By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Sukhjinder Singh Gill immigrated to the United States in 1997 from Punjab, India, the birthplace of Sikhism. Initially landing in Los Angeles, he likes the Mississippi way of life better.
“I feel at home here,” he said. “It is not so busy.”
Gill works 15-hour days at the B and D convenience store in Tupelo, which he owns with his brother. He and his wife have two daughters and a son, ranging from ages 3 to 15, and teach them to try hard in school and stay away from drugs. They love Disney World and American basketball, especially during the Olympics.
“We brought our future to this country, where a person can be anything” he said.
When they attend worship on Sundays at the Tupelo Gurunanak Sikh Center, Gill dons his turban, an important sign in Sikhism showing respect for God.
Though beards and turbans are stereotypically associated with Islam, they are the uniform of the Sikh faith, meant to show respect for God.
Misidentified Sikhs sometimes receive the brunt of harassment intended for Muslims. Such may have been the case earlier this month when gunman Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran with a white supremacist background, opened fire on Sikh worshippers at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
“People, they just see skin and turban and think ‘Muslim,’ but it is not the same,” said Gill.
Page’s assault has brought this small minority of Americans into focus, and has many asking – “Who are the Sikhs?”
Sikhism is monotheistic, but does not exclude other faiths. It encourages individuals to follow the religion that best expresses their feelings and beliefs, whatever they may be.
“A religion should not pull you back. It should be liberating. Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, they have almost identical instructions for the way a follower should live their life,” said Gurjot Singh.
Sukhjinder and Gurjot are not related, though they both share the name Singh. Many Sikhs take the same surname – “Singh” for males and “Kaur” for females – to eliminate the baggage a family name can sometimes hold.
Gurjot Singh is a student at Mississippi State University working toward a Ph.D. in computer science. Wearing pressed khakis and a stylish purple button down that matched his sharp turban, he is a far cry from the Osama stereotype, that iconic image of bin Laden crouched in full robes firing an AK-47 down an endless range of desert.
At the time of Sikhism’s founding – 1499 in Punjab, India – the very rich and very poor were polarized by a rigorous caste system, while Muslims forcibly converted Hindus to Islam. Sikhism emerged as a force for religious freedom and equality among citizens, and the sentiment of equality is evident in most Sikh practices.
After each Sunday’s morning services, a meal called “langar” is prepared where everyone is welcome. The ritual of sitting together communally puts everyone at the same level, regardless of their situation, Singh said. In India, some Sikh temples, called a gurdwara, hold langar meals around the clock.
Women are allowed to hold the same positions as men in the gurdwara, and decisions are made by a committee of five members who must agree unanimously.
Though the Sikh faith teaches a peaceful existence, it is also heavily reliant on action.
“You can’t be so spiritual that you neglect your responsibility,” said Singh.
Sikhs see themselves as “saint-soldiers” who are obligated to fight injustice in society, but also to battle with themselves internally to live a righteous life. They strive to follow the three basic tenants of Sikhism: Remember God at all times, earn an honest living and share abundance with the needy.
Most Sikhs are motivated businessmen who cycle their profits to fund charity causes through the gurdwara.
Sikhs wear five articles of faith at all times:
A comb, called the Khanga, represents cleanliness.
An undergarment, the Kachera, represents character and encourages Sikhs to maintain integrity even when no one is watching.
A small sword, the Kirpan, symbolizes the fight against injustice.
A turban and uncut hair, the Kesh, convey deference to God’s will.
Finally, an iron bracelet, the Kara, reminds Sikhs to think before acting.
The ideals these items represent keep Sikhs from the five evils: lust, anger, greed, pride and attachment to the world.
“You do everything with your hands,” said Singh, rubbing his bracelet, “When you use them, it reminds you of the Gurus.”
Sikhism follows the teachings of 10 gurus. The first, Guru Nanak, began Sikhism on the belief that God transcends religion, and the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed that there was no need for any more human gurus. He handed his power as guru to the Sikhs holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs treat their book as if it is a living person. It can often be found in its own bed, and no Sikh service is held without the presence of the book. Its verses are composed in a musical, lyric form and includes writings of people from other religions.
The big questions
For Sikhs, the concept of God is abstract. Instead of being manifested in the form of some entity, God is completely omnipotent and omnipresent. He resides in everything, in each individual what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
When a spirit finally joins with God’s will, it becomes part of God and leaves the cycle of death and rebirth. This unity cannot be achieved by deeds alone, and if an individual’s spirit is not ready, it is reincarnated to go through life again.
“It is like in Christianity, when God makes man in his own image,” Singh said. “It is our duty to reach God in ourselves through prayer and service to others.”