Sikhweb: A Lifeline for the Faith

By Neha Singh Gohil
Article from the The Columbia Journalist

"Every morning, Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa wakes up at 4 a.m., coats his body in almond oil, takes a cold shower and spends the next two hours meditating on God. In the quiet New Mexico dawn, he goes through a yoga routine and recites two Sikh prayers – the Japji Sahib and the Jaap Sahib. This was Khalsa’s New Year resolution – to get up early and practice his “Sadhana,” or daily discipline, as the Sikh gurus did hundreds of years ago. Seated alone on his living room floor, Khalsa leads his mind through each verse, singing to himself.

Khalsa, 31, completes his morning Sadhana together with at least 32 other Sikhs who signed up to join him from around the world. At the end of January, he wrote about what he planned to do on his Internet blog, mrsikhnet.com.

Khalsa encouraged others to sign up for the 40-day effort, and even created an online pledgebank to make it official. Soon, he was getting comments from Sikhs in the Middle East, India and Bangkok asking advice on everything from which alarm clock works best to why certain prayers are said in the morning.

“We all are human and have our challenges,” Khalsa says, referring to the difficulties in observing his Sadhana commitment. “By sharing our struggles and successes and things that are happening in our lives, people don’t feel as bad about approaching those challenges.”
 

Like Khalsa, thousands of the world’s 23 million Sikhs use the Internet to communicate with others who share their faith around the globe. What began primarily as an educational resource has today turned into a lifeline for the faith and its youth, helping Sikhs everywhere adapt their ancestors’ religion to new, non-Indian worlds.

But while much is gained from the Internet, some Sikhs fear a great deal may also be lost. They worry that the online community will allow Sikhs to disengage from real people, from the Sikh “sangat” (congregation) that traditionally prays and eats together in Sikh temples, known as “gurudwaras,” across the world. The Internet creates only a virtual community, where everyone remains a stranger. “A sangat of strangers is really no sangat at all,” says Sikh scholar, Dr. I.J. Singh.

Still, the trend rages on. Sikh Web sites run the gamut from matrimonials to virtual prayer services. Keertan.org organizes prayer meetings and provides audio and text of hymns in Punjabi, the language of Sikhism. Punjabonline.com has discussion forums where users can share their ideas about politics, religion or the latest bhangra dance trends. Students can even get an honors degree in Sikh music online at Rajacademy.com.

The virtual king of these sites is Sikhnet, which has grown from a small bulletin board 11 years ago to a comprehensive resource, now averaging between 10,000 and 16,000 visitors daily, according to Khalsa, the site’s founder. It provides news, translations of hymns and scriptures, Sikh coloring books, and copies of prayer books, downloadable to your PDA. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people start their day by reading the site’s daily quote from the Sikh scriptures (the “hukamnama”), sent straight from the Golden Temple in India. Although Sikhnet has been up for many years, says Khalsa, it’s only now, when people have become more comfortable using the Internet, that he feels it’s making an impact.

Some sites, like newly-launched Sikhchic.com, emphasize Sikh arts and culture. Sikhchic includes Sikh cartoons, photos and fashion and advertises Sikh art exhibits around the world. But its real value is that it speaks to Sikhs who haven’t grown up in India, says founder T. Sher Singh, 57, of Toronto, Canada. Most members of the Web site’s international staff have never met each other, Sher Singh emphasizes, but they share the challenge of relating Sikhism to their non-Indian surroundings. “We need to re-think the Sikh idea in the North American idiom, in our language, in our way of articulating our thoughts,” he says, and the Internet is the perfect space to do that.

I.J. Singh, author of many books and a frequent guest speaker on Sikhism, explains why Western-born Sikhs have been driven into the virtual world to find their religion. “The gurudwaras,” he explains, “are dysfunctional for our young people because they’ve been founded to bring in our sights and sounds and smells from home – from Punjab.” What happens in gurudwara services is rarely explained to American-born Sikhs, who often don’t understand the Punjabi language. Without understanding, they find it difficult to connect to the faith, I.J. Singh says.

On the Internet, though, youngsters can ask questions and find answers for themselves. Tech-savvy kids, accustomed to living and baring their lives online, are using Internet forums and discussion boards for conversations about what it means to be Sikh.

Some of the most popular features on Sikhnet are videos demonstrating how to tie a turban, Sikhs’ religious headdress. In nine minutes, for example, Angad Singh, a business student in Singapore, can teach his peers in Chile how to stretch, fold and tie a neat turban. When he offered to teach his local friends the same thing in person, “not too many people were willing to come forward and ask for help,” Singh remembers. The Internet, on the other hand, invites young men to learn without admitting their ignorance.

At the same time, the older generation is using the Internet not only to explain the faith to their children, but also to keep in touch with it themselves. For instance, I.J. Singh, now in his 60s, uses online historical databases for his research. He has taught himself how to write columns and essays for online audiences, and often fields nearly 200 e-mails a day requesting insight on Sikh matters.

The relatively small size and scattered nature of the Sikh diaspora, Sher Singh says, makes it uniquely suited to the Internet. Sikhs have been dispersed around the globe for generations, many transported to far away locales as part of Britain’s imperial expeditions. Today, most Sikhs have local roots wherever they live, but also have some connection to their faith. “There’s a desperate need for us to have a commonality, otherwise we’ll end up with different communities around the world,” says Sher Singh.

This common connection across national borders has proven vital for Sikhs since Sept. 11, 2001. Because of their turbaned appearance, Sikhs everywhere began to be harassed and assaulted hours after Islamic terrorists attacked American landmarks. Amardeep Singh Bhalla, a New York-based civil rights attorney, immediately contacted his friends to organize a Sikh response. One of their first projects was an online incident log, where Sikhs could report harassment and threats. By the end of the day on September 11th, the Web site had logged 22 incidents – reported from Milan, Italy to St. Louis, Missouri.

Bhalla’s group used information from the log to lobby city, state and federal legislatures for hate crimes legislation in the aftermath. Today, the log is still cited in legal battles about religious rights in the United States and abroad.

But while it keeps them together, the Internet sets up a different challenge for Sikhs, says I.J. Singh – keeping them isolated from society. When Singh first arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s, he spent Sunday afternoons lounging around a McDonald’s near the local church. He knew once the service was done, people were sure to come and talk to him out of curiosity. Explaining it to others forced him to learn about his own religion. Now, he says, the Internet allows Sikhs “a very secluded kind of existence.”

For Khalsa, however, forging relationships and teaching others about Sikhism through the Internet is something of a calling. “The blog,” he says, “has been a means for inspiring and educating people from a different perspective than they would normally have.” In his own Sadhana, his online sangat is a valuable source of inspiration. Despite his solitary prayer service every morning, Khalsa’s motivation is anything but secluded. “This is about giving an opportunity to those who can’t otherwise have it,” he says – the opportunity to cross boundaries and connect with each other’s spirituality.

 

Related Blog Posts