Religion Vs Culture: Being Sikh Vs Being Punjabi

Sikhism is one of the youngest and most widespread religions in the world. I’ve lived my whole life with the knowledge that I’m a born-follower of this religion, I am a Sikh.

From a young age I would accompany my mum to the Gurdwara (temple) either for religious programmes held by friends and family, for festivals such as Vaisakhi or Diwali, or simply just to sit next to her as she would listen to and join in with the calming prayers recited by a Gyani Ji (priest) in hopes that the echoing religious teachings might rub off on me a bit. But the truth is that I never understood exactly what the Gyani Ji was saying and still to this day I often find myself lacking in concentration and failing to understand the moral lessons that I’m supposed to have learnt through prayer recital.

From the ages of 8-12 years old I attended the local Punjabi school. It was run by members of the Gurdwara committee for a couple of hours on Saturdays and Sundays; I was a pupil there along with around 150 other kids from my hometown. It was there that I learnt how to read and write in Gurmukhi, the native script of my Sikh ancestors, a skill which I am proud to say that I still hold to this day and which I laud over my other Punjabi friends who weren’t fortunate enough to have been sent to Punjabi schools in their youths. Owing to the fact that the school was run by religious teachers, one would assume that we’d be educated about Sikhism and its teachings. However, this was very rarely the case. The school was much more focused on spreading the teachings of the Punjabi culture.

On one occasion we even had to go around the room declaring our castes (culturally constructed hierarchical groups based on social class) a matter which is notably frowned upon and disproved in the Holy Sikh Book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The caste system essentially encourages class discrimination, something that Sikhism has tried to eradicate in society since it was formed. The few things that I can remember learning about Sikhism at Punjabi school consisted of: basic prayers, memorising the order of the 10 Gurus and of course the 5Ks. I went on to learn such basic information and facts about my religion again during Religious Education lessons at secondary school.

It wasn’t until I reached my late teens that I realised that, in actuality, I knew very little about my religion. For someone who classified themselves as a Sikh, what did I know about Sikhism? If someone happened to ask me what Sikhs’ views on gay marriage were, or what Sikhs thought about divorce, I usually blagged my way through an obvious, generic answer. But it was rightly expected of me by my non-Sikh peers that I should know the answers to such questions about the religion that I had grown up with and I began to feel somewhat guilty for being so clueless!

My parents never really taught my sisters and I the basic principles of our religion or that we had to grow up to be religious one day. Religion in my house has always been a personal choice that only my mum observes through daily prayer recital. And I know that such a dynamic is common in many Sikh households.

Growing up, the only things that we were discouraged from doing in the name of religion consisted of: cutting our hair, eating meat and drinking alcohol. And till this day I’m still not sure if those things were drummed into us because Sikhism disapproves of such actions or simply because my mum did. And so due to this confusion we’ve each gone on to break all three of these rules, but without any major repercussions, seeing as my dad also regularly breaks them as well!

Now it’s not that I don’t believe in God, because I do. Me and Babaji have a special connection and I always remember to speak to Him in both the good times AND the bad, it’s just that I don’t necessarily feel the same strong connection with my religion. Whenever I decide to research Sikhism however, I do find the reassurance that it is the right religion for me and I’m glad to be a part of a faith that promotes equality, fairness and generosity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that being a Sikh is not something that’s been ingrained in me, it’s something that I have to make a conscious effort to learn about.

So why is it that I was never seriously instructed in the ways of being a good Sikh? The simple answer to that is because the majority of my family is Punjabi first and Sikh afterwards. And it would be hypocritical and even blasphemous for a Punjabi orientated family to preach the teachings of Sikhism.

Now you might think that typically one’s culture and religion are designed to work in harmony together and NOT be mutually exclusive. However, the fact is that my religion and culture contradict each other SO much that it is impossible for anyone to say that they are 50/50 Punjabi and Sikh.

To illustrate what I mean, here are four basic principles of Sikhism:

  1. Do not consume alcohol or tobacco.
  2. Do not eat the meat of sacrificial animals (basically avoid halal meat).
  3. Respect the equal rights of all regardless of rank, gender, caste, class, colour, or creed.
  4. Do not worship idols or give credence to auspicious dates, horoscopes, or astrology.

Now here are four common Punjabi cultural practices:

  1. Drinking alcohol.
  2. Eating meat (without checking if it could be halal).
  3. Endorsing and adhering to the caste-system.
  4. Believing in superstitions.

