Sikhism Thrives in the City of Middleton

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger
From top to bottom: Paramjit Singh reads from the Guru Granth. Members of the local Sikh community gathered for the festival of Vaisakhi in the spring of 2016. Ceremonially washing the flagpole at the Middleton gurudwara.

Every Sunday morning, a stream of local Sikhs flows into the gurudwara on Century Avenue.

Out of the damp spring air they enter a tall, spacious building filled with the warm aromas of sweet and savory foods and spiced tea. The melodic songs that are a central part of their worship greet their ears. Their eyes are met by generations of people - some who came to Wisconsin from India, some who were born here - who all sit on the floor, regardless of economic or social rank, as equals, to worship a universal and unifying God.

It is a crossroads of poetry, culture and faith.

Upstairs, Paramjit Singh, the temple’s priest, sits on an altar behind the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. The hymns and poems within it, which are meant to be sung - by themselves or accompanied by the rhythmic thumping of drums and the bellowing of a harmonium – fill an upstairs sanctuary decorated by a dazzling array of colors.

On the gurudwara’s walls, television monitors show the scripture’s text, side by side in Punjabi and in English. Many of the men wear colorful “dastaar” turbans, and the women are adorned with bright “chunni,” both in order to cover their heads while in God’s temple.

It is warm and welcoming, says Balwinder “Bob” Singh Seerha, because that is Sikhism’s central message.

“It’s a part of the religion. It’s not for Sikhs only,” he says. “It’s for all humanity.”

Balwinder has called Middleton home for more than three decades now. He owns and runs a machine shop, lives a block away from the temple, and he says he has never, in 31 years here, experienced discrimination or ill treatment from the local community, he says.

“Never, ever, never, as long as I have lived here,” he reiterates. “Everyone has been very supportive.”

“I love it here,” he continues. “My kids were born here and went to school here. My oldest is at Harvard, my second is in high school, and my third is in third grade.”

While it has 170 members today, the Middleton gurudwara started in a small, single-story house before the current temple was constructed in 2008.

Jovial and gregarious, Balwinder says a small but growing Indian community helps keep the local religious hub vibrant.

“Many people have their own businesses – they own gas stations, hotels, there are six or seven restaurants now,” he says.

Many of them converge on Century Avenue each week to meet, worship and dine as equals. Members of the gurudwara, who take turns providing and preparing the scrumptious meals, prepare the food using their own ingredients. The meal – which includes syrup-drenched sweets, fried spinach that is closer to delectable than that vegetable has any business being, and more – is an important element of worship. It is a reminder that no matter how high we’ve flown or how low we’ve fallen, we are all the same human beings, with the same need for companionship and nourishment of both the worldly and spiritual variety.

“There is food after the congregation,” Balwinder explains. “We just roll out the carpeting and people sit on the floor. Sitting on the floor is for equality, if you are a millionaire or a worker.”

Sitting in the building’s lower level, sipping tea with sweet milk and snacking on cakes made from minced carrots, Paramjit - his jet black beard accented by thick streaks of gray, his “kara” bracelets clinking whenever he moves his arms - explains that his training as a priest was in large part an education in classical music.

A native of Punjab, India, which is Sikhism’s birthplace, Paramjit came to Middleton, by way of Canada, to serve as the local temple’s priest a year ago.

“I like it here,” he says. “I like it so much. Bob and another board member invited me, and they, and everyone, have been very nice.”

Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, who was born in the year 1469. Nanak, who traveled the countryside singing his message, attempted to heal wounds between India’s divided Muslim and Hindu elements. Nanak was followed by nine more gurus, each who added to the holy scripture. The last, Guru Gobind Singh, passed his authority to the Guru Granth Sahib, a holy book that, through its 1,430 pages, attempts to lay out universal truths about the nature of God and existence.

While its teachings are diverse and varied, it’s central message is that God, which it describes beautifully as “the origin of all souls” is all encompassing. The Sikh concept of God is without gender or form, and transcends social, economic, theological and physical constraints.

