Don’t freak, I’m Sikh

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Fridays and Saturdays nights on Auckland’s Queen St are when the religious come out to sell their wares. An elderly man with a long grey beard sings scratchy little songs on a ukulele about Jesus and eternal damnation. When he isn’t singing he lets us know in no uncertain terms that Mohammed is a false prophet and that we, you and I, are in desperate need of ‘saving’. He speaks in terms of absolutes and uses fear as a selling point. He message is not terribly palatable but hell, the ‘truth’ never is.

Down the way a buff and macho young Polynesian man is also selling truth. “You see,” he says thrusting a bible out toward the passing crowd, “I was a sinner. I used drugs and drank alcohol and had sex with lots of women then I found the truth,” he waves the bible around some more before proclaiming: “I WAS SAVED.” “Why would you want to be saved from that?” I quipped toward the Alpha Male type running the show this evening. It was impulsive of me. I was tired and grumpy. He was unimpressed and I don’t blame him.

Next up are the Mormon’s. They are bold American’s selling ideas the way McDonald’s sells fries, with persuasive guile and gleaming smiles. They walk in suited in pairs, greeting everyone as they go sharp eyes seeking out an opportunity to ‘pitch’ their story. They remind me of circling sharks.

A canny and ambitious Indian religious teacher goes to America and the result is Krishna Consciousness. This Hindu sect is an American innovation and like their cousins the Mormon’s, they ‘hard sell’ their version of the ‘truth’. They want your heart and soul and financial resources, a typically American preoccupation that the Krishna’s have honed to a fine art. On Friday nights, they bring their women out and party up hard, dancing and making music in honour of their Lord. Religious ecstasy makes for a beguiling spectacle but at heart this is a conservative outfit with patriarchal tendencies, strict rules and some extreme ideas, fairly typical stuff for this end of town.

The Pilipino group down by Aotea Square put on a regular a passion play. It’s a little bit Sound Of Music with a big dose of interpretive dance. Their Jesus tends toward compassion and virtue and stands in stark contrast to the ‘Jesus of the fear and loathing’ their neighbours favour.

The other notable religious group on Queen St are the turbaned Sikh who are not out selling religion, they are just out and having a good time. The turban is a sign of devotion to the Sikh way of life and a statement that says the wearer is a man or woman of integrity, one who believes in equality and follows a path of compassionate living.

Sadly since the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, the less informed have confused the Sikh turban with the traditional headdress worn extensively by Middle Eastern men, an innocent enough item of clothing designed to shield the wearer from the Sun and windblown desert sand, it has more recently become associated with militant Islamic extremism and like the hijab (the scarf like head covering worn by many Muslim women) has become an item that in some eyes singles out the wearer as a person of suspicion.

 

Sikhism was created by Guru Nanak Dev (1469 – 1539) in response to the ongoing sectarian warfare between Hindu and Muslims that was the condition of his Punjab homeland (North India) at that time, (Guru is a title bestowed upon those considered to be wise and expert teachers).

Appalled by the harsh social conditions engendered by religious extremism Nanak Dev designed a values system that addressed religious intolerance, social inequality and offered a clear and deeply considered description of the meaning of God meant to counter the misconception common between people’s that different religion meant different god. His idea of God was a unifying principle that came without all the usual human centric add-ons. He was an astute politician whose progressive social philosophy gave rise to a cultural movement that currently numbers some 35 million people worldwide.

The three underlying principles of the Sikh way are: Sharing with others / Making an honest living / Remembering God at all times. Otherwise, ‘Be selfless, fight superstition, have empathy with the poor and less fortunate’. Dev’s message was simple and without affectation: “Live an active, creative, and practical life of truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity”

Social Equality is an essential element of being Sikh and Dev declared male and female equal in all things, remember this was in the 15th century and in the context of its time, a revolutionary declaration. The goal of a Sikh is to have no hate or animosity to any person regardless of race, caste, colour, creed, gender, or sexuality. Sikhs believe that ‘all religious traditions are equally valid and capable of enlightening their followers’. Sikhs respect Jesus and other prophets but do not believe that Jesus or any other prophet is the only way to meet God.

What is God?

God is first and foremost, love. Secondly, there is no Muslim, Hindu, Christian nor Sikh God, there is just God. Otherwise God is: indescribable, inestimable, indubitable, infallible, intangible, imperishable, immutable, immortal, immaculate, immanent, unconquerable, unique, formless, fearless, deathless, timeless, ageless, compassionate, omnipresent and creator of all. God, in other words, is an elemental mystery that cannot be quantified, but can be experienced. God is an ‘experience’ that encourages peace and love.

The Sikh culture values learning and casts an open mind toward the world. Nanak Dev, himself an avid traveller, encouraged travel as an educational opportunity and a way to broaden ones horizons. In that context it is worth noting that there has been a Sikh presence in NZ for around a 100 years, most notably in the Waikato where they are sizeable players in the regions behemoth Dairy Industry.

“The community is one of the best anywhere,” replies a young Indian Muslim man to my query about Sikhism. “I was advised by my father that if I get into trouble in NZ I must go to a Gurudwara, they will help.” The Gurudwara, (The Lords Place), can be identified by tall flagpoles bearing the Sikh flag, the Nishan Sahib.  The buildings are usually white and sometime posses a golden dome. The Gurudwara is a place of sanctity. Common to each Temple is a communal kitchen.

A free meal is to be found 24hours a day for anyone (Sikh or not) at each and every Gurudwara. This is a practical demonstration of sharing. Everyone gets the same meal on the same plate in the same proportions. Everyone eats off the same bowl sitting on the same level floor. This is a practical lesson in equality.

If I have made Sikhism sound like some transcendent utopia I apologise because it’s not. Sikhism is like any religious/political culture, it has been around long enough to have been corrupted by habit and suffers the same ills as most human enterprises; those dedicated to Nanak Dev’s essential message of equality and compassion are beset by the reactionary, the conservative and those who are there only by way of family tradition. That’s said; Sikhism at its very best encourages a degree of integrity among its numbers that is rare in the world and Dev’s essential message of equality remains one for the ages.

The last word goes to a young turbaned man I accost in the hallway. What does it mean to be Sikh? He pauses to gather his thoughts and replies, “Sikh are the people that help other people.”

 

British born Indian Pardeep Singh Bahra made the video ‘Don’t Freak I’m Sikh’ (available to view on YouTube) to explain the purpose of the turban: “Sikhism is a religion of equality and the turban should be viewed as a symbol of that. The next time you see a turbaned man walking the streets, remember that he is a man of love, equality and peace… The next time you see a Sikh, you’ll know the turbans true meaning. My turban reminds me to be a good person.”

 

Sikhs do not pursue people to convert them to Sikhism but if someone wants to become a Sikh, they are welcome to join, a stark philosophical contrast to the religious salespeople that ply the streets calling out our sins and asking for our hearts, minds and money in return for salvation. The Sikh way is exemplified not by dogmatic words but by living example.

 

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