What I Learned from the Sikhs

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 8 2012 1:09 PM

What the Sikhs Taught Me

sikhlee
Kevin B. Lee

Photo courtesy of the author

On Monday, after the tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we posted a short documentary about the Sikh religion by Kevin B. Lee. Today, Lee sent us the essay below.

This is a photo of me taken in 2008. I was in the middle of a five-year personal journey with the Sikh community, during which I seriously contemplated adopting the Sikh faith as my own. It was the most intensive and productive period of spiritual growth in my life, even if it ultimately ended in a personal failure of sorts. The tragedy that befell the Sikh congregation in Oak Creek last Sunday brought back to mind all my experiences with the Sikh-American community, and certain invaluable lessons they taught me that I am still trying to put into practice.

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Seven years ago, I was just another aspiring independent filmmaker in New York City, biding my time in a nondescript office job to make ends meet. Frankly, I was ashamed to be a white-collar drone, so I kept a low profile. But word got around about my moonlighting, and one day a Sikh co-worker visited my cubicle. He told me his son and other Sikh children were being called terrorists by their classmates because of the turbans they wore. He asked if I could help him make a short educational video about his community that he could use at his son’s school. How could I say no?

That weekend I filmed my co-worker and other Sikh parents at a school fair, as they shared with other parents some facts about their culture and faith, varnished with more than a small sense of pride. Sikhism has the fifth-most followers of any world religion. (“More than the Jews!”) Founded in the 15th century, Sikhism is a newcomer among the major faiths. (“Our founder Guru Nanak studied all those other guys and learned from their mistakes!”) Sikhism emphasizes equality among all people regardless of faith, race, gender, or class. (“We fought the caste system in India!”) Sikhism doesn’t believe that one religion is better than any other, but rather that each has its own way to peace and enlightenment. (“We accept the other religions, that’s why Sikhism is the best!” wink)

The religious cynic in me found this all too good to be true. My youth had left me weary of organized religion: The church I grew up with was more of a social club where its congregation of professionals could network; the other kids seemed more interested in discussing designer clothes and cars than debating what appeared to me the obvious contradictions in the Bible. I had even spent two years as a missionary in China trying to come to terms with my Christian upbringing, ultimately to make a separate peace with God and keep my faith to myself. I haven’t attended church regularly in over a decade.

Now here I was listening to these lovely spiritual ideals being spouted by men in turbans, and they stirred the long-dormant idealist in me. Part of it was due to the presentation: They seemed so relaxed and accepting of other people’s questions and misgivings, betraying no anxiety to persuade their audience to do anything more than simply understand who they are. They boasted, somewhat ironically, “We are non-evangelical! We are not allowed to push our faith on others! Once you understand our beliefs, you’ll know why we don’t have to force them on others!” But their lack of interest in evangelizing, I realized, could partly explain why so many—myself included—were ignorant about their faith, an ignorance which has, at times, had tragic consequences.

This became apparent only a week after we started filming, when several white men brutally attacked a middle-aged Sikh man named Rajinder Singh Khalsa on a sidewalk in Queens in broad daylight, denouncing him as a terrorist. Once Khalsa left the hospital, my Sikh friends ushered me to his home to interview him for our video. I also met members of the Sikh Coalition, a group of young professionals who organized to protect Sikhs from violence and harassment. These men and women were the same age as me, and like me were the children of immigrant parents, and here they were were attending City Hall hearings and lobbying Congress and the White House, all in the time they could spare away from their jobs as lawyers, doctors, and programmers. My habitual self-pity over my unfulfilling day-job and my filmmaking routine looked laughable next to their work ethic and sense of purpose. Above all, I admired their cheerful optimism, a quality known in Sikhi as chardi kala: an attitude towards life that dusts off the cliché of “making the world a better place” and makes it radiate anew with the energy of Sikh convictions.

The Coalition introduced me to other Sikhs who were dealing with workplace harassment: an NYPD officer and a New York subway driver who were disciplined for not removing their turbans while on duty. The subway driver, Kevin Harrington, was an Irish-American man who adopted Sikhism 30 years ago and had been wearing a turban without incident while driving the subway for 20 years. September 11th had suddenly made his attire a problem. I would later learn that he, too, was moonlighting, as a Sikh Kundalini yoga instructor; I began taking his classes to help manage my stress. As I worked on the documentary, these people became fixtures of my days—and also good friends. Life seemed to be pointing me further in the direction of the Khalsa, the community of the Sikh faith.

