Teaching Children about Sikhs and Sikhism: Taking it a Step Further

Guest blogged by Amardeep Singh

Recently I found myself in the odd position of being, for a brief moment, a sort of spokesperson for the Sikh-American community in the wake of the terrible shootings at a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin.

Page from the book, The Boy with Long Hair

It’s odd for me because I am a pretty secular Sikh, who doesn’t have an especially deep knowledge of Sikh history or theology. After my essay on “Being Sikh in America” appeared in the New York Times, a colleague at the university where I teach later invited me to give a talk on Sikhism for students at the university this fall, but I had to decline — I think others could probably do a better job. I also started saying no to interview requests and reprint requests once I felt that my main point — that we should be clear that we are “united against hate” had left its mark. And that’s just fine: while we are all still processing the horror of what happened in Oak Creek two weeks ago, it has been inspiring to see many positive and constructive voices from the Sikh community appearing in the American media.

The part that remains pressing for me as a parent is the issue I mentioned at the end of the post I wrote two weeks ago — how to talk to my children about either the immediate issue of racial and religious hostility, or even the broader question of how to educate them about Sikhism as a religion.

As I was raised, much of the heavy lifting with regards to religious education was done via Gurdwara Sunday school (in Silver Spring, MD), and various day camps for Sikh children. I don’t recall either of my parents actually sitting me down and saying, “ok, here is the story of Guru Nanak…” or anything along those lines. And as my own son becomes old enough to enroll in Sunday school at our own local Gurdwara, it’s tempting to simply continue that pattern to avoid certain uncomfortable questions (such as: “did that really happen, or is it make-believe?”). What is taught is often heavy on use of Janam Sakhis and a pretty narrow version of the accomplishments and doings of the various Gurus. And memorizing various numbers, names, and prayers: 10 Gurus, 5 Ks, Jap Ji Sahib. (No one succeeded, at that point, in teaching me much actual spoken Punjabi, so the memorization of Jap Ji Sahib was purely by rote — to impress the family back in India, maybe? I had very little idea of the meaning or context of anything I learned at Sunday school until I sought out that knowledge as an adult.)

Why isn’t that approach enough for me as a parent? Two reasons.

First, at a certain point, maybe around age 12, I myself quietly stopped believing in many of the popular Janam Sakhi stories I came across in the “Sikh history” books I was given to read at the Gurdwara Sunday school. Upon hearing a story where exposure to the water of a sacred pool might have cured leprosy (this is a story associated with Guru Ram Das), my first question, even as a boy, was why millions of other people hadn’t also been cured by the same water? More broadly, I have qualms telling “miracle” stories to children, which I myself don’t believe are historically plausible. Why not focus on aspects of the stories that have some historical verification? In fact, there is quite a bit from the Sikh tradition that can be instructive and inspiring to children without reference to miracles.

The second reason should be obvious to anyone who is raising children at the present moment, which is that you can tell children religious stories all you like, but if they don’t feel relevant to the child, they won’t make much of a mark. Indeed, I have to admit that my own son is probably somewhat better versed on the ins and outs of the universe of The Lord of the Rings than he is in the Sikh tradition. We have on occasion tried to suggest looking at one of theAmar Chitra Katha comic-book versions of Sikh history we have at home, but he’s not been able to connect with them either. By contrast, he immediately identifies with diminutive, hapless characters like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in Tolkein’s books. They seem accessible to him — perhaps because they are seen as small, identifiable figures in a world full of “grown up” wizards, elves, dragons etc. By contrast, stories that emphasize how good, moral, and indeed all-powerful a Guru is, even as a child, are not likely to draw him in. What makes a character relatable is the human touch — fallibility, susceptibility to temptation, and limitations on power that resemble the child’s own circumstances.

As I see it, there are two kinds of books we urgently need, especially raising children in the United States. One is the category of books I think of as “positive image builders” — books like The Boy With Long Hair and, more recently, My First Sikh Books. My First Sikh Book is really two books, one for boys and one for girls — which makes sense, given that the issues Sikh boys and girls deal with in school can be very different. I have read the boy-oriented book to my son a couple of times, and he seems to like it — though there’s admittedly not a whole lot to the text of the book. But what has been more heartening is that on occasion I’ve walked into his play area and seen him looking at the pictures in the book, completely without any nudging or encouragement from me. (No surprise: he’s drawn to seeing images of a boy who looks like himself in a book.) As a side note, these books also double as handy “show and tell” resources — we used The Boy With Long Hair last year in my son’s preschool class. (It worked okay, though it would be nice if it weren’t quite so dark at the beginning and “happy rainbows” at the end…)

The second category of books that might be valuable in English might be versions of stories that use the Sikh tradition, with characters and accounts of events that come alive in English to today’s young people — and that have that “human touch” I referred to above. There’s really no great reason that the story of the young Gobind Rai (later Guru Gobind Singh) might not be as inspiring and captivating to a child as that of Bilbo Baggins.

I’m guessing that what may be holding back the latter kinds of effort is the Sikh community’s unfortunate tendency to shout down anyone
attempting a variation on what is currently held to be the canonical account of Sikh history. Didn’t Guru Gobind Singh, in his early 20s, author a poem in Punjabi celebrating Durga’s vanquishing of demons? Yes, but let’s not admit any connection to Hindu deities in the Sikh system… [Hint: Chandi Di Var doesn’t propose Durga *worship*, but it does affirmatively use the Durga *story*…] And didn’t Guru Gobind Singh take more than one wife? Yes, that was uncontroversial for nearly three centuries — though that same historical fact is now being scrubbed from the internet by Cyber-Khalsa revisionists.

