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Sikh at Heart

HOST1: Now, a look at the changing face of one of India’s minority religions – Sikhism (pronounced like Sick-ism). It originated in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century. One of the most distinguishing features of Sikhs today is that they don’t cut their hair for religious reasons – man often wear turbans and sport long beards. Today there are half a million Sikhs in the United States.

HOST2: Some of the Sikhs in the United States are converts to the religion. Relationships between the two communities – Indian-born immigrants and American-born converts – have at times been tense. But today, both communities are facing one important challenge: how to pass on their faith, traditions and identity to the the next generation.

Adélie Pontay reports from India.


Simran Kaur Wahan is eighteen and she’s grown up in Flushing, Queens. For as long as she can remember, she’s been going every week with her family to the temple. She’s dressed like any other American teenager except for her very long hair, which right now is covered with a light scarf because we’re inside the temple.

SIMRAN: A lot of people say ‘you have very long hair!’ and then usually my response for that is ‘I’ve never cut it!’ It becomes like a chance for me to talk about my religion.

Sikhs don’t cut their hair. Women usually wear it long while men wear a turban. Simran grew up speaking Punjabi at home. At the temple, she learned about Sikh history and theology and how to read and write Gurmuki, the script in which Punjabi is written.

SIMRAN: I learned the Gurmuki alphabet and learned to read and write punjabi and be able to read the hymns in Gurbani.

Gurbani is the name of the Sikh Holy Book. And the hymns that she’s talking about are a key part of Sikh religious practice.

[music from the gurudwara → fade under]

Next to the altar, 3 musicians sing prayers all day and all night as a sign of devotion.

[music under]

Simran herself is a self-taught harmonium player, one of the instruments used in the devotional players.

SIMRAN: As I grew older, it became more than just an instrument for me it became kind of an instrument to the soul, it became an instrument that brought me closer to God.

[music up]

Seven thousands of miles away, you can also hear those same songs played through the louspeakers in the holiest site for Sikhism.

[then pause and cross fade with music from Golden Temple]

That’s the Golden Temple a grand white marble palace located in the city of Amritsar in India.

GURURAJ: I come here twice a week at least, every time I come here it warms my heart and makes me happy to see all the people, to see the Golden Temple,  bow to the guru.

That’s Gururaj Singh Khalsa. He’s also Sikh but unlike Simran, in New York, he isn’t Indian . He’s a white, 15 year old kid from Virginia. He’s been attending a Sikh boarding school here for the past 6 years.

GURURAJ: “My grandmother and my grandfather both became sikhs and then got married. So I’m what a lot of people in our community call a third generation sikh.”

Gururaj is wearing a long white robe that goes down his ankles and a white turban – it’s his school uniform. He’s tall and lean and has a bit of stubble that one day will grow out to be a full-blown beard.

Gururaj’s grandparents converted in the 1970s when Sikhism became popularized among Americans – many hippies – by a man called Yogi Bahjan.

He was a yoga master and it was through the practice of yoga that many converted to Sikhism, explains Simran Jeet Singh. He is a religion scholar from Columbia University and a member of the Sikh Coalition in New York.

He says that the practice of yoga wasn’t really a part of the traditional practice of Sikhism, and there is still some tension between the Indian community and the Sikh converts..

SINGH: in some ways they’re integrated with the larger sikh community in other ways they remain sort of isolated and continue those same practices and their reverence for Yogi Bahjan.

In the US, the two communities are interacting more and more as both recognize that they share a common sense of diaspora, Singh says.

SINGH: Second and third generation immigrants here in the US are also facing similar challenges, many of these kids don’t speak Punjabi, don’t know anything about the culture, and still identify as Sikh. These are some sort of shared experiences that we’re finding across the Punjabi Sikh and the Sikh convert community I guess we can call them.”

Yearning for a Sikh education is what brought Gururaj to the Miri Piri Academy when he was 9.

GURURAJ: “you know what better place to go than a place where everyone is, does yoga, is a sikh.

He tells me that one of his favorite practices is gatka, a Sikh martial art.

GURURAJ: it’s very energetic. So in the practice that we do we generally practice with sticks because practicing with swords is kinda dangerous but – hold on a second I need to bow –

He’s bowing because we’re now facing the Golden temple.

The Miri Piri Academy is among the first private schools that focuses on Sikh education. For Simran Jeet Singh, the scholar from Columbia, the Miri Piri Academy is at the forefront of a growing movement.

SINGH: “I think the development of sikh schools in North America is just around the corner.

In the mean time, whether in New York or in Amritsar, Simran and Gururaj are committed to their Sikh identity. Gururaj has been learning Punjabi for the last two years. Simran has created a Sikh student association at her high school

WAHAN: It’s a young religion and it’s so easy to connect to and growing up in New York she never felt that she didn’t have that connection.

Speaking of school, it’s 9.30 t night and it’s time for Simran, who’s a senior, to leave the temple and do her homework.

Adélie Pontay, Columbia Radio News.


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