Turbans and Individuals: A Christian Ethnographic Reflection on Understanding American Sikhs

Introduction

In understanding Sikhs or Sikh religion, the topic of turban is unavoidable. Turbans, in the midst of other head coverings, soon caught my attention as I first arrived at the Gurudwara in Lexington, Kentucky, to begin my short ethnographic exercise.[1]Turbans became the theme of my reflection and this paper is a brief reflection on understanding the American Sikhs by examining their decision to wear or not wear their turbans. In what follows, I would argue that, while for the turban-wearing Sikhs meaning is derived out of the historical, theological, and universalistic interpretation of the Sikh faith, for the non-turban wearing Sikhs, yet another layer of meaning is attained through their experience with the contemporary dominant American culture which led to their decision of not wearing the turban. Collectively, both the presence and absence of the turban communicate the theological, historical, universal, and diasporic nature of the Sikh religion. In the latter part of the discussion I shall also provide two Christian responses to the Sikh contextualization that honors both, the Sikh neighbors and the Christian mandate of the Great Commission while building a healthy Sikh-Christian engagement in America.

Head Covering and the American Sikhs

Even though I was informed of the expectations,[2] namely the need to cover my head upon arriving at the Gurudwara (Sikh worship place) in Lexington, Kentucky, I did not think twice about the type of head covering I am expected to wear. At the Gurudwara, soon, I realized that not all of the attendees wore the same kind of head coverings(dastaar). Some men wore turbans (pagri), boys wore a smaller version of turban called patka, women mainly wore a small scarf known as chunni or dupatta, and some wore a covering that is given at the entrance, the rumal.[3] Nevertheless, everywhere inside the Gurudwara, people kept their heads covered. Notably, the Granthi, (the person who reads the Granth) had his head covered with a turban—a blue big peaked turban.

Turbans, out of all the other head coverings, stand out as Sikh symbolism. It is “part of being a Sikh man,”[4] and is considered “mandatory for all males.”[5] However, at the Lexington Gurudwara, in which I conducted my ethnography observation, half of the men did not wear turbans; instead, they resort to the covering, the rumal that is given to them at the entrance. This incongruence of Sikh men wearing and not wearing turban is the thematic focus of our analysis.

What is the significance of Sikh men wearing the turban? If turbans, as my informant said, is part of being a Sikh man, then what significance does not wearing the turbans provide? At the same time, contrary to the norm, is it possible for women to wear a turban? Can turbans tell a historical and theological story of the Sikh faith? Can it provide an account of what does it mean to be a Sikh outside of the Gurudwara in America? I attempt to answer these questions in the following analysis as I demonstrate that the decision to wear and not wear turbans do communicate essential elements of what it means to be a Sikh in general and more specially in America.

To Wear the Turban

Religiously, the turban represents the first two of the five articles of Sikh faith. The five articles are — “kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan (religious article resembling a knife), and kachera (soldier-shorts) — and distinguishes someone who has formally committed to the values of the faith.”[6] Subsequently, the turban became the visible mark for a Sikh from a young age as it encapsulated the first two articles of faith. However, most often, the historical and theological rationale for wearing the turban provides meaning to the articles of the Sikh faith, which began with Guru Nanak Dev.

Guru Nanak Dev founded Sikh belief within the Indian culture in the late fifteenth century. The subsequent Gurus till Guru Gobind Singh (d.1708) shaped the teachings and customs of Sikhism. Therefore it is noted by scholars that the turban has also “been an integral part of the Sikh Tradition since the time of Guru Nanak Dev. Historical accounts [show]… that all Sikh gurus wore turbans and their followers—Sikhs—have been wearing them since the formation of the faith.”[7] As a result, when a man wears his turban today, he is testifying to the historical consciousness of all the Gurus who molded his Sikh faith. Moreover, within this historical consciousness, the turban symbolizes a sense of pride and a sense of continuing the legacy of Guru Nanak Dev.[8] There are colorful paintings of Guru Nanak and other Gurus in the Gurudwara corridor, which reminds and reinforces a Sikh of his devotion and the significance of his turbans especially the legacy of Guru Nanak who is often portrayed in the picture as “an elderly man of saintly, meditative persona.”[9]

