My Remarks at the White House Commemorating the Sikh Faith
Published on Huffington Post. The following remarks were delivered by Valarie Kaur at The White House on November 20, 2013.
Waheguru Ji Ka Kalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh
Thank you to President Obama and his staff for gathering us in the White House to celebrate Gurpurab, the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. I am deeply honored to reflect on the story of our faith with you.
The story begins halfway around the world in Punjab with the birth of a humble herdsman named Nanak in the year 1469. “Those were foolish times,” my grandparents would say when they told me the story. “Foolish times not unlike these!” It was a time of religious strife: Hindus and Muslims cut each other’s throats, offered empty rituals, and maintained hierarchies to divide themselves from each other.
One day, the story goes, Nanak disappeared by the river for three days. People thought he drowned but on the third day, he emerged with a divine revelation on his lips. “Na Ko Hindu, Na Ko Musalman.” There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. Beneath all husks and labels, humanity is One. Guru Nanak’s devotional movement was a revolution of the heart centered around a single truth: Ik Onkar. One Reality Is. God is One. All paths lead to One.
Guru Nanak could have expressed this truth through lecture or conquest, but instead he began to sing a song of God, praising and rejoicing in the infinite oneness he began to see all around him, the oneness of humanity and the oneness of God. He taught that each of us can experience this vision ourselves if we overcome just one barrier: haumai, literally “I myself” – the voice inside who names itself as separate from others, who wants, struggles and dies only for itself. Each of us knows this voice well: it is the voice of fear.
How then do we quiet the ego? Guru Nanak says, listen to the Name of God. If we let God’s Name echo blissfully within us, in song and music and poetry, we are transported up into an ecstatic experience of Oneness. We know Truth. But remember, Guru Nanak teaches, higher than truth is the living out of truth. And so we are returned to the earth as if on the palm of God’s hand to walk as Guru Nanak walked, in rapture, with vismad, wonder, and in love. We begin to see through Guru Nanak’s eyes when he said, “I see no stranger.” We become fearless.
Now we are called Sikhs, seekers of truth, but we have become known as lions. Guru Nanak’s path is a fierce path, a bold path, a revolutionary path. When we see injustice, we are never to hide. We are to stand for equality, fight for dignity, and serve others as ourselves – even when it becomes dangerous, even in the face of death.
Our ancestors lived and died walking that path. We know the stories well. They shed blood on the torture wheel and in the battlefield fighting tyranny – Guru Tegh Bahadar martyred for defending the rights of all people to practice their faith, Mai Bhago, the woman warrior who mounted a horse to lead soldiers back into battle, Baba Deep Singh still fighting with his severed head in his hand. Each generation since has learned to walk this path- from the soldiers who marched across deserts to fight Hitler’s armies to the freedom fighters who died for India’s independence to the survivors of bloodshed, whether the massacres of Partition or the pogroms of 1984.
The path of revolutionary love is dangerous. Courage exacts a cost. Guru Nanak’s revolution could have ended. But it didn’t. Instead, hardship taught us to walk the path of love in a state of Chardi Kala – a state of everlasting optimism, even in darkness; ever-rising high spirits, even in suffering. It is the spirit of fearlessness.
I believe it was this faith that first brought Sikhs to American shores a century ago. In 1913, my grandfather Kehar Singh sailed by steamship from Punjab to California as a farmer. This year my family is celebrating our Centennial, one hundred years since he made America home. His youngest granddaughter Serena is here with me; we both grew up on the land our grandparents farmed. Our Dada Ji faced laws that did not permit him to become a citizen or own land, but that did not keep him from living out his faith.
When he saw his Japanese American neighbors rounded up and put in internment camps during World War II, he looked after their farms and hitched his horse and buggy to visit them in the desert when no one else would. He saw no stranger. Our grandfather was just a farmer, but he walked the path of love as a Sikh; and in so doing, he captured the best of the American spirit.
So today, as we celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, let us also celebrate and honor all those who walked boldly in his path – here on this soil for the last century.
Let us honor the pioneers like Bhagat Singh Thind, who took on the Supreme Court so that we all would one day become citizens, and Dalip Singh Saund who became the first Asian American member of Congress.
Let us honor our parents and grandparents, who made great sacrifices as immigrants so that a new generation could expand seva (deeds of love and justice) to become doctors and lawyers, engineers and entrepreneurs, public servants and storytellers.
Let us honor the women in our community who dismantle oppression within our own homes and families, mothers who walk in Guru Nanak’s path to free their daughters, daughters who become trailblazers for our country.
Let us honor the peacemakers like Rana Sodhi who been a champion of peace since the murder of his brother Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first of many killed in acts of hate since 9/11. Rana Sodhi is one of thousands who have responded to the rise of hate crimes, racial profiling, surveillance, and bullying in the last twelve years with courage and compassion.
Let us honor the advocates, like Sapreet Kaur, Jasjit Singh, and their teams fighting in the trenches day and night for the civil rights of all Americans.
And let us honor Oak Creek.
Today, one year after the mass shooting in a Wisconsin gurdwara – the greatest act of violence on a faith community since the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that took four little girls – let us honor our sisters and brothers in Oak Creek and across America who chose to show the world what Guru Nanak’s path of love looks like. We saw this revolutionary love as the community gathered the Sunday after the shooting to pray for the lives of those who were killed, including the soul of the gunman.
We saw this revolutionary love in Harpreet Saini, the 18-year old young man who came to Capitol Hill forty five days after his mother’s murder to become the first Sikh in US history to testify before Congress. He called for an end to hate, not just against Sikhs but against all people. He said he wants to become a police officer like Lt. Brian Murphy, who took seventeen bullets to protect his community that tragic morning. Lt. Murphy is an American hero and a hero to the Sikh community, because his service was fearless.
We see this fearlessness now in Baba Punjab Singh, the grandfather who still lies in a hospital bed in Wisconsin, more than one year since the shooting. His sons are by his side day and night, reciting the Name of God, Waheguru Waheguru. Prayers fill his room constantly. In my last visit, his son asked him, “Papa Ji, are you in Chardi Kala?” Are you in everlasting optimism?
This man cannot move or speak except for the power to blink his eyes – once for no, twice for yes. He looks at his son and blinks. Twice. Yes. Yes, I am in Chardi Kala.
My beloved sangat, my beloved community, we have journeyed far as a people in the last five hundred and forty-four years. Our remarkable journey is intertwined with the story of America. We have come a long way in the last one hundred years, but we have much farther to go. President Obama always said change would not come from Washington. It would come from the people.
So here in the people’s house, let this celebration be a resolution to fulfill the promise of Guru Nanak’s vision for us: to live so that we see no stranger, to love God here and now on this earth, through serving others as ourselves. Let our uniform of faith – this long hair, these proud turbans, this silver karra -show that we are ever-devoted, ever-committed to fighting for the values at the heart of the American ethic: equality, freedom, and dignity.
Let us join Baba Punjab Singh and walk Guru Nanak’s path of love and let us do it in Chardi Kala, everlasting optimism, remembering God with each breath, so that we may fulfill the prayer ever on our lips:
“Nanak nam chardi kala, tere bhaanai sarbat da bhala.”
“In the Name of God, we find everlasting optimism.
Within Your Will, may there be grace for all of humanity.”
Waheguru Ji Ka Kalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh