Walking The Walk

walking the walk

A little over a year ago, I received a call from my colleagues at the Sikh Coalition requesting to do a Sikh Awareness presentation at a local high school.  My knee-jerk reaction was “What happened?”, “Was a Sikh boy bullied because of his dastaar?”, “Was a Sikh girl suspended because of her kirpan?”, “Are the parents involved yet?”  Surprisingly though, there was no incident.  In fact, there wasn’t even a Sikh attending the school.

Two week later, I stood before a class of 30 excited Catholic school students and delved in to my PowerPoint slides explaining who Sikhs are and what we’re all about.  When I got to the slide titled “Guru”, I asked the class, “Does anybody know what the word ‘guru’ means?”, a girl eagerly raised her hand and said, “One who takes someone from darkness to light.”  I had to pause for a second and collect myself.  Clearly, this wasn’t going to be like other presentations.  I would later find that the teacher spent the last few weeks researching Sikhi on the internet and had already taught three days of material on the basics.  I zipped through the rest of my slides as all my questions were answered with relative ease.  And rather than spending the rest of my time answering questions on “Why do you…” and “Are you allowed to…?”  We instead focused on much deeper questions:

Under what circumstances would you use your kirpan as a weapon?

How does the khalsa panth discuss and resolve issues affecting Sikhs globally today?

Is there a process for repentance in the Sikh faith?

Can someone from the LGBT community take amrit?

If a Singh is a lion and a Kaur is a princess, how is that a reflection of gender equality?

Do you think Sikhs should have a separate homeland?

It was a fantastic discussion, and it forced me to reflect as opposed to giving the “canned” answers I typically give in such presentations.  And in the final minutes, I was asked about my favorite local sports teams and hip hop artists.  Although the teacher was slightly embarrassed, I welcomed it, as clearly the students no longer saw me as “the other” walking in to their class room with a turban and long beard, but someone who was like them and someone they wanted to further connect with.  I have visited the school every semester since, and our presentation is now part of their standard world religions curriculum.

I try to minimize the time in these presentations on “de-mystifying the kakaars” and instead focus on the dangers of “othering”, the practice of looking at people who are different (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), as “them” and not one of “us.”  In its most basic forms, it prevents us for learning about one another and finding those mutual values that foster relationships and creates partnerships.  In it worst form, it causes violence where innocent people are hurt or killed.

13 years ago, when I started doing Sikh awareness presentations, it came from a place of fear…fear for the safety of my community.  My presentation sounded like “Hey, we are American just like you.”  Not anymore.  Now my presentation sounds like, “Hey, we are American, and we are different…and that’s okay.”  In fact, every immigrant who steps foot in this country brings a set of values and traditions to their community – and we can either be afraid of it, isolating them, or we can engage with one another, learn about what makes each of our traditions great. When we do this, we then find ways to partner with one another to build better neighborhoods and healthier communities.

In the case of Sikhs, I make it crystal clear to the students, when you see a Sikh…know that they live a disciplined lifestyle, they spend a good part of their day reflecting on God, and they have a passion for service and social justice.  That should be the first thing that comes to your mind.  If you’re going to stereotype us for anything, stereotype us for that.

This experience of presenting at schools has taught me a few things:

  1. We need better materials for non-Sikh educators on Sikhi available for free on the internet.  And we should work with Sikh and non-Sikh educators in doing so.  More to come on that from the Sikh Coalition…stay tuned!
  1. We can’t do it alone.  I have always said (especially on this blog), that the role of educating people on Sikhi is not solely the responsibility of civil rights organizations or public relations firms.  It will take all of us, but what I’ve since learned, is that it will take more than all of us. There are resources outside of our community, all around us, who have the capacity and desire to help…all we need to do is ask.  And where better to start than educators?  I have always had tremendous respect for the teaching profession, but I’m especially amazed at teachers like the one at the school I visited who decided to teach “outside the book”, to do his own research, and bring in speakers face to face, so we can truly break down barriers.  This particular teacher also arranges a trip to the local mosque every semester, where 30 Catholic school students witness Friday prayer.  Over lunch, I had to ask him, “Even after bringing in a Muslim speaker, did you still feel it was necessary to take the students to a mosque?”  He said, “You know, last time we went to the mosque, in the middle of the prayer, a man was so overwhelmed, he broke down in tears…you can’t teach that in a classroom.”  And he’s not alone, months later another inquiry came in from a Social Studies teacher to our Gurdwara’s website with an identical curriculum that we also now contribute to every semester.  These teachers are not simply educating, they are building bridges and creating change.
  1. PowerPoints aren’t enough.  For years I’ve stood in front of students pointing at slides talking about how our faith revolves around service and social justice.  But at some point, I’ll need to ditch the slides and get to work.  It makes me feel so proud when I see gurdwaras and Sikh organizations coming together for a charity event or seva project, but for me personally, I feel I need to take that next step outside of the Gurdwara too, and work shoulder to shoulder with other activists in solving our community’s most pressing needs.  Whatever the cause is – climate change, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, hunger, I need to join the movement around me and wear my kakaars fearlessly.  Not only does it deliver more impact to the cause, but it educates others about the “students of Guru Nanak” without even uttering a word.  When it comes to educating others about Sikhi, we do not have an “image problem” and we don’t need to re-brand ourselves. Guru Sahib gave me the perfect brand – the god-connected-humanity-loving-injustice-fighting-student…I simply need to live it