Theologically, the turban signifies the Sikh understanding of God. Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469, lived in a predominately Hindu and Muslim context of India. “Guru Nanak’s Punjab was spiritually and culturally more diverse, a mix of Muslims and Hindus all subject to Muslim overlords.”[10] Most of the Sikh Gurus lived through the Muslim Mughal emperors. However, in 1499, following a spiritual experience, Guru Nanak started to preach that “religious labels are unhelpful and that no Hindus or Muslims truly follow their faiths.”[11] Instead, Nanak advocated for inner spirituality that transcends the religions, but commences from the True Name, who is God, often referred to as by the phrase ‘There is one God’ (Ek Onkar).[12] Hence, for Nanak and the other Gurus, the inner spirituality transcends all the religious differences.[13] More importantly, these monotheistic and pluralistic theological understandings provided an impetus for the Gurus to champion equality rejecting the unequal treatments of the Hindu Caste system and Islamic Monarchies. In response to the caste system the Guru Granth Sahib says,

The Hindus there are four castes, but they are all of one seed
It is like clay of which pots are made
In diverse shapes and forms—yet the clay is the same
So are the bodies of men made of five elements,
How can then one be higher and the other low?[14]

For the Gurus, turban became a representation of their belief in One God, who considers all human beings as equal and transcends any contemporary religious boundaries which created hierarchy and inequality.

In the context of Muslim rulers, who also wore turbans to exercise their military sovereignty over the people, the adoption of turban by the Gurus provided a renewed meaning of sovereignty in contrast to the Muslim rulers.  Unlike the Muslim rulers, the Sikh turban became a symbol of every individual’s dignity and independence in light of God. Hence, the turban became a visible reminder to stand for God and God’s cause, “asserting the sovereignty and equality of all people.”[15] According to the Guru Granth Sahib,

Let good deeds be your body, and faith your bride. Play and enjoy the Lord’s love and delight. Purify what is impure, and let the Lord’s presence be your religious tradition. Let your total awareness be the turban on your head.[16]

As similar to the early Sikh Gurus, the turban becomes a daily reminder for the twenty-first century American Sikh to uphold equality. For the person who is wearing the turban, it becomes a symbol of duty to protect the oppressed and to stand firm against injustice and inequalities. In doing so, turban also testifies to the global appeal of the Sikh faith. In its emphasis on equality and justice, as one of my informants, Sudha stated, “Guru Nanak’s revelation is universal.”[17] The theological significance of the equality of humanity as a response to the segregation of the Hindu theological framework has provided a reason for some former Hindus to accept the Sikh faith. For them—men and women alike, who accepted Sikhism as their new faith turban becomes a public defense for equality Sikh faith advocates. The following case study provides a glimpse into such a reality of Sikh conversion.

A Case Study

Sudha, who is a Sikh, was born and raised in a Hindu family in South India.[18] As a child, she did not pay much attention to the religious aspect of Hindu living until she encountered some of the caste practices her family subconsciously practiced. Her early recollection was when a person (from a low caste) who used to help at their home was denied access to enter their home. She says, “he was our helper and brought water to our house every day, and everyone trusted him, but he was not permitted to enter the house, or it is right to say that he couldn’t come into the house because of his caste.” Everyone normalized it and went on with their day as if it is normal. However, for Sudha, this was an early realization of inequality propagated by her childhood Hindu faith. Subsequently, everything about Hindu practices didn’t sit right. “The Restrictions on women, unequal passing of blessing at the temple.” All seem so ritualistic and “Hinduism didn’t seem right for me,” she reiterated. Yet Sudha felt that there was something integral to humanity that is beyond these religious differences. “Being raised in the midst of religiously diverse people, I felt like something else beyond Hinduism connected humanity.” It was the inklings of this quest to find out what connects humanity resulted in her conversion to the Sikh faith in her adult years. Sudha speaks of her Sikh faith as, “I was always a Sikh.” For Sudha, there is no doubt Guru Nanak’s revelation is universal.  She says, “Guru Nanak’s pursuit was to question the existing religious faiths to see the deeply rooted human-ness that is part of the creator. He didn’t question the relevance of faith, but he wanted everyone to go deeper to see the human connection with the divine that is present in all of creation.” Sudha found the resonance of Guru Nanak’s teaching with her life questions and hence adopted Sikh faith. However, after joining the faith for a longer period, in 2017, she decided to wear a turban. She says, “For me the physical identity is important. It (the turban) reminds me of my values and beliefs. I honor the history, struggle, visions, and so on.  It’s not a belief system, but it is ‘living out.'” For Sudha, wearing a turban was a conscious decision and a pivotal one to show her commitment to the path. She says, [others] in the diaspora are under pressure to conform to norms and avoid turban not to face discrimination. They have made a personal choice. For me, the very calling of this path is to overcome that pressure. To me, the challenge of standing out in this way is part of the journey and to be expected and not to be avoided.”

