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Give Peace a Chant

September 29, 2014

Yesterday I attended the memorial service of the father of a friend who is a Sikh. It was a fascinating, mesmerizing ceremony, one deserving of an admirable man I had met, but did not know well – except he had made a memorable impression on me several years ago with his vibrant intellect and sense of humor.

There was the chanting in Punjabi I could not understand, but feel. The drums were reminiscent of “Within You, Without You,” from The Beatles – so rhythmically soothing and pulsating with a transcendental energy. Significant time to soak in the vibrations and meditate was part of the ceremony.

Before entering the non-denominational funeral home chapel, we had removed our shoes and covered our heads in respect. We placed white rose petals in the casket. Later, the langar communal feast at the Sikh temple reminded us of our equality in the universe as we sat cross-legged on elegant oriental rugs. And then, there was the prayer service, with observers in the lotus position on grander carpets, which offered a new perspective on worship to me.

I am a Christian. But this was one of the more memorable memorial services I’ve ever attended – likely since I’d never before attended a non-Judeo-Christian service. I was thankful I was encouraged to abandon my spike-heeled dress shoes, and adjusted to sitting cross-legged in the skirt of a power dress suit.

As many were photographing the event, I asked if it would be appropriate for me to take a few pictures with my smartphone after the speaking portions of the service. I was welcomed to do so. Previously, a couple years after 9/11, a Sikh leader had offered me a replica of the treasured Sikh Khanda symbol for a holiday party my husband and I were hosting. He said he wanted to spread the word about Sikhism. Too many people were confusing his religion with terrorists, and too many people were taking out their anger against extremists on Sikhs, who are not Muslims. Sikhs, based in Punjab, where they constitute a majority of the population, have battled Muslims in Pakistan and Hindus in India for generations.

Later that evening I spoke about the memorial service I had attended with some Christian friends who are reasonably well-educated. I was asked of the Sikhs – “Oh, are they Sunni or Shi’ite?” I was disappointed. In this information overload world of snap assessments, my how we are so attuned to judge by appearances – and most Muslims do not regularly wear turbans. Those who do wear a noticeably different style of headgear: a flat circular wrap with a cap underneath, sometimes with an end hanging loose. Sikh turbans are uniquely peaked. I briefly explained some history about the Sikhs.

Reflecting on the ripple effects of having met the late Mr. D and to expound a bit on his legacy of tolerance and understanding, one might quote the immortal words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

I’m not naïve enough to think everyone getting along in my lifetime is realistic. With so much arrogance, narrow-mindedness, ignorance, stupidity, and bigotry in the world, sometimes you have to fight for your beliefs and livelihood. Extremists among many religions and political parties can’t abide by tolerance of others’ beliefs and must be challenged when they attempt to force their beliefs on the rest of us, using any excuse, manipulation, or lie to oppress or bully.

But don’t blame the Sikhs, known for accepting the beliefs of others as long as they’re not expected to abandon theirs. Several news stories appeared today in Europe and Australia noting Sikhs have been the targets of violence and hateful speech as anti-Muslim tensions rise. That sort of jingoist mob rule seeking punishment of those viewed as “different” is no better than what the radical Muslims are practicing. By the way, a word here to say innocent Muslims also should not be demonized. Many law-abiding, respectful, tolerant Muslims in fear of their lives also are fighting extremists and outlaws.

Peace be with you Mr. D, your family, and all the world.

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