by Shabd Singh Khalsa
Why do you live the way you live and think the ways you think?
It is winter break here at MPA. With a week open, I decided to visit a good friend from college down in Pondicherry in South India. I had never been to the south and was at once excited and a bit anxious. After all, I was leaving my comfort zone of Hindi speaking North India for the Tamil paradise at the bottom of the sub-continent.
My journey began at the Amritsar airport. If you have never seen it, I’m not going to say you should, but it is funny. The airport inhabited by several birds. I am not talking a few tiny brown sparrows like you see darting among the rafters of Costco; I’m talking crows, sparrows, and thrushes pretty much everywhere you look.
The security outfit is also quite a sight. Every piece of hand luggage requires a tag in order to be stamped once you pass security. The problem is that no one tells you that you need a little paper tag on your luggage until you get through security. The guard whose job was to stamp my tag looked very disappointed when I had no paper dangling from my backpack. I like to think of the whole thing as the visitor’s first glimpse of the mindless bureaucracy that plagues Indian civil service. As though there should be a small plaque next to the six guards that reads: on left-needless bureaucratic process done by twice as many people as necessary.
So I sat waiting for my plane, which the announcement board urgently informed me was boarding, though the airport employee at the gate assured me the plane had not yet arrived. While waiting and listening to birds chirping and too-loud-for-7AM bhangra music blasting from the television, I struck up a conversation with a woman.
Neelu was a professor at a university in Delhi. She was born into a Sikh family, yet, as she told me, felt hesitant to self identify as Sikh. She was fascinated in seeing me. She’d heard of and seen pictures of Anglo-Sikhs, yet had yet to meet one.
“I have so many questions and reservations about my religion so I am always fascinated by those who come from other cultures to adopt Sikhism,” she explained. I replied by telling her that I too was born a Sikh and was also fascinated by people who adopted the religion! People like my parents.
Neelu asked, “What inspires you to live the way you do? I ask because, though I respect the Gurus and the principles of the faith, I have a hard time adhering to a lot of what I see as ritual and arbitrary rules, which are often used to judge and have little to do with the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji.”
I thought for a minute. The truth is, I absolutely agree with Neelu. I think about why I do what I do on a daily basis and question its validity all of the time. I was raised wearing a turban and raised not cutting my hair. I was raised vegetarian and without intoxicants.
What often happens, I think, to people born into a unique community with specific lifestyle, is that we do not feel we have chosen the life for ourselves. I think we also see a lot of hypocrisy. What is wrong with my parents’ marriage if they meditate all the time and bow before the Guru? Why do I know so many great human beings with short hair and so many lousy Sikhs with long hair?
“Being a Sikh is sanctuary,” I said. Neelu just listened. “To me, the Guru is the very act of enlightenment. The physical Guru Granth Sahib continually points us to enlightened ways of life, away from arrogance and hate, and towards truth. It’s easy to bow to that.”
“Yes. I bow to the Guru and those principles as well,” she said. “But, as you can see, I cut my hair and do not wear a kara. But still, I feel a sense of loyalty to my faith and community and act accordingly. I just do no attach any of these external things to those principles.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “I wear my turban because, to me, it’s awesome to wear a 16th century symbol of royalty that was bestowed on a group of righteous rebels by their saint-warrior Guru to bind a people together in revolt against tyranny. I love to let my hair grow because I feel it is a very real way of practicing self-acceptance. And all of it together is a certain practice of obedience and humility before an enlightened teacher like Guru Gobind Singh who told me to wear these things. I’m certainly not perfect and have broken my vows, but I am honest and always come back to the Guru.”
She liked that and invited me to visit her in Delhi when I had a chance. She was gracious and intelligent and clearly a great mother to her very kind son, Arjun. Our interaction made me think about the importance of forgetting external divisions. To me, a Sikh’s identity is between that Sikh and their Guru. If looking a certain way doesn’t make sense to an individual, why force it?
I bid Neelu farewell and boarded my plane for sunny Tamil Nadu and more adventures. As the plane took off, I felt content and thankful to have met Neelu and her son. (Arjun, an ardent Lakers fan, was concerned that the aging team would all be retired before their new killer lineup could get a championship. He might be right.)
As we approach Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday, let’s remember that Guru Ji asked for heads and individuals answered. No one coaxed them along the way. Let’s let each person answer the call as they see fit. Who are we to assume we know how the Guru, the mystical enlightener, works?