To Send or Not to Send My Kids to a “Sikh” School?

punjabi_school.jpgHow would you answer this question?

At least for the first time in the US, parents will now have the option. Although billed as a “Punjabi” school, the Sikh sangat in Sacramento [The Sikh community of Sacramento seems to find itself in the limelight quite a bit recently] seems ecstatic that a long time dream in the community can now become a reality. The Sacramento Bee reports:

West Sacramento will be home to the first public Punjabi charter schoolin the country this fall.

Approved by the Washington Unified School District board this month, the Sacramento Valley Charter School will teach the language and culture of Punjab, a region in northern India and Pakistan.

The publicly funded school will be independently operated by a newly created Punjabi nonprofit. Serving kindergarten through sixth grades, the nonsectarian charter school will be located on a property owned by and next door to the Sikh Temple of Sacramento in West Sacramento. [link]

Although the organizers of the school will be quick (and correctly so) to state that it is NOT a Sikh school and is rather a “non-sectarian” Punjabi school, but with such an intimate relationship with the Gurdwara (at least geographically) and by judging from some of the names of the staff, it does seem clear that it is a “Sikh” (to use the term culturally) school and not what have been called “Khalsa Schools”. Ok enough of the semantics and on to my questions.

The building of such schools is NOT new in the diaspora. These type of schools exist in UK and in Canada. I think they are wonderful and much needed institutions within our community. Now having said all that, I must admit I have never attended one (as there was no such choice, when I was growing up) and am quite happy to have gone to a public school in the US.

So my questions are 1) to those that may have attended/are attending “Sikh” schools in Canada/UK, would you send your children to one of these schools? Why or why not? What advice would you give parents in the US? and 2) More generally, would you consider sending your children to one of these schools?

It is no doubt that many in the community are exuberant. In the article in the Sacramento Bee, one parent reported:

Bobbie Singh-Allen said she plans to enroll her two boys, ages 9 and 11, who are Indian American and white. Singh-Allen is a member of the Sikh Temple in West Sacramento and said her children are learning the Punjabi language on Sundays at the temple.

“I see this as an exciting opportunity to offer something unique,” she said. “The congregation has been raising a lot of money to provide the initial seed money. It’s something that has been a priority for the congregates for several years. This is a major accomplishment for our community. This is an immigrant success story.”[link]

I am excited by the new possibilities and the sangat of Sacramento should be commented. Still I am eager to hear the opinion of others in our community about their thoughts, especially those that have attended similar institutions.

Read more about the school and its district approval here.

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12 Responses to “To Send or Not to Send My Kids to a “Sikh” School?”

  1. DilpreetK says:

    Jodha's question is certainly valid. I would have to seriously consider the effects of sending my kids to a school where they'd be primarily surrounded by students of similar backgrounds (ethnically, linguistically, religiously, etc). Arguably, they'd flourish in such an environment and develop a strong sense of pride for their roots and culture. They may even be somewhat protected from bullying and not deal with many of the issues that cause some Sikh youth to give up their identity. On the other hand, I would want my child to be challenged and provoked. The Punjabi school provides a safe learning environment, but public schools teach you invaluable street sense – how to stand up for yourself, work and forge friendships with those of different backgrounds, and develop a strong sense of self. I wonder if kids at such charter schools are in a bubble – how well do they acclimate to the real world?

  2. I agree with you regarding the central problem with Punjabi language commitment. But this was a result of a very systematic divisive campaign starting even before 1947 where Hindu and Muslim Punjabis were brainwashed into abandoning their own language. This is how the State of Haryana was even formed.

    As to your question: the Sikhs have an extra claim with Punjabi because if our language dies, in a sense, so does our religion. But it is not our "responsibility" as Sikhs to convince other Punjabis that keeping our language alive is important. As Sikhs, it is our responsibility to make sure our religion and culture remain strong for future generations. As Punjabis, however, I think it is our added responsibility to make sure we are welcoming anyone who shares a cultural link to Punjab to be a part of the movement to preserver our language; not necessarily going out of our way to convince anyone though. And there are significant movements by non-Sikhs to that end on both sides of Punjab. And all of the Punjabi language programs have, in their mission statement, words that embrace anyone who wants to speak Punjabi, regardless of their religion. So, this is an encouraging step in the right direction both in Punjab and outside of it.

