Talking About the Kirpan

In 2006, Kawaljeet Tagore was fired for refusing to remove her kirpan. This month, she has filed a lawsuit, along with the Sikh Coalition and Becket Fund, against the IRS.

Kawaljeet Tagore, a Sikh American, sued the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Houston federal court on Jan. 6 claiming the IRS discriminated against her by prohibiting her from wearing a kirpan, a mandatory article of faith, on her job as a revenue agent at the Mickey Leland Federal Building in downtown Houston. [link]

The case is significant for a few reasons, but this is the first time someone has litigated the right to wear the kirpan specifically in a work-context. There have been other incidents (and sometimes cases) in which a Sikh’s right to wear the kirpan in an educational setting or in a vehicle or place of public accommodation has been disputed and resolved.


In the coverage on this case, I found two differing ways in which individuals talked about the characteristics, and definition, of the kirpan:

The Kirpan is an article of faith that was revealed to the last Sikh prophet, Guru Gobind Singh, and made mandatory by him for all initiated Sikhs on March 29, 1699… The implication of this explicit requirement is that the Kirpan cannot be worn as a symbol. To neglect to wear one or more of the Five Ks represents a serious lapse in the Sikh religion. [link]

The kirpan commonly resembles a sword, and is intended as a constant reminder to its bearer of a Sikhs solemn duty to protect the weak and promote justice for all… The edge of Tagores kirpan is three inches long and is not sharp. [link]

The latter definition REALLY bothers me. I could be wrong, but it seems like the trend in advocacy is to “neuter” the meaning and purpose of the kirpan. It is absolutely an article of faith. It also has the potential to be wielded as a weapon (as do many things).

So how do we balance how we talk about the kirpan to non-Sikhs while retaining its core meaning? I am uncomfortable with the idea of re-casting the kirpan as simply symbolic, but I fear that that’s the trend. As a faith, Sikhi generally disdains symbols, and so I can’t see what the use of a kirpan is if everyone limits the observed length/sharpness/utility of it when it is meant to be wielded. I’m also opposed to the inconsistent and varying explanations that are given to explain the religious significance of the kirpan across different Sikh advocacy organizations.

In light of this, how would you discuss the kirpan so as not to limit or alter its meaning/purpose? Do you think there are wrong and right ways to discuss its centrality to the practice of Sikhi, or are there talking points which are more/less compelling across sangats?


bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark
tabs-top


26 Responses to “Talking About the Kirpan”

  1. sizzle says:

    Just a couple clarifications:

    As a faith, Sikhi generally disdains symbols…"

    What is your definition of "symbol" in this context. Sikhi generally disdains, or should I prohibits, ritualism. But, much of Sikh attire can be called symbolic, the kara and the turban being the two most obvious examples.

    Also, if you are bothered by the latter paragraph, and feel that a kirpan should be worn with the intent of utilization, do you feel that a Sikh should be ready to wield a kirpan when warranted, irrespective of other laws? Do you feel that a Sikh should be trained to effectively use the kirpan they wear, whether 3 inches or 3 feet long?

  2. sizzle says:

    Just a couple clarifications:

    As a faith, Sikhi generally disdains symbols…”

    What is your definition of “symbol” in this context. Sikhi generally disdains, or should I prohibits, ritualism. But, much of Sikh attire can be called symbolic, the kara and the turban being the two most obvious examples.

    Also, if you are bothered by the latter paragraph, and feel that a kirpan should be worn with the intent of utilization, do you feel that a Sikh should be ready to wield a kirpan when warranted, irrespective of other laws? Do you feel that a Sikh should be trained to effectively use the kirpan they wear, whether 3 inches or 3 feet long?

  3. sizzle says:

    awesome. only the 2nd line, "as a faith, Sikh generally disdains symbols…" should be block quoted.

    [Admin Singh: the comment has been formatted correctly]

  4. sizzle says:

    awesome. only the 2nd line, “as a faith, Sikh generally disdains symbols…” should be block quoted.

    [Admin Singh: the comment has been formatted correctly]

  5. baingandabhartha says:

    If the kirpan is fused to the scabbard (case) its worthless as a weapon of defense/offense and is merely a symbol. In which case, a small one can be worn around the neck on a black thread would that not suffice? I would then argue in that case it (kirpan) becomes like a j'naeoo (sacred thread around a brahmin's body)!