Now do you see how impossible it is to be a Punjabi Sikh, when the two labels promote such opposing practices!

A true practicing Sikh’s life does not evolve around the poisons, pleasures, superficiality or man-made hierarchical structures that Punjabi culture conversely PROMOTES. I’ve grown up seeing my dad, uncles and cousins get together for drinking sessions with plates of meat in front of them, nonchalantly referring to people of lower castes, acting anything but Sikh, but this has always been the norm in my family. Therefore it’s not abnormal that I have a greater awareness of my cultural identity than of my religious one.

Whilst Sikhism is something that I have to make a conscious effort to learn about, being Punjabi seems to be something that naturally runs through my veins. Living in a household where my mum and dad speak Punjabi 75% of the time and the fact that the majority of my dad’s side are native Punjabi speakers, means that I’m constantly immersed in a rough, slang-filled version of the language and also have the capacity to understand and speak it myself… well to a certain degree!

Maybe I’m also more inclined to have an interest in the Punjabi side of my identity because of the fact that I’ve ventured to India countless times with my family, and hope to continue making trips in the future. Having visited numerous cities within Punjab including: Chandigarh, Amritsar, Jalandhar and Phagwara, I have to say that I always feel at home in the well-known Northern Indian state. Spending a day eating sugarcanes, walking around our stretches of fields, watching peacocks lark about on top of flat roofs, annihilating a plate of fat greasy aloo proteh and home-made dhehi, sipping a glass of lassi and lying on the open rooftop of our ancestral house on a strong wicker manja is my version of heaven!

I love finding out where different people’s ancestral villages reside in relation to mine and whose kotti (villa) is whose in the pind (village). Moreover I’m always excited to have the opportunity to mix with my dad’s brothers’ families who live out there and always find that I learn so much about our family AND our culture, every time I make a trip there.

Punjabi hospitality is renowned throughout India and I’m proud to say that both my parents brought back this positive cultural trait from their homeland when they arrived in the UK and successfully incorporated it into our household. Punjabi humour and dry sarcasm are also renowned and I can state with certainty that I have inherited the quick-witted replies and bottomless imagination that generations of my family are known to have possessed. I am also ever fascinated with my family’s farming background and vast accumulation of fields and crops.

And for those reasons I’m proud to be a Punjabi because it’s such a rich and vivacious culture!

I guess the moral of this story is that I’m probably someone who can be classified as 90% Punjabi and 10% Sikh. However, it’s possible that these figures will change during the course of my life.

Furthermore, just because I wasn’t taught much about Sikhism growing up, doesn’t mean that I can’t venture out and discover my religion for myself. Because Sikhism is not a religion that I want to distance myself from or trade in for a better religion, it’s one that I’ve always yearned to feel connected with as I know that deep down it’s the one best suited to me. I always feel an immense wave of calmness and tranquillity whenever I go to the Gurdwara and I could never give up that feeling. So it looks like the internet and Sikhism-related iPhone apps will forever be my wise old teachers!

As long as I have an unwavering faith in God, I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine. And maintaining respect and love for my colourful culture is in no way a BAD thing. In fact I consider myself fortunate to have grown up with a strong awareness of my cultural background and roots, because in this day and age not many people are in tune with their religion OR culture, so I guess I’m lucky in that sense. But rest-assured, learning more about Sikhi is on my checklist. 🙂

99 thoughts on “Religion Vs Culture: Being Sikh Vs Being Punjabi

  1. ‘My family is Punjabi first and Sikh second’. You have no idea how true this holds in so many Punjabi/Sikh families. I have noticed that only the true Amritdhari families practice Sikhism in the way that our Guru’s advised us to. There is too much of a Bhangra culture, the same way that there is a Hollywood culture in the western world. All about the fast-life and fast-living, no one wants work hard for anything anymore, and that includes religion.

    Great post!

    1. Whoa, this was amazing!
      A complete treatise on Sikh culture – I’ve always loved the vibrancy and genuine friendliness of the culture:)
      I loved your post.
      P.S. – Thanks for showing love on my blog:)

  2. Hey, I just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, I’ve always wondered about the difference between punjabi and Sikh because I’m trying to better myself within religion rather than culture. As sometimes you can see the difference between the stereotypes as you like, uno??ah I’m just rambling at the same time but I loved your article!^^

  3. Brilliant and beautiful! I have many Sikh friends and some ver close. I love to visit the Gurudwara with friends on occasions and find the vibrations very peaceful. I wonder if you noticed the link of a Shabad in my blog sidebar. You must’ve heard it.


