- Visiting a House of Worship
- Group Visit Guidlines
- Pilgrimage to Siddhachalam (Jain)
- Visit to a Sikh Temple
Visiting a House of Worship
VISITING A HOUSE OF WORSHIP or a religious gathering brings the tradition alive. Hearing special music, participating in ritual, being within the art and architecture of an inner sanctum, sensing candlelight and incense, experiencing the quiet and spaciousness, feeling the community… there is no substitute for being there.
Visiting each other’s “spiritual homes” has long been an important practice within our community interfaith group. For example we have participated in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Quaker, Unitarian-Universalist, and Jain services. We have also attended life cycle events such as weddings, funerals and memorials, holiday events such as Iftars , and ceremonies like the ordinations of some of our Board Members.
The purpose of this website section is to encourage Interfaith Visits and to share some of our actual experiences.
Here you will find ideas about identifying places of worship in your community, preparing for an interfaith visit, initiating the visit, making it most worthwhile and avoiding pitfalls.
What is it like to be on an actual interfaith visit?
Click the Tabs to read the following original articles about the MCWRET’s visit to a Jain Temple, and to a Sikh Temple.
Discovering Faith Communities In Your Midst
If you , alone or with family or friends, wish to explore the variety of nearby religious communities you can investigate:
The Internet- Location and Name of Religion
Newspaper Listings of Religious Events
Calendars for Religious Holidays
Places of Worship of Your Friends and Neighbors
Preparations for Making an Interfaith Visit
For the interfaith visitor, entering the world of another’s faith community is not just an external journey. Your experience may be strongly influenced by your own beliefs and customs.
Hosts, of course, will want to be sensitive and welcoming guides.
Both interfaith visitors and hosts can consider:
1. How can I show the appropriate respect and avoid being inadvertently rude? How can I respect others’ practices without compromising my own beliefs?
2. How can I be open to rituals and practices that differ from my beliefs?
3. How can I learn more about rituals and practices from a member of the guest or host faith?
Guidelines for Arranging Group Visits
For the past 40 years, I have been visiting houses of worship in various North American cities. My visits to mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, meditation centers and churches have proved to be a wonderful complement to my many years of studying and teaching world religions.
One cannot really understand a faith tradition without entering into some kind of experience of that tradition. A house of worship site visit allows for just such an experience.
Inside the house of worship, one experiences the tastes, sounds, sights and smells of a faith tradition and its heritage. Here one encounters the tradition’s unique culture – its music, its prayer, its beliefs, its practices, its foods, its rituals, its people. One of the benefits of such visits is that not only does one learn more about another faith tradition but one also learns about oneself and about one’s own religious tradition.
Because visiting houses of worship was so meaningful and helpful to me, I decided it would be a good idea to share this experience with others. In 1994, I began organizing group visits to houses of worship in Toronto, Canada. Since then, I have organized literally hundreds of such tours.
In recent years it occurred to me that it might be helpful for others if I further shared my experience by developing a set of guidelines for arranging houses of worship site visits. I felt this could be helpful for people not just in North America but also in other parts of the world.
Because more and more regions of the world are becoming environments of multiculture and multifaith, there is now occurring a meeting of religions, an encounter of religions that is patently new to history. Religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue constitute the future of religion. The growing demand for visits to houses of worship is part of this planet-wide phenomenon of interreligious encounter.
It is my hope that the guidelines outlined below will be helpful to all who want to organize site visits to houses of worship. There are variety of audiences that show interest in site visits – high school classes, university classes, continuing education classes, congregations of any given faith tradition.
There are a number of schedule models for site visits. On a given day, the visiting group may wish to visit only one house of worship; on the other hand, it is possible for the group to visit three or four sites in one day. Through the Encounter World Religions Center in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, we sponsor an annual week-long world religions program in which the student group visits fifteen houses of worship.
Efforts to prepare the visitors prior to the site visit are essential. Preparation needs to occur on two levels: 1) visitors should receive some general introductory information about the faith tradition they are visiting; 2) visitors should receive an orientation to the etiquette of the particular house of worship – this will enable them, as guests, to be sensitive to the cultural and religious sensibilities of the given tradition.
