July, 2020

Sikh Religion Vs. Punjabi Culture: Two Opposing Forces?

One day, one of my caucasian friends asked me why myself and all my Indian friends have “Kaur” in our middle name. With great excitement I explained how “Singh” and “Kaur” mean “lion” and “princess.” I went on to explain how Guru Gobind Singh Ji proclaimed that all Sikhs would bare these titles to abolish the prejudice created by the caste system. After explaining this to her, I sat with great content that I was able to share this sacred part of my culture—that we as people are so united that we all share the same middle name. It wasn’t until my bus ride home that I realized that this is not true.

Although I explained my religion to her, I was not accurately depicting common Punjabi culture.

On my bus ride, I began to think about how some cultural Punjabi attitudes directly oppose the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The point of the religious names “Singh” and “Kaur” are to signify that all Sikhs are united and no individual is superior to another. However, it is the same select people that so proudly refer to themselves as “Singh” and “Kaur” who have the cultural belief that their Jatt caste is superior to any other.

As my bus reached its’ stop, I realized the great irony in some Indo-Canadians’ philosophies. I know many Indo-Canadians who take great pride in the Sikh religion—a religion that is focused on brotherhood, oneness, acceptance and equality—yet are the same Indo-Canadians who state that marrying outside of one’s caste would tarnish their family’s name.

I remember once humorously asking a distant relative “If I were choosing between two males to marry: one non-Jatt doctor and one Jatt garbage man, whom would you prefer I choose?” His answer was simply “we would find you a Jatt doctor.” I laughed at his response and thought nothing other than “that’s just traditional Punjabi parents.

   I want to stress that I am in no way referring to all (or even most) Indo-Canadians. I know many Sikh community members who would never discriminate a person based on their caste and instead preach love and equality. I also want to stress that I do not think people who do believe the in the caste system are are automatically terrible, cold-hearted people. I just think they are misguided in their desire to have what’s “best” for themselves and for their children. I know these are people who meditate to the Guru’s teachings of love and acceptance and genuinely believe in these values. However, when they are faced with a culture that puts such a high value on “respect” and “high-class family names” they pick the culture that values Jatts over the religion that values equality.

When you speak to these Indo-Canadians, they’ll explain how it is a cultural thing: how it’s expected that you marry within your caste to uphold the respectable family name. What’s ironic about this cultural belief is that it goes directly against our religous belief that we are all equal.

We conducted a survey with Indo-Canadian students at Simon Fraser University who had parents with Singh or Kaur on their birth certificate. We found 25 students who said their parents would agree with the statement that “Singh and Kaur unifies all Sikhs.” What was interestesting was that, of those 25 students, 17 agreed also agreed with the statement that “at least one parent has told me to exclusively marry within my caste.”

One of the biggest worries parents have if their children marry outside of the Jatt caste what others will think of them. They are worried about what other traditional Punjabi families with think of their family name. To those parents I ask you: aren’t you worried about Guru Gobind Singh Ji will think about you? About assuming that just because someone is of a certain caste, they automatically are not a good fit for your child? That somehow being born a Jatt makes you better than another Sikh?

All of these beliefs go against what Guru Gobind Singh Ji preached; go against the Paat (prayers) you meditate to at the gurdawara; and definitely go against that name on your driver’s license that reads “Singh” or “Kaur.”

My final question to those parents simply is: if Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s purpose behind having these middle names was to stop the caste system and become equal—and you tell your children they can only marry a Jatt—then why do you proudly use the name “Singh/Kaur?”


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