Visiting Two Sikh Temples in Los Angeles, CA.
I was recently able to visit a Sikh temple (called a Gurdwara) in February 2009 with my Theology of Mission class when I went to the university. I was able to speak with a few Sikhs and the head leader of the temple. The following account is what I learned about the Sikh religion from what they personally told me about their theology. This article only reflects the specific Sikhs in the Gurdwara Los Angeles and the West Hollywood Gurdwara. This article reflects on my personal experiences visiting a Sikh worship service, fellowshipping with Sikhs while eating with them in their temple, and spending the night inside the Gurdwara Los Angeles temple. It also explains certain bridges that can be used to lead Sikhs into the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that are derived from their own religion and worldview.
Gurdwara Los Angeles
My experiences with Sikhs
When we arrived at the first temple it was night time so I could not see how the temple looked on the outside. But when we showed up I noticed behind a fence near the parking lot outside the next building over, were young boys practicing stick fighting techniques. I thought that was interesting and wondered what was going on. I was told later that Sikhs practice their own martial art style. When we got to the entrance we had to take our shoes off. This is something that is seen in many world religions before entering the place of worship. It is a sign of respect, that the ground you are entering is holy. Every one of us in our group had to cover our heads with veils, or bandanas. The Sikhs tied on head coverings for us, and I looked like a pirate! When we entered the worship area there were no chairs, only a carpet. All of the men wore turbans to cover their hair, and the women wore head coverings that reminded me of what Muslim women wore. Men and women were separated across the room from each other with men on one side and women on the other. There were drums and bells ringing from time to time as a man in white clothes and a large white beard with a turban was reading from a giant book on a pillow. He read the words in the Punjabi language in a very musical style that seemed almost trancelike. Every so often the Sikhs would repeat something out loud that the leader read from the book. The book is called Guru and they consider it God. They treat it like a human being as they wave a feather over it, delicately turn pages, prop it on a pillow and give it its own bed. They literally give it a real bed and at night time they believe the book goes to sleep. They ceremoniously take the book to a back room with bed sheets, and veils covering the bed. They do this with a small procession in the temple with the attendants as everyone sings a song of praise and worship to the book with catchy, funky Indian rhythms with those oh so familiar drums.
Guru's (the book) bed
During the whole worship service there were times when people stood up to worship the book and then sat back down again. I did not participate as I am a Christian and this would be seen as idol worship in my eyes. After the service we were able to ask all of the questions we wanted from some of the younger Sikh males. These young men seemed like the typical American guy who enjoys life and has fun. They spoke regular American English and acted the same way as any American I would talk to, except for the fact they have long beards and a turban on their head. After talking for a few minutes they led us into the fellowship hall where we ate a vegetarian meal on the floor. It was buffet style as some of the women served us generous portions of bean curry, soy, and other vegetables in deliciously spicy sauce. I loved the food! I think the best way vegetarian food comes is in the Indian style. While we ate they played hypnotic Indian music with those catchy drums, and string instruments as the vocals chanted unknown words in an Indian language. They were most likely religious praises to their god. As we ate we were able to ask more questions to some of the young men and meet other Sikhs who were extremely hospitable and generous. My female classmates were able to talk to the young women, so they seperated my class between male and female. Sikhs are some of the kindest people you will meet and they enjoyed sharing their religion with us. Some of the young women around my age were very attractive, but one thing that was a turn off to me was the fact Sikhs do not shave any hair on their entire body, no matter what. It is part of their religion not to because one of the 10 Gurus they worship said that the hair is a sacred part of the body and should be protected and never cut. That is why the men wear turbans and the women wear head veils. There was no other explanation given, but that one of the gurus said you must not cut the hair.
Singing Guru to sleep
After our delicious meal we were led back into the worship room where the head leader, also called a guru was there to answer any questions we might have. Sikhs do not like to convert people to their religion or even care to witness their faith. But if they are asked about it they are more than happy to answer any questions, and if you wanted to become a Sikh they would gladly accept you. Sikhs are some of the most toleratant, morally relativistic people in the world.
