Guldasta

A bouquet of flowers picked along the way ….

The ransom Sikh’s pay August 13, 2012

Repeated below is an email I sent to my local Sikh community today. I’ve made a couple edits but nothing significant.

Yesterday, in India, my Sikh friend from 30 years (which is almost all my life) got married to his long time Hindu girl friend. Part of my family attended the wedding and so did common friends from college days. Today, I learn from them that my turbaned Sikh friend is now clean shaven; “perhaps as part of the deal he removed his turban and shaved his beard”. It first came as a shock and then a throbbing sadness, like that from a deep personal loss.

A friend who attended the wedding, found some resonance between the wedding yesterday and this story about Punjabi Americans from the early 1900s. And the words “perhaps as part of the deal he removed his turban and shaved his beard” are from the story.

So, now, I have no friend from the first 20 years of my life who wears a turban. There is a vacuum which cannot be filled. And the sadness of this loss pervades my heart. Yes, it is a personal loss. Yes, I am being selfish.

Countless Sikhs, specially in Punjab, have chosen to give away the beloved symbols of their faith. Some for prosperity, some to avoid looking different, some to avoid the daily duty to maintain long hair, and some for a wife. While we (the Sikh community) mourn the shootings in Wisconsin and work hard to educate the world about our turbans; while people from other faiths stand beside us and come to our “temple” to wear turbans; we, the Sikh community, have an internal threat that is even more urgent. And it is more urgent because of its hidden nature and its numbers. It is rare to see a non-Sikh become a Sikh for any reason other than having discovered a faith they fell in love with. And that should be the only reason for faith conversion. I am perfectly fine if a Sikh were to choose another faith of his own free will, under no greed or duress. But to negotiate, to pay one’s faith as a ransom to acquire another thing, is not okay. That is true for any person of any faith.

Where does the love for faith begin? Not a blind, mindless attachment. But, rather, a firm, righteous, yet kind love. It begins in the lap of your mother. In the stories and actions of your father. Sikh women, when they marry a non-Sikh rarely bring up Sikh kids. On the other hand, when non-Sikh women marry Sikh men, the story is no different. Again, the kids are often brought up as non-Sikhs.

A week ago, a white supremacist gunned down 6 Sikhs but could not make a dent to the Sikh faith. In fact, sensing danger, the community responded with more faith. Because we sensed danger and we sensed we were wronged. When Sikhs give up their faith everyday, we do not sense that same danger. It is a slow poison but one that claims thousands. One could argue it is a personal choice. But is it really a free choice? Would that Sikh give up the symbols of his faith had he got what he wanted (prosperity or spouse) without having to sacrifice his beliefs? Or was he given a either this or that choice? To me that is not a free choice. It is a ransom.

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18 Responses to “The ransom Sikh’s pay”

  1. Lokesh Yellapu Says:

    Gurdas, i can understand and empathize with you and the emotions behind your sentiments. Humanity being the only religion, it is one’s prerogative to chose the way one decides to follow his/her religion. Obviously, am sure you have never decided to make friends with your pal 30 years back based on the way he has been following his religion but more because of the way he was as a person. So, why now take such a decision? Its his way to be happy. As long as he doesn’t hurt others financially, socially or religiously, he has every right to chose the way to be happy. I hope you will not take my words otherwise 🙂

  2. gurdas Says:

    Lokesh, I clearly demarcated between choosing freely and paying a ransom. That is the moot point.

    And, I am talking about my sense of personal loss. Imagine, if all your Indian friends become, for example, American citizens. They are still the same humans. However, you will feel a sense of loss. Right? I make no attempt to be politically correct at the cost of being a fake. We make acquaintances based on first impressions. The friendship then grows based on common values, which could be anything – how you talk, what music you enjoy, your views on fairness, etc. With this friend, one part of the common values were our values towards our religion.

    “So, why now take such a decision?” I am not saying I’ll not be friends with this person any more. That I cannot even imagine. All I am saying is that the friendship will not be the same as before since some common values are no longer there. If you need another example, imagine you were passionate about rock music. And only one of your childhood friends was too. And then he suddenly says, my wife did not like rock music, so I gave it up 🙂 Well, he still has the same human values. But, will you still have the same bond with him?

