By IJ Chan | Photos by Mark Owen and James Chung
Every morning, Pritpal Saggu wraps his hip-length hair into a turban.
“It’s just like brushing your teeth. You don’t really think about brushing your teeth,” he says. “You just get up and do it. So I get up and do it.”
Saggu is a Sikh. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of India. Sikh men, he said, aren’t allowed to cut their hair, so they protect it by wearing a turban. Saggu said he’s one of the few Sikhs on JMU’s campus that wears the turban.
“Our hair is something that God gives us,” Saggu, a junior biology major, says. “So in keeping our hair, we’re accepting a gift from God.”
When he was 13, Saggu underwent a ceremony called Dastar Bandi, where boys start wearing the larger turbans as a symbol of them coming of age. At first, Saggu says his father would have to help him tie the turban, and he would only wear it on Sundays when they had to go to the gurdwara, a Sikh temple.
“I didn’t wear it to school,” he says. “But when I graduated high school, I wore a turban and people were like ‘Whoa! You graduated a whole new turban level!’”
Before he was 13, Saggu wore a different turban, where his hair was tied up in a bun on the top of the head. When he was about to start elementary school, his mother, who was an art teacher at the same school, met with his guidance counselor and teachers to explain the reasons behind her son’s turban.
Some of his classmates, however, didn’t view his hair as sacred.
“There would be people who would actually come up and grab it and shake it around. That, I took a little more offense to because it’s like a more physical type of abuse,” he says. “It was like they were pulling my hair.”
During high school, Saggu said he was the only one who wore a turban until his brother, Savraj, entered high school during Saggu’s junior year. Some of his Sikh friends, he says, were bullied and peer pressured into cutting their hair off and not wearing the turban. Even his parents, he says, fear that the turban could instigate discrimination from others.
Despite the pressure and discrimination, Saggu kept both his hair and turban. Since being at JMU, Saggu says his turban has melded with his identity.
“It has to do a lot with family, Parents are really traditional and when my cousins decided to cut his hair, my aunt and uncle didn’t talk to them for like, an entire month,” he says. “It’s also a huge part of my identity … I feel like if I don’t have my turban anymore and I cut my hair people will just be like, ‘Oh, who’s that?’”
Saggu says Sikhs follow the teachings of gurus, all who lived during the span of 1469 to 1708.
According to Saggu, the first guru, Guru Nanak, was born as a Hindu but disagreed with many of the practices and beliefs of that religion. Back in Guru Nanak’s time, Muslims and Hindus were in opposition. But Guru Nanak wrote that all people were equal, regardless of their religion.
From Guru Nanak, nine other gurus lead the Sikhs. Unlike most leaders at his time, Guru Nanak passed on his guruship to a non-relative follower. Each guru, Saggu says, brought new traditions and ideals to Sikhism that would define the religion.
The last guru, Guru Gobind Singh, passed on his guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of poems, teachings and philosophies from all 10 gurus and what Saggu describes as Sikhism’s “version of the Bible.”
Sikhs, he said, also follow the Five K’s of Sikhism:
1. Kesh: maintaining and not cutting their hair
2. Kanga: a small wooden comb for keeping their hair
3. Karra: a steel bracelet worn by Sikhs
4. Kachera: means “undergarment,” but symbolizes dignity
5. Kirpan: a short dagger, to be carried by all Sikhs.
Saggu said he does not carry his Kirpan with him at JMU or out in public, due to “too much suspicion” from the public. However, he said the dagger is used during special Sikh ceremonies at the communal meal at the end of a Sunday service. Kirpans are used to cut and serve the food.
Saggu said since there are no gurdwaras in the Harrisonburg area, he said doesn’t really practice his religion while at JMU, other than saying simple prayers on his own. The nearest one, he says, in Northern Virginia, where he’s originally from.
Instead, Saggu said he keeps his Punjabi heritage instilled in him through Bhangra — a high energy dance from the Punjab region. Saggu explained that Bhangra is a celebratory folk dance that was often performed events like spring harvests.
“I love giving back to my culture and being able to share what it is and what I do,” he says.
Saggu, who’s been performing Bhangra since he was 6 years old, is the president and one of the co-captains of JMU Bhangra, the Bhangra dance team on campus. Saggu and said he and his co-captain choreograph dances on the eight-person team.
JMU Bhangra practices three times a week to prepare for various performances like culture shows and charity events on campus as well as competitions, where they compete against Bhangra teams from other colleges and universities, like the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary. Saggu said Bhangra serves as a physical and creative outlet for him.
