Monday, August 06, 2012

My Broken Heart

I have a daily routine that involves reading several news sources, both foreign and domestic. Its part from professional necessity and part out of a natural curiosity about the world, a habit I probably picked up by watching my father read his newspaper daily with rapt attention, as if for a small span of time, nothing was more important than what was in the paper. Usually, I will pick through the headlines and take notes on anything of interest, particularly as it may relate to a future blog post or topic for further research. Today, I am shocked and pained to see familiar images and read familiar words from my life used in connection with senseless tragedy.

A lot of commenting on articles being written about the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, mention how peaceful the Sikhs are as a people, and I couldn't agree more. Our faith demands of us a certain kind of gentleness. Our first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, was a mystic and he revealed to the world that the true revolution in human life came from understanding that it wasn't the worldly forms that matter,  but the underlying unity. We are all the same, we are all children of the same creation, and to it we would return when our soul's journey came to its end.

Of course, like many religious minorities, our history too often is framed in violence. Growing up, we attended a gurdwara in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. As kids, my cousins and I would go to the small library - no more than a broom closet back then - and make jokes and generally act like kids do. On the walls above our pre-adolescent covered heads hung paintings depicting some of the darker moments in our history: the torture and martyrdom of guru Arjan Dev, the great sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the murder of the sons of our beloved Guru Gobind Singh.

As I got older, I did what a lot of teenagers do; I rebelled. I stop going to the gurudwara and basically gave up any connection I had to Sikhism. It became a sort of minor footnote in my life; I was Indian, and yeah, my parents were Sikhs, whatever. It wasn't until I got to college and tried to get "back to my roots" did I really come to understand Sikhism. Besides the spiritual and philosophical dimensions, I learned about glorious - and often violently bloody - times in our history. I read about the great admiration with which British military leaders often spoke regarding the warrior spirit of the Sikhs during the Imperial period. I learned the true meaning of our symbols, how the kirpan - a small ceremonial sword - stood for justice and defending those who had no means of defending themselves. I realized that being Sikh wasn't simply a religious identity, it is a quasi-ethnic identity, which I think can best be compared to being Jewish. You may not go to synagogue, you may not keep the Sabbath, but for the most part, you don't stop being Jewish.

The apex of my first trip to India as an adult came when we visited the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhism. A powerful, gracious and beautiful humbling. In the presence of the devout who variously hope that prayers of supplication come true, to those who seek nothing but to stand in the light of divine truth, something deep inside you feels as if an alchemy takes place, making a part of you shine like the domes of the sacred shrine.

And of course, there the museum dedicated to the 1984 massacre by the Indian Government - Operation Bluestar - that sought to overthrow an alleged separatist guerrilla movement. Images depicted the damage done to the shrine and the surrounding structures, the corpses of many heroic Sikh Shaheeds who died in defense of the faith. Another bloody frame for the hall of historical remembrance.

Today it all comes back to me. Not even 24 hours from the shooting, it is too soon to make sense of things. Too soon after Aurora to perhaps ever make sense of either tragedy. Aurora made me angry and confused; why does this keep happening in this country? Oak Creek brings with it a different kind of sadness. I can't help it, I know I am supposed to be a global citizen, and regard any human loss of life as a tragedy for all of us. But sometimes its hard to shake the sounds, the colors, the scents and the experiences that are in fact the very content that has defined your own  existence as an immigrant or a minority. Its too close to home, precisely for the reason that for so many immigrant communities, it is in our homes and places of worship that we can truly express and practice the culture from "back home," as we struggle to assimilate and become part of the "broader American family," as our president called it.

Another picture on the wall, another moment to remind us of the wisdom and sacrifice of those who came before, and those will have yet to be born. Waheguru ji ki Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh.


  1. Incredibly sad to hear yesterday's news. Thank you for sharing your story. Prayers and thoughts go to the Sikh community during this difficult time.

  2. I, too, felt "broken-hearted" with the news of another massacre of innocents by another angry, over-propagandized guy who felt that shooting down innocent people could some how relieve his anger and hatred for who he himself was. Well, now he has his "martyrdom", his "suicide by cop" has been accomplished. But what of the victims - those who died or those who were the friends and family members of those who died? How was what happened in Oak Creek any different from what happened on 9/11 in America? Indeed, all these killers share the same goal, that they can play God or be "the messenger of God" to extinguish the lives of people merely "to make a statement" because the victims are "symbolic" of what they hate. I am deeply sorry for the loss of life of peaceful and compassionate Sikhs. I am deeply sorry for the wounds to the Sikhs and the police officer who answered the call to defend them.