Sikh Americans are part of a religious and cultural group that traces its origins to the Punjab, a cross-national region on the Indian subcontinent that includes northern India and eastern Pakistan. In India the Punjab is one of twenty-eight states, and in Pakistan it is one of four provinces. The entire Punjab region is bordered on the north by the Himalayan Mountains, on the south by the Rajputana Desert, on the west by the Indus River, and on the east by the Yamuna River. The name Punjab comes from the Persian words panj (five) and aab (water) because of the five rivers in the region's central plain: the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Sutlej, and the Beas. The lower plains of the Punjab are exceptionally fertile, due to their proximity to the Himalayas, which is a bountiful source of water and minerals. The entire Punjab area is 98,729 square miles (253,706 square kilometers), roughly the size of Oregon.
According to the Census of India, the 2013 population of Punjab, India, was 36 million, with more than 60 percent of the population identifying as Sikh. The other major religions in the area are Hinduism (37 percent) and Islam (1.5 percent). The 2007 population of Punjab, Pakistan, was 86.4 million, and the estimated 2013 population was 95.4 million, according to the World Gazetteer, a source of population data and other statistics. While Pakistan remains a place of importance to Sikhs, only about 20,000 remain there; the majority of the population there follows Islam. According to the World Religion Database, as of 2010 there were about 25 million Sikhs in the world, making up about.035 percent of the world population. The Punjab is among the wealthiest, most self-sufficient regions in both India and Pakistan. The province of Punjab is especially important to Pakistan, producing almost 70 percent of the country's food.
Sikhs began to immigrate to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to the book Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America (2008), by 1915 there were approximately 6,000 Sikhs in the United States, primarily on the West Coast. Most came from the Punjab region and were male peasant farmers, though some also came from Hong Kong and Shanghai, China, where they were serving in the British armed services (India at the time was part of the British Empire). Because many came from agricultural communities, often these immigrants became agriculture workers in California; some worked in Oregon and Washington lumber mills and on railroad construction. After World War II, Sikh immigrants were also educated people looking for employment or further educational opportunities in the United States. Most Sikh university students stayed in the United States when they graduated. Another wave of immigrants came to the United States in the mid-1980s to the 1990s, mainly due to political unrest in India, particularly conflicts between the government and Sikhs who wanted to create a separate independent state.
It is difficult to determine the number of Sikhs in the United States because the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask about religious affiliation, and surveys have yielded results that vary by a wide margin. For example, the American Religious Identification Survey from 2008 estimated that there were about 78,000 adult Sikhs living in the United States at the time. Meanwhile, the World Religion Database at Boston University estimates there are about 280,000 Sikhs in the United States, based on estimates of the number of Punjabi immigrants from India and Pakistan and an assumption about the proportion of them who are Sikh. The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, maintains that there are more than 500,000 Sikh Americans but does not cite a source for that figure. It is also difficult to determine the states where the highest numbers of Sikh Americans reside. The Association of Religion Data Archives, which estimates that there are around 314,000 Sikh Americans living in the United States, reports that the states with the largest number of Sikh American congregations include California, New York, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Virginia, Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE
Early History Sikhism was founded sometime around 1499 or shortly thereafter by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469 in what is now Pakistan, near the present-day city of Lahore. From the start of his schooling at age five, Nanak was a prodigy who excelled at reading symbols and conversing on theological matters with adults. At age thirty he had a vision on the bank of a local river that indicated he should preach the path to enlightenment and God. Without Page 180 | Top of Articletelling anyone where he was going, he disappeared for three days and returned with a message containing the some of the basic tenets that would serve as the foundation of Sikh thought. He renounced polytheism and forsook idol worship and the caste system. Nanak proclaimed belief in a single, incomprehensible God and encouraged followers to live a simple, honest life, helping others in need and praying regularly. Over the remainder of his life, Nanak embarked on five grand journeys, one in each direction and the last in all four directions, accustoming himself to the joy and suffering of the material world, spreading his message, and recruiting followers. He took the name “Guru,” which means teacher or enlightened one.
From the time of Guru Nanak's death in 1538 until 1708, there were nine other Sikh guru spiritual leaders. The fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev, built the Harmandir Sahib, the “Golden Temple” (also called the Darbar Sahib), in 1574 in Amritsar, Punjab, India. It is considered the most holy temple for the Sikhs. In 1604 Guru Arjan compiled the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of scripture that contains the poems and songs of Guru Arjan and former gurus as well as works from a few Muslim and Hindu holy people, particularly the mystical poet and religious reformer Kabir (1440–1518). During Guru Arjan's leadership, the ruling emperor saw Sikhism as a threat to the government, and in 1606 Guru Arjan was tortured and executed for his religious beliefs.
Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru and only son of Guru Arjan, had assumed leadership days before his father was martyred. During his initiation ceremony he refused to wear the woolen cord that was worn around the head and instead asked for a sword. When it was placed on the wrong side of his body, he asked for another sword for the other side and continued to wear two swords during his life, explaining that one sword was for spiritual power and the other was for power in the secular world. Subsequent gurus also wore two swords symbolizing these dual powers. Guru Hargobind militarized the Sikhs and encouraged followers to learn how to use weapons and horses and to be physically active.
The Sikhs lived in relative peace with political leaders until the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled India from 1658 until 1707 and actively sought to convert the entire country to Islam. In 1675 Aurangzeb executed Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru; subsequently Bahadur's son, Guru Gobind Singh, became the leader of the Sikhs when he was just nine years old. In 1699, before a large crowd, Guru Singh formally initiated the first five Sikhs into the Khalsa, meaning “pure ones.” These initiates were to be the temporal leaders of the Sikhs, to uphold the ideals of cleanliness, virtue, and self-defense. They were to maintain a standard to which others would aspire. When he was dying in 1708, Guru Singh proclaimed that there would be no other human gurus after him and informed his followers that Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, would be their Guru. In other words, the Sikhs were instructed to view their holy scripture as a living guide rather than investing an individual with authority over the group.
