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Converts To Sikhi: The Challenges They Face

Discussion in 'New to Sikhism' started by Aman Singh, Nov 10, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    Converts to Sikhi: The Challenges They Face

    I want to make a few things clear before I begin - Sikhism never proselytizes and never ever imposes conversion. If someone becomes a Sikh, it must be entirely by his/her own free will and desire for Sikhi. Thus, "convert" is not the most appropriate term to use. But I am using it because it is common terminology. Secondly, not all "converts" are "white." Thus, when I mention "Sikh converts," I am referring instead to ALL Sikhs who were not Sikhs "by birth" - which includes Sikhs of all colours and backgrounds, who may have "bumped into" and chose Sikhism along their life journey.

    In the beginning, I knew very little about Sikhism and had to learn bits and pieces along the way. I faced many challenges, all very common among "Sikh converts" in general, and also very common among Sikh youth who have not been raised in a Gursikh Punjabi-speaking family.

    I must admit that I have been particularly lucky with regards to help from the sangat (congregation), but I know of others like me who have not been as fortunate ... and have left Sikhism before they had a chance to truly understand the soul of it, because of a lack of community spirit and a lack of resources and help.

    I'm bringing up these challenges here so that the Sikh Community may be more consciously aware of them, and realize that addressing these issues isn't only seva (Selfless Service), but a responsibility that must be taken seriously. It directly affects the Now of the Sikh Panth. And it will continue to affect the future of the Sikh Panth, as Sikhs continue to immigrate to other parts of the world, as people of various backgrounds spike an interest in Sikhi (as the 3HO community, for example, grows, allowing more people to find Sikhism through Kundalini Yoga), and as the Punjabi youth who live in the West struggle to define and refine and merge their identities in both worlds.

    I hope this discussion will be taken seriously, and inspire some thought, leadership and perhaps some tangible solutions ...

    An overview of the various challenges

    Lack of Easily Available Resources
    It can be very hard (and frustrating) to search for more information regarding Sikhism. Taking a trip to the local bookstore, or even big chain stores like Chapters and Indigo, most often you will not find even one book on Sikhism. If you are lucky, there is one book from the "Teach Yourself" series. Yes, maybe one book among seven huge bookcases full of other books on religions that intriguingly include other remote religions smaller in size, compared to Sikhism.

    And for those who are thinking, "Well, they just have to search online," they are being elitist - not everyone has the internet, and even if they do, many still prefer to read something tangible and concrete on paper written by an actual scholarly "author." Let's just say that with regards to books and other information (not just online forums), one's got to be really interested, and really determined.

    I understand that books that include Gurbani and Gurmukhi, are not to be put in the hands of "anyone," and not to be put on random, messy, dusty shelves or be handled by people who don't cover their head and wash their hands. It's a tricky situation ... but the solution is simple - there should at least be some quality books on Sikhism that don't have Gurmukhi in them, which could be distributed.

    Gurdwaras should also give out these resources (freely or for a small fee). I know that a lot of them do give out some form of small Introduction to Sikhism booklet to visitors already, but not all. It would be great if they'd give them out to the general public during Nagar Kirtans, too ... instead of having people stare and watch and wonder who all these turbaned people are - it would be the ideal time to give out information and resources and spark up some awareness about Sikhs and the Sikh Faith - not just parade around spiking more questions than answers in curious onlookers.

    Lack of Quality Resources

    Okay, so resources are hard to find. And when you finally find them, they aren't necessarily of good quality. It seems like "everyone" is writing books and translations these days. Truly, I understand the desire to do seva - and it's well appreciated - but at the same time, it's getting confusing having a billion versions and not knowing which one to "trust" - so, if you want this seva to be done, why not pool resources and get a true Gursikh Scholar or even a team of them to do this high quality detailed work instead?

    I won't name anyone, but some books I've read have been "almost" a waste of time - and even misinforming and misguiding about Sikhism. Thank God, I've been blessed with an educated sangat, or I would be very confused and perhaps not on the path anymore, because of too many questions and doubts and conflicting information (Hint - I know people who have left because they got too confused.)