After our question and answer time that lasted well over an hour, we were sent to the other side of Hollywood to the Gurdwara Los Angeles in North Hollywood. This is where we spent the night. We had to tie on new head coverings, this time bright orange. All of us got different rooms and I shared a room with another student. In the bathroom I noticed a lot of hair on the floor and in the sink. Obviously Sikhs are very hairy. The night was refreshing and my bed was comfortable enough to give me decent sleep all though a little hard. When we woke up in the morning I took a stroll down the hallway and out onto the main deck outside. I realized that the temple is white with really beautiful Indian architecture. The view was great as the building was tall and I could see all over the neighborhood. The sun was warm and refreshing. We were then led downstairs to eat breakfast as the few Sikhs staying in the temple gladly cooked for us. The guru of the other temple did not mention to anyone we were staying there and the Sikhs were surprised to see us, but had no problem and gladly prepared a vegetarian meal. Some of the same spices and yogurt substance with bean curds and delicious chai tea. The tea was one of the best parts of the meal.
One hilarious thing about our breakfast was one of the Sikhs was mentally insane. He told us all kinds of ridiculous stories about promiscuous sexual encounters with American women (lust is something that is strictly prohibited in Sikh religion), and the types of women he likes are any “with two eyes.” When he said that he was looking at the college aged girls and creeped them out. He also talked about a government laser beam from a helicopter that kept shooting at him and hitting him with it. He told us how he flipped the helicopter off and showed us his middle finger. He was talking about UFOs and other nonsense. It was great! Highly entertaining, but you have to feel sorry for the guy. I honestly think this guy spent too much time in meditation with occult spirits that screwed him up, but that is just my thoughts. The other Sikhs were upset at his talking and told us all that he is just crazy and not to listen to him. These Sikhs were from India and had accents and spoke Punjabi, but comminicated with us in broken English with thick Indian accents.
What I Learned about Sikh Religion and How it Contrasts with Christianity
Sikhism is a religion that began in the 1500’s that has many influences from Hinduism and slight Islamic influences. Sikhs are all over the world in practically every country. I have seen them all around the U.S.A. and when I visited the Philippines I saw some as well. Sikhs started out as a warrior religion that fought aggressively against the Islamic oppressors who were murdering many Hindus and Sikhs. Hindus consider Sikhs another branch of their religion, but Sikhs consider themselves their own religious identity. Sikhs are not a type of Muslim either as some people may think. Sikhs follow the teachings of Guru Nanak who was the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. Nine more human gurus came after him with teachings and Sikhs believe that all subsequent Gurus possessed Guru Nanak’s divinity and religious authority. All of the gurus writings are in one giant book mixed in with Buddhist scriptures, Bagadhavita, and lesser known writtings. This book is their sacred scriptures and is named Guru Granth Sahib and is considered itself to be the 11th and final guru.
Bridges to the gospel within Sikh religion
With the bridges from the Sikh religion the Christian could use to preach the gospel to the Sikh, one is able to see some of God’s revelation through common grace on individual Sikhs. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states that “Common grace is so called because it is common to all humankind. Its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without discrimination between one person and another” (Elwell, 2001, p. 519). It is God who makes Himself known to mankind and seeks the individual for salvation. 1 John 4:10 expresses “[N]ot that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (Holman Christian Standard Bible). 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” Common grace is the working of Christ in Creation that all people experience and know; such as being sustained with food and the beauty of nature that gives wonderful emotions. Such things are experienced before a person comes into the Kingdom of God, because it is given to both unbelievers and Christians. Sikhs understand such grace and this is why they believe in a diety. Also, many cultural, religious, and other symbols from Sikhism can become bridges that lead to the Gospel. Luke’s account of Paul in Acts 17 where Paul describes the unknown god to the Greeks is a great example of the kind of bridges that God uses from people’s false religions. Just in the same way as when Paul described to the Greeks that they were worshipping a false idea of God (idol worship) in ignorance of the true God of the Jews (Acts 17:23), the Sikhs are also in ignorant worship of a false idea of God which keeps them in spiritual darkness and Satan’s deception. The intent of these bridges I will describe is to find ways to shine the light of Christ’s witness onto Sikhs so that they can be saved. It is important to remember that God’s grace for the individual who will believe is also sovereign, and God will not allow any person the Father has given to be taken out of His hands (John 10:26-29).
