This blog post is about my personal experience as an American-born Sikh with parents from Christian and Jewish backgrounds; the changing world of Sikhi, and how people from different cultures and continents are connecting with this lifestyle, along with some lessons I have learned, and how I personally apply the teachings of Gurbani and Sikhi in my life and through SikhNet.
The universal message of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib has spread through the hearts of people all over the world from all religions and cultures. This article shares a little bit of my story in this tale of inspiration, the challenges, and also tells my experience of how the Guru continues to inspire seekers in places you might not know through many different avenues.
Most Sikhs come from families born in India. However, during the past 40+ years, many small “sprouts” have grown in various parts of the world, from other cultures and backgrounds. Like ripples in the water they are spreading further and further out. With Guru’s blessings, and the lifetime seva of Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, countless people have been exposed to the teachings of Guru Nanak.
What most Sikhs don’t understand is what attracts these souls to this path. It’s quite different when you are born into a Sikh family and culturally are raised in this environment. However, when you are born in a different culture, with different language and religious beliefs there are many more bridges that have to be crossed to relate to Sikhs and this lifestyle. If “Joe American” were to walk into an average American Gurdwara and ask questions, there are major communication challenges in explaining Sikhi in a way that the western mind can understand and relate to.
Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji had a way of relating and communicating to westerners that really connected with the American youth of the time. He originally came to America (from India) in 1968 to teach yoga at Toronto University, and during a visit to Los Angeles, though virtually unknown, Yogi Bhajan met a number of young hippies, the “spiritual seekers” of that era. He immediately recognized that the experience of higher consciousness they were attempting to find through drugs could be achieved by practicing the Science of Kundalini Yoga, while simultaneously rebuilding their health and nervous systems. People becoming Sikhs was an unintended “side-effect.”
So while most of you probably do not practice yoga, for countless other people Kundalini Yoga was THE way they got introduced/exposed to Sikhism and the teachings of Guru Nanak. These people would likely never have been exposed to Sikhism or even considered it their spiritual path. Ultimately the Guru can work through all of us. For whatever reason Guruji guided SSS Harbhajan Singh Khalsa to come to the west (America/Canada) and start teaching Kundalini Yoga, meditation, and a healthy, happy and holy lifestyle. These “seeds” were planted and they are still growing and flourishing today. 50 years from now I can only imagine what these “seeds” will have grown into, and how they will have spread far and wide. It gives new meaning to the the slogan we recite after Ardas “Raj Karega Khalsa…Aaki rahe na koe, Khawar hoe sabh milainge, bacheh sharan jo hoe.”
I am a second generation Sikh born in the mid 1970’s in Los Angeles, California with the name “Guru Mustuk Singh Khalsa.” My parents’ generation were some of these “pioneers” embarking on a totally new journey on this Sikh path. Both came from mixed religious backgrounds; with my mother from a Jewish family and my father from a Christian family. They were some of the early western/non-Indian people to adopt the Sikh path. My mother was just a teenager when she met Siri Singh Sahib/Yogi Bhajan. She was like many others who were inspired by the universal message he shared, and she yearned to learn more.
Many Sikhs underestimate the hardship and challenges that are the result of someone NOT from a Sikh family becoming a Sikh. I know of many friends who have been disowned by their parents because they changed their religion and gave up the “family name.” Just imagine if none of your friends and family that you grew up with were Sikhs, and if many of them didn’t support your choice of wearing a turban, growing your hair and living this lifestyle. It takes real courage to make these choices and adopt the Sikh lifestyle which is very different from your upbringing.
When I was about 8 years old, I started my own adventure by going to boarding school in Mussoorie – India and I continued school there in India till I graduated from high school. Those 10 years really shaped who I am as a person and gave me the cross cultural understanding which helps me serve through SikhNet in the role of a bridge builder. Coming from multiple religious and cultural backgrounds has helped me be much more open, compassionate and understanding to other people. It helps me truly appreciate the path of Nanak who preached of One God, many paths, and all of us being from the same Creator.
I still get questions from people shocked that I (a white person) am Sikh and wondering WHY??? As if they missed something, or just couldn’t imagine that the Guru’s message and practices would be of value/interest enough for someone not born into it. For me it just shows how disconnected many Sikhs are from the value and message of the Gurus, and the gift that this lifestyle is.
Even though I was born to a Sikh family, It was difficult being a “white” Sikh youth. Everywhere I went I would get stares. We were clearly different. In India, it was such a novelty for people seeing a “white sikh” since it was not very common. In America the stares were there as well with people wondering who/what I was. So everywhere I went I would stand out like a sore thumb. Most kids want to fit in, NOT stand out. It didn’t help either that many “Heritage” Sikhs from Punjabi background would pre-judge and generalize me and the actions of any western born Sikhs into a single “3HO” entity, as if we were the same person and all the same. Most often this was out of lack of understanding about who we were, what we were about, and little or no real understanding of this community of seekers. All that was required was someone to have an open heart and look deeply to see the same longing for the Guru, and to get to know me and others as real people.
To this day I and other “White Sikhs” are generalized and lumped into a category of “3HO people” (typically when being criticized) as if we were not “real” Sikhs. These sort of labels and categorizations are inaccurate and only divide us. Definitely not what Guru Nanak Dev ji had in mind, since he always embraced diversity and accepted everyone.
I don’t make any apologies to others for who I am or my daily practice as a Sikh. Whatever tools I can use to become stronger and connect to the Guru I will use. Every morning in the amrit vela when I wake up, I start my Sadhana (daily discipline) with some Kundalini Yoga – to stretch and wake up my body and mind, so that when I recite the banis and do Waheguru simran I’m fully alert. My body becomes “tuned up” for the day. It’s how I stay healthy and handle the stresses of everyday life and working on a computer all day for SikhNet.
Whether you practice yoga or not, It’s a good idea for all of us to put more emphasis on exercise, healthy body and healthy living (through whatever means you prefer). If I have all kinds of health problems my energy and focus are not there; I then may not be able to sit in Gurdwara, I can’t focus or meditate or will be focusing on my own pain and discomfort. Are we really following the Sant Sipahi (Soldier Saint) lifestyle that Guru Hargobind started and Guru Gobind Singh embodied? There are many tools and things that can be done and it is up to each individual to practice what works for them. What works for me may not work for you, but there is the blessing that we have many options for each of us to choose from.
Detractors will try to tell me how yoga is against Sikhi without even understanding what I practice and the practical benefits of it to a householder. Then there are some people who have so much anger or hate inside themselves that they have made it their “mission” to slander, spread false and misleading information, making every attempt to put down SSS Harbhajan Singh Khalsa and Sikhs from western origin, in a supposed attempt to “save” others from us, as if they know THE right way. They spread false info saying we regard yogi bhajan as our “Guru”, or “worship idols”, do “hindu pujas” and all sorts of random things that are so far from the truth; and people blindly believe it! I only wish they would come and see the reality for themselves. There is so much “Hindu-phobia” that anything someone posts online that triggers that “itch” is believed, and the negativity then spreads. Such is the disease of Ninda (slander). God gave us limited energy on this earth and we can choose it to uplift or destroy.
People can be so close minded that they fail to understand that there is no “One way” or the “right way”, and so many ways to look at something. It all just depends on your frame of reference. It’s important for us to open our minds to other perspectives. Without doing so, I think we become stuck and don’t grow spiritually.
The reality is, that when someone from a different religious and cultural background is learning about Sikhi, they do so from a very different frame of reference.
When my parents and others were first learning about Sikhism and adopting this path, they didn’t have an instruction manual. There was (and still is) a lot of learning and mistakes along the way. There was the language and cultural barrier that was very real. Everything from how to tie a turban, organizing a Gurdwara, taking a hukam, why we wave the chauri sahib, making prashad, taking shoes off, concepts of langar, doing nitnem, everything was a blank slate and had to be learned. It wasn’t till much later that printed materials like the “Victory and Virtue – Sikh Dharma Ministers Manual” were created to be references for the sangat to learn about some of the basics.
Before the digital age of Gurbani our community relied on “shabad sheets” that were given out during Gurdwara that had English translations and romanized versions of the Gurmukhi so the sangat could sing the kirtan and understand the shabad. Ardas was most often recited in English and even Akhand path was read by individuals in either English or Gurmukhi (depending on their ability). For us it was a necessity to have some understanding and connection to the Guru in the language we understood. It made the Guru more accessible to new seekers discovering this path.
