Twelve years ago, a mass murder sparked America’s interest in Islam. Now it’s happening again — only, this time, the religion is Sikhism. As Sikhs all over the world today mourn the loss of six of their own who died Sunday in a Wisconsin temple, they also find themselves explaining who they are to a country mostly unfamiliar with their customs and beliefs.
“We are pretty sure that this is a hate crime because there is so much ignorance,” Rajwa Singh of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, Md., told NBCWashington.com. “People mistake us (for) either being Taliban, or being part of Bin Laden’s network, or al-Qaida because of our turbans and beards.”
Let us not be the “people” Singh speaks of. Here is Sikhism in a nutshell.
Sikhism is a relatively new religion, having been founded in 1500 in the Punjab (northwestern region) of India. It boasts some 30 million adherents worldwide and 314,000 in the United States.
Like most major religions, Sikhism has a “star of the show” — a single person who found a new way to live and brought that message to his people through a traveling ministry. In this case the star was Guru Nanak Dev, who (like Buddha) saw suffering and confusion in the world and set out to bring peace, compassion and truth.
Nanak’s message was fairly simply. There is one God — or “Waheguru” in Punjabi. Waheguru, whose literal translation is “Wonderful Teacher,” is believed to be a shapeless, timeless, genderless presence that created many worlds, including ours. Sikhs do not embrace the traditional notion of heaven or hell. What they seek is a “spiritual union” with Waheguru, which they attain through a balance of work, worship and charity. They also put great importance on avoiding the “Five Evils”: ego, anger, greed, attachment and lust.
Sikhism is about the most inclusive religion you’re likely to find, which is part of what makes Sunday’s killings feel particularly brutal and senseless. “Sikhs believe that no matter what race, sex, or religion one is, all are equal in God’s eyes,” reads a Wikipedia passage. “Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.
Sikhs have one sacred text, called the Guru Ganth Sahib, a book that reads a bit like an extended poem. The book is a compilation of traditions, teachings and philosophies learned from Guru Nanak and his nine successors, all of whom were hand-picked by the previous guru. The last of the nine died in 1708.
Oh, and one last thing: Sikhs don’t trim their hair or beards because they wish to remain as close to their natural state — the way God made them — as possible. They wear turbans to show their devotion to their religion and, for more practical reasons, to keep their long hair from becoming tangled.