    Regards and best wishes always 🙂

  4. Firstly many thanks for following my blog. Interesting article. We often get confused between what the Punjabi culture is telling us and what Sikhism is teaching us. A simple separation: Punjabi culture being man made so full of flaws; Sikhism gifted to us by the Divine Guru’s. Punjabi culture is a social norm which tries to group us, like chickens in a farm, not free to roam. Sikhism gives us the freedom to think and be individual, gives us radiance and belief. Yes we are born into Sikhism but we have to earn the right to be a Sikh. A Sikh is someone who is always learning so as long as we have the desire to learn we are on the right path, regardless of whatever anyone else thinks. Then Waheguru will bless us further on, should we wish to from our heart.
    Nice post.

  5. Thanks for following my blog, and I much enjoyed reading this post. I grew up in a Protestant Christian family, but have become a convinced atheist, seeing God as a human-constructed metaphor for the wonder we all feel about the universe and the questions we ask about how to lead a good life.

    But I’m still very much aware that I am ‘culturally’ Christian, just as it sounds as if you will always be culturally Sikh.

  6. Thank you for following my blog. I found this very interesting and had not known the differences between Sikhism and Punjabi. It can be difficult to incorporate religion and culture and it appears there are significant differences. You sound well grounded though and I think your ability to seek objectively will open you to some wonderful experiences.

  7. Like your other commenters, I thoroughly enjoyed this post! So much to consider, and so much information in general that a US-born, Norwegian-descended person like me has yet to learn. 🙂 I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to visit Punjab, but I love learning about the culture, and about Sikhism as well. Even in places like Texas (where I live right now), which is predominantly what Americans call conservative both religiously and politically and many families have been established for many generations in one area or another, there are distinct differences in the balance of what people believe and how they live, differences in the percentage of influence that would be considered cultural, religious, political, social, economic, regional, and so forth. There’s even room for people like me who are not native to Texas, don’t share the predominant religious and political views, and love other parts of the world! 😉

    The very fact that you can write such a thoughtful, cogent post about the questions that this raises in your own heart tells me you will find your own percentages might change over your lifetime but you will always be as wise and goodhearted as the best of both your culture and your religion!


  8. The contrast(conflict?) of spiritual direction and culture are something that rides with me in my adult life. It has evolved along with the new that flows in and out. I have no singular focus in my spiritual life as each time I’ve investigated a new direction I seem to take with me what seems right and leave the rest behind. Your description of how this combines for you is clear and thought provoking, something I always appreciate. Keep asking questions, keep seeking guidance, keep your open heart, everything will follow from that. jT

  9. Thank you! Finally someone said it. I truly believe that being a Punjabi and Sikh is difficult especially if one is exercised more than the other in which i feel it is within the western world and in India as well. Its almost a choice— because it contradicts which is troublesome to really understand your values and the life path you choose. I think if you have Baba ji in your heart and be close to him, I think he can understand that there is a reason why most Punjabi’s who are mostly Sikhs violate the religions instructions to a meaningful life.

  10. Thanks for following my blog!! I really appreciate every follower I get (:
    And I really liked reading this post. I alsways like to learn about other people’s cultures and religions and you have a very nice writing style!

  11. I grew-up in England and now live in Australia. The difference in the terrain is profound and I could never understand how indigenous Australians (the folk white people tried to destroy whilst invading their country) could express such love for their country as it seemed threatening and harshly arid to me. I have a deep connection to the small-scale of the English landscape with it’s moist and leafy quality. Your article reminds me of the insight I made about this matter – indigenous Australians have the same love for their landscape as I have for the one from which I am made; we share the same abiding love even though the landscapes are so different. I see, in your article, the same profound connection to your original landscape and that’s something we could all appreciate in each other. In my opinion, landscape is the origin of culture.

  12. I admire your openness to talk about this. I feel religion can be upsetting to others, but try to include faith in my posts. I believe ones who may not be of the same faith, will be like you, listening to hear if there are any overlapping themes and understanding each other is important to become more than just bloggers but friends. I like how you also acknowledge that our parents teach us things about religion, which may or may not be representative to the actual religion. This post overall made me understand both Sikhism and Punjabi culture better. Of course, I would need to read more to get a fuller account but appreciate your taking the time to do this in your post.

