To The Last Hair, To The Last Breath

A few weeks ago, while at the park with my family, an elderly woman dressed in a sari came over to say hello. After a brief introduction, she said to us “wait here for a second” and called out “Alex…come here!” A little boy with light skin and brown hair ran over to us. The lady in the sari bent down and said to Alex, “See…this is what your grandfather looked like. He wore a turban and had a long beard just like him.” Alex wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but he forced a quick smile and ran back to the swings.

As a dastaar-wearing Sikh, I come across these interactions quite often – some pleasant, some not-so-pleasant, and some downright awkward. But because they happen so frequently, I tend to brush it off and forget all about them quickly. For some reason, this incident stuck with me.
It made me think about the days in Gurmat camp decades ago when the Uncles would scare us in to keeping our kesh or else keshdari Sikhs would become a “thing of the past” and “only be seen in museum exhibits.” I never bought that theory, but the incident in the park did shake me a bit.
Although Sikhi is such a large part of my life, truth is…I really don’t think about kesh much. As a matter of fact, when I lead presentations about Sikhi to Sikhs or non-Sikhs, I make a point to downplay the kesh aspect. Not that it is any less important than any of the other kakaars, but with non-Sikhs, the “mystery” behind the kesh seems to overtake discussions, and we miss some of the most important and central tenets of the faith…equality, self-less service, self-realization, and universality of the message. And even with Sikhs, kesh is made such a focus that many in our community feel that as long as we retain the external image of a Sikh, the rest of maryada and discipline does not apply. It is essentially a “free-pass” and gives us the right to criticize those who do not keep their kesh.
Being the only Sikh boy in my school in the early 80’s was difficult and I always questioned why I needed to keep my kesh in the first place. I was given all kinds of answers – some said it was Guru Sahib’s way of giving us a unique identify we “couldn’t run away from” after the circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahdur’s shaheedi. Some said that hair has traditionally been a sign of saintliness, as many other saints from other religions kept long hair. Others said we should not cut something that grows naturally from our bodies (yes, the finger nail debate would quickly follow), while others gave more “alternative” reasons – that hair served as “antennae” to gather and channel energy from the sun. At a recent seminar I attended, one of the more “scholarly” elders referred to kesh as a “custom” and well, customs after time…do change. I’ve heard just about everything. Strange how I was so consumed with this question throughout most of my childhood and adolescence, but as I’ve gotten older and learned more about Gurmat, I’ve started to wonder less and less about it. Instead, I’m consumed with what I find difficult now – waking up at amritvela, focusing on my paath, being compassionate and forgiving, letting go of my ego, attachment, and anger, seeing Waheguru in everyone…it’s as though keeping my hair is the easiest thing my Guru has asked of me…I mean, I don’t even have to try! And for everything my Guru has given me, isn’t this the least I can do as an expression of my love?
In the end, we all have to come up with our own reason. Personally, I keep my kesh because my Guru has asked this of me…and I accept it as his gift – that’s it. It is neither a symbol nor a custom…it is a part of me…a part of my history. It is what Bhai Taru Singh gave his life for rather than a strand be cut. It is what Sikhs all around the world reflect upon daily in our Ardas, remembering those who gave their lives, “Kesan Suasan Naal Nibaahi” (with their hair intact, to the last breath). Just like a soldier wears his/her uniform proudly because it reflects the principles and tenets for which the country stands…my kakaars serve much the same…it represents the principles and tenets of my faith…equality, justice, service, compassion. And every time I stand before a mirror I am reminded of those principles and the code by which I live. Everyone around me is aware of it too…I cannot run away from it. And if my appearance means I am excluded from joining my co-workers at the bar after work or I’m randomly selected at airports from time to time…so be it. It is an honor and a privilege to bear the image of the Khalsa. And with my Ardaas and His grace, I shall live up to the ideals for which it stands.
Just about everybody I talk to or every article I read about the state of the panth tells me much the same…youth cutting their hair, trimming their beards, moving away from Sikhi etc. etc. Although I don’t ignore the realities of our situation, I don’t dwell in it either…I choose hope instead. I’m convinced through further reflection of our history, our traditions, and inspiration through Gurbani, we (individually and collectively) will reflect the Guru’s love and message. I look forward to a day at the park where a mother will bring their child over to us, lean down and say “This is a Sikh family…if you are ever in need…you can always count on them to help!

