Reflections on Visiting a Sikh Gurdwara in London
Let’s jump back in time to October, when I went to a Sikh temple, the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sab. My British Life and Culture class had a field trip there after a lecture from a local pastor about religion in the UK. At first I was not sure what to expect. I was curious and excited to see an eastern religious practice that I had heard of, but never really understood before.
When we arrived at the Gurdwara, all of us put on head coverings out of respect for their beliefs. There was one entrance for women and one for men. I wondered briefly where gender-neutral people were supposed to enter, and then suspended my indignation for a minute to try to better understand the cultural significance of the separate entrances. We entered a room full of cubbies, through which we could quite clearly see the outside hall and even into the men’s identical cubby room, and here we took off our shoes and stowed them before entering a bathroom, where we washed our hands. It reminded me of the passage from the Bible where the burning bush asked Moses to take off his sandals, because he stood on holy ground. After this point, women and men walked through the same space again. My boyfriend Dennis was given a proper head covering to replace his makeshift scarf hat – they insisted.
When we first arrived, we learned a little about the history if Sikhism and its origins in India before heading upstairs to the actual Gurdwara temple. Gurdwara means “home [or door] of the Guru,” and is a place where Sikhs congregate, learn of spiritual wisdom, practice their beliefs, and contribute to their community. The temple itself is a wide, almost circular room with skylights all around it. At the end was an elaborately decorated alter with a canopy suspended over it, and behind this, musicians played and sang cyclical Indian music. We stayed in this room for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes. I wanted to stay longer just to hear the music. On the alter, though I didn’t realize this at the time, was the Sikh book of scripture, the only object of reverence in the Gurdwara. The Sikhs would approach along the center of the room, bow before the alter in an almost fetal position, and then go to sit cross-legged in the seating area. This struck me as even more humble than the Catholic practice of falling to one’s knees before the alter – nowhere in any religion had I seen such a full physical embodiment of humility.
After the temple, we sat and listened to one of their leaders talk about principles of Sikhism. Referring to the kitchen downstairs, and to allegories from life, he told us that charity, hard work, respect, and cleanliness are integral to their religious practice and bring them closer to God. They worship no idols, only the scripture and wisdom of their founding Guru. One thing that particularly struck me was that that their two most valued traits are Sweetness (not just kindness or goodness, but sweetness) and Humility. Everyone is equal, regardless of gender, race, or age, and they recognize other religions and beliefs as equally valid paths towards God. Their tolerance overwhelmed me.
Our last stop was at the kitchens, where volunteers prepare free food for anyone who comes in, regardless of whether or not they are Sikh. Most gurdwaras only have the resources to do this once a week, but this Gurdwara, one of the largest in the UK, offers free meals every day. The leader had told us that no matter where in the world we travel, if there is a Gurdwara nearby, we can get a free meal there. The food, served in sectioned metal cafeteria trays, was delicious and filling despite its humble presentation. I left feeling very uplifted and inspired by the ability of an organized religion to be so inherently kind, and good… and sweet. What a beautiful religion and culture.
I’m so glad I came here, met practitioners, heard their music, had a delicious meal, and learned about Sikhism.I loved seeing this side of the UK, and remembering that there are so many people who are underrepresented and marginalized in mainstream culture, who are nonetheless part of the country and contribute beautiful things to our world. Maybe we should give them more credit.
Exposing ourselves to other ways of life, and being open and honest about our own, is SO important… Especially nowadays, we need to better understand and learn from each other. I worry and hope for Sikh communities back at home in the US – because they wear head coverings, I fear that they could be profiled and discriminated against by the President-elect and/or his supporters in the same way that Muslims are. My hope is that I can help spread some understanding about anyone who wears a head covering, whether they are Sihk, Muslim, or Orthodox Jewish or Christian – they are distinct peoples, each with something valuable to teach us, if we are willing to listen. Turbans and headscarves are not evil: in Sikhism a least, they further embody the wearer’s humility.
I am willing to stand up for those who are targeted and profiled because of how they look, and I hope that after reading this and learning a little more, you might be more willing too. I hope we will not become like France, banning burkas. I hope that people who claim to be Christian will actually try to follow Christ’s tolerant example. I hope that we will open up and see people who believe something different, and practice their love for the universe in a different way, as just following “a different path towards God.”
…If you ever have the chance to visit a Gurdwara, do. They are lovely people, and they are ready to feed you, teach you, and accept you as just as good as they are.