People like Sudha wears a turban because it provides a deeper significance of their newly found faith, which stands for unity and equality. At the same time, Sudha’s choice to wear a turban stands as a defense for the equality and justice that Sikh belief brings in contrast to the inequal treatments of the caste system propagated by Hinduism or the oppression the Sikh community faces today around the world. Thus, equality against social evil, which is communicated by wearing the turban, speaks of the evangelistic character of Sikh faith, which attracts an outsider to convert to the faith. In summation, for a Sikh man to wear a turban is to uphold the religious, historical, theological, and universalistic significance of Sikh faith.

To Not Wear the Turban

Historically turban has always been part of the Indian and Middle Eastern culture. Some wore for religious reasons, and others wore as part of their cultural attire. However, when the Sikh Gurus adopted turban to be part of the Sikh faith, they were providing a renewed meaning contrasting it with other various contemporary significances of the turban.  More importantly, as we discussed above, the turban became a visible Sikh symbol for equality and justice. Ever since, the adoption of turban into the Sikh faith, it remained so inseparable to the point that some advocated slogans such as; “you may take off my head but not my turban.”[19] However, as immigration to the West became a reality, due to cultural assimilation reasons, the meaning of turban as Sikh Gurus proposed stood in crossroads needing another contextual reflection as some considered not wearing the turban. At the Gurudwara in Lexington, Kentucky, I witnessed the ramification of this shift in turban usage as only half of the men who were attending on a weekly basis wore a turban.

During one of my informal group observations in the Langar hall, in response to my question, what does it mean to be a Sikh in America? One of the members pointed to his turban and said, “this is the difference; I wear my turban, and they don’t,” swiftly looking at the other two gentlemen who were only wearing the rumal. One among them continued,

It was since the 1960s that I decided to take the turban off. It was a matter of survival. As I went for a job interview, the interviewer told me, even though I was qualified for the job, I will not be offered the job because my turban was a distraction. The interviewer pointed to the scores of people who had gathered outside his office to see me (as they had never seen a man with the turban) and said because your turban attracts attention, your presence at the company will only lead to loss of production.[20]

Scholars have recorded similar Sikh stories since the 1960s, where turbaned Sikhs attracted much attention in public spaces.[21] The terrorist attacks of 9/11 only amplified the negative implications of wearing turbans in America.[22] Mark Stromer writes,

Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, videos and images of Osama bin Laden have created an air of hostility towards Sikhs, with an uninformed American public equating the appearance of Sikh men with bin Laden’s beard and Afghani-style turban. This mistaken identity has proven deadly for Sikh men.[23]

Even though 99 percent of people who wear turbans in America are Sikhs, because Osama bin Laden also wore turbans and long beards, the Sikhs became an easy target of hate, discrimination and even death for some. For most of the Sikhs who live in America and other parts of the Western world, facing prejudices and hearing racist comments have become part of their existence. Even though for a Sikh, turban is spiritual and part of his identity, these cultural and social realities have been too occurrent that they are left with no choice but not to wear the turban at all or to limit it to special occasions. However, the decision to not wear turban did not weaken their adoration towards Guru Nanak or to their Sikh belief, nevertheless in the absence of turban rests the meaning of what does it mean to be a Sikh in America—they find meaning to their Sikh life which is entrenched in the painful realities by reminding one another to stand for equality and service which Guru Nanak advocated 550 years ago in his cultural context of struggle, violence, and inequality.

At the same time, pain is not the only determinant that provides meaning for non-turbaned Sikhs. For some, the meaning also rests in their theological reflection. One of my informants interpreted the Sikh’s decision to wear or not wear a turban depends on what is called the “basic values of Sikh faith—[they are] God-centeredness, active and honest living, and selfless service.”[24] According to Dhooper, any of these three values could become predominant in any Sikh believer. The prioritization of one value and, at the same time, the interwoven nature of all three values of Sikh living is portrayed in Dhooper’s painting, which is shown below.[25]

As the painting illustrates, each path represents each value that leads to the mountain top. Within those specific ‘highways’ also has the other two ‘byways’ embedded in them. For example: if one decides to pursue the path of ‘active and honest living’ as a primary pathway, then the other two—God-centeredness and self-less service, will take backseat or secondary in their journey. Similarly, for a believer who chooses to focus on ‘God-centeredness,’ the physical appearance of turban wearing communicates his/her such primacy, whereas, for non-turbaned Sikhs, it seems as their primary focus of Sikh living be ‘active and honest living’ or ‘selfless service,’ as they assimilate into the host culture.[26] Nevertheless, all these values converge in every Sikh’s life in one way of the other, exhibiting the value of Sikh faith.

