A Mormon Pilgrimage to Sikh Sacred Practice, Text, and Temple
This article highlights surprising parallels and intersections between Sikhism and the author’s own LDS Christian background. Three aspects of Sikh practice particularly worthy of “holy envy” include the devotion shown in the distinctive Sikh symbols of the Khalsa, the Sikh commitment to seva (service) including the practice of sharing langar (a community meal), and most particularly the Sikh appreciation of and loyalty to their holy scripture. The chapter centers on how the importance of Sikh scripture is embodied in the work and worship of the pilgrims at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The author affirms that the effort to approach Sikh scripture seriously and with holy envy, can open bridges of understanding and provide resources to enhance one’s own devotional and academic reading of scripture.
As a young college student , I traveled to India and became enamored of the various religious traditions I encountered there. This sparked a life-long interest in the religions of India. Through research and fieldwork in India, I have come to appreciate surprising parallels and intersections between Sikhism and my own LDS Christian background (my denomination is officially called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more commonly known as Mormon or LDS).1 During a trip to India in 2014 for my doctoral research, I traveled to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, to see the Harmandir Sahib, often referred to as the Golden Temple, which is the most famous gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in the world. I wanted to better understand how Sikhs experience this place of pilgrimage.2 My experience in Amritsar exceeded my expectations and increased my “holy envy” for the Sikh tradition. From my perspective, which is primarily influenced by my Mormon tradition, there are several elements of Sikhism that I find worth envying and even emulating. I have seen each of the elements that I will discuss in the following essay demonstrated in the actions of Sikhs with whom I have interacted in India as well as the United States including: dedication to wearing symbols of Sikh devotion; seva (service) including the practice of sharing langar (a community meal); and the most particularly the Sikh appreciation of and loyalty to their holy scripture.
First, I am drawn to the distinctive identity of Sikhs, evident in what Sikhs “do and wear and how they view themselves” most of which “can all be traced to Guru Gobind Singh’s Baisakhi of 1699.”3 Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, initiated the Khalsa (meaning pure in Punjabi) during a new-year celebration in 1699. The Khalsa is an order of Sikhs who have been initiated and made commitments to adhere to certain standards of dress and living. In addition to taking the name of Singh (meaning Lion) for males or Kaur (meaning princess) for women, those initiated into the Khalsa, also known as amritdhari Sikhs, wear five symbols each beginning with the letter K in Punjabi and thus known as the “Five Ks.” These include: underwear (kacha), a comb tucked into the hair (kangha), a bracelet (kara), unshorn hair (kesh), and a sword (kirpan). The covering of the unshorn hair with a turban for males or a scarf for women has become one of the most iconic of the symbols of Sikh identity although not technically one of the Five Ks. The most common of the Five Ks that I see worn by the majority of Sikhs (and that I’ve even seen worn by Mormons from a Sikh heritage) is the kara, a steel bracelet. Worn on the dominant hand, the noise made by the steel bracelet when it comes in contact with another surface in daily work is a powerful reminder to use the hands for good purposes. I appreciate this easily donned identity marker and admit that I have purchased one that I wear from time to time for fashion, but it also speaks to me of integrity when I have it on my wrist.4 I admire individuals like amritdhari Sikhs in modern secular society who choose to embrace pre-modern religious standards against the pressures they face to conform to contemporary culture. I acknowledge the diversity in global Sikhism that defies a monolithic description of Sikh identity, however even those Sikhs I know who choose to identify as Sikh without becoming amritdhari, honor the practices and devotion required to fully embrace a Khalsa Sikh identity. I also admire my Sikh friends who, while not embracing a full amritdhari identity, strive to live their lives in emulation of the very best of Sikh teachings.5
The importance of seva or service in the Sikh identity is another aspect of the tradition that is worthy of emulation. Having taught my students about the ways Sikhs prioritize this virtue in my World Religions classes, I was particularly delighted when our taxi driver, who drove us from the Golden Temple back to our car, didn’t charge us for the service. When I asked how much we owed him he said simply, “seva” which I immediately understood, and which spoke volumes about the commitment of this Sikh to his tradition. My friends at the local gurdwara in Salt Lake City, Utah practice the principle of seva when I bring students from my religion classes to visit. They have been so welcoming and willing to sacrifice precious time away from their busy lives to take visitors on tours, answer our questions and even be interviewed for and quoted in my research.
