Our House is on Fire (Sikhs, Racism, and Compliance)

You see that flame over there? That’s racism.

Before I get into the article, I need to first express my utmost gratitude and love towards all the Sikh organizations and personalities that have actively spoken out against racism within the last few weeks. I have seen your efforts, and it fills my heart with joy to see so many people standing up and proclaiming Sikhi’s message of equality. I would also like to extend my thanks to the sangat, who have been willing to listen to what I and their fellow brothers and sisters have to say regarding how we need to change our way of thinking. I believe that with what I’ve seen as of late, we are starting to head in the right direction. Just make sure to keep that momentum up, and translate your words into actions. And feel free to support our new Facebook page The Black Sikh Initiative (which empowers, motivates, and educates Black Sikh activists and allies:

black initiative.jpg

Unfortunately, there are those within our midst who are either a) resistant to change or b) outright opposed to it. Not too long ago, I came across a post on social media from a Sikh uncle that was written in response to the outcry against anti-blackness (or racism in general) in the Sikh community. And if I had to summarize what the message of the post was in one sentence, it would be,

'Tolerate racism or get out of our community'

My initial response to reading it was confusion and irritation. But after thinking it over for a little while, it made me realize something. It made me realize that out of all the time I‘ve spent advocating for multicultural inclusion in the Sikh community, I had made the mistake of not specifying where exactly my concerns lie. For you see, I am not concerned about what people say or think within the private sphere of their homes or family. I am not concerned about what people say on their social media and/or over text. But when what is done or thought in the private sphere affects what occurs in a shared, public space such as the Gurdwara, (as a member of the community) then it becomes my concern. Not only my concern, but also the concern of those who believe in the sanctity and purpose of the Gurdwara. 

So in order to further educate ourselves and others, I’ll address some of the ideas presented in the post which, if ignored, could lead to further non-action and persuade people to think that these types of ideas are acceptable. Throughout this article I will feature quotes from the post mentioned above and address them... starting with: 

“Our Guru received many abuse and torture but remained stoic and without complaints, his message and mission testify to this fact.”

Our Gurus did receive abuse (most the time as a result of calling for spiritual and/or political change), but they never stood by and did nothing (or say nothing) in regards to the events occurring around them. Every single one took action. Every. Single. One. 

Guru Nanak saw a world that was burning in the fire of disunity, ignorance, and selfishness. With Bhai Mardana by his side, he not only went forth to give people the key to self realization, but also spoke against the injustices he saw occurring. There’s even a whole shabad where Guru Nanak speaks out against the actions of the Mughal emperor Babur saying...

“As the word of the One comes to me, so do I express it, O Lalo. 

Bringing the marriage party of sin, Babar has invaded from Kabul, demanding our land as his wedding gift, O Lalo. 

Modesty and righteousness both have vanished, and falsehood struts around like a leader, O Lalo.” 

Guru Angad said…

“One who offers both respectful greetings and rude refusal to his master, has gone wrong from the very beginning. O Nanak, both of his actions are false; he obtains no place in the Court of the One.” 

Guru Amar Das required that everyone dine side by side (regardless of background), to emphasize equality within the community. According to tradition, when emperor Akbar paid him a visit, he insisted that he too participate in langar before having sangat with him. This goes to show that in the eyes of the Guru, no was to be treated as a superior or inferior. To do so, would contradict his message. 

Guru Ram Das (in response to the unequal treatment of people he saw during his lifetime) said…

“With a single impartial eye, look upon all alike, and see the One prevading all.” 

Guru Arjan was martyred due to emperor Jahangir’s jealousy. And instead of fighting against his arrest, he let events transpire. But do not mistake his act of courage and acceptance for one of compliance. By sitting on a hot plate and never once moving, he was sending a direct message to the emperor. And what was this message? That no matter what the emperor would do to them, they would still keep preaching and teaching righteousness. That no matter how much the emperor plots against them, they would never give in or give up. That no matter what they had to face, they would continue to be defiant and challenge the darkness. I can’t help but feel like he also knew that his death would lead to a radical change within the Sikh community. 

Guru Hargobind was next to ascend the throne. And you know what was one of the first things he did? He did not say, “Oh well. They’re starting to kill us now. But it is what it is and let’s do nothing.” He did quite the exact opposite. With the swords of Miri and Piri in his hands, he built up an army whose purpose would be to actively defend against those who would seek to cause unjust harm to not just his community, but other communities as well. 

Guru Har Rai was said to have established a herbal medicine hospital and a zoo while on the the throne. Showing us that compassion should translate into action. 

Guru Har Krishan (at the young age of 8 years old) reacted to a smallpox epidemic raging in Delhi by helping to heal the sick. As a result, he himself contracted the disease and passed away. 

Guru Tegh Bahadur did the ultimate sacrifice, and by giving up his body, saved the Hindu pandits of Kashmir. Another example of an act of anti-oppression. 

Guru Gobind Singh solidified the work of the previous Gurus and created a brotherhood/sisterhood of warriors called the Khalsa. Not only is the Khalsa called to fight against their internal demons, but to fight against those demons who cause harm and chaos anywhere they might be. 

If the comparison is not clear let's again put up a quote from the post I'm addressing on the subject of racism...

“Why complain? If you came to follow your Guru, treat the abuse as a blessing and leave the rest to karma if you are truly spiritual and understand Sat Guru’ message to his devotees.” 