After the death of Guru Singh, Banda Singh Bahadur (1670–1716) led the Sikhs in battle against the Mughals, successfully raiding their capital in Sirhind (in present-day Indian Punjab) before he was captured and executed in 1716. Regarded as a martyr for the Sikh cause, Bahadur inspired many others to follow his example, and by the mid-nineteenth century the Sikhs had significantly increased their territory. In 1799 Ranjit Singh captured the city of Lahore, and in 1801 established an independent Sikh state in the Punjab with himself as leader. Under his rule the Sikhs, who were a minority in the area, lived peacefully with the Hindus and Muslims. Ranjit Singh died in 1839, and just ten years later, in 1849, the British, who had been steadily wresting control of India from the Mughals for decades, annexed the Sikh kingdom.
Despite nearly a decade of enmity between the two groups, in 1857, the British asked the Khalsa army to help fight a group of northern Indian soldiers who had rebelled against British rule. With the help of the Sikhs, the British were able to quell the rebellion and thus started an era of cooperation between the British and Sikhs. Sikh leaders became honorary magistrates, Sikhs could join the British Army and maintain their traditions (such as wearing turbans/dastaars), and the British gave economic support to the Punjab.
Modern Era The Sikhs fought alongside the British during World War I, but soon afterward their relationship became hostile again, the tension culminating with the April 19, 1919, Massacre of Amritsar, the holy city for the Sikhs. A few days prior to the massacre, Amritsar was put under martial law with Brigadier General Reginald Dyer in charge. On April 13 many thousands of Sikhs had begun arriving in Amritsar from surrounding areas to celebrate a Sikh festival, and most were unaware that public gatherings had been forbidden. On April 19 they gathered at the park Jallianwala Bagh, where a pro-Indian nationalist peaceful demonstration had been scheduled. General Dyer surrounded the park and without warning had his soldiers shoot into the crowd, killing an estimated 379 and wounding 1,200.
During World War II an estimated 300,000 Sikhs fought as British Indian soldiers, despite their troubled history with the British and the continued calls for independence throughout India. More Sikhs volunteered for the army than any other Indian group. Some Indians did not want to fight for the British without first securing a promise of independence after the war. However, many Sikhs felt that talk of independence should wait until after fascism was defeated.
In 1947 the British finally succumbed to Indians' demand for independence and agreed to leave the region. According to the terms negotiated with leaders Page 181 | Top of Articleof the independence movement, the British partitioned the territory along religious lines into two independent states, with India becoming a primarily a Hindu nation and Pakistan becoming a Muslim nation. The terms of the partition called for the Punjab region to be divided, and most of the Sikhs from what became Pakistan took up residence in India because they were not welcome among the Muslims of Pakistan. Much violence occurred among Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs during the massive cross-border migrations in the aftermath of the partition.
From the start, the Sikhs have had a tumultuous relationship with the Indian government. In 1950, when the Indian constitution was adopted, the Sikhs refused to endorse it because the new government did not grant the Sikhs their own state, as had been promised. After years of protest from the Sikhs, in 1966 the Indian government divided Punjab (India) into three parts—the states of Punjab and Haryana and their shared capital, Chandigarh—with Punjab containing a majority of Sikhs. Despite this concession, the Sikhs remained unsatisfied, and a separatist movement arose with many Sikhs demanding their own country.
Tension escalated throughout the reign of Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), who ruled India from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 to 1984, when she was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards. For many years Gandhi attempted to win Hindu support by oppressing Sikhs, and when she was found guilty of election fraud in 1975 there was a large nonviolent protest by the Sikh community. At this time Gandhi suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency, and issued a five-year economic plan to reduce poverty and boost production. Approximately 50,000 Sikhs were jailed, among many others.
During the early 1980s, over 250,000 Sikhs were arrested for demanding water rights and more autonomy in Punjab. In April 1984 Gandhi declared martial law in Punjab and on June 3 she launched Operation Blue Star, a military attacking the Golden Temple, where separatists led by militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were taking refuge and were believed to be storing weapons. The army also attacked numerous other temples in Punjab in an attempt to root out suspected militants, with reports varying between 20 and 125 raids. These attacks commenced on the anniversary of the fifth guru's martyrdom, which meant that the temples were densely populated and the Sikh population was especially vulnerable. Three days of fighting ensued at the Golden Temple, and somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Sikhs were killed. The temple was also severely damaged, as was as a rare collection of documents from its library.
Four months later, on October 31, 1984, Gandhi was assassinated at her residence by two Sikh bodyguards. After the assassination, violent organized mob attacks, including state-sponsored pogroms, targeted Sikhs. Many were injured, killed, or lost their homes and other property in cities across India. While the government claimed there were only 2,700 Sikh deaths, estimates by the media and human rights groups claimed there were anywhere between 10,000 and 17,000. After the 1984 attack, the movement for a separate state called Khālistān that would include the Indian state of Punjab and the surrounding areas where people spoke Punjabi, gathered more strength. Human rights violations against Sikhs continued for over a decade.
Through the latter part of the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, tension had waned to such at point that in 2004, Manmohan Singh, a well-respected economist, became the first Sikh prime minister of India. He was reelected in 2009. Some Sikhs, however, continued the movement for a separate state. For example, Dalijit Singh Bittu, a leader of the Sikh Student Federation, formed the Shiromani Khalsa Dal (SKD) in 2004 with the objective of “creating a free, sovereign, and a separate Sikh state in Punjab.” After a large rally in remembrance of those who died in Operation Blue Star, prominent members of the SKD were arrested for sedition. In the early part of the twenty-first century, Sikhs have continued to seek justice and compensation for human rights abuses.
SETTLEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
Among the first Indians to come to the United States, the Sikhs began immigrating to central California from the Punjab in 1899. In the beginning of the twentieth century, some Sikhs immigrated to the western coast of Canada (which, like India, was part of the British Empire) and then moved to the United States. Others came directly to California, Oregon, and Washington. Most of the Sikhs of this first migration, over 7,000 total, were single men, mostly soldiers, farmers, and peasants from the Punjab. They came to make money or raise the status of their families back home by sending money or by returning to the Punjab and purchasing land. The California valleys were similar to the land in the Punjab and, thus, they were able to be successful as farmers and agricultural workers. Other Sikhs worked in Oregon or Washington lumber mills or on railroad construction. Sikhs began coming together as communities soon after immigration. By 1912 the first Sikh association, the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society, was founded. In 1915 the first gurdwara, or temple, Gurdwara Sahib Stockton, opened in Stockton, California.
During this early immigration Sikhs, like many others from Asia, experienced considerable discrimination. For example, in 1907 riots broke out in Bellingham, Washington, when about 400 to 500 men, mostly from the Asiatic Exclusion League, attacked the homes of Indian immigrants. There was also governmental discrimination. In 1913 California passed a law stipulating that Asians were not allowed to own land, and other states followed suit. The Immigration Act of 1917 prevented immigration from South Asia and other parts of the world. After that, some Sikhs came to the United States illegally through Mexico. In the 1920s some Sikhs returned to India to participate in the struggle for India's independence. The U.S. Sikh population continued to decline through the 1930s, and by the early 1940s there were about 1,500 Sikhs in the United States.
A second wave of immigration came as a result of changes in immigration laws starting in the late 1940s. For example, the Luce-Celler Bill of 1946 lifted restrictions on immigrants coming from South Asia. The 1965 Immigration Act allowed immediate family members of those living in the United States to immigrate and permitted up to 20,000 professionals to immigrate from each Asian country if they could find work in the United States. Sikhs who were professionals immigrated to major cities where jobs in fields such as medicine, business, or engineering were available. Many went to Chicago and New York, in particular to the borough of Queens, where there were diverse immigrant communities. About 5,000 Sikhs came to the United States between 1948 and 1965.
A third wave of Sikh immigrants came to the United States starting the mid-1980s, primarily because of increased tension in India in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star. Many Sikhs also came at this time seeking jobs in the technology sector. Educated youth who were part of the student movement in India and who were sometimes particularly targeted in India, sought refuge in the United States. Some of these newer immigrants were more religious than the more established and assimilated Sikh Americans, who, for instance, might no longer wear traditional dress and would cut their hair, which the religion forbids.
Despite significant influx into urban areas in the east and Midwest, the greatest concentration of Sikh Americans remains in California, with many still working rural jobs. There are also significant populations of Sikh Americans living in New York, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Virginia, Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In addition, there are Americans who have converted to Sikhism, the greatest numbers being in California and New Mexico. American Sikhs are sometimes called “Western Sikhs.”
Punjabi is the Sikh language. It is an Indo-Aryan language derived from the Shauraseni language of medieval India that became a unique language in the eleventh century. Punjabi is written from left to right and has thirty-five letters. Indian Punjabi is written with the Gurmukhi syllabic alphabet, standardized by Guru Angad Dev Ji, the second Sikh guru (the word means “from the mouth of the Guru”). Muslims in Pakistan use Shahmukhi script. There are many Page 183 | Top of ArticlePunjabi dialects, such as Malwi (spoken in the eastern part of Punjab, India), Doabi (spoken in Punjab, India, between the rivers of Beas and Sutlej), and Jhangochi or Rachnavi (the oldest dialect of Punjabi, spoken in a variety of areas throughout the Punjab region).
Understanding sacred texts, such as the Guru Granth Sahib, and Sikh literature in Punjabi are an important part of Sikh identity and pride. This identity was not difficult to retain in the state of Punjab in India, where Punjabi is the everyday language, but it is more challenging in the United States, where Punjabi is used for worship and for some other gurdwara (temple) activities. Most gurdwaras have a Sunday school where children are taught Punjabi and the Gurmukhi script. There are also Sikh summer camps where Punjabi is taught. However, few Sikh children are fluent enough to have an in-depth of understanding of religious tracts. Some Sikh communities are beginning to accept transliteration of the Guru Granth Sahib into Roman script, and some are even translating it into English to be alongside the original or replacing the original, in the hopes of maintaining understanding of the sacred text. Sikh American immigrants also sometimes speak Hindi (the “unofficial” national language of India) and are often multilingual, as is common in India.
Greetings and Popular Expressions
Sat sri akaal.
Hello (used for Good morning, good evening, and good night; literally means “immortal God is the truth”).
Tussi kiwen ho? / ki gal hai?
How are you?
Main theek haan.
I am fine.
Tu-adey nal mil kar bahut khusi hoi.
Pleased to meet you.
Tuhada naan ki hai?
What is your name?
Mera naan haga …
My name is …
Tusi kithe dey ho?
Where are you from?
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion with many names for God, the most common being Waheguru. For Sikhs, God is neither male nor female, is not born, and never dies. Sikhs believe meditation, Simran, brings one closer to God and also helps one live a more peaceful life.
Sikhs put a high degree of importance on equality, respect for all, being charitable, doing good deeds, and participating in religious rituals. Men and women have equal status in religious customs. Sikh doctrine provides a model for a simple, virtuous life that sustains both the individual and the community as a whole.
