Originally written by Gurumustuk Singh and posted on Mr. Sikhnet on November 2, 2014.
This blog post is about my personal experience as an American-born Sikh with parents from Christian and Jewish backgrounds; the changing world of Sikhi, and how people from different cultures and continents are connecting with this lifestyle, along with some lessons I have learned, and how I personally apply the teachings of Gurbani and Sikhi in my life and through SikhNet.
The universal message of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib has spread through the hearts of people all over the world from all religions and cultures. This article shares a little bit of my story in this tale of inspiration, the challenges, and also tells my experience of how the Guru continues to inspire seekers in places you might not know through many different avenues.
Most Sikhs come from families born in India. However, during the past 40+ years, many small “sprouts” have grown in various parts of the world, from other cultures and backgrounds. Like ripples in the water they are spreading further and further out. With Guru’s blessings, and the lifetime seva of Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, countless people have been exposed to the teachings of Guru Nanak.
What most Sikhs don’t understand is what attracts these souls to this path. It’s quite different when you are born into a Sikh family and culturally are raised in this environment. However, when you are born in a different culture, with different language and religious beliefs there are many more bridges that have to be crossed to relate to Sikhs and this lifestyle. If “Joe American” were to walk into an average American Gurdwara and ask questions, there are major communication challenges in explaining Sikhi in a way that the western mind can understand and relate to.
Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji had a way of relating and communicating to westerners that really connected with the American youth of the time. He originally came to America (from India) in 1968 to teach yoga at Toronto University, and during a visit to Los Angeles, though virtually unknown, Yogi Bhajan met a number of young hippies, the “spiritual seekers” of that era. He immediately recognized that the experience of higher consciousness they were attempting to find through drugs could be achieved by practicing the Science of Kundalini Yoga, while simultaneously rebuilding their health and nervous systems. People becoming Sikhs was an unintended “side-effect.”
So while most of you probably do not practice yoga, for countless other people Kundalini Yoga was THE way they got introduced/exposed to Sikhism and the teachings of Guru Nanak. These people would likely never have been exposed to Sikhism or even considered it their spiritual path. Ultimately the Guru can work through all of us. For whatever reason Guruji guided SSS Harbhajan Singh Khalsa to come to the west (America/Canada) and start teaching Kundalini Yoga, meditation, and a healthy, happy and holy lifestyle. These “seeds” were planted and they are still growing and flourishing today. 50 years from now I can only imagine what these “seeds” will have grown into, and how they will have spread far and wide. It gives new meaning to the the slogan we recite after Ardas “Raj Karega Khalsa…Aaki rahe na koe, Khawar hoe sabh milainge, bacheh sharan jo hoe.”
I am a second generation Sikh born in the mid 1970’s in Los Angeles, California with the name “Guru Mustuk Singh Khalsa.” My parents’ generation were some of these “pioneers” embarking on a totally new journey on this Sikh path. Both came from mixed religious backgrounds; with my mother from a Jewish family and my father from a Christian family. They were some of the early western/non-Indian people to adopt the Sikh path. My mother was just a teenager when she met Siri Singh Sahib/Yogi Bhajan. She was like many others who were inspired by the universal message he shared, and she yearned to learn more.
Many Sikhs underestimate the hardship and challenges that are the result of someone NOT from a Sikh family becoming a Sikh. I know of many friends who have been disowned by their parents because they changed their religion and gave up the “family name.” Just imagine if none of your friends and family that you grew up with were Sikhs, and if many of them didn’t support your choice of wearing a turban, growing your hair and living this lifestyle. It takes real courage to make these choices and adopt the Sikh lifestyle which is very different from your upbringing.
When I was about 8 years old, I started my own adventure by going to boarding school in Mussoorie – India and I continued school there in India till I graduated from high school. Those 10 years really shaped who I am as a person and gave me the cross cultural understanding which helps me serve through SikhNet in the role of a bridge builder. Coming from multiple religious and cultural backgrounds has helped me be much more open, compassionate and understanding to other people. It helps me truly appreciate the path of Nanak who preached of One God, many paths, and all of us being from the same Creator.
I still get questions from people shocked that I (a white person) am Sikh and wondering WHY??? As if they missed something, or just couldn’t imagine that the Guru’s message and practices would be of value/interest enough for someone not born into it. For me it just shows how disconnected many Sikhs are from the value and message of the Gurus, and the gift that this lifestyle is.
Even though I was born to a Sikh family, It was difficult being a “white” Sikh youth. Everywhere I went I would get stares. We were clearly different. In India, it was such a novelty for people seeing a “white sikh” since it was not very common. In America the stares were there as well with people wondering who/what I was. So everywhere I went I would stand out like a sore thumb. Most kids want to fit in, NOT stand out. It didn’t help either that many “Heritage” Sikhs from Punjabi background would pre-judge and generalize me and the actions of any western born Sikhs into a single “3HO” entity, as if we were the same person and all the same. Most often this was out of lack of understanding about who we were, what we were about, and little or no real understanding of this community of seekers. All that was required was someone to have an open heart and look deeply to see the same longing for the Guru, and to get to know me and others as real people.
To this day I and other “White Sikhs” are generalized and lumped into a category of “3HO people” (typically when being criticized) as if we were not “real” Sikhs. These sort of labels and categorizations are inaccurate and only divide us. Definitely not what Guru Nanak Dev ji had in mind, since he always embraced diversity and accepted everyone.
