Visiting my local gurdwara: 4 interfaith lessons from Sikhism we can all embrace

As a British-Italian convert to Islam, I’m more than familiar with both Islamic and Christian traditions.

Christianity formed a key part of my upbringing and I’ve been Muslim now for over a decade.

I naturally have quite a soft spot for the Abrahamic faiths – something that’s more than evident by my years of exploring Jewish and Jewish-Muslim circles too.

However, when it comes to the Dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism), I’m not as familiar with this part of the world!

And so, the learning and exploring has slowly been growing!

That’s why, I was delighted to visit the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Stoke-on-Trent (Staffordshire, UK) the other week with my friend and fellow blogger at Voice of Salam, Matt.

Visiting the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Stoke-on-Trent (Staffordshire, May 2023).

Matt, who had not long come back from an interfaith pilgrimage around Pakistan, exploring many Sikh sites, arranged a visit with his lovely friend Amarvir.

And what a great visit it was!

We talked about faith, ate together, and asked lots and lots of questions!

So, what did I learn? What inspired me? What did I find in common with my own beliefs?

And: what did I discover that can Sikhism teach us?

Well, a lot! Take a read!

1. There’s more than one path to God

Sikhism is quite a young faith – having been founded around 500 years ago in the Punjab region of South Asia (modern-day India and Pakistan).

The world’s fifth largest religion with around 25 million followers worldwide , there are over 524,000 Sikhs living in the UK and a community of 500,000 in the USA.

Yet, the faith draws on a much wider historical following.

Stemming from both Hindu and Muslim tradition, Sikhism wasn’t born in order to create a new faith – but to preach and embrace the Oneness of God.

As the founding Guru (religious leader), Guru Nanak, declared: “There is no Hindu, no Muslim”.

Dedicating himself to God, he chose a monotheistic path, with “Sikh” referring to “learner” or “disciple” in Punjabi – one who has joined the communal “Panth” (“path”).

And so, the tradition is simply about the oneness of God and His/Her people.

As a result, Sikhism isn’t just a monotheistic faith, but one that preaches of a universal God with no “monopoly” over the truth:

The Sikh worldview centers around the idea of oneness. Sikhs believe that people of all faiths worship one Divine Being who created this world and lives within it.

Sikh Coalition

Therefore, this is exactly why Sikhism is not a religion that encourages conversion.

In the Sikh worldview, each person is free and should worship God in whichever way works for them. In other words, you don’t need to become “Sikh” to follow God (“correctly”).

In interfaith terms, this unity and shared commonality is something that we all can and should embrace across community divides.

In doing so, we can break down barriers of division, avoid “othering” behaviours and build/strengthen a sense of shared humanity.

2. We’re all equal in humanity

When we think about the need for a sense of shared humanity – we’re reminded just how important this is in today’s world.

In a world full of divisions and divides – economic, cultural and ethnic for example – we need to show that we are all equal.

We must strive to break down social, economic, cultural, religious and political barriers to build a more egalitarian society.

This message too goes back to the founding of Sikhism.

In a land of caste divides and economic disparity, what Sikhism so fervently preached was that we are all equal:

…the Divine is equally present in all people, and that, therefore, every human being is equal in the eyes of God.

Sikh Coalition

There is no caste division in the gurdwara, with Sikh teachings seen as an antidote to inequalities stemming from the Mughal Empire and Hindu caste system.

In the gurdwara, everyone sits together – rich and poor side by side. Racial/caste hierarchies do not exist.

During service, everyone sits together – hierarchy free (except a priest and the musicians).

With no institutional hierarchies (clergy), each person is encouraged to reach God directly (through prayer etc.). There are no intermediaries. 

After a service, the community then sits together to eat, thanks to the langar (free community kitchen).

This kitchen is open every day to serve the local community – whatever their faith, ethnic and/or cultural background.

However, outside the Gurdwara the social reality can be very different:

As you move out of the gurdwara, the caste divisions re-emerge in Sikh society though not in that vicious form as in Hindu society.

Pritam Singh

The tenets of the faith no less reinforce a critical belief for building interfaith unity: we are all equal in the eyes of God and as humans.

