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This article by William Ostrem was prepared for the November 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Sikhs Among Us

Like most Americans, Harpreet Singh Sawhney’s life

changed because of the terrorist attacks of September 11. But because

he is a Sikh American who wears the beard and turban that are


for men in his culture, his life has changed in ways that are somewhat

different from most Americans.

Not only are turban-wearing men suddenly vulnerable to bias crimes,

but they are also being profiled to receive special interrogation

at airport security checkpoints. Fortunately for Sawhney, a


West Windsor resident and a computer scientist at the Sarnoff


the changes also have been partly positive. Along with other Sikhs,

he has begun to reach out to individuals and groups in the larger

community to offer information on Sikh culture and religion.

The Sikh Gurdwara (or temple) just off Route 130 in Windsor, the place

of worship for the Central Jersey Sikh Association, invites the public

on Sunday, December 2, to one of the major Sikh holidays, the birthday

of the Guru Nanik, the founder of Sikhism. Celebrated with great pomp

and ceremony throughout India, it is considered to be one of the most

auspicious occasions of the Sikh year.

The festivities begin on Friday, November 30, with a 48-hour reading

of the 1,430-page Sikh holy book. Both men and women are scheduled

in 30-minute and 60-minute segments to read the book in Punjabi from

start to finish, and the reading culminates in a service on Sunday,

December 2, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Visitors are welcome. A good time to arrive on Sunday would be at

noon, in time to catch two hymns sung in Punjabi, plus a couple of

speeches given by children in English, and a 15-minute prayer in


translated to English. Then everyone is encouraged to stay for a


vegetarian meal. Call Harcharan Singh Gill, chairman of the board

of trustees, at 609-799-2143 or 609-890-7277; he will provide


and plan for you to be welcomed.

In the days following September 11, Sawhney was alarmed to hear that

Sikhs around the United States were being harassed simply because

of their appearance. Especially troubling was the September 15 murder

of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona. The


killer assumed that Sodhi, with his beard and turban, was a supporter

of Osama bin Laden.

Sawhney initially had feelings of apprehension about going out in

public wearing his turban. "I felt maybe people will start looking

at me in a different way," he says.

He fully understands the anger that produced the bias

crimes against Sikh Americans. "A lot of times this anger gets

out in ways which are very irrational, and I think that is because

of ignorance," he says. So he has been busy, along with many other

Sikhs, doing what he can to prevent such crimes by educating others.

For example, Sawhney wrote a letter to his colleagues at Sarnoff


them about the attacks and giving information about his faith and

culture. His 14-year-old daughter, Dheerja Kaur, read a statement

on bias crimes against Sikhs at the Unity March Against Bigotry held

in Princeton in October.

Sawhney views this emphasis on reaching out to the public as a


change that has come out of the tragedy. He is happy that American

leaders, from President Bush down to township officials, have


the bias crimes against Arab and Asian Americans that followed the

terrorist attacks. "That has been very encouraging, extremely

encouraging," he says. Such leadership is a principal reason that

he does not fear for his safety.

Sawhney contrasts the reaction of the U.S. government to that of India

following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by two

Sikh guards in 1984. The assassination unleashed a fury of hatred

that resulted in Hindus killing thousands of Sikhs. India’s government

did little to protect the Sikh population in the days following the


Harcharan Singh Gill admits that the Sikh community has not done an

effective job of reaching out to the American public, and he believes

that they must do more in the future. "We find ourselves in a

very unfortunate situation," he says. "Our appeal is to all

Americans to do what they can to prevent racial bias and racial


Sikhs such as Sawhney who wear a beard and turban are continuing a

tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. Despite what many

might assume, Sikhs are not Muslims, although they do use some Muslim

texts. Sikhs, whose name can be translated as "disciples,"

trace the origin of their religion to the Punjab region of Pakistan

and northwestern India. The first of Sikhism’s 10 gurus (teachers

or prophets), Guru Nanak, who lived from 1469 to 1539, established

the faith. In 1699 the 10th and last of Sikhism’s gurus, Guru Gobind

Singh, created important practices for Sikhs in the form of a


order called the Khalsa (or the pure).

Those Sikhs who become part of the Khalsa swear to maintain the


standards of the faith — they cannot consume alcohol or tobacco,

for instance — and commit to five practices that give them a


appearance. Out of respect for God’s creation, they do not cut their

hair; they cover it with a peaked turban made from a narrow, 12-foot

strip of cloth. They carry a small ceremonial sword, a metal bracelet

on the right wrist, and a comb, and wear traditional undergarments.

Members of the Khalsa, who are sometimes referred to as


Sikhs, must wear all of these articles of the faith. However, even

the many Sikhs who are not part of this more select group will usually

follow some of these practices. For his part, Sawhney has a beard

and nearly always wears a turban when he is outside of his home.

Today there are approximately 22 million Sikhs in the world, most

of whom live in India. In that country Sikhs make up about two percent

of the entire population. Of the estimated 250,000 Sikhs living in

the United States, some are non-South Asian Americans. These Sikhs

typically integrate yoga and other Asian meditative practices into

their faith, says Sawheny.