Sikhs put a high degree of importance on equality, respect for all, being charitable, doing good deeds, and participating in religious rituals. Men and women have equal status in religious customs. Sikh doctrine provides a model for a simple, virtuous life that sustains both the individual and the community as a whole. Kirat Karo, one of the central tenets in the religion, is defined as honest, hard work, and is closely related to another important Sikh concept, dharmasal, or the practice of righteousness. Sikhs should not be greedy, should only take what they need to live simply, and should help those less fortunate. Another related concept is Seva, which calls for service, to both other people and God. Seva can include, for instance, making financial donations, community service, or having positive loving relationships. In Sikhism, drinking, smoking, drugs, and adultery are prohibited.
Temples are called gurdwaras, and every gurdwara has a Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. If a room in a home has the holy book in it, it can be considered a gurdwara. The Harmandir Sahib, Golden Temple, in the Punjab, is the most renowned and revered temple. The Guru Granth Sahib is treated with reverence: each morning it is taken from a small room, put on a cushioned platform, and covered with the ramalla, an embroidered cloth. When people enter the gurdwara, they bow to the Guru Granth Sahib out of respect. Specific verses are read for special occasions such as weddings. All acts of worship or special ceremonies, such as weddings, begin and end with ardas, standardized Sikh prayers. During services there is usually a prayer leader (but no formal clergy) who reads from the Guru Granth Sahib and who is called a granthi. There are also musicians who sing hymns and play traditional instruments called ragis. People sit on the floor to show all are equal, although men and women traditionally sit on opposite sides of the room. After the service, a karah prasad (a sweet food that has been blessed; it is made from semolina, sugar, and ghee) is eaten, offerings are made, and a meal is shared. Gurdwaras have prayer halls and a langer hall or community kitchen. Most gurdwaras also have libraries and a classroom.
When they are old enough to understand the vows they taking, Sikhs may participate in in an initiation ceremony called the Amrit Sanskar to formally join the Khalsa, or community of Sikhs, as prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and final human guru, in 1699. When a Sikh is initiated he or she takes on the name Singh (lion) if male and Kaur (princess) if female, just as the Guru Gobind did for the first Sikhs to symbolize equality. Sikhs use this name as a middle name or sometimes a last name.
People who join the Khalsa are expected to maintain or abide by the five Ks, which remind adherents of their obligations as Sikhs. The first of these five Ks is Kesha, which requires Sikhs to keep uncut hair, including beards. Men tie their hair up and cover it with a turban called a dastaar or a pagri (more general term for male turban). Women generally wear a scarf called a chuni draped over their hair but are allowed to wear turbans. Kangha, the second of the Ks, is a small wooden comb worn all the time and used twice a day to keep uncut hair neat and tangle-free. It shows the importance of cleanliness and order and symbolizes “combing away” impure thoughts. Kara is a steel or iron bracelet worn on the right arm. It symbolizes moral strength, the “unbroken circle of oneness,” integrity, resilience, and the Sikh commitment to God and doing right actions. Kaccha are loose shorts worn underneath the clothes that represent devotion, purity, self-control, and the prohibition of adultery, and the Kirpan is a ceremonial sword usually worn on a gatra (cloth belt) that symbolizes God's supreme power, self-defense (defending your faith), and fighting injustice and defending the weak.
Much of Sikh American community life revolves around the gurdwara. In addition to being a house of prayer and langer (dining hall), in the United States and elsewhere outside India, the gurdwara has also often served as a meeting place, school, social hub, employment information center, and a place for political activity and Punjabi culture and language. It is the place for Sikh Americans to be comfortably and fully Sikhs. For Sikh Americans, questions frequently arise regarding which traditions are strict core religious beliefs and which are cultural traditions that can be altered and changed in the United States. For example, whether the Guru Granth Sahib has to be in Punjabi or can be translated into English has become an issue in the Sikh American community. There is also debate about the meals served after services. Traditionally, these meals are Punjabi food, but some gurdwaras are beginning to serve more American foods, which are more familiar to many and easier to purchase and prepare. Some Sikhs see the actual food as a cultural tradition that can change, while other Sikhs view the preparing, serving, and sharing of the food as religious edict.
CULTURE AND ASSIMILATION
In the Sikh American community, religious issues are intricately enmeshed with cultural, social, and political issues and thus factor into attempts by Sikhs either to withdraw from American culture or assimilate into it. From the first wave of immigrants to the most recent, Sikhs in the United States have been discriminated against by individuals and institutions and in the media, albeit in a variety of forms and intensities in different eras and locations. For instance, early immigrants (pre-1967) were often not allowed to own land, marry white people in some states, travel abroad (and thus, were unable to return to visit family and their home culture in the Punjab), or participate in the political process. Some of the earlier immigrants in particular gave up the outward signs of their religion, such as wearing a daastar (turban) or carrying a kirpin, in order to succeed in employment or other mainstream activities, or to avoid discrimination and harassment. Some of these Sikh Americans later returned to donning more traditional dress and activities when more and newer immigrants arrived who adhered more to these symbols because they were more religious and were less assimilated into Western culture. However, newer immigrants tended to be more middle-class or upper-middle-class, well-educated, and urban-based and thus could often more easily integrate into Western life.
Traditions and Customs Sikh Americans typically take great pride in retaining Sikh traditions and customs. For example, many attend services in the
gurdwara and sing traditional hymns (shabad kirtan) while temple musicians (ragis) play music and help prepare the langer meal. In daily life, many Sikhs adhere to at least some of the five Ks, such as wearing turbans or not cutting their hair.
