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There are roughly 30 million Sikhs worldwide today. North America is home to around one million Sikhs. However, studies have shown that up to 70 percent of people in the United States are unable to answer questions about who Sikhs are and what they believe when asked about them.

Simran Jeet Singh with the Sikh Coalition, a non-profit founded after the Sept. 11 tragedies, said, “On one hand we're hyper visible with our unique identity, our turbans, our beards. People definitely noticed me in an airport or on an airplane right? We're noticeable. And at the same time, people have no idea who we are.” 

Deb Bhatia, the founder of the non-profit Sikhs of St. Louis, said that whenever he is asked to explain his identity, he simply says that Sikhs used to be warriors. 

One of the world’s youngest major religions 

Sikhism was founded in the 15th century in the Northern region of India known as Punjab, during a period when superstition and social injustice controlled the land. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born into a Hindu family. At a young age, he sought to establish a faith that saw all individuals as equal, regardless of caste or gender.

Followers of Sikhism referred to themselves as Sikhs, which is Sanskrit for "students". They called their teacher ‘Guru’. There were ten Sikh Gurus throughout the duration of two and a half centuries. The 10th guru eventually transferred the guruship to the revered Guru Granth Sahib, which is today regarded as the living Guru by Sikhs, towards the beginning of the 18th century.

The history behind the Sikh Turban 

Early in its history, the Mughal empire and despotic rulers who targeted religious minorities forced Sikhs to defend their faith. At that time, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the 10th Guru of Sikhism, declared the turban to be a religious emblem.

While many cultures in the Middle East and Asia wear similar head coverings, a Sikh's turban is distinct. It was used in part to distinguish Sikh troops during battle.

Pav Kaur Saluja, a Sikh woman living in Chesterfield, Missouri said that when Sikhs were in a war, it became difficult to identify them amid Hindus or Muslims. Therefore, Guru Gobind Singh Ji introduced turbans for Sikhs. He said that it will become a key identifier of Sikhs. Anyone who sees a man with a Sikh turban will know who to go to in case they need help or protection. 

Even now not much has changed. If one sees a Sikh standing in the crowd, one can easily go to him or her and ask for help. Sikhs are renowned for their selfless services and helping those in need. 

Before the birth of Sikhism, India's upper-class and cultural elite wore turbans. Kings and emperors wore turbans in the past. Yet, a central tenet of the Sikh religion is that all persons are equal.

In order to eradicate the class structure connected with turbans, Guru Gobind Singh Ji mandated that all Sikhs, whether male or female, must wear uncut hair and turbans. Additional functions of the turban include protecting and maintaining the cleanliness of the Sikhs' long, uncut hair.

In a statement, Deb Bhatia said, “We don't cut hair because God has told us that we should keep our bodies the same way as we were gifted by God.”

Not all Sikhs wear turbans. Some individuals prefer to cut off their hair for personal reasons.

Singhs and Kaurs in Sikhism 

The last Guru of Sikhism abandoned caste by granting all Sikhs the surnames Singh (Lion) or Kaur (Princess). Currently, 'Singh' and 'Kaur' are predominantly used as middle names among Sikhs.

The last Guru of Sikhism also introduced five symbols that have come to represent Sikh identity. They are known as the five "K's," and only the most devoted Sikhs maintain these distinctive symbols of Sikh identity. Included are uncut hair (Kes), a short sword or knife (Kirpan), a steel wristband (Karha), a wooden comb (Kangha), and underwear shorts (Kacchera). According to the Harvard University Pluralism Project, the Five K's constantly remind Sikhs of the moral and spiritual ramifications of aligning one's life with the truth.

Sikhs in America

Sikhs, whether Singh or Kaur, have lived in America since the 1890s. Then why are Sikhs so little known?

Simran Jeet Singh says that in Sikhism, there is no history of proselytizing. Sikhs do not go around preaching who they are. They do not try to convince other people to be like them. Since there is no PR system, not many folks know about Sikhism or what distincts Sikhs from other Indian-origin faiths. 

Targeted community 

Sikhs are the third most frequently targeted religious group in America, after Jews and Muslims, according to FBI data on hate crimes. Simran Jeet Singh remarked that after 9/11, there has been a substantial increase in violence and hatred, and this trend has not slowed down. 

Viv Saluja, a Sikh man living in Chesterfield, Missouri, said that after 9/11, everyone saw that the perpetrator was wearing a turban. Sikhs were basically misidentified or mistargeted and incurred collateral damage as a result of the anti-Muslim or anti-Islam feeling that arose.

Different types of discrimination 

The targets of racism in the United States change frequently in response to national and international developments. Simran Jeet Singh said that when his father initially arrived in the United States in the 1970s, he was viewed as a threat because he resembled the Ayatollah, at least according to American sensibilities. During the 1980s and 1990s, when he was growing up, the enemy relocated to Iraq, and he was called Saddam.

When 9/11 occurred, and the game shifted once more; the insults Sikhs received were "Bin Laden," "Taliban," and "Al Qaeda." Racism continuously changes and adapts based on who Americans regard as a danger.

Increasing awareness about Sikhs

While peacefully practising their religion, Sikhs also feed the hungry and give back to the communities in which they reside. They provide an estimated 7 million meals each day through Langar, the practice of preparing and giving a free meal to promote the Sikh principle of selfless service. The meals are distributed to anyone who needs them and they have assisted tens of thousands during the pandemic.

Sikhs in India have established "oxygen Langars" for covid-19 patients suffering to find oxygen as the number of COVID cases in the country continues to climb. Drive-through tents have also been erected in front of Gurdwaras, which are Sikh houses of worship. No one is denied entry.

With these traditions, Sikhs continue to practise their religion peacefully across the globe. At the core of their faith is the obligation to assist others.

 

  • Based on an article by  P.J. Randhawa published on  May 17, 2021

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