This summer at a local gurmat camp, I ran a workshop called “Who Am I?”
It consists of a role-playing exercise where I play the ignorant passerby asking the kids about who they are and what Sikhi is all about. The goal of this workshop is to come up with our own “elevator pitch” – concise yet thoughtful answers to some of the most common questions we’re asked.
No matter how many times I’ve facilitated this workshop, I’m always amazed at how little the campers are able to answer about very basic questions on Sikhi and Sikh practices. It doesn’t even matter what kind of camp – from those that follow the Rehat Maryada closely to those who do not – the results are much the same.
In one camp, when the kids were being particularly unresponsive, I veered off my lesson plan of “How we explain our Sikhi to Non-Sikhs“, and instead started asking the group of 15-17 years olds about themselves.
What kept them as Sikhs?
What made them want to follow the Guru’s path?
Why did they keep their Kesh and Sikhi identity?
Surprisingly, there were still few answers. In every group, there’s always one or two who raise their hands and say all the “right things” and perhaps one or two brave souls who object and say, for example, that keeping their kesh is no longer necessary, and, for that matter, neither is organized religion. Even this perspective I respect because at least they are thinking, reasoning, and vocalizing their opinions. I’m not really concerned about either end of this spectrum, but what does worry me is the vast majority in the middle who appear to be, well…indifferent.
Out of a little frustration, I finally picked one kid in the back – a fifteen year old boy wearing a patka and asked him directly: “Tell me, why do you keep your kesh?”
After a short pause, he looked back at me and said, “To be honest, I really have no idea.”
I feel my parent’s generation did the best they could raising Sikh youth in a land and culture different than their own. As a child growing up on the East Coast of the U.S., I was blessed with opportunities to go to Sikh camps. I loved going to camp and being around people who looked like me and shared my struggles. I have fond memories of gathering around the camp fire with all my friends and shouting jakaaray until we lost our voices – I was inspired…but I’m not sure why.
I grew up participating in kirtan competitions, speech competitions, paatth competitions, and I constantly had the company of Sikh friends, but even in all this…there was still something missing.
Sometimes I look back at all the people I competed with in kirtan competitions, and those who shouted jakaaray along with me at camp…most of them aren’t Sikhs anymore. Perhaps they felt something missing too.
As many of us grow out of adolescence – start to think for ourselves and get exposed to ideas, opinions, and thoughts that we never knew existed – our beliefs get challenged, and it takes a little more than jakaaray and first place trophies to keep us rooted in our Sikhi. Much of that external stuff eventually fades away, and we’re forced to look within.
Although the cause of our current state is still a bit elusive to me, the solution however, is crystal clear. Whereas my training in Sikhi was largely external – keep your kesh, be proud of your history, and one day you may grow up into a Sikh who reads and reflects on gurbani – essentially, growing Sikhi “outside-in.”
I believe the answer is to start with bani – day one, and grow Sikhi “inside out.”
I’m convinced that fostering a gurbani-based environment at our camps, Khalsa schools, Sikh Student Associations, and, most importantly, our homes, is the best way to engage with the next generation of Sikhs, so that they can individually and collectively create connections with the Guru.
So maybe this means that the SSA substitutes one if it’s monthly meetings for Gurbani Vichaar, or our camps and Khalsa schools build their lesson plans on reflective exercises around a shabad, and perhaps as we put our sons and daughters to bed every night, we help them find strength and courage in a shabad in the same way they do with a saakhi.
By cultivating that inner relationship with the Guru – through shabad, simran and reflection – I believe the external aspects of Sikhi will fall into place. We will then always be fulfilled and our questions will always be answered.
A friend once said to me, if we want to see our reflection in the lake, the water must first be still.
May Guru Sahib bring that stillness in our lives, so that we can realize who we really are.