For anyone who enjoys Indian cuisine, it is easy to be envious of the Sikh tradition of langar. Visitors are often invited to arrive at the gurdwara in time to experience the singing of kirtan followed by the ardas(liturgical prayer recited at the conclusion of ceremonies with everybody standing up) and the karahprashad (ceremonial offering of food distributed at the end of Sikh worship). Then all are invited to stay and enjoy a free vegetarian meal called langar. Sitting side by side with people and “breaking bread” with them in an atmosphere of equality and welcome that originated in the early years of the Sikh tradition is delightful. Part of the thrill of visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar was visiting the langar hall in the Dharbar Sahib or the compound surrounding the Golden Temple. The massive numbers of volunteers preparing, serving, and cleaning up the food in such an organized way was an experience of a lifetime. At the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Salt Lake City, members of the Sikh community in Utah served langar to over 10,000 attendees from around the world daily.6 One Sikh who participated in serving langar emphasized the equalizing and unifying aspect of the practice, “The gurus started this tradition to say, ‘Regardless of who you are, where you come from, what your background is you’re welcome into this space’.”7
The various above-named elements of Sikhism, which I admire, demonstrate values inherent in the tradition. Diana Eck, in defending the Sikh tradition in the US explained, “Sikhs share three distinctly and deeply held American values—the importance of hard work, a commitment to human equality, and the practice of neighborly hospitality.”8 Eck related these Sikh values with “American values” but these are values that resonate across national and religious divides. They echo the teachings of my own Christian tradition. When I see such values so clearly evident in the lived religion of Sikhism it challenges me to be better. The Sikh qualities I have discussed thus far encompass more external practices. However, in what follows, I also examine the centrality and value placed on the sacred text of Sikhism, the Adi Granth (original volume) or Guru Granth Sahib. I use the term “sacred text” but I realize that for Sikhs, the Granth is more than just scripture.
Sikhs refer to their scripture as the Guru Granth Sahib. Knowing that guru refers to a spiritual leader or enlightened master and that sahib is an honorific term shows how highly Sikhs regard this text. For them it is “much more than a mere book; it is the abode of the gurus, the repository of the words of Akal Purakh (Eternal Being) transcribed by their Sikh masters. It is the Divine in material form.” The Guru Granth is even personified as the living guru of the Sikhs. The Granth is a collection of “divine poetry” from the Sikh Gurus as well as an “inclusive text” that contains poetry from Hindu Bhaktas and Muslim Sufis.9 The last living person to be called guru or master was Guru Gobind Singh who died in 1708. “A day before he passed away, he appointed the Holy Book as his successor.”10 This was not only a brilliant political move by Guru Gobind Singh to unite his people and remove further threat of martyrdom, it also elevated Sikh scripture in a way that makes it unique among religious traditions. With the passing of Guru Gobind Singh the line of living gurus ended and the Guru Granth Sahib came to be considered the embodiment of the Eternal Guru.
The Guru Granth is central to worship in Sikhism both physically and theologically. The gurdwara (meaning door to the guru) exists to house the guru in a manner reminiscent of the early days when “the ten human Gurus ‘held court’ with their community.”11 The main hall of a gurdwara is called the “darbar hall” (darbar meaning court) referring to royal courts “where Guru Granth Sahib is enthroned,”12 under a regal canopy. The Granth is surrounded by royal symbols as it, together with God , “holds court” with the sangat (community of Sikhs) in gurdwaras. When Sikhs first enter the gurdwara , they bow before the Guru Granth Sahib and usually contribute an offering. An officially sanctioned and beautifully embellished copy of the Guru Granth is prominently displayed on a throne-like platform with cushions and covered with beautiful cloths called rumalas, when it is not being read by a granti (reader of the Granth). Sikhs revere the Guru Granth through outward actions adding to the personification of the text including the fanning of the book with a chauri as one fanned royalty in ancient settings. Each night the gurdwara’s copy of the Granth is carried to a special room where it is placed in a bedchamber to retire. This royal symbolism is particularly evident when visiting the Golden Temple where the grand procession from throne to bedchamber at night and back again in the morning is a sight that gathered pilgrims throng to view. Most traditions find pride in their holy scriptures but the “ennoblement of the Adi Granth as the Guru Grant Sahib, the Living Guru, along with the performative aspects of their relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib, add additional dimensions to this pride” in the Sikh tradition.13
In my own tradition, the term “word” is equated with Jesus as the Christ who is referred to as the Word. Furthermore, reading and adhering to the words of Christ is part of accepting salvation through his teachings and sacrifice. This is perhaps why the Sikh perspective on their holy scripture resonates with me. In the World Religions courses I teach at Brigham Young University my students, nearly all of whom are Mormons, are asked to approach their study of each world religion by seeking to identify something that they find particularly admirable about the tradition. I use Stendahl’s concept of “holy envy” as I assign my students to complete a site visit and attend a worship service in a tradition other than their own. Students will discuss their visits in class as well as in a paper. One component of the paper is to find something “enviable” in the tradition. The majority of my students envy the respect and admiration Sikhs give to the Guru Granth Sahib. Their LDS Christian tradition has taught them to revere the word of God. The Book of Mormon equates the word of God with God himself and warns that ignoring the word of God is the equivalent of trampling “the very God of Israel under their feet.”14 Students know this, yet for many their scriptures gather dust on the shelf and are too often neglected—even on their smart phones. When they observe Sikhs honoring their holy book in the gurdwara , many reevaluate their perspective on their own care for and study of Holy Scripture.