- All religious traditions want to have their stories told, particularly when they see that you value their stories and their place in the community of faiths. Therefore, you can feel at ease in requesting a group visit to a house of worship because virtually every religious community is welcoming to visitors.
- Before booking a group visit, visit the facility to insure that it includes the kind of features, activities and community that you want to emphasize to your visiting group.
- Become familiar with the locations of proper entrances/exits, worship hall, washrooms, coat racks, shoe shelves and other places in the facility that your group will need. When a visiting group enters unfamiliar space, its comfort level is raised if it knows that the space is already familiar to you, the organizer.
- If you would like the visitors to observe a worship service, ritual or ceremony as part of their visit, you may want to attend such a service in advance to make sure it is appropriate for your time schedule, purposes and audience.
- Clarify with your host to what extent guests are free to participate in rituals, if at all. Such involvement can range from full participation (without restriction) to simple observation only.
- Avoid requesting group visits on holy days, festivals or “busy” days. For example, Sunday is not the best day for a group visit to a Christian facility, nor Friday to a mosque, nor Saturday to a synagogue, nor the festival of Diwali to a Hindu temple.
- Request the site visit at least a month in advance of the anticipated visitation date. It may take several days for the house of worship to inform the appropriate faith leaders who will speak to your group.
- If possible, periodically attend services at the houses of worship on occasions other than the time of your group visits. This gesture serves to develop a relationship with the religious leaders and members of the chosen site; it also increases your levels of comfort, knowledge and cooperation with respect to the host community.
- Send greetings (cards or notes) to hosts, guides, lecturers, clergy or the general congregation of the house of worship on special holy days or festivals.
- In your first effort to contact the house of worship, speak to the contact person directly – face-to-face, if at all possible. E-mail or over-the-phone conversations are risky unless you know personally the individual whom you are contacting. Person-to-person encounters are vital in building interfaith relationships. Once a relationship has been established over a period of time, phone/e-mail arrangements may be more reliable.
- Give a clear explanation to your host regarding your expectations. For example, during the visit, what would you, as the organizer, like to have happen and what would you like the host to do? Generally, I find the following four components helpful for a one-hour tour:
- A brief introduction to the faith tradition.
- A tour of the facility with an explanation of what the visitors are viewing (altars, images, objects, etc.) and what roles such altars/images/objects play in the worship setting.
- A personal statement/explanation of how being a member of the host tradition shapes one’s worldview. In other words, what does it mean to be Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. and how does this particular faith orientation affect the way one lives one’s life?
- A period for questions from the audience.
- Clarify for the host the age/gender/grade/knowledge level of the visitors so the presentation can be tailored to the group’s needs.
- Confirm that the facilities are able to accommodate the size of your group and can meet the requirements of any special needs guests.
- If time is an issue, be clear on time requirements when booking the visit. As a general rule, approximately one hour is a comfortable length of time for a site visit.
- Clarify the length of the visit again when confirming the booking and again upon arrival at the site. Accordingly, the speaker will be clear on the length of her or his talk and thus allow time for a tour of the building and a question period.
- Ask about etiquette. For example, is a head covering required? If so, what is appropriate? Are head coverings provided in sufficient numbers or should guests bring their own? Should shoes be removed? If so, at what point in the building? Don’t be shy to ask about these and other etiquette issues.
- Ask if there are specific areas where the guests should sit or if men and women should sit in different areas. This consideration may or may not be an issue with a simple visit, but may be more important if the visit includes a ritual.
- Clarify as to what fees are expected, if any. Some facilities have a set fee. Others have no set fee. And still others are not allowed to accept money. Inquire about how the fee may be paid (e.g. If by cheque, payable to whom? Should fees be given to someone or placed in a donation box?)
- Confirm the visit two or three days before the date, reviewing schedule and expectations with your host.
- Acquire the name of the person to whom you spoke in making the arrangements as well as the name of the person who will meet you as host on the day of the visit.
- Etiquette and expectations vary from site to site. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, ask rather than assume.
Preparing the Visiting Group
- Inform visitors about issues of modesty and appropriate dress. Dress should be respectful. Remember,these are sacred spaces, not tourist attractions. Short pants and sleeveless shirts are not acceptable for either men or women. Short skirts are not acceptable for women. Modesty should be maintained when sitting on the floor (e.g. school girls should not wear school uniform kilts to sites where guests sit on the floor.)
