Monday, December 1, 2014

Sunday with the Sikhs

Yesterday, I was going to go to the Mennonite church in Tremonton, Utah. However, it proved nearly impossible to contact the Mennonites to find out when their service times were and they don't have a website. So, I considered alternatives, and after ruling out many churches which would seem like deja vu, I opted for a religion I hadn't considered attending before: Sikhism. It seems odd to me that I would overlook this relatively large religion that comes out of India, especially since I looked into other much smaller religions.

History of Sikhism:

While Sikhism is a major world religion, it's not well known in the West. Sikhism started in the early 16th century in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan. Guru Nanak began the religion after rejecting both Hinduism and Islam, the two dominant religions of the Indian Subcontinent.

After Guru Nanak died, there were 9 additional gurus which followed him. The 10th and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh, was a heavily influential guru. He compiled a the scriptures of the Sikh people, known as the Granth, and declared that after him there would be no other human guru, but instead the Granth would be the Eternal Living Guru. As such, the Sikhs now refer to their scriptures as Guru Granth Sahib, roughly meaning the Master Guru Granth.

Guru Gobind Singh also created the Khalsa, a religious and military order all initiated Sikhs belong to. The Khalsa acts to defend the Sikh people and faith as well as act as a community for fellowship. In times past, the Sikhs did face actual military violence from both Hindus and Muslims in the region who wanted to wipe them out. Therefore, the Khalsa served much more than a ceremonial function being a military organization, but served as a real life defensive military to which all Sikh people belonged.

Today, Sikhs still largely remain in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan; however, many exist in other countries worldwide including large pockets in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Beliefs and Practices of Sikhism:

  • Sikhs are strict monotheists. Sikhs believe in one God who is without form or gender.
  • Sikhs believe that all mankind has access to God without the need of an intercessor.
  • All are equal before God, regardless of gender, creed, background, caste, etc.
  • God's presence can be seen everywhere and in all things. They believe God resides in all of us, therefore, good exists in all of us no matter how wicked we seem and thus all are able to change.
  • Sikhs believe in reincarnation and Karma like Hindus. That is that ones actions lead to cosmic consequences from one life to another. Sikhs believe that the ultimate goal is to liberate oneself from this endless cycle of rebirth and join entirely with God.
  • Sikhs believe that God's grace liberates mankind from the endless cycles of rebirth. Sikhs, similarly to Protestant Christians, believe that this cannot be earned by mankind. However, they do teach that living righteously helps mankind draw closer to God which allows God's grace to reach them.
  • Sikhs are bound to do three things: keep God in mind always, earn an honest living, and charity.
  • The following are considered vices which obstruct our relationship with God and continue us on the constant cycle of rebirth: lust, greed, attachment to material things, anger, pride.
  • In addition to these vices, Sikhs also do not participate in nor financially support gambling, alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.
  • Sikhs will only go to war for self defense.
  • Sikhs perform weddings, funerals, and baby blessings.
  • Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa (Sikh community) through a baptism ceremony called the Amrit Ceremony, which involves them drinking a mixture of blessed sugar water and being blessed with the water.
  • Sikhs which have undergone the Amrit Ceremony are required to wear the 5 K's as a sign of their commitment. Men and women both wear these items. The 5 K's are ceremonial things which distinguish Sikhs as members of the Khalsa and must be worn at all times for the rest of their lives. The 5 K's are:
    • Kesh - Uncut hair on the head and body. This hair represents accepting what God has given you as it is and also represents adopting a simple lifestyle. Because of the need to keep their long hair clean and tidy, Sikhs wear a distinctive turban on their heads.
    • Kangha - A wooden comb carried with the person representing grooming and caring for God's body which has been given to you.
    • Kara - A steel bracelet which represents servitude to God.
    • Kachera - Cloth underwear which look like boxers with a draw string. This represents chastity.
    • Kirpan - A sword or knife representing a willingness to defend those in peril and the faith.
  • Sikhs do not seek converts but welcome those who wish to convert.
  • Sikhs strive to live in harmony with people of all ethnicities, creeds, castes, gender, background, etc.
  • Sikhs do not have priests. Anyone from the community who is able to do so may lead the services.
  • Men and women are seen as equals in Sikh society. Women are allowed to lead the services and fully participate in all aspects of religious life and have been allowed to since the beginning. They are not seen as spiritually inferior to men.
  • Sikhs don't believe in ritual and blind ceremony. Therefore they do not have a set liturgy, candles, bells, religious artwork, or incense, nor do they fast or make pilgrimages.
So what were the Sikhs like?


The Sikh temple is located in Taylorsville, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. My phone was acting up, so I couldn't get a picture of the outside of the temple. It's located next to a strip mall and is a fairly basic white bricked building which says Sikh Temple of Utah on a blue awning over the doorway and several smaller blue awnings over the windows with Punjabi writing on them.