Probably the most frustrating thing I have found on this path is the tendency for so many Sikhs to be extremely closed minded and judgemental. Especially in this digital age where we see or hear about people from afar, and don’t really know them. This is a challenge for new people coming into this Dharma or youth finding their identity as a Sikhs. I grew up listening to the stories of the Gurus. The stories of compassion, gender equality, acceptance, courage, openness and acceptance of all. In reality what I see too often is far from this picture of Sikhi. Why would anyone want to become or stay a Sikh if they were judged and criticized about what others thought they were doing wrong?? Why not give the person some help or try to understand what they are going through by seeing from their perspective. It’s as if our minds are trained automatically to find fault in anything that someone is doing, instead of seeing the God and goodness in the other person. It’s a self destructive path that only divides.
To illustrate this point: In 2001 on SikhNet we posted a news article with some pictures and story about the first Amrit Sanchar in Chile (South America). When I read the article and saw the pictures, It was so inspiring for me seeing the faces of these new Khalsa in this far away place having the gift of receiving the Guru’s amrit. I could see their love and longing for the Guru. When reading the comments on the page I was surprised to see a number of people picking out various things and criticizing. It’s as if they had not noticed that a monumental thing had happened (despite any shortcomings). The beauty of what had happened appeared to have been totally missed. I could go on and on with examples such as this, but you get the point.
This same issue applies to youth (from Punjabi families) growing up in the west who feel less connected to Sikhi, and who, during their ups and downs of trying to find their identity as a Sikh, are “cast out” of the community and Gurdwaras instead of being supported during their “down times.”
When I was a teenager and finding my way, I went through a phase of experimentation with drugs, alcohol, smoking, partying, etc. If my family, friends and community cast me out during this time then I would be a very different person than I am today. For me that low part of my life was necessary for me to understand and appreciate the value of this path. It gave me the passion and drive to devote my life to serving through SikhNet. It helped me be compassionate to others and more understanding, since I have no idea what their destiny is and what lessons they need to learn to become a better person. It’s not for me to judge. Just for me to see the God and light in that person. I try to see below the surface, the hurt and pain that is showing up on the surface for that person. You can watch the Youtube video where I share a more detailed account of this and the beginnings of SikhNet.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Gurbani Kirtan and music is such a part of our lifestyle and daily practice. Many musicians have joined their love of the Guru and their love of music as a way to inspire and uplift people. We are used to seeing ragis play kirtan in Gurdwara or sell CDs in the market, but it’s not the norm to see the audience of Gurbani Kirtan be people who are NOT Sikhs.
With the popularity of Yoga and growing spiritual awareness in the world, many musicians have come forward sharing kirtan style music to the masses. This has led to a new uplifting genre of New Age music that is meant to be sung and chanted. Gurbani is unique in that the recitation of these words and mantras has the power to heal and change a person even if one doesn’t understand the meaning. It becomes a tool for upliftment and change to all people (Sikh or not).
Over the past 10 years musicians like Snatam Kaur, Satkirin Kaur, Chardikala Jatha, Nirinjan Kaur and many other musicians are reaching a huge audience of people who are getting exposed to Gurbani and indirectly the Sikh faith. These musicians are like ambassadors for us, sharing the values of the Sikh path. There are also large events like “Sat Nam Fest” which is a music festival that draws people from all walks of life and is quite popular.
Snatam Kaur is probably the most well known musician of this genre. Her recent Barcelona, Spain concert attracted over 3,200 people in a giant auditorium. I saw a video clip from the concert of these thousands of people (mostly people of other faiths) chanting “Waheguru” all together, full of joy and excitement. Snatam Kaur and other musicians have been an inspiration and role model for so many people spreading the message of Nanak that is accessible to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
“Snatam Kaur’s albums have topped New Age Retailer’s Top 20 lists every year since 2004. She was the only artist to have 3 albums in the Top 20 in a single year. Her albums have consistently ranked in the top 20 in both Indie New Age and Indie World Music on Amazon throughout 2009 and 2010. Her music can be heard around the world in venues from yoga studios to schools to Hollywood films and in the homes of her fans worldwide.
An international favorite with fans across the U.S, Europe, Asia, South America and the South Pacific, Snatam Kaur performs at over 60 venues each year, from the Bahamas to Russia. One fan spoke for all when he admitted, “We come to Snatam’s concerts to experience the beautiful atmosphere her voice creates, to heal and grow.”
Dressed in distinctive Sikh clothing, Snatam Kaur embodies the Sikh message of strength through inner serenity. Snatam plays the harmonium and violin, and along with her voice delivers a universal message of peace. Accompanied by Todd Boston, a gifted guitar player and musician, her band is an alchemy of eastern and western musical sounds. While traveling the world on tour she also teaches yoga and meditation to children and adults alike, as a part of her commitment to give people tools for a daily experience of inner peace.”
Just as my mother and others in the early days began this spiritual path, I now see more and more people beginning this path in their own way. This time from further and further out places like China, Iceland, All across South America (Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina) Mexico and Europe. There is a new generation of seekers coming with so much love and innocence.
As Sikhi spreads, so does the need to share the message and wisdom in people’s own language, and presented in the context of the local culture, so they can understand and relate to it.
The Sikh community in Mexico has grown over the years since the 1970’s when SSS Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji traveled out to Mexico and many places around the world. This community of Sikhs primarily speaks Spanish, so the importance of translating things into Spanish was high. Out of love for the Guru and longing to understand the Guru’s bani in their own language came the lifelong task of some sevadars to translate the full Siri Guru Granth Sahib into Spanish. The translation was started in 1975 by Singh Sahib Babaji Singh Khalsa. Six years had passed since Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji came to America. He was then teaching Kundalini Yoga and inspiring thousands of students who were then becoming inspired in Sikh Dharma.
A lot of people began to live in the Sikh Dharma lifestyle. They all wanted to understand the words of Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, but there was no Spanish translation available.
When Babaji became 28 years old a very strong cancer invaded his body. It was then that the Siri Singh Sahib ordered him to translate the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. Babaji Singh was cured. He survived not only that cancer, but 3 more. He died of a fourth, 31 years later, happy grateful, and blessed.
In translating the Siri Guru Granth Sahib to Spanish he found the sense and purpose of his life. The Guru gave him courage, wisdom, patience and grace to go through the physical pain without suffering from it. Babaji Singh was a happy man.
When his wife, Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa met him – she found him a happy man in 1999. He told her that he was not going to die until he finished the complete translation and transliteration in Spanish. It was his destiny. He wanted to honor Yogi Bhajan’s words.
He translated the Siri Guru Granth Sahib from Dr. Gopal Singh’s English translation over a period of 30 years. He was working at the same time, teaching yoga in the evenings and spending long periods of his life in hospitals or at home in bed.
In the last 3 years of his life, he worked with his wife in the early morning translating. She remembers him writing with so much devotion and love, researching the exact meaning of every word, hoping the Spanish speaking community could be able to read and understand the beauty of each word.
In 2006, he was diagnosed with the cancer again. After one of the several surgeries he had that year, he said to his wife, he wanted to die at home at the Ashram. At that time the translation had gone to print. His agony lasted 6 days. Because his kidneys were not working, he began to lose consciousness the third day.
The day prior, he had asked for the printed translation as he wanted to see it in finished in print. He had asked for the best imported Spanish fabric for the cover and wanted to be sure that the printing was well done. A group of his devoted students were in the Print House in prayer to the Creator to be able to bring this to him before he passed away. They knew that their spiritual teacher was losing consciousness and if late, he would not be able to see it.
That night Babaji went into a coma which brought a great sadness to all around him. The next day all the community gathered with chanting and prayer until the Spanish translation of the Guru arrived with the students.
Babaji Singh woke up for a moment, read the Mul Mantra at the start of Japji, with difficulty but with a spark and light in his eyes. He lost consciousness after this blessing and died two days later with the Mexican community reading to him for the first time from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib in Spanish.
The first Akhand Paath, the traditional Sikh non-stop reading of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, was performed in Mexico the 17th of November 2006.
Guruka Singh recounts visiting the ashram in Mexico City and seeing a small alcove at the back of the yoga classroom where the Spanish translation of the Guru sat in prakash and available to be read. Outside the curtain over the doorway were signs instructing people to wash their hands, bow and do a prayer before entering and reading. He remembers seeing students who had come for the yoga class, who had no knowledge of Sikhi nor of the Guru, going into the alcove to read from the Guru and watching them emerge later with tears streaming down their cheeks as the Guru’s words touched their hearts.
The seva from this effort now ripples out and serves all the Spanish speaking countries.
One of the needs of native English speaking countries is to have a physical printed version of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib with modern English translation easily available. Most people who are new to Sikhi don’t understand Punjabi/Gurmukhi and so it is important for communities to have printed versions that can be used in Gurdwara or Akhand Paths.
In the past, acquiring even a multi-volume Siri Guru Granth Sahib set with English translation has been very difficult for Sikhs in small communities that don’t have connections to India, since they are not available online and hard to find. In addition, the available printed options from India include old translations that use antiquated English words and Judeo-Christian concepts which people don’t understand or relate to.