Cuisine Most Sikh Americans prefer native Punjabi cooking to American food. The main ingredients used in Punjabi cuisine include wheat, corn, dairy products like malai (cream) and paneer (a mild type of curdled cheese, like cottage cheese), and spices such as coriander, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, chili, and cumin. Some foods are made in a tandoor oven, which is a clay oven kept at very high temperatures. However, most Sikh Americans use an electric or gas oven. Common foods include roti (flat bread), dhal, kulcha (a baked bread), sarson ka saag (a curry type of gravy made from mustard leaves and spices, sometimes served on spinach and with roti), rajma (spiced kidney beans in gravy), chole (a spicy chickpea curry), and kadhi (curd curry). Although meat is banned for those who have gone through the Amrit Sanskar initiation ceremony, many Sikh Americans eat do not abide by this prohibition. Some Sikhs refrain from beef but eat fish and poultry. All food served in the gurdwara, however, is vegetarian. A lassi is a common drink made with yogurt and water. Lassis can be prepared as sweet drinks (when mixed with fruit such as a mango), salty drinks, or savory drinks (mixed with, for example, roasted cumin).
Traditional Dress In order for one to be a Khalsa, a Sikh must wear the specific “spiritual” clothing, which is referred to as bana (literally meaning vocation or calling). In addition to the five Ks (e.g., uncut hair, comb, bracelet, ceremonial underwear or cotton shorts, and ceremonial sword), a turban must be worn. All attire must be modest. Often, a salwar kameez outfit is worn, which consists of loose-fitting drawstring cotton pants, a long shirt with open seams, or an overdress for women. Women also may wear a dupatta, a head scarf or shawl. The salwar kameez is worn by many people, not just Sikhs, in much of south and central Asia and Afghanistan. Sikh Americans may wear all or part of these traditional clothes. Devout Sikh Americans may adhere to all of these traditions on a daily basis, while other Sikh Americans may wear some of these, such as the turban, in daily life while reserving items such as a salwar for attending services
at the gurdwara or for special occasions or holidays. Sikh Americans, especially youth, often dress in typical American clothing such as jeans and t-shirts. Many in the Sikh American communities have banned this type of dress in the gurdwara, however, to maintain a sense of propriety. Sometimes shawls and scarves are kept in the gurdwara and people are asked to cover themselves if they are considered to be inappropriately dressed.
The color of dress and turbans has various interpretations. For instance, some Sikhs believe that the color saffron represents devotion to Sikhism, that blue represents ancient Sikh warriors, and that white represents renouncing worldly matters. Other Sikhs feel that the colors of their turbans symbolize part of the Golden Temple, with white symbolizing the marble walls and saffron the golden dome. Black turbans tend to be more common among younger Sikhs. How turbans are tied also can vary. The traditional style worn in India is with a blunt rounded apex at the front, while Orthodox Sikhs use a more rounded style, and some younger Sikh Americans put a pointed apex at the front, a style begun by Sikhs in Kenya and Uganda.
Dances and Songs Many Sikhs view music as a way to attain spiritual happiness and transcendence. Services begin with the singing of shabad kirtan, or hymns from scripture. Specific hymns are used for different occasions and holidays. Ragas are scales of five to seven tones used for the kirtans and can be used in different combinations for different prayers. Traditional instruments accompany singing and can be categorized as either note instruments or rhythm instruments. Svaravad instruments are the note instruments and can include a baja or vaja (a harmonium, which is a type of hand-operated pump organ), rabab (a member of the lute family), taus (a large stringed instrument), dilruba (an eighteen-stringed instrument), and sitar (a seven-stringed instrument). Tal vad instruments keep the rhythm of the music and can include the jorri or tabla (two small drums played mostly with the palm and fingers), mridangam (similar to a tabla, but longer and only a single drum) and different types of cymbals, such as kartal (handheld cymbals). Sacred instruments are often handmade.
The Sikh religion does not permit nonreligious dancing and dancing with partners of the opposite sex. However, religious and cultural dances are permitted, including dances such as bhangra, tiranjan, and giddha. These are performed for celebrations, community building, and special occasions. Bhangra, a Punjabi folk dance, originated as part of the April harvest celebration of Baisakhi and was done in circles accompanied by dhols, or large drums. There are Sikh American bhangra dance troupes that perform publicly, such as at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Bhangra has become a popular form of dance, often mixed with hip-hop or Bollywood-type dancing. Depending on the religious orthodoxy of Sikh Americans, this “fusion” bhangra dancing may or may not be acceptable.
Holidays Sikh Americans celebrate a range of holidays, including anniversaries of the ten gurus' births and deaths, certain Indian and Punjabi holidays, and American holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Generally, during Sikh religious holidays, Sikh Americans spend time at the gurdwara with particular prayers, music, the communal dinner and other religious rituals, as well as having family time and eating special foods. Days on which gurus are remembered are called gurpurb, from the words gur (short for guru) and purb (which means a sacred or important day). Gurpurb celebrations usually include reading the entire scripture from start to finish (1,430 pages), which two days of round-the-clock reading (forty-eight hours) and is called akhand-path. Food is continuously served during akhand-path. Sikhs may come and go during any of the time of the reading. In some Sikh American communities there are processions during gurpurbs just as there are in India.
Baisakhi, or Vaisakhi, which commemorates the day Guru Gobin Singh established the Khalsa community, is considered by many to be the most important Sikh holiday. The holiday happens on the first day of the month of Baisakh in the Punjabi calendar, generally around mid-April. There is often a parade led by five Sikhs in saffron-colored traditional robes and turbans carrying swords; they symbolize the original five Sikhs that Guru Gobin Singh initiated into Sikhism. According to holiday tradition, the saffron cloth wrapped around the flagpole outside the temple is taken down, unwrapped, and washed with yogurt as a symbol of renewal and washing away one's sins from the past year; a new cloth is then wrapped around the flagpole before it is again placed in front of the gurdwara. In some cities, such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York, Sikh Americans celebrate Baisakhi with Page 187 | Top of Articlea parade. In New York City the parade often draws more than 20,000 spectators and includes a langer meal for all participants and spectators. In addition to being a joyous celebration, Baisakhi also commemorates the April 1919 massacre at the hands of the British in Jallianwala Bagh Park in Amritsar.