    If you have a working kirpan-sharp usable and unfused, then your employer also has every right to be worried about it.

  6. baingandabhartha says:

    If the kirpan is fused to the scabbard (case) its worthless as a weapon of defense/offense and is merely a symbol. In which case, a small one can be worn around the neck on a black thread would that not suffice? I would then argue in that case it (kirpan) becomes like a j’naeoo (sacred thread around a brahmin’s body)!

    If you have a working kirpan-sharp usable and unfused, then your employer also has every right to be worried about it.

  7. Gurteg Singh says:

    The activists like SALDEF have done great disservice by calling Kirpan as a symbol. Gurus were strictly against symbols. Sikh 5Ks are not symbols and neither is Kirpan. Kirpan should be around 9-12 inches ( I would guess) and is meant to to be used for self defense when all other means have failed. I know many will argue that it is ineffective against more modern arms and that employers will understandably be worried about a weapon in the work place. These issues off course should be discussed but no body should define Kirpan as symbol, neutered, blunt 3 inch knife stiched in a sheath.

  8. Gurteg Singh says:

    The activists like SALDEF have done great disservice by calling Kirpan as a symbol. Gurus were strictly against symbols. Sikh 5Ks are not symbols and neither is Kirpan. Kirpan should be around 9-12 inches ( I would guess) and is meant to to be used for self defense when all other means have failed. I know many will argue that it is ineffective against more modern arms and that employers will understandably be worried about a weapon in the work place. These issues off course should be discussed but no body should define Kirpan as symbol, neutered, blunt 3 inch knife stiched in a sheath.

  9. HSD says:

    Once we Sikhs begin to define the Kirpan as a symbol and continue to downplay its true significance to satisfy our insecurities then in the future the Kirpan will be reduced to a lapel pin we wear on our jackets or even worse a photograph we carry in our pocket!

    Every time that I read a new official Sikh Sanctioned definition on the Kirpan (either in court cases or the media) there are two noticeable trends that seem to emerge. With every passing year the size and the efficacy (if you will) of the Kirpan keeps reducing i.e the Kirpan keeps shrinking, gets duller and more and more difficult if not impossible to remove from the stitched shut or sealed sheath/scabbard.

    So from the 1700's to the present day 2009 the size seems to have gradually reduced from 3 feet to 3 inches.

    (its like global warming for our glacier Kirpan)

    Just my late night thoughts and apologize for the grammatical errors and run on sentences above (and probably some spelling typos too).

    HSD

  10. HSD says:

    Once we Sikhs begin to define the Kirpan as a symbol and continue to downplay its true significance to satisfy our insecurities then in the future the Kirpan will be reduced to a lapel pin we wear on our jackets or even worse a photograph we carry in our pocket!

    Every time that I read a new official Sikh Sanctioned definition on the Kirpan (either in court cases or the media) there are two noticeable trends that seem to emerge. With every passing year the size and the efficacy (if you will) of the Kirpan keeps reducing i.e the Kirpan keeps shrinking, gets duller and more and more difficult if not impossible to remove from the stitched shut or sealed sheath/scabbard.

    So from the 1700’s to the present day 2009 the size seems to have gradually reduced from 3 feet to 3 inches.
    (its like global warming for our glacier Kirpan)

    Just my late night thoughts and apologize for the grammatical errors and run on sentences above (and probably some spelling typos too).

    HSD

  11. loverboy says:

    camille, that kirpan in the photo looks neutered to me.

  12. loverboy says:

    camille, that kirpan in the photo looks neutered to me.

  13. BALJIT KAUR says:

    I DO NOT SERVE TO DO ARGUEMENTS.MY MIND IS VERY SIMPLE . ONLY THING THAT I KNOW IS THAT WE HAVE TO OBEY THE SIKH MAREYADA IF WE WANT TO LIVE A GOOD ETERNAL LIFE,THIS IS THE VERY SIMPLE WAY NO ARGUEMENTS….NO QUESTIONS.BUT ONLY FOLLOW THE TEACHINGS OF GURU SAHIB JI AND TRYING OUR BEST TO RESPECT&DEFEND THEM &BEING RESPECTED BY OTHERS. WAHEGURU JI KA KHALSA WAHEGURU JI KI FATEH.