Between Gap Ads And Hunger Strikes


It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”      – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This time a month ago, Sikhs across the country were engaged in debate over a Gap ad.  Opinions ran the gamut.  Some Sikhs were uncomfortable with the ad as the woman placed her hand on the dastaar, others were vehemently opposed to a Sikh being portrayed in any lustful way.  Some Sikhs thought the ad was cool and took a picture of it at the local mall.  Others were so overwhelmed by Gap’s decision to feature a Sikh model, they organized thank you tributes and facebook pages to express their gratitude to Gap.  And more recently, there’s been debate over the hypocrisy of Sikhs to glorify a company that has a history of poor treatment of its workers.  And then a counter-argument that those who are accusing Sikhs as being hypocrites are really just being over critical…after all, it’s just an ad.  What’s more surprising than the wide range of views, is that everyone had an opinion.  It was discussed, sometimes heatedly, at just about every Sikh event I went to.

In the midst of the Gap ad debate, A Haryana based Sikh – Gurbaksh Singh, went on hunger strike at Gurdwara Amb Sahib (Mohali) near Chandigarh to seek the release of 6 Sikh prisoners who have already served the terms of imprisonment to which they were sentenced by Indian courts…I repeat, “already served the terms of imprisonment.” With all the issues Sikhs throughout the world are debating today, Bhai Gurbaksh Singh decided to risk his own life to bring to light the plight of Sikh prisoners languishing in jails and the imbalance of justice toward Sikhs in India. As I’ve been following the story, I wondered…where is the outrage?  Where are all the tweets, lengthy facebook discussions, signs of solidarity, online petitions and calls to action the Gap ad drew?  Our brothers and sisters in Punjab, UK, and Canada have mobilized their sangats, but Sikhs in the US have been largely quiet in comparison.  As Bhai Sahib enters the 35th day of his hunger strike, those same circles that argued over the Gap ad do not know who Gurbaksh Singh is let alone feel compelled to act.

Over the years, I have engaged in many debates over my views on the state of the panth, 1984, and the dire situation of Sikhs in Punjab.  I would often walk away from these debates in frustration…but not anymore.  I’ve grown to appreciate people’s different views.  Because when you are debating, there is concern and thinking.  People who think and are concerned can change their minds, and even if they don’t, they continue to mould their opinions and help me shape my own.  To me, the biggest threat we face as a panth today are not the people with opposing views, but the people who remain indifferent.  Those who can easily dismiss the current state of Sikhs in Punjab as “not my problem.”

I’m too cynical to believe in complete panthic unity.  As I read through history, I can hardly find a time where Sikhs were completely united.  But there have been times, even in my lifetime, where there have been glimpses.  And when we’ve been united, we have moved mountains.  Let this be one of those times…

Learn more about Bhai Gurbaksh Singh’s fight

Reach out to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations to gain international support.

Call leaders of the Punjab government and Sikh institutions in Punjab and urge them to act!  – Click on the image below:


Gurpurab: A Celebration Or Call To Action?


For my 100th post, I’d like to share a speech I delivered at the gurdwara this past Sunday for Guru Nanak Patshah’s gurpurab.  It asks us to reflect on what a gurpurab is…a celebration or call to action?


Baba liberated all four directions and nine divisions of earth.
Gurmukh (Guru Nanak) has emerged in this kaliyug, the dark age.

As a kid growing up, I never had much interest in Sikh History.  I would sit in khalsa school doodling on a piece of paper or staring out the window as our teacher would read us the same janam sakhis I heard over and over throughout my childhood.  I was, however, very interested in American history, particularly the civil rights era.  Activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X particularly inspired me because of their passion for social justice. I wasn’t interested in Sikh history, but I was very interested in revolutionaries.  It wasn’t until a gurmat camp I attended in my teenage years that I was really introduced to the life of Guru Nanak and came to realize that Guru Sahib was the ultimate revolutionary.

Wherever social injustice existed, Guru Sahib spoke out.

Whereas society was delineated by caste, designed to keep power with the few, Guru Sahib created a parallel society based on equality, sharing, and dignity.

Whereas women were positioned as lower than the lowest caste, Guru Sahib empowered women by prohibiting practices that lessened their role or potential.  And when the manji system was established, women were not only active participants, but also held leadership positions in the sangat and were expected to help spread Guru Sahib’s message.

Whereas religious discourse was only reserved to the highest caste, Guru Sahib spread his new message to the masses, so that everyone could be inspired.

Every way in which society was designed to suppress an individual, to limit their potential, to leave them powerless, Guru Sahib found a way to take the common man and uplift them and empower them, so they could ultimately challenge that very establishment that suppressed them.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world with rigid inequality – all kinds – race, gender, socio-economic, even caste.  And we only have to turn on the evening news for a few minutes to see what dictator is oppressing a minority somewhere in the world.  So I would submit that Guru Nanak’s revolution is not complete.  In fact, it was Guru Nanak in his 10th form that established the khalsa with the intention of continuing Guru Nanak’s revolution in our modern day.  And if you agree with me, then we must re-think what today really means to us and how we celebrate our gurpurabs.

Guru Sahib began a revolution…he did not tell us to go off to the hills in seclusion and meditate all day.  Instead he wanted to us to live in this world, to inspire ourselves through baani, simran, reflection, to live a disciplined life according to his teachings, so we can ultimately continue out his mission…and serve humanity.

So if today we simply listen to shabad’s written by Guru Nanak and all of us wish each other gurpurab di mubarak and go back home and on with our lives, then we will have done a great disservice…we will have missed the point.  In Sikh tradition, we don’t just celebrate…we reflect on the Guru’s teachings and try to live it.  Our gurpurab is not a celebration…it is a call to action.

When I ask the kid’s in our class or at any camp, what do you think of when we say ‘Guru Nanak’?  The answer is almost always the same – Naam Japna, Vand Chakna, and Kirt Karni – the three golden rules.  Although I grew up with these same golden rules, I wonder, where did it come from?  I’ve read books dating back 100 years that refer to these same golden rules, but of Guru Nanak’s entire body of work, who decided on these as the golden rules?  And why did we limit ourselves to these three?  Perhaps it is because they can easily be checked-off – if I do my paath, share, and not cheat people for money, I’ve accomplished all three, right?  But 500 years later, with the challenges we have before us, I argue we need to add to this list of golden rules – for ourselves and for our children…it’s time we up our game.

From my understanding of Guru Sahib’s baani and history, there are some powerful concepts that should also become part of our daily lives and discourse.  I will offer a few:

  1. Social activism.  During Babur’s invasion, Guru Sahib did not sit quietly.  And although he did not have an army behind him, he used his pen and his voice to speak out, and called out Babur for the tyrant he was.  Today, there is injustice all around us.  And I was impressed by the GNFA Khalsa School students who remembered Bandhi Chor Divas  last week by writing 115 letters for Amnesty International to free an innocent political prisoner in Angola because he wore a t-shirt protesting the president…this is the way we celebrate.
  2. Putting our faith in to action.  Whether it was Guru Sahib challenging the worshippers in Hardwar throwing water to their ancestors or Guru Sahib in Mecca challenging the Qazi’s on the focus of their Namaaz…and he could just as easily been talking about me with my mutha tek…when I bow my head am I really submitting my own head, am I letting go of my own ego, am I letting go of my own intellect and accepting his way?  Or is it just an empty ritual?  So what do I need to do make my prayer more genuine, what do I need to do to put meaning to my actions?  Guru Sahib boldly speaks to this in Asa Ki Var when he says:akv
  3. Self-awareness.  Letting go of my ego long enough to look within myself, to reflect on my shortcomings and make change.  Letting go of my ego long enough to see the oneness of all, to see Waheguru in all beings – whether it is people of different races, faith, beliefs, people who love, people who hate…seeing Waheguru in everything and everyone and therefore having compassion toward all.
  4. Humility.  The 1st graders are learning about Guru Sahib’s interaction with Bhai Lalo and Malik Bhago.  I’ve heard the sakhi hundreds of times, but last week hearing it again, it hit home.  When given the chance to dine with a king, Guru Sahib refused.  He preferred the company of Bhai Lalo, the poor carpenter…for what reason?  And it makes me wonder in my struggle for success and to provide the best for my family, am I spending enough time with the Bhai Lalo’s of the world…what am I missing?  What lesson could I be learning?

These are additional golden rules that I need to bring in my life.  What’s challenging about these additional rules is that they are hard.  They require me to get out of my comfort zone and change my lifestyle.  I’ve even tried to “unlearn” these rules because it is much easier to simply be happy with the way things are…but my Guru won’t let me forget, he tells me Jau Tau Prem Khelan Ka Chao, Sir Dhar Tuli Gali Meri Aou – “If you desire to play this game of love, then step on my path with your head on your palm.”

So let this gurpurab be a call to action…before leaving the darbar hall today ask yourself what are you going to do?  What change will you make?  What of Guru Sahib’s principles will you bring in to your life?  And let today’s ardaas formalize your commitment

By bringing these principles of gurmat in to our lives and developing our relationship with the Guru, the personality of Guru Nanak comes alive.  His desire to learn, his pursuit of justice, his compassion, his humility, his love for humanity…what better way to celebrate his life?

Here in America, we are constantly finding ways to explain to people who Sikhs are and what Guru Nanak was all about.  But the best way we can educate people about Sikhi is not by telling people about Guru Nanak, it’s about showing them the Guru Nanak within you.

The Kids Are Going To Be Alright


In a few weeks, khalsa school will be starting up again…

It must have been a quick summer, because it seems just like yesterday we were quizzing our children on the punjabi alphabet and the meaning of several saakhis as they were preparing for last year’s final exam. The khalsa schools have come a long way since my time, with many of the teachers collecting attendance on iPads and posting homework online for parents to check assignments.  Lesson plans have also progressed thanks to the hard work of SikhRI and their Sojhi curriculum.  And I know the children are learning, as we see their progress first hand at home.  Looking at the progress in it’s entirety, I feel proud to say, “the kids are going to be alright.”  But it raises another question…what about us?

I come from the school of thought that a Sikh is a student and a gurdwara is therefore a place of learning. And although here in the US, we’ve made significant progress creating learning opportunities for our children, and committees proudly beat their chest over how much they are “all for the kids“, why is it that adults are ignored?  We surely don’t know it all.  I’m the first to admit having to do a little “research” in order to help my daughter with her khalsa school homework.  But more importantly, why don’t we value the importance of continuing gurmat education while in adulthood?  Sure, there are plenty who take enough from their individual learning or listening to katha, but there is a certain value to consistent and structured learning through interactive sessions by an instructor.  Without this, our children will learn and grow toward Sikhi while we remain stagnant.

Why is this important?  Any educator will tell you that lessons are most effective when parents reinforce concepts at home.  And if the parent don’t have strong gurmat fundamentals, how is there supposed to be any such dialogue?  Instructors at schools and camps work had to to inspire children to further their commitment to the Guru, and if that is not encouraged at home, all is lost.  I’ve seen it too many times where kids in our community leave camp inspired to make a change, be it wear a dastaar or ready to take amrit only to be discouraged by their parents when they get home.  It’s as though everything that was done at the camp is simply undone.

Years ago as a camp director, parents would push me to hold simultaneous parent workshops along the same theme as the children, so the parents can learn as well.  And although we tried, limited resources made it tough, and now I find myself as a parent asking for the same thing.

Incorporating gurmat education for adults in our gurdwara is no easy task.  There are certain things you need (1) a group of adults (willing to admit they don’t know it all) that are committed to attending weekly classes and completing assignments (2) a committee willing to invest resources in adult education (3) a knowledgeable and charismatic instructor who knows how to manage a class of adults with varying degrees of knowledge (4) and let’s face it…a keertan jatha who is willing to sing to a sparsely filled hall at times while parents and adults are in class.

As impossible as this seems, I had the opportunity to visit a gurdwara in Southern California that has most of this figured out.  Some of the young adults even attend the class along with their parents…and both are raving about the results!