Holla Mohalla is another important holiday. Like Baisakhi, this holiday was initiated by Guru Govind Singh, who believed that Sikhs should be physically fit. On this holiday Sikhs once conducted mock battles and tests of physical prowess. In contemporary times, there are often martial-arts demonstrations and other physical competitions or games. Readings and poetry of Guru Govind Singh are recited. Generally Holla Mohalla happens around March (the first day of the lunar month Chet) and is also a celebration of the coming of spring. Holla Mohalla celebrations can last for about a week, although generally in the United States the celebrations are held on weekends to be more accommodating to Western work and school schedules.
Sikhs celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak in the winter, and beginning in 2010 the founder's birthday was observed in the White House. In 2012, 160 Sikhs from around the United States were invited to the celebration with many senior officials from President Barack Obama's administration. Sikh Americans also observe the martyrdom of the fifth Sikh, Guru Arjan, who built the Golden Temple and was assassinated in 1606. In India Sikhs honor Guru Arjan by handing out cold drinks to people on the street, in subways, and in other places, and some Sikh American communities continue this tradition, handing out lassis or other drinks.
Sikh Americans also celebrate melas, which are festivals that have both religious and cultural significance. Diwali, for instance, is the winter Indian festival of lights and is considered the New Year's Day in the Indian calendar. Sikhs and Sikh Americans also celebrate this day as the day in 1619 when Guru Hargobind was released from prison. In the United States many Sikhs light candles and display colorful lights in temples. Sometimes there are fireworks displays.
Sikh Americans also come together to celebrate with others specifically from the Punjab, whether they are Sikh or not. Starting in the early 1990s, for instance, there has been an annual Punjabi American Festival in Yuba City, California, with bhangra and giddha dancing, arts and crafts, Punjabi cuisine, henna tattoos, talent contests, and other displays of Punjabi culture. The festival draws up to 80,000 people.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
Unlike in India, where Sikhs live mostly in extended families, Sikhs in the United States generally live in nuclear families. Nevertheless, Sikh Americans still have strong ties not only within nuclear families but also with extended family and community members. Community life centers around the gurdwara, which is the place of worship but in the United States very often plays the role of a community center as well and is a place for Sikhs to affirm their traditions, customs, language, and culture. Hospitality is an important concept in Sikh family and community life, as exhibited, for instance, by the strong tradition of anyone visiting a gurdwara being offered food.
Gender Roles Sikhism promotes gender equality in religious rituals and life. The scriptures specifically say that men and women have equal souls and are allowed to participate equally in religious rituals and services, including reading from the scripture and singing hymns. However, gender equality is not necessarily a reality in the religious community and family life of Sikh Americans. Men are generally leaders and organizers of the gurdwaras, for instance, and the most widely known and important religious historical leaders were men. There are few historical religious female role models. Some of the gurus' mothers and sisters are well-known figures, such as Mata Tripta, who was the mother of the first guru, but these women are only known by their relationship to men. Additionally, gender roles persist in many instances of family and public life. For instance, even when women have jobs or professions outside the home, they are still expected to assume traditional roles as mothers and housekeepers.
Education A Sikh is supposed to be a disciple, a student of the gurus, who themselves were supposed to be teachers as well as students. Guru Nanak, for instance, believed in the concept of goshati (discussion), where teachers and students put questions to each other and learn from each other by engaging in a balanced conversation. Guru Nanak also considered careful observance of the physical world and sustained contact with other people, especially strangers, to be essential to learning. He used his five great journeys as a way of engaging in these practices.
Sikh American communities often have Sunday schools and summer camps where Sikh children learn to speak Punjabi and read its written script, Gurmukhi. Sikh American Sunday schools and camps also teach prayer, rituals, customs, culture, and arts. In addition, they focus on leadership skills and have parent seminars so parents can communicate with their children about the basic ideals of Sikhism.
While the first Sikh American immigrants were primarily farmers, later immigrants were often well-educated and came to the United States for further education or were highly educated professionals seeking jobs. There are numerous Sikh American organizations that provide scholarship opportunities to help Sikhs in the United States attend college or gain professional training. These include scholarships from the Association of Sikh Professionals and the Sikh Human Development Foundation (SHDF). There are a number of colleges and universities that have Sikh Studies or endowed chairs for Sikh Studies (often funded by successful Sikh American entrepreneurs), such as the University of Michigan, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Hofstra University, and the University of Birmingham.
Courtship and Weddings Traditional Sikh marriage ceremonies are called Anand Karaj, meaning blissful ceremony. Generally, weddings take place in the gurdwara, where a prayer is recited to bless and begin the ceremony and a hymn, randomly selected, is read. Four marriage hymns, called lavan, are read, and the bride and groom circle the Guru Granth Sahib (scriptures) four times, once for each hymn. Traditionally, the bride walks slightly behind the groom, but in more ceremonies, especially in the United States, the man and woman walk side by side in a show of equality. Each lavan represents an aspect of the couple's obligations. The first lavan is about the couple fulfilling family and community obligations; the second is about the couple bonding to each other with love and respect; the third is about detaching from worldly matters and maintaining faith in challenging times; and the fourth is about translating one's love into service to God and about having a balanced life. Circling the Guru Granth Sahib is a symbol of the never-ending movement of life and the couple's love, which has no beginning and no end. The congregation joins in a concluding hymn called an ardaas. After the ceremony, there is often a wedding reception (not necessarily in the gurdwara, but in a rented hall or community center) that includes usually a large meal, music, dancing, and gifts.
