Bahai News - Beyond Turbans And Shawls Sikh Religion Often Has Outward Signs, But True Practice Is

Beyond Turbans And Shawls Sikh Religion Often Has Outward Signs, But True Practice Is

They have no temple in Nashville, but local Sikhs still manage the way they have for decades, confident in their faith that the one God is everywhere. Sikhs are a tiny minority -- perhaps 40 families in Middle Tennessee -- but are recognizable for the turbans that men traditionally wear, which is why Prem Singh Kahlon plans to wear his tomorrow when he enters a local Unitarian church as guest speaker about his religion. But his message goes further than headwear.

`Everything in the religion points to equality before God,` said Kahlon, a longtime Nashville resident who teaches biology at Tennessee State University. Kahlon speaks at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Church, 374 Hicks Road in Bellevue. It's part of the church's continuing series of speakers on world religions. On Wednesday, Kahlon returns to discuss Sikh traditions at 7:30 p.m.

Sikhism's low profile here obscures the fact that it's the world's fifth-largest religion, with about 20 million practitioners, most of them in India's Punjab region, and is about 500 years old. The word `Sikh` (Westerners pronounce it `seek`) means `disciple` in the Punjabi language. Sikhs believe in one God and follow the teachings of 10 gurus who lived between 1469 and 1708, starting with Guru Nanak.

Sikhs revere their scriptures, called the Guru Granth Sahib, which were written to be sung in worship settings. The message has a strong egalitarian instinct, declaring that salvation comes not from social caste, superstition or asceticism but by meditation on God. `God is known by different names but is the same God,` Kahlon said. `He has many names and no name -- God is formless, never born, and never dies.` Sikhism has been described as a faith that emerged out of religious conflict in northern India. `It was a time also of vivid and moving devotion to God, all of which was influential on Guru Nanak, though even more so was his own profound experience of God,` says The Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. `He did not attempt to merge Hinduism and Islam, but simply insisted on the worship of the True Name, God who can be found within and does not require the rituals and doctrinal controversies of existing religions.` The religion is also known for its practitioners who never cut their hair -- men who bundle it up in a turban, women who gather it in a shawl.

Traditionally, this was a practice of especially devout Sikhs, called Khalsa, one of several ways of shaping Sikh identity and solidarity at a time of persecution and military struggle in the early days. The Khalsa also wore a bracelet to remind them of ethical restraint, and kept a ceremonial sword as a symbol of dignity -- not a weapon, but a reminder of the struggle against injustice. In Nashville, far from the pull of homeland custom, some Sikhs keep their hair long; others do not. `I still wear the turban -- I wanted to be easily recognized,` said environmental engineer Devinder Singh Sandhu, 46, who does not cut his hair. `Traditionally, the reason was to give a person a distinctive look that forces you to stand up for you who are.` Long hair was also a traditional sign of holiness across religious traditions. Moses and Jesus are customarily depicted as long-haired.

Prem Kahlon, 64, started cutting his hair after he arrived in Nashville in the 1960s, but he said the heart of Sikhism is believing in the one God and treating people compassionately, as equals. `Truthful living is higher than truth, in the sense that you must practice what you believe,` he said. `God is the reality, but if you don't practice it in your heart, God's words are meaningless.`

Local Sikhs worship together about once a month. They take turns as hosts of the gatherings in people's homes. For years there has been talk about building a temple, but the number of families remains relatively small and, so far, no definite plans have formed.

Kahlon's talk is part of an ongoing survey of other faiths at the Greater Nashville congregation, which welcomed Baha'i and Mormon representatives earlier this year. The subject will be contemplative Catholicism on Jan. 21 and 24, and Sufism on Feb. 11 and 14. `We wanted to explore some lesser known world religions -- it's a beneficial exercise to expose ourselves to new ideas, new thoughts,` said church member Bill Perkins.Additional caption: Prem Singh Kahlon reads from the Sikh scriptures, called the Guru Granth Sahib.

Kahlon will speak about the Sikh religion next week as a guest at Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Church. `God is known by different names but is the same God,` Kahlon says.Kahlon does his reading in the temple he has created in his home in Nashville. Local Sikhs do not have a temple in town but meet together to worship in one another's homes.


©Copyright 2000, The Tennessean

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