This article was among the top ten favorites on the old version of my website. It is reproduced here with minor edits.
The first Sikh I ever met was in the book Sara Crewe which was an abridged version of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In it the Sikh servant of the sickly old man next door transforms the life of the orphan girl who lives in an unheated attic. Of course, all I knew about Sikhs came from the book. The Sikh wore a turban and had a kind heart. He used his persuasive powers to convince his master to provide the comforts that the Sikh then delivered through his own acrobatic prowess from one attic to the other.
This one character has lived in the back of my mind ever since as a mystery. As time went on, I learned tidbits in a glancing fashion from Kipling’s tales and more factual references in historical contexts. What I learned came down to, Sikhs are courageous and martial.
That is, until I became a minister at a little non-denominational church in Minneapolis. My co-ministers and I were looking for ethical guidelines for ministry. I found a website about Sikhism and what was expected from leaders and experienced a frission of recognition. There were only a couple of things on the list that didn’t quite make sense (because I didn’t have context), most notably that hair should never be cut. The project we were working on got back-burnered by more immediate concerns, but what I read then has continued to ferment in the back of my mind.
Just this week I decided to do a little more investigation into this relatively new religion. It’s only 500 years old. And there is so much more information now than only 7 years ago. The reason behind the prohibition against cutting hair is explained: If God created your hair, it is sacred and must be protected and cared for. The purpose of the turban is thus explained. Having read a few explanatory sites, I then began to wonder about women’s experience in this culture that is so much about championing the weak and service to all peoples, not just Sikhs.
In asking the question, I came across the story of Balpreet Kaur. A college student who was photographed without her knowledge and the photo was posted on Reddit. She has responded with courage, wisdom and compassion and is using her experience to educate non-Sikhs about her religion and expand the discussion. She has also talked about her struggles to grow to the place where she could respond to unkindness with kindness.
When I look at her photo I see light and beauty radiating out and I am inspired. One of the hardest challenges for us humans is bucking the expectations of the greater society on any level. How we are supposed to look or act, how we are supposed to make a living or recreate are only a few of the ways of being in the world that can be judged harshly by other humans. And most of those doing the judging have been judged harshly, and possibly, unjustly, themselves. Our efforts to get others to “toe the line” spread misery. The Sikhs are called upon to defend the rights of all beings to live free and un-oppressed which may be why they have a warlike reputation. They also are called upon to help those in need.
Imagine what the world would be like if all humans lived according to the Sikh values as far as they relate to how we treat people outside of our own religion or sense of fashion. What if medievalists could wear cotehardies to work and lovers of Japanese culture could wear kimonos on a night out? What if hairy women could be hairy and bald men could be bald without judgement? What if a Muslim could have a prayer rug at work next to a co-worker who is a witch with a pentacle?
Why are we not all perceived as beautiful for being true to who we are rather than for what we look like? There was a saying I heard a lot as a child, “Beauty is as beauty does.”