August 9th, 2018
I sat in the temple. I like sitting in the temple. I don’t know why. It just feels right.
The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin is in Oak Creek, just a couple miles from our house. Every couple weeks I go there just to sit on the floor in their sanctuary. They don’t have hardly any chairs, so almost everybody sits on the floor. Maybe I pray, or maybe I meditate, or maybe I just slump back against the wall and try to rest. When I am overwhelmed by life I go there. I’ve been going to the temple for years. I am that stray white guy who shows up every now and then.
The Sikhs are both very hospitable and very clannish. The Sikh religion claims to be universal, but it is also intensely tribal. Usually, everyone in the temple is from the Punjab, except for me. I don’t mind. Neither do they.
I don’t understand much about the Sikh religion. I don’t need to. I do know some of the basics. Years ago, I cornered a Sikh and asked him for the abbreviated version of their practice. He told me this about their beliefs and customs:
- “God is all-powerful and He is good.”
- “We always share our food.”
- “Everybody should have a job.”
These three ideas permeate the practice of the Sikh religion. The Sikhs are monotheistic. Although they are almost exclusively from India, they do not share the polytheistic views of the Hindus.
They do share their food. An essential part of every Sikh temple is a kitchen. The temple always smells like an Indian restaurant. Going to the temple is like going to Grandma’s house: you will not leave without eating something. Part of the ritual upon entering the sanctuary is to take some prashad, which is kind of like Punjabi cookie dough. Prashad consists of flour, butter, and sugar. It is sweet and very oily. A person coming to the temple is expected to eat it. Often I fail to take any of the prashad out of the bowl near the altar. An older priest, Gur Tan Singh, without fail, will scoop up some of the dough and bring it to me. Also, the Sikhs always have curry and rice simmering in the kitchen. They are adamant that a visitor, like me, go into the kitchen and eat some of it. They usually have tea and milk available too. A visitor will share a meal. That’s all there is to it.
I heard that the original Sikh guru, in his travels through India, observed the practices of many other faiths. He saw numerous wandering mendicants, holy men and women who begged for their daily meals. The guru didn’t like that. He thought that people should work for their food. So, the Sikhs that I have met all have an almost Puritan sort of work ethic. Everybody hustles. The model for the Sikhs is the householder who works hard, raises a family, and supports his or her community. Everybody has a job.
The temple is a sacred space. It has that feel. The altar is decorated with colorful cloth coverings and a canopy. The holy book of the Sikhs sits on the altar. The sanctuary is quiet and welcoming. The priests greet me when I come, but they don’t evangelize. They are like the Jews in that way. It’s not like when I went to Elmbrook once and the Baptists there couldn’t wait to get me on their mailing list. The Sikhs never turn anyone away, but they respect the privacy of a visitor. They will urge a person to eat, but not to convert.
I generally do not stay very long at the temple. I pray and sit and think. Then I go.
I went out to the foyer when I was done sitting. I was putting on my shoes when a young priest spoke to me. He was tall and dark, with deep, penetrating eyes. He asked quietly,
“Are you doing well?”
In a burst of honesty, I replied, “No.”
The priest looked confused for a moment and asked, “No?”
“Is something the matter?”
“Somebody I love is in jail.”
“Oh”, he replied.
“She tried to kill herself last week.”
The priest nodded. Then he said,
“Do not worry. We will pray for her.”
“Okay”, and I shrugged.
He said firmly, “We will pray. It will be okay. It is not to worry.”
I asked his name.
“It is Rajinder…Singh”. (Among the Sikhs almost everyone is named “Singh”).
We shook hands.
I left the temple believing him. It will be okay.