Traditionally, Sikh marriages are arranged, but that is no longer common in the Sikh American community, and it is also becoming less common in the Punjab. However, despite more Western-style dating patterns and a greater frequency of love marriages, family involvement and input is still of great import, especially as a relationship becomes more serious and moves toward engagement. Interfaith marriages are not expressly forbidden, but there is a strong value on marriage between Sikhs in order to maintain one's faith and to raise children in the faith. Younger-generation Sikh Americans are intermarrying Page 189 | Top of Articlemore, however. While dating, Sikhs commonly go out in large groups, often with other family members present. Many Sikh Americans recoil from these traditional practices and long to date as American couples do, but they often encounter considerable resistance from parents who are not willing to accept this aspect of American culture.
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when certain professional jobs, such as that of a physician, were becoming more difficult to find in the American Northeast, some Sikh Americans moved to the South, to places such as Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and Augusta and Atlanta, Georgia, where they established small Sikh American communities, built gurdwaras, and established organizations such as the Sikh Religious Society of South Carolina.
By the 1980s the Silicon Valley technology industry had started to flourish, and some South Asian immigrants, including Sikhs, were brought to the United States to work at discounted wages. While these discounted wages were more than Indian wages and were generally equivalent to middle-class U.S. wages, because of the very high standard of living in the Silicon Valley, these Sikhs still sometimes struggled economically. The situation began to change during the 1990s and early 2000s, when India became a high-level training place for computer engineers and the software business.
Other Sikh Americans continued to struggle economically. In New York City, for instance, during the 1990s and 2000s, male South Asian immigrants, including many Sikhs, made up a majority of taxi drivers, with estimates varying from 70 to 90 percent of all drivers. Some of these immigrants had come to the United States without higher education or professional experience, but South Asian immigrant taxi drivers generally had a high level of educational attainment (compared to other cab drivers) and had worked in professional jobs. In many cases their educational credentials were not accepted in the United States.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
While there are no specific studies on Sikh American voting patterns, a 2012 Pew Research Report on Asian Americans reported that 65 percent of Indian Americans (whose highest percentage are Sikhs) are Democrats or lean Democrat. Whatever the case, Sikhs were a highly visible part of the political landscape at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Sikh Americans had an important presence at the Democratic National Convention in 2012; twenty-six Sikh Americans were part of the California delegation. Sikh American leader Ishwar Singh provided an invocation during the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012.
Sikh Americans have been involved in politics to help promote their civil rights, deal with hate crimes, and educate the public about Sikhs. In 2003 Sikh leaders met with the director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, Tim Goeglein, and discussed hate-crime issues and how to promote understanding of Sikh life. In 2005 the White House hosted a Sikh American Heritage Dinner honoring Sikhs and their involvement in civic life. About 225 people attended, and speakers included then-senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Santorum and Congresspersons Tom David and Jim McDermott. In 2012 the first-ever briefing on Sikh American civil rights was held at the White House.
Sikhs in the United States have also been involved in many causes for social justice and fairness in the media. For instance, Sikh American cab drivers in New York City were instrumental in organizing the largest ever New York taxi drivers' strike, held by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998. It involved 12,200 cab drivers protesting new and restrictive rules imposed by the mayor. In 2012, when late-night television host Jay Leno showed a photo of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) and joked that it was presidential candidate Mitt Romney's summer home (to poke fun at Romney's wealth), many Sikh Americans protested with petitions and letters. Sikh American Randeep Dhillon filed a law suit against NBC for libel on behalf of himself and the Punjabi All Regions Community Organization.
Business Gurbaksh Singh Chahal (1982–) was born in Punjab, India, and moved with his family to California in 1985. Chahal is an Internet entrepreneur whose start-ups include ClickAgents, an online ad network, and BlueLithium, which helped online advertisers target customer behavior and was named one of the top 100 private companies by AlwaysOn for three years consecutive years. Chahal was named Innovator of the Year in 2007 and earned the Leaders in Management Award in 2010. His memoir The Dream (2008) was well received.
Ishar Bindra (1921–) was born in the Punjab, fought with the Indian army, and immigrated to the United States after he retired in India in 1979. Bindra is a businessman and philanthropist who founded the Jeetish Group of Companies, which includes apparel, commodities, and real estate companies. He was awarded the Life Time Achievement Award by the World Punjabi Society (2005) and the Life Time Achievement Award (2006) by the Sikh Council of Religious Education.
Government Dalip Singh Saund (1899–1973) was born in the Punjab and was the first Asian American to be elected to Congress (in 1956 from California's 29th district). He won three terms and was gaining notoriety in American politics when he had a debilitating stroke during his campaign for a fourth term.
Ricky Kashmir Gill (1987–), the son of Indian immigrants, was the mayor of Yuba City, California, from 2009 to 2010, a member of its city council from 2006 to 2009, and a member of the California State Board of Education in 2004. In 2012 he unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican.
Nimrata Kaur Randhawa Haley (1972–), better known as Nikki Haley, was born in South Carolina to Indian immigrants and received an accounting degree from Clemson University. Haley was elected governor of South Carolina in 2012. A Republican, she was the first Sikh governor in the United States and the first female governor of South Carolina. She had previously served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 2005 to 2010.
Preetinder Singh “Preet” Bharara (1968–) was born in Punjab, India, to a Sikh father and Hindu mother and immigrated to New Jersey. He attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School. A lawyer, Bharara was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009. In 2012 Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Journalism Valarie Kaur is a writer, award-win-ning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader. She has been a regular contributor to TV shows such as Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC) and magazines and newspapers such as CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Salon. Kaur and her film partner Sharat Raju produced the documentaries Divided We Fall (2008), Alienation (2011), Stigma (2011), The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax (2012), and Oak Creek: In Memoriam (2013), about the mass shooting at the Wisconsin gurdwara in 2012.
Music Snatam Kaur Khalsa (1972–) is an American Sikh singer and songwriter who performs devotional music (kirtan) and lectures on peace throughout the world. She was born in Trinidad and moved to California when she was two years old. Her albums include Prem (2002), Shanti (2003), Grace (2004), Anand (2006), The Essential Snatam Kaur: Sacred Chants For Healing (2010), Raas (2011), and Heart of the Universe (2012).