About RP Singh

Writer. Poet. Organizer. View all posts by RP Singh

27 responses to “To The Last Hair, To The Last Breath

  • Anup Kaur

    A lovely article. Well said.

  • Manbir Singh Brar

    waheguru ji ka khalsa….. waheguru ji ki fateh..That is fantastic,,,,, This article just changed my mind,,,,, Today, i feel comfortable because now i can answer anyone who wants to know the reason we keep hair for,,,,,,waheguru ji ka khalsa…. waheguru ji ki fateh…

  • Anonymous

    very touching….well said

  • Avantika Singh

    it is so nice to know that some people still believe in it….I get questioned all the time as to why i want to keep my hair long and not cut it…i too feel n reply the same, as mentioned in the article…it is a part of me…anyone likes it or not is upto them..but to me, its a gift from god, which i proudly would love to have… 🙂

  • Mandeep SIngh

    Keep up the good work Rubin…

  • Anonymous

    very true … the kesh is the easiest thing to do… coz next level of controlling mind is bit harder dan it.. n realy need guru sahib's kirpa to fight n folow wts ryt acc to guru sahib 🙂 – Prabhdeep kaur

  • Tajinder Singh

    We need this type of inspirational articles for awaring the world about sikhs and their history.

  • Gurdas

    Rubin,Not a single sentence in your post that I could disagree with – and that is a rare thing with me!For the readers I want to highlight the two most important messages I culled from your article:1. "the “mystery” behind the kesh seems to overtake discussions, and we miss some of the most important and central tenets of the faith…equality, self-less service, self-realization, and universality of the message."2. "I keep my kesh because my Guru has asked this of me…and I accept it as his gift – that’s it." Just the reply I have always given when asked about my kesh!Sikhism is at a crossroad where we have to reinvent the religion to take it back to its original form and spirit. A lot of rot has crept in over the last two centuries. The threat is from within, and specially from the keshdhari Sikhs who refuse to look beyond the symbolism.

  • Anonymous


  • Gunit

    Great article…Very well written

  • amu

    realy nce 1.. lovely artical 2 change sm1 z thought.. bt i just wantd 2 share my thought.. or may b its my problm.. 1 year back i use 2 trim my hair.. bt i realy felt uncomfortable doing that as if smthng z eatng me i hv strong faith in god..then i decided 2 nt cut my hair.. since then i did not cut my hair.. i use 2 do sukhmani saheb everyday as thngs started hapng gd 2 me so i started doing paath.. as thgz vr hapng gd 2 me i had strong faith in god..i use 2 say ever1 that gd is dng gd 2 me..i nvr share my problm vth any1 coz i use 2 thnk i hv gd so i dnt need any1..i nvr get ached 2 any1 as this world z so mean..d am so nice by heart due 2 my momz teachngz time pasd away now thngz hapen so bad 2 me.. i cant tell u.. i nvr do bad f any1.. bt thngz hapen bad 2 me ..y so??.. now am so true 2 god..

  • boby

    being a sikh is very difficult ,u must b prepared to face discrimination.i would request people if u do,nt like a sikh person,at least do.nt make fun of them

  • Harpreet Multani

    Great article. I believe that a Sikh is still a Sikh without its apperance but Sikh is nothing without following the pinciples of Sikhism. As you said, focus has shifted from philosophy to mere rules. The reason we wear a Kara is because prior to doing something inpure with our hands, we are reminded of god and hopefully halt. The essence of the rule needs to be understood rather than blindly following the rule. if got has asked us to have kesh, he has also asked us to be a good person. The impotance should be given the philosophical aspect of Sikhism. Thank you for the article

  • kiran sachdev

    Beautiful article in the truest sense of the word.

  • Anonymous

    Hello,Truly a refreshing article! As a sikh girl who also went to school in the 80's and attended Gurmat Camp at the local Gurdwara, I was chastized by the Bhaijis in the Camp that because my hair WAS cut, neither my self nor my family were true sikhs (ironically we are decendants of Bhai Nand Lal Ji who was Guru Gobind Singh Ji's poet. The Bhaiji's had no idea who that was!) Kesh does not solely define you as a sikh. As you mentioned it is a gift, uniform… that you wear in pride and a way for you to give back to sikhism. Those of us who have cut our hair don't feel any less of a sikh. Being born and raised in America, I feel that I've retained my core Sikhi values whether I look like it from the outside or not. The hardest part, as you state in you article, is practically living the principles of a Sikh. As we all have witnessed that some that look faithful from the outside are lost on the inside. Thank you for this modern day take on this subject!God Bless!

