Yuba City Sikh Festival, Part 3: The Generation Gap

“If immigration stopped tomorrow, these gurdwaras would be empty,” foretold Nandeep Singh, co-founder of Jakara Movement, in his presentation titled “Why Don’t We Care About Our Kids?” Jakara Movement is a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading awareness of Sikhism and Punjab among Sikh youth in the US, though the elders filling out Dashmesh Hall on the Sikh Temple of Yuba City grounds gave little credence to the young upstart’s claims.

This post will take us through the remaining three speakers of the Sikh Seminar discussed in the previous post, centered on what is one of the Sikh diaspora’s most pressing issues: can the faith survive outside of its homeland? And, as an extension of that question: if Sikhism is to survive as a global religion, what elements of its home culture must be preserved? Punjabi language? Punjabi literacy? Cuisine, fashion, gurdwara attendance, marriage within the culture? Popular sociology maintains that immigrant culture cannot survive three generations in a new country, but the Internet and social media have created a niche for any and every community that has access to it. My generation (meaning my brother and first cousins) is the first in my family to be born entirely in the US. Of the seven of us, five of us speak Punjabi, four of us are half (my brother and I being the two halfsies who speak), and only one of us can read Punjabi. At what point will it be inevitable that we lose Punjab?

And now, the speakers.

Sikh Seminar and Open House, October 31, 2015, 1 PM to 3 PM (though it ran until 4:30). The speakers: Delhi Journalist Manoj Mitta, Activist Daughter Navkiran Kaur Khalra, Sikhnet.com Founder Gurumustuk Singh, Jakara Movement Co-founder Jakara Movement, and Journalist Jarnail Singh.

Sikh Seminar and Open House, October 31, 2015. In this post, I will focus on Sikhnet.com Founder Gurumustuk Singh, Jakara Movement Co-founder Jakara Movement, and Journalist Jarnail Singh.

1. Gurumustuk Singh, Founder, Sikhnet.com: Sikh Perspective on Meaning of Universal Sikhi Values.

In truth, my notes on Gurumustuk Singh were sparse, because my focus going into the festival was how the festival reflected Punjab and its diaspora. Gurumustuk was born in Los Angeles, was raised Sikh, and was schooled in India. His parents – a Christian father and Jewish mother – found Sikhism through Kundalini yoga and meditation. They represent a small contingent of primarily non-Punjabi Sikhs known as 3H0 (Happy, Healthy, and Holy Organization), and their home base is in Espanola, New Mexico. SikhNet, which is one of the most prominent sites devoted to spreading awareness about Sikhism, is also based out of Espanola. 3H0’s philosophy is to live spiritually and cleanly through yoga, contemplation on the name of God (as Guru Nanak preached), and particular practices of natural food and dress, not unlike the Hindu concept of ayurveda (3H0 has their own line of natural foods, oils and clothes). 3H0 was founded by Harbhajan Singh Puri (known to his followers as Yogi Bhajan), who moved from India to Toronto in 1968 and taught about the lives of the Sikh gurus as part of his yoga classes. He devoted his life to teaching yoga and spreading the name of God as detailed in the Guru Granth Sahib, or Sikh scripture.

(My side observation, not to diminish the value of 3H0 in any way, is to point out how India is a strong breeding ground for religious/lifestyle movements founded by people preaching yoga and meditation, some of which take root in the US. See also: Patanjali and his line of all natural products, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and ISKCON, Shah Mastana Ji Maharaj and the Dera Sacha Sauda “Confluence Of All Religions,” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation, and so on.)

SikhNet provides a powerful source of cohesion for converts to Sikhism, and it is an excellent starting point for delving into Sikhism. Though their stories are more derived from oral tradition than from historical sources (scrutiny courtesy of my grandfather), these stories depict Sikh popular memory of its heritage – how popular Sikhism strives, rather optimistically, to see itself when separated from politics. It’s quite a difficult ideal to implement.

2. Nandeep Singh, Co-founder, Jakara Movement: Why Don’t We Care About Our Kids?

Nandeep Singh is a Sikh from Fresno, California, whose presentation explained how US-born and Indian-born Sikhs are “poles apart.” Singh argued that Sikhism is disappearing among its American-born youth, as their parents, through lack of engagement with their children, are not doing enough to preserve Sikh culture. His presentation came with charts that detailed Sikh youth attendance in temples:

Jakara Movement's favorite chart, courtesy of their mailing list.

Jakara Movement’s favorite charts, courtesy of their mailing list.

