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What we learn from Sikhi (Sikhism) about Social Justice, and why I'll celebrate Vaisakhi by marching for a free Palestine.

Updated: Apr 21


I am Sikh, though I've only started to see this as an integral part of my political identity in the last five years. The stories that I was told about my heritage when I was growing up reduced a revolutionary social movement for radical equity into a lazily de-politicised narrative which neutralises the visionary ideals from which our practices grew. As I've moved through life, I've learned more about how power works to re-shape and re-form our collective memories; I've realised that the de-politicisation of Sikh heritage from its radical roots is one of the biggest victories of oppression in recent(ish) history - and one of the missions that I hold most dear, is recovering, re-imagining and re-telling the origin stories of the revolutionary spirit bestowed upon me and my people by our ancestors.


So today, a day before Vaisaakhi, the birth of the Sikh collective identity, I am going to share some marvels from the Sikh way of life in a way that re-captures its significance for social justice movements in the modern day, and if you're Sikh, I hope you'll take some time to allow the revolutionary spirit of your ancestors to flow through you, and find new strength in this. If you're not, I hope you're able to appreciate how much our heritage has to share with the world about practising social justice.

Sikhi is often described as a religion, but I like to think about it as a radical social movement against the tyranny and oppression of poverty, sexism, individualism, and the Indian caste system. Our ancestors gave up their last names and their titles, with every man initiated into the Sikh religion taking the last name 'Singh' and every woman taking the last name 'Kaur'. This wasn't only a practice which joined us in identity - this was a radical rejection of a class system that differentiated human worth based on the class status associated with people's last names. As a way of fighting the class system, our ancestors divested from the very framework upon which class-based oppression occurred - creating a new framework for human worth based on equity.


As a wholesale rejection of the devastating impact of poverty and the stigma associated with receiving 'charity,' - our ancestors were the first to institute UBE - Universal Basic Eating through 'Langar'. Langar is a practice where anybody present in the Gurdwara (Sikh or not) is invited to eat in a huge hall - everyone sits together on the floor, side-by-side, eating the same food served by anyone who volunteers. In a caste system where those of the lowest rung were considered 'untouchable' and unsanitary - literally - the practice of having your food touched, prepared, served by anyone, and also eating together was an incredibly departure from the values and customs of the day. People usually call the practice of 'langar' the provision of a community kitchen, but this isn't quite correct. Langar is about more than providing food for the needy.


The practice of langar is a rehearsal not only in the de-stigmatisation of poverty, but of transforming the very systems, structures and practices which uphold inequality. Our ancestors didn't do 'charity' - they did revolutionary community building and liberation. If we re-frame eating together as a spiritual practice, a transcendental experience of solidarity and community - we see how the daily / weekly practice of eating together in total equity seeps into peoples souls over time. To me, this is one of the most beautiful liberatory practices that I have ever experienced, and I get to experience regularly – it instils in me the importance of preserving and valuing human dignity. I've tried in the last two paragraphs to capture what my soul knows about the practice of langar, but not quite been able to articulate my thoughts fully. Hopefully fully enough for you to get a sense of what I'm saying.


In the Sikh tradition, we treat our holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, as a living, breathing being. What an amazing pedagogical practice! Any of us who have read books that change our lives will know that those teachings are sacred - but to accompany this feeling with a practice that reminds us consistently of the holiness of generational/ancestral knowledge is magical to me. Our holy book sits on a decorated plinth, and we lay it to rest on a bed of its own once we've completed the ritual of reading it weekly. We treat the Guru Granth Sahib Ji as the most precious being when it's present - and there is a metaphisicality to this that fills my spirit with light.


Our ancestors also understood that any social movement would require soul-work - that staying steadfast and committed would need spiritual and somatic practices that grounded us to the lives that we were trying to realise. In this article, I've named just a few - but if you're interested, I have written a little more about the significance of ritual at times of grief here. I think this remains one of the best pieces that I've ever written, so check it out if you are interested.


I'm still working on re-imagining the story of Sikhi for our times, but one thing I'm sure of is that in a world where we need deeper liberatory practices, new road-maps to equity and more strength and sustenance that support us in living towards our ideals, Sikhi has so much to teach us...and though the violence of Partition in India (and events before) has sown so much hatred between Sikh and Muslim communities, I am positive that the Gurus will be looking down on me and smiling as I celebrate Vaisakhi marching for a free Palestine - I can't think of a better way of living the ideals of radical equality and social change that our values stand for.

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2 Comments


Guest
Apr 20

Enlightening read. From your Muslim brother x

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Aman - reading your post about Sikhi and Social justice made me feel so proud of you.

Reading about marvels from Sikh way of life in a way that recapture's its significance in social justice movement in modern day brings clarity of thought and action.

Excellent 🌺🌹❤️

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