Sikhs form a small but important part of Central New Jersey’s rapidly

growing Asian community. Census figures show that there about 170,000

South Asians in New Jersey, but the large majority of them are Hindu

or Muslim. New Jersey has five gurdwaras, and an estimated several

hundred Sikhs live in the Princeton area.

The Sikh Sabha of New Jersey rents a hall in Hamilton for its


According to its secretary, Sutinder Singh Dhanjal, the 120-person

congregation is buying land for a new gurdwara in the Bakers Basin

area of Lawrenceville.

The Windsor gurdwara to which Sawhney belongs has about 250 adult

members and draws 300 adults and children on a typical Sunday. The

congregation’s 8,000-square-foot, $1.5 million building can hold 700

people and was completed last April.

The attractive white structure is located just north of Route 130,

across the street from a business and industrial complex. On the


are decorative arches above large sets of windows that admit a good

deal of light into the large, high-ceilinged sanctuary. Off the entry

is a large kitchen in which communal meals are prepared. Plans for

expansion include a more decorative exterior for the current building.

Services are held on Friday evenings and Sundays, a

schedule that Sawhney says is an accommodation to Western culture.

In India, his parents attended the gurdwara every day, once in the

morning and once in the evening, for approximately half an hour each


The term gurdwara comes from the words "guru," meaning


and "dwara," meaning door, and may be translated as "door

to the teacher." Those entering the sanctuary must take off their

shoes and cover their hair as a sign of respect. Non-Sikh visitors

without head covering are given a kerchief to wear. Men sit on the

floor on the right side and women on the left. After entering,


bow towards the front of the room where the Guru Granth Sahib, the

Sikh holy text, is placed. During the service it is kept in a small

wooden shrine, one of the few decorative elements in the gurdwara.

Because Sikhism forbids the representation of God in pictures and

the worship of idols, there is little other decoration.

The Sunday service involves a liturgy that is read in the Punjabi

language by a priest, with the congregation frequently echoing the

priest’s words. Additional priests lead the congregation in the


of hymns. These priests play music using harmoniums, a kind of


instrument, and tablas, or drums.

Leaders of the congregation then lead discussion in Punjabi of matters

that are important to the congregation. Worship concludes with the

removal of the holy book from the shrine, the eating of a paste-like

sweet, and a communal meal that symbolizes the equality of all Sikhs.

One of the youngest of the monotheistic religions, Sikhism has at

its center its holy text, written by the 10 gurus of the faith. The

Guru Granth Sahib contains thousands of hymns and includes the


not only of the Sikh gurus but also of Hindu and Muslim saints.

Sikh teachings require that followers lead moral lives based on honest

work, family life, and engagement with the world rather than


They emphasize love and tolerance toward all people, sharing the


of one’s labor with others, and service for all humanity.

Although Sikhism is a distinct and separate religion from Hinduism

and Islam, it does have some elements in common with both of those

religions. Like Islam, it is believes in one God and forbids the


of idols, but its teachings on the origin of the universe and life

after death are closer to Hinduism, which remains the religion of

a majority of Indians.

From its very start, Sikhism’s focus on the equality of all people

distinguished it from Hinduism. Guru Nanak strongly rejected the Hindu

caste, or class, system of that time and emphasized equality between

all people, no matter what their standing in society.

Because names were a marker of caste, Sikhs chose to share a common

name. In the case of men, the name is Singh, which means lion. For

women it is Kaur, which means princess. These names may be either

the middle name or last name. (Non-Sikh Indians also use these names,

so not everyone named Singh, for example, is Sikh.)

Sawhney and other Sikhs at the Windsor gurdwara also point out that

their religion places less emphasis on ritual than do Hinduism and

Islam. They see this somewhat anti-ritualistic tendency in Sikhism

as part of the religion’s emphasis on engagement with this world


than retreat from it.

According to Sawhney, Sikhism "has both a practical aspect and

a spiritual aspect to it. So without getting bogged down by ritual

you can practice spirituality as well as do things in normal


Rajwant Singh, treasurer for the Windsor gurdwara and a manager at

BASF Corporation, also sees Sikhism as a religion that helps its


to balance spiritual and material concerns in life. "You have

to have spiritualism and materialism in balance," he says.


have to have spiritualism to have good principles, but you won’t be

able to help others without some materialism."

Perhaps due in part to this outlook, Sikhs have made a name for


all over the world as hard workers, particularly as merchants and

entrepreneurs. The Indian state of Punjab, where Sikhs are a majority

of the population, has the highest per capita income of any state

in that country. In central New Jersey too, Sikhs are prominent in

the business community. For example, Jay Sidhu, CEO of Sovereign Bank,

is a Sikh who does not wear a turban. Harcheron Singh Gill has a


environmental consulting company, PARS Environmental, on South Gold

Drive, while Surinder Singh Arora has a 50-person engineering company,

Arora and Associates, on Princeton Pike.

