April 9, 2007

Sikh Community Brings in New Year

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On Saturday, more than 75 people gathered together in Barton hall to celebrate the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi with a moon bounce, a D.J. and samosas, a popular South Asian pastry.
The event was run by the Cornell United Sikh Students Association. Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world with 23 million adherents worldwide. The religion originated in northern India in the sixteenth century and its members are known for their uncut hair and distinctive turbans.
“We don’t really have a presence on campus,” said Harman Singh ’09, the organizer of the event.
He estimated that there were only 10 to 15 Sikhs in the entire Cornell community.
According to material distributed at the event, “Vaisakhi implores all Sikhs to commit themselves to a path of spiritual living.” The holiday falls on April 13 and is celebrated by many Sikhs as New Year’s Day. Most observe the holiday by attending services at a local temple. According to Angad Bhai ’08, the Vaisakhi celebration in Los Angeles is one of the largest in the world, an event where “all Sikhs from California come together and parade downtown.”
The Sikh festival was separated by a large red curtain from one of the day’s other cultural events, the Bhangra dance festival. Although he is very involved in Cornell Bhangra, Singh said that it was important to distinguish the spiritual Vaisakhi holiday from the Bhangra performance.
“That’s a cultural aspect of Punjabis. As a costume for Bhangra, everyone wears turbans, but not all Punjabis are Sikhs.”
“It’s about respect and tolerance to all,” Singh said. “There are three pillars of the religion: serve others, earn an honorable living and remember God.”
The CUSSA has recently raised money for widows of Sikhs killed in a 1984 massacre in India. Other Sikhs give to others by providing free food to the needy. One downtown restaurant, Diamonds, provides free food to those in need.
“When I was younger, I took it very literally. When I got my first paycheck, I gave the whole thing to charity,” Singh said.
“It’s great being a Sikh woman,” said Bhav Singh ’09. “They are very proud and respected.”
In traditional Sikh culture, women play a large and revered role in educating children and in other aspects of community life.
Bhai acknowledged that Sikhs stand out on campus.
In the past, “when a Sikh stood out, it signified that that person was for justice,” he said.
“When you’re three years old and wearing a turban, you stand out,” Harman said. “It’s like wearing a crown, I feel.”
Sikhs have not always found acceptance in the United States. Harman recalled that people would yell at him when he commuted into New York City from his home in New Jersey after Sept. 11. Bhai also experienced discrimination, especially on airplanes. Still, according to Harman, Sikhs have found an open home on the Cornell campus.
“I feel like the community [at Cornell] is very accepting,” he said.