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Seeking a Place for Sikhs on Campus

Discussion in 'Community Out-Reach' started by Tejwant Singh, Oct 26, 2009.

  1. Tejwant Singh

    Tejwant Singh United States
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    Mentor Writer SPNer Contributor

    Jun 30, 2004
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    Earlier this fall, Kanwal Matharu ’13 was on his way to class when he recognized the defining garb of a fellow Sikh as he passed by Karambir Khangoora ’10. “I saw [Khangoora] with his turban, and I literally ran up to him and said, ‘Hi, my name is Kanwal, and I’m a Sikh. Do you know where the nearest gurdwara [temple] is?’ ”

    Though Matharu and Khangoora found each other by chance, the few Sikhs at Princeton rarely have opportunities to meet with each other, since there is no formal forum for Sikhs at the University. But Khangoora is working to change that. He is currently trying to launch a group on campus to help Sikhs connect and to increase awareness of Sikhism on campus.
    “In terms of incoming Sikhs, they don’t really know where to turn,” Khangoora said, adding that he and some other Sikhs had been trying to start a group for the past few years. He said that, to his knowledge, there are only four or five Sikh students on campus, and he hopes the group will not only provide an outlet for them, but will also serve to educate the University community as a whole.

    Though the group is still in its early stages, tentative plans include carpools to nearby gurdwaras and an open forum for all students to ask questions and find out more about Sikhism. Another event that was proposed is a “Turban-Tying Day” to “teach other students how to tie a turban and show them what it feels like,” Khangoora said.

    This isn’t the first time a Sikh group has been proposed at Princeton. Last year, a senior tried unsuccessfully to start a similar group. The size of the Sikh population involved played a role in the failure of that endeavor.
    “Alas, [the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students] (ODUS) declined her petition to start a recognized student organization because she did not have other students yet as part of her effort,” Dean of Religious Life Alison Boden said in an e-mail. “They thought that it was therefore not sustainable.”

    This year, the group hopes to have enough energy to overcome that obstacle. “I spoke with [Associate Dean of Religious Life Paul Raushenbush],” Khangoora said, “and he said that if we showed a dedicated commitment this first semester, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

    This year, the group also has the support of the Office of Religious Life (ORL). “The ORL has supported the effort by connecting the interested students to ODUS, offering to publicize their group in our lists of campus religious organizations (web and print) and include them in interfaith programming that we do,” Boden said.

    “Last year we also offered to the student to host an open dinner for all Sikhs on campus, plus anyone else interested in Sikhism, as a way of expanding the number of Sikhs who were supporting the formation of a formal group,” she added.

    Though Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with more than 20 million followers, awareness of it at the University is very low, Sikh students said. “People just don’t know about us,” Matharu said. “The way I like to explain it is that, similarly to how Christianity comes from Judaism, Sikhism comes from Hinduism.”

    Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of India in the 16th century, when there was much conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The people who became the Sikhs shared the beliefs of Hinduism but disagreed with some of its practices, especially the inequality between men and women, Matharu added.

    “[In Sikhism], we are all just God’s children,” he explained, adding that Sikhism focuses on “service and equality” and is not centralized around rituals such as fasting and visiting places of pilgrimage.

    “It’s less dogmatic and more of a personal religion,” Keshav Singh ’13 said, adding that this has made the adjustment to Princeton less challenging. It is easier to practice the faith independently because Sikhism doesn’t dictate that followers attend weekly service at a gurdwara, he explained.
    “The purpose of going to temple is to be with people who share your beliefs so that you can learn from them,” said Khangoora, adding that he travels home to East Windsor relatively frequently and attends a few temples nearby.

    Matharu was “very surprised to see to how few Sikhs there were on campus,” but moving to Princeton was “not really much of an adjustment” from his hometown of New Orleans, where there is not a big Sikh population.

    Despite the small number of Sikhs, however, several Sikh students said they hope a student group would help them form a community at the University.
    Currently, they pointed out, it’s hard for Sikhs to even find each other on campus. Khangoora, Matharu and Singh all met by chance.

    It was only because of Khangoora’s identifying apparel that he and Matharu met. This identifying apparel — the turban — is one of the reasons why the group wants to raise public awareness of Sikhism. Devout Sikhs wear five items (called the Five “K”s) at all times — the Kesh (uncut hair, which is covered by a turban for men), the Kangha (comb), the Kirpan (steel dagger), the Kara (steel bracelet) and the Kachh (a type of undergarment).
    By educating members of the campus community about Sikh customs like the Five “K”s, the Sikh students proposing the group are hoping to have a larger impact than just providing a forum for Sikhs. Matharu mentioned that they were trying to spread interest by word of mouth and getting their friends involved.

    “We really want to make our presence known,” Singh said. “There aren’t many of us, but we do exist.”

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