Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I Wear a Kara

IMG_1605The Kara is a steel bracelet worn by warriors. I’ve worn mine non-stop for over 11 years.

I am deeply saddened by the tragedy at the Sikh Gurdwara outside of Milwaukee. I am also very angry. I’m trying to reconcile the two. My wife became an honorary Sikh in the 80s, but that is her story to tell when she is ready.

Eleven years ago my marriage was on the rocks. I’m not going to go into the details of how I almost derailed it, but I made an important decision: it was a marriage worth fighting for. In changing my attitude and strengthening myself to not give up, I started a long journey to repair the damage I had done. This was the longer difficult path, the shorter easier path would have been to dissolve the marriage. It has taken years to turn around.

After my struggles with our marriage, my wife gave me a gift: a Kara. It is a steel bracelet worn by warriors and one of the five items all Sikhs of faith must bear. In fighting for my own marriage, in the struggle and fight against myself and my own issues, she felt I deserved it. I have worn it every day since. It has replaced my wedding band as a constant reminder of my dedication, struggles and strength I put forth in my marriage. It is a stronger symbol of love than any gold band could give; it is a stronger piece of metal, harder to break.

My brother-in-law married in Chicago, 2001. Being the only member of our extended Indian family that knew how to tie a turban, I tied one onto my brother for his wedding. While my brother celebrated his honeymoon in India, September 11th happened: he shaved his beard.

Many different people across the world wear turbans: Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims; Indians, Middle-Easterners, Far Easterners, Africans. They’re as ubiquitous as hats. Sikhs have rules there religion dictates; one is a man or woman does not cut their hair. This usually means you’ll see a beard and they’ll wrap their hair in a turban. Some Americans see turban and beard and immediately become fearful or hateful.

Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, Sikhs across America were targeted. People saw turban, beard and brown skin and decided they were guilty of something – usually focusing their hatred. A turban in the east is the same tie-wearing in the west. Just because someone wears one does not make him anything. Having a beard does not make you a killer. The 9/11 attackers were not wearing uncut bears and a turban; they were wearing business casual. In today’s America most religious/hate crimes are committed by white men, but it’s harder for us see and blame white men as “the other”.

I really wanted my brother to keep his beard, but I understood why he didn’t. People were attacking Sikhs. They were attacking men in turbans, men with beards. He’s Hindu and wanted to feel safe.

While visiting Gwalior, India, in 2002; we explained Sikh attacks in America to the Rajasthani hotel staff. They were dumbfounded: “they’re not even the same kind of turban,” they exclaimed. We tried to convey that people in the west can’t tell the difference. This was beyond their understanding; just like here in the west someone with a beard or turban is beyond the understanding of who they are, who they might be. We all have our blind spots of ignorance.

I’m not saying I know the motivations of the shooter in suburban Milwaukee on Sunday; I don’t want to. My heart goes out to my fellow Americans slain or wounded from this hate crime. I’ve witnessed many hate-crimes in my lifetime: cross-burnings in my hometown of Dubuque, IA in 1991; anti-Sikh from 9/11 to today; ongoing anti-Muslim attacks and temple burnings and a daily onslaught of speech against those of any faith.

Are we really that hateful?

My answer is no, we are not. We are not defined as a people from the actions of a few. Hate exists. Ignorance spewed. There are uncountable millions in this land who do not feel this way. We stand with you, all of you. Sat Sri Akaal my brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, you are one of us: American. An attack on you is an attack on America and American beliefs: the freedom to peaceably celebrate our own faiths.

The essence of Sikh teaching is summed up by Guru Nanak Dev in these words: "Realization of Truth is higher than all else. Higher still is truthful living".[8] Sikh teaching emphasizes the principle of equality of all humans and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, and gender. – Source Wikipedia

I have a special place in my heart for Sikhs: they have suffered so much. In 1984 many were massacred in India. After that: numbers of Sikhs came to America to escape religious persecution in their homeland (a truly American story).

They are a proud and strong people, standing up for freedom and fighting oppression. Sikhs teach that the true battles are within: our hearts, spirit and soul.

This was my battle I forged within myself to save my marriage. I had to change myself from the inside.

I have always had a strong draw to the warrior path. The struggles I believe in fighting are injustice in the world. I fight within myself to change who I am for the better. I fight for the little guy at work, one whose voice can’t be heard. I fight against those who speak and breed hatred.

It’s no surprise my Met Tet is Ogou, the warrior in Vodou.