The resulting short documentary, “Dastaar: Defending Sikh Identity,” eventually made its way to my co-worker’s son’s classroom, and it was also broadcast on PBS in New York City. The Sikh Coalition adopted it as their video of choice to show at schools and government agencies across the country. Rajinder Singh Khalsa, the beating victim, suggested I make a feature documentary on Sikhism, with him as the on-camera guide. His insights into Sikhism were always colorful, even when they were somewhat questionable. (“You know why there are no Buddhists left in India?” he asked. “Because they were too peaceful and got chased away. You can’t just be peaceful all the time, you have to stand up for yourself.”) On and off we worked on this documentary for the next three years. We didn’t quite finish it, but the journey became its own destination. We went to India together, staying in temples for three weeks and observing Sikhism in its homeland. We visited the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and its most sacred site, the Golden Temple, a building that is so beautifully conceived that the sunrise seems to ignite it with the light of heaven. And yet throughout the journey I found myself searching for signs of corruption and hypocrisy in the organized aspect of the faith, or anything to cast a more critical view. Old habits die hard.

Following the trip, I continued to internalize Sikhi. I routinely attended services at gurdwara, the Sikh temple, enjoying the extended raags performed during kirtan. (It’s sort of like being at a Grateful Dead or Phish concert, but on a much higher level.) I attended a university class on Sikhism for a scholarly perspective, and a workshop for people learning how to practice the faith. I talked with Sikh immigrants from India and their children, gauging how their values were passed across generations in a new environment. I hung out with Kevin Harrington and asked other American followers about how they practiced Sikhism without the benefit of a cultural upbringing within it.

As much as I learned from all of them, I knew that, underneath all this exploration and research, there was just one person who could take me where I needed to go: myself. My hipper-than-thou cynicism had run its course. Whatever my misgivings about organized faith, I knew that this, at its core, was as beautiful a belief system as anything I’d ever encountered, at least as beautiful as my own heart and mind would allow it to be. And so I found myself at the brink of becoming a practicing Sikh.

But ultimately I faltered. Why?

The answer lies in the same item, the same image, that brought me to work on behalf of the Sikh community in the first place. As a practicing Sikh, a man is required to wear a turban at all times in public. The turban was given to the Sikhs by their tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, at the time of their greatest peril. The turban, previously an article of clothing worn only by royalty, was placed on the heads of all Sikh men to make them see themselves as kings and conduct themselves accordingly: with honor, self-respect, courage, and piety. At the same time, the turban makes Sikhs symbolically “give their head” in the service of a higher order. No longer can they hide in anonymity. They are united in their values, and must stand together to uphold them.

I’ve worn the turban on several occasions, when visiting gurdwara or attending Sikh events, like the Surat Youth Conference where the photo above was taken. But when it came to making the commitment to wear it in daily life as a practicing Sikh, I couldn’t find the courage. It was such a bizarre disconnect. Everything about Sikhism on paper pointed to its being a belief system as perfect as anything I’d encountered: its de-emphasis on the retributive cycle of sin and forgiveness in favor of harmony between oneself and the world; its core doctrine of equality among all people across class, religion, race, and gender, a true oneness with all.

And yet, to truly be a Sikh, you have to stand out like a sore thumb as a living, visual manifestation of your beliefs. I just couldn’t do it, simply because I felt too self-conscious about how people would look at and perceive me. I couldn’t resist the comfort of not being looked at, of knowing that I could blend into a crowd, withdrawing into the secluded, private existence that I’d grown accustomed to. (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is my favorite novel for a reason.) Maybe this is why I’ve found a more successful career as a film critic than as a filmmaker: I find it easier to watch others than to be looked at.

Let me make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that my failure to don the turban does not reflect poorly on Sikhism itself. On the contrary, the turban has a perfect logic to it. When you adopt a set of values that represent humanity at its finest, why wouldn’t you want to become a living symbol of it? By wearing your values in public, you “out” yourself as someone who must conduct themselves according to those values. It is a virtuous cycle, and it gives the Sikh faith its own special sense of drama, with its followers performing a sacred role in public every day.

In contrast, my failure to adopt the turban, after all my experiences and all that I learned about Sikhism, symbolizes the distance between my present self and the ideals I wish to embody. What the turban tells me is that our ideals are not a matter of convenience, but of true conviction. It also fills me with respect for all the Sikhs in America who do choose to look as they do, especially the Sikh children born in this country who every day are faced with the temptation to assimilate, particularly when post-9/11 America sees the turban as a threat. But the real threat has been the other way around all along. Oak Creek is only the most recent and most devastating instance of this perverse irony, and the distorted reality we lived in, rooted in misperception.

My experience has stuck with me, and it taps me on the shoulder now that this tragedy has happened. Even though I still lack the courage to wear a turban, I learned that you can’t hide from the world forever. As long as you care about the world and the people in it, something will bring you out. This is why I felt compelled to write this testimony. I have to take my experiences and manifest them into something visible and useful that I can offer to others. We haven’t truly lived until we stand up for what that we believe is good in life. This is what the Sikhs have taught me.

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