The Parliament Blog

My Neighbor’s Faith: Double-Edged Daggers

Valarie Kaur

Valarie Kaur

by Valarie Kaur
from Huffington Post

This essay is based on an excerpt from the author’s journal when she was sixteen years old.

Usually on Sunday mornings, my father’s outside on a tractor, my mother’s making aloo pronthas, my brother’s watching cartoons, and I’m sleeping in. Sometimes, my mother crams the whole family into Baba Ji’s room to sing shabads and recite Scripture together. But on this Sunday morning, my grandfather has asked me to come with him to the gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship some miles away. At sixteen years old, I dutifully follow.

I’m still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I slip off my shoes. Wrapped in a long head scarf, I follow my grandfather inside. One step takes us from our small farming town in California’s Central Valley into an entire world transported from India.

Inside, the congregation sits on the floor. On the right, a sea of men in turbans of black, saffron, blue and red cloth; on the left, women in silk and cotton, solid-colored, tie-dyed and embroidered chunnis of all different colors draped over long braids and jooras. Children sit next to their mothers and fidgeted. A little boy runs around islands of praying people before escorted out to the jungle gym. The elderly lean against the walls, eyes closed; while the younger folks listen to the prayers, the older ones seem to reside within the prayers.

The whole room revolves around the sacred space that holds the “living Guru”: the 1,400 pages of Sikh verse known as Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The sacred book sits on a table draped in fine silvery blue cloths folded back to reveal the sacred lines of Gurmuki script whose poetry is read, sung and contemplated. Hanging from the ceiling over the sacred book is a magnificent blue canopy embroidered with a single brilliant character in Punjabi script, the first mysterious and profound word of our holy text. Ek Onkar: God is One. As ever, its two linked circles dropped from a top line, the stem connected those shoots up and umbrellas over in a long elegant stroke.

As I wait in line to bow my head before the Book, my eyes fall on the swords and daggers displayed at its base. Sikhs wielded these kirpans to defend the faith for hundreds of years in India, and I grew up hearing epic tales of battle and torture and martyrdom: Guru Arjan Ji tortured in a red hot caldron, Guru Gobind Ji’s young sons bricked in alive, Baba Deep Singh holding his own severed head in hand as he fought in battle. These blood-soaked legends of Sikhs resisting the Moghul empire came down to us as stories of resilience and sacrifice — our ancestors died so that we might live. The kirpans represent an enduring commitment to fight injustice and stand tall for faith and community. But it’s hard for me to eye the sharp edge. Sikh girls aren’t taught to fight like that. I drop my dollar on the pile of donations, close my eyes, bow my head to the floor and whisper the only words I can summon: Ek Onkar.

I follow my grandfather and sit with him on the men’s side — my modest act of defiance in a culture that too often divides women from men despite the Scripture’s teachings on equality. We listen to the granthis, singers flown from India to sing shabads from the Scriptures accompanied by the tabla and harmonium; their voices — sad, meditative and beseeching — rise, dip and waver. As the voices soar, I close my eyes and move into deep reflection.

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