One semester, a group of my students visited the local gurdwara . A member of the sangat, who was also a college student, took my students under her wings, helped them feel welcome, and generously answered questions. At the end of their visit she gave one of my students a gutka (a small collection of hymns from the Granth). My student recounted how her Sikh tour guide was adamant that if she gifted this book to her she had to observe certain rules about its care, like washing her hands and the proper storage of the book. These students agreed that because of their visit to the gurdwara , they would never view scripture in the same way. They felt the exposure to the way the Sikhs give such high regard to their scripture helped the students to reevaluate their own approach to scripture.
The Sikh Guru Granth differs from traditions where scripture is studied and preached in more cognitive ways because it is primarily a poetic work organized by meter and musical patterns, set to classical Indian ragas and intended to be sung as a form of worship. The language of the Guru Granth Sahib is Punjabi and it is written in a script call Gurmukhi. Gurbani kirtan “is the musical and oral performance of the most sacred Sikh scriptures.”15 The word gurbani can be translated as utterances of the guru and refers to the “singing of sacred verses accompanied by harmonium and tabla drums.”16 Kirtan is central to Sikhism because “it elucidates the devotee’s constant active engagement with and enactment of the sacred text.”17 Kirtan is an important element in understanding Sikh identity and devotion. Listening to and participating in kirtan is what a Sikh does at the gurudwara. Charles Townsend has conducted ethnographic research on kirtan in Sikh communities in Southern California. In answer to the question, “what do you do at the gurdwara?” one participant answered, “The first thing you do is—after you bow—you try to fully immerse yourself in kirtan. … Gurbani is the Word of God , so you almost take it as, OK, God is kind of singing to you through his messengers and He’s trying to tell you something, so you should sit down and listen to that.”18 There is also emphasis on learning to perform kirtan for youth in the gurdwara . I have observed performances of kirtan by youth who are learning to sing or play the harmonium or tabla. They performed prior to the more professional sounding ragis and granthis who specialize in performance of kirtan. The practice reminds me of how youth in my own tradition are often encouraged to play the piano so that they can master playing the hymns that are sung at worship services.
Kirtan has a distinct sound that is characteristic of Sikh worship, celebration and commemoration. I remember years ago our Sikh neighbors, who knew of my interest in learning about Sikhism, invited me to a special family event at their home. If my memory serves me right, it was a celebration and dedication of their new home. When I arrived at the home I heard the chanting accompanied by harmonium and tabla so familiar in Sikh culture. A large, beautifully embellished copy of the Granth was centrally placed and various men in the family took turns reading and performing the kirtan. I didn’t really understand the significance of the ceremony until years later. Through research, I understood that this was an akhand path (a continuous reading of the entire Adi Granth, lasting approximately 48 hours). This continuous performance of the Gurbani Kirtan is one of the ways Sikhs honor their sacred book of scripture and make it central in their celebrations of life events. I still remember the anticipation I felt at observing this Sikh tradition for the first time. I also remember eventually feeling uncomfortable because the recitation seemed to go on and on. My friends had told me that I could leave when needed, however I apologized profusely for not being able to stay for the entire recitation. I didn’t realize then that the conclusion was still about 45 hours away. I admire this concept of focusing on the word at important moments in life. In my own tradition we sometimes have scripture marathons, where youth try to read scriptures for an extended period of time, and challenges to read The Book of Mormon in a certain amount of time. None of these practices however are as structured and ceremonious as an akhand path.