    That said, the Sikh turban is unlike rock music. I could not think of another object that ignites the same emotions a turbaned Sikh has for his turban. As a non-Sikh you may not realize it, which is okay. But you will understand better if you ponder that over the past 4 odd centuries, thousands and thousands of Sikhs either willingly gave their lives rather than cut their hair or were murdered because they were Sikhs with unshorn hair.

  3. Nikhil Tripathi Says:

    Just remembered an old couplet by Ghalib:

    Doston se bichhad kar ye haqiqat khuli Ghaalib
    Ki Beshak kaminey they par raunak unhi se thi

    When all that remains is silence, this resonates even more. To put things in perspective, I think that friends should be a lot dearer to us than their hair.
    Your hair is yours to keep. Right now, your friend probably expects you to rejoice in his wedding without paying too much attention to his beard (or the lack of it) 🙂

    P.S. The attack on the gurdwara was intended to be an attack on ethnic minorities than specifically the Sikh faith. Again, just to keep things in perspective.

  4. gurdas Says:

    Nikhil,

    You miss the moot point, too. My friend did not give up his hair because he felt he no longer needed it. He (probably) gave it up because of demands to give it up from another party. The marriage was on hold for years because the girl’s parents were not comfortable having a turbaned/bearded groom. He finally succumbed to that pressure. That is what hurts more. Where was the need to succumb? Why could he not be joyfully accepted as he is? I support true freedom. Let the girl continue to be a Hindu. Let the boy continue to be what he wants to be. Don’t ask for a ransom.

    I am at a loss (and have always been) of how to explain what keesh (hair) mean to a Sikh. It is simply not hair to me as to you. There is a reason and that reason can be understood ONLY when you understand the roots of the “hair” and feel for it as a Sikh does. I will risk assuming you know very little of Sikh history, the innumerable sacrifices made for the hair, which became a symbol of free choice. It was a sign of refusing to pay a ransom in exchange of life.

    • themovingfingerwrites Says:

      Gurdas, there is no reason to assume that I’m not aware of Sikh history. Guru Gobind Singh organized Sikhs into the Khalsa in response to Aurangzeb’s aggression towards the Sikh community. He laid down the need for symbols, because Sikhs needed to band together and unify against the threat of the aggressor. All the sacrifices that you talk about were needed at a point of time in history.

      The reason why Sikhs are prepared to give up symbols now is because the need to hold on to symbols is simply not the same today. Societies are moving towards greater individual freedom, and that usually means lesser of a hold of religion in enforcing identity. This is quite reasonable to expect. After all, faith should evolve with the needs of the current time. You do not read yesterday’s newspaper today, because it is yesterday’s truth. In that case, why does religion, which is claimed to be an eternal truth, preach from a book written hundreds of years ago?

      Marriage is a complex affair. An inter-religious marriage an even more complex one. You do not know what ransoms have been paid on the other side (or what the girl will go on in her life to pay, with Sikhs being a no-less patriarchal society than the Hindu one). Singling out one visible tradeoff (even though that may seem egregious from your perspective) seems like a very narrow prism to view the situation through.

      • gurdas Says:

        Nikhil,

        I expected you to know the textbook version of Sikh history. Most people do not even know that. To you, Guru Gobind Singh is a name. To me, he is like a spiritual father. Our emotions cannot be the same.

        As for preaching from a book written hundreds of years ago, the message in Guru Granth Sahib is eternal and universal. It is explicit and univocal that all humans are equal and that meditation, honest labor, and service to society are the three pillars. Would you think that message is inappropriate today? Most people treat the Sikh holy book just like any other Holy book; what they miss is that the Sikh holy book was not written by any one man of any one faith. It is essentially a compilation of preachings from Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim saints. That itself forces it to pick what is common, what is eternal.

        As for the girl paying any ransom, I am equally against that, too. Does one ransom justify another?