  3. Fakir says:

    The ability to jive with people of different cultural or economic backgrounds comes from a variety of experiences and activities at school, but also in the home, and beyond. Nature v./and nurture obvsly plays a tremendous role, as does a child's personality and disposition along with parental support and conditioning received.

    Enrolling your child in this type of Punjabi school for a few years (possibly until middle school), especially if you don't have the wherewithal to provide this instruction at home, will be nothing less than beneficial. That is, if this particular school (and others with similar goals) can get its act together and deliver as promised.

    For the parents of many 1st gen'ers, this wherewithal was not possible because they working 60+/wk at blue collar jobs to ensure that their children receive a proper American education and upbringing. For these 1st gen'ers, the only available punjabi instruction was in Khalsa schools. It is clear that Khalsa schools weren't and still aren't cutting it. Most of my peers can't even write their own name in Punjabi. As Navdeep mentions, Punjabi programs in colleges are undeveloped and insufficient. Many of my peers who have a few college punjabi courses on their transcripts have difficulty with basic grammer, less than average vocabularies, and speak beautiful Punginlish. And given what today's average and visible 1st gen'er is capable of in the Punjabi language department, where/how will our children learn? Barhu Sahib? Private tutors every summer?

    Jodha, you ask a good question, but it is one that is far too simple.

  4. Jodha says:

    @Fakir – haha, the question was meant to begin a conversation and up to now it hasn't really been answered by you or anybody. Much more interesting to me than the transmission of the Punjabi language (which has been the focus) is a comparative study of the Sikh diaspora in terms of the importance, purpose, and goals of these schools. Hopefully more people will weigh in….

    However, since the transmission of the Punjabi language has been the topic that interests people most, we can do that one too. Easiest way for me to weigh in is to go in a circle (or whatever shape).

    @Navdeep – a few more quibbles (haha, our word of choice) – you pose an interesting claim "I have yet to hear of anyone in a Punjabi language program at university analyzing stalwarts of Punjabi literature across both sides of the border." However, this HAS occurred. Proquest will give you access to PhD and MA theses. You will find the beginnings of such analysis. In terms of those studying in Punjabi University Patiala and GNDU in Amritsar, you will also find a number of dissertations looking at these subjects. Granted they are coming from a more recent impetus (largely a post-Khalistani phenomenon) and one must be fair in that it takes years to produce a dissertation. We are already seeing them in the US; they can be found in the two reading rooms of East Punjab's universities (and thus not easily accessible). More will follow!

    Another quick point on – "Since our Guru Granth Sahib is written in Punjabi, we obviously have a much more vested interest in keeping our language and culture alive, which accounts for why there is such an overlap of religious politics involved." In fact in the Guru's great wisdom, the Guru Granth Sahib is NOT written in Punjabi, but rather in the Gurmukhi script. Punjabi is just one of the myriad of languages we find in the Guru Granth Sahib. If Punjab's Sikhs find a special attachment to Punjabi, it is much more that we have developed over the past 2 centuries into the mode of an ethno-religious group.

    And finally – "the Sikhs have an extra claim with Punjabi because if our language dies, in a sense, so does our religion. " I don't think this is true. The vast majority of Muslims do not know Arabic and will never know it as a spoken language. Islam hardly is in danger of 'dying'. Christianity, as a doctrine, is not tied to any language. The Jewish "re-discovery" of Hebrew is a rather recent phenomenon. Understandably religion and language has a peculiar politics in South Asia, but one can go too far with this.

    Ok enough quibbling, as always, love your though-out and challenging responses!