Religion Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi (1929–2004) introduced kundalini yoga to the United States in 1968. He gained a worldwide following and in 1969 founded the nonprofit 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) Foundation, which spread to thirty-five countries. In 1971 he was named chief religious and administrative authority for the Western Hemisphere by the Akal Takhat, the Sikh seat of religious authority in Amritsar. He became a U.S. citizen in 1976.
Science and Medicine Narinder Singh Kapany (1926–) is a physicist who is often called “the father of fiber optics.” He has also worked on biomedical instruments, solar energy, and pollution monitoring. He founded companies such as Optics Technology, Kaptron, and K2 Optronics and holds over one hundred patents.
Sports Alexi Singh Grewa (1960–) won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics in cycling. As of 2013, he was still the only Sikh American ever win a gold medal. He grew up in Colorado, the son of a Sikh father and a German mother. His father had immigrated to the United States in 1956.
Stage and Screen Waris Ahluwalia (1975–) is an actor, writer, producer, and jewelry designer. His best-known films are The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Inside Man (2006), Hotel Chevalier (2007), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007). He was born in Punjab, India, and immigrated with his family to New York when he was five.
Tanveer Kaur Atwal (1994–) is an actress who acted in the movie The Matrix Revolutions (2003). She also appeared in the television series The Office (2006). She was born in California to Sikh parents.
Punjab Mail USA
Punjab Mail USA is a Punjabi-language newspaper, published weekly and distributed all over the West Coast.
Gurjatinder Singh Randhawa, Chief Editor
10481 Grant Line Road #175
Elk Grove, California 95624
Phone: (916) 320-9444
Fax: (916) 209-8726
This nationally distributed weekly Punjabi newspaper has been published from New York since 1999.
Phone: (516) 783-1001
Fax: (516) 783-1004
Sikhchic is an online Sikh magazine (in English) covering arts, religion, sports, news, food, humor, fashion, and travel.
Punjabi Radio USA
Established in 2010, Punjabi Radio broadcasts 24/7 from Bakersfield, California, to Reno, Nevada, and Washington State, as well as to other areas in the Page 191 | Top of ArticleWest. It includes a number of music shows, talk shows, arts and cultural shows, business shows, and news from India, the United States, and other places around the world where Punjabis live.
3750 Mckee Road
San Jose, California 95127
Phone: (408) 272-5200
Fax: (408) 493-4552
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
Sikh American Chamber of Commerce (SACC)
The SACC was founded in 2011 to promote successful entrepreneurship in the Sikh American community.
120 Wood Ave South
Iselin, New Jersey 08830
Phone: (732) 379-6180
Fax: (646) 349-2572
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF)
A civil rights and educational organization, SALDEF was founded in 1996 to empower Sikh Americans through advocacy, education, and media relations.
Jasjit Singh, Executive Director
1012 14th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20005
Phone: (202) 393-2700
Fax: (202) 318-4433
The Sikh Coalition
The Sikh Coalition is a civil and human rights community organization founded in response to the 9/11 attacks and the heightened incidence of racism that ensued. Provides legal services for those whose civil or human rights have been violated and promotes civic discourse and education.
Sapreet Kaur, Executive Director
50 Broad Street
New York, New York 10004
Phone: (212) 655-3095
The Sikh Foundation
Founded in 1967, the foundation promotes the heritage and future of Sikhism to Sikhs in the West, particularly youth. Its projects include working on academic courses in Sikh studies, art exhibits, and renovation and conservation of historical Sikh monuments.
Sonia Dhami, Director of Cultural Affairs
580 College Avenue
Palo Alto, California 94306
Phone: (650) 494-7454
Fax: (650) 494-3316
World Sikh Council—America Region (WSC-AR)
This umbrella organization was established to promote Sikh interests at the national and international level, focusing on education and advocacy.
P.O. Box 3635
Columbus, Ohio 43210
Phone: (888) 340-1702
Fax: (888) 398-1875
MUSEUMS AND RESEARCH CENTERS
Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies
The center was opened in 2004 as a venue for research and scholarly exchange at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It promotes undergraduate and graduate teaching, disseminates knowledge through publications and outreach activities, and assists other universities.
Gurinder Singh Mann
3051 Humanities & Social Sciences Building
University of California
Santa Barbara, California 93106
Sikh History Museum and Library
This library, located at the Stockton Gurdwara in California, was founded in 2012 as the first Sikh museum and library in the United States. Its main artifact is the hand-cranked printing press used by the revolutionary Gadar Party leaders to print the Gadar, the first Punjabi-language newspaper in the United States, which was published from 1913 to 1948.
Stockton Gurdwara Sahib
1930 South Grant Street, Stockton
Sikh Research Institute
The Sikh Research Institute provides educational resources, including podcasts and videos for students, and organizes events, programs, and training sessions.
Ravinder Singh, Acting Executive Director
P.O. Box 690504
San Antonio, Texas 78269
Phone: (210) 757-4555
Fax: (469) 324-2954
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Angelo, Michael. The Sikh Diaspora: Tradition and Change in an Immigrant Community. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Hawley, John Stratton, and Gurinder Singh Mann. Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley, and Stacy Brady. The Guru's Gift: An Ethnography Exploring Gender Equality with North American Sikh Women. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishers, 2000.
Mann, Gurinder Singh. Sikhism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.
———, Paul Numrich, and Raymond Williams. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Sidhu, Dawinder S., and Neha Singh Gohil. Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.
Singh, Patwants. The Sikhs. New York: Random House, 1999.
Verma, Rita. Backlash: South Asian Immigrant Voices on the Margins. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2008.