Tegh Singh shared his experience of being denied water during langar at Malton’s Gurdwara Sahib in Canada due to being a black Sikh.
This is a rant about something that happened to me yesterday that really bothered me. I don’t entirely know how to talk about it, so I’ll just start from the beginning.
My 9 month old daughter (Kiran) and I are in the Brampton area and decide to stop at Malton Gurdwara (a Sikh temple) to Matta Tekh (pay my respects). I love going to Gurdwaras, and as a Sikh, it’s not only my home away from home, it’s a place where I go to find peace, to be encouraged, and to revitalize myself when I’m feeling worn down.
After we pay our respects, we make our way to the langar hall (free/community kitchen) so that we both can eat. While I was eating, a sevadar (volunteer) walks around offering water to the pangat (congregation in the langar hall). I look at him, he looks back at me and asks if I need water, I said, “Yes, water please (in Punjabi)”. He then looks away and serves everyone except me. There were so few of us present (maybe 15 people) that he ends up walking a circle around me, serving everyone and just skipping me entirely. At first I thought, maybe we misunderstood each other and he thought I had water. After all, he didn’t even look at my cup, he just looked me in the eyes and moved on to the next person. No big deal.
A few minutes later he comes around a second time, asking if anyone needs water. I flag him down, I ask for water once as he approaches after he serves the people sitting immediately to my right. I ask a second time as he’s right in front of me, and then it occurs to me that he’s intentionally ignoring me, as he serves the person to my left, then the people behind me, and then a last person that was directly in front of me.
I’m bothered by this, and I look at my daughter and say in by no means a whisper, “Did you see that Kiran? He won’t serve me.” I took a minute to process and before I left the langar hall I took another minute to explain my thoughts in the moment to my daughter.
Before I continue, my daughter is very young, and in trying to stimulate and nurture her curiosity and budding intelligence I talk to her all the time and explain everything we encounter to her. I read out loud, I think out loud, I point and name things, I make eye contact and very animated faces for her, and so on. Every day is a good day when I’m spending time with my daughter.
In any case, before we leave the langar hall I say, “Kiran, we were just listening to Japji Sahib in the car on the way here.
Remember what Guru Ji says,
‘TEERATH TAAP DAYA DAAT DAAN JE KO PAAVAE TIL KAA MAAN.
SUNIAA MANIAA MAN KEETA BHAO ANTARGAT TEERATH MAL NAAO.
SAB GUN TERE MAE NAAHI KOE.
VIN GUN KEETE BHAGAT NAA HOE
SUASTH AATH BAANI BARMAO.
SAT SUHAAN SADAA MAN CHAAO.’
PILGRIMAGES, AUSTERE DISCIPLINE, COMPASSION AND CHARITY. THESE, BY THEMSELVES, BRING ONLY AN IOTA (THE SIZE OF A SESAME SEED) OF MERIT. BUT A PERSON WHO LISTENS TO GOD’S NAME WITH LOVE AND DEVOTION, AND REMEMBERS GOD WITH TRUE LOVE IN THEIR HEART DOES THE REAL PILGRIMAGE BY THOROUGHLY CLEANING HIS/HER INNER SELF BY IMMERSING IN GOD’S NAME. LORD, ALL VIRTUES ARE YOURS, I HAVE NONE. WITHOUT YOU BLESSING ME WITH YOUR VIRTUES, I CANNOT REMEMBER YOU WITH TRUE DEVOTION. I SALUTE YOU, THE CREATOR OF MAYA AND THE HOLY WORD (SHABAD). AND WHO IS TRUE (EVERLASTING), BEAUTIFUL, AND ALWAYS FULL OF ETERNAL JOY.
When you get older, I’ll teach you about Seva (selfless service). Today, just know that whatever you do, make sure it’s carried out with Love, because that boundless Love is the real treasure. It is the means, and the ends. If you disingenuously serve others, or serve others with enmity in your heart, then you’ve completely missed out on the real treasure to be found in Seva, and in life.”
In any case. I have had many encounters, at Gurdwaras, with overtly racist and otherwise prejudiced people. What I perceived today, is not something I’m going to lose sleep over, or take personally. I am neither discouraged, nor losing faith, by any means. At the same time, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. That’s part of why I’ve written this post.
So what actually bothers me about this encounter? It’s not that someone refused to pour me a cup of water. I do not at all care about that part.
It bothers me that someone would wake up in the morning and dress themselves in the Guru’s roop (physical form) which is at its core making a very bold and public statement about their commitment to serve humanity and uphold Sikh ideals. Then go to a Gurdwara Sahib, (a place of worship that is literally meant to be open to everyone and free of enmity toward anyone, period.) Then stand attentively in the langar hall just to do seva. (Langar, an institution whose very existence is predicated on inclusivity, equality, community, and humility). And finally, to blatantly discriminate against someone in an underhanded, passive-aggressive way. It’s a slap in the face to the institution of Langar itself, and does a major disservice to the Guru’s mission.
Secondly: Xenophobia from within the Punjabi community has been a recurring issue for me (and for my wife, being a Punjabi married to a black man) since day one of my trying to learn about Sikhi. I feel extremely blessed to have fallen so much in love with Sikhi that I was able to look past the consistently humiliating treatment I was given exclusively at Gurdwaras on a regular basis. Now that I’m no longer a stranger to the many aspects of Sikh principles, history, culture, etc. I do everything I can to be the antithesis of the bigots who isolated me and treated me so poorly for no reason other than my skin colour. Everywhere I go, I stand out, and I get a lot of questions about being a Sikh and about the Guru’s message. And I am endlessly overjoyed to talk about it to whomever is curious. I routinely welcome others to go and visit a Gurdwara Sahib, and to learn more about Sikhi. It is with this in mind that I know that if anyone, on the advice of myself or another Gursikh, went to a Gurdwara for whatever reason and was treated like a second class citizen, or was blatantly disrespected as I have been so many times, I would feel a personal sense of shame and remorse regarding how they were treated. It bothers me that how I was treated yesterday, and how I have been treated so many times before, could happen to anyone.
In closing, I can’t write something like this for the sake of airing a complaint and fixating on the idea that I’m upset. If you’re still reading this, heed this call to action.
1) Tap into your humanity. Treat others with kindness, and do for others as you would have them do unto you.
2) If you can’t help someone, at least don’t harm them. Don’t go out of your way to be malicious. And if you catch yourself impulsively reacting that way, for whatever reason, then investigate that impulse and demand more of yourself. Don’t just do better: Be better.
3) Don’t turn a blind eye to anyone treating anyone else poorly. If you don’t stand against abusive behaviour, then you enable it. So please, be the change you want to see in the world.
4) Lastly, you have an audience. You may not realize it, but someone, at some point, somewhere is observing you. Today, my daughter witnessed someone judge her father and withhold water. This man was not in his own house, he was in the Guru’s house. He wasn’t distributing his own water and langar, it was the Guru’s langar. In the Guru’s House, everyone is welcome, and no one is turned away. It was not his right to decided who is and is not served. How do I explain this to her? How do I model for her, that person that the Guru has asked me to be?
Let’s make a world where we don’t need to explain bigotry, ignorance, and injustice.
Please feel free to share this post.
If you ever see us (at a Gurdwara Sahib, or otherwise) feel free to come say hi.