  • Anonymous

    its true and heart touching article………..

  • Anonymous

    as a 20 year old male who cuts his beard but wears a Phag this has made me re think my values. however we are all on our own path to waheguru and i hope it is a fruitful path for every one. waheguru ji ka khalsa, waheguru ji ki fateh.

  • marcinat

    Jo Boley So Nihaal! I agree – it is much harder to walk the walk than talk the talk about being true to the core principles of our faith. Please keep up the great posts. Waheguru ji ka khalsa, waheguru ji fateh!

  • Anonymous

    reality hurts and when some things hurts you should try and face them rather running away from it….my friend you have stood up for your biliefs and have guts to face reality thats what a khalsa means….determined, solidartity…im proud to be sikh ( khalsa )

  • Jasjit

    this truly an amazin post whcih has helped me in gettin my answers rite……..thanks a lot…..

  • Anonymous

    Sikhi does not start or end with Kesh…it grows along with it. There comes a time when we relinquish control over our Kesh and accept our Guru's will. Its a prelude to relinquishing control over our ego and accepting God's will…and we start living and loving every inch of it! :>

  • Rubin Paul Singh

    Guru Fateh! Thank you all for your comments and contributing to the discussion. Very insightful thoughts! Look forward to hearing more from you all in future posts, so we can continue to learn from each other's experience on the Guru's path…Akaal Sahai!

  • Anonymous

    In Baani, it's said that each of us describes God according to each of our limited understandings, and none of us can fully describe what wonder God is or encompasses, nor should we try. Though, with whatever little understanding we have, we may appreciate and bathe in whatever chance we get to remember and see waheguru in everyone and everything. I found it incredibly interesting (neither good, nor bad) that so many people got such different messages from this article. Some thought that Veerji was reinforcing the fact that hair is not entirely necessary for being a good Sikh, and thus self-justified the fact that they do not observe this portion of Sikhi. Others stated that this post gave them answers for the "reason" of why Sikhs keep their hair or why they themselves keep their hair. I fall into the group that has been very blessed to keep kesh up till this point (since nothing in life is guaranteed, I try not to tell others what to do or what to think, because the very next day, i could be doing the exact thing that I was "preaching" against), and I do it simply as an act of Accepting Hukam. Guru Gobind Singh Ji said to keep my hair, and with Waheguru's Kirpa, Today, my hair has been kept. I understand the importance of asking questions along our spiritual journey, and fully encourage asking questions to further one's understanding – but I feel like the most important questions are not being asked: (ie – how can we rid ourselves of ego? how do we live in this world while also maintaining spirituality? How do we develop compassion for humanity?). Instead, we are incredibly focused on questions that we have not been given answers to, and perhaps never will (maybe because we were not supposed to understand these things, maybe these were the "faith" part of Sikhi comes in) ie keeping kesh, the limits of God (ie can God do this? how about that? what if… this… then… that?), etc. Though, this too is all part of Waheguru's Play – this whole world is a show… and trying to figure out where we start and waheguru ends is fruitless – whose good and whose bad is fruitless too (if we are all borne of the same source, then how can good people and bad people exist?). It truly seems like this post is incredibly random – and it may be. But Guru Ji says it best, "the more one tries to describe, the more one realizes that even MORE needs to be described."

  • Sukhmandir Kaur

    This reminds me of a similar incident. We met a man who came up to us and told us how he met Sikhs at a park where he used to take his son. He instructed his boy if he should ever be in trouble to go to someone wearing a turban for help because that person would be a Sikh ready give their life to protect him.

  • Gurmeet

    i feel Whatever is stated herein above is absolutely true and correcct.. i have also seen many people trimmingh their beards jus because they feel it does not suit them if they dont trim it but i dont feel the need to do so.. if they feel so offended with all these things then y do they grow their hair and pretend to be sikhs. i believe they shuld not be a part of the family..

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