Sikhs seeking a place in America

Congregation relieved that Vancouver temple fire, officially 'undetermined,' likely wasn't arson

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Sikhs in Clark County

Five articles of Sikh faith

There are five ways that many Sikhs embody their religious commitment daily. These are considered "articles of faith," publicly identifying the bearers as Sikhs.

"The last human guru said don't hide. Don't be identified as a Sikh only when it's convenient," said Akashdeep Singh of Beaverton, Ore. "Don't be an opportunist." Nonetheless, not all Sikhs strictly observe all five articles.

The most obvious article of faith is uncut hair covered by a clean turban or scarf. Growing hair is considered acceptance of God's will and living naturally; the clean covering shows dignity and self-respect.

The other articles of faith are a small wooden comb, signifying physical and mental hygiene; a steel bracelet, symbolizing strength and restraint; a small defensive knife or dagger; and cotton draw-string underwear, signifying moderation and modesty.

SIKHISM AT A GLANCE

• BASICS: A "progressive" religion based on personal faith; one omnipresent and infinite God; equality of all people, men and women, and rejection of the caste system; family (not monastic or celibate) life; earning an honest living; sharing with the community. Sikhism focuses on spiritual progress in this lifetime, not the afterlife.

• PROHIBITIONS: Proselytizing; superstitions, pilgrimages and "blind" rituals; intoxication, adultery and other temptations; material obsession and "worthless" talk, such as lying and gossiping; forcing women to wear veils or treating them as inferior. Cutting hair has been strictly prohibited in the past, but some modern Sikhs don't follow this tradition.

• ORIGINS: Guru Nanak Dev Ji, born Hindu, founded the faith in 1499; after him came nine more gurus, until the final living guru declared that the leader of Sikhism thereafter would be its sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib.

• FOLLOWERS: Around 25 million (estimates vary); fifth largest religion in the world, behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

• WORLDWIDE: Most Sikhs live in the Punjab region of northern India; there are many in England and Canada, and an estimated 750,000 Sikhs in the U.S.

• WEBSITES: www.sikhs.org, www.sikhnet.com, www.americanturban.com, www.sikhcoalition.org

A customer once glared at Gurjit Singh's turban and declared that he wouldn't return to Singh's gas station. But before long he changed his mind, approached Singh personally and confessed his troubled conscience: "'My God, my Jesus, said that's not right.' Now he is my best customer," Singh said with a big grin.

Gut-level prejudice hasn't too badly marred the American experience for approximately 750,000 American Sikhs. But there's no question that some Americans still associate turbans, a basic element of Sikh culture, with Islamic terrorism. Sikhs' generally darker skin and Indian-subcontinent facial features contribute to this confusion — which has had lethal consequences for a few.

Last summer, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and shot six people. The immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought numerous reports of assaults and arsons at Sikh temples, perpetrated by people who believed they were attacking Muslims; one Sikh gas station owner in Arizona was murdered.

Sikhs are not Muslims; at points in history the two have been in conflict. "Ninety-nine percent of turban wearers (in the U.S.) are Sikhs," said Pawneet Sethi, a Camas resident.

The good news in Vancouver: the October 2012 fire that destroyed local Sikhs' almost-renovated new home in east Vancouver, the former Landover Athletic Club, was not arson. The cause will remain officially "undetermined" unless new evidence comes to light, said Colene Domenech of the Portland field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "There was no indication that it was an arson," she said. "The evidence did not indicate this was anything targeted at their temple or their religion."

"It was a big relief. It wasn't anything that was done on purpose," said Sarabeet Teja, also of Camas, who is president of the Guru Ramdass Gurdwara (temple). The group of approximately 200 member families, still based at their aging building at 3600 O St., is resolved to rebuild, he said. But Teja still doesn't know anything about insurance reimbursement, he said, so it's impossible to say how or when.

News coverage of these tragedies — and a recent community discussion about Sikhism in Portland — is proving the silver lining of these dark clouds. "I think people are starting to notice us and starting to be a little better educated," said Sethi. "Seriously, media has been a big help. I've had many conversations with people who are just discovering who we are."

Classic experience

It's the classic enterprising immigrant experience: the first arrivals take service jobs. They drive taxis or start small businesses. Pawneet Sethi owns a Subway sandwich franchise in Portland. Teja and Singh both operate service stations. "We work at counters. Retail counters," said Teja, who came to the U.S. in his late 20s.