- T-shirts should be free of advertisements or slogans that may be offensive or uncomfortable to others, even if they are not offensive to the wearer.
- Remind guests that modesty codes are more defined and formal in some cultures. For example, certain physical gestures such as handshakes or embraces are foreign to people of some cultural and religious backgrounds. In some cultures it is inappropriate for men and women to touch. Accordingly, it is better that guests allow members of the host site to take the initiative in terms of gestures such as handshakes or other forms of touching.
- To avoid embarrassment, guests should refrain from physical displays of affection or excessive friendliness toward each other (e.g. holding hands, leaning against one another, arms across one another’s shoulders, etc.) This guideline applies even for husbands and wives.
- With the visiting group, review etiquette issues that may be unique to a particular site visit, for example, the prohibition from sitting with one’s feet pointing toward the deities in a Hindu temple, member-only communion in some Christian churches, head coverings, shoes on/off, etc.) If you are unfamiliar with particular points of etiquette in a given house of worship, clarify these when booking the visit.
- Smoking is absolutely prohibited at all site visits. The trip should be considered a smoke-free day, similar to other settings with equivalent expectations (e.g. extended plane trips, etc.)
- Guests are encouraged to ask questions. Any question is acceptable so long as it is asked respectfully.
- Hosts at some sites may ask guests to participate in specific ways in the culture of the host faith group, for example, by learning how to pronounce specific words or phrases in an unfamiliar language, by engaging in meditation or other exercises, etc.) Alert guests to these possibilities and inform them of the expectation to participate. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that any individual visitor has the right to decline participation in any practice, meditation, ritual or exercise.
- Occasionally, a meal or snack may be provided by the house of worship. Because wasting the food of a host tradition is impolite, advise guests to take only what they are prepared to eat and make every effort to eat what they take. It is acceptable to decline food or snacks.
- It is very important that all individuals remain with the larger group as the tour moves through the building. Otherwise, there is a risk of individuals becoming separated from the group and thus delaying the tour.
- Because sitting on the floor may produce an inclination to lean back or recline, remind guests that in a house of worship such a casual posture may be seen as disrespectful.
- Ask the visitors to be respectful of and attentive to the host by not talking amongst themselves during the talk or presentation.
- Encourage guests to take a washroom break before departing for the house of worship.
- Above all, keep in mind that the primary intent of the site visit is that the guests enjoy a day of learning and experience.
- A bus is by far the best mode of transportation for a site visit.
- Car pools are problematic but are sometimes necessary. In the case of carpooling, provide each driver (or designated navigator) with clear maps (drawn and written directions.) maps.google.com provides excellent maps.
- It is helpful if each car has at least one passenger with a cell phone – this is vital in case of emergencies or delays; the cell phone is also helpful if a vehicle takes a wrong turn or gets lost in traffic.
- Out of courtesy, phone the host of the site if you are going to be more than a few minutes late.
- If you are uncertain of the location of the house of worship, drive to the facility in advance of the visit in order to determine the best route; this preparatory research will alert you to the locale of the entrance and parking lots as well as to the presence of one-way streets or construction in the area. Familiarizing yourself with these logistics is particularly important when the visiting group is travelling by bus.
During the Visit
- Encourage the visitors to enter the site with respect and quiet reverence.
- Be prepared, as the organizer, to ask questions during the presentation that move the discussion to topics that the class or group has reviewed previously or may have questions about. Accordingly, if the lecturer wanders off topic, you can gently and non-threateningly guide the discussion back on track by raising a question.
- Ask permission of the host before taking photos or making audio/video recordings. Ask if there are specific times or places when it is inappropriate to take photos. Sometimes, visitors are allowed to take photos that do not require a flash. Clarify all these issues in advance. Do not assume that you are permitted to take photos.
- Some traditions have a prohibition against eating in the house of worship (apart from sanctioned food as a part of a ritual). Chewing gum, candy, breath mints, even cough drops qualify as food. Visitors should dispose of such items before entering the house of worship.
- Instruct guests to turn off all cell phones, beepers, pagers, wristwatch alarms and other electronic devices that may sound during the visit.
- Earphones from iPods and other electronic devices should be removed.
