Several years ago, I was taking a Multicultural Education class and had an assignment to do a cross-cultural interview. We each had to choose someone from a different background. The instructions said it had to be someone whose culture was unfamiliar or whose cultural values are different than your own. Then we needed to set up a one-hour interview with that person and learn about that different culture. When I first heard about this assignment, I had no idea who I could possibly interview. I have met people from many different cultures, and have found out as much as I can about different lifestyles. I couldn’t imagine who I knew little about, yet would feel comfortable asking to interview. If I knew them well enough to interview them, I already had a moderate amount of information about their culture/lifestyle.
After a while, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to interview someone of the Sikh religion. I had taught several Sikh students while substituting in the local school districts, especially in Upper Darby School District. I had seen those students wearing their patkas (a type of turban), but never knew why. I decided to look up a little bit about the religion and found it interesting. Then I found out that there is a Gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) not far away, in the Upper Darby area. I was a little nervous, but called and asked if anyone would be interested in allowing me to interview to get information. I explained that I was a student who needed to find someone of a different culture to learn about. The man was very nice, and invited me to visit the following day.
I interviewed Singh, a Bhai Sahib (kind of like an assistant priest) at the Philadelphia Sikh Society. To be a Bhai Sahib, one must be at least 28, and must study other religions.
One thing I found out was that “Singh” is attached to every male Sikh’s name (the women use Kaur) to indicate that they are Sikh. So, I am able to use the name as a true but anonymous way to identify my interviewee. Singh means “lion” and Kaur means “princess”.
I had done a little research online (although knowing not to completely believe online information) before the interview, so I had taken a scarf with me. When I arrived at the Gurudwara, I asked Singh if he would be more comfortable if I covered my hair, and he said he would be. I put the scarf over my hair, and then I was asked to remove my shoes and wash my hands. Afterward, he took me into the Diwan hall – the prayer room. Then we sat cross legged on the floor for the interview.
I asked Singh about their holidays. It turned out that one of their most important holidays, Diwali, started on Friday, November 5 that year.
I asked many questions about different aspects of their lives. One question was about dietary restrictions. He said that the religion does not have any requirements about foods, although they are urged to “eat little”. He said there is some controversy over whether or not it is permissible to eat meat. He also said that many Sikhs are vegetarian, because God created all creatures, and they don’t want to harm any of God’s creatures. He is vegetarian, so he does not eat any meat, birds, fish, or insects.
Singh told me that Sikhs believe in leaving the body the way it was created. For that reason, they do not cut or dye their hair, or shave. They do not get piercings or tattoos. Sikhs are not allowed to use alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or any other unnatural substance which changes the body or its functions. Natural herbal medications are allowed. Because they do not cut their hair, it gets very long, which is why they wear the turbans. Wearing one is practical, but it is also for religious/modesty reasons. Sikhs must keep their hair covered unless they are showering. Since they believe that God is everywhere, they cannot uncover their hair even when they are not in public. Long hair (kesh) is one of the 5 articles of faith of the Sikhs.
Sikhs are to defend the defenseless. They are also to wake early, pray, and then work hard and honestly. They must share their food and wealth with others. They must perform sewa (service) to help others. One way they do this is through their Langer (sacred community kitchen).
Women are equal to men, so they are allowed to travel alone, work outside the home, and drive. They can work at any job which does not require them to be immodest. Sikhs are allowed to be in acting (theater), as long as they do not perform anything against their beliefs (nudity, for example).
The philosophy of the Sikhs is to avoid, as much as possible, lust, anger, greed, attachment to the world, and ego. They have a saying similar to the Golden Rule to treat others as you would have them treat you. Sikhs are very accepting and tolerant of people of other cultures and religions.
Non-Sikhs are welcome to join in any Sikh ceremonies or other functions. There are rules that must be followed, however. All Sikhs and non-Sikhs must remove their shoes, cover their heads, and wash their hands. Also, no one can “bring tobacco or its products, drugs, alcohol or other intoxicants” and “should not have taken drugs or alcohol” when visiting the Gurudwara.
At the end of the two hour interview, I was given tea to drink, and freshly made snacks. The snacks, called samosas, were freshly made right there in the kitchen. Singh also gave me some books to read, and a sweet boxed dessert called soan papdi, which is a sweet flaky almond and pistachio candy.
On Friday, November 5, my children and I attended the Diwali festival at the Philadelphia Sikh Society in Upper Darby. Before we left home, we all covered our heads. My daughter and I wore caftans, and head scarves. My son wore regular clothing, but I fashioned a turban for him out of a head scarf.
When we arrived, we removed our jackets and shoes, and then washed our hands in the hallway. I walked them through the Gurudwara so they could see all of the building. We went into Langar, the sacred communal kitchen. I asked if I could help, but we were told to sit. There were several rows of people on the floor, so we found a spot and joined them. Within seconds, people started walking past us, down the rows, handing out plates, cups, spoons, food, and water. Two of the foods were very spicy, one was sour, and two were sweet. There was also a flat kind of bread. Bags of sweets were handed out, too. On a table were many oil lamps that were lit. Food is usually eaten with the hands, with or without bread to pick it up.
After we ate, I took the children into the prayer room. We saw my friend, Singh, sitting up front, playing some drums with two others. We sat and listened until they were done playing. I had hoped to spend some time talking with him, but it was getting late and the children were tired. Singh came into the hallway as we were getting ready to leave. We talked for just a few minutes, and then he gave us a box of candy called burfee.
In all, it was a wonderful experience, and I was very happy to have been invited and to share it with my children!
Photo credits: Amarpreet Singh