As like in any religious belief, the Sikh community also contextualizes their faith in their given cultural reality. As Sikhism journeyed from India to rest of the world, every new cultural context prompted them to re-think of their faith. The practice of whether to wear turban or not is one of the visible signs of Sikh contextualization. In a religiously pluralistic setting, to develop a healthy inter-religious engagement it is important for every religious communities to come to a decision on how they may respond to one another’s contextualized faith. From a Christian perspective, this study calls for two responses to the contextualization of Sikh faith in America.

Christian Missiological Response to Sikh Contextualization

First, it calls to denounce the hatred against turban-wearing Sikhs in America and to provide space for the Sikh neighbors to practice their faith in a contextualized manner. The impetus of such denouncement rests in the fact that Sikhs are no different from Christians who have engaged in contextualizing their faith and practices as it traveled from one culture to the culture for two thousand years. Church historian Andrew Walls calls such an adaptation as ‘cross-cultural diffusion.’ Walls writes, “cross-cultural diffusion is a recurring factor in Christian history…[and] has been Christianity’s life-blood.”[27] Similarly, Sikhs in America are also engaging in such a ‘cross-cultural diffusion’ of their religious belief within the new cultural context. Today, as an Indian Christian raises pastoral and theological questions within the Indian context and look for answers in the Bible, so does an American Sikh who resort to the Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Scriptures) to provide meaning and relevance for the Sikh faith in all its cultural complexities.

Second, the Christian missional approach demands a Christian to listen and understand the religious other. Although the Christian evangelistic mandate rested in the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, desires non-Christians to recognize and accept the Lordship of Jesus, it does not provide a rationale for Christians to impose such knowledge on to others. Therefore, Christians should be faithful neighbors to the Sikhs to genuinely listen to understand them and their faith. Such an encounter does not necessitate either faith adherents to denounce their religious truth claims but look for ways to understand, challenge one another to grow in their truth-inquiry. For Christians, this journey may also be one to identify where and how the Holy Spirit is leading the other person to the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. Such a discernment enables them to offer Christ-ward pointers that may or may not lead the Sikh believer to the truth of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, it should be done with “gentleness and respect” (Bible, 1 Peter 3:16), knowing that their own version of Christianity is at risk as such encounters prompt the Christian to denounce elements of his/her version of Christianity that are not yet pruned in their Christian formation.[28] However the engagement between the Sikh and the Christian should be on a genuine basis of knowing one another and to build relationships.

Although one may find numerous themes within this ethnographic reflection to conduct a comparative analysis between Sikhism and Christianity, I have not engaged in such a comparative theological analysis in this paper, as to stay on course with the objective to foster an understanding of our Sikh neighbors in America.

Conclusion

It should be noted that the emphasis of this paper has been around the theme of turbans, both in the presence and absence of the turban that communicates the theological, historical, universal, and diasporic nature of the Sikh religion. While for the turban-wearing Sikhs meaning is derived out of the historical and theological interpretation of the faith, for the non-turban wearing Sikhs, the religious meaning is derived by contextualizing their practices within the context of the contemporary dominant American culture. Even though all the Gurus wore turban and historically Sikh men always used turbans, the twenty-first century globalized, religiously pluralistic space has led some to adopt turban as a negotiable principle of faith. Nonetheless, their unwavering adherence to the Guru Granth Sahib and the teachings of the Sikh Gurus guides them to champion for the poor and the oppressed as equals.[29]

 

Allan Varghese

PhD Candidate, Asbury Theological Seminary

 

[1]The ethnography data collection for this article was done at the Gurudwara in Lexington, Kentucky (during August—November 2019), primarily through participant observations (unstructured observations at the Langer hall and at the Darbar hall), four exploratory interviews, two semi-structured interviews, one life history interview and gathering information from published secondary data.

