by We Are Sikhs — May 15, 2017
As the son of an Argentine-Spanish father and Slovak-Italian mother, I understand that nobody would have predicted my love for Sikhism and Punjabi culture. While my story is a little complicated, I still feel that it is important to tell because we, as United States citizens, are living in an extremely diverse country, and religious, racial, and cultural tolerance is necessary now more than ever.
While my mother was born and raised in the United States, she completed her Master’s degree on Religious Studies. Almost every other day for two years, she went to the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, studying the weekly puja ceremonies while meeting and traveling with the priests from the temple. I was born about a month after she defended her thesis, and she exposed me to Hindu culture from a very young age.
When I started high school, I attended a bhangra competition in my city. Bhangra, a folk dance from the northern state of Punjab in India, has formed into a competitive dance circuit among various universities in the United States. But that night, I had no idea what bhangra was or where Punjab was, or anything. But I was blown away.
After the competition, I spent hours listening to bhangra music and following teams from the competitive bhangra circuit. Since I was from Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon Bhangra and First Class Bhangra were always my favorites. Little did I know that I would one day dance for both of those teams! I eventually joined my high school’s DESI Club, which would put on a cultural show celebrating South Asian dance once a year.
During my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, I tried out for CMU Bhangra, and made the team. As ridiculous as it sounds, it was really a dream coming true. Bhangra became more than just an extracurricular activity for me; it was quickly becoming a part of my identity. Hours of my week would be spent practicing, watching bhangra videos, and performing at competitions hosted by other universities. By dancing on a team that spends so much time together, you become close to one another. But one thing I never thought about was the fact that I was a non-Indian. Although my green eyes and ginger hair always made me stick out in team pictures, I never felt that I didn’t belong.
While bhangra was just one part of my identity, I did not want it to consume my entire understanding of Punjabi culture. In fact, I really didn’t know anything about it. I remember sitting on the couch in my freshman dorm’s lounge watching a bhangra video from a competition. A good friend of mine, who happened to be an international student from India looked over my shoulder, “You know India doesn’t actually look like that right?” Although I knew he was joking, I understood his point. I wanted to know more.
During my sophomore year, I became a lot more involved in CMU Bhangra, but actively sought to educate myself as well. I began reading more about Punjabi history and culture, while attending gurdwara (Sikh temple) service over the weekend with our captain, Tejasvir. Since he was a devout Sikh, he had an immense amount of knowledge about his faith, making him an ideal person to go to gurdwara with. Weekend after weekend, I would do my best to get my homework done so that I would have time to go to gurdwara on Sundays and listen to the kirtan, or devotional hymns. The entire room falls into meditation as two harmonium and one tabla player sing the hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, or holy book of scriptures.
I became fascinated not just with the ceremony, but the appearance of a Sikh. I was especially interested in the concept of kesh, or unshorn hair. The concept of never cutting one’s hair and covering it with a dastar, or turban, is so beautiful to me. It is the perfect sign of respect: a way of thanking God for what is given to us. It frustrated me that something that holds so much significance has served as a source of anxiety for Americans who are misinformed about the religion.
Unlike the bhangra team, I did feel a little out of place at first in gurdwara. I feared accidentally offending someone, doing the “wrong thing,” or just embarrassing myself outright. But this only lasted a few weeks. After a while, I felt like I had a place in the room, regardless of how I look, or the culture that I come from. Because Sikhism is not designed to turn people away. Anyone, no matter his or her gender, race, or social status, is welcome inside of a gurdwara. That is exactly what the concept of langar, or free kitchen, is supposed to embody. After the religious service, a family normally sponsors a meal for attendees of the gurdwara. The practice was designed in order to break down the barriers of caste that are prominent in India, bringing people together. In my opinion, these ideals are universal, and promote acceptance of all.
During my sophomore year, I also applied for the Critical Language Scholarship through the State Department, an intensive language program that places undergraduate and graduate students abroad for two months to learn a less commonly taught, or least commonly taught language. I applied for Punjabi, and was given the privilege of spending two months in Chandigarh, India living with a host family and taking Punjabi courses. I felt like I owed it to the culture to make the extra effort to learn the language. The cultural immersion process was exhausting and difficult to adapt to, but I have to say that I loved every second of it and would go back tomorrow. I had the opportunity to visit some of the most significant gurdwaras, including Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur Sahib and Darbar Sahib (or the Golden Temple) in Amritsar. After going to Darbar Sahib, I remember struggling to explain what it was like to experience this place of worship to my family members over the phone. I explained this difficulty to my fellow student, Jaydeep, who likened it to “explaining to someone what it feels like to fall in love.” There is only so much one can do to describe it, and the only way to fully understand it is to experience it yourself.
My experience in India gave me an understanding of Sikhism that I wouldn’t have been able to gain otherwise and, without a doubt, changed my life. I might not be able to fully explain how at the moment because sometimes life experiences manifest their effects on us long after we’ve come home.
Sikhism is something that I think about every day and has had a longstanding effect on my life. When I speak to people about Sikhism, I am often asked if I would identify as a Sikh. I have a tough time answering this question. This is because I enjoy the freedom of embracing values from other religions and incorporating them into my daily life. At the same time, I am unable to put into words how much solace I find in the religion, and how it has influenced the way that I view the world. I find a beauty and purity in Sikhism, a beauty I wouldn’t have been able to find if I had been afraid of crossing cultures: something many people are afraid of doing. I would have never have danced bhangra, or set foot in a gurdwara.
Cultural education doesn’t need to change someone’s life or make him or her travel to the other side of the world. Cultural education can be as simple as politely asking about someone’s background in conversation, or doing some online reading about it. Since the United States is so diverse, we are forced to question what the idea of being an “American” means. The truth is that Americans come from a variety of backgrounds, making cultural education all the more important. This can only strengthen our society, by allowing us to view each other as fellow Americans, and not “others.”