- Inform the facility host if there are individuals in your group who are unable to sit on the floor. In such a case, a chair is quite appropriate and will be gladly provided.
- Encourage the members of your group to stand or sit close to the host so they can clearly see and hear.
- Although you should encourage guests to take a washroom break before departing for the house of worship, washrooms will still be needed by your group when you arrive. Upon arrival, point out the locale of the restrooms and provide an opportunity for washroom visits before the program begins. This discipline serves to avoid disruptions later in the program. You may want to invite use of the washroom as you leave the site to avoid making a washroom visit the first requirement at the next site visit.
- When visiting a facility that requires visitors to remove their shoes, keep in mind that shoes should be worn in the washroom. Some facilities may permit the wearing of one’s regular street shoes in the washroom; others may require the wearing of flip-flops or other sandal-type shoes which are provided and located outside the washroom doors. To avoid an awkward situation, clarify these issues with the host in advance of the visit.
- As organizer of the visit, you need to keep in mind that the tour is for the group’s benefit, not your own. Therefore, position yourself at the back of the group or at some other vantage point where you may unobtrusively monitor behaviour and the program so as to facilitate a pleasant experience for both host and guests.
- Make sure that the group remains together as a body as it moves throughout the site.
- Be vigilant about your time schedule. You may need to express politely appreciation for the host’s time and contribution and then respectfully explain that the visit must end, particularly if the group is expected at another site visit where another host is awaiting you.
- Once you have left the facility, it is helpful to provide a time and locale for the group to debrief and evaluate the experience. This process enables the members of the group to clarify questions, identify major learning points and discuss any uncomfortable issues raised by the visit.
- You may want to provide your group with an address or website of the house of worship so that individuals can visit again on their own or learn more about the tradition.
- At some point following the visit, have a brief conversation with the host to determine how future visits can be made even more mutually beneficial.
- Express your appreciation to the host. A phone call, a voicemail message, an e-mail message or note of thanks (signed by yourself or the entire group) directed to the host is always appreciated and is good preparation for the next visit.
About the Author
JW Windland (1949 – 2014) made a major contribution to world religions education in North America. A comparative mythologist, JW founded the Encounter World Religions Centre in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The Encounter Centre is an internationally recognized educational organization designated as a “Gift Of Service To The World” by the Parliament of World Religions.
JW had more than 40 years of experience in the study, teaching and first-hand experience of world religions. In addition to his academic background in religious studies, he regularly attended mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, churches and temples as a testimony to his appreciation of world religions. This background gave him a perspective that was unique and tangible. He had genuine friendships with the practitioners of these traditions, joined in their rituals and introduced thousands of people to the winnowed wisdom of diverse communities. JW was a specialist in interreligious dialogue and created comfort across religious and cultural borders. He also lectured internationally to universities, churches, community groups and professional organizations. JW brought a familiarity and a deep knowledge of the many religious traditions that make up the North American mosaic.
If you would like to learn more about the Encounter Center, here is the contact information:
People Places Practices Philosophies
390 Speedvale Ave. E.,
Guelph, ON N1E 1N5 Canada
Scarboro Missions encourages the reproduction and use of this document for educational purposes for limited distribution. For permission to reproduce this document for commercial use or large-scale distribution, contact Encounter World Religions Centre at tel. 519-822-0099 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Published by Scarboro Missions (Toronto, Canada)
Copyright © Scarboro Missions 2008
A Pilgrimage to Siddhachalam
By Jennifer Lieberman, Guest Journalist
I WAS HONORED to accompany the members of the board of the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought (MCWRET) on a tour of Siddhachalam Jain Tirth in Blairstown, NJ, which rests on 120 acres surrounded by foliage and roughly 3 miles of trails. It’s a place where both humans and animals can find the peace and contentment that is the basis of the Jain religion. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion along with Buddhism and Hinduism which believes that the universe has no beginning, middle or end. Its philosophy is extremely relevant to modern life and supportive of equality for women, animal rights, yoga and meditation.
Jain comes from the Sanskrit word Jina which means to conquer ones’ own inner enemies, such as anger and greed. You might say that Jainism is synonymous with peace. Its most central mission and one of its five great vows as well as one of its key tenets, is the path of non-violence or non-harm toward all living beings, known as Ahimsa. The vows and tenets are intertwined with their belief in Karma, and their scientific view of natural phenomena which I will touch upon throughout the article. But, first I’d like to talk about how the center was brought to the states.
