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:
- Do not consume alcohol or tobacco.
- Do not eat the meat of sacrificial animals (basically avoid halal meat).
- Respect the equal rights of all regardless of rank, gender, caste, class, colour, or creed.
- Do not worship idols or give credence to auspicious dates, horoscopes, or astrology.
Now here are four common Punjabi cultural practices:
- Drinking alcohol.
- Eating meat (without checking if it could be halal).
- Endorsing and adhering to the caste-system.
- 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. 🙂