Introduction to the Study of Religion
Prof. Ken Derry
TA: Aldea Mulhern
Unveiling the Traces of Power in Sikhism
By Zameena Jaffer
Word Count: 1355
Fatima Qassem: Culture
Mehwish Rashid Ahmad: Gender
Zameena Jaffer: Power
As I entered the gates of Gurdwara Nanaksar on a cold winters’ evening in Brampton, I did not realize that my first ever visit to a Gurdwara would be so enlightening. Following the lead of multiple devotees of the Sikh religion, I stepped into the hall to the sound of an ongoing Kirtan (singing of hymns) and immediately felt the peace and serenity that enveloped this place of worship. The Gurdwara Nanaksar is devoted to spreading the message of universal brotherhood, meditation and harmony, and has an open door policy that welcomes brothers and sisters of any faith to come and learn the teachings of their living Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Jee. As someone who has never seen a Sikh service, I almost instantaneously began scanning the room and, like a sponge, began taking in as much of this wonderful experience as I could. In this essay, I will relate the covering of the head by both male and female Sikh attendees – who do not cover their heads in normal daily life – to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of how subaltern groups wish to engage with the hegemonical culture, and I will consider Michel Foucalts’ concept of power as knowledge relative to existence of a high priest and the idea of God as a constant surveillance.
As you enter the doors of Gurdwara Nanaksar, you are not immediately, as one would assume, led to the halls of the place of worship. The first environment you come across is a hallway where the attendees place their shoes, coats, and wash themselves at a sink in order to prepare to enter the actual Gurdwara. What struck me about this common area was a box of headscarves that was conveniently placed by the sink. This box contained headscarves for women as well as men. In the Sikh culture, it is customary for women to wear the traditional dress ‘salwaar khameez’ and to cover their heads with a ‘dupatta’, and for men to wear a turban. I witnessed this custom as I watched attendees enter the holy place already dressed as expected. However, I also noticed a fairly large amount of Sikh followers who were not wearing the dupatta or the turban and, instead, using the temporary ones from the box, which, later, they removed as soon as they left the holy place. The pattern I noticed was these particular attendees more mostly young adults, who, if you saw outside the Gurdwara, you would not recognize as Sikh.
According to Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, there always exists an elite group that exerts power over others through relations that appear ‘natural’ (Nye 2008, 61). From what I observed, the youngsters who do not practice the Sikh custom of covering their heads, except for when in the Gurdwara, are what Gramsci calls, the ‘subaltern’ group. They are the minority and are not practicing the forms of the dominant culture. What is interesting, however, is that these youngsters did not have to be told to cover their heads before entering the hall of service. This means that that particular act that is emphasized by the dominant culture has already been internalized by the sublaterns. Hence, in this Gurdwara, exists the dynamic of power in that the sublaterns attempt to engage with the hegemonical culture in order to feel as though they share the power with the elite group that is, in fact, controlling them. In Gramsci’s terms, this would be an example of how those with “power use culture as a means of exerting that power” (Nye 2008, 62). Due to the fact that there was no resistance made by these youngsters in relation to head-covering expectations, demonstrates that counter-hegemony does not exist in this particular Gurdwara. The elite controlling group has too much power and have exerted their power in...
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