Why there are so few western converts to Sikhism

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Author Fatehpal Singh Tarney.

By Fatehpal Singh Tarney

HALIFAX (Canada): In past years, I have often used the term “Gora Sikh/Sardar” to identify myself. In recent times, I much prefer “Sabat Surat Sardar” or “Pakka Sardar.” No religion begins without converts and all religions begin as rebellions. However, many people born into a given faith tend to overlook this fact. Converts are often looked upon with some suspicion, or considered inferior devotees. The reverse of this is the idea that converts reinvigorate a religion – new people bring new life to it – new blood.

Religious conversion has been categorized as follows: free choice conversions; death bed conversions; marital conversions; forced conversions, and conversions of convenience, such as greater opportunities for upward mobility. Examples of this were non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire or under the Mughals in India who adopted Islam, or when parents wanted a child to be admitted to a prestigious Christian school. This was fairly common during the British Raj.

Westerners, however, who develop a keen interest in Sikhism are confronted with something quite unique and challenging. The common view in the West among those few who know anything at all about our religion is that Sikhism is not known to actively proselytize, but that it does accept converts. The challenge for the Western convert to Sikhism involves, among other things, language. My personal experience with Punjabi has combined frustration with some frivolity. I am quite proficient in the Spanish language; less so in Punjabi. However, my pronunciation in both languages has been considered excellent by native speakers. Good pronunciation can be both an asset and a liability in that people fluent in these tongues assume that I, too, am fluent, and begin speaking too rapidly for me. I use both words and hand gestures to slow both Spanish and Punjabi speakers down!

We do not proselytize as some other religions do, but since 9/11 we have been committed to educating non-Sikhs – especially in the West. In my view, parchar is very important. The great ragi from Australia, Bhai Dya Singh, once visited our south Florida Gurdwara Sahib and said something profound I never forgot it. He said, “Sikhism is the world’s best-kept secret!” I maintain that the world needs Sikhi. Gurbani is an oasis with a spring filled with wonderful water, but thirsty people pass it by. My wise and dear friend, Sardar Nirmal Singh Ji [Camp New Delhi] suggests that we Sikhs should give up hesitation and turn more proactive in talking about ourselves; our beliefs and faith practices to non-Sikhs in the West. In this way, the good that Sikhi offers becomes more visible for others to learn from and build on for common good. Given that there are far more Western converts to Islam, Buddhism, and various Hindu sects, than to Sikhism, it comes as no surprise that there are so-called “white” adherents of these faiths, whereas Western Sikhs, like me, often get the “But you’re a white man!” reaction to my saroop.

Once, at a Sikh owned and operated hotel, a young white lady working at the front desk – no stranger to Sikhs – began her conversation with me with these very words! After I spent five minutes explaining to her that Sikhism is not a race, ethnicity, or nationality, or language, but a religion whose principles guiding behavior are what are central, she reiterated, “But you’re a white man!” I also get from many gora people, “Gee, you don’t look like you’re from India!”

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I have come to the following conclusions regarding neophytes to our faith. They ought be told that Gurbani should be their priority. They do not have to immediately stop cutting their hair. The five kakkars and the turban do not have to be straightaway concerns. Sikh sewadars assisting prospective converts should point out the internal diversity within any Sadh Sangat. Point out to these people, for example, the fellow in Nihang bana with a long kirpan, and say that no newcomer should feel obligated to look like this. Newcomers should be educated about diet. Yes, many Sikhs are strict vegetarians, but others are omnivores with an emphasis, like me, on carnivore! We should explain why we do not eat halal and employ the jhatka method with the instantaneous killing of an animal, preferably with the single blow of a sword or ax, and that some Sikhs, out of respect for their Hindu friends and relatives, avoid beef.

Khalsa status can be a goal and something evolved to. This does not mean that new Sikhs should be discouraged from adopting the Sikh saroop if they are so inclined to do so. What about our Sri Guru Granth Sahib for the newcomer? I offer the following to fellow Sikhs purely as “food for thought.” Some years ago, I was very impressed with something a mullah in Egypt said. He made the point that a Western convert to Islam reading a Quran in English translation, but reading it with careful thought and devotion was superior in the eyes of God to someone in the Near East mindlessly reading it in Arabic and relying only on memorization based on repetition! Repeating words from holy scriptures is not always a bad thing. As always, Nirmal Singh Ji reminds me that Gurbani commends both Veechaar and Simarnaa, remembrance – both have their uses in learning and living values.

It is not my intention to challenge the use of the Punjabi language or Gurmukhi in any way. Once more, my wise and beloved friend, Nirmal Singh Ji, has pointed out the issue of language needs to be examined in a thoughtful manner. No one is trying to disconnect the original language from our Sri Guru Grant Sahib. I also, as a Westerner, appreciate Punjabi as an aid to identity in the Diaspora for youngsters to stay culturally connected with their ancestral roots and receive the message of Gurbani/Kirtan/Katha.