  14. BALJIT KAUR says:

    I DO NOT SERVE TO DO ARGUEMENTS.MY MIND IS VERY SIMPLE . ONLY THING THAT I KNOW IS THAT WE HAVE TO OBEY THE SIKH MAREYADA IF WE WANT TO LIVE A GOOD ETERNAL LIFE,THIS IS THE VERY SIMPLE WAY NO ARGUEMENTS….NO QUESTIONS.BUT ONLY FOLLOW THE TEACHINGS OF GURU SAHIB JI AND TRYING OUR BEST TO RESPECT&DEFEND THEM &BEING RESPECTED BY OTHERS. WAHEGURU JI KA KHALSA WAHEGURU JI KI FATEH.

  15. sizzle says:

    Camille – you posted some interesting, if not provactative, thoughts on the world wide web, representing Sikh opinion. But you have yet to respond to inquires unto the basic premise of your statements that go to the heart of the matter. Indeed, others have seconded your notions of a Sikh prohibition on "symbols" without really addressing the true issue at hand. As you acknowledge, the issue is at the very heart of how we, as Sikhs, advance our own religious rights in an otherwise secular, and increasingly secular, society. The case is also garnering increased attention, as indicated by coverage on various legal blogs.

    So, again:

    What is your definition of “symbol” in this context. Sikhi generally disdains, or should I prohibits, ritualism. But, much of Sikh attire can be called symbolic, the kara and the turban being the two most obvious examples.

    Also, if you are bothered by the latter paragraph, and feel that a kirpan should be worn with the intent of utilization, do you feel that a Sikh should be ready to wield a kirpan when they feel it is warranted, irrespective of other laws? Do you feel that a Sikh should be trained to effectively use the kirpan they wear, whether 3 inches or 3 feet long?

  16. sizzle says:

    Camille – you posted some interesting, if not provactative, thoughts on the world wide web, representing Sikh opinion. But you have yet to respond to inquires unto the basic premise of your statements that go to the heart of the matter. Indeed, others have seconded your notions of a Sikh prohibition on “symbols” without really addressing the true issue at hand. As you acknowledge, the issue is at the very heart of how we, as Sikhs, advance our own religious rights in an otherwise secular, and increasingly secular, society. The case is also garnering increased attention, as indicated by coverage on various legal blogs.

    So, again:

    What is your definition of symbol in this context. Sikhi generally disdains, or should I prohibits, ritualism. But, much of Sikh attire can be called symbolic, the kara and the turban being the two most obvious examples.

    Also, if you are bothered by the latter paragraph, and feel that a kirpan should be worn with the intent of utilization, do you feel that a Sikh should be ready to wield a kirpan when they feel it is warranted, irrespective of other laws? Do you feel that a Sikh should be trained to effectively use the kirpan they wear, whether 3 inches or 3 feet long?

  17. Gobind Singh says:

    Shame on everyone for attacking a poor helpless Sikh girl for wearing her kirpan. First of all SALDEF, United Sikhs, and Sikh Coalition have won numerous cases in America; allowing the plaintiff to where the kirpan whereever they were discriminated from wearing. Second of all we are all Sikhs and should support one who is practising Sikhi in its entirety. A real Sikh is one who has all 5 ks otherwise they are imposters.

  18. Gobind Singh says:

    Shame on everyone for attacking a poor helpless Sikh girl for wearing her kirpan. First of all SALDEF, United Sikhs, and Sikh Coalition have won numerous cases in America; allowing the plaintiff to where the kirpan whereever they were discriminated from wearing. Second of all we are all Sikhs and should support one who is practising Sikhi in its entirety. A real Sikh is one who has all 5 ks otherwise they are imposters.

