Ashes to Ashram

Written by Michelle Beaver Category: Valley News Issue: June 2012

“I pray every day for it to open soon,” says Singh, 38, a married father of two and a professional player of traditional Sikh music. “It will bring more people, more good energies. It’s a beautiful house.”

Standing three stories tall, the exotic structure has long puzzled locals who watched construction crews break ground in 1999. Within two years, the crews had erected an ornate, Taj Majal-style temple that dwarfed the neighborhood’s 1920s bungalows and ranch homes like an NBA baller in a kindergarten class. And then, nothing. For the last decade, the 21,000-foot temple has languished behind a chain-link fence covered in green mesh – splendid but unfinished, reflecting both a long-awaited new beginning for the 300-person congregation and the American public’s still-imperfect understanding of the Sikh faith.

According to census data, roughly 200,000 Sikhs live in the U.S. – the fourth-highest population in any one country. Culturally speaking, the match is a good one. Founded 500 years ago in the Punjab region of India, Sikhism preaches radical tolerance, inclusiveness and pluralistic harmony – principles that jibe neatly with American ideals of liberty and self-determination. Sikhs embrace a transcendental view of the universe, revere one god and reject the caste system.

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Certainly, they look different than most Americans. Sikh men can resemble Middle Eastern men because of their turbans and long beards, and also wear iron bracelets, a comb, and a small ceremonial sword worn near their waist or wrapped in their turban. Women cover their hair, too, but not their faces in the manner of orthodox Muslims.

Though Sikhs have a wide presence in the Valley – particularly in the Coronado, where they number about 50 – their appearance sometimes engenders hostility and misunderstanding. The best-known example is that of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Mesa gas station owner murdered shortly after 9/11 by a revenge-addled gunman who mistook him for a Muslim. The tragedy particularly agonized members of the Coronado ashram, where Singh Sodhi and his brother, Rana Singh Sodhi, had worshipped for years.

Sadly, the nightmare was only beginning for Rana Singh Sodhi. One year after the Mesa incident, another Singh Sodhi brother, Sukhpal, was murdered while driving a taxi cab in San Francisco. Astoundingly, the twin tragedies have not shaken Rana’s faith in his adoptive country. “My family have a big loss, [but] the love in the community also changed my life,” says Rana, who devotes much of his spare time to peace activism. “I still feel proud to be part of a great country because we get justice and love from America.”

Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder was a wake-up of sorts for the Coronado Sikhs. Though rattled, the congregation redoubled its efforts to engage non-Sikh society in a positive way, says member Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa. The artist, 60, is a white American who has devoted herself to Sikhism for 41 years.

“When such a generous and humble man was gunned down... at the time, we felt a loss of innocence,” Kaur Khalsa admits. “But his death has encouraged us not to take our faith for granted, but to share it more openly through dialogue and education.”

Viewed up close, day-to-day Sikh life is hardly exotic or threatening, and much of it evokes middle America. Sunday is a prominent worship day at the Coronado temple, just as it is at nearby churches. (But no organ music or coffee fumes. Think sitars and simmering curry.) The community center hosts monthly dinners for homeless people, plus daily yoga, chanting and meditation classes attended by many non-Sikhs. Every April, Sikhs gather at the Coronado temple to stage a parade through the neighborhood of floats, horses, ceremonies and sword fighting. “[The ashram] is a good match to our unique neighborhood,” says Shana Bell, a German lecturer at Arizona State University who’s attended yoga classes at the temple.

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Community is important for Sikhs, says the artist Kaur Khalsa. She lives next door to the property and owns another house next to that which is used as an office and guest house. These buildings and some other Sikh houses are connected by paths, and the area feels like a clubhouse, with people stopping by, hanging out, worshipping, cooking food in the outdoor kitchen, and playing music.

“I wanted community, but not a commune,” Kaur Khalsa says. “It’s like a village… The kids come over, we have activities, we help each other. We have a big Thanksgiving dinner right on the lawn.”

Like any culture or religion, Sikhism has its contradictions. Nonviolence is an important part of Sikh doctrine, but Sikhs have a proud tradition of warfare, evidenced by their decorative swords and the dozens of children practicing stick fighting on the ashram’s front lawn any given Sunday morning.

Sikhs are friendly and view violence as a last resort, according to Ajai Singh Khalsa, 49, a Phoenix lawyer. However, they are commanded to protect victimized people and fight for worthy causes. Sikh troops served with distinction in both world wars, and commonly fill protective service posts in India. “A Sikh doesn’t have the right to be passive,” Singh Khalsa says. “We’re all in this together. You don’t get to stand by or walk away [when someone’s being hurt].”

Such attitudes endear the Sikhs to the Coronado, a neighborhood with a bohemian mix of people that some residents have fondly dubbed “the Berkeley of Phoenix.” Like the Sikhs, they’re eager to see the new temple – long stymied by fundraising woes – open. The building is 75 percent finished and administrators hope it will open in about a year.

“I think the building is pretty cool,” Bell says, admiring the temple’s high arches and gold roof-caps. “I’d like to see the inside.”

Surinder Singh’s eyes sparkle when discussing the worship groups he hopes to lead there. He says he’ll never leave the Coronado Sikh congregation to which he’s belonged for six years.

“Awesome people,” he says. “Awesome community. It feels like brothers and sisters.”

Sikhi 101
> There are 30 million Sikhs in the world, at least 80 percent of whom live in India. “Sikh” derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “student.”

> Founded in the early 17th century, Sikhism embraces the concept of reincarnation. Sikhs believe in One Supreme God (Ik Onkar); follow the teachings of 10 Gurus, or teachers; and are strict vegetarians. 

> Most Sikhs have the gender-specific surnames of Singh or Kaur (meaning “lion” and “princess,” respectively), names promoted by the 10th Sikh Guru.

> Though Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in 1984, they are not generally regarded as extremists. Current Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a Sikh.

> Sikhs believe that God exists within each person. Sikhs do not cut any hair on their body, believing they should not alter God’s creation. They believe uncut hair helps a person stay spiritually balanced.

> Every April, Sikhs host a parade during the spring holiday of Baisakhi, commemorating a 1699 event when the last of the ten Sikh Gurus introduced the Khalsa (“Pure Ones”) in India, who dedicated themselves to live as “saint soldiers.”    

> One Sikh precept is to give to those less fortunate. At India’s Golden Temple, more than 10,000 free meals are served daily. Other temples also serve free food, including the Coronado ashram.

> Sikhs strive to be healthy, happy and holy, and yoga contributes to all three, Sikhs believe.