SikhNet used to frequently receive emails from people asking how they can get a printed copy of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib which includes a good English translation. To serve this need SikhNet published a beautiful new 5 volume set which includes the more modern English translation of Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, and have made this available online for people to order. This is done as a pure seva to assist with making Gurbani available to growing Sikh communities that I have spoken about in this article.
To illustrate the use of the 5 volume Siri Guru Granth Sahib set, we have seen how various small communities have already started to benefit from this by having first ever Akhand Path in those countries.
First Akhand Path held in Iceland
On August 12th, 2013 a small group of seekers finished the very first Akhand Path done in Iceland. Here is an excerpt by Guru Suraj Kaur about the experience:
“Bringing the Guru to Iceland started out as a deep need in my being that I could not ignore. Once that was settled it became very clear that we needed to start with an Akandh Path. If you ask me why, I have no tangible answer; it was just something that needed to happen. The steps from committing to installing the Guru to finishing the Akhand Path were many and I had really solid backup – from Sikh friends in New Mexico and London and great help from my husband and yoga friends – but the strongest element in all of this was faith. Faith that we should and we could, and we did!
It is a very young Sangat here in Iceland, no Sikhs but many seekers. About 40 people were willing to answer the calling of their soul and participate, more wanted to join once word got out about how great it was. Everyone reading and doing seva felt on some level that this was a true blessing for them personally as well as a blessing for the community as a whole. It was a really good feeling to sit and talk with all the people that came to read or just to be; it elevated our Sangat and brought us closer together.
The calling is still strong and now more people feel it – the need to meet the Word of the Guru in this powerful way. Our 2nd Akandh Path will start on October 31st. If you feel the calling, you are welcome to join!”
Another small and growing community is in Shenzhen – China. They have been introduced to Sikhi through the practice of Kundalini Yoga and the teachings of SSS Harbhajan Singh Khalsa.
Here are some details shared by Atma Singh who is one of the persons involved with the Ajai Alai Kundalini Yoga Community Center in China.
“Last January, with a group of 16 Chinese Yoga students, we went to Punjab. We visited the Golden Temple, Anandpur Sahib and also did the 84 steps in Goindwal. The coldness was challenging but most of the students kept going, bathing in the water after reading the Japji. They had a profound experience and felt a deep connection to the place, to the Guru, to the Shabd. From that Yatra, bringing the SGGS to China was obvious, and this Akhand Paath was a natural following up. I was really surprised to see so many people who were willing to read the SGGS. The SGGS is universal and allows people to connect back to their essence, to the essence. One love to all.
Most of the Chinese ladies cried reading the Guru. After decades of communism and atheism the need to experience spirituality is so strong that emotions overflow.
Now, at Ajai Alai Center, we are doing prakash of the Guru every morning and sukhasan every evening. Also, the prashad recipe is now part of the newborn 3HO Chinese community. Satmukh Singh, who started all this process in China six years ago must be honored for the mission.
These are the comments of some of the Chinese ladies who participated to the Akhandh Path.
Saibhang Kaur : “Reading the Guru was indescribable, and sometimes feeling taken over”
Ramdev Kaur : “It felt like a new beginning, an opening and I am honor to be here for the first of what may be many to come”.
Devinder Kaur : “A Divine and Miraculous experience. I feel really close to God.”
Ajeet Dev Kaur : “Moving. When you make some mistakes, you feel guilty but someone didn’t judge you and saw the good part of you and treated you gently, just like the Guru’s love.”
Sukh Meher Kaur : “Amazing experience. When I was reading… I entered a space where I was worry free, care free. I could leave everything behind. I felt protected. I got much deeper understanding about the Sikh religion. In that space, I feel very comfortable, I just wanted to stay by the Guru. Also, one time, reading the Guru, I was crying.”
Where do we go from here? It starts with me and you. My hope is that this article has helped show a picture of the emerging new generation of spiritual seekers. In order to serve these people and our younger generation, there is a strong need for every one of us to become more aware of the things we think and say. Our words and actions can either support or divide. They can put someone down or lift them up. It’s all a choice of where we focus our attention. Mistakes are part of the journey and a way to learn. Our common goal should be to support everyone and stop the habit of tearing each other apart. It is time for us to stop judging something because it differs from your own frame of reference. I strive to use the example of Guru Nanak in my life who was ever compassionate, understanding and open to all.
Let’s all work on this together…
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