Holiest Sikh document has new mode of transportation

Fremont temple buys van that will carry Guru Granth Sahib scriptures to the homes of worshippers

The Sikhs in Fremont have a new van.

It’s a gleaming white Ford that seats 12. But this is no ordinary $33,000 vehicle. It transports the community’s holiest document, the Guru Granth Sahib, from the majestic onion-domed temple at the foot of the East Bay hills to people’s homes for special occasions.

Handymen recently installed a metal altar inside the van. It has a special parking spot. And on Tuesday, a Santa Clara sign maker affixed the outside of the van with yellow and blue lettering so it is now ready for use.

All the fuss is meant to ensure that passengers feel safer traveling with their ancient scriptures propped up on white pillows and securely tied down, instead of clutched on their laps, as has been the practice.

The Guru Granth Sahib is considered the “supreme spiritual authority” of the Sikh faith. So, making sure it gets to where it needs to go — without being dropped — is an important task.

“It’s very exciting,” said Sukhdev Bainiwal, 39, of San Jose, a software engineer and a lay leader at the Fremont Sikh temple. “This is just giving the Guru Granth Sahib more respect.”

The Sikhs aren’t the only religious community to treat holy writings with respect. If the Jewish Torah is dropped, it’s a custom to fast for 40 days. Jewish prayer books and the Muslim Quran are placed above all other books in a pile and even kissed if they touch the ground. Catholics pay special respect to the Book of the Gospels, which is used for readings during Mass.

The Sikhs are unusual though, in that they transport the Guru Granth Sahib with the utmost of care. Even a Torah, which is often decorated in velvet and silver, can be wrapped in a prayer shawl and put in the trunk of a car for traveling.

“Every religion has chosen the everyday things of life and consecrated them,” said Fred Parrella, a religious studies teacher at Santa Clara University. “It’s a universal need for us to thematize and give expression to the infinite that we sense within us and outside of us. It’s a way to transcend the normal day-to-day in our quest for holiness.”

Devout Sikhs consider the writings to be a “living guru.” In fact, Sikhs believe it’s disrespectful to even call the Guru Granth Sahib a book, even though the 1,430 pages are bound like one. It is always called by its full, proper name.

The Fremont temple is home to about 15 Guru Granth Sahibs, which rest on wood-frame beds in a second-story, quiet room apart from the main section of the temple. Special handkerchiefs called rumallahs cover them. White canopies drape from the ceiling. It’s as if they are sleeping until they are called upon to be read.

The Guru Granth Sahib is a collection of devotional hymns and poetry, explaining a moral code of how to live. Sikhism is a faith born more than 500 years ago in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Sikhs believe in one God and the teachings of 10 gurus. The equality of all humankind is stressed. Both men and women are forbidden from cutting their hair, so men often tie up theirs underneath colorful turbans.

There are about 23 million Sikhs worldwide, with about 50,000 in the Bay Area.

Typically, the Guru Granth Sahib stays at the temple, or gurdwara, which means “house of the guru” in Punjabi. But they are frequently invited to the homes of Sikhs who want to recite from them on special occasions.

The van is not a religious requirement. At the San Jose Sikh temple, for example, passengers hold the Guru Granth Sahibs tightly in their arms when they travel. In India, most of the big temples have such vehicles. But in smaller, rural villages, Sikhs carry the Guru Granth Sahib atop their heads.

In Fremont, new temple leadership thought it was important to purchase a special mode of transportation. As is customary, a team of five Sikhs, either men or women, will accompany it on its travels, as five is a special number in Sikhism, representing the five pillars of the faith..

Ranjit Singh Kahlon, 44, a Subway restaurant owner in Fremont, knows what it takes to transport the Guru Granth Sahib. About 15 years ago, he was asked to fly with the Guru Granth Sahib back from India and take it to San Jose.

“It’s such a spiritual, holy item, you want to make sure you’re on your best behavior,” he said, “even to make sure you’re breathing right.”

Although it was an honor, it also made him very nervous. He didn’t want to drop it. He barely ate. He tried not to fall asleep. When nature called, he put it in the overhead compartment, which he had asked a flight attendant to clear of anything else.

So, a few years ago, when relatives held a special function, his family selected Singh to transport the Guru Granth Sahib from the temple to their home. He clutched it in the car the entire way.

“Holding it in your lap isn’t the best place for it,” he said. “The car goes through wiggles, stop signs. Then you worry about coughing, or your body touching it, or your hands flying free.”

The new van, Singh said, will alleviate much of the worry. “This is the greatest idea.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Contra Costa Times, USA
June 18, 2006
Lisa Fernandez, Knight Ridder

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