Many a Western convert to Sikhi has lamented the insularity of Punjabi Sikhs in their interaction with non-Punjabi Sikhs [and non-Sikhs] arguing that this prejudice to inconsistent with the message and teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
My own experience as a Western convert to Sikhism is to have seen people marginalized when they should have been embraced. Inclusion – not insularity – should be promoted and often it is not. Sikh ignorance of and lack of interest in the ideas and experience of Western converts should be a source of concern given the sad state of affairs in Punjab with drug and alcohol abuse as well as the persecution of Sikhs in the Muslim-dominated countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, I want to be fair. Through the years, I have been warmly welcomed by so many Sikhs of Punjabi origin. Most people who are Sikhs are the result of accident of birth, I do not imply that this is insignificant. People born into Sikh families have received a great blessing from God. Those of us who are Western converts have also received a blessing from God, but have been given a different path to the same divine essence. Sadly, there are still some people from my home Sadh Sangat who still treat me as an outsider despite over three decades of involvement there and having been president of Florida Gurdwara.

I have written through the years about the limited hospitality guests receive. It has always saddened me to see non-Sikh guests to a Gurdwara Sahib be greeted and recognized by a committee person, but then receive only minimal attention and friendliness from Sangat members. The excuse that language prevents cordial interaction is unconvincing. One does not have to be fluent in English to smile at a guest. A smile is a form of Sewa. Moreover, the infighting that occurs in Sadh Sangats often reaches local media including radio, television, and newspapers. This leaves people with a bad impression of our community. I have even witnessed verbal abuse and fisticuffs even when there are non-Sikh visitors present at a Diwan. My respected online friend, Sardar Jaidev Singh Ji in America, argues that if we hate, argue, and fight each other, why on earth would anyone join such a group? All religions, however, do have their fair share of infighting. If humans were perfect, we would not need congregations as we would already have achieved union with God.

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There are other positive things that counteract the negative. I have said on many occasions that my Christian wife has more Sikh friends than I have. My beloved mother, another devout Christian, worshiped at our Gurdwara Sahib for the last four years of her life and was accepted by so many in our Sadh Sangat. No one ever questioned their regular presence at a Sikh place of worship. My mother, born in Italy, said her prayers in Italian and absorbed our Shabads via the translations projected on big screens. God, of course, is multilingual!

My mother always had trouble keeping a chunni on her head. Caring women helped her with this and I, across the Diwan Hall, would regularly gesture to her to keep her head covered. Eventually, I went online and learned how to tie a hijab for her, which would stay on her head. I purchased several hijabs for her. The wonderful thing is that no one questioned my mother’s presence at our Diwans. I was often asked this question only out of pure curiosity, “Is your mother a Muslim? I would reply, “No, she’s a Christian!”

The reputation of our Langar, especially at Harmandir Sahib, has always impressed people around the world. Serving meals without charge to 50,000 people per day and 100,000 at Gurpurbs is amazing. I have a non-Sikh friend who visited Amritsar and was not only impressed with the Langar itself but also with the level of hygiene, particularly how plates and utensils were thoroughly cleaned. Yes, one would think that the Langar would be a means of spreading our faith. The Langar is praised by many, but when I look, for example, at the Hindus who walk down the street from their mandir to our Gurdwara Sahib for the Langar, their interest is a free meal. They can get a meal at their temple, but there is a charge. To be fair, and sad to say, many Sikhs come to the Gurdwara just to eat Langar.

Allow me to repeat something I have written about many times before. What are the motivations for non-Sikhs to visit a Gurdwara? I suggest that there are six such motivations with some obvious overlap:

1: Basic curiosity

2: A person has a Sikh friend

3: A student in a comparative religion class

4: A person involved in interfaith programs

5: A political candidate looking for support

6: A person with spiritual thirst who may or may not know that Gurbani can quench that thirst.

Most significant in my view is the 6th motivation which we as Sikhs must address in better fashion.

With the passage of time, established religions tend to develop new denominations and sects. Some of these evolve into completely independent groups, while others remain marginal to the mainstream. In Sikhism, there are groups such as Nihangs, Namdharis, Nirankaris, Sindhi “Sikhs,” and the 3HO [Sikh Dharma International].

Given that the first four groups in Sikhism have their origins in the Indian subcontinent, what is of primary interest here is the 3HO group, which began in the West. This group was founded by Yogi Bhajan. There is an emphasis on Kundalini yoga, vegetarianism, but a reverence for our Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the five kakkars. They try to spread the teachings of our ten Gurus, our Granth, but also the teachings of Yogi Bhajan. Despite their rhetoric of outreach, they are quite insular and peripheral.

I met Yogi Bhajan over 30 years ago in south Florida at the home of a devout member of our local Sadh Sangat. He predicted that I would eventually take Amrit, but it was unimportant to him that I was not in his 3HO group. As a Vietnam veteran with many comrades afflicted with drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions, I know Yogi Bhajan helped many of them. Even those who left Sikhism benefited from his influence. Some former members of this group have joined the mainstream Sikh fold.

I conclude this essay with a specific recommendation. When people express an interest in converting to our faith, stress Sahajdhari gradualism. Point out devout Sahajdharis. Encourage newcomers to join with other Sikhs in all religious and social activities and become active members of Sadh Sangats. But keep Khalsa baptism as a goal.

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