Birth of Siddhachalam
Siddhachalam is the first Jain Tirth (pilgrimage place) established in the United States, and the only replica in the world of the Teerthadhiraj Shikharji in India. The Tonks (shrines) at Siddhachalam mirror the layout of those at Shikharji, and were designed to bring the essence of Shikharji to America. They are made of stone and show the raised footprints of the Tirthankars or prophets and are displayed to honor their spirit.
The center was established in 1983 by Acharya (learned teacher) Sushil Kumarji Maharaj or (Guruji) who was the first Jain Monk to travel from India. When Sushil Kumarji Maharaj traveled to the states it raised controversy in the Jain community due to the air travel it required. Traveling by airplane versus by foot is thought to cause significantly more himsa (harm) to certain organisms because of a plane’s weight, momentum and combustion, therefore violating one of the vows. Guruji contemplated this for some time and through his meditation he channeled his guru who finally instructed him to follow in the footsteps of Lord Mahavir the 24th Tirthankar (prophet) who traveled over the river Ganges thousands of years ago to spread the spirit of Jainism. With Lord Mahavir’s spirit in his heart Guruji went ahead with his pilgrimage, and so the center was born.
Prior to my visit I found a Jain daily prayer known as the Namokar Mantra which I incorporated into my own prayer and meditation ritual. To laypeople like me, the Mantra teaches reverence and inspiration from the enlightened ones who have liberated their souls through their own actions by practicing right faith (samyak-darshana), right knowledge (samyak-jnana), and right conduct (samyak-charitra).
Although, they do not deny the existence of God, Jains believe there is no creator God. Instead, they pay homage to the Tirthankars (prophets) who were once living beings. There are 24 in total and 5 of their statues are displayed in the main Temple, which we visited on our tour. Among them is Lord Mahavir, who is the last to attain enlightenment and nirvana (around 500 BC) and will remain the last in this era.
Moksha or nirvana, is the liberation of one’s soul or jiva of all karma, which is a result of deeds or actions that cause the cycle of birth, life, death, pain and misery. Karma is also thought to be physical particles that are attracted to a person’s soul through their actions. The Mantra also praises a series of enlightened ones from monks to prophets for their strict adherence to the vows and tenets.
While I don’t know if I will ever attain enlightenment, or if I’ll achieve moksha or nirvana, I take comfort in knowing it is possible. Like all other living beings, including the Tirthankars, I have a soul, which Jains believe automatically qualifies me. I’d like to use some examples of how my experience with the vows, tenets and the Namokar Mantra gave me a brief taste of what it’s like to be free from my suffering.
One of the first times I recited the Mantra I was struggling with aparigraha and feeling strong attachment to material possessions. As I said the words my inner turmoil dissolved as I envisioned those who came before me. For the moment I felt in touch with the universe and the true meaning of existence and my material desires diminished. This is of course a lifelong process and my detachment skills continued to be tested when I lost most of my belongings to Hurricane Sandy about a week after my visit to Siddhachalam. Without my spiritual practices and studies, I would not have seen the blessing in this loss, which is that the hurricane took my belongings and
my home which freed me from the responsibility of maintaining the expenses and afforded me the opportunity to pursue dreams I would have otherwise dismissed. To me this realization is a taste of the essence of enlightenment and freedom from suffering.
3 Key Tenets:
Anekaantvaad (Multiple reality of truth)
Ahimsa–Non-violence, the central principal of Jainism
Aparigraha–Not becoming attached to material possessions, people or places
Satya–Not telling lies
Asteya–Not stealing or taking things that are not willingly handed over
Brahmacarya–Sexual restraint practiced as celibacy by monks and nuns and monogamy by laypersons
Ahimsa in Action
While touring Siddhachalam, we witnessed many visitors observing ahimsa, as they wore scarves over their mouths to avoid inhaling and possibly harming insects. Although Jainism acknowledges that it’s impossible to avoid some degree of harm, minimal harm is the goal. The level of harm is based on senses. For example, human beings and animals have five senses and therefore experience greater pain than a plant which has only one. For this reason, Siddhachalam’s dinning hall which welcomes visitors and offers free meals, serves only vegetarian food which we also enjoyed on the tour. Since I am in the process of adopting vegetarianism as a way of life, this visit was very special and reinforced my own belief in Ahimsa.
What I’ve Learned/What I hope to Learn
While putting the final touches on this article, I learned that Siddhachalam was formerly an abandoned Jewish summer camp for handicapped children. This was particularly meaningful to me because I am Jewish and already felt a strong connection with Jainism. Especially for its recognition of Anekaantvaad (multiple reality of truth) which allows me to embrace the religion without turning my back on Judaism, my belief in God or my personal perspective. This highlights my existing view of our inherent sameness. Even if living beings seem different on the outside their fundamental nature is the same, like water and ice. My trip to Siddhachalam strengthened this idea and inspired my future plans to learn about and experience other religions and faiths.
*The Swastika in the Center of the Flag Represents Auspiciousness*
*The Colors of the Flag Represent Levels of Enlightenment*
- White represents Arihants (souls who have reached the state of non-attachment) It also denotes peace or non-violence
- Red represents Siddha (Liberated Souls)
- Orange represents Acharya (Head of Jain Sect)
- Green represents Upadhyaya (Teachers)
- Dark Blue (or Black) represents Sadhus and Sadhvis (Monks & Nuns) and non-possession or aparigrah
All Photos by Jennifer Lieberman except:
P1 Temple and P3: Guruji/ permission by Jaipat Singh Jain, President/ email@example.com
P6: people with scarves/ permission by Cameron Knight ckpj.com
Appreciation to Dr. Aridaman Jain and Mr. Naresh Jain for their help with this article
Visit to a Sikh Gurudwara
Bridgewater, NJ June 2013
By Jennifer Lieberman, Guest Journalist
WITH A WARM WELCOME the board members of the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought (MCWRET) and I entered the Gurudwara (Sikh temple ) in Bridgewater, NJ. Also known as the Garden State Sikh Association (GSSA), the Gurudwara was founded in 1973. Upon entry we were graciously provided with scarves and asked to cover our heads and remove our shoes as a sign of respect. While doing so, we could already hear the sounds of prayer throughout the temple, even as we entered the Langar (community meal) hall where we enjoyed a delicious vegetarian meal prior to joining the service. The Langar hall is open to everyone and meals are served free on a daily basis. It’s customary to sit on the floor while dining, as it represents equality, a key tenet of the Sikh religion. However, guests as well as older members of the Sikh community are welcome to sit at a few tables placed along the side.
After our meal we were invited to join the service upstairs, where members and guests can enter or leave at any point during the service. Worshippers sat on the floor as they did in the Langar hall. At the other end of the room was an altar which radiated with light. Resting high upon it was the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (the holy text of the Sikhs), which is raised to honor its sacredness.
Following the service we gathered in the community room and learned that this text whose recitation echoed throughout the Gurudwara, is a love poem to God. Comprised of music and rhymes, it is considered a living Guru (teacher or master) and is a compilation of many gurus and saints, including those of other faiths (Hindu, Islamic, Sufi). In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh declared the holy book as his symbolic successor. People who follow this teaching and regard the holy book as the only place to look for guidance, form the mainstream of the Sikh religion and are also referred to as the Khalsa (the pure) There are two other sects known as the Mandharis and Nirankaris which have living Gurus, but their number are very small (in the thousands).
The 10 Sikh Gurus- The First Five Contributed to the Granth Sahib
**Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539)**
**Guru Angad Dev (1504-1552)**
**Guru Amar Das (1479-1574)**
**Guru Ram Das (1534-1581)**
**Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606)**
Guru Hargobind (1595-1644)
Guru Har Rai (1630-1661)
Guru Harkrishan (1656-1664)
Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675)
Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708)
Within its pages, the Guru Granth Sahib reflects the central teachings and a way of life for Sikhs (the translation of the word “sikh” is disciple or student). The teachings include devotion to God at all times, truthfulness, equality of all mankind, social justice and rejection of superstition and blind rituals. There are many verses in the holy text that refer to the belief that all religions are different paths to the same goal of achieving oneness with God. The Sikh mission is to achieve Mukti or Moksha (salvation), which is essentially breaking down the walls of ego. Mukti represents the realization of the ultimate truth which enables a follower to achieve detachment from worldly possessions and relationships and to live in a constant state of gratitude for the countless bounties of this world. Sikhs believe that this is attainable in one’s lifetime and does not require them to live an ascetic life or to give up possessions or household obligations.