    @DilpreetK – is the dilemma only one or the other? Are those the only 2 possibilities? Could 'bullying' happen in a 'Sikh' school too? Most American universities allow for a diversity of experiences, but yet many choose to congregate with their own 'ethnic' group. Why do the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?

    @Fakir – what are Khalsa schools not cutting? What are the resources that the community has invested in them? Have we not received, what we have invested?

    I think I, as well as our community of which I am a product, am extremely impatient. It is especially apparent in all of our comments. We have only begun investing resources into university instruction and those instructors are developing pedagogies. They are being compared to Spanish courses, etc., but given a minutia of the resources (or even the job security). In Khalsa/Punjabi schools, only now are curriculums being developed (SikhRI, San Jose Gurdwara, etc.). Implementation is willy-nilly, because they are staffed by well-meaning, devoted sevadars (often mothers), not trained professionals as is the case in schools.

    We should continue to be critical to push things forward and keep striving for better, but one must also have a 'macro'-understanding of how things develop and the time it takes to begin creating results.

    Change and development are what we take the time to do and are evaluated in decades and generations, not quarters and semesters.

    • Jodha,

      I should have been clearer in my claim. I didn't mean to imply that nobody, anywhere is discussing Punjabi literature in any depth, or that there is a complete lack of analytical thought at universities offering post-graduate degrees in Punjabi literature and language institutions. I meant at colleges with Punjabi language program studies outside of India. And not at the scholarly level. As in courses with literary analysis components after taking Punjabi level 4 and 5.

      Similar to Spanish or French studies, where you can take courses analyzing literary works in that language, but not have to be in a Ph.D. program in order to pursue it at a basic level. Like me. I have no interest in applying for a Ph.D in Punjabi Literature, but would be interested in taking courses building up my skill level in order to read and discuss literature in Punjabi.

      Point Two: I was using the word Punjabi to refer to the spoken language shared by all Punjabis, regardless of whether they now read Shahmukhi or Gurmukhi, but meant the Sikhs have an added layer because the written script of the Guru Granth is primarily in Gurmukhi. There are references to Braj Bhasha, Sanskrit, etc, but it is primarily written in Gurmukhi. If someone undertakes a study of Braj Bhasha or Sanskrit, but not of the Gurmukhi script of Punjabi, it won't really do them much good when attempting to understand/read the Guru Granth Sahib.

      I don't think this attachment to Punjabi is specifically a regional thing, or one that only Punjabi Sikhs share. I believe all Sikhs should have that attachment, whether they were raised in Maharastra, Beijing, Mexico City, or in a small igloo in Antarctica. Because it is the language of our Holy Book , which brings me to the last point:.

      "The vast majority of Muslims do not know Arabic and will never know it as a spoken language. Islam hardly is in danger of 'dying'. Christianity, as a doctrine, is not tied to any language. The Jewish "re-discovery" of Hebrew is a rather recent phenomenon."

      The Sikh connection with Punjabi is very different from the examples above. Agreed, Christianity today is not linked to any language. But imagine if the original words that Jesus had said were documented in Hebrew. Or if the original "recitation" of Prophet Muhammad had been documented in Arabic. Today, simply saying you are Christian means nothing. There are countless denominations because no one Bible is sacred. It has been reinterpretated countless times. The same with Islam. Sikhism, as far as I know, is the only religion that can verify the author(s) of their sacred text. We have that option because of the accessible Gurmukhi script. There are certainly "quibbles" amongst Sikhs about many issues, but nobody has dared to reword anything in the Guru Granth Sahib.

      Once the language is lost, telling someone you are Sikh will not be enough. The next question will be, "what version of the Guru Granth Sahib do you believe in?" Translation is very tricky business and it becomes even trickier when metered poetry is involved. I applaud the effort that has gone into translating the Guru Granth Sahib online and through dvds, but I find it incredibly hollow. I have basic skills in reading and can haggle like a maniac in Punjabi (no insightful conversations in Punjabi though). And personally, I would rather read and understand one page of the Guru Granth Sahib in its original Gurmukhi, rather than have access to its entirety in English, translated by an intermediary, no matter how well qualified they are.