....and a teaching from Guru Sahib:

“In the Sadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy, corruption is eradicated. This is the greatest blessing of all.” 

To me, this not only states the standard to which the Guru held the Sikh community in general, but even more so the standard to which Gurdwaras should be held. A Gurdwara is a place of learning, fellowshipping, and cultivating within ourselves the five virtues. Which is truly the greatest blessing of all. But when someone (or multiple people) wants to interrupt that vibe for other people (Sikh or not), by not addressing it, we are no longer meeting the standard that Gurbani (which are the words of the Guru) set for the community. By remaining compliant, we are no longer following the Guru. 

As for letting “leaving the rest to karma”, karma is the fruit that our actions bear. It is the effects of the measures that we choose to take. For example, if I spill a cup of soda on my laptop right now, the laptop will either glitch or stop working altogether. As a result of this, I’ll no longer be able to access the internet in the way I prefer, and I’ll be upset. But hey, this will also mean that I get a new laptop. So as a result of one event, good and bad things happened. It’s the same way with racism in the Sikh community. If you are racist (or hateful in general) towards a fellow Sikh, don’t be shocked when somebody addresses your attitude and/or words. Because in that moment, you are receiving the fruits of what you have decided to dish out.

So hello, let me introduce myself. I am karma. I have brothers and sisters who are brown, white, and black who will not tolerate hatred and racism in this community anymore. And guess what? They are karma too. And yeah, if you don’t want change to happen within the community, then I can understand if you think that we’re...well...a word I can’t say. 

Lastly, imagine if I said the same thing about Sikhs calling for justice for ’84, ’47, and for communities such as Sikh community in Afghanistan. That rhetoric would not fly.

“Sikhs do not discriminate.. so if there is a “Racist Sikh” as such, maybe the person is not a Sikh at all; maybe a troll or one posted to create separation among Khalsa Panth.”

There is an underlying implication here that unless a Sikh follows rehat and gurmat to the T, then they are not really Sikh. And if that’s the ruler we are using to judge whether someone is a Sikh or not, then there are no Sikhs that exist in the world (including myself). 

The post later goes on to contradict itself by saying that those who are racist in the community are actually “non-practicing” Sikhs. I agree with this sentiment to the extent that those who hold racist views and attitudes internally are not internalizing the message of Sikhi (which is ultimately a message of Oneness). 

“The practicing Sikh is solely focused on the spiritual elements of Sikhism and will not find fault with his religion and the motives of those who are bent on creating separation among the pure and holy ones for personal gratification.”

Translation: A practicing Sikh will mind their own business when a person (or a group of people) disrupts the cohesion of the community. Because doing simran, kirtan, and reading Gurbani are the only obligations that a Sikh has. 

If that’s the case, then there would be no reason for the creation of the Khalsa nor would there be a reason for Sikhs to be householders. We might as well pack our bags, say goodbye to the rest of the world, and run off into the forest to meditate. 

Sikhi teaches the concept of Sant-Sipahi. Of involvement with the spiritual as well as the political. Which means that in one hand, you keep your mala. And in the other, your sword. Because without your mala, you’d just be a fighter. And without your sword, you’d just be a yogi. 

“The situation described  in the post you graciously responded to is not limited to Sikhism but can be found in every religion, race, (including black) culture and organization known to man.”

Translation: We should not take issue with racism in our community, because everybody does it.

What came to mind when reading this is the image of my mother asking me, “So if all your friends jumped off the cliff, you would do it too?”. Just because other people do it doesn’t make it right. It’s not right for a brown person to be racist to a black person, nor is it right for a black person to be racist to a brown person. As Sikhs, we should be setting the example and care about meeting our own standards. Not looking at other communities to see how we should respond to serious issues.

“My advice before casting stones on your religion as a practicing Sikh think twice. If it doesn’t suit you there is no reason to remain, find another religion where you will be treated as DemiGod if there is such a religion.”

Translation: If you don’t like what’s going on, then leave. 

Never have I seen anyone ask for special treatment (or as is implied here, “demigod status”) within any movement against unethical behavior and attitudes. What we want (and what all people want) is to be treated as an equal part of the whole. And trust me, if I thought that Sikhi taught values such as compliance and discrimination (which there are some religions that do), I would not be wasting my time writing this.

So I end with this poem of mine that I encourage everyone to read. For clarity, the house symbolizes the Sikh community. 


A House On Fire 

By: Gurpreet Kaur

Wake up Guru Pyareo! 

It’s not stones you see in her hands, but water 

 “For we look not to just save ourselves, but others” (she says the Gurus taught her) 

Our house is on fire! Our house is on fire!

And all are welcome to join our brigade, whether young, old, working, or retired. 

You see that flame over there? That’s racism.

And you see that flame over there? That’s sexism.

And you see those flames over there? That’s casteism and classism. 

There were all sparked by the match of ignorance and tribalism

I saw what the house looked like before the fire

There was prem, sukh, oneness, and more qualities most can admire

That is why I, no, that is why we are now grabbing the water 

This fire has been burning too long, and it at one point caught her

So beloved, stop sitting and watching it burn

It is every resident’s (black, brown, and white, etc.) concern 

So once these things we fight against and unlearn

To its former state, it will return

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