When you first walk in the doorway, there is a little area with cubbies to put your shoes in. Sikh customs state that you must remove your shoes and cover your head when you enter the temple. So we took our shoes off and placed them in the cubbies. We then walked over to the box which had bandannas and other head coverings you could borrow. By the time we got to it, all of the good head coverings had been taken and we got the left over rags. After picking through a few, I found a goldenrod colored bandanna that was a little tattered but in decent shape. I put it on and my friend said I looked like a bar wench. But I found the experience kind of fun.

Just past the foyer for your shoes were two sets of stairs, one leading up and one leading down. It was unclear which we were supposed, but most of the activities seemed to be taking place upstairs. So we followed a couple people upstairs and ended up sitting by a group of men in the back.

The main hall was a large room with two large crystal chandeliers. Everyone was sitting on the floor cross legged. There were clusters of women sitting together and men sitting together, but no clear distinction that they had to be separated.

At the front of the hall were two main areas, a raised platform with a band playing bongos and sitar music with another man chanting out hymns and scriptures in Punjabi. Occasionally, the words of the hymns would be projected on a screen behind him with an English translation. On the other side was an ornate altar with a blue canopy over it. The altar was a raised platform with a table covered in an expensive pink and white cloth. On this altar is a copy of their scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. This is the holiest part of the temple and should be treated as though you were in the presence of a living breathing guru. Directly before this are a series of small platforms that have a number of Khandas (several interlocking swords, the official symbol of their faith) and a few swords. People would leave offerings on these platforms throughout the service.

Overall, the atmosphere was interesting. It didn't feel much like a house of worship so much as a large contemporary building with an altar in the front. It sort of reminded me of an Indian version of an Evangelical church with the area for the choir with a projector screen and simplicity of design.

The People:

Most of the people were Indian or of Indian origin. Most of the women were wearing traditional Indian clothing like the saris and head coverings, all very colorful and ornate. The men were mostly wearing traditional western clothing, but had beards and turbans on their heads.

Few talked to us, a couple of people at the end gave us some pamphlets, said they'd be happy to answer any questions if we had them. I asked if we could take some pictures. They said that we could absolutely take some and even had a man pose for the picture I took above. Had my phone not been acting up, I would have taken a few more pictures.

Overall, not a very talkative bunch, but very warm and kind to us nonetheless.

The Service:

There will be no message section of this blog. The reason why, every word of the service was in Punjabi, so I have no idea what was said. When we first came in, they were playing music on the bongos and sitar and someone was chanting along. We sat and a hymn was playing talking about the death of Guru Nanak. The lyrics were pretty talking about how everyone was mourning when he went away.

After that, the man who had been chanting said something for nearly 45 minutes. I have no idea what he was saying, but while he was talking, another man was accompanying him on the bongos.

They then sang another hymn about what your mother's ultimate desire would be, that you remember God all the days of your life. After this, everybody stood and recited a prayer together. At one point in the service, everybody knelt and touched their head to the ground as Muslims do in their worship, before they stood up again.

Once the prayer was over, everyone sat back down on the floor and the man who had been chanting went up to the altar and uncovered the Guru Granth Sahib. He opened it to a random page and began reading from it. This apparently is a tradition and it's decided from randomly opening to that page it is what the lesson of the day should be. 

After that, a group of men went and washed their hands. While they did that, children went around handing napkins to everybody. The men then came around with bowls giving handfuls of something to everyone. I learned later that this stuff is called Karah Parshad and it's a mixture of equal parts semolina, clarified butter, and sugar. It is blessed and symbolizes hospitality and should be taken as though it were given directly by God or the Guru. To turn it down is one would be quite an offensive thing to do. It was rather tasty and I enjoyed eating it.

After the service is a community meal. This meal is an important symbol of charity and Sikh temples offer food to anyone who needs it completely free of charge as well as having it be part of the community celebrations. My friend who was with me had a family dinner he needed to go to afterward, and so didn't want to join in. We were getting ready to live and an old lady with a thick accent asked why we weren't staying. She insisted we go down and join in and that it was free. I've never been able to turn down the guilt trip of an old woman, so I went down and got a small bowl of Indian food and a piece of naan. My friend didn't and was waiting for me outside, so I took the bowl and left.

We both probably committed a big cultural faux pas in doing that, him for not partaking in the meal at all, and me for not eating with everyone, but instead leaving with the food. I kind of feel bad about that, but given that my friend was on a tight schedule, we didn't have much of an option.

Overall Experience:

Overall, other than not understanding what was going on, it was a fun cultural experience. The music was very upbeat and traditional Indian music, the food was good, the people were very warm, and the atmosphere was nice. I would definitely return again to the Sikh Temple of Utah.

Additional Notes:

Next week is the last religion. I've decided that the best way to end my blog is to go with the oldest continuously practiced religion in the world, Hinduism.

I want to say to everyone thank you from the bottom of my heart for following me in this journey. It's been so amazing and I have loved the entire process.

To say thank you, I'm going to have a coffee clutch with anyone in the Northern Utah area who wants to get together and talk to me and my friends about this journey and answer any questions you may have. I'll have more information on that in my next blog.

Thanks once more!

Until next time, peace be with you.

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