  19. Camille says:

    sizzle, apologies for the delayed response — I’ve been out of town. Perhaps this is semantics, but I don’t see the turban and kara as symbolic, but rather, as articles of faith as well that derive from their own history, etc., in the context of Sikhi. Specifically with the kirpan, I do think it should have utility, and yes, by extension I think this means those who wield the kirpan should be trained in its use (whether 3″ or 3′). I actually think the Sikh requirement to defend the weak should extend beyond the kirpan, however. Ideally, all of those who chose an amritdhari path would ideally be trained in self-defense and hand-to-hand combat (with and without weapons), as well as in non-violent disarmament and conflict resolution. I think where this gets tricky is in how the U.S. — a society generally organized around Christian observance and principles — can balance its norms/statutes with the religious practice of minority faith communities.

    I think the choice to describe the kirpan is a legal strategy that has real consequences that undermine how we communicate the practice and requirements of the Sikh faith to non-Sikhs.

    Gobind Singh, I’m not really sure who you’re saying “shame” to. This post was not a critique or slur against this Sardarni or the Sikh Coalition. It questions the way Sikh advocacy organizations describe, and talk about, the kirpan to non-Sikhs. In case this was lost in the article, I think the first description (“The Kirpan is an article of faith…”) does a fairly effective job, but I disagree with the characterization in the second description (“…is intended as a constant reminder…”).

  20. Camille says:

    sizzle, apologies for the delayed response — I've been out of town. Perhaps this is semantics, but I don't see the turban and kara as symbolic, but rather, as articles of faith as well that derive from their own history, etc., in the context of Sikhi. Specifically with the kirpan, I do think it should have utility, and yes, by extension I think this means those who wield the kirpan should be trained in its use (whether 3" or 3'). I actually think the Sikh requirement to defend the weak should extend beyond the kirpan, however. Ideally, all of those who chose an amritdhari path would ideally be trained in self-defense and hand-to-hand combat (with and without weapons), as well as in non-violent disarmament and conflict resolution. I think where this gets tricky is in how the U.S. — a society generally organized around Christian observance and principles — can balance its norms/statutes with the religious practice of minority faith communities.

    I think the choice to describe the kirpan is a legal strategy that has real consequences that undermine how we communicate the practice and requirements of the Sikh faith to non-Sikhs.

    Gobind Singh, I'm not really sure who you're saying "shame" to. This post was not a critique or slur against this Sardarni or the Sikh Coalition. It questions the way Sikh advocacy organizations describe, and talk about, the kirpan to non-Sikhs. In case this was lost in the article, I think the first description ("The Kirpan is an article of faith…") does a fairly effective job, but I disagree with the characterization in the second description ("…is intended as a constant reminder…").

  21. My words about myself are only intended to convey my frame of reference. I am an atheist, but the possibility of God is acknowledged, a former Christian, and I studied the Abrahamic religions before choosing atheism.

    Having said this, had I learned of the Sikhs years ago, then I would not likely be an atheist today. From a respect for all humanity to a high esteem for the truth, the Sikhs (from what I have learned so far) embody values that I aspire to naturally.

    There is not one story (that I have found so far) of a Sikh using their kirpan to commit a violent crime. Guru Gobind Singh obviously intended for the capacity for violence to be preserved, but only as a means to protect and a constant symbol of the choice to eschew violence. Without the capacity for violence, the decision to be peaceful is vacuous.

    I have read of Sikh teachings to remain peaceful and virtuous in connection with the kirpan, but I have not read of lessons to wield it as a weapon. That speaks volumes about intent.

    The United States is a place filled with paranoid people led by corrupt men. It is a shame and a dishonor to our nation that the Sikh people who themselves embody the virtues that we often only claim rhetorically. It is a disgrace that a nation founded upon the same freedom of faith that Shaheed Bhai Subeg Singh, Shaheed Bhai Shahbaz Singh, Shaheed Bhai Mati Das Ji, Shaheed Bhai Sati Das Ji, Shaheed Bhai Dayala Ji, and Bhai Bachittar Singh Bahadar are honored for sacrificing their lives to attain can not see the commonalities between Sikh virtues and the principles upon which this nation was founded.

    Every day I grow more sad at what this nation has become. By my age, one might think that I would be desensitized to it, but it only weighs heavier on my heart with time. As a nation, we have become always more arrogant, xenophobic, and corrupt. We have lost ourselves.

  22. One who fells himself into hell due to his innocence is the one who will become the lesson for all others as not to do the same. And this is education in our life which tells us not to get caught in harmful activities.