Sikh Philosophy

Vaisakhi – The Festival of Identity

11th April 2008

On April 13th each year, Sikhs around the world celebrate the festival of Vaisakhi. Although originally the north Indian spring harvest festival, Vaisakhi has come to be seen by most people as the birthday of the Sikh religion in its present form. It is a time of contemplation, of renewing one’s religious beliefs, and of celebrating the Sikh faith. Vaisakhi is also significant in that it relates to the identity of Sikhs in many respects, and it is that aspect which is perhaps the most important of this festival. In order to appreciate how and why Vaisakhi is a festival of Sikh identity and the ramifications of such a festival of identity, one needs to looks at the historical context of Vaisakhi.

Since the days of Guru Amar Das, the Third Guru, it was customary for Sikhs to assemble at the residence of the Guru on the days of Diwali and Vaisakhi when the Guru would make announcements and explain developments within the Sikh faith. Pilgrims would travel to wherever the Guru had established as his home and would listen intently to the Guru’s teachings. It’s not entirely clear why the days of Vaisakhi and Diwali were chosen, but it would not be wrong to assume that they were selected as Sikhs throughout the subcontinent would be fully aware of when those festivals would take place and also because the two festivals have an approximate gap of about six months, providing a natural biannual division.

Since the torture and subsequent death of the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev, in 1606, the Sikhs had been under increased persecution from the Mughal authorities. Guru Hargobind, the Sixth Guru and the son of Guru Arjan Dev, introduced the ideology of Miri-Piri to Sikhism – the belief that religion has both a political and spiritual basis in the world, both of which coexist and neither of which is superior over the other. This concept was represented at the investiture of Guru Hargobind in 1606 by his wearing two swords on either side of his person. Guru Hargobind established the Akal Takht as the political equivalent of the Darbar Sahib (‘Golden Temple’), and its positioning opposite the Darbar Sahib itself is of significance. Guru Hargobind’s legacy was the introduction of a distinct Sikh identity at the start of the 17th Century, that of the individual who is both spiritual and a warrior when necessary, the Saint-Soldier, but that identity needed to be strengthened as became apparent towards the end of the 17th Century.

In the winter of 1675, the son of Guru Hargobind and the Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded in Chandni Chowk in the heart of Old Delhi. After his death, the body of the Guru was left in public, albeit under guard, and no Sikh was willing to come forward to claim the body. In fact, the body and the head of the Guru were only taken by Sikhs under the cover of a heavy dust storm whereby those individuals could avoid being identified. The Tenth Guru was left with the task of consolidating the Sikh faith, and the fact that the Sikhs of Delhi had been too afraid to come forward to claim the body of his father must surely have not been too far from the Guru’s mind when he was considering the various ways of taking the religion forward.

On the day of Vaisakhi in 1699, it became clear that the response of Guru Gobind Rai (as he was known then) to the death of his father and the loss of a great spiritual leader was to create a unique identity for the Sikh community, and he did so by initiating the Khalsa. The Khalsa, or the ‘Brotherhood of the Pure’, is recognised as the core of the Sikh religion, and the Tenth Guru changed his own name from ‘Gobind Rai’ to Gobind Singh’ as he too joined the Khalsa, earning the epithet of ‘aapay gur chella’ – ‘He himself is the Guru become disciple’. Upon joining the Khalsa, one is not allowed to remove or cut the hair on one’s body, one is to wear the Five K’s or indicators of the Khalsa at all times, one is not to partake in any intoxicants, and one is to live one’s life as the embodiment of the Tenth Guru along with following a number of other conditions. Guru Gobind Singh’s aim was to create a fearless brotherhood of spiritual men and women who would fight in the name of justice and equality and who would be recognisable by their appearance, thus preventing a repeat of the fear that seemed to grip the Sikhs at the time of the death of Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Vaisakhi is celebrated today as a confirmation of one’s own religious identity and a rededication of one’s faith as well as a birthday for the Sikh religion. In that same vein, Vaisakhi is a time of year when one looks at one’s own identity and considers what it means to be a Sikh. It is quite easy to forget the gift of identity that Guru Gobind Singh bestowed upon Sikhs, and when the issue of sexuality comes into the equation, it can make that identity even more fraught. Over 300 years have passed since the Khalsa was created and yet the turban, long hair and unshorn beard remain the distinguishing features for many Sikh men, as well as the middle names of Kaur (‘Princess’) for Sikh women and Singh (‘Lion’) for Sikh men.

The keeping of long hair and beards for men is probably the most difficult aspect of Sikhism for many people to maintain in the present day, and this is particularly the case for those individuals who are gay. The pressure is usually on gay men to look a certain way and follow the fashions and trends for that part of the world, and being a ‘Keshdhari’ Sikh (‘one who keeps uncut hair’) goes against the grain of that way of thinking. This often causes gay Keshdhari Sikh men specifically to turn against their religious beliefs, with many deciding to cut their hair in order to fit in with what it means to be gay in the 21st Century. Some have come to see the keeping of long hair and the wearing of a turban to be a restriction imposed upon their identity, especially at a time when turbans and long beards are associated in the Western World with fundamentalist Islamic beliefs rather than with Sikhism.

To say that it is not easy to be both a Keshdhari Sikh and a gay man would be an understatement. Some view the keeping of long hair as being irreconcilable with life as a gay man or woman in that it sets him or her apart from the majority of gay people on account of their external appearance, making that individual feel like an outsider when he or she may be looking for acceptance from within the gay community. However, the idea of keeping long hair is again tied up with the concept of Sikh identity. It is the idea of being unafraid of recognition, of standing out from the crowd, and of being proud of one’s heritage and identity. Rather than wanting to join the masses and look the same as the majority of gay men and women, Keshdhari Sikhs should be proud that their long hair make them instantly recognisable and memorable amongst those masses. Having a unique identity is a definite advantage in the present day where one interacts with countless identical-looking individuals on a daily basis that one would have difficulty in otherwise recalling.

Keshdhari Sikhs should also bear in mind the sacrifices that were made by Sikhs throughout history in order to protect the freedom of all religions, not just Sikhism, as was evident by Guru Tegh Bahadur’s beheading whilst protecting the rights of religious practice for the Kashmiri Hindus. Such sacrifices were often symbolic too, as in the case of the Sikhs who refused to have their hair cut and instead were scalped to protect the integrity of their religious beliefs. Sikhs have a rich history which is intertwined with their identity, a history which can be easily overlooked at times.

Vaisakhi should be celebrated as the festival of one’s personal as well as religious identity. Being Keshdhari Sikh and gay are not incompatible ways of being. The identity that one has can be changed if one so wishes, but before one considers changing it one should look at the reasons behind that identity and then determine whether such a change is worth making. Guru Gobind Singh gave Sikhs their present identity, and it is ours to keep or discard as we so wish. However, one should remember that whilst fashions will come and go over time, the teachings of the Gurus will not change and the Guru in the form of the Guru Granth Sahib will always be accessible to Sikhs and non-Sikhs, Keshdhari and non-Keshdhari alike.

A very happy Vaisakhi to everyone.

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