Vaisakhi’s message rejuvenates tradition and engages mainstream America

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Children are being placed in line ready to walk in the Vaisakhi celebrations in Rockville, Maryland, in 2017. (Photo courtesy Rajwant Singh)

The Sikh festival of Vaisakhi is a time for celebrating the religious and cultural heritage of followers, but has also taken on the added task of raising awareness about the truth of what is probably the most misunderstood community in post 9/11 America.

Sikhs across the nation, from the Pentagon to the gurdwara, are meeting to celebrate the culture, religion, and values – reading from the  Guru Granth Sahib, singing kirtans, and taking part in religious and celebratory processions. They will also consciously and simultaneously raise awareness about their faith, not just the outer appearances but also inner teachings.

The 5th Pentagon Vaisakhi Program is scheduled for April 27 this year, and being held for the first time outside the Pentagon in downtown Washington, D.C. The initiative started by Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi, and now being organized by the Sikh American Veterans Alliance (SEVA) that he heads, will bring together some of the hundreds of Sikhs in the U.S. armed forces, Kalsi told News India Times.

A Vaisakhi celebration was held at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., April 28, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michel’le Stokes) (Courtesy Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi)

Neyyara Haq, former senior advisor for public affairs at the State Department, herself a Pakistani-Punjabi-American who has celebrated Vaisakhi since childhood, is part of SEVA;s core team to bring broader participation in the Pentagon Vaisakhi program. “We want to bring the international and national security community together to have a conversation and celebration of national service,” Haq told News India Times. “It’s part of the effort to make sure that those involved in policy, understand th uniaue challenges, contributions and opportunities of Sikhs – the most visible and least understood (segment) of the South Asian community,” Haq said.

It is also the one-year anniversary of the National Sikh Campaign’s successful “We Are Sikh”  advertizing blitz launched on Vaisakhi last year. The campaign won a national award. Now, says Rajwant Singh of the National Sikh Campaign, “Our next phase is the launch of a campaign on Vaisakhi (April 14), to engage with Hollywood to reach out for funds.”

Estimates vary on the number of Sikhs in this country, and that includes Sikhs who are Caucasian, partly because the U.S. Census does not include a question on religion. While Pew  Research put the number in 2012, at around 200,000 based on its survey of Asian Americans and other extrapolated data, the Sikh Coalition places it at around 500,000. In an environment where outer symbols of the faith have caused Sikhs in the Indian-American community to bear the brunt of hate crime, the simple universal principles of equality and service, are what some Sikh leaders hope could change perceptions of some Americans in both majority and minority communities. Vaisakhi’s week-long celebrations are an opportunity to make that difference.

Sikh priests sit next to the revered Guru Granth Sahib in ornate palanquin that usually leads a Vaisakhi nagar kirtan (procession). (Photo: Dreamstime)

The festival hearkens to the roots of the religion founded by Guru Gobind Singh to build a distinct identity, launching the Khalsa, setting up the 5ks, and calling for equality and service to humanity as fundamental principles, all of which are celebrated during the second week of April till the actual day, April 14.

“Vaisakhi is the birthday of the Sikh religion, and our family celebrates this day by honoring the Saint-soldier tradition started by our Sikh Gurus,” Chinar Kalsi (wife of Lt. Col. Kalsi). “They taught us to fight intolerance and stand up for our identity. But that fight to maintain our identity and our traditions starts at home,” Chinar Kalsi added. “I wake up every morning and help instill that into my children as I get them ready for school. I want them to be confident, brave and fearless.”

Vaisakhi is also a harvest and spring festival, a new year, and signifies renewal and rejuvenation, says Rajinder Mago, co-founder of Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago, and member of its board of governors. “Vaisakhi has a special significance for the Sikhs, actually it should be for everyone.” says Mago, stressing on the traditional intent to abolish castes. “On this day in 1699 the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind “Rai” became Gobind “Singh” and ordained the egalitarian order of “Khalsa”. This was an amazing act of unifying humanity by rejecting the caste system prevalent in India,” Mago said, noting that the Punj Pyaras who were initiated by Guru Gobind Singh, came from different parts of India and belonged to different castes.