“[Dancing] is a huge stress reliever for me. When I go to dance, I’m really happy — Bhangra’s a really happy dance — I don’t really think about anything else,” he says. “We have to make up all the moves and I get to be really creative with that, which I love.”
Saggu said when he and his co-captain choreograph, they try to impress and surprise the audience. The music they use includes Indian pop songs, but Saggu said they enjoy integrating American songs and dubstep into the mash-up. Their most recent set included “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
“When we’re performing, especially at JMU where not a lot of people about the [Bhangra] music, they’ll listen and they’ll watch and then once [an American song] comes on, they’re like, ‘That’s my jam,’ and they get really excited and people start cheering a lot more,” he says.
Some of the discrimination Saggu faced in high school was due to the fact that many people didn’t understand his religion.
Manjit Taneja, chairman of the Sikh Foundation of Virginia in Fairfax said he’s seen many incidents of discrimination against Sikhs since he came here from New Delhi, India, in 1972.
It’s continued since 9/11. Sikhs have been the target of many hate-motivated crimes where they’ve been mistaken for Muslims. One of the most recent being in September 2013, when Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh and Columbia University professor, was attacked by a mob of 15 to 20 teenagers in New York
City, according to Al-Jazeera America.
Taneja, who teaches information systems at several community colleges and George Washington University, says he’s always welcomed the curious questions and open discussions that might come from his students.
“I was only 23 years at that time, and when I was teaching, there was some hesitation in the class — I could see it,” he says. “So each time I went to teach over there, the first class, I would let them know who I am, why I have a turban on my head and where I came from — just to make sure we’re all on the same team.”
He also mentioned that since 9/11, he and his organization have worked with local Muslim leaders to differentiate the two cultures. The national media attention on these issues also have helped, he said.
“People in Iran, people in Iraq, people in Pakistan and people in Afghanistan — they also wear turbans and it’s very easy to associate us with them,” he says.
Taneja said their goal isn’t to divide people. Rather, Sikhism, he said, teaches followers to accept all religions.
“We are peace-loving people,” he says. “Our goal is not to change other people from one religion to another. Our goal is that everybody understands that there are certain principles that we have to follow.”
If a person in his community was the victim of discrimination, Taneja says they have access to many resources, including the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a group of Sikh attorneys who advocate for the interests and rights of Sikh Americans.
“They will see what the peaceful, appropriate procedure is,” he says. “We are not here for the punishment, we are here to see that the problem is solved, and the person who was victimized does not suffer badly.”
He added his gurdwara is only one of about a dozen in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Each gurdwara has about 500 to 600 associates.
Gurusangat Singh is a member of the Raj Khalsa Gurdwara in Sterling, Va. Singh, now retired, is heavily involved in the activities of the temple.
Singh said every Sunday, Raj Khalsa’s community gathers in the temple at around 8 a.m. for the service, during which prayers from the Guru Granth Sahib are recited through song. He added that while some gurdwaras have a priest that leads the temple, Raj Khalsa doesn’t — all duties that take place within the temple are rotated between individuals within the community.
At the end of the service, the Guru Granth Sahib is opened to a random place, and a final command, or hukam, is read to the audience.
Afterward, participants share a meal together which is cooked, served and shared all by volunteers from Raj Khalsa’s community.
Singh, who’s actually a Caucasian man from Pennsylvania, said he’s always appreciated the communal and spiritual aspects of the religion since he converted 39 years ago. Singh described himself as a yoga and meditation enthusiast who had an interest in Sikhism. He traveled to India to pursue those interests, but what he experienced took him to a whole new level.
Singh said he underwent an initiation ceremony called Amrit, where he vowed to follow certain principles of Sikhism, including not cutting his hair and abstaining from “intoxicants” such as cigarettes and alcohol.
“Sikhism just clicked,” he says. “It had the technology and gave me the experience I wanted. The experience of being in a gurdwara and participating in the sanghat with the music and repetition of music brings a really powerful experience.”
He said he’s also faced discrimination from both non-Sikhs and Sikhs of Indian descent who don’t think he belongs.
“I’m not by any means the only American that’s converted to Sikhism in the last 40 years — there’s quite a few of them,” he says. “But we’ve always been welcome. Sometimes people look and they say ‘Wait a minute, these guys can’t be Sikhs,’ But those are just a few oddballs that think ‘Sikh’ is a racial thing … but the teachings of the religion are totally not that.”
Taneja emphasized again that despite all the hardships, the teachings of Sikhism teach its followers not to react violently and accept all people, regardless of their religion.
“My religion, to me, is an avenue … to ask God to always keep me on the right track,” he says. “We are here to make the world a better place.”