Sikhs observe founder’s birthday

Three-day ritual among holiest times
Post-Gazette, Nov. 23, 2002
By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jotinder Patheja, a physician, had been reciting aloud from the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, for more than an hour, her words nearly drowned out by a traditional Sikh wedding in an adjacent room.

But she continued, taking an early turn yesterday in a three-day ritual at the Tri-State Sikh Cultural Society in Monroeville honoring the founder of the Sikh religion.

Before the readings are over at 10 a.m. tomorrow, more than 30 people, will have recited the messages put forth by Sikh Guru Nanak Dev Ji, born in 1469 to a Hindu family.

In Pittsburgh, and around the globe, in addition to the recitations, the three-day celebration features hymns, a worship service and a langar, a meal that symbolizes unity among all people.

Throughout the world, about 30 million people follow Sikhism — about 14 million of them in the northern state of Punjab in India. There are about 100 Sikh families in Pittsburgh.

Though low-key and pensive, the guru’s birthday observance is one of the holiest of times for Sikhs.

“It’s like our Christmas,” said Charanjit Singh, who makes his home in Oakland and has been living here for 17 years.

For the annual celebration, lights are strung, children are given gifts and it is a time of visiting. Prayers are said in the morning and evening.

The readings and worship take place at the Sikh temple, where entering worshippers must remove their shoes and heads are covered as a sign of respect. Sikh men wear their hair long; cutting it and shaving are taboo.

In a small side room, the holy book sits on a raised platform. In front, money is strewn about, a symbol of an offering to God’s house. The book rests on a brightly colored fabric and flowers perfume the room.

Worshippers sit on the floor as a sign of humility as they listen to the scheduled reader. A back-up reader sits to the right of holy book, ready to step in case something happens to the scheduled reader.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji spoke out against India’s caste system. Once jailed for his beliefs, he preached that all people were worthy of respect, no matter their station in life. He also believed in one God. Because there are so few Sikhs in the area, Singh said, many people don’t understand their religion. And people often confuse Sikhs and Arabs, which led to harassment of Sikhs during the aftermath of Sept. 11.

The day is important, said Singh, because Guru Nanak Dev Ji taught Sikhs what is right and wrong.

“Because of him we give more importance to the soul than to the body. This focuses us on taking care of the soul and remembering God all the time.”

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