Constructing a Sikh Identity: On the Boundaries of Religious Tolerance

June, 2016

Simranjit Khalsa

Graduate Student, Department of Sociology

In this project, I examine the relationship between religion and ethnicity by studying two Sikh communities in the US. Sikhism is a young, monotheistic religion which originated in Punjab, a northeastern state in India. It emphasizes equality and service and the primary goal of Sikhism is to achieve union with God by constantly remembering God's name. Practice is oriented around three “golden rules”: to work hard, serve others, and speak the truth. Also important are a set of religious practices, including wearing a turban, waking up early in the morning to pray, and reciting five prayers daily. Defining Sikh identity, however, has been an ongoing project, with the Sikh community divided over its relationship to Hinduism and determining what exactly is ‘Sikh practice’ (Oberoi 1994). Recent immigration to the U.S. has brought about a new challenge in the construction of Sikh identity. With the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which removed immigration quotas from countries in Asia and South America, there was an influx of Sikh immigrants to the U.S. As Sikh immigration increased, a community of white Sikh converts called Sikh Dharma was formed in 1969 by a Punjabi man known as Yogi Bhajan or Siri Singh Sahib (Khalsa 2012). Prior to 1969, Sikhs were almost exclusively Indian, and most had roots in Punjab. In fact the Punjabi aspect of their identity has both ethnic and religious significance, even among the diaspora (Axel 2001; Shani 2007). Thus, as a predominantly white community, members of Sikh Dharma represent a new phenomenon within Sikhism. Further, they experience privilege within American society (Omi and Winant 1994). This tight link between religious and ethnic identity, and the privilege linked to whiteness in the US, begs the question of how members of Sikh Dharma fit into the Sikh tradition, how both communities instantiate such identities in the U.S. context, and how these two communities relate to each other.

Comparing these two religious communities offers several insights. First, it provides a deeper understanding of how the content of identities change. Second, it reveals how boundaries are constructed and reinforced within a religious tradition. Finally, it reveals the impact of social location on the relationship between religion and ethnicity in the American context by showing how power affects the ability of white converts to claim a religious identity, change it, and represent it to the broader public. This study draws on participant observation and in-depth interviews in two Sikh communities: Sikh Dharma and Indian Sikhs in a large Southern city. I collected data from 2014 to 2015, interviewing 15 Indian Sikhs and 16 members of Sikh Dharma for a total of 31 interviews. I find that both members of Sikh Dharma and Indian Sikhs draw on the same building blocks (symbols, practices, and values) to construct a Sikh identity. However, members of each community emphasize different religious practices. Indian Sikhs highlight singing and devotion to God. Members of Sikh Dharma discuss these things but they also emphasize the practice of yoga, describing it as a Sikh practice. Indian Sikh respondents reject the view that yoga is connected to Sikhism and expressed concern that members of Sikh Dharma are misrepresenting the faith. The different religious practices in these two communities gain symbolic meaning and act as boundaries between members of Sikh Dharma and Indian Sikhs, separating the two groups along both religious and ethnic lines. Further, I find that although members of Sikh Dharma draw boundaries between Sikh Dharma and the Indian Sikh community, they universalize Sikh values and practices, reshaping boundaries around Sikhism and simultaneously legitimating their own claims to Sikh identity. They not only reject ethnic boundaries within Sikhism but broaden boundaries around Sikhism to include practitioners of other faiths by saying that Sikhism is not restricted to those who identify as Sikh and describing Sikh practices as a ‘technology’. Through universalizing Sikhism, members of the Sikh Dharma community make room for themselves within a religious tradition closely linked to an ethnic identity that had no precedent for the widespread conversion of westerners.

Overall, my findings suggest that the ability to challenge and redefine the contents of religious traditions is shaped by racial and ethnic identity, where members of a predominantly white Sikh community are able to reshape the contents and boundaries of Sikhism despite the objections of Indian Sikhs. This suggests that within the U.S. context, new white practitioners of historically non-white faiths have outsized agency in defining the content of religious identity. In understanding how religious and ethnic identities are related in the U.S., this suggests that we cannot disregard the distribution of power. In the U.S., where ethnic and racial identity continues to privilege whiteness, racial and ethnic identity may impact the degree of agency religious practitioners have in constructing their faith. Further, different understandings of the Sikh faith become a boundary between groups despite Sikh ideals which emphasize equality. This boundary is strengthened by concerns among Indian Sikhs about the misrepresentation of Sikh identity. Although members of each community emphasize respect for the other, a divide between them remains. This suggests the need for a move beyond tolerance and towards the engagement of difference within the Sikh community.