Some may be thinking I’m making a “mountain out of a molehill” here.  And I’ll admit the ramifications of this issue are harder to see.  But in my opinion, gurmat education for adults will be the most critical thing to help Sikhi flourish here in the US.  It is imperative we create an environment of gurmat learning in both our households and gurdwaras.  And until our gurdwaras catch up, we as parents must take the initiative to create learning groups amongst friends and sangat for our gurmukhi learning and perhaps parent/child co-learning groups for gurbani.  Think about it…as Sikh families we get together all the time, wouldn’t it be nice for one of those gatherings to be themed around a shabad, with translation activities, discussion, and crafts all around that shabad?  Can you imagine the drive home discussing the shabad with your kids?  Sure this co-learning may expose what we don’t know…but we need to get over it – not only for our own personal development, but it also sends a clear message to our children that in the life of a Sikh, the learning never ends.

There’s No "I" In "TEAM"

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  -Michael Jordan

It was bound to happen at some point.
I was hoping somewhere in my graduate studies I would bump in to some concept or idea that I could relate to my interest in Sikh thought, and sure enough it happened in the oddest of places…a business ethics seminar.  In reviewing David Brook’s New York Times article titled “If It Feels Right”, Brooks finds that young people in America are mostly disconnected from any moral sources, and as a result find youth in an “atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and non-judgmentalism.”  This doesn’t mean they are immoral, but their morals are based on “what feels right.”  
At first, I was relieved that this phenomenon was not limited to Sikh youth.  As one who has been working with Sikh youth for a good part of my life, I’ve noticed this growing trend of “moral individualism” and “non-judgmentalism” when it comes to their Sikhi and dynamics within the larger sangat.
I’ve seen it time and time again…a young Sikh makes a commitment to further their Sikhi development, say grows out their hair, receives amrit, charni lagna, or begins wearing a dastaar.  They are happily willing to receive the support and encouragement by their sangat as they begin this new journey.  However, if they fall off the path, or back out on their commitment, all bets are off.  That same sangat feels threatened to say something at the risk of being “judgmental” and often times the struggling Sikh themself casts everybody off with a “hey, leave me alone…this is my personal journey” attitude.  But is it though?  And is that all your sangat is supposed to be?  Just people to listen to kirtan with and cheer you on during good times?
Sure, I do believe the journey of a Sikh is largely personal.  It’s about building and developing that relationship with the Guru through personal discipline, simran, and reflection on gurbani.  However, there is a very public aspect of Sikhi too that is quite unique.  Let’s face it, Guru Sahib gave us a distinct uniform that not only reminds us of our principles every time we look in a mirror, but it also proclaims to the world who we are and what we believe in.  And if I am going to publicly don the uniform of my Gurus and the heroes that followed, shouldn’t I be held accountable by my sangat when I misrepresent it?  If I have willingly knelt before the Guru and offered my head, shouldn’t my sangat challenge me when I break that commitment?  So It begs the question…where does accountability end and judgment begin?
Some say it depends on the approach…those who are humble, loving, and compassionate in their criticism are okay, while the others are just being judgmental.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, I do believe sangat should be kind and compassionate when trying to guide their fellow brother or sister back on track, but realistically, it won’t always happen that way.  And how often are most of us willing to graciously take criticism regardless of how it is delivered, especially for something that means so much to us as our Sikhi?
There is one thing about being a student I know for sure…I will fail at some point or another.  Maybe once, maybe many times…It’s inevitable.  But if I believe my path is true, I simply cannot throw my hands in the air and give up every time I fall, nor can I dismiss everybody around me in fear of being judged.  I need to check my own ego at the door, and humbly take the criticism and advice from my sangat…because if I believe they are my sangat, than I have to believe their intentions are good and that we’re all in this together.
In my days playing football, I recall what it’s like to have the ball slip through my hands on an important play and feel like I’ve let my team down, as we’ll as myself.  But something interesting happens immediately after that.  The coach rarely puts you on the bench after a botched play, instead he puts you right back in.  Why?  So you don’t dwell on your mistake and instead get right back out there and rebuild your confidence.  Similarly your teammates may be disappointed, but they’ll still give you some tips on your technique and cheer you right back on to the field.  And on the way back to the huddle, you have no time to wallow in despair or let your ego get the best of you – because after all, it’s not all about you…you play for a team.

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.