We should therefore treat each other equally – coming closer together in unity and equality.

3. Gender equality is critical

Sikhism as a faith preaches equality amongst men and women, with God encompassing both male and female qualities (although non-binary):

ਆਪੇ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਨਾਰੀ  

Āpe purakẖ āpe hī nārī.

God (Creator) is both man and woman.

M. 1, SGGS, p 1020

Upon the emergence of Sikhism, several harmful gender-based practices were outlawed and women’s spiritual participation was actively encouraged:

Guru Nanak and his successor Sikh Gurus actively encouraged women’s participation as equals in worship, society, and the battleground… They supported freedom of speech, and women were encouraged to participate in all religious activities, including the Sri Guru Granth Sahib’s reading.

He encouraged women to take up a leadership role in society and assigned women to supervise some communities of disciples. In addition, he forbade the practice of Sati (widow burning) and female infanticide and encouraged remarriage of widows.

Dr. Devinder Pal Singh

In modern terms, what does this mean for women in the gurdwara?

Well, gender segregation (whatever one’s view of that) does not exist.

Men and women are free to sit side by side/wherever they want in both religious and social areas.

Likewise, both men and women cover their heads in the gurdwara.

There are no specific gender-based dress codes. And, women are also permitted to be priests.

However, the difference teachings and practice and the influence of culture means that (building) gender equality is still an ongoing issue.

No (as in many other spaces), it’s not always as present as tradition preached.  

As we know, sexism is a global issue – across religions and cultures – and in this, Sikhism is not unique!

Going back to the original teachings, we are reminded that gender equality is critical in faith-based – and likewise interfaith – spaces.

When one critical segment of society is denied their rights – including spiritual emancipation – we cannot have a just community.

Likewise, we cannot build a wider, open, more just society. Whatever our faith and/or culture…

We need more women in interfaith spaces – the time is now!

4. Spaces must be welcoming

Charity is a big part of Sikhism – serving others for God’s sake and not for selfish means.

That’s why each gurdwara has a langar (community kitchen) to serve anyone in need – yes anyone.

The kitchen is open every day, providing hot food for worshippers who sit for a meal after service and as an act of charity for people in crisis.

Both the kitchen and communal eating area are designed to be as inclusive as possible.

Firstly, in line with Sikh tradition, the food is vegetarian, to ensure that everyone (as much as possible) can consume whatever is cooked in the kitchen.

However, this is not simply to serve the needs of Sikh community members.

The food choice is deliberate – in order to be as inclusive as possible to guests who may not eat meat/have specific meat-related religiously-based dietary requirements.

Being vegetarian, the food is suitable for a variety of non-Sikh guests, such as Muslims and Hindus.

Secondly, everyone sits together at tables on the floor (regardless of religion or socio-economic status) to symbolise and promote equality (see point #2!).

Keeping spaces inclusive is incredibly important to not exclude others.

So, in interfaith spaces in particular, considering the practicalities of “what does an inclusive space look like?” is critical.

This includes managing dietary requirements.

For example, at Jewish-Muslim gatherings I have attended/co-hosted, food was often vegetarian to avoid the need for halal meat, to ensure that vegetarians had appropriate food and to limit kosher dietary restrictions.

Yes, everything counts!

Practical considerations around food, timetabling (e.g. no events on Shabbat and not hosting lunches during Ramadan) and physical access for people with limited mobility, are incredibly important.

Such considerations (and many more!) are imperative in planning processes if you’re creating an interfaith session or more generally wanting to build bridges with other faith communities.

So, do your homework – ask colleagues, friends and members of other communities, include their active input in the planning process and aim to build inclusive egalitarian spaces!

And that’s really the message that came across throughout my visit of the gurdwara: equality and inclusivity.

Whatever our faith, welcoming others and treating everyone as equals in humanity is a message that we can believe in.

And when it comes to building bridges and creating interfaith spaces, these values are more important than ever.

So, let’s take a leaf out of Sikhism’s book: let’s strive to come together (across whatever divides may exist) to build a more united, egalitarian society for all.

In the words of Guru Nanak: “He who regards all men as equals is religious.”

Sat siri akaal! Truth is timeless!

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