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Vaisakhi 2005 in New England


The Sikh Times, Boston, Jun. 29, 2005

Photo: The Vaisakhi nagar kirtan motorcade, winding its way from Milford to Millis

Photo: Hanuman Singh

Photo: Barney Frank

Photo: Mrigendra Singh

Photo: Sikh Dharma Kirtan Jatha

Photo: Sri Chand

As any casual observer will note, no Sikh celebration equals the vigor with which Vaisakhi, marking Guru Gobind Singh's 1699 inauguration of Sikhism's militant Khalsa order, is observed.

Vaisakhi celebrations typically involve nagar kirtans (religious street processions), organized jointly by the gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) in the area. However, this year's celebration in New England was an unusual partnership.

Sikh Dharma

In 1971, Harbhajan Singh Puri, popularly known as Yogi Bhajan, founded the Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere, headquartered in the United States. The majority of Sikh Dharma's membership consists of Caucasians, mostly Americans, who wear all white apparel, including turbans for both women and men, and lead a rigorous life of Kundalini Yoga and meditation. The group is also known by the title of its educational branch, 3H.O. (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization).

In the words of the eminent scholar Hew McLeod, 'Punjabi Sikhs who come in contact with Sikh Dharma are frequently perplexed by it, not knowing whether to embrace its followers as unusually devout or to avoid them as perversely unorthodox.' McLeod adds, 'The answer is evidently to let them live their life of obedience and Punjabis will live another, seldom the twain meeting in any meaningful way' (Sikhism, Penguin, 1997, p. 203).

One significant meeting of the twain occurred during an unprecedented nagar kirtan organized by New England Sikhs on April 10, 2005. The day's ceremonies and parade commenced at the Punjabi Sikh gurdwara (New England Sikh Study Circle, Milford, MA; founded in 1968) and concluded at the Sikh Dharma gurdwara (Guru Ram Das Ashram & Gurdwara, Millis, MA; founded in 1970).

Nagar Kirtan

After a commencing ardas (petition-prayer) at Milford, the procession took the form of an over one hundred strong motorcade (see picture above), headed toward the neighboring town of Millis, accompanied by police escorts on motorcycles.

Mini nishans, saffron-colored triangular Sikh flags embossed with the khanda emblem, fluttered proudly from nearly every vehicle in the motorcade. Many onlookers enthusiastically exchanged greetings with hand waves and, occasionally, folded hands.

The motorcade came to a planned halt about a mile from the Millis gurdwara. Passengers disembarked from their respective vehicles, which were then driven to a large makeshift parking lot beside the Millis gurdwara. Drivers either walked back or were shuttled back to where passengers had assembled and commenced their gradual march toward the Millis gurdwara.

Well ahead of the procession were fifteen World War II veterans and a Military Order of the Purple Heart.

At the head of the procession were two Caucasian Sikhs (including a woman) and a Punjabi Sikh putting up a demonstration of swordsmanship in the gatka tradition of Sikh martial arts. Behind them was a Punjabi Sikh beating a huge nagara kettledrum hoisted onto the back of a truck flying two large nishans. Following that were two Punjabi Sikhs hoisting a large banner proclaiming the Milford gurdwara. Next came five amrit-dhari (initiated) Sikhs, representing Guru Gobind Singh's panj pyare (five beloved), including a female Caucasian at the extreme left position, marching in a single file, each carrying a large nishan. Then came a truck towing a large flatbed carrying the Guru Granth, the primary Sikh scripture and eternal guru, its attendees, and a kirtan jatha (hymn-singers) comprising both Punjabis and Caucasians.

Hundreds of Sikhs, mostly Punjabis, followed closely behind, making up the bulk of the procession, chanting hymns and shouting slogans such as 'raj karega Khalsa' (the Khalsa shall rule) and 'panth ki jit' (victory to the Sikh community). Chilled sodas and small ziplock bags packed with mixed nuts were provided as refreshments along the way.