Because the Adi Granth is made up of hymns or poetry it is difficult to translate, and the sacred nature of the Granth makes translation problematic as well. Thus, as Sikhism spreads to countries outside of India, the practice of kirtan presents a challenge for a younger generation unfamiliar with the original language. There is debate over the appropriateness of translation, and the compromise that I have observed in many of the gurdwaras I’ve visited in Utah and California is to project the English translation of the kirtan on a screen in the front of the darbar hall. As an outsider, my experience with kirtan is greatly enhanced by being able to cognitively understand the words being sung. Because of my Christian background I tend to prioritize the meaning of scripture over the mystical experience of listening to it being read or simply meditating on the Word. Seeing the Sikh approach to scripture challenges some of my assumptions about needing to analyze and achieve a strong cerebral understanding of holy writ. The emphasis on the experience of listening to kirtan, without necessarily focusing on a discursive message, also makes translation less of an issue.
The Sikhs I have interviewed seem less concerned with understanding each word of kirtan, and comment on the beauty and power in simply listening. This quote from Townsend’s interviews is typical of the way I have heard Sikhs describe Gurbani kirtan, “It is some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear in your life, because it puts you in that blissful state of mind.”19 The concept of focusing on the state of consciousness brought about because of the sound is characteristic of “some key pan-Indian concepts about the nature of scriptural sound.” The Sikh perception of the “Guru Granth Sahib as Naad (the Divine Word), an embodiment of the eternally sounding vibration which underlies all of existence” reflects the “the way Shruti (divinely revealed) scriptures—such as the Vedas—are viewed by many Hindus.”20 There is a sense that listening to the sound of Gurbani kirtan is transformative and is a way for Sikhs to connect to God . It is also an important way to connect with the global Sikh community.
There is an important aspect of Sikh scripture performed in Gurbani kirtan that also makes it communal. Coming to the “door of the Guru” or the gurdwara to hear kirtan creates community that provides an experience of the sacred text different from the experience of reading scriptures in private. As Sikhs have moved to various places in the world they have taken kirtan with them and their practice resembles what happens on a daily basis at the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple in Amritsar. What impacted me most in visiting the Golden Temple was the way the word was so central to every aspect of the experience. A distinctive aspect of worship at the Darbar Sahib is the practice of “continuous musical performance of the Divine Word.”21 The Guru Granth Sahib is the centerpiece within the temple and of the activities in and surrounding the temple. What was particularly noticeable at the Darbar Sahib was the ways in which the teachings of the Granth became visible in the actions of devotees. This lived “performance” of the Granth had the most profound influence on me.
Inside the Golden Temple and lining the marble pathways surrounding it, devotees were seated in prayer and meditation and noticeably engaged in reading their gutka prayer books and even accessing the Granth on their cell phones. Their interest in the word reflected a devotion I found enviable. I was not aware of any people around me flashing pictures or selfies with the building in the background. Instead there was a worshipful atmosphere both within and without that centered on the holy Word.
I wonder if the difference in the reactions to cleaning the temple that this man observed in Sikhism and Mormonism stemmed from a lack of internalization of the principle of service to god. One really should not need a lengthy sermon, or hours of reading various scriptural verses to understand that the ethos of scripture is to learn to love and serve god. I also wonder if the singing of kirtan by these Sikhs who were cleaning aided in making the work more of a joy. The atmosphere at the Darbar Sahib made me wonder if sometimes my Western, Enlightenment mindset, so focused on hermeneutics and exegesis, sometimes misses the point of scripture reading—transformation. If I’m not striving to bring my actions in harmony with the words I read in my daily devotional reading of the scriptures, I’m completely missing the point of the Word.
The thing that impressed me about the experience in the Golden Temple was … at the end of the day they started cleaning everything. Polishing the brass, polishing the gold, polishing the silver on the doors, sweeping, everything; which is not totally unusual, but they did it with such joy and happiness, and zeal—like it was a privilege, like it was an honor to be asked to clean and polish and I try to relate that to personal experiences with cleaning the LDS temples in Salt Lake and Houston where we’ve lived because we quite often have assignments to go and do that from time to time. I remember how difficult it was to get volunteers to go to the temple and clean and polish, and there just seemed to be different attitude about that task. In Utah it seemed like it was a task, an assignment. What I saw at the temple was an attitude of what an honor to be asked to do this. For some of these people it may be the high point of their life—they cleaned the temple. I even saw a woman who was using her scarf to polish.22
As Sikh scholar Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh argues, “While our world is getting to be a smaller place, we are apprehensive of losing our self, losing our ‘identity’. So instead of opening ourselves up and appreciating others, we are becoming more narrow and insular.” She also cautions that we are increasingly “threatened by each other’s religions.”23 Kaur Singh suggests an antidote to this apprehension: “It is simply a matter of reading scriptures from across religions.” She feels that because “scriptures are the quintessence of every religion” and because they “provide kaleidoscopic glimpses into the beyond, and simultaneously provide ethical models for living here on earth” they have the possibility to “help build bridges of understanding.”24
I have experienced the thrill when someone, not of my tradition, makes an effort to seriously read and understand a Mormon scriptural text. Regardless of whether they are convinced of scriptural truth claims, it is affirming to have someone take seriously that which is the center of your faith. As I have tried to approach the Sikh Guru Granth Sahib seriously and with holy envy, I have found bridges of understanding. Not only to my Sikh friends, but greater understanding of my own tradition. Seeing the relationship that Sikhs have to their sacred practice, text and temple have increased my understanding of my own relationship to scripture better and given me resources and new ways to enhance my own devotional and academic reading.
