This column presented a report in March of 2013 on the beginning and development of Sikhism, a faith community founded in 1499 in Punjabi, India, by a religious leader called Guru Nanak. It is a monotheist religion that rejects both Hinduism and Islam. It had a succession of nine gurus after Nanak himself, one of whom started the practice of establishing kitchens, or “langars,” to feed poor people. These langars were located in “gurdwaras,” centers of worship.
The 10th guru introduced two far-reaching changes. The first was to designate himself the last personal guru, informing the Sikh community that their guru thereafter would be the Adi Granth Sahib, the collected writings of former gurus. The second change was to organize the Khalsa, a militant order of all adult Sikh males, whose identity was five marks: uncut hair covered by a turban; distinctive shorts; a wooden comb; a short dagger; and a steel bracelet on the right wrist. Their name became Singh, “Lion.”
Many Sikhs have immigrated to countries of the Western world. One report puts the number in the United States at 250,000. Here Sikh men are easily recognized by their turbans. Sikh women tend to wear a Punjabi style of feminine garb rather than the more common Indian sari. Women carry the name Kaur, “Princess.”
Like other immigrant groups, Sikhs have tended to stick together so they can: continue to enjoy their Punjabi language; give each other economic help in their start-up in the United States; and most important of all, they can grow into a sufficiently sizable community to build a gurdwara with its langar. There is such a gurdwara in the South Bend-Mishawaka area it was my privilege to visit recently.
Although built in an Indian architectural style, this gurdwara functions for all practical purposes like a Christian congregation with a well-equipped kitchen and fellowship hall. Here members of the Sikh community can meet, socialize, provide religious education for their children and youth, and above all engage in worship.
Central to Sikh worship is reverence for and reading from the community’s Scripture, the Adi Granth Sahib, which is treated almost like a living person, seeing it is the successor to the 10 gurus of Sikhism’s founding and early history. There is an official caretaker of this book, who lives on the premises and each evening puts the Adi Granth Sahib to rest in a room near the raised ornate platform where it lies during the day. Early each morning this official caretaker “awakens” the Adi Granth Sahib, bringing it out to again be placed on its “throne” platform for reading.
Gurdwaras have congregational services of worship in which men sit on the right side, women on the left in the sanctuary. There are no pews or chairs, not even in the dining area. Everyone sits on the floor. Shoes are left in the lobby at the entrance to the gurdwara, and worshipers go barefoot. All people present, including visitors, are expected to have their heads covered, in the case of men if not by a turban, then by a kerchief.
Sikh practices in their gurdwaras might seem punctilious to some observers, but shaping their everyday life is the message of the Adi Granth, whose teaching one source summarizes as equality of men and women, monotheism, truthfulness in speech and life, avoidance of vices, living in God’s order, and practicing humility, kindness, compassion and love.
I couldn’t stay for the langar’s meal, but I very willingly accepted a cup of tea — with milk and sugar, of course, and just the right amount of cardamom.
ONLINE: For more on the local gurdwara, go online to http://www.gurunanakdarbarsahib.com/
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.