Yet as far as the general public is concerned, Sikhs in New Jersey

are known for working at gas stations. Many of the gas pumps up and

down Route 1 are manned by men wearing turbans. Sikhs do work in that

business at all levels, from station owners to managers and laborers.

While others are dissuaded from working in this field by the long

hours and difficult nature of the work, Sikhs are not. In fact they

pride themselves on their capacity to undertake demanding work. No

less important, the gas station business is attractive because it

has the benefit of a good cash flow from the outset.

Less well known in this country is the fact that Sikhs have also been

active in agriculture. Sikhs played a significant role in India’s

"green revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the


of advanced farming technology led to dramatic increases in


productivity. Sikhs have also been successful farmers in California

for many decades now; having arrived in that state early in the 20th


The practicality of Sikhism also influences life in the home. Sawhney

particularly appreciates the way that Sikhism helps him and his family

to be spiritual in daily life even when they are not participating

in formal worship.

"Some days my daughter will say, `OK, let’s sit down and sing

some shabads, (hymns).’ So you sing it and that’s religion in some

sense, right? You don’t even need to go to the temple or anything

like that." That said, the Sawhneys are quite active in their

gurdwara, particularly in the area of children’s education.

For Sawhney, the most important part of Sikhism is not the rules that

it may require adherents to follow or the emblems of the faith, but

the message that it carries.

"What attracts me to Sikhism or to any other school of


he says, "is the essential idea of oneness of all life and nature,

and not the social and cultural symbols. Sikhism from beginning to

end is about how to eliminate our egos so that we can rise above the

symbols and see the oneness that is all around us."

Sawhney and his wife, Vindi Kaur, have attempted to raise their two

daughters with an appreciation of their Sikh heritage. In addition

to their teenage daughter Dheerja, they also have a seven-year-old

daughter, Ami. One room of their home is filled with tablas and three

harmoniums, the musical instruments used to sing the Sikh hymns.

Sawhney and Kaur, who have been married for 18 years, grew up as


in Delhi, the traditional capital of India. Despite being members

of a minority group in Delhi, they say that they did not experience

discrimination. Most of their close friends, in fact, were Hindu and


Sawhney is the older of two children; his brother, a

doctor, lives in Denver. He says that his interest in science clearly

derives from his father, who worked as an electrical engineer on radar

systems for India’s civil aviation industry. Sawhney majored in


engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kanpur,

a city about 200 miles from Delhi. After earning a master’s degree,

he worked as an engineer in the Indian space research program and

as a hardware designer for a computer manufacturer.

In 1983, while they were both working, he and Kaur got married. She

was teaching elementary school at the time. Theirs was not an arranged

marriage in the strict sense, as many Indian marriages are. "It

was proposed by us to our parents," says Kaur. Their parents were

happy to give their blessing and arrange the wedding. According to

Sawhney and Kaur, arranged marriages are becoming less common in India

with each generation.

Sawhney enjoyed the work he was doing as an engineer, but, he says,

"I had wanted to be a professor all my life. I wanted to be at

a university." He also wanted to work more in software design.

So he went for his PhD in computer vision at the University of


They made many friends and settled into American life fairly quickly,

though Kaur found the transition easier than her husband. "It

was an enjoyable experience, a wonderful experience," she says.

After working for IBM in San Jose, California, from 1992 to 1995,

he came to Sarnoff, where he joined 45 researchers at the Vision


Laboratory. Sawhney has five patents and 50 published papers to his

name and is a member of the technical staff.

"Our lab is really doing a lot of work in video-based security,

biometrics, and iris scan technology," he says. He also works

on a technology that he calls "immersive telepresence."


goal is to make a person feel as if they are part of a remote


It could be a surveillance or entertainment application. I want to

make people feel as if they are in Times Square when they are on the


Although he is regularly involved in a number of community activities,

Sawhney hopes to one day do still more in the area of public service.

He is inspired in this area by his father, who is retired but is now,

according to Sawhney, "a full-time social worker." About 16

years ago Sawhney’s father and several others formed a Sikh welfare

council in Delhi. The organization runs an orphanage and a nursing

home and sponsors health care, scholarship, and vocational programs.

The council has expanded its services to Punjab as well and recently

assisted with relief efforts following the earthquake in India’s state

of Gujarat.

Sawhney continues to be very troubled by the many reports he hears

of harassment and violence directed against Sikhs and others following

September 11. Like many other Sikhs who are inspired by the values

of their faith, he is determined to do what he can to address the

ignorance that lies behind such incidents. Moreover, he has no plans

to stop wearing his turban or his beard.

"Sikhs are apprehensive about what might come next," he says.

"But they still feel they want to keep their identity."

Sawhney points to Sikh history as a minority group in India and the

troubles Sikhs have faced in their land of origin. At times persecuted

by those of other faiths, Sikhs nevertheless persevered.

"Sikhs have been able to keep their identity in tough times,"

Sawhney says. "Many of them are very used to being in the


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