The large Sikh men with long white mustard beards pounded the drums. Sikh men with red, blue, and even orange colored turbans sat cross-legged in all corners of the sanctuary. Women dressed in bold blue, green, and purple Punjabi suits sat consumed in prayer. As I sat on the red carpet among the 300-400 guests in the audience with my hair covered in an orange patka (head covering) and my feet crossed I could not help but realize the significance of this moment as the Sikh prayers seemed to float towards heaven and consumed my body and soul. I had to constantly remind myself that I was not in a Sikh temple in a village in the Indian Punjab but in Rockville, Maryland.
Last Sunday November 13th, I had the privilege of attending the most important Sikh holiday honoring Guru Nanak- the revered founder of Sikhism. My mentor Ambassador Akbar Ahmed whom the BBC calls “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” was invited by the Sikh community to give the keynote address. This was the first time that a Muslim had ever been invited to speak at this very large Sikh temple. Ambassador Ahmed spoke about religious pluralism and tolerance and the need for Muslims and Sikhs to live at peace. The Ambassador averred that through Guru Nanak’s life we “learn how he promoted the dialogue between the two great religions of India; Hinduism and Islam which added to the beauty and birth of Sikhism.” Ahmed narrated the message of Guru Nanak during his visit to Baghdad and Mecca `and his exchange with Muslim and Sufi holy men in the 16th century. He quoted one of his favorite sayings of Guru Nanak: “When I give myself to thee O, Lord, the whole world is mine.” Ahmed spoke of the great Sufi Islamic saint Mian Mir, who in an act of religious pluralism was invited by Guru Arjan to lay the foundation stone at the Golden Temple, the Mecca of Sikhism. Ahmed conveyed how Guru Nanak and Mian Mir taught us the importance of remembering the “unity of God” and to love all of humanity.
Ahmed reminded us about the pain of partition when in 1947 India and Pakistan separated. He said it felt like “a knife had gone through the heart of all of us… and separated us.” He urged that the healing process must begin. When Ambassador Ahmed finished Dr. Rajwant Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, said “my heart was pounding with the power of his words” and that Ambassador Ahmed’s message was very important for the entire south Asian community. Later Manjula Kumar, a prominent Indian and a director at the Smithsonian institute, wrote that Ahmed was “creating history... I have never had such a wonderful experience at any Gurdwara.”
In addition to Dr. Singh we met White House representative Tuyet G. Duong. She spoke about the Obama administration’s desire to strengthen the relationship between the White House and the Sikh community. She told us about the similarities she found in her Buddhist faith to Sikhism. We also met Dr. Nisar Chaudhury, the President of the Pakistan American league , who advocates people to people contact among Indians and Pakistanis to foster harmony in the subcontinent and has organized trips of Pakistani physicians to visit India recently, was visiting his first Gurdwara (a Gurdwara is a place of worship for Sikhs) and was thrilled. We were also introduced to an inspiring Sikh, Sardar Harcharan Singh Brar who is head of the Mian Mir foundation in Amritsar and his organization is working to bring together relatives separated during the tragedy of the partition and has brought together 600 people together such families. Mian Mir was a Sufi Muslim and this man is a Sikh. This is the equivalent of an Israeli Jew leading a foundation whose namesake is a Palestinian Muslim.
Once the speeches ended I found myself sitting in the basement cross-legged on the floor with the other guests. As I used my right hand to mix delicious warm green curry with white rice I leaned far forward. This was an attempt to avoid spilling the curry on my gray and favorite pair of nice pants. I was surrounded by the kindest Sikh men and women; young and old and all ages in between. As I continued to enjoy the delicious Punjabi cuisine young boys dressed in traditional Sikh garb carrying the symbolic Sikh daggers offered me napkins and more food.
The hospitality and warm environment in the Sikh temple transported me back to my time in India when I enjoyed delicious dinners with my Hindu host family on the floor of our Kolkata home. During my time in Kolkata I felt the tension between the Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. The area I resided in Kolkata was heavily Muslim and was known to many as “Little Pakistan.” I was pained when I heard Hindus and Sikhs refer to the area as “Toilet Avenue.” You could feel the division when older Hindu and Sikh friends talked to me about Muslims and spoke negatively and fearfully of our neighbors. The history and religious differences are very alive for my Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh friends in India. These experiences in India stayed with me as I began attending college in America.
As an American University college student and undergraduate senator I represent roughly 6,000 students in the American University student government. My university is a unique place where my constituency comprises of students of all backgrounds and faiths. I live in a community where I can have Zionist Jewish friends while also having Muslim Palestinian friends. However, to witness such a degree and commitment to religious pluralism as was shown at the Sikh temple was very moving. Interfaith dialogue is a challenging enterprise at this time of widespread Islamophobia, prejudice, and a media that often increases misunderstanding between people.
As a student committed to humanism, I am working outside of my university to bring the Jewish and Muslim communities of Washington together. At times I do worry about the misunderstanding and fear some Americans hold towards one another. This is precisely why the event on Sunday was so significant. I left the event feeling confident that if Muslims and Sikhs can be friends that Muslims and Jews can be too.
The event at the Sikh temple exemplified the genius of Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington, the American founding fathers. The event showed American religious pluralism in live action. As a Jewish American college student from Bethesda, Maryland it was an unusual situation to be in a Sikh Gurdwara with a Pakistani Muslim, who was the former Ambassador from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. In how many countries can a Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, and Sikh pray and eat peacefully together? How many countries in the world have a Sikh community that is so committed to bringing different people together that they would invite a Pakistani Muslim to speak on their most religious holiday? The event on Sunday was the equivalent for Jews of inviting a Palestinian Muslim to speak at a synagogue on a day honoring Moses. The founding fathers would have been pleased to see that their dream of a religiously pluralistic America is still of the utmost importance in their own country today.
DYLAN KAPLAN is currently studying at American University and is a senator representing the undergraduate student body. Dylan is also a Researcher with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed and is active in interfaith dialogue.
Sikhs and Muslims Can Come Together for Guru Nanak's Birthday