Corrections or additions?
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
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
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.