Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Seek and ye shall find

A Sikh commentator in the Grauniad sets out to celebrate what he declares is a triumph.

The Sikh schoolgirl Sarika Watkins-Singh's victory at the high court to wear her "kara", the steel bangle worn by Sikhs, is a reflection of British tolerance and a common-sense approach to different cultural communities when compared to the more fundamentalist approach of countries such as France. Twenty-first century France still cannot come to grips with a turban-wearing schoolchild. But it is sad that Sarika had to go to the court at all. As her solicitor said, each generation seems to have to go through the same struggles.

All the articles and practices of Sikhs signify the various concepts of Sikh philosophy. The articles were enjoined to the Sikhs by the gurus, particularly the 10th and last of the gurus some 300 years ago. The Sikhs have dutifully maintained them.

My initial comment is that a mature belief system is one that does not require that it be worn on the sleeve. As I understand it, there are five items (Khalsa) that identify Sikhs,

Khalsa initiation

The 5 Ks date from the creation of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.

The Guru introduced them for several reasons:

  • Adopting these common symbols would identify members of the Khalsa
  • Because all members of the Khalsa wear the 5 Ks the members of the community are more strongly bound together
  • Each K has a particular significance

The meaning of the 5 Ks

The 5 Ks taken together symbolise that the Sikh who wears them has dedicated themselves to a life of devotion and submission to the Guru.

The 5 Ks are 5 physical symbols worn by Sikhs who have been initiated into the Khalsa.

The five Ks are:

A simple, plain circular steel bracelet
Kara - a steel bracelet�
  • Kesh (uncut hair)
  • Kara (a steel bracelet)
  • Kanga (a wooden comb)
  • Kaccha - also spelt, Kachh, Kachera (cotton underwear)
  • Kirpan (steel sword)

Kesh - uncut hair

Various reasons and symbolisms have been put forward for the Sikh practice of keeping hair uncut.

  • Throughout history hair (kesh) has been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength.
  • One's hair is part of God's creation. Keeping hair uncut indicates that one is willing to accept God's gift as God intended it.
  • Uncut hair symbolizes adoption of a simple life, and denial of pride in one's appearance.
  • Not cutting one's hair is a symbol of one's wish to move beyond concerns of the body and attain spiritual maturity.
  • A Sikh should only bow his head to the Guru, and not to a barber.
  • It is a highly visible symbol of membership of the group.
  • It follows the appearance of Guru Gobind Singh, founder of the Khalsa.

Sikh women are just as forbidden to cut any body hair or even trim their eyebrows, as Sikh men are forbidden to trim their beards.

Before you ask: A Sikh is not allowed to cut hair from any part of the body.

Kara - a steel bracelet

  • A symbol of restraint and gentility.
  • A symbol that a Sikh is linked to the Guru.
  • It acts as a reminder that a Sikh should not do anything of which the Guru would not approve.
  • A symbol of God having no beginning or end.
  • A symbol of permanent bonding to the community-being a link in the chain of Khalsa Sikhs (the word for link is 'kari').
  • The Kara is made of steel, rather than gold or silver, because it is not an ornament.

Kanga - a wooden comb

This symbolises a clean mind and body; since it keeps the uncut hair neat and tidy.

It symbolises the importance of looking after the body which God has created. This does not conflict with the Sikh's aim to move beyond bodily concerns; since the body is one's vehicle for enlightenment one should care for it appropriately.

Kachha - special underwear

This is a pair of breeches that must not come below the knee. It was a particularly useful garment for Sikh warriors of the 18th and 19th centuries, being very suitable for warfare when riding a horse.

It's a symbol of chastity.

A display of swords and knives arranged in the shape of the Sikh Khalsa symbol
There is no fixed style of Kirpan, the ceremonial sword�

Kirpan - a ceremonial sword

There is no fixed style of Kirpan and it can be anything from a few inches to three feet long. It is kept in a sheath and can be worn over or under clothing.

The Kirpan can symbolise:

  • Spirituality
  • The soldier part of the Soldier-Saints
  • Defence of good
  • Defence of the weak
  • The struggle against injustice
  • A metaphor for God

For a Sikh the fact that the Guru has instructed the Sikhs to wear the 5 Ks is an entirely sufficient reason, and no more need be said.

The symbols have become greatly more powerful with each passing year of Sikh history.

Every Sikh remembers that every Sikh warrior, saint, or martyr since 1699, and every living member of the Khalsa, is united with them in having adopted the same 5 Ks.

Note in the opening 

  • Adopting these common symbols would identify members of the Khalsa
  • Because all members of the Khalsa wear the 5 Ks the members of the community are more strongly bound together.

They are common symbols. No more. Just as a cross is a symbol of Christianity. We have had news readers, BA staff and others denied the opportunity to wear the symbol of Christianity. They still are. There was also the question of Islamic head scarves. A number refused.

I lived in Malaya for a number of years in a state that had a considerable Sikh community. Nice friendly guys - although it was best to stay away from the women so I cannot comment on how they might have carried and displayed all five symbols. I never saw any male Sikh with the full size sword. Some had small toy versions about the size (and, to me, significance) of a pair of nail clippers. Hardly the symbolic display of a soldier?

The other point of interest concerns the concept of Kesh - uncut hair. The young lady we saw on tv had longish hair but it had most certainly been cut since she came into the world. No Crystal Gayle she!

And what about body hair? Does the young woman shave under her arms or trim her eye-brows? I will concede she looks an unlikely subject for any full Mexican hair treatments.

There was a moment that to me explained it all. It was said that a photograph of the England cricketer Monty Pasar was produced as evidence. He is wearing a bracelet or, certainly, something tinny on one wrist. The forensic point of this was to illustrate that Sikh men wear bracelets. We saw no photographs of any Sikh woman with something metallic on her wrist. "He does so we all do" is a dangerous alteration to our laws. Next, they will say that no one can be Miss UK unless she resembles the dress and life style of Amy Whinehorse. Could they not have produced someone who might have been questioned along the lines of my concerns? A Sikh jurist or holy bloke. Why no photographs of a nice brown-skinned lady in her kachha - or does young Sarika favour M & S for her calico underwear?  I do not expect her to go the whole 5K hog but to pick and choose her symbols is not religious. It is fashion; maybe street-cred.

No. To me it is yet another example of the government's desire to be all things to all people. Ah - it is a right. No it isn't. Oh - OK, we will make it one. Should get us a few votes from the ethnics. I am reminded of the Python version of Camelot.

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