Why I shall not be at the White House on December 7
Note: This was written mostly for a non Sikh audience; hence the background info
On Friday, December 7, several Sikhs will be at the White House to celebrate Gurpurb, which literally means ‘The Guru’s Day’ in commemoration of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. My family and I were invited to this celebration as well, but will not be attending and therein lies a story.
Guru Nanak was born in 1469 in Talwandi, which is in modern day Pakistan and is now named Nanakana Sahib, in honor of its most famous son. Guru Nanak is known for many things, among them his message of universal brotherhood and peace, which he carried to places as far flung as Sri Lanka, Mecca and Tibet, traveling by foot with his companion, the minstrel Mardana, who would accompany him on the Rabab as he delivered his message by signing in every village square they passed though.
Guru Nanak is also known as a fiery social revolutionary, who was committed to fighting discrimination, inequality and injustice in any form. He completely rejected social differences based on caste, which were rampant in his part of the world in the fifteenth century and unequivocally pronounced that women were in every way equal to men, hundreds of years before this simple fact was universally accepted as a self-evident truth. He also spoke out fearlessly against tyranny, strongly condemning the bloodshed perpetrated by the first great Mughal, Babur, as he rampaged through the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, trying to establish his empire.
Guru Nanak’s mission was propagated by nine Gurus, who followed him. The tenth, Guru Gobind Singh established the order of the Khalsa, the legion of the pure and took Guru Nanak’s commitment to fighting oppression to new heights by giving the Khalsa a unique physical identity and committing them to the battle against tyranny. Thousands heard his call and underwent baptism, one spring morning in 1699, forging a new identity for Sikhs, which was tested and strengthened in the crucible of history in the three hundred turbulent years that followed, where the Sikh ideal of standing up to repression inevitably resulted in conflict and turmoil.
As part of the new identity that Guru Gobind Singh, bequeathed upon the Khalsa, he gifted them five articles of faith, to be carried upon the person at all times; Kes or unshorn hair; Kangha, a small wooden comb; Kada, a steel bracelet; Kacherra, long breeches and the Kirpan, a short sword. As a baptized Sikh, a Khalsa, I proudly wear these articles of faith every day, as I go about my business. Each article of faith has its own unique significance; the Kirpan is a constant, daily reminder of a Khalsa’s clear commitment to fighting injustice and oppression in every form, no matter who is at the receiving end.
Being a practical person, I realize that my religious observances have to bow to the secular laws of the land. Always, with a twinge of regret, I place my Kirpan in my checked baggage, whenever I need to travel. If I have business at a courthouse, I take it off my person and leave it in my car, chafing a little at the thought of leaving a piece of myself behind. I do it because I don’t have a choice. I will not pass through security with my Kirpan on my person. I know I will not be allowed to wear it inside a courthouse.
I remember reading an interesting news article this summer. The Olympics were about to get under way in London and understandably security was tight. The news article in fact mentioned that security forces in the UK were ready to deploy surface to air missiles if warranted in the face of terrorist threats. It was quite clear that security was being taken very seriously. Notable was the fact that Sikh athletes and visitors would be allowed to pass through security checkpoints with their Kirpans on their person, as long as they could attest to the fact that they were baptized Khalsas!
I was excited when I received an invitation to attend the Gurpurb celebrations at the White House. It promised to be a great experience, particularly for the kids. As a strong supporter of President Obama, who rode the roller coaster of his re-election with his heart in his mouth I would certainly relish the opportunity to visit the White House, particularly for an event honoring the founder of my faith. Unfortunately, there is a catch. I would have to leave my Kirpan behind. This piece of me, that each day, connects me to the part of my Gurus’ legacy that I hold the dearest!
When I have to get on a plane and I have to take off my Kirpan, I do not have a choice. When I have to be present at a courtroom, I have no choice. Here, I do have a choice. As much as I respect the President and laud the organizers for putting together this event, I shall not go to the White House. Is this a display of petulance ? Or an attempt to grandstand ? Not really ! After all, nobody cares whether I go to this program or not :-) And I honestly bear no ill will towards those who will meekly take of their kirpans tomorrow to enter the White House. But what irony! A celebration, honoring the founder of Sikhism, that a Sikh who observes Rahit cannot go to!