Good and evil becomes bad and better
The Sikhs in West Hollywood are monotheists and believe that God created everything. Chilana & Zabel (2005) state that “Sikhism is a monotheistic religion; Sikhs believe that there is one single, all-powerful, and loving God who has no gender or form” (p. 109). Yet they still ascribe the word “him” to God in their Scriptures. This monotheistic idea can be seen further in the Sikh scriptures which Parrinder (1987) quotes,
“[T]he Sikh scriptures…opens [with this passage and] is used in Sikh daily prayer:
‘There is one God,
his name is eternal truth,
Creator of all things and pervading all,
Without fear or enmity,
timeless and formless,
beyond birth and death,
known by the grace of the Guru.’ (p. 76-77)
This alone is a starting point for a bridge to the Gospel since Christianity also believes in one God. God’s common grace (Romans 1:20) is prevalent with them as they are convinced that life is a miracle and all things that exist had to be created. Sikhs are without excuse about the existence of God as the temple leader made this evident when he described the miracle of birth to us. To them Creation itself is enough to know there is a God. The Sikh god, who they call Guru, means “great teacher.” They believe he created everything. God is the great teacher that reveals truth to those who follow him. Since God created everything, they believe that there is no such thing as evil or good and that all things are the same because God created them and nothing God created is evil. (So in a way, what Christians call evil, God created; so we could say that according to Sikhism God created evil, but then to them it is not evil because nothing God created is evil.) Even with this belief the Sikhs will still call things bad; so they believe that there is bad and good, but not evil or good in the sense of being moral; or anything being actually more or less moral compared to something else. An example the temple leader told us was that Hitler lived his life less than a human, like an animal, but God created him that way and they cannot judge him. They will say that he lived a life making it harder for him to be with God, but when directly asked if Hitler was evil the temple leader told me that God created Hitler so he is not evil, but just lived his life in a bad way. It is interesting to contrast Christianity with Sikhism. Sikhs believe that God does create bad things (which Christians would call evil things), but Christians do not believe that God creates anything evil (bad according to Sikhs). Evil is a result of humanities fall into sin according to the Bible, which is completely different than God creating evil.
When asked why God created Hitler who murdered so many people the leader said that he did not know, and “God had his purpose and we cannot know it.” They have an extremely strong belief in the sovereignty of God to the point of it being skewed. They do not know why God does things and they do not care because God just does it for whatever reason he wants. It comes off as a fatalistic belief system, but the only thing keeping it from fatalism is that it is possible to change circumstances by ones own actions. The only things they know about God are what their book which they call Guru teaches them. The fact that they call their book Guru tells you that they believe that their scriptures are the Word of God and actually is God. This sounds very familiar to what Christians believe about the Bible being the Word of God. The first chapter in the book of John explains that the Word is God (1:1) and the Word became flesh which is Jesus Christ (1:14). I believe that this is a bridge that Christians can use to persuade a Sikh to understand Jesus Christ as the only true Guru that existed who is God and His Word is true which is shown in the Bible. Christians who witness to Sikhs need to help them come to a proper understanding of the Bible as the Word of God which means that Jesus Christ (the Word) is the only true Guru (teacher). Since Sikhs believe that they are taught by God (Guru), Christians can emphasize what Jesus Christ said when He quoted Isaiah in John 6:45 which says “It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God.” It will be difficult to persuade a Sikh to accept Jesus as the only way since Sikhs are people with a morally relativistic belief in tolerance and do not care what others believe and do not care to change. So the Christian witness must break their belief in extreme tolerance in order to direct their view into one pathway that leads to God which is Jesus Christ who claims He is the only way. In John 14:6 Jesus Christ claimed “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Since Sikhs believe in seeking truth I believe apologetics will have to come into play.
Union with God
The goal of a Sikh is to arrive at unification with God. This can only happen if they get rid of physical distractions in the world. Levinson (1996) explains that,
“Sikhism is based on a discipline of purification aimed at overcoming five vices: greed, anger, false pride, lust, and attachment to material goods. Successful adherence to the purification discipline allows the person to elevate his or her soul into union with God” (p. 218).
This is a very hard thing to do since most people become reincarnated due to not living life correct enough to reach God (Levinson, p. 218). Sikhism is a works based religion that teaches that man himself can reach God on his own with enough discipline.
The only way to reach God is to escape the cycle of reincarnation which is much like the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems, except that the Sikhs in the West Hollywood Gurdwara, and the Gurdwara Los Angeles believe that humans always come back as humans and there is no ranking within reincarnation. Hindus and Buddhists believe that bad karma gives the result of coming back as a lesser form of life. The Sikhs in West Hollywood described to me that they do not believe in the same way, but they do believe that it is possible to come back as another ethnicity and religion which could keep them from becoming a Sikh again in the next life. This would make it harder and harder to unionize with God, but is not considered as a punishment for sins done in a previous life. It should be noted that most Sikhs do see reincarnation as a form of punishment as Levinson (1996) states,
“At the end of a person’s life the tally of good and bad conduct determines the family, race, and character of the person when he or she is reborn as another human being. Those who are selfish and cruel in this life do not go to hell, but rather will suffer in their next existence. Those who act with compassion and honesty will lift the spirit to positions of good standing and high character. The soul develops through countless lives until it becomes united with the infinite One” (p. 218-219).
