Author Archives: RP Singh

About RP Singh

Writer. Reader. Runner. Thinker. Seeker

Where Are You From?

Over the past week, the following video from YouTube’s Comedy Week (Co-directed by David Neptune and Ken Tanaka) made the rounds on the social networks.  I thought it was brilliant as the beginning dialogue perfectly captures a conversation that I, and apparently many other Asians, have on the regular.

 
As Sikhs, this dialogue happens all the time without much notice.  After all, as interactions with strangers go, these are not so bad.  But what’s troubling about the question of “Where are you really from”  is the assumption that we really can’t be Americans and that an American must look a certain way.  Perpetuating the idea that we are “the other.”
 
Now the video portrays the male as a complete buffoon, but in reality, I don’t think it’s that easy.  Let’s take a minute to think about how we answer this question of “where we are from.”  For years, I’ve run a workshop called “Who Am I?” at camps and retreats for both children and adults.  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.  It never fails when I ask the question where are you from, the majority answers “India.”  Some of the adults I probed further have lived in the US for 25 years and have no connection to India.  Others were actually born in the UK, but still answer “India.”  And when asking a group of 10-12 year olds, they in unison replied “India” and when I followed up with “How many of you have ever been to India?”  no hands went up.  I’m not sure if it’s something innate in us that when a non-Punjabi asks us a question, we feel compelled to give the answer they want to hear rather than well…the truth.
 
So as I recommend in the workshop, when someone asks you where you are from, tell them where you live or where you grew up.  If they probe further asking about where your family originates from…make sure you kindly ask them the same question afterwards.  As the video excellently portrays, unless you are native american, no on is really from here.
 
Some may think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, what’s the big deal to tell them what they want to hear, avoid the awkward interaction, and just move on.  But what’s become abundantly clear to me is Sikhs are viewed as “the other” in this country.  And our civil rights organizations and celebrities like Gurpreet Singh Sarin can only do so much to change that image.  It takes each of us – one by one, face-to-face – to turn these interactions in to teachable moments.
 
Our appearance will always make us stand out, and proudly it should.  But that shouldn’t make us any less American.  We as Sikhs have contributed so much to this country for over 100 years…in all aspects of society…as laborers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, politicians, scientists, taxi drivers, truckers, entrepreneurs, educators, social workers, volunteers, and the list goes on and on.  We’ve contributed greatly to the fabric of America and are part of what makes this country great.  We’ve earned the right to be acknowledged as Americans…let’s not let anyone take that away from us.

A Paradigm of Gratitude

Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.” 
~Henry Ward Beecher
About a month ago, many of us participated in the American tradition of Thanksgiving where we pause for a day of gratitude and express thanks for all we have and all we’ve been given.  Hours later, many of us participate in yet another American tradition, Black Friday, where we venture out in the middle of the night and stand in line at stores to hunt for deals on things we really don’t need.  This year, however, I refused to let go of “Thanksgiving” so easily.
I recently came across a pauree in Asa Ki Vaar  that I had heard hundreds of times before, but only now connected with.  To me, it shares Guru Sahib’s perspective on thankfulness:
After reading this, I started to think about the loving yet critical conversation Guru Sahib would have with me about my “day of thanks.”  With as many gifts as we receive each day, each minute, each breath…is one day of thanks really enough?  Instead, this pauree  tells me that thankfulness is not a day or a moment…instead it is a lens in which you view life.
Truth is, we often cannot control the events that happen around us, but we can control how we view them.  Personally, I’ve come across a handful of individuals in my life who have experienced tragedy or immense hardship, but when asked about it, they only emit thankfulness for the challenges Waheguru has entrusted them with.
This is where I want to be.  To be so connected with Akaal Purakh and in acceptance of his will…where all I feel is thankful.
And as a parent, with any lesson I try to teach myself, I ask what I can do to pass this lesson on  to my children.  How do I help my children view life through a paradigm of gratitude?
My wife and I have recently begun a tradition at home with our kids where right before bed, immediately after Sohila Sahib paath, each of us tell Waheguru Ji what we are thankful for.  In the first few weeks, the answers the kids gave were typical:
Thank you for my house

Thank you for my school

Thank you for my friends 
However, after several months of this, the answers have evolved:
Thank you for the heat in our home

Thank you for the dinner we ate today

Thank you for the time we spent as a family today

Thank you for making me brave

Thank you for making me a Sikh
Interestingly, I notice a similar change in my own Ardaas.
The hope here is by expressing thanks for all the big things, little things, and everything in between…thankfulness no longer becomes something you even have to think about…it simply becomes a way of life.

How Unique It Is

“In 28 years of law enforcement, I have seen a lot of hate. I have seen a lot of revenge. I’ve seen a lot of anger. What I saw, particularly from the Sikh community this week was compassion, concern, support. What I didn’t see was hate. I did not see revenge. I didn’t see any of that. And in law enforcement that’s unusual to not see that reaction to something like this. I want you all to understand how unique that is.” 
–Oak Creek, WI Police Chief, John Edwards

I was late to Gurdwara on Sunday…

A visiting kirtani had just finished a shabad and was about to begin anand sahib, when our local Bhai Sahib gently interrupted him. Bhai Sahib then took to the stage and led the sangat in one more shabad, followed by simran and asked us to keep the Milwaukee sangat in our thoughts as there was a shooting at their local Gurdwara.