During this time I want to do something. I need to do something. Hate crimes are wrong. We must stand up against them. We must stand in solidarity. I’m not sure exactly what that is? Shall I wear a headscarf (from my religion) in show of support? Shall I wear one of my many turbans from my own collection? (All Rajasthani style.) I feel I need to do something to stand with my fellow Americans to show support, that not all people are this ignorant, that we support them in this difficult time.

I hope my wearing of the Kara is not offensive to people. I know some are offended by the wearing of religious symbols of one’s faith by others. Mine is worn with an attempt of respect of my Sikh brothers and sisters, but more to a symbol to myself of my own struggles. I am not Sikh, but I respect them deeply.


  1. When I was twelve, I was with my father at a banquet dinner for Black Horse, his troop while stationed in Vietnam, General Patton IV gave a speech that a warrior's battle with himself is never finished. While he may no longer fight an outwardly visible battle, it goes on eternal within his heart as he fights to keep his feet on a path of honor, strength, and constant progression to being the best he can be.

    That has stuck with me ever since.

    My 7 y/o daughter heard about the Sikh Temple on the news, and after I explained more of what had happened, she demanded I take her to the library so she could study about the faith. After grasping what she could and asking questions about the rest, we came home and she spent a good amount of time by her bedroom altar praying. She said she didn't want to pray until she had a better idea of how to pray for those who had been killed, as she was pretty sure they would not want her praying to Athena for them. She came out, a gentle smile graced her face and she sat down beside me, head resting on my shoulder. "Mommy, will people ever stop hating what makes others different instead of learning from them? It's really stupid to hate someone because they worship differently. Why can't we all just be friends, or at least ignore what we don't like? Bullies suck."

    I cried and laughed as I held her and said "That they do, Rowan. All we can do is set a good example and reach out to those who need a friendly smile or an ounce of love and compassion. One person, one act of kindness, can change a life or even the world."

  2. Miya,

    Thanks for that. Your daughter summed things up better than I could. I hope we can learn to respect and love all, no matter what their religion, or lack thereof; no matter what their ethnicity.

    I missed the mark a bit on this one. I hope to solidify that in my next, as well as explain how I didn't do justice in this post.

  3. I read this a day after the news media released the Milwaukee police car camera footage of the shooter moments after he exited the temple, stepped out of frame as he was chased, and then heard the pops of gunshot as he took his own life. It was on my local news. I was given no warning, no "viewers may want to guard against young children seeing or hearing the following" sort of thing said by the anchorpeople. You can hear on the 911 call the confusion of cries and one male voice desperate to stay calm on the line briefly crackling in and out of earshot.

    I don't think I needed to see/hear that.

    I had been switching through channels, about to relax, my mind comfortably far away from thoughts of bloodshed, but every time there is a shooting, no matter who is doing the violence, or where it is taking place, in a war or at a shopping mall, I remember the little wars I survived that I was bystander to and the flashbacks come roaring back.

    You don't have to be a warrior to know what it is to fight for love or for one's sanity. Some of us do battle everyday and night with the demons that rock us back and forth from past to present. It is very good to have something tangible, like silver (a metal = medal) to wear to remind you that you've made it. I sometimes think that is why we often award our warriors with medals -- not to celebrate the "glories" of killing people, but to give a heavy metal, this tangible piece that could-be-armor-but-now-used-as-medal to remind the warrior his job is done, that battle is over with, the healing can begin now.

    I think about my own PSTD and about the survivors that were in that temple, what they will go through and face, not just today, but in the years to come. My trauma didn't come until half a decade later! I thought I had nothing to worry. "Oh, I'm fine," I'd say and push it all aside, ignore the shivers, the smells, the sounds that still echo in the mind... They eventually fade, but then footage replays, glaring back from a television screen, or a video game, the experience comes back a little too much, and I have to sit things out. I worry about the Sikh that survived. They lived in an area I used to frequent on my way to work many years ago. I used to take a bus out there every week! Seeing that temple was a part of home.

    When that shooting happened, even though I am not Sikh myself, it was like an assault on me, on my home turf, and just as I was trying to let go of other shootings in the news (let alone the constant news of war we get in the news), I crumbled. I know there are people out there who know how it feels to feel like that, but as soon as I felt stronger, my heart aches to help, to get up and fight the sadness. It's a whole different battle.

    Your words have profoundly touched my heart, Urban. I may have gotten off the subject. Just spent too long writing. Let me know if I went too far. I just had to write down what I felt and that it, in some way, means something to you, too. Thank you.