I believe that their idea of union with God is a bridge Christians can use to relate the gospel with a Sikh. For Christians, union with God comes at conversion while still alive on earth. The only difference being that union with God means union in the body of Christ, a symbolic expression of one’s soul being in tune to God’s righteousness making one a citizen of God’s eternal kingdom in Heaven. Christians do not actually become God, or part of God’s essence. This is why the term born again is used because the person has a transformation right then, and is a new person in Jesus Christ (John 3:3). Sikhs literally believe that they become part of God’s essence. The sad thing about Sikhism is that they will never know if they will be in union with God when they die, so in a sense there is no security in their salvation. For Christians what is termed as eternal security is used to describe the knowledge one has that there is no doubt that they are saved and will go to Heaven when they die. Jesus Christ said in John 6:37, “Everyone the Father gives to Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never cast out.” Paul explains further that nothing can keep or take a Christian out of God’s will (Romans 8:37-39). Whoever comes to Christ becomes unionized with God through His kingdom at conversion. It will also be important to emphasize that reincarnation is a false belief for it says in Hebrews 9:27 that men die once and then comes judgment.
Sikhs do not believe in sin, but do believe in distractions. These distractions are what keep their soul from unifying with God. The distractions are all earthly things and what Christians would call immoral living. What are considered as true Sikhs are people who are very moral and do not do any form of drugs including smoking and drinking or eating meat as they are strictly vegetarians. They are not to engage in promiscuous, unmarried sexual activity and they believe in serving all people and remaining in community. This servant hood can be seen in their community kitchens where they will serve food to anyone who comes in no matter what. Parrinder (1987) says, “[The Guru] Amar Das, organized the community and instituted the traditions of langers or free kitchens wherein Sikhs and visitors are given hospitality” (p. 77). The Sikhs at the Gurdwara in West Hollywood told me that meditation is also important, and that meditating on God is something the Guru Nanak told them. Wolf & Yang (1996) explain that Nanak “emphasized the importance of meditation on a unitary divine spirit and on rightful living in this world” (p. 12). They are also not to cut any hair on their body as it is considered sacred and the way that God made them so they should not change their bodies. Cavendish (1980) describes the way a Sikh looks, “Their most obvious outward marks are the turbans, beards and long hair of Sikh men, who believe in keeping whole and intact the bodies which God has given them, and so do not cut their hair. The turban is a symbol of wholeness, and so of being a Sikh” (p. 50). Sikh beliefs about life can be explained by Sing & Sing (2006) that,
“Central to the Sikh ideology are the principles of equality, liberty, and selfless service, and a value system that envisions a diverse and egalitarian society that affords individual freedom and maintains no element, however miniscule, of state oppression. Sikhs firmly uphold the notion of equality, a claim supported by the doctrinal emphasis on social justice as well as the Gur -Prophets’ advocacy and activism for universal human rights. And in a spiritual sense, selfless service functions as a form of grateful expression to the Divine, a praise of the Creator via Creation” (p. 133).
When I asked the temple leader if he believed that humans were predisposed to giving into the temptations of physical distractions he seemed to say that that was true yet he did not directly emphasize it. He mentioned that there is “something in us that keeps us distracted.” I believe that the Sikhs in West Hollywood do believe that humans have it in them to be distracted by the things of the world. I think this is an excellent bridge to the gospel because Christians know that humans are predisposed to sin and it is within all humans to sin. Sin does distract us from knowing God. Grudem (2000) states, “Not only do we as sinners lack any spiritual good in ourselves, but we also lack the ability to do anything that will in itself please God and the ability to come to God in our own strength” (p. 497). In Romans 8:8 Paul says that “Those whose lives are in the flesh are unable to please God.” The difference with Sikhs is that they believe in a works based salvation that they actually do have the ability on their own to come to God eventually on their own strength even if it takes billions of lifetimes. The problem with the works based salvation that Sikhs believe is that it will be hard to persuade them to understand that they do not have the ability to come to God on their own. But I believe that the Holy Spirit will convict any Sikh of their utter human failure and depravity if He is one that the Father has planned to give to Jesus Christ (John 6:37). They will understand that no amount of meditation, length of hair, sexual purity, abstaining from drugs, good works, or vegetarianism will ever lead their soul towards union with God. The fact that the world distracts humans from God is a bridge and strong point in converting a Sikh into the Christian faith.