 “Every day, we take guidance from this, the Guru Granth Sahib,” Balwinder says. “When we read this, it gives us every answer.”

What is says, like any sacred scripture, is equally simple and complex, fundamental and arcane, lucid and mysterious. But the primary theme, Paramjit says while gesturing upward, is that there is one God.

It is a deity who provides inspiration and guidance, on Sundays, at weddings, and even at funerals.

“I read it to them, and the grubani [the writings of the Sikh gurus, who were “close to God”] give them peace inside,” he continues. “We all sing the grubani.”

The writings cover a wide range of topics fundamental to the human condition.

“Every morning, at the end of the prayer, we end by saying ‘all of humanity is goodness,’” says Balwinder.

“We wish,” Paramjit agrees, “for the welfare of all humanity.”

“We love every religion,” Paramjit continues. “Everyone is welcome here. Any religion, any color, anyone can come here.”

In fact, Sikh tradition actually requires followers to take in those in need of shelter or protection.

In addition, most Sikhs, regardless of caste of class, share the surname “Singh,” which means “lion” and symbolizes their equality whether they are related by blood or not.

“This religion is not forced on anybody,” says Balwinder. “It cannot come to you by force; it must come from inside you.”

The usual conversion process for people not raised within the Sikh tradition is simple, he adds: “You listen, and if you like it you learn more.”

One of the dominant themes of Sikhism is self-control. “One who can control the self,” the saying goes, “can control the whole world.”

But, while there is certainly temporal violence in Sikhism’s history – the faith contains many stories of martyrs who were put to death for various reasons, and Sikhs have a long military history – the scripture is relatively light on fire and brimstone.

“Heaven and hell, we do not know much about,” says Balwinder. “But the afterlife we do. What I understand is that, after all these lives, God gave you human life, with a mind to think for yourself what is good and what is bad. The afterlife is the time you get out of the circle of life.”

Sikhism’s 10 gurus are not actual deities, followers are quick to point out.

“They came as messengers of God,” Balwinder says. “They came to take you to God.”

In that way, Sikhism is more of a “path” than a structural religion, they say.

“I can pray myself,” says Balwinder. “[Paramjit] is a teacher. He teaches us to follow the path. He sings hymns, and he teaches whoever is interested to sing hymns.”

People are not necessarily saved or not saved, in God’s grace or not in it. Rather, they are all at different points along their respective paths.

“As our gurus explain, God is one,” Balwinder says. “We are all his kids.”

“Money, power, these are things people want to keep,” he adds with a shrug. “But they are things for this world.”

Some of Sikhism’s symbolism reflects these beliefs. The Golden Temple in India features four prominent doorways to reinforce the fact that members of all four social castes are equally welcome. Founded in the 15th century, Sikhism is one of the younger world religions, which allows it to, in some ways, be more progressive than those founded thousands of years before it.

“Our first guru defended women,” Balwinder says. “People said they were not equal, but he said of women, ‘this is where you come from.’”

In a postmodern America, where people increasingly pick and choose their own spiritual paths and more people than ever are open to the idea that many different roads lead to God, Sikhism’s openness seems like a perfect fit. That’s why it was so shocking when, on August 5, 2012, a white supremacist and United States Army veteran named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and murdered six innocent people in cold blood.

Following the tragedy, people from all over southern Wisconsin held candlelight vigils to honor the victims. One such vigil, held at the Middleton gurudwara, brought local people from all walks of life, including city leaders and neighbors from a variety of faith traditions, to the temple to show their solidarity.

“My feeling,” reflects Balwinder thoughtfully, “is that even tragedy happens for a reason. Before that, not many people knew about Sikhism [in the United States]. When that happened, it was on CNN. Many people learned about us.”

“My boy was in high school,” he adds. “And all of his friends came. Even some of their parents came.”

“When people came, they got to know more about their community,” he continues.

It’s a community that is an increasingly important part of the fabric of the Good Neighbor City.

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