Until the teenage years, parents bring their children to the gurdwara on Sundays, as seen by attendance at gurdwaras in San Jose, Livingston, and Fresno, California. Teenagers’ attendance numbers drop sharply, as the vast majority of gurdwara attendees are the parents of those children and the generation above. Singh noted that 1/3rd to 2/5ths of this children are born in Punjab and immigrate to the US, so the problem is not just US-born youth. He calls this current generation of Sikhs (my generation) the lost generation. Interest in Sikhism is not cultivated through basketball and bhangra, but through community building efforts organized around Sikh values. This model of youth engagement – religious school, youth groups, scholarship programs, and so on – focuses on making youth proud of their Sikh heritage, a heritage that emphasizes the need for learning the Punjabi language and maintaining a political awareness of the happenings in Punjab. In the absence of any central Sikh unifying body (India has the SGPC, but Sikhs outside India have no overarching administrative body), Jakara Movement strives to create a sense of cohesion among American Sikhs.

The crux of Nandeep Singh’s presentation was his observation that there were no youths in the audience of this seminar. The kids were playing outside with one another, looking at the shops and toys, making no clear effort to learn about political upheaval in Punjab and its implications on Sikh identity. Any person under the age of 25 in the audience (e.g. me) was an exception to a trend of detachment from their parents’ culture, implying that (to answer my opening questions), Sikhism needs an all-of-the-above strategy to keep its culture alive: language, literacy, physical Sikh markings, and so on. In other words, ours is a path from which we cannot stray. We must wear our identity proudly.

3. Jarnail Singh, Journalist and Member of Legislative Assembly, Delhi (Aam Aadmi Party): Challenges Before Sikhs And How to Overcome Them

Jarnail Singh came more than hour late, as he was coming to this conference straight from India. He spoke entirely in rapid-fire Punjabi, quoting Sikh scripture and berating India’s major political parties, from the far right-wing Hindu RSS poisoning Punjab with heroin to Punjab’s own lack of political cohesion. Punjab is on track to becoming a failed state, from farmer suicides to drought to cancer and drug addiction. In a video I did with formerly-Chandigarh-now-Austrialia-based video artist Bobby Sandhu, Sandhu notes that Punjab is ashamed of how its culture, and how it is rare to find people who are proud to be Punjabi. Jarnail Singh echoed this sentiment. Punjab has no central administration, no think tank to ensure that it and the Sikh faith will survive in India. Punjab and its diaspora, instead, can only seem to watch as the province dries up.

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When it came time for Q&A (which was actually before Jarnail Singh arrived), I asked Gurumustuk and Nandeep Singh if they think Sikhism can survive in the US without the Punjabi language. Gurumustuk said that he could not imagine his life in Sikhism had he not grown up in Punjab, while Nandeep Singh flatly said no and that it is the responsibility of our generation to decide how Punjab will look in America. The previous questions in the session had been primarily from elder Punjabis asking Manoj Mitta about the province of Punjab, with little attention being directed to the state of Punjabi youth. As Nandeep Singh noted, “How can we think about the situation in Punjab when we don’t think about our kids?”

The generation gap is the most confounding issue facing Punjab, as it has been for every immigrant community in the US before. Immigrants tend to preserve as much as they can of home. In the case of Punjab, this was done by maintaining monetary ties to home; much of Punjab, including its largest gurdwaras, was developed by foreign money brought back in to the province: immigrants to London, Toronto, Vancouver, New York pursuing wealth through business, law, engineering, or medicine and sending funds back to their home villages. These veritable castles dot village roads throughout Punjab, their gated confines facing crumbling roads and straw huts caked in cow patties. Those who left India decades ago and have not returned – for me, my family and the Punjabi families my research has guided me to – note with heavy sighs that they would not have the same opportunities in India as they have had in the US and Canada. The original waves of Punjabis to California of the 60s, but dating back to the opening decades of the 20th century, adopted America, taught their kids America, and now fear that their grandchildren do not know Punjab. In many regards, their fear is true; the language is disappearing, and knowledge of Sikhism is going with it. Congregations are filled out by new waves of immigrants who have been displaced by 1984, by the increasing difficulty of farming in light of pesticide-resistant bugs, in search of greater economic opportunity, but the children of Punjab have grown up with their parents protecting them from these realities. The generation gap is stark and massive, accelerating with each new generation but met with artists and organizers who work that much harder to figure out what Punjab means as the memory of mustard fields fades further into the distance.

It seemed appropriate to end this post with a sunset over Punjab. Photo taken on the outskirts of Punjab, over fallow fields.

It seemed appropriate to end this post with a sunset over Punjab. Photo taken on the outskirts of Jalandhar, over fallow fields.