[2] The pamphlet titled, “Welcome to Gurudwara” informed of four aspects to be aware of, “be dressed modestly, remove your shoes and socks, cover your head, and wash your hands.” The pamphlet can be found on https://www.basicsofsikhi.com/resources/gurdwara-guide-poster/ accessed on November 10, 2019.

[3] It can be described as a small cloth similar to a handkerchief that can cover the head if tied towards the back

[4]This information was obtained by an unnamed informant at the Langer Hall, Lexington Gurudwara on October 17, 2019.

[5] Louis E. Fench and Duncan W. H. McLeod. Historical Dictionary of Sikhism. 3rd edition. (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) 310.

[6] “Identity,” The Sikh Coalition, accessed on November 19, 2019, https://www.sikhcoalition.org/about-sikhs/identity/.

[7] Dawinder S Sidhu and Neha Singh Gohil. Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience (Surrey [UK]: Routledge, 2009), 50.

[8] The phrase “sense of pride” pretty much summaries my interview with the Granthi (the person who reads the Holy Scriptures) on October 24, 2019. He specifically spoke of being honored and prideful to be carrying the legacy of the Sikh Gurus.

[9] Eleanor M. Nesbitt. Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford:  Oxford University, 2016), 16.

[10] Nesbitt, Sikhism, 14.

[11] Ibid., 20.

[12]This transliteration is from a pamphlet the author obtained from the Lexington Gurudwara.

[13]Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, said, “Hindus and Muslims are one! The same Lord is the creator and nourisher of all. Recognize no distinctions between them. The temple and the mosque are the same, So are puja and namaz. People are all one” (Quoted in Nesbitt 2016, 117).

[14] Quoted in Santosh Raj. Understanding Sikhs and Their Religion: A Christian Perspective. (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Kindred, 1991), 16

[15] “Identity,” The Sikh Coalition, accessed on November 19, 2019,  https://www.sikhcoalition.org/about-sikhs/identity/

[16] Quoted in Muninder Kaur Ahluwalia, Tyce Nadrich, and Ikbal Singh Ahluwalia. “Sikh Youth Coming of Age: Reflections on the Decision to Tie a Turban.” Counseling & Values 64.1 (2019), 23.

[17]Sudha was one of my key informants, and this quote is taken from the exploratory interview on September 29, 2019.

[18]This case study is based on the life history interview the author had with Sudha on October 18, 2019.

[19] Sidhu, and Gohil. Civil Rights in Wartime, 51.

[20] This quote is taken from the informal group meeting I had on October 20, 2019 in the Langer Hall at Lexington Gurudwara.

[21] Sidhu, and Gohil. Civil Rights in Wartime, 59.

[22] Sharat Raju and Valarie Kaur produced a documentary movie titled “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath” (2008) highlighting the attacks and crimes the Sikh community faces after 9/11 in America. The documentary is available at https://valariekaur.com/film/divided-we-fall/ (accessed on April 19, 2020).

[23] Mark Stromer. “Combating Hate Crimes against Sikhs: A Multi-Tentacled Approach.” Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, 9. 3 (2005), 740.

[24]I am indebted to Dr. Surjitsingh B. Dhooper for providing this information during our semi-structured interview on October 17, 2019.

[25] The painting is by Dr. Surjitsingh Dhooper, and it hangs inside the Gurudwara in Lexington Ky. At the left bottom side of the painting says: “basic values of Sikh faith—God-centeredness, active and honest living, and selfless service.” The photograph of the painting is taken by the author and is presented in this paper with the permission of Dr. Dhooper. Permission obtained on November 27, 2019, through email.

[26] Upon my further consultation with Dhooper, he clarified that it is also important to note that one’s “wearing the turban does not make [them] more God-centered than others” (email correspondence with the author, April 28, 2020). Every Sikhs may adopt various pathways but in its foundation all such paths are due to their God-centeredness attitude even though only few may devote to on God-centeredness as their pathway or life vocation.

[27] Andrew F. Walls, “Globalization and the Study of Christian History,” Globalizing Theology, Ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland. (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006) 73.

[28] It is the Christian Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin who said that; “each meeting with a non-Christian partner in dialogue …puts [ones] own Christianity at risk” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret. (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1995) 182.

[29] As the Guru Granth Sahib says, “There is only one breath; all are made of the same clay; the light within all is the same. The One Light pervades all the many and various beings” (page 96). “Sri Guru Granth Sahib Translation,” Sikhs.Org, accessed on April 20, 2020, https://www.sikhs.org/english/eg9.htm#p96.



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