      • Nikhil Says:

        WIth reference to Gurdas’ comment below:

        >>> It’s interesting that you did not mention the turban or the beard as part of Sikhism’s universal and eternal message. THat’s because you yourself understand that a turban and a beard cannot be part of an eternal and universal message. A turban or a beard is a practice. Which is what we were discussing, not the universal and eternal message.
        Grieve when your friends lose the eternal and universal message, not when they lose their beards.

        That’s it from me on the subject.

      • gurdas Says:

        Nikhil,

        Obviously, the beard and turban are not an universal and eternal message. But, they are integral to the identity of a Sikh, which is what the below message was about. Will you not be Sikh without a beard or turban? No. Will you be a lesser Sikh? Yes, even if just by a little bit.
        That is true for any identity. Take an example of a school student (not the best example, has its flaws). If the student were to follow all the guiding principles of a school but does not dress in the school uniform, he is still a student in the sense what he is learning and teaching. But, you’d not recognize him because of the visible signs being absent. He no longer looks like a student of that school.
        Given a choice between a bearded Sikh who does not espouse the eternal message of Sikhism and a shaven Sikh who does, again obviously, the shaven Sikh is better.

  5. gurdas Says:

    Kulpreet Singh, a member of my local Sikh community, had responded to my initial email enunciating why the turban means so much to some Sikhs and not so much to others. With his permission, I have provided below the text:


    The story that veer jee has shared is repeated over and over in our community. Our local community has witnessed many men who were raised in household where fathers tied turbans, but the son decides it is not worth the trouble. We do have a couple of cases where the son reversed the trend and the father followed his son; however, those blessed cases can be counted on one hand.

    Why this happens is rather simple. We do not understand what the turban is. Even the most learned in our community regard the turban as a cultural thing. And as long as we continue to regard and promote the turban as a cultural thing, it will continue to be a matter of choice to wear a turban or not. Because anyone who knows anything about anthropology (the study of culture) knows that cultures are constantly evolving and being influenced by each other, and in that state of constant change, identities, symbols and their meanings constantly change. Therefore, what was a cultural symbol of respect once upon a time is no longer true. A symbol of respect today worldwide is the three piece suit and a tie. We all know this, and we all train our kids to dress with that symbol of respect – we notice this even in our Gurdwara where men come all decked out in western symbols of respect. And in the process of evolution, tomorrow something else may replace the suit and tie (and boy will I be glad because I hate wearing ties :-))

    For Sikhs of Guru Nanak, the turban is not a cultural phenomenon. It is part of the image of God given clearly in GurBaanee. We know that God is free of form, free of shape, free of color and all physical constraint. That much is very true. However, it cannot be ignored (and only the ignorant do so) that whenever and wherever a physical image of Vaheguru is depicted in Guru Granth Saheb jee, that Akaal Moorat has always included uncut hair and a turban. There are plenty of Shabads in Guru Granth Saheb by Guru Sahebs as well as Bhagats that visualize the image of Vaheguru as one with hair and with a dastaar. There are NO shabads in Guru Granth Saheb jee that visualize Akaal Purakh without hair!

    GurBaanee of Guru Granth Saheb jee is not cultural, and GurBaanee given image of Akaal Purakh by definition is not subject to change. Akaal Moorat by definition is permanent. A Sikh’s Turban, being the turban of Akaal Purakh, is also permanent. And BOTH men and women are the image of Akaal Purakh, if they want to be. 🙂

    When we begin to teach this from our Gurdwara stages on a regular basis, then we may begin to see a turning of the tide. Until then, as the Punjabi saying goes – Guru Rakha…

    Chardi kalaa, veer jeeyo..

