History and Experience of the Sikh Diaspora in the United States
Sikh migrants began arriving in the United States more than one hundred years ago, and now have reached numbers close to half a million. Like most other immigrant communities in the United States, Sikhs have faced problems that are both specific to their community and that are also shared by other ethnic communities making their way in a new land. Despite their recent numbers and century long history in the United States, many of their fellow Americans know relatively little about Sikhs, their history, and their faith. They are often confused by others in the United States as being Muslim, as their religious beliefs require Sikh men to wear a turban. Others confuse them as being polytheistic Hindus, as a result of their Indian heritage and sometimes heavy Indian accents. An understanding of Sikh history and beliefs is necessary to develop an understanding about the experience and history of the Sikh diaspora in the United States. Sikhism is the worlds youngest and fifth most popular religion. It is a monotheistic faith centered on divine unity and uniqueness. Sikhs believe in human, gender, and social equality and that human life is the pinnacle of God's creation. Followers of Sikhism number over 23 million worldwide with 17 million of those living in the Punjab, a state in northwestern India and the birthplace and homeland of Sikhism. The Punjab is a very fertile land with tropical weather and many rivers. It lies at the intersection of major ancient trade routes, which brought different cultures, ideas, and trade goods to the area. The Sikh religion was founded in the Punjab by Guru Nanek (1469-1539) in the 1520's. As a child, Nanek surprised his teachers and religious leaders by his quick learning and spiritual approach to life. This period of Indian history was one of political and religious corruption and treachery. The ruling Mughal Muslims treated the Hindus with contempt and cruelty, and the common man's existence was one of misery and uncertainty. Guru Nanek received a revelation in 1507, in which he found himself in God's court being commanded to propagate the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Motherhood of nature. He then departed on four missionary tours during the next 14 years, covering more than 20,000 miles. He gave sermons throughout his missionary travels and taught Indians to lead an ideal life of hard work, charitable service, and divine worship. He spoke against the Hindu caste system, and was a proponent of social, gender, and human equality. Guru Nanek's main emphasis was upon “truthful living”, and stressed upon his followers to be truthful in thought, word, and deed. The office of the Guru was held by nine other successors following Guru Nanek's death in 1539. These Gurus continued along the path laid out by Nanek, and strengthened and grew Sikhism and the political power of the Punjab. The power and prestige afforded the physical office of the Guru was seen as a threat to Mughal power in India, so much so that the fifth and ninth Sikh Gurus were imprisoned and executed as political threats. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, abolished the office of the personal Guru in the late 1690's and declared the Sikh community to be the Khalsa, or the pure. From then on the living Guru is to be found in the writings of the Sikh holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib, and the Sikh community, The Guru Panth, was given the spiritual authority to interpret the Guru Granth Sahib. This development made it unnecessary for Sikhs to require ritual religious specialists in order to interpret the Guru Granth, and therefore made the Sikh faith and the establishment of congregations extremely mobile and easy to transport during Sikh migration throughout the world. It was also Guru Gobind Singh who gave Sikhism and its followers the physical articles that represent the Sikh faith, commonly known as the five...
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