On arrival at its Millis gurdwara destination, the procession gathered around the Guru Granth, still on the flatbed, for a concluding ardas, after which everyone assembled in the main prayer hall for further proceedings.

Guru Ram Das Ashram & Gurdwara

The milieu at the Millis gurdwara is worth describing for the various novelties with respect to a traditional Punjabi gurdwara.

There was a female attendant at the entrance with a large bowl of water to assist worshippers with the washing of hands and feet prior to entering the main hall. None was observed making use of the service.

The main hall displayed large framed pictures of Guru Nanak, Guru Ram Das, and Yogi Bhajan on the walls. In addition to Punjabi kirtan jathas, several Caucasian kirtan jathas (see picture above) performed in English to the accompaniment of tablas (bongo-like set of drums), guitars, and sitars, but not the harmoniums (accordion-like instruments) that are the staple of Punjabi kirtan. The sacramental food offering tasted significantly different from the karah parshad offered at Punjabi gurdwaras due to the substitution of healthier honey for refined white sugar. The delightfully bright langar (community meal) hall, located on the main floor, featured a lovely breeze flowing through the door and windows.

The elaborate schedule of events proceeded like clockwork, the washrooms were clean, and women were extremely well represented in all spheres of activity.

Hanuman Singh

Sat Hanuman Singh Khalsa (see picture above), Millis gurdwara's mukhia jathedar (chief official), was the primary organizational force behind the event. He contacted the police chiefs of Millis and Milford and got their backing, without which the event would have been a non-starter. His efforts to involve the media resulted in a freelance story in The Boston Globe a few days prior to the event although no one from the non-Sikh media covered the actual event.

Hanuman, a Vietnam War veteran, whose forceful personality is true to his former career in sales, is a huge Boston Red Sox fan. He attributes the Sox's baseball 'World Series' title run and victory on October 27, 2004, after a long drought of eighty-six years, to a lifting of all curses following Yogi Bhajan's demise on October 7, 2004.

During the proceedings at the Millis gurdwara, Hanuman read out the following poem, authored by Yogi Bhajan, originally published in the Sikh Dharma mouthpiece Beads of Truth (Summer 1983, Bead #10, Volume II). Hanuman's reading of the original in English was followed by a Punjabi translation, read by a Punjabi Sikh.

God's Incarnation

Baba Nanak is the Supreme Lord's Avatar
Manifestation of the Unmanifest Creator
His first son, Baba Siri Chand, is Shiva's incarnation
From all danger one can be saved by making unto him a salutation
Manifestation of Vishnu, was Lakhsmi Chand, his second son
For carrying on the family line, he was the chosen one
Listening to the Guru's mantra with deep concentration
Your household may be blessed with wealth, prosperity, peace, and in this very lifetime, with liberation
Angad, the Second Nanak, is God's very limb; Amar Das, the Third, is the imperishable spirit of Him
Acknowledged as the King of Raj Yog, is Ram Das, the Fourth in the line
Unto whosoever offers his prayer at the Raj Yoga Throne
Is granted an end to the round of 8.4 million lifetimes, and in the Creator Lord he finds his true home
The light of Nanak through Guru Gobind, in the Granth has been fused
By reading, singing or listening to its words, with the power of God you're imbued
One about whom it's a blessing just to hear, when telling the story of such a Guru
You'll experience the Unheard Sound, the Divine Kundalini
Then, Oh Yogi, God will be a companion to you

Sri Chand

The reference to Guru Nanak as 'the Supreme Lord's Avatar' or 'God's Incarnation' seems in utter violation of basic Sikh doctrine. Japji, widely regarded as the gist of the Guru Granth and authored by Guru Nanak himself, points out that God is 'never incarnated.' Paradoxically, the poem acknowledges as much via its reference to 'the Unmanifest Creator.'