But there's more to the story. Teja used to work in high-tech electronics manufacturing, until the dot-com bubble burst and he was laid off. Meanwhile his daughter was ambitious to head for college. "I thought, I'd better get into business," Teja said. His daughter is now pursuing a master's degree in global health while he runs a couple of gas stations, with the help of his son.

Another way local Sikhs represent the classic immigrant experience: they tend to stick together, stick to the gurdwara and stick with tradition. "We stay connected. That's natural," Teja said. The service at an annual mid-April celebration called Vaisakhi was conducted entirely in Punjabi, the original language of Sikhism — and so was most of the informal chitchat.

Not letting the language fade away "is our focus," said Teja. "We have a school for the children, because they are the ones who will carry on."

Sethi, who came to the U.S. as a teenager and often acts as spokesman for the group, is raising two preschool-aged children with his wife, Smita. Is America diluting their kids' Sikh cultural upbringing?

Of course it is, he said. During a lunch interview at Chutneys Fine Indian Cuisine -- an east Vancouver restaurant opened by Surinder Sahota, another group member — Sethi's older daughter stayed busy with a hand-held video game. She wasn't completely crazy about the authentic Indian buffet. Dad provided a sandwich.

Personal, progressive

Sethi always wears a turban and says he's never trimmed his beard, which he ties and tucks neatly away. Teja is clean-shaven and sports a baseball cap or head scarf. As with any religion, some followers are strict about customs and some are not.

"My family was always very into the joy of it," said Sethi. "But it is a lot of commitment. How motivated are you, as an individual?"

Sikhism, he said, is about a direct connection to God and a personal evaluation of truth. There are no priests in Sikhism — no authority figures mediating the experience for followers — and while there are "keepers" (granthi) of the holy scripture of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, the work is available to everyone to study and contemplate.

"You don't go to any priest to translate anything for you," said Sethi. "It really struck me on a personal level — why would I want a middleman?"

Sikhism is a "progressive" religion — it says so right at the top of Sikhs.org, "the word's first Sikh website," launched in 1994. Sikhism was founded by a mysterious and spiritually advanced boy, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who rejected the perceived truths and rituals of the Hindus and Muslims of his birthplace, the Punjab region of northern India.

"He questioned everything. He was that kind of kid," said Akashdeep Singh, an Intel engineer who travels from Beaverton, Ore., to attend Vancouver's Guru Ramdass Gurdwara.

Following Guru Nanek were nine more Sikh gurus — until the final one, who died in 1709, declared an end to human gurus. The holy book itself, the Guru Granth Sahib, has been considered the leader of Sikhism ever since. You can see the entire thing in English translation at Sikhs.org.

Women enjoy complete equality in Sikhism, according to every source The Columbian consulted. The equality of all people is a core value of Sikhism, which strongly rejects India's oppressive caste system. But all of the leaders of the Guru Ramdass Gurdwara in Vancouver are men.

'Sikh to the Max'

The festival of thanksgiving and community called Vaisakhi, celebrated over the second weekend in April at the gurdwara on O Street, began with a ritual reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib. Different members of the congregation took turns with the tome over the course of 48 hours, without a pause. The reading began Friday morning and ended Sunday at about 10:30 a.m.; then there was a break for vegetarian snacks. (Sikhs are not prohibited from eating meat, but only vegetarian food is served by the gurdwara.) Some members of the group lowered their gold-and-blue flag for its annual cleansing and re-raising.

After that, the whole group of approximately 200 went back inside — men to the right, women to the left — for music, chanting and prayer. PowerPoint-style video projections provided Punjabi and English scriptural translations via a program called "Sikh to the Max."

Sethi's two little daughters followed him around like baby ducklings; there was a friendly informality to the gathering, with a handful of children wandering between doting grown-ups, and one determined young engineer absorbed with a sweet Lego contraption even while the holy ceremony neared its climax.

Sethi pointed out a Punjabi movie poster on display, advertising a movie — shown recently during a regular "Bollywood" screening at a cinema in Beaverton — that dramatized the story of Operation Blue Star, a notorious 1984 episode when the Indian government attacked a Sikh holy site that was the base of a controversial Sikh figure; the fallout of this, considered a massacre by Sikhs, included the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. After that, riots claimed thousands of Sikh lives in India.

Some local Sikhs interviewed for this story, like Sethi, display a keener sense of aggrieved-minority status toward their ancestral home, India, than they do toward the U.S.

"This is nothing. We've been through it all already," said Sethi. "We started fighting for equality 600 years ago. That is a history we are very proud of."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits