While many Americans might recognize the turban worn by Sikhs, few seem to be familiar with the faith itself.
“They’ve heard of Hinduism, they’ve heard of Islam, but they’ve never really hear of Sikhism,” said Sandeep “Sunny” Atwal, 18, a senior at Ben Davis High School and practitioner of the Sikh faith.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, with more than 26 million Sikhs worldwide and 1 million in the United States and Canada. About 2,000 Sikh families live in the Indianapolis area, many in Greenwood. Most came in the past decade and are served by five gurdwaras, or temples.
Sikhism was founded in India in the 15th century by Guru Nanak and follows his teachings as well as that of nine subsequent gurus. Among its core principles is the belief that there is only one God, who is the same God for all people of all religions. It also recognizes all people, regardless of gender, as equals.
“We believe that there is God inside of everyone,” explained Simrat Oberai, 12, of Zionsville.
“It’s a religion that doesn’t judge other religions,” added Sunny.
Five symbols of Sikhism set it apart from other faiths: Kara, Kesh, Kangha, Kachera and Kirpan:
• Kara — a bangle, usually made of iron or steel and worn on the right wrist — is the foremost symbol worn by all Sikhs. It is a symbol of strength, and the circular shape is a symbol of unity and eternity. This reflects the Sikh view that God is eternal and infinite and represents the unity between Sikhs and God.
• Kesh is uncut hair. Traditionally, Sikhs do not cut their hair, and Sikh men do not cut their beards. The long hair is usually wrapped in a turban.
• Kangha is a wooden comb used to keep the hair clean and tidy. It is usually tucked under the back of the turban.
• Kachera is specially made cotton underwear, which serve as a reminder of the commitment to purity.
• Kirpan is the sword, with which the pure defend the fine line of the truth.
Another important element of Sikhism is prayer. On Sundays, Sikhs gather at the gurdwara for worship and fellowship. They take off their shoes and settle in for an all-day event, complete with breakfast, lunch and a service in between.
The gurdwara is visited not only on Sundays, but frequently throughout the week. In addition, many Sikhs have rooms in their homes set aside for prayer.
Sikhs generally look to chanting as their main form of prayer. They have many simple chants, many in Punjabi, which they repeat throughout the day.
“Something was happening at school, I kind of got a little upset, and I just started chanting a little bit and it calmed me down,” Sunny said.
“The cultural values, the background we have, it’s really amazing,” added Deepika Verma, 19, of Indianapolis. “I think a lot of people would be amazed by it, but no one really takes the time to learn.”
Sikh youth often find that many of their friends are not familiar with Sikh traditions or values; some have not even heard of the religion at all, despite the efforts of many schools to introduce students to the plethora of religions in the world.
“I know in middle school, we learned about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism and all that, but we never once talked about Sikhism until freshman year,” Sunny said.
This lack of familiarity with Sikhism can cause problems for Sikh youth. While most of them do not display all of the symbols all of the time, they have to do a lot of explaining about the ones they do wear every day, usually the Kesh and Kara. Boys in particularly field questions and concerns about uncut facial hair, turbans and what are viewed as bracelets, especially in high school.
“Our turban, most people consider that something to do with terrorism,” said Darsh Singh, 16, of Indianapolis.
Sunny recalled a troubling incident when he was in middle school. “One person actually went so far to insult one of the five K’s by actually taking it off of me. But I confronted the principal about it and he told me that as soon as he found out who it was, he’d do something about it. But the guy ended up getting kicked out for some other reason, so it didn’t matter.”
Sikh children are used to being the only Sikhs in their classes. Still, they enjoy many of the same activities as other students, such as listening to music, going to movies and playing sports.
But there are some Western activities they avoid. Among them are parties where people might get drunk or act lewd.
“Our religion restricts us from drinking, and there’s a lot of drinking in high school, though there’s not supposed to be,” said Darsh. “And so we don’t want to go to the parties and stuff that we know that stuff will happen.”
Dating is also different with Sikh youth. While most of them have friends who come from a variety of backgrounds, families like to keep a closer eye on potential suitors. The scrutiny is even stronger for girls.
“You’ve been raised in America, but you’re around a lot of the older ladies and uncles who still think of the Indian way,” Deepika explained. “They look at the way you talk, dress, act, everything, and they have to point something out.”
While arranged marriages are rare, most of the youth said their parents would prefer that they marry a Sikh or a family friend. And for some families, the caste system is still something to contend with.
Though many Sikh teenagers feel pressured to conform to Western values, they are finding the strength to follow the traditions of their religion.
Even Sunny, who cut his hair for personal reasons, maintains fidelity to Sikhism.
“Growing up, my beliefs were definitely influenced by my parents, but as I’ve gotten older, I have definitely grown up to have my own set of beliefs and I no longer accept Sikhism because my parents accept it.
“I accept Sikhism because it’s what I believe to be right.”
Reporters Colleen Maynard, 11, and Anna Puderbaugh, 10, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2012 Y-Press