Ricky Singh Arora wears a turban and a full beard, which frequently prompts people to ask, “What are you?”
“Normally, I tell them I’m American Sikh,” said Singh Arora, a technology manager from Cottage Grove. “Then they ask, ‘What’s that?’ ”
Such questions are part of life for Sikhs in the United States, but this month they’re making a concerted effort to demystify the faith. It is the 550th anniversary of the founding of Sikhism, providing a platform to let communities know it is the fifth-largest religion in the world.
Huge celebrations have filled the streets in northern India and Pakistan, birthplace of Sikhism and where the majority of Sikhs live. In the United States, dozens of Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, held open houses and street processions.
These “awareness campaigns” have spread beyond temples. At least a dozen states, including Wisconsin, this year passed proclamations promoting Sikh awareness.
“People don’t know about us for several reasons,” said Manjeet Singh, a board member of the Sikh Society of Minnesota. “Sikhism isn’t taught in schools, even though it’s the world’s fifth-largest religion. So people just aren’t learning about us.”
“And we don’t proselytize,” added Singh Arora.
And although there are 25 million Sikhs worldwide, and an estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, they number just several thousand in Minnesota.
But Minnesota’s Sikh community is growing steadily, reflecting the influx of immigrants from India. On any given Sunday, many can be found at the Bloomington temple of the Sikh Society of Minnesota.
A temple visit
A visit to the Bloomington gurdwara reveals a vibrant community with plenty of young children and families. Visitors entering the building first place their shoes and coats in two small rooms, a tradition designed to remove signs of status and inequality, members said.
Heads must be covered. Every man wears a turban. Women, many in the traditional dress of India, wear colorful veils. Some sipped tea in the communal dining area. Others headed to the main worship area in the temple.
Manpreet Sood was among those heading to the worship area. She explained that inside, a priest would be singing from their sacred book — the Guru Granth Sahib — to a melody of classical Indian music. The English translation of the Gurmukhi language script is projected above him on a video screen.
“And when you go inside, it will be very plain,” Sood said. “We don’t believe in idol worship.”
Opening the temple door revealed a large carpeted room with about 75 people seated on the floor. Others came and went during the service. The bearded priest sat in a front corner chanting the verses, or hymns, accompanied by tabla drums. “Never forget your servant o lord” were the English lyrics on the screen above.
In the center of the room was an elevated gold platform where the sacred scriptures were held. People entering the temple walked up to the platform, bowed to the holy book, and made an offering of money or flowers. Then they found a seat on the carpet and prayed.
The faithful here believe they should keep God on their minds at all times, according to members. They adhere to three main tenets: meditating and praying on the name of God, earning a living by honest means, and sharing the fruits of one’s labor with others, members said. Sikhism believes in “selfless service to humanity,” they said.
“It’s a way of living, a way of life,” Singh Arora said.
Sikhs do not cut their hair as a gift of God and as a mark of Sikh identity. That identity is based on the teachings of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev, whose birth anniversary is celebrated this month.
He was a social reformer in 16th-century India. He preached that there is just one God, not many, and opposed the Hindu caste system with its economic and gender inequalities.
The role of women in the faith was evident on this Sunday. A young female guest lecturer discussed the religious roots of women’s equality.
The more than hourlong service wrapped up with more singing, ending with a frequent refrain that Sood translated as “Sikhs are of God, to God belongs the victory.”
After the service, and even during, people headed to the communal dining area. They sat on mats on the floor, as servers came by filling their plates with rice, curried vegetarian stew, chutney and more. Many in the group work in technology, science and medicine and came to Minnesota to attend universities or start new jobs.
Daljit Singh Sikka, vice president of the Sikh Society, eyed the scene and recalled how different it was when he arrived in Minnesota 50 years ago to attend what is now the University of St. Thomas. There were 10 to 15 Sikh families here at the time, he said, and they met in individual homes.
The Sikh Society opened its first gurdwara in Fridley in 1991, said Singh Arora, its general secretary. It purchased the building in Bloomington, a former church, about nine years ago. As the Sikh community grew, it bought the building next door for children’s Sunday school. The society now hopes to expand the gurdwara as well.
Minnesota has been a good place to put down roots, Sikh leaders said. While most members can recall an ugly incident — such as someone yelling “Go back home!” — members have not endured the hateful violence that has made headlines in some other states.
That includes the September killing of one of the first Sikh sheriff’s deputies in the nation, who was shot from behind while conducting a traffic stop in the Houston area. In 2017, a gunman in Nevada fired more than 12 rounds into a van carrying five Sikh men and wounding one. A mass shooting in a Sikh gurdwara outside Milwaukee in 2012 left six dead and four wounded.
An FBI report issued this month indicated that hate crimes against Sikhs nationally jumped from 20 to 60 between 2017 and 2018.
Education is key to preventing such hate, said representatives of Minnesota’s Sikhs, who are available to speak at schools, religion classes and other public settings. They also plan to lobby the Legislature to have Sikhism included in relevant K-12 curricula, something the Sikh Coalition says 12 states have accomplished.
They also invite people to visit their gurdwara and learn firsthand about their faith. Said Singh Agora: “We welcome everyone.”