By Valarie Kaur
Growing Up Sikh in America
This essay is based on an excerpt from the author’s journal when she was sixteen years old.
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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 fidget. A little boy runs around islands of praying people before being 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 them. The whole room revolves around the sacred space that holds the “living Guru”: the fourteen hundred 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 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. Ik Onkar, or God is One. As ever, its two linked circles drop from a top line, and the stem connecting them 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 growing up in the Central Valley 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: Ik Onkar Satnam; One God Whose Name Is True.
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.
First I see my mother, bathed in light, hands moving swiftly over the harmonium in our little prayer room. I can hear her voice merge with the singers.
Then I picture my high school and remember the worst moment of my freshman year. After a lecture on evolution in biology class, my friends and I fell into a heated debate that led us straight into religion. As the conversation intensified, I held my half-eaten sandwich and looked up at them dumbfounded, heart thumping in my ears, and said, “So you think I’m going to hell?” They nodded and shifted uncomfortably. The bell rang.
That’s when the nightmares began — dreams of Judgment Day where golden staircases to heaven disappeared before the hellfire consumed me. From then on, I talked and pleaded with friends and teachers who tried to convert me, begging them to see that my family was good and did not deserve damnation.
The greatest challenge came when my godmother brought home a strange guest: a large and powerful older woman with light skin, thick black eye-liner, and wild hair. Before I knew it, she had wrapped her arms around me, was rocking me back and forth, and in a trance-like state asked me to repeat her words: “I accept Christ as my Lord and Savior.”
I stopped. I couldn’t accept. “Jesus is one of many paths to God.”
“You are confused. Any time you are confused, the devil is speaking to you.” She began to speak in tongues to banish the demons from tormenting me any longer. And I ran away, flying through nearby fields, praying for sanctuary.
The memories jolt me; my eyes shoot open. I catch a glimmer of light on the polished kirpans, and for the first time, I don’t want to run away. I feel the blood of warriors and soldiers course through me, and I don’t want to beg or plead anymore. My grandfather once told me of Mai Bhago, a great Sikh woman warrior who led armies into battle. I want to fight like her. I want to defend my family and community against those who condemn us, starting here and now. Where can I find them? I will go to the local church and confront the priest and the whole congregation on this Sunday morning.
As the sangat rises for the final prayers, I hurry out of the gurdwara and rush through the gates of this little island of India out into the town, still in my red salwar kameez. A group of Mexican American kids on bicycles stops; the kids turn their heads as I pass. I run down Dakota Street, my chunni now draping over my shoulders, my long black hair waving, my brow furrowed, and march up to the church. I am standing on the edge of a dagger, absolutely reckless, ready to demand an answer from the priest.
I knock. The door is locked, but I hear hints of organ music inside. I knock again, filled with indignation. The door opens, revealing a white woman with fluffy grey hair and a flower-printed dress, startled to see a dark-eyed Indian girl at the doorstep. This is not the priest I was expecting. I’m tongue-tied.
“Can I come in?”
She nods and lets me in. The church is grand — and empty. I slip into the hard wooden pews and notice a grand organ bathed in the light slanting through the stained-glass windows. The woman positions herself in front of the organ, closes her eyes, and resumes her practice, the music is haunting yet steadily rising.
As the organist plays, I gaze at that symbol of judgment and damnation, the cross, in front of the church, and above it, the figure of Christ himself. The lines engraved around the figure of the Christian messiah seem to reach out and surround me. The nimbus unfurls into patterns of red, gold, green, and purple that curve and stretch and canopy over me like the embroidered Ik Onkar in multiple dimensions, moving and expanding with the music, surrounding the picture of the man with sad eyes and outstretched arms and this sobbing girl sitting in the pews.
I experience a moment of absolute spiritual wonderment: the organ flows into the music of the harmonium, gurdwara into church, Word made flesh into Word made infinite. It’s a glimmer of Oneness.
I’m overcome with an ecstatic love, tinged with melancholy, soaked with the blood of those who have died for it. As the last note of the organ echoes through the grand church, she turns around and sees my tear-stained face.
“Are you okay?”
In this moment, she becomes every Christian, every church, every possible judgment. And I am an ambassador come to present my case.
“How can there be an exclusivist God?” I hear myself ask. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
There’s a pause as she considers me with a compassion I cannot express.
“I don’t either,” she says. “You know, I think that there are many paths to God. It just doesn’t make sense otherwise. Of course, some people don’t agree.”
I begin to laugh and cry at once. I had marched up to this church prepared to fight the priest whom I thought would condemn me, and instead I found a Christian woman who met me in that borderland between our faiths — and embraced me. She is an ambassador too. And she had transported me up into my first spiritual experience of Oneness, the mystical vision that lies at the heart of my faith.
In her presence, the battlefield had melted into the sanctuary; the courage to fight had led me to the meaning of surrender. My ancestors must have whispered to me, “You want to experience God as One? Then to go the place where God has damned you, where God has threatened to swallow you up in hellfire. Go with your sword in your hand and your head in your palm. In that place, you will sit at the feet of Jesus and let Him do to you what He will.”
And what did the messiah do? He did not send me to hell. He opened up as the gateway to the experience of Oneness I had always craved: He took me to God.
When I return to the gurdwara, I find my grandfather waiting for me under a great tree with roots knotted deep into the earth. I take his hand and return home.
“Double-edged Daggers” by Valarie Kaur is republished from My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (2012) edited by Jennifer Howe Peace, Or N. Rose and Gregory Mobley. Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0302. All Rights Reserved.