  13. A great blog. I am a jain by religion but I too know very little about it. It is surprising that we are usually more related to the culture we are brought up in than the religion we are born in and it requires a conscious effort to know more about our religion.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and thanks for following my blog too. 🙂

  14. An excellent portrayal of an universal dilemma, whatever one’s religion – not to be confused with faith. Thank you for following me. I don’t always reciprocate, but I am encouraged to follow you.

  15. Beautifully written, I am gujarati from South Africa, and also faced with similar dilemma’s, it is everywhere, we just have to make our own personal choices, do what works for us and in the end I believe it’s more important to be a good person to others before we follow a religion. Just my opinion. Looking forward to reading more.

  16. There are many paths to God. I find the Sikh religion one of the most honorable world religions. The subject of your weekend classes though, interesting…perhaps the adults felt you would get religion at home, and religion is very much a private journey, meanwhile you were all in danger of loosing your culture in the face all things UK and English in your new homeland. The adults wanted you to remember Punjab. (Speaking strictly as an outsider the British seem to be pretty big on ‘caste’ systems too.

  17. Really interesting read.
    I could relate to a lot of the things you said, about your culture and religion, not knowing all the facts about those 2 things and wanting to learn. You see my mom is Hindi and my dad considers himself a Buddhist with a mixed background…Sometimes I’m not sure if some of the things I think about (in relation to religion) are because of a culture or because of a religion (Hinduism); like not eating beef for example (things I learned and remember from living with my mom’s family for 4 years)… There’s also the fact that I don’t really have an extensive knowledge in any religion really. Lately I’m more interested in learning and reading more about religion and cultures and how the 2 mix (my father and mother are very open-minded so I can always have good conversations with them about religion and culture, so that’s great).

    Anyways, awesome post 🙂

  18. I first wanted to say thanks to you for consistently liking my posts; I appreciate the support so much. Also, just wanted to say I loved this post and the perspective it provided me. If you were ever interested, I would love to ask you some questions for a piece on my blog–I do a weekly perspective piece, and I’m always looking for ideas. Keep writing, because you’re great! If you’d ever like to share ideas please feel free to e-mail me!

  19. Really really enjoyed reading this… being a Pakistani Muslim living in Britain I can relate to a lot of what you said, and especially the clash between religion and culture which can often leave us confused about the contradictions we face on a regular basis! But as you said, we are fortunate to have been brought up with some culture and some religion… and you are right it really is up to us to get out there and learn more for ourselves! Fab post and looking forward to reading more on your blog : )

  20. Thank you for your follow and also for this post. I must admit that my knowledge of the Punjab and the Sikh religion is very minimal and therefore I was very interested to read your post.

    I wish you well in your life and for the life choice on which you decide.

  21. This is so true I think for every Punjabi family… And whatever you have said applies 100% to me as well… Really liked the way you have described everything

  22. Reblogged this on IT'S ONLY WORDS and commented:
    Nicely written.
    I feel religion should be a spiritual support rather than an institutionalized affair that starts to dominate one’s life – do this, do that, this is a sin, this will give you moksha…..
    Keep writing

  23. I loved knowing that Sikhism has worked to eradicate the caste system of class discrimination. Excellent! As for your four main beliefs, U find it interesting how they align with the Old Testament in the Holy Bible! Wow! The more I study world religions the more fascinating it becomes! Now I see another reason why the novel, “Echoes from Punjab” is unique–as the main character is Sikh from Punjab!

  24. Well done on the effort for pulling together a well written article on modern day punjabis versus being Sikh.
    If we go back a few generations you’ll find that Punjab culture went hand in hand with being Sikh. My grandfather and his generation were very much ficussed on practising Sikh values which include meditating the on the one God for all, working an honest hard living and sharing their earnings.

    Booze was frowned upon. Prayers were understood and regully conducted throughout the day and community spirit was strong. Arguably modern day living has corrupted us and led us to live a non Sikhi lifestyle

  25. Well written. I have come to believe that it’s all a farce and it’s easy to be passive to the ala carte punjabi sikh existence.

  26. Incredibly interesting. I enjoy your writing style, as well as learning about the differences between culture and religion. I ran across your article while researching the background of a client who is sikh. Now I realize that it is important to learn from the clients themselves instead of assuming I know based one solely religion. Thank you for your authenticity in sharing.

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