A glimpse into the lives of Sikh youth, highlighting their experiences with cultural identity, meeting societal expectations, and maintaining their faith despite  influences.

Among America's diverse cultural landscape, Sikhism remains relatively unfamiliar despite its global presence. This land where the skyscrapers touch the sky, the turban might be familiar, but not many are familiar with the Sikh faith.Sandeep "Sunny" Atwal, an 18-year-old senior at Ben Davis and a practitioner of the Sikh faith, notes that while people may have heard of Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism is often overlooked.

Sikhism, the fifth-largest religion globally, boasts over 26 million followers worldwide, with 1 million in the United States and Canada. In the Indianapolis area, approximately 2,000 Sikh families, many residing in Greenwood, are served by five gurdwaras, or temples.

Founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak in India, Sikhism follows his teachings and those of nine subsequent gurus. The core principles include the belief in one God, who is universal for people of all religions, and the recognition of equality among all individuals.

"We believe that there is God inside of everyone," explains Simrat Oberai, 12, Zionsville.

"It's a religion that doesn't judge other religions," adds Sunny .

Beyond spirituality, Sikhism imbues daily life with meaning through five distinct symbols. These symbols include the Kara, a symbol of strength worn as a bangle on the right wrist, and Kesh, uncut hair often wrapped in a turban. Other symbols include Kangha (a wooden comb), Kachera (specially made cotton underwear), and Kirpan (a sword symbolising defence of truth).

Prayer is a vital aspect of Sikhism, with gatherings at the gurdwara on Sundays for worship, fellowship, and an all-day event with meals and services. Chanting is the primary form of Sikh prayer.For many young Sikhs, chanting is more than just prayer; it's a comforting practice and a part of their daily lives. "It calms me down," says Sunny, sharing how chanting helped him navigate a challenging moment at school. Deepika Verma, another Sikh teenager, speaks with pride about the rich cultural heritage she carries within her.

Despite efforts in schools to introduce various religions, Sikh youth often find that their friends are unfamiliar with Sikh traditions and values. Sunny mentions that Sikhism is rarely discussed until freshman year, leading to a lack of awareness that can result in challenges for young Sikhs. They often need to explain the symbols they wear, such as the kesh and kara.

"Our turban, most people consider that something to do with terrorism," says Darsh Singh, 16, Indianapolis.

Incidents of disrespect towards Sikh symbols are not uncommon, as Sunny recalls a troubling incident in middle school when someone insulted one of the five K's by taking it off him.

For these young minds, navigating the currents of Western culture is a balancing act. Despite these challenges, Sikh youth find joy in activities familiar to most teenagers, like music, movies, and sports. However, they navigate social spaces differently, often choosing to avoid situations that conflict with their religious principles. They avoid Western activities like parties involving drinking. 

Dating is approached differently. While friendships extend across diverse backgrounds, families often play a more involved role in selecting potential partners. This can be particularly true for girls, who may face stricter scrutiny compared to theboys. Arranged marriages, though uncommon, are sometimes preferred by parents who seek partners who share their faith and values.

Despite the pressure to conform to mainstream norms, Sikh teens are finding ways to honour their traditions while embracing their individuality. Sunny, who made a personal choice to cut his hair, emphasises his unwavering commitment to his faith. "I believe in Sikhism because it's what I believe to be right," he says, reflecting on his evolving relationship with his religion.

*Based on an article in indystar.com published on May 24,2012


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