    And Other Materials of Importance
    Not only are books and those kind of resources hard to find ... but so are the Big Ks (Kanga, Kacchera, Kirpan, Kara) ... and turban material or any other kind of desired Bana - Sikh uniform items.

    I am proud to say that the first thing I ever sewed in my whole life was a gatra (the sling-type cross-belt that holds the kirpan). I learned all on my own, because I only had one gatra that was given to me at my Amrit Sanchar, and I had to wash it once in a while and realized I needed a second one to alternate - but I didn't have an Uncle or Auntie to ask where the Sikh store was, or how to make it - so I figured it out by carefully examining the one I had.

    I still haven't figured out the kacchera though; I get all confused with it - and have been asking left and right for any Auntie to give me a pattern ... but alas, they don't wear kaccheras.

    And my first turban was actually a sarong (shh!). Sikh Converts can get pretty crafty and creative when the need arises. But coming up with your own solutions doesn't always work - I had two tiny kangas given to me, and despite all the care and carefulness, a few teeth still broke and I needed a new one. Sadly, I am not very good at the art of carving wood.

    I know that the sangat can be very helpful this way, and the help is very appreciated (thank you to those brothers and sisters who've helped me so-o-o-o much in the very beginning ... I've never forgotten you). But Sikh converts might not always be very verbal or able to ask for what they need ... or feel comfortable accepting these seva-gifts. Would be nice if these items could be easily found at gurdwaras or something. (Not everyone lives in Toronto or New Mexico, if that's what you're thinking! Ha-ha-ha).

    Lack of Sikhi-Specific Education
    As a newcomer "Sikh," I have always been thirsty, so-o-o thirsty to learn as much as I can about Sikhism and the Sikh way of life. I would love to learn kirtan, santhyaa, Gurmukhi and Punjabi, gatka ... and so on. But where I live, classes and teachers are just not available, and classes aren't given at the local gurdwara(s). It's too bad. :-( Not just for me and other newcomers, but also for the Punjabi Sikh youth who are losing their connection with their own roots.

    It might be worth hiring some teachers, no? [I say hire, because I know some would do it voluntarily, but then their personal affairs get all strained and they need to live, too - so instead of becoming drivers or real estate agents or factory workers - they could use their precious knowledge and skills to help the community... but alas, they can't cause they have bills to pay like everyone else... and then the community suffers without teachers there to teach... get what I'm saying? A community that does not cherish and take care of their education and the teachers that provide it, is a doomed community indeed... ]


    The Language Barrier
    This is the obvious one. Nowadays, many gurdwaras are using projectors with English translations - that helps a lot (especially when the next slide comes on time and not too fast) - thank you, it's really appreciated.
    Sadly, it's not like that everywhere. My first visit to a gurdwara was very hard linguistically, because no one there spoke a word of English, and no one was there to guide me or explain anything to me about what was going on and what I had to do or could and couldn't do, and so on. (Actually I got scolded in Punjabi by some man because I was wearing "jarabaan"! - what?)

    One of the first things Sikhs would tell me was "Learn Punjabi." It's not as easy as it sounds. Especially without a teacher, and without comprehensive learning materials (Oh, and don't forget to tell them they have to go all the way to Toronto, if they want those materials.) It's also hard to swallow that you have to learn a whole new language (on your own!) just to enjoy and dive deeper into understanding your new-found faith.
    But of course, I wouldn't mind it - if materials were more easily available, and teachers (perhaps available at gurdwaras for group lessons) could teach me, guide me and correct my many errors.

    Let's also not forget that Sikhs are now all over the globe, and converts are from all nationalities and languages. It would be nice, if Guru Granth Sahib and Gurbani (in pothis - smaller volumes) could be translated and described in as many other languages as possible - for the sake of studying and understanding Sikh concepts. This would also be an aid in learning Gurmukhi. Even Punjabi Sikhs need a translation into Punjabi as they don't all know Gurmukhi - so why not in other languages, too?

