Sikhism is a religion that most people I interact with have never heard of (wild considering that they have about 25 million followers; that’s more than Judaism!), and if they’ve heard of it, they know very little about it. I learned a tiny bit about the religion in an Anthropology class, but the professor essentially described the religion as a combination of Hinduism and Islam.
I think the best way to learn about a religion (or anything, really) is to experience it. And, since beginning The Faith Project, I’ve had the privilege of visiting places of worship that are far from my normal and learn so much about the people of these faiths. It is my hope to share those experiences and give people a little insight into how these faiths are practiced, at least within the American context. I am by no means an expert, but a learner and explorer sharing her perspective.
Now, it is true that Sikhism was founded by a Hindu man who lived in a Muslim-dominant area (now Pakistan), but the religion has definitely become it’s own in many ways. There are cultural connections – the women wear head coverings and saris typically associated with Hindu culture and the men wear turbans that could be mistaken for Muslim attire. But, the style of clothing doesn’t define the faith. They believe in one god and a lack of idols and imagery like Islam, but they also practice communal meals and musical worship like in Hinduism.
The main thing that defines Sikhs from other religions, however, is their belief in the Guru. The Guru is essentially the word from god – their text, which they honor and respect as god. This word was originally passed down through human gurus, but their teachings have since been inscribed and canonized into the text they have today. They honor the text elaborately with ornate fabrics and they have a member of the Gurdwara fanning the text at all times during services. This tradition stems from the Indian custom of fanning royalty in order to keep flies away, and this tradition can also be seen in Buddhist artwork where the Buddha is fanned by followers to show his royal religious status.
Sikhs are devotees to radical hospitality. I noticed this from the second I stepped into the Gurdwara. The first person I spoke to after removing my shoes and covering my head immediately invited me into the dining area (every Gurdwara has one) to get something to eat. The Gurdwara is always open to anyone who wants free, delicious Indian food. The kitchen volunteers cook full meals every day – with the biggest meal during their Sunday meetings. The meal quickly became my favorite part of visiting the Gurdwara, but even in the sanctuary the people were kind and welcoming. I felt free to speak to anyone about questions I had and was treated as everyone else, with them even offering me the karah parshad (a sacred dough meant to bring blessing).
One of the things I found really interesting within the Sikh faith was the emphases on peace alongside their mission of defending the defenseless. The Sikh articles of faith, five symbolic articles that Sikhs wear at all times to remind them of their faith, even include a dagger called a Kirpan. The Kirpan is meant to remind the Sikh of bravery and protection of the innocent. Carrying a dagger may seem unusual or even violent to an outsider, but all my encounters with people of the faith have been nothing but loving and kind.
Visiting the Gurdwara quickly became one of my favorite places of worship to photograph in and to spend time at. The people welcomed me openly, excitedly inviting me to their events like the Sikh Day Parade and willingly explaining anything I had questions about. I was able to connect with a group of people that seemed so foreign to me – and I was able to connect with a newfound love for Indian food – which is part of what makes immersing yourself in other cultures so essential and growing.