I thought I misheard…I wished I did.

I immediately pulled out my phone and saw my Twitter feed to find out in fact a shooting and possible hostage situation was in progress at a gurdwara right outside of Milwaukee.

It’s strange the way the Sikh psyche works. Even though a shooting was in progress at a gurdwara, for some reason, in hearing this tragic news…a gurdwara was still the only place I wanted to be.

The next few hours were a blur of tweets, emails, phone calls and conference calls…all with CNN running in the background. All of this kept me distracted…just enough to ignore the emptiness I was feeling inside. But later on that night, when I read a tweet stating “Sikhs at Oak Creek temple are providing water, food to journalists and police as part of religious tradition of hospitality”…I was overcome with emotion.

Like many of you, there are so many thoughts and emotions I’ve experienced over the last few days, nothing I can summarize in one post, but for now, I would like to focus on the resilience of the local Sikh community of Wisconsin.

From the calm and collected interviews, to the hospitality shown to journalists, police, representatives of Sikh organizations, to the resolve of the victim’s families…the only thing that comes to mind is ‘Chardi Kalaa

Over the last few days, I’ve been so amazed by the response of all the Sikh organizations and community members across the country who have so eloquently explained our way of life, our practices, and our experience in the media – on TV, radio, and print…but I believe it was the Sikh community of Wisconsin who set the tone. Before any of us could even process what happened, the eyes of America were on them in their darkest hour…and they made us proud.

Even in this tragedy, some good will come of this…we’ve seen it already. Our nation will have been educated about Sikhs at an unprecedented level. Partnerships and alliances may form between Sikh institutions and other local community and interfaith organizations, and perhaps we will some broader unity across the Panth that we’ve so desperately been lacking. And the Sikhs of Wisconsin will have had a huge hand in all of this.

Even now…only hours after after the gurdwara has re-opened, the sangat has already begun seva of cleaning up and serving langar…amazing!

Anybody who has even skimmed through a Sikh history book knows that we are a community that has experienced struggle, not just recently…but throughout our existence. And it is through this spirit of Chardi Kalaa, the collective strength of our community, and guidance from our Guru that has helped us overcome struggle and grow stronger. It always has and it always will. We all know it…but thank you Sikhs of Wisconsin for reminding us.


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


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


It Must Be Basant

It must be Basant

I know…a Shabad reminded me so
And thank God for that, or else I never would have known

When I look outside, there’s no Basant. It doesn’t feel like Spring
It is cold…frigid even. There is no blossoming, no blooming, no rejuvenation, no growth
When I look inside, deep within my soul, there is no Basant either
It is cold…frigid even. There is no blossoming, no blooming, no rejuvenation, no growth

But I fear not

For my Guru shakes me out of my malaise, and says to me “Bholiya!” (Ignorant One)
Haumai Surat Visaar” (Let go of your egotistical intellect)

He tells me to check my ego, reflect on His name, and absorb the virtues of the divine

Then…a warmth comes over me

And for a split second, I find myself lying under a tree.
A tree made up of my deeds,
With branches made of Simran
Upon this tree grows fruits of knowledge and flowers of discipline
Leaves are made of awareness
And my egoless mind shades me from the sun
A beautiful Spring day, a warm breeze touches my face, a silence so deep…all I hear is the vibration of His name

And in a moment…it all disappears

When I am filled with hurt and sadness, all I can offer the world is hurt and sadness
When I am filled with Basant, all I can offer the world is love

SatGuru, grant me this wish –

Please let my Basant last forever…
 
Inspired by Guru Nanak Sahib’s experience:

Among the months, blessed is this month, when spring always comes.
Blossom forth, O my consciousness, contemplating the Lord of the Universe, forever and ever.
O ignorant one, forget your egotistical intellect.
Subdue your ego, and contemplate Him in your mind; gather in the virtues of the Sublime, Virtuous Lord. Pause.
Karma is the tree, the Lord’s Name the branches, Dharmic faith the flowers, and spiritual wisdom the fruit.
Realization of the Lord are the leaves, and eradication of the pride of the mind is the shade.
Whoever sees the Lord’s Creative Power with his eyes, and hears the Guru’s Bani with his ears, and utters the True Name with his mouth, attains the perfect wealth of honor, and intuitively focuses his meditation on the Lord. 
The months and the seasons come; see, and do your deeds.
O Nanak, those Gurmukhs who remain merged in the Lord do not wither away; they remain green forever.
Please take a moment to reflect on Guru’s Sahib’s experience in Raag Basant.  Keertan seva by Bhai Avtar Singh  

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 sometimes…it 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)

 


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 members…like 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 better…how 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 http://www.sikhcoalition.org/
To donate, please visit www.sikhcoalition.org/donate.asp


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”…in 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