    Sikhism is a Universal Concept that should have its place all over the map - not to create converts, but to create understanding and break the chains of injustice and unfair treatment of Sikhs. It's not totally the perpetrators' fault - we also, as Sikhs, have the responsibility to educate others (as Guru Nanak did when he travelled for years and years all over the place and spoke in the native languages of the people who lived there).

    Oh! And a funny little note: I have seen this often, but when you write something in English, don't assume people know Sikh terminology already! For example:

    "Sikhism is a religion from Northern India, which follows a lineage of 10 Gurus, that preaches seva, sangat and naam simran. Sikhs wear 5k's, and wake up in the amritvela, and read nitnem and go to the Gurdwara, and believe in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji."

    Do I have to explain? Pause. Okay, I will - I didn't know these words five years ago : Guru, seva, sangat, simran, naam, 5K, amritvela, nitnem, Gurdwara, Guru Granth Sahib. So explaining what Sikhism is, using these words, just doesn't make any sense to a newcomer. It's actually a turn-off!

    Cultural Barriers and Cultural Assimilation
    There are two things that are of importance here:

    1 I am unable to count the amount of times people have gotten confused on this one. Generally, people mix up Hindus with Sikhs, and Sikhs with Muslims - it's well-known. That is a tragedy in and of itself, but the tragedy really begins when new Sikh converts, who are thirsty to abide by all rules, start getting into cultural things and mixing up the Sikh way of life with Punjabi culture (especially modern Punjabi, as opposed to authentic traditional Punjabi culture).

    There seems to be a lack of a clear distinction sometimes. Take note that I am not in any shape or form "putting down" Punjabi culture, but rather I am pointing out that it is crucial for the understanding of Sikhism that a distinction be made between the two. For example: I have met some Sikh converts who have become crazy for salvar kameez, and mehndi, and bindis, and bangles of all colours and all the jewelery and bhangra music, and so on.

    Frankly, I have no idea how this has to do with religion, but it happens. Perhaps a bit of education on this would be worth the try.

    2 When a person first enters into Sikhism, or even first encounters it - it can be very hard to delve into the topic of Sikh Concepts and understanding, without getting overwhelmed by the cultural differences of East and West, and all the minor but expected cultural things you are supposed to understand, especially on your way to a gurdwara.

    Simple but small things, like covering one's head as a sign of respect, as opposed to uncovering one's head in the west, taking off one's shoes, sitting on the floor as opposed to in chairs, being vegetarian and then all the Punjabi food that comes along with it in gurdwaras (you begin to think that Sikhism is based on Punjabi food - ha-ha! just kidding), the whole man-woman division in the middle of the darbar hall.

    The coming and going of people as they please without fixed times in the darbar, and the free tearing around of children, are also some of the things a westerner first doesn't understand. It's good to be aware of these small but important cultural differences and perhaps address them as they are when they come up (with simplicity and universal understanding). It could make the "new person" more at ease and less overwhelmed, confused or uncomfortable.


    Prejudice and Lack of Awareness
    This actually has to do with two major things:

    a. Lack of education in the greater communities Sikhs live in, which leads to prejudice and stereotyping; and

    b. Family and societal pressures to conform to the norms of the dominating culture.

    We, as Sikhs, just have to educate others and this problem will fade away. Wear a smile and become true Khalsas - with the spirit of seva for everyone, regardless of religion or background - and the community will begin to earn its true reputation, as in the times of our Gurus. Don't become afraid or hide away from others - show yourself and your kindness, don't be afraid to share info about Sikhism, and become a flag of good-will for all.

    Don't fight among yourselves, and don't fight with others - instead, befriend them and they will come to understand you. Right? And if the surrounding culture can learn to appreciate Sikhs, then so will the families of those who are Punjabi, but not practicing Sikhs, and the families of "Sikh converts"; then the pressure will be off and it will be easier for everyone.
    So, let's show the world what being Sikh really means!

