Sacred or Sham: Interfaith marriage in the Sikh community

My husband and I had a Sikh marriage ceremony (Anand Karaj) in a Gurdwara in Hong Kong earlier this year.

Clinging tightly to the ends of the red cloth draped between us, we walked around the Guru Granth Sahib four times.

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Photo: Davinder Chohan / Chohan Photography

With each round, a verse detailing the soul’s journey towards God was read aloud.

But according to guidelines recently released by the Sikh Council UK, some might consider our wedding to be a sham, as I’m not a Sikh.

Based on the Sikh code of conduct, the Sikh Rehat Maryada of 1932, the guidelines advise: “Persons professing faiths other than the Sikh faith cannot be joined in wedlock by the Anand Karaj ceremony.

Yet many Sikhs feel that this form of Sikhism is a hard line version of the faith they hold dear.

Sikh scholar Davinder Singh Panesar says, “Sikh teachings don’t see faith as a differentiator, but as something that enables people to come to common ground, common humanity.”

Guru Nanak, who founded the faith, emphasised heavily on the ‘oneness of humanity’.

“If the Gurus don’t accept division in faith, caste or gender, why is it being enforced on the Sikh community? It doesn’t make sense and contradicts Sikh teachings,” Davinder echoes.

Many of Sikhism’s practices are aimed at bringing equality to all types of people.

one_family

“Recognise all of mankind as a single caste” – Guru Gobind Singh Ji

In every Gurdwara’s langar hall, where visitors are served food, everyone must sit on the floor as equals, regardless of their background, wealth or status.

Every Sikh is given the surname Singh, for men, and Kaur, for women, in an attempt to reduce the long-standing practice of caste discrimination.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Guru, was executed for opposing the Mughal’s forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

Non-religious option

Retired civil servant Gurmukh Singh, who was invited by the Sikh Council to comment on the guidelines, believes that people of different faiths are on different religious ‘ladders’.

“Though a non-Sikh can understand the universal teachings of Gurbani (compositions of the Gurus) and also those of other religions; they are on their own chosen religious ladder.”

According to Gurmukh, the Sikh Council’s guidelines don’t oppose interfaith marriages, only against them happening in Gurdwaras.

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Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the largest Gurdwara in London. Photo: bethmoon527/Flickr

“The alternative of a civil marriage is there. If they are so compelled by their residual faith in religion, both sides can visit each other’s places of worship,” he explains.

Rachel and Iqbal Channa from London decided to do exactly this for their wedding.

“Neither of us sees ourselves as religious so we knew we didn’t want a religious ceremony,” Rachel explains.

The couple had a civil marriage ceremony in 2012 at Pinewood Studios in Slough.

A few months before, close family gathered with them in a Gurdwara, as prayers were read for the couple’s wellbeing.

Love bridges the cultural divide for Rachel and Iqbal, “It’s not really a big issue for us. Perhaps it makes things a bit more complex, but I’ve learnt so much.

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Minority faith

The Sikh Council guidelines propose that if a non-Sikh adopts Sikhism, the Gurdwara should assess their genuine intention to follow the faith.

But journalist and author Sunny Hundal, who grew up in a Sikh family, feels that this is hypocritical and discriminatory.

“Many Sikhs wear a turban and grow their hair for the ceremony and then cut it off the day after. But the Gurdwaras turn a blind eye to that.”

Some non-Sikhs are in the process of learning about the Sikh faith, like myself.

“The definition of a Sikh is a student, someone who is learning, who is on the way to enlightenment, through self-discovery, ethical work and selflessness,” Davinder explains.

Confident that the guidelines will provide clarification, helping to protect Sikh values, Gurmukh says:

“There are certain core socio-religious values of communities which should be defended. The married life of a householder, and bringing up of children in a harmonious one faith environment.”

But Davinder feels that the guidelines have had a negative affect, “It has divided the Sikh community, misrepresented Sikh teachings and will inevitably risk disenfranchising many in the coming generations.”

Davinder and his wife Shanta had an Anand Karaj in a Gurdwara, although Shanta was born to a Christian Mother and a Hindu Father. She has gone on to be ‘baptised’ into the Sikh faith and bring her children up as Sikhs.

Sunny is certain that the guidelines are pushing people away from the faith.

