A red Sikh symbol.Over the past decade, South Asian Americans of all faiths have become increasingly active in social justice causes, whether it’s been combating xenophobia and anti-Black racism, fighting for LGBT rights, religious tolerance, and for comprehensive environmental justice.

Sadly, even as the community comes together on these issues, interfaith dialogue among South Asian Americans continues to be a sore spot. As Sikh and Hindu activists, respectively, we seek a way forward in discussing how our communities – which have occasionally experienced tensions among advocacy groups – can work together to solve the problems we face together. Moreover, we need to talk about how Sikhs and Hindus – who both come from inherently progressive spiritual traditions -can present a united front in championing for social change.

For Hindu Americans of South Asian descent, it’s been frustrating at times with other advocacy groups of other faiths within the South Asian American community. Some Sikh groups have depicted Hindus as enemies of Sikhism, going so far as to talk up their commonalities with other religions and denying the long shared history between both faiths. Additionally, for Sikh Americans of South Asian descent, the confusion of where Sikhism arose from has staged an uncomfortable platform for discussion when Sikhs have faced much negative discourse in India. This has made for an uncomfortable situation at times when progressive Hindu groups are at the table with progressive Sikh groups, and we still wonder when the day will come when both of our groups will realize and say, “Hey we can achieve so much more by working together.”

So, over a cup of chai and maybe some South Asian snacks, let’s discuss how we can be part of the transformative change that will energize our generation and future Sikh and Hindu social justice leaders for generations.

Can we talk about how our religions are represented in each other?

At the core of each of our religions we actually have written scripture from followers of other religions. In SIkhism, the Guru we follow which is our scripture is the Guru Granth Sahib. In the Guru Granth Sahib there are many Hindus written word in there including Bhagat Ravidas and Bhagat Namdev. Their scripture aligns and preaches many Sikh teachings that are explained in different parts of the Guru Granth Sahib as well. Additionally the 9th Guru in Sikhism, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was a defender of Sikhs and Hindus against the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. From Guru Tegh Bahadur Sikhs learned to be defenders of all people who were oppressed including followers from all faiths.

A red Om symbol.Many Hindus, particularly those of Punjabi origin, revere Sikh teachings and the 10 gurus, as well as co-celebrating the holiday of Vaisakhi. Hindus and Sikhs also share family connections, owing back to a centuries long tradition of many Hindu families raising one of their children as baptized Sikhs. Many Hindus look at Sikhs as the defenders of their own faiths dating back to the Mughal era.

But how do we deal with issues such as 1984?

The events of 1984, which included Operation Blue Star and the pogroms after Indira Gandhi’s assassination play a big role in contemporary Sikh-Hindu tensions, especially as it relates to assigning blame and trying to find justice. To date, the Indian government -namely the leaders of the Congress Party who called for the attacks -has not been held accountable for the horrific attacks on Sikhs, which has only contributed to tensions. However, many times the stories of 1984 that Sikh parents share to their children are unheard. Those stories include a Hindu family neighbor that hid a Sikh family when the pogroms took place and risked their own lives if they got caught hiding Sikhs. Or when a Sikh family’s house was destroyed, a Hindu family housed them and took care of their living needs until they could stand up on their feet again. While the gruesome history of these attacks sting every Sikh to their core, the Hindu brothers and sisters in Delhi and Amritsar stood by them and helped them through the difficult times.

In this vein, we have to separate political acts like Operation Blue Star (which was led by a Sikh) and the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 from Sikh and Hindu dialogue. Just as many Sikhs and Hindus in India continue to have familial relations despite the events of 1984, most Hindus do not blame Sikhs for the Air India bombing. For many of us as second-generation Sikhs and Hindus, the politics of the subcontinent – while relevant to our identities – shouldn’t distract or deter us from working together as progressives.

With that, we really need to make our conversation move forward to progressive, unified action. We’ve charted out areas where Sikhs and Hindus, from scriptural inspiration and practical realities, can take the lead in social justice issues.

How do we fight racism together?

Sikh Americans have faced extensive religious discrimination post 9/11 starting with the first hate crime killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi, and of course, the massacre at the Oak Creek gurdwara. Sikhs, along with followers of other South Asian religions (Hindus, Muslims, Jains, etc), have faced that same racial discrimination based on their skin color, religious practices, and country of origin. Many of the difficulties Hindus face in America are rooted from the same place where Sikhs face harm, and that is hate. The fight for tackling hate crimes based on race is a commonality that both Sikhs and Hindus face every single day, and we can use our experiences to help fight against anti-Black racism and racial profiling. With the broader issue of hate based on race encompassing most of the hate towards both communities, Hindus and Sikhs have an advantage to bring both communities together and have a larger hand in bringing these issues to light.

Can we mobilize for full and comprehensive gender equality?

The core of Sikhism lies in equality over gender, race, caste and creed. Therefore in Sikhism there is no more value given to a male than there is to a female, both are created and will always be treated equally. Similarly, in Hinduism idealizes equality, summed up in the idea that all beings are connected to the Divine, no matter their birth or place in society. In fact, the Vedas never assigned gender roles, even in rites of conduct, which is why many Hindu reform movements like Arya Samaj embraced a Vedic Hinduism that includes female priests. For both Hinduism and Sikhism, the ideals of the religion aren’t always upheld in practice, but Hindus and Sikhs can look to their scriptures as a guide to embrace full equality between the sexes.

What about LGBT rights?

The beauty of both Sikhism and Hinduism are their inherent embrace of the equality of all beings, yet we continue to deal with and combat homophobia within our communities. Working for LGBT rights and embrace of marriage equality is at the heart of the progressive teachings of our faiths, which is why we must remind our own community members that acceptance comes from our religions’ core. Educating our own community is one part of the solution; the other is for Sikh and Hindu progressives to be at the forefront of advocating for LGBT acceptance in the greater public sphere.

How can we use our experiences to lead anti-bullying efforts in the classroom?

Turbaned young Sikhs have faced incredible challenges in the classroom, and Hindu students are incessantly bullied over misperceptions about their religion. We’re natural partners in championing inclusive classrooms and fighting bias-based bullying. Like racial and religious discrimination listed above, both faiths share the same root that causes these incidents of hate. While isolating ourselves we are only duplicating our efforts rather than combining them and making it a stronger push to combat bullying in the classroom.

Now that we’ve sipped our chai and eaten our samosas…

Let’s put aside our grievances, respect our differences and celebrate our shared spiritual progressivism to make the change we wish to see in the world. We take heart in our progressive scriptures and the leaders who championed social justice long before it was called social justice: Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Swami Vivekananda, and Mahatma Gandhi.

It’s time for us to heed their calls of social action and come together in the spirit of the shared vision of both of our faiths: we are all one.

Manpreet Teji is a law student at John Marshall Law School.

Murali Balaji is director of education and curriculum reform at the Hindu American Foundation. A former journalist, he previously taught at Temple University, Lincoln University, and Penn State University, and has been a social justice advocate for nearly two decades.


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