This poem, with flattering references to the dissident Sri Chand, wasn't all one observed at Millis that could be construed as offensive to Sikh sensibilities. At one point, Hanuman proudly showed off the recently acquired near-life-size statue of Sri Chand (see picture above), founder of the Udasi order characterized by renunciation and asceticism, both of which were roundly criticized by Sikhism's founder, Guru Nanak. Hanuman bowed to the statue, touching his forehead to its base. Punjabi Sikhs strictly oppose idol worship and bow only to the Guru Granth, not even to images of their Gurus. Furthermore, Sri Chand was not one of the ten Sikh Gurus. Sri Chand had dissented from mainstream Sikhism to form his own sect when his father, Guru Nanak, chose Guru Angad as his successor.

Mrigendra Singh

Mrigendra Singh (see picture above), a member of the erstwhile Patiala royal family, is the son of Bhupendra Singh and uncle to Amarinder Singh, the current chief minister of Punjab. Hanuman honored him with a siropa, a turban-length piece of saffron or white cloth placed around the neck like a scarf or garland. Several Sikh Dharma members were also honored with siropas for their contributions along with U.S. Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA; see picture above) and Malkit Singh Gill, president of Milford gurdwara's executive committee.

'Raja Mrigendra Singh' was introduced, inaccurately, as holding a 'Ph.D. from Yale.' Mrigendra started his college education by attaining the 'giani' (Sikh preacher) designation at the age of 37. At 44, he earned a Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.) specializing in world religions and ethnomusicology from Yale University's Divinity School, during which time he taught Indian music at Yale. Eight years later, he received his Ph.D. in world religions from Guru Nanak Dev University (G.N.D.U., Amritsar), not Yale. Most of his career was spent as an assistant/associate professor at New York's city and state universities.

In an impassioned speech on the relevance of Vaisakhi, Mrigendra, who sat on a chair due to poor health, spoke of the time when he divested S. Radhakrishnan, India's first president, of the idea that Guru Nanak was a pacifist and that Guru Gobind Singh (actually Guru Hargobind) was the first to sanction the use of righteous violence.

This anti-climactic thesis was supported by just one line from a hymn by Guru Nanak. In the hymn, Guru Nanak acknowledges that the will of God dictates all human action. In that context, he writes, 'When it pleases You, we pick up swords and chop off heads' (Guru Granth, p. 145).

Guru Nanak, he said, wrote of the need to offer one's head to the guru well before Guru Gobind Singh gave it expression during the Vaisakhi of 1699: 'If you desire to play the game of divine love, then step onto my path with your head in the palm of your hand' (Guru Granth, p. 1412).

He said, the Sikh gurus are 'worshipped' because they lived their teachings. Guru Hargobind, he said, is the only spiritual ever to have built a place of worship for another religion when he constructed a mosque in Hargobindpur for the Muslim mercenaries in his army. He said a letter from Maulvi Nur Mohammed to Aurangzeb, stored in the archives in New Delhi, states that 20,000 Sikhs were initiated during the Vaisakhi of 1699. The volunteer army allowed Guru Gobind Singh to eliminate his dependence on mercenaries who demonstrated little loyalty to the cause.

The practice of Sikhism, Mrigendra insisted, involves no ritual, only sacrament. This is so because sacrament is distinct from ritual in that sacrament involves God. And, entry into the Khalsa involves initiation, not baptism, since baptism may be administered to a newborn.

A Unifying Experience

Well after the conclusion of the formal program, the facility continued to buzz with a variety of activities. Kids ran around the eighteen-acre lush green facility. Residents entered and exited their quarters at the on-campus ashram that accomodates nearly one hundred. Punjabi and Caucasian Sikhs intermingled. Elders lounged on lawn chairs, soaking in the sun. Enthusiasts bought Dya Singh C.D.s at the store while the music of Grammy-nominated Snatam Kaur Khalsa played in the background.

New England Sikhs have reason to be proud of the statesmanship demonstrated by their leaders in facilitating this unique and unifying experience.