A visit to the heart of the melon

‘Glitter is good in the gurdwara,” Shauna said, and we all laughed at her tongue-in-cheek instructions on protocol in a Sikh temple.

‘Glitter is good in the gurdwara,” Shauna said, and we all laughed at her tongue-in-cheek instructions on protocol in a Sikh temple.

Lucky man that I am, I was being escorted by two lovely and renowned Canadian novelists into a place I’d always wanted to visit.

This conversation occurred when Catherine Bush, concerned about how to dress, asked Shauna Singh Baldwin if a glittery shawl was inappropriate.

Shauna is an effusive and no-nonsense woman, and she explained the nature of the gurdwara, and how with Sikhism, community and worship are inseparable.

As a child, the first non-Christian houses of worship I encountered were Sikh temples.

For 40 years I’ve wanted to enter one but due to my cultural ignorance, I feared I’d make a fool of myself.

When I mentioned this to Shauna she happily declared she’d take me to worship and dinner at the temple, and Catherine asked if she could come along. Catherine might look frail, but she’s intrepid. It didn’t even faze her when she learned my farm truck’s only extra seat was the flip-down in the back of the crew cab.

Sikhism began as a gentle religion five centuries ago, and to outsiders like myself, has apparently absorbed shades of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Sikhs worship a god who could be interpreted as the universe itself, and since they originated in the Punjab province of India, a crossroad between east and west, they’ve been oppressed in various eras by the religions and tribes surrounding them, which gave rise, as it does with most persecuted faiths, to great variations in orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, most North Americans only know Sikhs from news reports of religious fanaticism and the 1982 Air India  bombing. And that their religion declares they must carry a small knife, a kirpan, to show their willingness to defend their faith and the freedom of others to worship.

During the last round of persecution another sect of fundamentalists arose. The holiest Sikh gurdwara, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was destroyed in a conflict between the Indian government’s shifty power politics and a cluster of zealots.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of Sikhs (many innocent pilgrims) and several hundred Indian soldiers died in the attack ordered by then-prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Sikhs all over the world were appalled by the desecration. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. And a wave of politically sanctioned murders, arson attacks and mob-led destruction left 3,000 Sikhs dead and numerous families homeless in Delhi.

This spilled over into Canada, leading to the Air India bombing and the veneration of several fanatical terrorists who are regarded with horror by the majority of the Sikh community.

One of the most famous and weirdest conflicts occurred in a Vancouver temple — it’s now known as the war of the tables and chairs.

According to Sikhism, the holy book is above everybody else, therefore the fundamentalists decreed all must sit on the floor, not just to worship but to eat.

In Vancouver, older Sikh immigrants retained the traditional custom in the worship area, but not the community kitchen.

Food is a deliciously important part of Sikh religion, as a reminder of the Gurus requirement to break caste by eating family style every time you come to the temple. It’s the social duty of Sikhs to provide food for all visitors to a gurdwara.

In the ensuing battle, orthodox Sikhs dragged the tables and chairs out of the kitchen, forcing the elderly and the crippled to also sit on the floor at meals, so less orthodox Sikhs tried to drag them back in.

A riot erupted. I don’t know if the tables and chairs have returned to the temple, but the tension has ebbed in recent years.

The gurdwara we chose to visit was the Akali Singh Temple, the second oldest in Vancouver, stunning with its golden domes.

Catherine and I were so excited we were bubbling as we walked up the steps, but Shauna was more cautious, since she hadn’t been to this temple before and didn’t know how orthodox it might be. As it turned out we’d stumbled on a relaxed, open gurdwara during a large wedding.

I accidentally wandered into the women’s area which got me quickly turned around while the men watched with trepidation, probably fearing I was going to be disrespectful or do something outrageously inappropriate — a good possibility.

I found where to put my shoes, and then washed my hands. That was easy to figure out. I didn’t know what to do about my hair because it’s the custom to be covered; then a gentle old man at a desk gave me the classic, quiet “pssstt!” He pointed at a box of white handkerchiefs.

These are used by ‘cut surds’ — Sikh men who’ve cut their hair and adopted western dress, and for visitors.

I couldn’t figure out how to knot the thing, so Shauna helped.

The women were attractive in their long silk scarves. I looked like an over-the-hill, rum-sodden buccaneer.

Then we entered the temple itself, an enormous carpeted hall, very simple, where the holy book of Sikhism rested, guarded by a Granthi. Three musicians sang hymns of beauty.

We walked up the centre, bowed before the book, and slipped five dollars for temple upkeep under a discrete stand.

Then I retired to the men’s side and listened to the music. The women’s side was three times as populated and now I understood why “glitter is good.”

They were stunning in their colourful salwar kameezes, their heads covered, while the children wandered around the hall. It was a meditative moment, so moving, so deeply felt I went weepy.

And I thought, what a civilized way to worship, so casual, so beautiful, so sincere.

I immediately understood Sikhism, even though I knew nothing about it.

Afterwards, I left a few dollars for the musicians who make their living singing at temples. The better the musicians, the more they earn.

Downstairs we joined the lineup for a delicious-yet-simple many-course vegetarian meal. I loved it, though the hot pickles nearly took my head off. It was noisy and gracious in the communal kitchen.

Later, we learned one of the men serving the dinner was the bridegroom. Undoubtedly, the bride was among us, offering equal service.

Imagine spending your wedding morning at service and the rest of the day serving food to hundreds, maybe up to a thousand people. That’s community.

It constantly surprises me how insular culture is in North America, how uninterested we are in other faiths and people.

Catherine and I were the only white people in the gurdwara, and that made me melancholy, especially since we were treated so respectfully, as if we were just any other visitor.

While I belong to no religion, I’ve felt the spiritual power of the universe, and I believe in it, whatever its name in whatever culture.

I’ve taken sanctuary in a Benedictine monastery, participated in Zen ceremonies, entered Buddhist and Hindu temples, drummed in smoke lodges and potlatched in Haida Gwaii.

Yet, I realize how inadequately, how fearfully, I’ve tasted the religious world.

We worship too much at our own church or no church at all, ignoring the other cultures of our thriving, diverse community.

At dinner, in the lively kitchen, as the children played, the young women and boys flirted, and the elders talked business or gossiped, Shauna translated the meditations of one of the singers we’d heard in the temple.

He had said that knowing God was like knowing a melon. You can get an idea of what it is by looking at it. If you hold it and smell it you will understand a little more.

But only if you cut it open and taste its flesh will you know the fruit in its entirety.

It seems to me that as long as we avoid the temples of our neighbours we will never eat the melon.

 Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.