      Chalo, quibbling di dukaan band. For the time being anyway.

      I agree that schools like the one in Sacramento, as well as language programs at least in the United States are in their very early stages and the comparison to language programs that have been developed over decades is unfair, but that is hopefully the goal that will be furthered with future generations. One final note to add: the professors teaching at colleges and universities, such as the late Dr. Atamjit, are I am sure very interested in getting students to the level of discussing literature and of course, pursuing it at the PhD level down the line. It is incredibly commendable that these professors with doctorate degrees are teaching oora aera to students. And I am hopeful that professors of this caliber get the respect they deserve in the next decade and can start teaching the same literature courses they would be teaching back in Punjab.

      And I'm always down for a good quibble. Keep em coming =)

  5. Jodha says:

    @Navdeep Bhaji – ok then we'll do few more 'quibbles', my brother.

    You state – I meant at colleges with Punjabi language program studies outside of India. And not at the scholarly level. As in courses with literary analysis components after taking Punjabi level 4 and 5.

    Ok, so leave aside colleges. We do have Punjabi Sahit Academies, even here in the states. I have attended some and some do engage in the activity you suggest. Granted it was a stern relative that dragged me, but still if we do not feel it is quite a right place, it may have to do with age-ism and our own feeling of not fitting in there, rather than suggesting that there is no space. Online, for instance, APNA has provided wonderful conferences and forums to do exactly what you are suggesting. I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet some of our West Punjabi brethren. Many are of self-described 'communist' or 'secular' bents, but by no means all. Visit their website at

    To discuss the linguistics of Gurbani, it becomes important to focus on the writer and the language of their message. For instance, Braj Bhasha is very common in the writings of Bhagat Kabir. Sant Bhasha in the writings of Bhagat Ravidas. Even many of the Gurus used this idiom. Guru Nanak wrote a few shabads in a hybrid Indo-Persian. Lahindi is the most common Punjabi dialect used. Again even the Punjabi language is not the most commonly used language in the Guru Granth Sahib.

    It is the script that is sacred to the Sikhs – Gurmukhi – not one particular language.

    • Jodha says:

      I love Punjabi and its colloquials, idioms, and literature, but that comes from my own background and heritage, not necessarily because of my connection with the Akaal. I do know that knowledge of modern Punjabi gives one far greater access to the Guru Granth Sahib, but that is not enough. One should read writings such as Kavi Santokh Singh and Giani Gian Singh to understand the Giani tradition that has inspired so many in their study of the Guru Granth Sahib. The Mahan Kosh by Kahn Singh Nabha and Prof. Sahib Singh's Darpan are key tools that I often turn to to understand Gurbani.

      Finally, for Muslims they do believe that the Quran is the original 'recitation' by Muhammad. The difference between the Sikhs and early Muslims was the connection to the literate traditions. Guru Nanak in his great wisdom felt the need to pen his shabads to paper in a pothi. From the Guru period the Sikhs have had a written tradition of Gurbani. Muslims believe they have the same 'recited' tradition, but it was committed to memory and was finally penned some 70 years after the death of Muhammad. That is the difference between the two.

      On your point about losing language means something is lost in being a Sikh, I completely respect your feeling and your connection. And that may hold true for YOU in how you want to access Gurbani. I just fear making such a blanket statement for others. Even during the Guru period there were people with no access to the literate tradition nor probably even access to the languages of Gurbani. Still they were Sikh and had a connection to the Guru.

      Even today it would be a rather strong condemnation to 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation Sikhs in the diaspora, who wil lose their connection to the Punjabi language. I hope we have translations and more of them and better ones. Still we will always have our original ones in the Gurmukhi script. Shabads will always be sung in the language of Gurbani. Not all Sikhs will have the time, ability, effort to read the Guru Granth Sahib in the original languages. It will be their loss. Stili I do not think we can condemn our posterity by saying they are not really Sikh, because of this.