5 Thieves of Sikhism: To Overcome These is to Overcome One’s Ego
Tools For the Path to Mukti
Nam Japa (meditation)
Kirat Karni (hard work)
Vand Chhakna (sharing)
Their belief in equality and acceptance of all religions and faiths has been an inherent part of Sikhism from the beginning when it was founded by Guru Nanak in the state of Punjab, India more than 500 years ago. Those teachings were born from a need to move away from some of the ritualism and radicalism that had increasingly taken over the practice of the two dominating religions in India, Hinduism and Islam. Through emphasizing the basics that underlie most religions and rejecting societal misuse of religion such as the Hindu caste system, Guru Nanak created a new path for his followers. He also addressed gender discrimination – women were treated as equals and were allowed and encouraged to lead Sikh services and partake as equals in providing leadership to the Sikh followership. Another practice that helps maintain equality among Sikhs is that there are no ordained priests in the religion. Instead there are assigned Gurudwara caretakers and resident musicians who are trained in the singing of hymns from the holy book. They are considered Gurudwara employees and are not part of any pre-ordained hierarchy.
Currently there are about 27 million Sikhs in the world, 83% of which live in India. The rest of them have immigrated to almost every country in the world. There are very large Sikh communities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom just to name a few. The estimate of the number of Sikhs in USA varies from 500,000 to 750,000. As one of the first waves of Asians to come to the United States more than a hundred years ago, Sikhs encountered many obstacles. Although they worked hard on railways and in lumberyards, they could not obtain citizenship or bring women with them to the states.
Sikhs are often mistaken for people from the Middle- East and have faced challenges as a result, including illegal searches in airports, denial of service in restaurants, and verbal abuse. Although they wear turbans similar to those of other faiths, their turbans are more triangular in shape. They are often Maroon or Red but can be of any color, and are an outward symbol of their allegiance to the beliefs of their faith, as well as a way to keep their long unshorn hair covered while they move about outside their homes. Unshorn hair on their head and their face are one of the five articles of faith that many Sikhs take pride in maintaining as part of their identity. These articles are also called the 5 Ks and are listed below.
Five Articles of Faith
- Kesh: Uncut Hair as a means of accepting what God has bestowed on all humans. Also as a mark of the unique Sikh identity.
- Kanga: Comb to hair on the head neatly groomed at all times.
- Kara: Steel bracelet worn on the wrist symbolizes restraint from evil deeds.
- Kirpan: Sword with a short and blunt blade worn on the body which is an emblem of self-defense and courage.
- Kachehra: Long undershorts which represent need for self-restraint over sexual desires.
While writing this I could not help but think of all the parallels between my own experiences and what I have learned about the Sikh religion. Just as God created the universe and the Gurus created The Sri Guru Granth Sahib as a testament to God, I am creating this article to perpetuate the cycle of creation.
Creation transcends beyond the production of poems and music. For me, those are simply worldly means of expressing a larger connection to the universe, and where my spirituality embodies my experiences. It’s no coincidence that I would have visited the Gurudwara at a time when I am looking to unite more with others, and that it would just so happen that my good friend Sally would be there to share it. Sally’s participation in the event was a surprise that I did not discover until shortly before the visit. The idea that communal worship is such an integral part of Sikhism resonated with me so I asked (MCWRET) board member Sarbmeet Kanwal to elaborate on this concept. He noted that there is “ a special grace that becomes present to you when you are in the fellowship of other worshippers, and this makes your prayers more effective.”
As with all religions I have studied, I was touched by my experience at the Gurudwara. The Sikh concept of carrying God in my heart at all times is extremely comforting and will help me in all my future worldly and spiritual pursuits.
All Photos by Jennifer Lieberman except: Temple, vegetarian meal and gathering/ permission by Dr. Virender Kaur Kanwal.
Special thanks to Dr. Sarbmeet Singh Kanwal for his assistance on this article.