But isn’t there a way to render the story of the Tenth Master — with both a high degree of historical accuracy and an instructional (and affirmative) tone — in a way that might draw in today’s young people? Isn’t there a way to tell the story to make the story of the young Gobind Rai a figure that young people today might find inspiring and relatable — not simply a topic they know because their parents want to be able to trot out their knowledge of canonical trivia for Gurdwara “essay competitions”?

That type of storytelling isn’t, as far as I know, being done in print right now. So Sikh parents who want their children to know about the Gurus and the Sikh tradition may have to either settle for the uninspiring and archaic “comic book” version — or improvise a bit on their own.

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14 Responses to “Teaching Children about Sikhs and Sikhism: Taking it a Step Further”

  1. jodha says:

    @Amardeep – Thank you so much for this important contribution. I think I agree with your overall sentiment, but there are some points that I think need to be elucidated further.

    On your first point, I find myself a bit confused. It seems that you are calling for historical accuracy (almost in a McCleodian sense) but at the same time you are comfortable in allowing your son seek wonder in Tolkien and others. Which one is it? If you are looking for books that don't use the janamsakhi tradition to understand Sikh history, then there are many books by scholars, from JS Grewal to Gurinder Mann to Balwant Dhillon. However, this is not what you are seeking to recommend for your son. You are looking for books of wonder that are well-written. The fact is that in our short history and engagement with the English language (since I am assuming this is the medium you are using as the basis of your judgement), we haven't yet produced someone of Tolkien's quality. There was only one Tolkien after all and there is a reason we appreciate his elegance. We are making greater forays into English and we have our Satnam Sanghera, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Navtej Sarna, and others. Sundari asked this question with regards to the Dalrymple's Jaipur Literary festival some time ago – http://thelangarhall.com/india/sikh-authors-at-th

    The reason I don't care for most of the "Sikh books" that you have mentioned are that they are so didactic. There main interest is to create 'good Sikhs' rather than engage the audience. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, but they do matter in terms of where you are starting from.

    With regards to historical accuracy on the life of Guru Gobind Singh – on the issue of his wife – it isn't as 'uncontroversial' as you claim – if we actually look at contemporary documents, including Hukamnamas. It is a topic worthy of academic study and hopefully someone takes it up.

    Still your larger point about making interesting the lives from the Sikh past to engage with modern readers has been done in the past and to great effect. Look no further than the Singh Sabha great – Bhai Vir Singh – who created a new genre and introduced new figures through his books, often creating new literary heroes and sheroes such as Sundari, Bijay Singh, and Satwant Kaur. These were relevant and resonated with his audience at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. There is no reason, why Sikhs in the 21st can't create a new wave of new literary heroes and sheroes.

    I think you have a point brother, but I think you are mixing too many things here!

  2. Amardeep says:

    Hi Jodha,

    I think my real core point is in your last paragraph — I want a new wave of writing that is based on Sikh history and designed to appeal to children of today. I like the model of Bhai Vir Singh a lot, and I hope someone is inspired to emulate something like that approach.

    My second point is that I'd like people to be free to rethink our understanding of the "Sikh tradition" in light of what historical scholars have actually been able to verify based on documents from the period. I don't like it when I feel that the values of contemporary society lead some people to start scrubbing the actual facts of our history. The goal in doing this is not to drag down the "image" of the community, but to be able to explain things better and more honestly than is sometimes done. I know that when I was a youth I started to tune out when I felt I was being "propagandized" by my elders and teachers at the Gurdwara. The next generation will do exactly the same thing when he gets to that age as well unless we approach it differently — be forthright about the things that we don't know for sure, or where there's some contradiction or confusion in the history.

    I know that on the web, for instance, there are those 52 Hukam-namas of Guru Gobind Singh circulating. Are they authentic? Does anyone have access to the full texts (other Guru Gobind Singh Hukam-namas I've seen are longer, and look very different from these.)… or scanned versions of the original images? There are also interesting sites like this one, with scanned images of the original, signed Hukamnamas : http://www.info-sikh.com/PageG8.html http://www.info-sikh.com/PageG82.html

    I want to see more sites like that, and less like "Sikh Wiki" where it seems like people are putting down what they want to be true, and the sources cited are weak (way too much Sikh Studies published in India relies on no primary documents — the source is simply taken as received tradition).

    But overall, you're right, this post probably tried to do too much!

  3. Guest says:

    Amardeep Singh Kaleka's father is a hero and a legend!

  4. Gurtej Singh says:

    Amardeep has apparently pushed his agenda with a durga manoeuvre while talking about Sikh literature for children. If he so convinced about durga and marriages then why not come up with evidence himself? The context of agenda is that Amardeep is critical of South Asian identity too as he is confused within his Indian identity. He has also been on a Punjabi literature with a junket whilst his own Punjabi language credentials are on a thin ice.

  5. […] a recent blog post on the Langar Hall, Amardeep Singh, reflects on declining to give a talk about Sikhism to students […]

  6. pankaj says:

    It is very valuable to teach about sikh literature. Thinking from a different angle though we have to make kids interested first. That is where there is a value in using modern media such as video games and mobile games. Children now a days learn a lot from modern media, so why not teach using modern media.

    I made an android app for this purpose https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com

    I would greatly appreciate honest feedback about how I can improve this app.

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