For more on comparative studies of Sikhism and Mormonism see Taunalyn Rutherford “Studying Sikhs and Meeting Mormons: A Comparative Study of Women in Two of the Newest World Religions” Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory (Taylor and Francis Online, 24 November 2016).
Amritsar is the religious capitol of the Sikhs and the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple is its spiritual and cultural center. Most Sikhs desire to make a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple and many have a photograph of it in their homes. See Owen Cole, Understanding Sikhism (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2004), 3–4. I find an interesting parallel between Amritsar and Salt Lake City which is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons from many parts of the world will travel to Utah to visit the Salt Lake Temple, which is also an iconic symbol of the church and an informal type of pilgrimage for many LDS.
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Sikhism : An Introduction (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 48.
It is generally considered acceptable for non-Sikhs to wear a kara. Wearing a kara also reminds me of a practice in LDS Christianity of wearing a “CTR” ring. LDS children are sometimes given a small inexpensive ring with the letters CTR on a small green shield, which stands for “choose the right.” Ideally, when faced with a decision between right and wrong, children are taught to consider what Jesus would do and then the letters on the ring will help them remember to choose the right. More expensive CTR rings are produced and sold by independent vendors and worn by many LDS as teens and adults.
I also see a parallel between amritdhari Sikhs and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have been endowed (initiated in temple rituals and covenants) and who adhere to certain standards, including wearing a symbolic temple garment under their clothing as a reminder of their promises made in the temple.
See Antonia Blumberg, “Sikhs Serve Thousands Free Lunch at Utah Conference to Demonstrate Equality,” in The Huffington Post, Oct. 17, 2015. Accessed 19 October 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sikh-langar-parliament-of-world-religions_us_5622c61be4b02f6a900c9e68
Diana L. Eck, “In Sikhs’ View, There Is No Stranger.” Dallas Morning News. August, 9, 2012.
Hindu Bhaktas and Muslim Sufis share an appreciation for religious devotion as well as striving for mystical consciousness. Prior to the beginnings of Sikhism elements from both of these traditions were practiced by sants who sought to overcome the divisions in Hinduism and Islam. See Michael Molloy, Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change, Sixth Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013), 193.
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, “The Guru Granth Sahib” in Sikhism in Global Context, p. 40.
Townsend, Charles M. “The Darbar Sahib” in The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies eds. Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 430.
Townsend, “The Darbar Sahib,” 430.
Townsend, “Gurbani Kirtan and the Performance of Sikh Identity in California” in Sikhism in Global Context (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 215.
The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, 1 Nephi 19:7.
Charles M. Townsend, “Gurbani Kirtan and the Performance of Sikh Identity in California” in Sikhism in Global Context, p. 209.
See “Introduction” in The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies eds. Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2. Otherwise, definitions in this paper are drawn mainly from Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Sikhism: An Introduction see “Glossary of Names and Terms,” 235–239.
Michael Nijhawan, Dhadi Darbar: Religion, Violence, and the Performance of Sikh History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 44.
Townsend, “Gurbani Kirtan,” 211.
Townsend, “Gurbani Kirtan,” 215.
Townsend, “Gurbani Kirtan,” 222.
Townsend, “The Darbar Sahib,” 438.
William Black, oral history, interview by Taunalyn Rutherford, April 25, 2014, Amritsar, India, notes in possession of author.
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh “The Guru Granth Sahib: A Global Reservoir” in Sikhism in Global Context, edited by Pashura Singh (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011), 41.
- Blumberg, Antonia. 2015. Sikhs Serve Thousands Free Lunch at Utah Conference to Demonstrate Equality. The Huffington Post, October 17. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sikh-langar-parliament-of-world-religions_us_5622c61be4b02f6a900c9e68. Accessed 19 Oct 2017.
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