Being a “New Sikh” and Trying to Fit In

“I have ‘discovered’ Sikhi for about 6 months or so and have attended a Gurdwara a few times. I have forgotten to mention that I live in Cardiff, Wales, UK. There appears to be no other white people in the Gurdwara and so all conversation is in Punjabi. Similarly the worship and service are too. I don’t wish to give up my new found desire to embrace Sikhism but I am finding it difficult to feel a part of the congregation. Can you help please?”

Recently I received a few emails (one of them shown above) from people who were brought up with different religious backgrounds and are exploring the Sikhi lifestyle (ie: Wanting to be a Sikh). The emails were asking for help and advice in relation to fitting in with the Sikh community and being accepted.

Most of you are probably not used to seeing/meeting people who have converted to Sikhism and trying to find their place as a Sikh in a community. I was on a Sikh discussion forum the other night reading a really long discussion topic that was raging back and forth between the participants. Basically one individual was criticizing “3HO”, “Western Sikhs”, “Yogi Bhajan”, etc, on just about everything. Without going into all that, the one subject of that discussion was a remark that “White Sikhs” don’t go to other “Punjabi Gurdwaras” and just “start their own Gurdwaras”. Of course this is not true…but it made me think. First…there is an assumption that there are HUGE number of Sikhs that have converted to Sikhi. I don’t think there are nearly as many as people think. Maybe we are big in our projection and so people think there are hundreds of thousands and since they have not seen them in their Gurdwara that they must be avoiding it. Who knows though… we don’t have a “Sikh Convert Census”. So…with these few Sikhs spread out all over the world you may not see a “Sikh Convert” often at all.

In general I think people tend to live within communities of people that they have similarities with. So, many people who have adopted the Sikh lifestyle live in areas where there are other similar Sikhs. There are a few reasons for this.

First…most of them have come from a very different cultural background and do not understand or relate to Punjabi culture, so feel more at home with others from the same background (Just as someone from India might feel more comfortable with other Indians who have similar backgrounds). It’s what you know and are familiar with. This is changing as our youth become more global, but is still a big issue for the older generations of people.

Second… Someone who becomes a Sikh has to learn everything from scratch and learn a whole new way of life. This is hard if you don’t have someone helping or speaking the language that you understand. It is extremely difficult to learn and feel a part of things when the Gurdwaras are all Punjabi centric. I am not saying it is a bad thing, but I think it is important in western countries where most of the population speaks English that communities figure out ways to support the youth (many of who don’t understand/speak Punjabi). This will also support the people that are interested/learning about Sikhi. So, in relation to the topic of this post, because most Gurdwaras don’t have a good support system for people of non Punjabi background it is natural for these Sikhs to gather together to support each other and learn together. The issue for communities is to decide WHAT can be done to address this. If you ever come to our Gurdwara here in Espanola you will see how our community does things a little different because of the different background. The format and general ceremonies are the same, but some are done a little different. Someone might read the Ardas in English or Punjabi (depending on the person’s preference). We have an Akandh Path that is always going every week and people from the Sangat sign up to read. Volumes of the SGGS with Gurmukhi and English Translation are used so depending on what language the person understands they can all participate. After the Hukamnama is read in Gurmukhi someone always reads the translation in English (sometimes spanish too) so people can understand what was said. Kirtan is normally traditional style, but someone might also sing a devotional song that they wrote about the Gurus (not Gurbani). People play kirtan with Guitars and many western instruments…..and many do so in tunes that are more western sounding. Most of the women are very active in the Gurdwara ceremonies and have strong leadership roles in our community. They do many more of the Gurdwara activies than men (Ardas, Kirtan, Hukamnama, Prakash/Sukhasn, etc). In your typical Gurdwara, men are very dominant and it can be hard sometimes for women to do these things if they want. Our communties are small so don’t have dedicated/paid ragis or granthis. Everything is done by the sangat. At least every month the parents and kids get together for Sikh stories or some activity where they can learn about Sikh history (In english of course). There are many other things…but this post is getting long so I’ll stop there. I just wanted to give you an idea of things.

Third… A big reason why some of the people that I know have become Sikhs is that they have had someone that speaks their language, and I don’t mean the English language. I mean that there is someone that shares information on Sikhi in a way that they can understand and relate to. Just imagine if you were Desi Punjabi, didn’t know English, had grown up all your life in India, and then all of sudden you were in the midwest USA (The “Bible Belt” where there is a church on almost every block). Imagine you went into one of the churches trying to learn about Christianity. You would have a tough time I’m sure! I know this is an extreme scenario but I wanted to try to give you an idea of how different it is for someone who is not brought up as a Sikh from Punjabi backround.

There are a lot of bridges to build and things that we have to do to progress into this new age of globalization where Sikhs live in many different countries and come from different cultures. I don’t think Guru Gobind Singh’s prophecy of 960,000,000 was a vision of all Punjabi’s (That’s just my opinion).

So, what can be done? This is up to YOU to think about and try to encourage possible changes in your communities (at the very least to support our Sikh youth). So, I don’t just assume someone else will do this; make this your contribution. Everyone can take time to help in some way.