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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 01.05.06

The Sikhs

At home in Eugene

PHOTOS AND STORY BY CORY ELDRIDGE

Eugene has become a center of sorts for the Sikh religion, with members coming from near and far to work, attend school, raise families and build a community based on a tradition of tolerance and devotion.

The Sikh religion came to Eugene in 1970 when Dr. Sat Kirpal Singh Khalsa and his wife moved to the community to teach yoga. Thirty-five years later, more than 140 Sikhs live in Eugene, according to Viriam Singh Khalsa, executive secretary of Eugene's Sikh Dharma. (Many Sikhs often adopt the last name Khalsa. So this name does not necessarily denote relation.)

Gurumukh Singh Khalsa plays the tabla drums while Sat Bir Singh Khalsa plays the harmonium and sings hymns at a Gurdwara service.
Balwinder Kaur Notre, a minister, wraps the Siri Guru Granth Sahib in cloth while reciting scripture during a ceremony to retire the holy book for the night. Balwinder
Kaur Notre stands with her daughter Jaskiran and her husband, Jagpal, holds their son Tanveer.
Siri Kaur Khalsa speaks with Rabbi Evlyn Gould of Temple Beth Israel after an interfaith service at First Christian Church.

Sikhism, called Sikh Dharma by its followers, began in 15th century India when its founder, Guru Nanak, preached a non-exclusionary, pantheistic theology that rebuked the caste system and what he called "superstitious rituals" dominant in India then. Today there are more than 23 million Sikhs, making it the world's fifth largest religion. More than 100,000 Sikhs live in the U.S.

Sikhs are commanded to live within their greater communities, not cloistering themselves away from society. In Eugene, Sikhs attend public schools, work as professors, computer engineers and bakers. The Sikh community offers a free weekly meal from St. Vincent de Paul's kitchen, consistently stocks FOOD For Lane County's shelves with food made at their Golden Temple Bakery, and every month Sikhs play a central role in the interfaith service at First Christian Church.

In 35 years, Sikhs have slowly and quietly become an important and prominent community in Eugene.

Every Sunday, around 11 am, Sikhs slowly gather at Eugene's Gurdwara (Sikh temple) to sing hymns, recite scripture, and eat together in worship. When they enter the Gurdwara, Sikhs bow to an altar holding the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.

"The Guru is the center for Sikhs," says Viriam. "We bow, literally, to the word of God."

The scripture contains the teachings of the 10 Gurus who lived between 1469-1708 C.E. as well as writings and hymns of Hindu and Muslim saints. The Guru, as the scripture is commonly called, is treated with absolute reverence. At the conclusion of a service, a minister wraps the Guru in layers of cloth, and then retires the book to a special chamber for the evening.

Men and women perform this and other religious duties at services. Balwinder Kaur Notre says that equality is a central tenant in Sikh belief, and women are not denied any positions or responsibilities that men hold. Half of Eugene's Sikh ministers are women, including Balwinder.

"The idea is that we as spiritual beings are equal," Viriam says. "It extends even to our names so our names are even non-gender. My wife's name is Viriam and my name is Viriam."

As the Guru is retired, long sheets of butcher paper are laid across the floor of the Gurdwara in preparation for langar, a community meal for both Sikhs and non-Sikhs.

"Central to our spiritual practice is that we have a communal aspect," Viriam says. "People take turns preparing food and feeding each other and we all eat together as a group. It sprang out of a disassociation between Sikh Dharma and the Hindu caste system. Sikhs really reject that. The king eats with the pauper; everyone is on the same level."

Viriam says that Eugene's Sikh community is a mix of young and old, European-American and Indian natives, recent converts and elders.

Jagpal Singh Notre had worked in the U.S. for several years as a data base consultant when he decided to move his family here from Bombay in 1998. He and his wife, Balwinder, chose Eugene because of its strong Sikh community. Jagpal now works for the city.

"I am very close to this Gurdwara," says Balwinder. "Without it, I would have gone back."

Though their experience here has been positive, they have found some difficulties raising their children in a community where Sikhism is uncommon.

"I'm always worried about my (teenage) daughter. She questions why she has to have long hair," Balwinder says. "I want to be in this Gurdwara for my kids. To raise them in Sikhism."

Elder Sikhs like Gurumkh Singh Khalsa helped create Eugene's Gurdwara and now provide a foundation for the community. Gurumkh discovered Sikhism in his early 20s through Kundalini yoga, a central physical and spiritual discipline in the religion, and soon adopted the religion in the 1973.

Gurumkh says that he was "loosely" raised Christian and his parents were not devout. But it still took his family time to feel comfortable about his new beliefs.

"There were some rocky times with our parents," he says about himself and other new Sikhs at the time. "But it smoothed out and they could see it helped me and settled me down." Gurumkh is now a minister and elder of Eugene's Sikh community.

With his turban and long beard, Gurmulch, like most Sikhs can not hide his faith. Sikhs are commanded to not cut their hair and to wear several symbols of the religion (however, not all Sikh women wear turbans). These symbols are worn for several historical and yogic reasons, but Viriam wears them, especially the turban, for deeply spiritual and personal convictions.

"When I wear the turban I am accepting the gift (from my Guru) and the blessings that come with it," Viriam says. "When I wake up in the morning and put on the turban, I am giving my head to God. It's like a baptism every day; you rededicate yourself. You can't hide. And you radiate, I think that Sikhs really radiate."

Because of their clothing, Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims. After 9/11, many Sikhs were attacked throughout the country and one man was shot to death. Though no violence has occurred here, several Sikhs have been threatened. This brought Eugene's Sikhs closer together, Viriam says, but also led them to become involved with other groups in Eugene.

"9/11 represented a coming out time for the community, knowing that we have a wider role to play in our community," Viriam says. "It led to the ongoing interfaith services which have been extremely positive. Out of this negative thing came this genesis that holds promise and is very enduring."

Before 9/11, Eugene's Sikh community had few connections with the area's other religious groups. But after 9/11, Siri Kaur Khalsa spearheaded the creation of a monthly interfaith worship service. Unique in the country, the service held at First Christian Church regularly has a congregation of more than 200, and this Jan. 11 will see the 52nd consecutive service.

"If you read the Sikh scriptures it says seek out the company of those who are working on themselves, who are trying to become God-conscious, who are living a righteous life," Viriam says. At the interfaith service, "you're joining together with other faiths, and there is a strong tradition of this in Sikh Dharma.

"There is a tremendous amount of respect for other faiths," he continues. "Sikh Dharma does not believe that it is the only pathway to God. Being a Sikh isn't better than being a Jew or being a Christian."

Siri adds: "We put a great emphasis on division, and I think what this (9/11) has shown is that we must turn around and give more attention to unity. Once we begin to understand we have a common ground we can lift the curtain of awareness, and start answering the hard questions of ourselves and each other, and doing the things that need to be done to sustain life on this earth."

Though a small group, Eugene's Sikhs are among the city's most prominent communities, in both appearance and contribution.


Cory Eldridge is a senior from The Dalles in the School of the Journalism and Communication at UO.