Supply chain management sophomore Harjap Dhadli was at a Detroit Pistons game with his friend when a 10-year-old boy called him a terrorist. Dhadli told his friend it didn’t bother him, but his friend chastised the kid anyway. International relations freshman Ameek Sodhi had a similar experience after the attacks on the World Trade Center. When everyone went to the cafeteria in his Rochester Hills middle school to hear about what happened, someone tried to grab his turban, assuming he was somehow associated with al-Qaeda.
Dhadli and Sodhi are Sikhs, two of 50 or 60 that attend MSU. Though they are often mistaken as Muslims, Sodhi said that 99 percent of turbans in America are worn by Sikhs. The religion is the fifth largest in the world, originating in the Punjab region of India, according to the World Sikh Organization. Many Sikhs also live in the United Kingdom, and Dhadli said there are about a million in the United States, mostly in California. The religion requires men to wear a turban and leave their facial hair uncut.
“The news show a lot of these people [terrorists] are ethnic,” Dhadli said. “But at the airport, they don’t make me do special things.”
Sodhi said that Sikhs believe in one God, similar to Jews and Christians, and that the religion stresses justice, discipline and equality between men and women. Men wear turbans and beards to demonstrate an outward sign of their faith to others, as well as themselves.
“It takes me five extra minutes to comb my hair in the morning,” Sodhi said. “It reminds you of who you are.”
Sikhs also believe in 10 gurus, similar to the prophets in Christianity. Sodhi said the gurus wrote down the holy text, known as the Sari Guru Grant Sahib, and left it to the Sikhs, as a sort of 11th and final guru that they could use as a living example of their faith. Each of the gurus stands for a different value, including humbleness and courage, and serve as protectors of everyone. “Gurus were just people too,” Dhadli said. “They just had a higher understanding.”
Sodhi said that instead of the heaven and hell system that Christians believe in, Sikhs believe that people go back in the evolutionary scale based on Karma, similar to the Hindu beliefs of reincarnation. “If you were a horrible person, you’re going to be a bug,” Sodhi said.
Sikhs are also required to wear five articles of faith on their body at all times, known commonly as the “five K’s.” They include kangha, a small comb; kes, uncut hair; kara, a metal bracelet on their dominant hand to signify that God is always looking; kachh, underwear to represent sexual cleanliness; and kirpan, a little sword to protect the weak.
Dhadli helped to form the Sikh Student Association on campus last year to provide an opportunity for community service and promote awareness of the religion. The group gets together to learn about their religion and holds events like “Sikhcess” in Detroit, where they help to feed people in poverty.
“White, beard, turban, anyone’s welcome,” Dhadli said. “In New Mexico, there are a large number of white Sikhs. It’s cool to see people from all walks of life accept God.” However, unlike some religions, Dhadli said that Sikhs are not trying to convert people, although he said that some people might stumble upon it and like their beliefs. Religious studies professor Arthur Versluis said that this is not unique to their religion. He said that Buddhists are also not particularly evangelical or driven to convert people.
“It’s not a matter of spreading religion in a world as interconnected as our world,” Versluis said. “It’s important to see the range of religions and gain background in other religions.” Versluis said that he believes it is vital people understand things about other religions in a world like ours to see what motivates people. He said that he uses his classes to introduce people to teachings and cultures of others, and Religion 101 classes often offer the option to visit a mosque or a synagogue.
Dhadli said he enjoys learning about other religions so he can see the seed in each and what the similarities are. He said he thinks of religion as more of a guideline than a rulebook and considered cutting his hair for a while since many of his friends did when they came to the United States. “I think I would lose something of myself because I’ve had it too long,” Dhadli said.
Sodhi said it is a requirement no matter what for men to have a turban and beard and women to have uncut hair. He has never been tempted to cut his, even though putting it up every morning is not an easy task. He also has to pin up his beard, since it is about twice as long as it appears. “There’s always bad turban days, but I don’t ever regret the extra discipline,” Sohdi said.
Sodhi said he washes his hair with Pantene Pro-V and it reaches about halfway down his back. He has a lot of different colors of turbans and matches them to his shirt. “For football games, I wear green turbans and put in white stripes,” Sohdi said. Dhadli sticks to more basic colors like white, black and blue.
In February, Sodhi was featured on an iReport on CNN that spotlighted four people of different religions who all wore head garments. The video was made in response to a story about a Muslim woman in Georgia who suffered a hate crime after wearing a hijab, or veil, in the courthouse. The report featured two Sikhs as well as a Muslim and an Orthodox Jew and was on the front page of CNN.com for a few hours.
“I was so glad CNN had that up there,” Dhadli said. “In ‘Taken,’ there was a Sikh guy in the beginning, too. They are small things, but they are good to see.”
And though both Dhaldi and Sodhi like discussing their religion, they also don’t mind the occasional joke. Sodhi wrote an article for a March issue of The Spartan Review called “It’s The Turban, Stupid” that gave the 10 top benefits of wearing a turban, including “chicks dig pink turbans, period” and “in the event that your oxygen mask does not inflate, turbans make superb flotation devices.”
Dhadli and Sodhi both said that Sikhism is a peaceful religion and look back at their experiences of prejudices without any hard feelings, adding they are very open to talking about their religion when asked. Sodhi said that even though Sikhs are often mistaken as Muslims, he does not think there is anything wrong with being Muslim and that there is not just one “right” religion. Both wish that turbans were not associated with terrorists and hate crimes, but Sodhi said that looking back at his experience in middle school just shows the devotion he has to his religion.
“Rochester Hills is the most un-diverse place ever,” Sodhi said. “I laugh about it now.”
Link to Ameek Sodhi’s CNN video: http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/02/20/relig
Link to Spartan Review article: http://thespartanreview.com/?p=162