Sunday, August 12: Visit a Gurdwara Day

Sunday, August 12: Visit a Gurdwara Day August 7, 2012

Two days ago a gunman killed six Sikhs at their place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

And the response of America so far seems to be: “What’s a Sikh? Oh, never mind–tell me about the Olympics.”

Well, I’m happy to tell anyone who cares (and even those who don’t) everything I know about Sikhs (which is much less than I’d like).

Here’s a starting point for anyone reading this blog who doesn’t know about Sikhism (I beg indulgence from folks who know about Indian religion and know how much I’m simplifying here):

Sikhism is an Indian religion which most scholars would describe as an offshoot of “bhakti” Hinduism. Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, usually focuses on some particular manifestation of God–often involving myths, images, elaborate temple rituals, etc. The idea is that by focusing on this particular “form” of God (who is ultimately beyond all forms and images) you stir up your emotions and move toward ultimate union with God.  So typically in Hinduism you have “bhakti” religion which is highly personal and colorful, involving practices that Christians, Muslims and Jews tend to see as idolatrous, and then you have the philosophers who say that God is beyond form and image and is ultimately the one source of everything in the universe.

But in the late Middle Ages some “bhakti” poets began to say, “Why not just worship the God who is beyond form and image? Why should only the philosophers know this God? Why stop at particular forms and images and incarnations when everyone agrees that these are just symbols of the ultimate Reality?” So various devotional movements developed which promoted personal devotion to the one God recognized in principle by pretty much all Hindus.

Meanwhile, Muslims had conquered much of India, and Sufi Muslim mystics were saying things about God that were very similar–that ultimate devotion to God consists in union with Him in love; that God is beyond all form and image; and so on.

Many of these bhakti poets (and some of the more radical Sufis) began to say that a true lover of God would neither be Hindu nor Muslim. One of the most famous of these devotional poets was Kabir. Another was Nanak. Nanak is considered the founder of Sufism, but poems by both Kabir and Nanak made their way into Sikh Scripture.

Nanak’s basic teaching was that God is the ultimate Reality, beyond any form or image, and that human beings (no matter their caste or religion) could reach union with God through love and devotion to His Name. He differed with Islam’s harsher teachings about wrath and judgment, as well as Islam’s insistence on the Qur’an as God’s final revelation and on particular ritual practices such as pilgrimage to Mecca, etc. At the same time, he rejected Hindu ritual practices and the worship of particular “deities” as manifestations of God, and he rejected the caste system with particular vehemence. A basic Sikh practice from then until now is a communal meal to which all are invited, called the “langar.”

And this brings me to the practical point of this blog post. I urge anyone who is able to make this next Sunday, August 12, “Visit a Gurdwara day.” You can call ahead to let them know you are coming (particularly given last Sunday’s events, I suppose some might be a bit nervous if a random non-Sikh shows up), but any gurdwara will welcome visitors even if you don’t let them know in advance. And don’t forget: free Indian food.

The gurdwara I normally visit, on Lower Huntington Road in Roanoke, Indiana, meets biweekly and they don’t appear to be meeting this Sunday. However, there’s another one near Illinois Road in Fort Wayne that also meets biweekly, on the Sundays when the one in Roanoke doesn’t meet. I’m trying to confirm right now that they do have a service next Sunday.

If you don’t live in the Fort Wayne area, you can find a gurdwara easily on the Internet. I think most of them follow pretty much the same practice: they start to gather around 9, but the service is long and isn’t usually over till after 1. The meal follows. They are fine with you showing up late–most of the Sikhs will do so as well. And from my experience with one gurdwara and what I’ve read about Sikhs generally, I think I can guarantee hospitality. Just make sure to take off your shoes and cover your head.

Sikhs do not use any images in worship, though they do revere their Scriptures, which you will find under a kind of canopy in the front of their worship space. They will distribute a kind of sweet paste called “prasad”–I have no problem partaking of it, but other Christians may feel differently about it. The food itself is served in a separate space, in my experience, and is very explicitly offered to any members of the community, not just Sikhs.

I’m sure there are other, perhaps more practical ways to respond to last Sunday’s atrocity. But this is at least a place to start.

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4 responses to “Sunday, August 12: Visit a Gurdwara Day”

  1. I'm commenting because I so have wanted to have a conversation about partaking of prasad! (I'm friends with your wife on facebook and found this blog through her- which I added one day long ago to my reader so this post popped up)
    I'm a Phd in Theology and have occasion to visit other places of worship from time to time. I feel this is an important part of what being a Christian and theologian is- yet taking prasad at a Hindu temple always was profoundly uncomfortable to me, to the point that I never have. Partly because of the people I was with (all Hindu), partly because of echoes of "food sacrificed to idols" (a bit embarrassed to admit that part…) so explain how you worked this one through?

  2. I don't take prasad when I visit a Hindu temple; I do when I visit a Sikh one. This is because I can say pretty confidently that Sikhs don't worship idols. They worship one God and do not believe that this God can be represented by images.

    I don't think that bhakti Hinduism corresponds exactly to Greco-Roman polytheism, so I'm cautious about saying that it's idolatrous. But I also don't think I can say with any confidence that it isn't, at least to some degree. I would say that Hinduism has a very different relationship with its polytheistic cultural heritage than Western religions do–a kind of monotheism developed, but in organic continuity with the ancestral polytheism. So the categories don't apply neatly, I think. Admittedly, even Guru Nanak didn't reject Hindu "idolatry" in quite the terms a Christian or Muslim would use about idolatry–he has no problem using the names of Hindu gods and proclaiming (as a Hindu would) that "Waheguru" (the true God) is all of these. His attitude seems to have been not so much that bhakti "idolatry" was evil as that it was pointless and unnecessary. There doesn't seem to be a "jealous God" conception in Sikhism. So I respect the convictions of those more conservative Christians who may wish not to participate in any way, including receiving prasad.

    Another issue I may view differently than some is Sikh reverence for their Scriptures. I accept the Catholic distinction between "dulia" and "latria," and the Sikh practice is pretty clearly "dulia," although it does borrow some trappings from Hindu bhakti (Sikhs take the "Gurbani"–the holy book–home with them and in some respects treat it like a person).

    One final point about Hinduism: in the Hindu temple nearest me, the worship service is followed by a meal (just as in Sikhism), and the food has been placed in the presence of the images of the deities. This is where I find St. Paul's discussion very helpful–the context of eating the meal is clearly just sharing hospitality, whereas receiving prasad (or passing one's hands over the holy flame) has a more clearly "religious" significance.

  3. I'll friend you on facebook and we can continue this conversation. 🙂 Would you mind if I sent you an email?

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