Looking the Part: Do I Need to Look Like a Sikh to Be One? 10/06/2010 Prithi Hardkaur @ 1:46 pm I recently came across a post on hear the sound of the guru wherein a blogger new to Sikhi discussed her uncertainty about adopting articles of faith. Her hesitation and the questions underlying it are things most Sikhs deal with at some time or another. Non-Punjabi Sikhs fear judgement for cultural appropriation (“will they think I’m playing fancy dress?”) and Punjabi Sikhs don’t want to “look a Gyani” or alternatively feel aggrieved at having to ‘follow the rules’ if their faith is to be taken seriously. It could be argued that we don’t need bana to ‘be’ Sikhs. Regardless of intention, labelling separates us from others and reinforces the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, something with which Guru Nanak disagreed in his oft quoted statement “there is no Hindu and no Muslim”. Surely, if everyone is to be regarded as our brother and sister we should relate to everyone on that level, rather than gaining a sense of distinct identity from our appearance? Sikh bana could also be a source of false attachment and pride, with people deriving a sense of self-importance and hiding under the bravado of the imposing ‘Saint-Soldier’ image. There are also people that misrepresent Sikhi in some way and make it directly accountable through their visual identity, which raises the question of whether representing a diverse group of people in the same way is really wise. And should we really be getting hung up on appearance anyway? Articles of faith are material things and not necessary pre-requisites for devotion- they may act as symbolic reminders but if the reminder is symbolic and intangible, surely that consciousness alone should be enough? Doesn’t it suffice to do your banis, simran and seva without a sort of uniform that screams “hey, look at me! I’m doing my my banis, simran and seva!”? And then we have the common issues such as being bullied for looking unusual or kirpans being unacceptable because they scare people… The alternative argument is of course that the Sikh identity is not only a valid expression of faith, but a valuable one also; that it’s not intrinsically good or bad, of benefit or detriment, because it depends on the mindset we bring to it. Two of my most treasured lines of Gurbani are: bhagtaa kee chaal niraalee. The lifestyle of the devotees is unique and distinct. khanni-ahu tikhee vaalahu nikee ayt maarag jaanaa. The path they take is sharper than a two-edged sword, and finer than a hair. - Guru Amar Das Ji, anand Sahib For me, these just about sum it up, although if you want something even more succinct, Guru Arjan Dev Ji offered this for the less sensitive among us: “Do not be fooled by appearances- you fool!”. (And now you wonder why the Gurus had special knack of getting through to people!!) However it is expressed, whether poetic or blunt, these statements are getting at the same thing: appearance is neither good nor bad, and neither does it have one specific meaning- for the wearer or the observer. We need to step out of simplistic dichotomous thinking i.e. that the worldly and material are bad and that the spiritual and intangible are good, and instead find a balance between those extremes. The challenge is to constantly seek balance between Miri and Piri, the temporal and the spiritual, in everything we do. And not only that, but also to begin finding the spiritual in the temporal and the temporal in the spiritual; the spiritual in the sword and the practical in meditation. Bana allows us to be ‘in the world but not of it’, to be subject to falsehood but not to participate in it. In other words we might walk around in a world dictated by changing fashions, trends and ideas about beauty, but the Sikh code of dress transcends this relativity being a grounding, stabilising constant. If we are concerned about developing a false sense of superiority from wearing bana, then I would assure anyone that the antidote to that is readily available in the form of unthinking people making comments about the Taliban whilst you are in earshot! Afterall, who could feel vanity about their appearance when it is being mocked? As for not needing the articles of faith as ‘reminders’ of how we should behave both in public and in private, I think we would do better to admit that until we can see God everywhere and in everything (and in each and every moment) we’re going to need a few mind-joggers now and again. Being a beacon, someone that anyone can approach for help, Chardikala Jatha video is a big responsibility and knowing that people will have an expectation for you to act with integrity based on your external projection can really help to uphold those ideals. It might sound like I’m working towards the inevitable conclusion that you’re not really Sikh unless you’re amritdhari, after all, they’re the guys that get to wear the gear! However, my own view is slightly different. People talk about ‘taking’ Amrit, but it’s not something you can ever really ‘take’, rather it’s a God-given blessing that you receive. The panj piare might pass their judgement, but they aren’t the Inner-Searcher, the Knower of hearts to whom the Khalsa belong. In other words, there are valuable reasons to be visibly identifiable as Sikh in addition to living a lifestyle of one, but not only are the two not mutually exclusive, but not everybody will be ready for that. And that’s perfectly acceptable!