Sikhs among Us Foster Cultural Understanding
By: Jackie Bong-Wright
Over 200 family and friends came on a recent Saturday to honor the passing of the beloved Avtar Kaur, wife of Birendar Singh, a former consultant with the UN Development Program and World Health Organization.
It was a simple ceremony performed at a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Maryland. Those present sang moving hymns and verses from the Sikh scripture filled with detachment from the material world. In Sikkhism, death is considered a natural process of God’s will, or Hukam, and seen as a progression of the soul on its journey from God and returning to God. Sikhs believe in reincarnation, as do Buddhists.
Sikhism is Punjab’s indigenous religion. Sikh devotees make up the fifth-largest religion in the world, with about 23 million adherents. Avtar’s friends gathered after the ceremony to share affectionate stories with her family. They remembered the many dinners Avtar organized to gather an array of international dignitaries in the Washington area, meeting with the Sikh community and enjoying delicious curry dishes.
They also learned Sikh art and culture through the paintings and other art objects, which came uniquely from northeast India, displayed at the Singhs’ house in Potomac. They recalled the couple’s fabulous 50th wedding anniversary two years ago, with 500 guests, both Sikhs and Americans. Punjabi music and folk dances alternated with the cha-cha and twist–an amalgam of two cultures, with old and young Sikhs dancing in harmony with their American friends.
At the turn of the 19th century, Sikhs emigrated to the U.S., working on farms and in railroad construction. Many served valiantly in the U.S. military during the two World Wars, courage being part of Punjabi culture.
Today, about a million Sikhs live in North America, including 25,000 in the Washington metropolitan area. They have contributed to society in all fields including technology, medicine, the academe, agriculture, art and sciences. They are also active in politics. The first South Asian elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956 was Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh. Recently, Amarjit Singh Buttar was elected to the Vernon, Connecticut Board of Education, and was recently selected as its Board Chairman.
In June 2009 Mayor Vincent Gray, then Council Chairman, and other D.C. council members recognized Sikh Heritage Week in a resolution that saluted the contributions of the Sikh community. The Sikh Collection Initiative, which promotes Sikh art and culture, was launched at the same time at the Library of Congress by Kaur Foundation.
Avtar’s daughter Mirin Kaur Phool, founded the Kaur Foundation. The Foundation believes that cultural acceptance is fundamental to developing an integral society. It has produced educational materials, including “Cultural Safari,” an award-winning DVD showing Sikh’s heritage and beliefs in a fun and engaging manner, dispelling prejudices in K-12 schools nationwide.
Traditionally, a Dastar or turban has been mandatory head covering for Sikh men. It’s a unique part of their identity. Another is maintaining a beard. Men refrain from cutting their hair out of respect for their God-given form. In ancient times, Egyptians and Greeks grew facial hair to show their masculinity and courage, and the knights in the Middle Ages, their virility. Jesus and his disciples were portrayed with beards.
Sikh Americans wearing a turban and a beard were attacked across the country following the 9/11 tragedy in 2001, victims of ignorance. The first fatality was a Sikh American in Phoenix, Arizona. Kaur Foundation was founded in 2002 to help raise awareness about Sikh identity and heritage, and to build bridges of cultural understanding among the larger community.
Sikhism originated 500 years ago in Punjab, India. The Sikh Gurus emphasized gender equality and gave women equal opportunity in social and educational development. They established an egalitarian society for all. In 1699, Guru Gobin Singh gave the name “Singh” or Lion, to all Sikh men, and “Kaur” or Princesses to all Sikh women. The name symbolized equality, which did away with the caste system prevalent in Indian society.
We all miss Avtar and the work she did to bring Sikhs and Americans together. But Washington is fortunate to have in her daughter, Mirin, her natural successor in the long, patient struggle to replace bigotry and suspicion with tolerance and understanding.