“We do multiple things to raise awareness during Vaisakhi,” Rajwant Singh, told News India Times. For example, “We give letters to our Sikh children which they can give to the teachers in school to read in class (see Box) so that fellow Americans can know more. And it’s the same for workplaces,” Rajwant Singh said.

Participants pose for a photo before the start of the Vaisakhi parade in Washington, D.C., in 2016. (Photo courtesy Rajwant Singh)

Over the years, the celebration of Vaisakhi in the U.S. has undergone some changes. Nowadays, many gurdwaras are holding Vaisakhi melas, not just religious services. So within gurdwara grounds, there are vendors along with festivities, sports like kabaddi and basketball. “This is a new trend in the last 3 to 4 years, because people are feeling they need to engage with the 2nd and other younger generations,” Rajwant Singh says.

In a sign of the times, many Sikh groups are working with local legislatures to create a ‘Sikh Day,’ to raise national awareness through Vaisakhi. Recently, New Jersey, which boasts a Sikh Attorney General and a newly-elected city mayor, and Delaware declared April a Sikh awareness and appreciation day.

One of the new developments over the last 5 to 10 years is the “Mega” mela, around 10 to 15 of them, which are held around the country in cities where the Sikh community lives in larger numbers both urban and  suburban  — in Los Angeles, Fresno, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, Arizona, among others. Thousands attend or participate in these melas which cost anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 to organize, according to Rajwant Singh of Washington, D.C.. “In the last 10 years many cities have started “Sikh Day Parades” which is a Vaisakhi celebration,” Rajwant Singh notes.

Amritpal Singh, a community leader in Fresno, California, says the gurdwaras in his area are planning processions, called “Nagar Kirtans”, and that Vaisakhi is celebrated in central, southern and northern California in around 25 “very large gurdwaras.” The Selma Gurdwara in Fresno is among the oldest in Central California celebrating Vaisakhi over the last 20 years. The procession includes carrying the Guru Granth in the front of the parade, with people following and singing the shabad kirtan, and vehicles bring up the rear with youth doing bhangra, playing dhol, and singing.  Around 50,000 to 60,000 Sikh families live in the greater Fresno area, which is the heart of farming country – and 60-65 percent of the farmers in the Central Valley are Indian-American Sikhs, growing almonds, grapes, and pistacios, Amritpal Singh estimates. “The strongest and biggest celebrations are held here,” he adds. Vaisakhi celebrations begin April 7th and go on till April 21 and beyond. “On Vaisakhi, people from all over the state come here,” he said.  “All the local city mayors, city managers and the local city officials are present and in support of this occasion,” he added.

Yuba City, where Sikhs came from British India and settled, intermarried with Hispanic women, and where many became highly successful, has a somewhat different experience post-9/11 say community leaders. “Even after 9/11 we had no issues. We are very accepted,” notes Dr. Jasbir Singh Kang, co-founder of Punjabi American Heritage Society, and one of the people involved in developing the permanent ‘Becoming American’ exhibit at Sutter County Memorial Museum. Today, a Sikh woman is mayor of Yuba City, 2 Sikhs were elected to the City Council and several are vying for public office. Through the weeks of Vaisakhi celebrations, Dr. Singh will be holding tours for students from various schools at the ‘Becoming American’ exhibit. And on April 6, he was scheduled to speak at a “Sikh Awareness” program in the City of Ceres, where he said he would draw attention to the history of Sikhs in California and their shared experience with the Hispanic community. Turban tying days, and langars in cities, as well as events at the oldest gurdwara in Stockton, are among the programs he said were planned.

“We need to do more outside the gurdwara if we want to integrate, flourish and succeed,” Dr. Kang said. “The concept of Khalsa is not just about appearance. It is about values and the core message of universal coexistence based on standing up for justice and equality and a society without caste,” he added. ” We need to do a better job.  We are too much into outward appearances,” Dr. Kang said.

Spreading awareness (about Sikhs) including during Vaisakhi, is very important, says Amritpal Singh. “They are basically mistaking us for people involved in terror attacks,” “We have to tell our story.” And what better time to do that than during the festival that marks the birth of Sikhism.