      I agree translation is a tricky business. Muslims have hundreds of translations, but nobody asks 'what version of the Quran do you believe in'? Jews have literally thousands of translations and commentaries on the Torah, but nobody poses the question you suggest. Christians have innumerable translations of the Bible, and still that is not a dominant question amongst Christians (only by those non-Christians that are seeking to poke at Christian belief). We, too, can have Spanish translations, Persian translations, Arabic translations, French translations, and numerous English translations – scholarly, popular, maybe even a wiki-translation project – but that doesn't mean we will ever lose it in the original language. I agree that the 'rus' of Japji can only be in the original language. The rhyme, the flow, the sound, etc, but a translation can be supplemental and should be.

  6. When you read a folktale in translation, a lot of things are lost. The overall message is still there, but a lot of the nuances and cultural references that come about through the idioms are gone. I am not the voice of Sikhism, and am not making any blanket statements, but am expressing my opinion on this subject.

    I never made the claim that this criteria (or any criteria) is the basis to say that someone is "not really Sikh." I think it is a positive step to have translations available – I also never said there should be some kind of ban on them – and I am sure it will be helpful for those who cannot read or write or understand Gurmukhi. But keeping them supplemental can be a difficult task when people start getting more and more comfortable with having translations in languages they speak available. The overall meaning will be there, but a lot will be lost. The Bible has no original that people refer to, and I don't know what changes are made to the wording in the Quran between someone reading it in Urdu versus someone reading it in Arabic.

    You've offered some excellent insight into the language of the Guru Granth Sahib, and I'll have to try and find the books by some of the authors you've mentioned.

    Till next time.

  7. Navreet Kaur says:

    Very interesting discussion- as the mother of two children I am excited to see a ‘Punjabi immersion’ school now available. My initial feeling was that I would not hesitate to enroll both of them but on deeper thought I’m not so sure. I want my children to learn Punjabi and be proud of their identity but also want them to be good ‘global citizens’. Will this be possible in environment where everyone looks and speaks like them? Will I be limiting their coping skills when they get out into the ‘real world’? On the other hand giving them a solid handle on their heritage may be what they need to be successful later. No easy answers- I’m glad they are both under 3 we have a few more years to think about it!

  8. kantay says:

    great discussion. I agree with you navdeep on the value in understanding gurubani in the original. with a lot of the resources we have no days in terms of hearing pronunciations and given that many of us have familiarity with spoken punjabi it is not that hard to get to the point where we can understand, as you put well, at least one page of gurubani. That doesn't mean translations are not good in their own way. For example the King James Bible is considered by many to be a great work of literature in it's own right. Notwithstanding that the Greek version of the Bible must be amazing.

    Languages like species can preserve within themselves important diversities. Monoculture is generally a bad idea.

    One other example, the current debate within liberal philosophy on religion and science. In some ways that debate is addressable within the writing in gurubani. I would actually say it is imminently addressable. Similar to the way that the edge of neuroscience and buddhist thought share many congruities. Why simply ignore those insights while waiting for the debate in liberal philosophy in some ways to "catch up"? For example the conception of God or of the connectedness of all things (not just all people but all things in the world) that one finds described within gurubani.

  9. Pashaura Dhillon says:

    ". . . the King James Bible is considered by many to be a great work of literature in it's own right. Notwithstanding that the Greek version of the Bible must be amazing." Kantay hit the nail on the head if that was needed to conclude this impressive discussion. If the Sikhs of tomorrow couldn't read the Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi as it is written. Likewise Muslims,Christians and Hindus not their Kuran, Bible and Vedas respectively themselves and understand it in its original form then it is only a question of time that the Bhai, Mullah,Priest and Pundit will be calling the shots (process already in the making) and try to hijack the world only God would know to where. Not a good prospectus for movinng the direction these great works of wisdom meant the humanity to evetually go!

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