicts solve nothing and give the fence-sitting youth yet another reason for distancing themselves from this “rigid” view of Sikhi.

The previous city I lived in boasted a large Sikh and Punjabi community; it had a model that drew the lines quite well. A “Punjabi Cultural Society” organized all of the culture events, from Bhangra shows, Punjabi melas, parties, etc. Although many people from the gurdwara attended these events, the administration of the two were completely separate. This worked out well, and the lines were very clearly drawn between cultural events and religious ones. The Punjabi Cultural Society had a large member base, and became even more influential than the gurdwara, with local elected officials attending some of the events, looking for the “Punjabi vote” in their election campaigns. Which is great; why not? Sometimes the folks would have disagreements on issues, and run off and create their own separate organization. As much as I would have wished for unity, I was still happy that all this stuff was kept out of the gurdwaras.

It is important to draw such lines.
I, for one, am not worried about bhangra being around for my children and grandchildren, I feel no particular need to preserve or oppose it. However, there are many aspects of SIKH culture that I do care about, elements of our tradition and history that are slipping away. I suggested to the Sikh Student Association that, in addition to focusing on Gurmat and history, they should also organize cultural activities like gatka, Gurmat sangeet workshops, kavi darbars, art displays, concerts for dharmik geet and dhadi vaaran, “shastar” exhibits, “yudh” games, and consensus-building workshops (“Sarbat Khalsa”).

Perhaps our student organizations can create a “movement” to bring about a renaissance within Sikh culture!

December 18, 2008


Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Every Sikh has a story to tell. This blog is a collection of thoughts and reflections as I journey on this path with my Guru.
This is my Sikh experience.
It is a collection of essays, poems, videos, podcasts, and random thoughts about all aspects of my life – faith, politics, family, fatherhood, and everything in between – as all of this is shaped by the relationship I’m striving to build with the Guru.

I encourage readers to comment, discuss, debate, and submit your own posts, in hopes for idea-sharing and collective learning.

“Spirit Of The Sikh” seemed like an appropriate title for this blog, as Prof. Puran Singh’s book of the same title was and is a huge inspiration to me. Periodically, I will re-visit this book and share a few lines. Here’s one to start…

“Sometimes I feel happy in the dust of a poor man’s cottage; at other’s I feel cursed by rich raiment. Dainty dishes have tasted to me bitter; but a dry crust and water tasted like amrita when offered in love.” (Spirit Of The Sikh, Puran Singh)