Fighting for righteousness
What is interesting to note is that Sikhs strongly believe in self defense and fighting against oppression. They will take up arms to protect their rights and freedom of religion. The Sikhs in West Hollywood told me that fighting for one’s rights and to protect oneself and others is righteous. Their entire religion was founded on the principle of self defense or defending one’s rights. Hence their religion’s symbol consists of four weapons: a vertical double edged sword called the Khanda, two curved swords called kirpans, and a steel ring called a chakker which can be thrown at enemies up to fifty meters. Muslims were forcing all non-Muslims to convert and killing many people who refused. Cavendish (1980) explains that “[The 10th Guru] Gobind Singh, built up Sikh fighting strength, and what had begun as a group of believers in brotherly love turned into a formidable military brotherhood which waged war against Muslims and which believed, as Muslims did, that death in battle was a passport to paradise” (p. 49). Sikhs were even given honorary acknowledgement in World War I by the British as greatly fierce and skilled fighters and were given a set of land after the war (Cavendish, p. 50).
Sikhs are a warrior faith and even have their own martial art which is a religious as well as cultural part of their heritage called Gatka. The Homepage of the International Gatka Federation explains that “Gatka is the name of a stick used to practice sword fighting. The word Gatka is a slang expression coined in the nineteen hundreds to describe a number of stick, staff, and sword styles made for use in public demonstration. Much of the Gatka forms practiced today are Europeanized versions of segments of what was the original martial art of India known as Shastar Vidyaa” (http://www.gatka.de/). When I was in the parking lot at the West Hollywood Gurdwara I saw men teaching young boys stick fighting techniques. Sikhs are also supposed to carry a small dagger everywhere they go as a religious expression and for self defense. This is one of the few religions that I know of that commands its followers to carry a weapon everywhere they go. Sikhs obviously cannot carry a large knife everywhere so in such circumstances where the law does not permit knives, the Sikh will carry a small pocket knife sized blade. This shows that the religious symbol of the weapon is just as important and meaningful as carrying the actual weapon.
The fact that Sikhs will fight for their beliefs and causes shows that Sikhs believe that there are things that are wrong, yet nothing is actually evil. Yet, fighting and killing in defense from such “bad” things is good. It is a very interesting and complicated way to think about morality. This way of thinking, I truly believe, is a contradiction in itself. They claim they do not judge others, that all beliefs are okay and nothing is evil; yet they are actually making judgments on other people when fighting against them that their enemies’ way of life is wrong. This is moral relativisms greatest problem with credibility and Sikhs believe in this same way. I think that their strong beliefs in fighting for what is good are another strong bridge to the gospel that can be used. The Christian must emphasize their strong belief in what is worth fighting for in their relationships with Sikhs and create conversations that will lead to spiritual discussions on the nature of good and evil. This is a great time to start talking about the justice of God and how He demands perfection, and will punish all evil with death and hell. Justice will prevail on judgment day and Jesus Christ is also a warrior king who will come and destroy all wicked men in the world through fire and devastation. This is spoken about in Revelation and in the Gospels. The death of Christ was an example of the violence against evil that is God’s justice. When Christ comes back He will come with His armies and bring about bloodshed on all who oppose rightesouness while calling up His elect. Through such discussions, eventually the Holy Spirit will reveal to the Sikh that there is only one Way of righteousness, and that righteousness is Jesus Christ.
After my time at the Sikh Gurdwara in West Hollywood I can now understand their religion better. The Sikhs there are very intelligent and nice people. They are just stuck in a satanic grasp of deception that has come up through their cultural background and religious upbringing. One cannot deemphasize the grasp of deception that controls them in their false religion. Christians need to approach Sikhs as people who are highly intelligent and loving people. It is easy to talk to them, but one must use tact and create friendships before witnessing. Sikhs are monotheists, believe that humanity has something within that leads to “distraction” from unity with God; believe in activism and fighting for righteousness, and believe in moral living. These are the few bridges to the gospel that I found after listening to the Sikhs in the West Hollywood Gurdwara and Gurdwara Los Angeles. Sikhs are people that God loves and He wants them to enter into a relationship with Him. It is my hope that God will eventually be known in these people’s lives.
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