If you go back in history, you would remember that it was not only the Sikhs, but leaders of every community that wore turbans. It was a sign of nobility and commanded respect. A Mughal aristocrat or a Hindu Rajput could be distinguished by the way he tied his turban. At that time, it was only the Rajputs who were allowed to wear ornate turbans, carry weapons and have aristocratic moustache and beard. Anyone who defied this order could invite a death sentence.
It was in this context that Guru Gobind Singh decided to turn the tables on the ruling aristocracy by commanding every Sikh to carry a sword and wear turbans without fear.
Why Sikhs wear a turban
For a Sikh, a turban is not a piece of cloth. His facial hair is not a fashion statement. It is an acceptance of ‘Akaal Moorat’ – to live in image of the infinity.
Even in the 17th century, the Sikh Guru had realized the importance of maintaining a high moral character. The society is in a mess. It is easy to get swayed by negative thoughts. The guru had told his disciples that for him to be the perfect teacher, they had to be the perfect disciples. For that they had to be ‘nyara’ or specially exclusive. His famous lines, ‘jab lag khalsa rahe naira, tab lag tej diyoon me sara’ – or when a disciple becomes specially exclusive, I’ll give him all the light of the universe – prompted many to wear turbans as self crowning not only to look divine, but also to remain conscious of their identity at all times.
For many, hair is also considered sexually attractive. By covering their hair, Sikhs are required to maintain their purity and integrity. Wrapping a turban is a declaration that the head and mind is dedicated only to the creator.
Being Sikh in 21st century
The recent shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, USA has brought out anxious memories of post 9/11 trauma that the community faced in the country. A friend of mine living in the US informed that wherever he travelled, he faced hostilities in terms of taunts, insults and even threats of violence. All because in their twisted logic, his turban represented the ‘enemy’.
And why just the turban? Muslim women who refuse to take off their Burqas when they go abroad are branded as a risk to social harmony. Their response is ‘we didn’t do anything. We don’t deserve it.’ The truth is no community ‘deserves’ this type of hostility.
So what do Americans want us to do? Put bumper stickers saying ‘Don’t hate me, I’m a Sikh’? Or would educating them what Sikhism is all about and why wearing a turban is necessary help?
I think it will not make any difference to those who hate or ridicule your beliefs. Whether or not the shooter Wade Michael Page accidentally shot the Sikhs believing them to be associated with Osama bin Laden is not the point. For him, an alien walking around with a turban on his head represented everything that was going wrong in America. An unemployed man with an easy access to gun was looking for a target to vent out his frustration. Despite being an economic superpower, the incident has reminded us once again how shaky the American dream is.
It’s not that a community will never be targeted again; women will never be forced to remove their veils again; soldiers will never be asked to shorn their beards again – but can we give up our identity because of this?