By Manpreet K. Singh | HOUSTON CHRONICLE | OPINION |
Members of the Houston Sikh community responded to Hurricane Harvey last year with trucks filled with supplies from all across the nation. The Sikh tradition teaches that service to humanity is a core part of being a good person.
Members of the Houston Sikh community responded to Hurricane Harvey last year with trucks filled with supplies from all across the nation. The Sikh tradition teaches that service to humanity is a core part of … more
On Saturday, nearly 30 million Sikhs around the world will celebrate Vaisakhi, one of the most important Sikh occasions. Vaisakhi historically marks the harvest festival in Punjab, and for Sikhs it has special significance as the day that much of the Sikh religion was formally institutionalized in the way we know it today. For the past 320 years, Sikhs mark this day by gathering in our communities, reflecting on our values and recommitting to our core principles of service and justice.
I have been thinking about service a lot this year, especially given recent events in my native city of Houston.
When Hurricane Harvey struck the region, it was heartening to see people around our city rush to help those in need. The Sikh community of Houston played a particularly noticeable role in relief efforts, which is remarkable given that there are only approximately 5,000 Sikhs in the Greater Houston area. For those who know Sikhs and their commitment and commandment to service, this was not a surprise.
The Sikh tradition teaches that service to humanity is a core part of being a good person. From a young age, Sikhs are taught that God is present in everything and everyone. As we say in our scriptures, “The Creator is in the creation and the creation is in the Creator.” As Sikhs, we believe that the best way to serve God is to serve the world around us. The specific term Sikhs use — seva — has no direct English translation. My interpretation of the term seva is a selfless service inspired by love and a sense of community.
The founders of Sikhism, who we refer to as our gurus (teachers), give us beautiful examples of what seva looks like in our communities. One of the first stories I shared with my own kids was that of Guru Nanak, who famously took all the money his father gave him to invest in a business and instead donated it to the needy. When his father chastised him, Guru Nanak simply replied by asking: “What better investment is there than giving to those who need it?”
My parents taught me similar lessons while raising me here in Houston. There were not many Sikhs here when I was growing up, but there were plenty of opportunities to serve. We started from a young age volunteering at Star of Hope, a shelter in downtown, participating in community cleanups and donating whatever we could to those who needed it more than we did. It was the Sikh tradition of seva that inspired me to become a lawyer and help protect people’s dignity, and it’s also why I continue to remain involved in my community.
My Sikh faith teaches me that being a good person means serving the world around us and confronting any injustices and inequities we encounter. No matter how difficult it might be, we are always expected to do this work as a labor of love.
I am reminded of our values every morning as I tie turbans on my boys, Gahven and Mahnek, before sending them to school. I reflect on these values every time I look at my kara, a steel bracelet that makes up one of the five articles of faith that Sikhs wear. And on Sundays, when our family goes to our gurdwara (Sikh house of worship), I look around and marvel at how resiliently my community deals with discrimination, and how deeply committed they remain to the ideals of service and justice.
As we live in this world today, it’s difficult to overlook the deep fractures and divisions that are ripping our communities apart. Religious minorities and communities of color are being denigrated, and people I know and care about have been physically attacked because they are seen as different.
The Sikh idea of seva is a helpful model for addressing these challenges. Its premise of oneness helps us go beyond the mentalities that divide us and helps us to see how we are all interconnected. Its focus on justice also compels us to take these theoretical ideas and put them into action. Yes, we believe that all people should be treated with dignity, but it’s not enough to just believe that. We have to make this a reality.
In response to Hurricane Harvey, the Sikh community mobilized and came with massive trucks filled with supplies from all across the nation. They delivered the supplies to our gurdwara where our community members bridged the gaps of additional supplies. These supplies were delivered not just to Greater Houston, but more importantly to the outlying areas like Richmond, Crosby and Beaumont, places where many people had never seen a Sikh man wearing a beard and a turban, which are some of the other Sikh articles of faith that represent our commitment to justice and equality for all.
Finally, the concept of seva ensures that we are reimagining and rebuilding our society on the foundations of unity and love. Doing so is the only way we can ensure that our broken and inequitable systems are replaced with more just and sustainable models.
In the Sikh tradition, there is no room for complacency; to be religiously committed is to be socially engaged and devoted to justice. I have seen in my own life how this practice has made my hometown of Houston a better place, and I promise that our community will continue to do this here, and wherever else we may be because this is who we are. We invite you to join us, in whatever capacity you might be able, to change the world we live in.
The article first appeared at Houston Chronicle on April 8, 2018. Manpreet K. Singh is a board member of US-based Sikh Coalition
NZ gurdwara community garden grows food to share (Asia Samachar, 31 Dec 2018)
Start by doing service locally, urges Khalsa Aid founder (Asia Samachar, 24 Dec 2018)