Monthly Archives: June 2012

Leading Us Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did we lose our way?

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 Remember…the document written in the 1930’s that so many of us criticize for being outdated and gender-exclusive.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is beautiful

And it is progress

So let’s not stand in the way

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Reaching The Pinnacle

A few days ago, I had the honor to join the Sikh Coalition for a first-ever policy briefing held by the White House for the Sikh community. During this briefing, we heard from representatives of several executive agencies – Dept of Ed, EEOC, and the TSA – as they spoke about issues pertaining specifically to us. We were also given the opportunity to ask questions and offer recommendations to the officials. Unlike some of my Sikh Coalition colleagues, this was my first time at the White House, and I was as excited as a kid on a field trip. I was equally thrilled to be surrounded by Sikh activists and community leaders from around the country for this momentous day.

As the first words of the opening remarks were uttered, “Welcome to the White House…” my mind began to wander.

I thought to myself, how did we make it to this historic event?

I first thought about the Sikhs who migrated to the United States in the early 1900’s, working tirelessly in the lumber mills and railroads in Oregon. I then thought of my parents (who sat a few rows in front of me) and their generation, many of whom came to this country without a penny, but were armed with a strong education, a dream, and an incredible work ethic. How easy it would have been for them to leave their articles of faith back then when Sikhs were few and far apart.

I then thought of the small business owners, cab drivers, and gas station owners – those who serve on the “front-line” – representing Sikhi not only by their uniform, but through their courtesy and professionalism. I thought about all the people who have faced harassment and discrimination and challenged it through the legal system rather than simply give up. Then I thought about the Khalsa School teachers, camp directors and counselors, for all their work in keeping our youth connected to our heritage and filling them with the spirit to deal with all the daily challenges they face. I thought about all the children who have stood up to their bullies and made it clear the Sikh uniform is not to be disrespected.

Then I thought of my own generation, those who’ve benefited from our parent’s hard work, excelled in our education, engaged with our local communities and built institutions to preserve our rights and our way of life. I thought about all the parents, like us, who educate our communities through our children‘s schools, leading presentations about Sikhi, so that our kids will have the confidence to excel far beyond our imagination.

How did we make it here?

It took all of us.

And it was the Guru’s grace that held our hand along the way.

Ruminating on these thoughts while walking through the East Wing of the White House, I began to recite the mool mantar under my breath with hopes that it will not be the last time these walls hear the Guru’s words. Perhaps, years from now, a Sikh will be walking down this same corridor reciting the same mool mantar surrounded by secret service and staff on their way to meet heads of state or to make a speech to inspire the nation.

A Sikh president…can you imagine?

A leader of the free world, grounded in the ideals of Guru Nanak’s philosophy – equality, courage, justice, compassion…how beautiful.

This day at the White House made me realize that it will happen…maybe in my lifetime, maybe not.

But when it does, the story of the Sikhs in America, from its humble beginnings on the railroads of Oregon, will have reached a pinnacle.

And if I am so lucky to ever come face to face with the first Sikh President…I would be so overwhelmed.

I would proudly greet them with Guru’s Fateh, thank them for their service…

and wish her the best of luck.


2084 & I

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to attend Saanjh.

Saanjh is a Bay Area based NGO, that has been running community focused events for the last 4 years. One of their main initiatives, the Saanjh Leadership Retreat, explores subjects like an individual’s personal relationship with the Divine, identity and culture issues, history, literature and present day challenges before the panth. This Memorial Day weekend, they brought Saanjh to the East Coast.

I’ll admit, I was a bit apprehensive to attend at first. It’s been a while since I’ve attended a conference or retreat. Over the last several years, I’ve mostly volunteered at gurmat camps for children and teenagers. And at such camps, the expectations are pretty standard. Let’s face it…you can only accomplish so much with one week a year. Kids are mostly influenced by their parents, their home environment and their peers. So the week in the woods is mostly a “re-charge” to be with sangat, hang out with friends with similar experiences and have a fun, spirited time…and if you learn something about gurmat or history along the way, it’s an added bonus.

Retreats attract a slightly older crowd, mostly young professionals. And with that level of education, maturity, and advanced skill sets, I wonder…shouldn’t we expect more than we do of our camps? In my opinion, the Sikh nation currently faces way too many challenges for us not to. When I attended retreats in my college years, I learned a lot about the issues facing the panth, but rarely did the experiences at the retreats carry over to any meaningful panthic work after it was over. Most of the retreats focused on gurmat, history, and social issues, but only a few hours on the last day for specific project work. And during that time, projects are quickly thrown together with a lot of spirit and enthusiasm, email addresses are exchanged, and a few weeks later…nothing. I’m sure some of you reading this have been the one sending that first post-retreat email to your project group and after no response think to yourself, where did all that spirit go? I know I have, so I wondered…was I to expect the same of Saanjh?

The theme of the retreat was ’2084’ – where we asked ourselves, where do we see the Sikh nation in the year 2084? What institutions do we hope to leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren? From this ‘2084’ mission, we discussed goals, milestones, specific projects and the capital required (social, financial, human) to make such goals a reality. This 2084 institution-building theme led to lively discussion throughout the whole weekend while gurmat, history, and gurmat sangeet were interspersed. But does this approach really work?

Surprisingly, although Saanjh is only in its 4th year, it has already established several significant initiatives. Some projects are organic, like the Saanjh Scholarship, which aims to award $20,000 this year to students based on merit and financial need. Other projects like ‘Adopt A Family’ are strategic partnerships with established organizations like Baba Nanak Educational Society (BNES), which provides aid to families of farmer suicides in Punjab. The Saanjh community aims to spread awareness on the issue of farmer suicide and serve as a fundraising vehicle for the amazing work BNES is doing. Other projects getting off the ground are a “living history” that documents individual’s experiences around 1984, and a gurbani veechar resources initiative.

I believe much of Saanjh’s success has to do with limiting the scope and focusing on making few projects successful, rather than constantly inventing new ones. Another important factor is having a dedicated group of volunteers who help provide infrastructure and resources to the projects to ensure they keep moving in between the retreats. Sure, only time will tell which projects stick and which do not, but from what I’ve seen, the ones that stick have a good chance of becoming long-lasting institutions to benefit our community for decades to come.

At the retreat, some of the activities focused on personal development and discipline, while others focused on building institutions and moving the panth forward. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to connect the dots, Saanjh reminded me that as Sikhs we have so much to offer the world – look at our role models – Guru Sahib built cities, brought in commerce, organized communities, helped the under-served and advocated for social justice all while maintaining a connection with the Divine. And if I intend to a be vehicle of Guru Nanak‘s philosophy, if I intend to be his ‘sevak’, then I too must strengthen that bond and cultivate my relationship with the Guru.

Thanks Saanjh for the sangat, inspiration, and for reminding me of this important lesson!

The next Saanjh retreat will be held on October 18th – 21st in Santa Cruz, CA.

If you’d like to donate to any of the Saanjh initiatives, please visit http://www.saanjh.org/donate