    • Lokesh Yellapu Says:

      Gurdas – lest not forget, the platform for an identity of a human being should be his/her deeds and not his/her looks. I am surprised that you still lay an emphasis on the identify of a human being by his/her looks . Its like you are asking a woman practicising Islam to wear a “Burkha” all the time to uphold her identity as woman practicing her intended religion. It is not fair. We are entitled for our liberal views and we should not be discriminated based on that. Keep life simple and do not complicate it by fretting too much on these lines. Cheers! 🙂

      India aaja..masti karenge apun !! Mooli ke parathe aur sarso ka saag ke saath :DD

      • gurdas Says:

        Lokesh, you are completely missing my point. I am saying every person has the freedom to choose their identity – be it looks, faith, practices, etc. I am only against systems and expectations that force people to give up that freedom. It could be being forced to wear a burqa. It could also be being forced to give up the burqa. Let the woman choose without any fear or negotiation.

  6. Puja Says:

    G, I agree with the points you made regarding ‘giving up’ the turban. I am fine with people giving up their faith, identity because they no longer relate to it, and get associated with something else(that they might find more similar to what they truly believe in.) BUT if they have to surrender to ‘demands’, it takes a rather ugly turn.

    Symbols, rituals, faith, beliefs- they cannot be the basis for judging people. But the way they are built up and treated can be a good basis for us to start evaluating our own selves. I would judge people who force others to give up their religion and not as much as those who actually give it up.

    (Reblogged this post on my own blog)

  7. I came over from Puja’s blog.. I am a sikh and I have my hair cut, that doeas not mean I dont follow my religion.

    Cutting of hair etc is personal, many punjabi jat sikhs have their hair cut that does not make them less sikh..

    We in sikhism have a lot of problems that need to be addressed. Totally agree that if the other party has forced the guy to cut his hair then , that is wrong.. he should have taken a stand..

    We sikhs ourself have done so much damage to our religion that i can go on and on , our religion is the youngest in the world yet we have so many bad people around.. I have written a lot of posts on all this ..

    Good one

  8. Ketan Says:

    Hey Gurdas,

    I can empathise with your loss. Its similar to the loss I see all around with Christian and Muslim evangelists all over the country. However, just a point I’d like to make, in order to put things in perspective. Many of you may be aware, but most are not – that Sikhism, Jainism [I am a Jain], Buddhism are not religions, but spiritual practices. And there is NO “Hindu” religion at all. The invaders from the West called the Sindhu [Indus] civilisation as Sindhus which by spoken language became “Hindu”. People in our lovely land had never felt the need to separate from their fellow beings by way of religion. However, the invaders made us do it. Even Guru Nanak preached “There is no Hindu nor Muslim”. The Guru and succeeding Guru’s preaching are irreligious. They belong to humanity. Hence I as a “Jain” feel a sense of being drawn to any gurudwara because its my place of fruition. @#$% the concept of religion.

    Secondly, I am presuming your friend did it voluntarily. That girl sure is lucky. I agree with some other replies you have got here. Do not go by the external look. A P J Abdul Kalam is probably one of the world’s best Muslims, but he sure doesn’t look nor speak like one. A R Rahman?

    Yes, let the deeds be more important than the look. What good are those Sikhs or for that matter those Jains who look like their “religion” asks, but who violate virtually every precept in the book? Like some of the CM’s of Punjab?

    Let’s erase the word “religion” from our dictionary. We are only Indians, irrespective of how we look. Only then could we come together as one nation, like we did at Azad Maidan last year. “Religion” will only spawn agents [i.e pandits, maulvis, priests etc.] who will seek to divide for their survival.

    I understand my reply only partly touched the issue close to your heart, but I think if you look at this from a slightly wider perspective, you’d realise that this was a sad incident maybe, but there is worse that has happened, which you know obviously.

  9. Anu Says:

    Hey Gurdas !! Since when does the religious sentiments of a person lie in his long hair n beard…maybe comfort is in mind when they shave off or pressure from society . Sikh religion has a lot more to give ….

  10. Bhupinder Singh Says:

    Dear Gurdas, I admire your courage to open up your views on such open platform. I admire you more for keeping these discussions very healthy. Being a proud Prius owner, your email about ‘CAN data logging system’ appeared in my email and here I am having discovered your beautiful soul. I must say, you are a true ambassador of Sikhism. Keep up your good work. Bhupinder (NZ)

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