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Monday, April 19, 2021

Vaisakhi Reflections: Sikh Teachings on Injustice and Inequality | by Ashvinder Kaur Mehta

This spring, as my Jewish, Muslim, and Christian brothers and sisters observe Passover, Ramadan, and Easter, respectively, my Sikh community celebrated Vaisakhi on April 13th. Traditionally, this has been a time for harvest festivals in the Punjab, but we also commemorate the first Sikh initiation ceremony into the Khalsa Panth, a community of initiated Sikhs committed to equality, justice, and oneness as established by all of the Sikh Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak.

It was Vaisakhi 1699 when Guru Gobind Rai, our 10th Guru (spiritual leader bringing one from darkness into light) called for five volunteers from the Sikh community and initiated them into the Khalsa, naming them the “Five Beloved Ones.” Each was from a different caste and, in order to foster unity and demonstrate equality of all, Guru Gobind Rai had all newly initiated Sikhs take on the last name Singh (lion) for men and Kaur (princess) for women, and gave Sikhs their distinct visible identity to instill courage and confidence to stand up to injustice. He also had the Five Beloved Ones initiate him into the Khalsa, thus becoming Guru Gobind Singh. This cemented Guru Nanak’s teaching that no one should be considered inferior or superior based on their color, race, culture, creed, or socioeconomic status.

While Vaisakhi is a time of celebration, it also serves as a reminder of the life of Guru Gobind Singh, the struggles he endured, and how deeply committed he was to stand up against injustice even through so much personal loss, including the deaths of both of his parents and his four young sons. This commitment remains central not only to identify as a Sikh, but truly living the teachings in our everyday lives. However, in recent years, this has become a growing challenge for me.

The last five years have been an exhausting roller coaster of emotions. While racial and social inequities have long been a part of American history, watching the surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, ongoing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the devastating injustices against Black communities, and a distinct lack of empathy for those wanting to flee violence and seek safer lives for their children has been overwhelmingly disheartening and soul-crushing. I have felt moments of total despair and deep sadness about the world around me.

I joined Interfaith Philadelphia in 2003, at a time when Sikhs and other minorities were being increasingly targeted following the tragic events of 9/11. Over the years, I have participated in and witnessed the success of programs like Walking the Walk, Visionary Women, Alternative Spring Breaks, and the Peace Walk, all of which met the mission of interfaith dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding. While the interfaith movement has succeeded in breaking many barriers, my experience has been that participation mainly includes like-minded people already open and receptive to the mission of interfaith. But how far are we willing to go to address the serious issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, casteism, and social injustice? Do we have the courage to engage in the difficult discussions and actions it will take to truly make a dent in the injustices that exist today and that have been so clearly exposed in the last five years? Do we have the courage to challenge our friends and neighbors by engaging in hard and uncomfortable conversations? I have found myself doing just that with my friends and family - by listening and sharing perspectives to hopefully provoke deeper thought into our own biases and behaviors that need to change.

While this may not have been the initial objective of interfaith dialogue, I believe it is time to draw on lessons learned and take on the difficult task of healing the divisions in this nation. Interfaith dialogue serves to dispel misconceptions and allay fears amongst faith communities, but we now desperately need to quell the false narratives against minorities and break the ever-growing divisions with truth, understanding, and a keen awareness of the intersections of these inequalities. This is no small task! But a necessary one that I believe is the next step.

In my moments of despair at current events, Vaisakhi reminds me of the Sikh expression of Chardi Kala, which is to live in a state of eternal optimism and joy, even during the most challenging times. So in the spirit of Chardi Kala, I pray that we can all do our part to collectively move towards a less divisive and more compassionate world.

ਸਭ ਮਹਿ ਜੋਤਿ ਜੋਤਿ ਹੈ ਸੋਇ ॥ ਤਿਸ ਦੈ ਚਾਨਣਿ ਸਭ ਮਹਿ ਚਾਨਣੁ ਹੋਇ ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Page 663

Sabh meh jot jot hai soi || tis dhai chaanan sabh meh chaanan hoi ||
The Divine Light is within everyone; You are that Light. Yours is that Light which shines within everyone.

Ashvinder Kaur Mehta has been a fellow with Interfaith Philadelphia since 2015, and has dedicated her time and experience to consulting on issues that impact the Sikh community and supported interfaith education and programs like Walking the Walk. She is currently part of a Gurdwara in Upper Darby. 

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