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Sikh Web: A lifeline for the faith in a non-Indian world

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Sikhs often congregate for dawn prayer services like this one in New Mexico. But, with the help of his blog, Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa has created a virtual sangat (congregation) for his daily morning prayers. (Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa)

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Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa created and now works for Sikhnet.com with Executive Director, Guruka Singh (Courtesy of Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa)

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Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa, also known as Mr. Sikhnet, shares his life and his faith with other Sikhs online. (Courtesy of Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa)

Every morning, Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa wakes up at 4 a.m., coats his body with almond oil, takes a cold shower and spends the next two hours meditating on God. In the quiet New Mexico dawn, he goes through a yoga routine and recites two Sikh prayers--the Japji Sahib and the Jaap Sahib.

This was Khalsa’s New Year's resolution--to get up early and practice his “Sadhana,” or daily discipline, as the Sikh gurus did hundreds of years ago. Seated alone on his living room floor, Khalsa leads his mind through each verse, singing to himself.

But he's not alone. Khalsa, 31, wrote about what he planned to do on his Internet blog, mrsikhnet.com, and now he completes his morning Sadhana together with at least 32 other Sikhs from around the world. Khalsa even created an online pledgebank to encourage others to sign up and participate in the 40-day effort.

Soon he was getting comments from Sikhs in the Middle East, India and Bangkok asking for advice on everything from which alarm clock works best to why certain prayers are said in the morning.

“We all are human and have our challenges,” Khalsa said, referring to the difficulties in observing his Sadhana commitment. “By sharing our struggles and successes and things that are happening in our lives, people don’t feel as bad about approaching those challenges.”

Like Khalsa, many of the 23 million Sikhs scattered about the globe use the Internet to communicate with one another. The Web has become a lifeline for the Sikh faith and its youth, helping Sikhs everywhere adapt their ancestors’ religion to new, non-Indian worlds.

But while much is gained from the Internet, some Sikhs fear a great deal may also be lost. They worry that the online community will allow Sikhs to disengage from real people, from the Sikh “sangat” (congregation) that traditionally prays and eats together in Sikh temples, known as “gurudwaras,” across the world.

The Internet creates only a virtual community, where everyone remains a stranger. “A sangat of strangers is really no sangat at all,” said Sikh scholar Dr. I.J. Singh.

Still, the trend continues. Sikh Web offerings run the gamut from virtual prayer sites to those offering matrimonial services. Keertan.org organizes prayer meetings and provides audio and text of hymns in Punjabi, the language of Sikhism. Punjabonline.com has discussion forums where users can share their ideas about politics, religion or the latest bhangra dance trends. Students can even get an honors degree in Sikh music online at Rajacademy.com.

The virtual king of these sites is Sikhnet, which has grown from a small bulletin board 11 years ago to a comprehensive resource, now averaging from 10,000 to 16,000 visitors a day, according to Khalsa, the site’s founder. It provides news, translations of hymns and scriptures, Sikh coloring books and copies of prayer books that are downloadable to PDAs. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people start their day by reading the site’s daily quote from the Sikh scriptures, sent straight from the Golden Temple in India. Although Sikhnet has been up for many years, it’s only now that people have become more comfortable using the Internet that it is making an impact, Khalsa says.

Some sites, like the newly launched Sikhchic.com, emphasize Sikh arts and culture. Sikhchic includes Sikh cartoons, photos and fashion and lists Sikh art exhibits around the world. But its real value is that it speaks to Sikhs who haven’t grown up in India, says founder T. Sher Singh, 57, of Toronto. Most members of the Web site’s international staff have never met each other, Singh says, but they share the challenge of relating Sikhism to their non-Indian surroundings.

“We need to re-think the Sikh idea in the North American idiom, in our language, in our way of articulating our thoughts,” he said, adding that the Internet is the perfect space for doing that.

  1. J. Singh, the author of many books and a frequent guest speaker on Sikhism, explains why Western-born Sikhs have been driven into the virtual world to find their religion.

“The gurudwaras,” he explained, “are dysfunctional for our young people because they’ve been founded to bring in our sights and sounds and smells from home--from Punjab.” What happens in gurudwara services is rarely explained to American-born Sikhs, who often don’t understand the Punjabi language. Without understanding, they find it difficult to connect to the faith, Singh said.

On the Internet, though, youngsters can ask questions and find answers for themselves. Tech-savvy kids, accustomed to living and baring their lives online, are using Internet forums and discussion boards for conversations about what it means to be Sikh.

Some of the most popular features on Sikhnet are videos demonstrating how to tie a turban, Sikhs’ religious headdress. In nine minutes, for example, Angad Singh, a business student in Singapore, can teach his peers in Chile how to stretch, fold and tie a neat turban. When he offered to teach his local friends the same thing in person, “not too many people were willing to come forward and ask for help,” Singh said. The Internet, on the other hand, invites young men to learn without having to admit their ignorance.

At the same time, the older generation is using the Internet not only to explain the faith to their children, but also to keep in touch with it themselves. For instance, I.J. Singh, now in his 60s, uses online historical databases for his research. He now writes columns and essays for online audiences, and often fields nearly 200 e-mail messages a day requesting insight on Sikh matters.

The relatively small size and scattered nature of the Sikh diaspora, Sher Singh says, makes it uniquely suited to the Internet. Sikhs have been dispersed around the globe for generations, many traveling to faraway locales as part of Britain’s imperial expeditions. Today, most Sikhs have local roots wherever they live, but also have some connection to their faith.

“There’s a desperate need for us to have a commonality, otherwise we’ll end up with different communities around the world,” Sher Singh said.

This common connection across national borders has proven vital for Sikhs since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Because of their turbans, Sikhs everywhere began to be harassed and assaulted hours after the attacks. Amardeep Singh Bhalla, a New York-based civil rights attorney, immediately contacted his friends to organize a Sikh response. One of their first projects was an online incident log where Sikhs could report harassment and threats. By the end of day on Sept. 11, 2001, the Web site had logged 22 incidents--reported from Milan, Italy, to St. Louis.

Bhalla’s group used the information from the log to lobby city, state and federal legislatures for hate crimes legislation. Today, the log is still cited in legal battles about religious rights in the United States and abroad.

But while Internet keeps Sikhs together, it can also keep them isolated from society, I.J. Singh said. When Singh first arrived in the United States in the 1960s, he spent Sunday afternoons lounging around a McDonald’s near the local church. He knew once the service was over, people were sure to come and talk to him out of curiosity. Explaining his faith to others forced him to learn about it himself. Now, he says, the Internet allows Sikhs “a very secluded kind of existence.”

For Khalsa, forging relationships and teaching others about Sikhism through the Internet is something of a calling. His blog, he said, “has been a means for inspiring and educating people from a different perspective than they would normally have.” In his own Sadhana, his online sangat is a valuable source of inspiration. Despite his solitary prayer service every morning, Khalsa’s motivation is anything but secluded. “This is about giving an opportunity to those who can’t otherwise have it,” he said, the opportunity to cross boundaries and connect with each other’s spirituality.

E-mail: psg2107@columbia.edu