“If no Gurdwara is willing to host the religious ceremony, the couple will undoubtedly feel that the Sikh community has ex-communicated them. What are the chances they will now bring up their children as Sikhs? If you have a minority faith, you should be integrating, not turning people away.”

grandma

Though my husband and I aren’t devoutly religious, we do plan to keep the Sikh faith at the core of our children’s upbringing.

My acceptance into the community has been reflected in the warmth of my family-in-law, showing the exact love and kindness that made me fall in love with Sikhism to begin with.

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6 comments

  1. This article shows that everyone can just write and article based on their own believes. Apart from quoting some people there is not much background information provided. I wonder why nobody has a problem that Muslims can’t have a Catholic wedding ceremony or Catholics cannot marry in a Hindu temple. Why on earth dies someone circle around the Guru Granth Sahib ji if they don’t believe it to be their Guru? For the pictures? Nice pictures…

  2. I recently learned about the Sikh Council new “decree”. I find it very intolerant. I personally am a believer of the teachings of Guru Nanak. I also like to listen to Kirtan, and I am Sindhi. Most people are aware that Sindhi Hindus have always been respectful and even followers of teachings of Sikhism and Guru Nanak. In fact, traditionally the weddings and engagement ceremonies and many ceremonies are held in Gurudwara. Sindhis have also traditionally had “Gur-mandirs” where they also have kirtans and it is the Sindhis who often now guard the Sikh gurudwaras left in Pakistan. Now they are changing the rules…what is the real purpose of this? I find it culturally ignorant of the many non traditional Sikh people who live by teachings of Nanak and Granth Sahib for hundreds of years. I would urge the SIkh Council to re-consider their strict stance. Only God knows your own heart. Why doubt and judge people? If Guru Nanak was here, I am sure he would open the Gurudwara for all.

  3. Congratulations on your wedding! I am a Sikh American womyn in an interfaith marriage with an African-American Christian man. As a feminist and a Sikh womyn, I feel that the Sikh code of honor is oppressive. Many in the Sikh community rightly amplify analysis of Sikhism and Sikh history from a male perspective. They see the Guru’s speaking up radically from the time of Baba Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh Ji against many isms- racism, casteism, classism. However, Sexism is one that is rarely visited. Everything from our symbols, to our collective cultural history is narrated to us from an extremely narrow political lens.

    It is not as though Rehat Maryada codes have not been questioned in Sikh history or reformed before. I do not know if this particular matter will be reformed in my lifetime though. So long as men continue to silence the female experience and re-memory of history-I do not feel that the ignorant, oppressive and rather violent statements against interfaith marriage will be going anywhere.

    Feminist Sikh Scholars such as Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, writes to these matters. Thanks for sharing your brave and courageous voice.

  4. Great article just read it.

    I’ve been researching this issue and there are definitely two separate ones to my mind.

    On the one hand Sikhism states that “Recognise the human race as one” , i.e. we should not differentiate from one human being to another. The logical conclusion from that is that when it comes to marriage, for Sikhs, one should not differentiate between race , religion caste when it comes to marriage. All are free to marry whoever they choose.

    Sikhs, however have certain institutions reserved only for those who are Sikhs or are born into a Sikh family. These are Amrit Sarchar – Sikh form of Baptism and Anand Karaj – often called marriage but is not that.

    The Anand Karaj seems to be a tripartite agreement i.e. two souls come together and merge with a third (Akal – the timeless one , who’s teachings are enshrined in the Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib – that is seen by Sikhs as a living teacher ). Both these ceremonies are viewed very seriously by Sikhs. They are seen as declarations in front of the Guru (Guru Granth Sahib) and Sangat (Community) that the people taking the vows will now live according to the Sikh way of life. If one person is not serious about living according to the Guru’s way or is being forcibly converted to the Sikh way then it will be seen as a sham.

    So in conclusion, the Sikh Temples are open to all. Everyone will be served and welcomed, but certain ceremonies are reserved only for those who wish to follow the Sikh way of life.

  5. Great article Jodi! Congratulations on your wedding too 🙂

    The guidelines released by the Sikh Council UK are really surprising – of all the faiths, I have been most impressed by Sikhism’s values of equality and recognising other religions. Plus to stipulate that if non-Sikhs wants to get married in a gurdwara “their genuine intention to follow the faith” needs to be assessed – surely this is way too subjective. This totally goes against the ‘oneness of humanity’!

    Out of sheer curiosity, did you experience any difficulty with planning your marriage ceremony in the gurdwara in Hong Kong?

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