    Stereotyping of Sikh Converts within the Sikh Community
    We like to think that we are all angels, but we almost all do it, don't we. Punjabis are well known for being great story-tellers and for assuming things about people and then blowing their ideas out of proportion in what I call "langar gossip." Oh wait, did I just stereotype?

    When this happens to a newcomer, for example: a white, "gori" girl coming to gurdwara - what's the first few things passing through the Punjabi mind? "She's 3HO, she must be into yoga..." and "I wonder if she got corrupted by a Punjabi guy to come here?" and "Oh, she's a westerner, probably all unholy - what is she doing here!"

    Stereotyping can happen unconsciously, and sometimes the prejudices are true, sometimes completely false, and it is not up to YOU to judge or think up what the case is. Okay?

    It does happen that Western people get interested in Sikhism without a yoga background, and without an intercultural relationship happening, and they happen to be very genuine and pure people like you are. So, please just be fair and open-minded. If you ask them questions, don't jump to your own conclusions about who they are and what they do ... or they'll get frustrated and won't come back!

    Here's a personal anecdote about stereotyping with a funnily good outcome: I started getting into Kundalini Yoga because most people at the gurdwara already assumed I was a yogi and that I was familiar with 3HO and Yogi Bhajan - openly asking me questions about it, even though I had no clue what they were asking about. I began to get curious, and so I got into yoga (which I now enjoy very much, so thanks to all those who've unknowingly gotten me into it!). See the stereotype self-fulfilling prophecy? Wonderful. Moving on ...


    Too Many Divisions in the Community
    It gets confusing. At first I had no clue about the various "denominations" in Sikhism - just thought it was all One Religion as Guru Nanak meant when he said "Na koi hindu, na koi mussalman"; we are all but children of the same God.

    So, I thought Sikhism would be very much a religion of unity and understanding, tolerance and acceptance. But when I heard that "such and such a group thinks X" and "such and such a group thinks Y" and that they're fighting among themselves about it, I seriously got all confused about Sikhism and what path I had to follow as a Sikh. I just wanted to be a plain and simple "Sikh" - no denomination strings attached - but it's not easy staying simple, when even gurdwaras start being about denominations, and Sikhs discriminating against other Sikhs.

    And, please don't try to corrupt the newcomer into your own way of thinking or denomination. Give them resources, try to answer their questions with a neutral mind, and let them decide for themselves what they believe and what path they want to follow within Sikhism, if any at all. Most of the time they came into Sikhism for the love of it, not to be involved in the politics. They dream of a United Sikh Community where we uplift and nurture each other together as One Sikh Panth, but get disillusioned when they hear all the unneccessary junk going on.

    Lack of Community

    That being said, many Sikh Converts have often mentioned to me that they feel a lack of community, they feel isolated and alone - missing community spirit and support. And that, given all the challenges they have to face already as a New Sikh, it just makes it a lot harder to stay strong and committed to one's Sikh way of life.

    They often can't turn to their family or their former friends for help and understanding, because these people often are the ones pushing the newcomer to leave Sikhism, and come back to "normal." Community is so-o-o crucial, not just for new Sikhs, but for Sikh youth, too, who may not be getting much support from their family and their friends who aren't Gursikh.

    So please keep this in mind - inside and outside of the gurdwara, stay connected, and watch over each other... support one another... feel the brother- and sister-hood truly with your heart ... and cherish this rare jewel called sangat, and welcome people in it as your own breath and blood ... and let it grow and flourish. Share the love!

    I know this article has been long, and perhaps unpleasant at times - but all these things needed to be said. I hope that whatever I have said does not get misunderstood or wrongly taken - as it comes from a space of true desire to help the community, old and new, and for the love of Sikhi.
    We have such a beautiful religion, and so much to offer. I hope that those who come to our door may recognize that and with their thirsty, cupped hands, be filled and fulfilled ...

    God bless.

    [EDITOR: A Caveat - Not all Sikhs who appear to be "new'"are converts, merely because they belong to a non-Punjabi ethnicity. Many of them are now second and third generation Sikhs.]
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