I don’t make any apologies to others for who I am or my daily practice as a Sikh. Whatever tools I can use to become stronger and connect to the Guru I will use. Every morning in the amrit vela when I wake up, I start my Sadhana (daily discipline) with some Kundalini Yoga – to stretch and wake up my body and mind, so that when I recite the banis and do Waheguru simran I’m fully alert. My body becomes “tuned up” for the day. It’s how I stay healthy and handle the stresses of everyday life and working on a computer all day for SikhNet.
Whether you practice yoga or not, It’s a good idea for all of us to put more emphasis on exercise, healthy body and healthy living (through whatever means you prefer). If I have all kinds of health problems my energy and focus are not there; I then may not be able to sit in Gurdwara, I can’t focus or meditate or will be focusing on my own pain and discomfort. Are we really following the Sant Sipahi (Soldier Saint) lifestyle that Guru Hargobind started and Guru Gobind Singh embodied? There are many tools and things that can be done and it is up to each individual to practice what works for them. What works for me may not work for you, but there is the blessing that we have many options for each of us to choose from.
Detractors will try to tell me how yoga is against Sikhi without even understanding what I practice and the practical benefits of it to a householder. Then there are some people who have so much anger or hate inside themselves that they have made it their “mission” to slander, spread false and misleading information, making every attempt to put down SSS Harbhajan Singh Khalsa and Sikhs from western origin, in a supposed attempt to “save” others from us, as if they know THE right way. They spread false info saying we regard yogi bhajan as our “Guru”, or “worship idols”, do “hindu pujas” and all sorts of random things that are so far from the truth; and people blindly believe it! I only wish they would come and see the reality for themselves. There is so much “Hindu-phobia” that anything someone posts online that triggers that “itch” is believed, and the negativity then spreads. Such is the disease of Ninda (slander). God gave us limited energy on this earth and we can choose it to uplift or destroy.
People can be so close minded that they fail to understand that there is no “One way” or the “right way”, and so many ways to look at something. It all just depends on your frame of reference. It’s important for us to open our minds to other perspectives. Without doing so, I think we become stuck and don’t grow spiritually.
The reality is, that when someone from a different religious and cultural background is learning about Sikhi, they do so from a very different frame of reference.
When my parents and others were first learning about Sikhism and adopting this path, they didn’t have an instruction manual. There was (and still is) a lot of learning and mistakes along the way. There was the language and cultural barrier that was very real. Everything from how to tie a turban, organizing a Gurdwara, taking a hukam, why we wave the chauri sahib, making prashad, taking shoes off, concepts of langar, doing nitnem, everything was a blank slate and had to be learned. It wasn’t till much later that printed materials like the “Victory and Virtue – Sikh Dharma Ministers Manual” were created to be references for the sangat to learn about some of the basics.
Before the digital age of Gurbani our community relied on “shabad sheets” that were given out during Gurdwara that had English translations and romanized versions of the Gurmukhi so the sangat could sing the kirtan and understand the shabad. Ardas was most often recited in English and even Akhand path was read by individuals in either English or Gurmukhi (depending on their ability). For us it was a necessity to have some understanding and connection to the Guru in the language we understood. It made the Guru more accessible to new seekers discovering this path.
Probably the most frustrating thing I have found on this path is the tendency for so many Sikhs to be extremely closed minded and judgemental. Especially in this digital age where we see or hear about people from afar, and don’t really know them. This is a challenge for new people coming into this Dharma or youth finding their identity as a Sikhs. I grew up listening to the stories of the Gurus. The stories of compassion, gender equality, acceptance, courage, openness and acceptance of all. In reality what I see too often is far from this picture of Sikhi. Why would anyone want to become or stay a Sikh if they were judged and criticized about what others thought they were doing wrong?? Why not give the person some help or try to understand what they are going through by seeing from their perspective. It’s as if our minds are trained automatically to find fault in anything that someone is doing, instead of seeing the God and goodness in the other person. It’s a self destructive path that only divides.
To illustrate this point: In 2001 on SikhNet we posted a news article with some pictures and story about the first Amrit Sanchar in Chile (South America). When I read the article and saw the pictures, It was so inspiring for me seeing the faces of these new Khalsa in this far away place having the gift of receiving the Guru’s amrit. I could see their love and longing for the Guru. When reading the comments on the page I was surprised to see a number of people picking out various things and criticizing. It’s as if they had not noticed that a monumental thing had happened (despite any shortcomings). The beauty of what had happened appeared to have been totally missed. I could go on and on with examples such as this, but you get the point.
This same issue applies to youth (from Punjabi families) growing up in the west who feel less connected to Sikhi, and who, during their ups and downs of trying to find their identity as a Sikh, are “cast out” of the community and Gurdwaras instead of being supported during their “down times.”
When I was a teenager and finding my way, I went through a phase of experimentation with drugs, alcohol, smoking, partying, etc. If my family, friends and community cast me out during this time then I would be a very different person than I am today. For me that low part of my life was necessary for me to understand and appreciate the value of this path. It gave me the passion and drive to devote my life to serving through SikhNet. It helped me be compassionate to others and more understanding, since I have no idea what their destiny is and what lessons they need to learn to become a better person. It’s not for me to judge. Just for me to see the God and light in that person. I try to see below the surface, the hurt and pain that is showing up on the surface for that person. You can watch the Youtube video where I share a more detailed account of this and the beginnings of SikhNet.