A place for our sangat

Last week I attended a diwan of about 50 people on a Thursday night on the east side of Manhattan, in New York City. The Manhattan Sikh Association (MSA) has been organizing monthly diwans in NYC for years now in apartment buildings and other temporary locations, but recently the group opened up a permanent space on East 30th street and Park avenue in Manhattan, making it the island of 2 million inhabitants’ first gurdwara.

I’ve always enjoyed attending the intimate MSA diwans, which tend to attract a lot of young Sikh professionals who live or work in Manhattan and the surrounding areas. Even the New York Times was intrigued by MSA and did a story on them last year. As I sat in their new space last Thursday, I felt calm and at peace, no one was yelling at me about the latest gurdwara politics**, and my peers, many of whom were second generation Americans like myself, were the ones doing kirtan, leading Rehras Sahib and Ardas, and in short, running the show. One young Sikh did a brief and conversational viakhia (commentary) in English of his shabad before he started singing. I thought to myself, this is a spiritual space.

Sadly, a spiritual space for sangat to come together, reflect and grow is a far stretch from what most gurdwaras I’ve attended in North America feel like.

I was talking with some (Sikh) friends the other day about the dilemma. We were discussing the lack of spaces and opportunities in our community for Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike to experience Sikhi and connect with sangat in an accessible and inviting way. All of us were actually hesitant to take our non-Sikh friends to most “mainstream” gurdwaras in our areas because of the judgmental looks, the yelling from the podium, the high intensity energy of herding people in and out of the langar hall like cattle, scolding anyone wearing socks or speaking English (seriously).

My intention is not to pit “traditional” versus “modern” or immigrant versus second generation. Far from it. Hundreds of years ago, Sikhs came together in dharamsalas, the predecessors to gurdwaras, which from my understanding tended to be smaller, community-based spaces where sangat would convene to listen to, reflect upon, and discuss the Guru’s word. Today, however, when it comes to gurdwaras, it seems like “bigger is better” is the approach.

Of course, in areas like Queens, NY, Fremont, CA, Vancouver, and Toronto, big gurdwaras are needed by the huge Sikh populations. But is the megagurdwara the only way? What other models exist? The Manhattan gurdwara is one promising example, but where do you all find your sangat, your peace of mind, your collective connection to Gurbani?

** While typical gurdwara politics and infighting drive me crazy, I don’t think gurdwara should be a politics-free zone. The question is, what kind of politics? A self-serving politics driven by arrogance or a politics that challenges oppression and fights for justice? The Ghadar Party’s work based in United States’ first gurdwara in Stockton, CA, for example, is a model for gurdwara politics I can get behind.


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8 Responses to “A place for our sangat”

  1. Anonymous says:

    If you want to go to a peaceful divan with beautiful, reverntial music, this is the place for you. No foolishness here.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting post. I think that this post raises an interesting point. We have many gurdwaras, how do we build sangat?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think this post raises an interesting point. We have many gurdwaras, what does it take to build a sangat?

  4. Anonymous says:

    "But is the megagurdwara the only way? "

    I think this is a good question but first we need clarification on what is a mega-gurudwara. Because Fremont, Toronto etc compare nothing to how many people go to Harimander Sahib and other historic Sikh sites. The problem I do not think is the physical size but rather what is expected of the Gurudwara, and what its capabilities are. Most people want it to be a multi-function building where the community can come for spiritual guidance, politics, community development programs, Sikh/Punjabi school system, "all about Sikhs" education base for non-Sikhs etc. This is too much pressure for one institution which has to cater also to newer immigrants and older immigrant viewpoints not to mention challenges which it faces with the coming of modernization as well as adjust to the changes it needs to make with the new generation having more and more western influences in their viewpoints to what is acceptable as Sikhi. I think the answer lies in our own peoples history as to how Gurudwaras functioned historically and how to this point today Sikhi has survived. Is it us in today’s world who lack to understand the basic function of this institution and therefore are un-willing to or scared to adapt a new parallel system which can cater to 2 of total 5 concerns of the community?

  5. Great points. It's absolutely true that gurdwaras in the diaspora have to function as the everything base for Sikhs, which is certainly unrealistic. Have you seen any models of the suggestion you are talking about — of multiple institutions in the community addressing the wide variety of concerns we face as Sikhs? I think the rise of organizations like the Sikh Coalition, SALDEF, and United Sikhs is one positive example of that — a strong non-gurdwara force addressing community concerns. But what prompted me to write this post was particularly thinking about what kind of space feels the most conducive to spiritual learning, growth, and sangat-building. What do you think?

  6. chardikalaportland says:

    Being a young Sikh professional and observing the current Gudwarah in Portland, OR, the points made in this article are the biggest conflicts we face. We have young children (16 and under) and then young married couples and then the elders. The young Sikh professionals demographic is completely lacking in our Gudwarah because it isn't welcoming. If you are in the age bracket of 18-30 and aren't completely fluent in Punjabi or don't come regularly, you are judged upon and who wants that? The smaller, intimate dewans held in individuals homes are appealing for that reason. It provides a space for us to talk in English, network with our religious peers, discuss what the hukam is, sing shabads even if we aren't raggi's. Originally, that is how the Sikh population used to do things here in Portland, but we ended up following the same path of working towards building a MegaGudwarah and the politics surrounding it are beyond frustrating. I miss the days of the intimate setting, and that is why retreats like Chardikala Portland Sikh Retreat and Seattle Sikh Retreat are so appealing.

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