Thursday, April 30, 2009

Finding Sikhism on St. Patrick’s day

Dinesh Singh lived in India as a Hindu for 22 years before embracing Sikhism in Ireland.(Photo: Mirjam Donath)

By Maria Tirmizi
DUBLIN- Dinesh Singh listened to the drumbeat and soaked in the energy. He then steadied his wooden stick, slapped his thigh and struck at his opponent. Their sticks clacked. He stepped back, twirled his wooden weapon with one hand and hit again with sudden speed, left, right and center. Singh, 27, wearing a long white tunic and a saffron turban, was performing the gatka, an old battle-tested ritual that originated in India, at a temple in the heart of this capital city of Ireland.

Ireland’s history is almost synonymous with Catholicism, but for Singh, this is the land where he first discovered Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred Sikh scripture, on the very day the Irish celebrate for the advent of Christianity in Ireland.

Singh, a former Hindu who lived in India most of his life, embraced Sikhism in Ireland thanks to St. Patrick’s Day.

Like many South Asians looking towards the West for better opportunities, Singh, then known as Dinesh Kumar, arrived in Dublin five years ago from a small city in Haryana, India. He started working as a deputy manager at a supermarket. Two years later, a friend from India introduced him to the Sikh community at Gurudwara Guru Nanak Darbar, a temple in Sandymount, Dublin. The friend was a non-Sikh, but in awe of the gatka, and the shabads– hymns recited by the Sikhs. He often visited their temple to watch and participate. Kumar too developed an interest in the rituals and started accompanying his friend regularly. The temple also gave Kumar an opportunity to play a South Asian musical instrument he was good at, the tabla, which consists of a pair of small drums.

On 17th March, 2007, the Sikh Community of Dublin performed for the first time in St. Patrick’s Day parade. Kumar had been practicing the gatka with the Sikhs for a while now, so he also took part. He even grew a small beard for the role.

When the performance was over, he shaved his beard off. But this caused him a great deal of uneasiness.

“I felt really ashamed that I was just showing myself to be a Sikh for performing in the parade,” he said. “I felt like I was lying to myself.”

A couple of months later, there was a multicultural festival in Dunleary. The Sikh community performed again and so did Kumar. But this time when he kept a beard, he pondered deeply over its significance in Sikhism.

“The beard grows and you cut it and again it grows,” he thought. “So if it is going to grow, why cut it. Let it grow.”

This was his moment of epiphany. He converted to Sikhism, changed his last name to Singh and never shaved again.

Singh has been a Sikh for two years now. He visits the Sandymount temple twice a week, helps prepare food in its spacious kitchen and distributes it as a langar in a religious practice that promotes equality and hospitality.

“Now I feel like I have an aim in life,” he said. “I have to follow my gurus (spiritual guides). Following them gives me happiness. And when I do keertan (recitation of hymns), I get a feeling like I’m flying somewhere.”

He still practices the martial art, or gatka, that inspired him to embrace Sikhism. What he had demonstrated a short while ago, he explained, was a very small version of the real performance that took place on St. Patrick’s Day. Not only did the gatka entertain the crowd, accompanied by jubilant drumbeats, but also served as a sacred reenactment of the battles fought by the Sikhs in 17th century India.

Singh went back to India in July 2008 to meet his family after three and a half years. Not knowing that he had converted, they were shocked to see him in a turban and a beard.
He recalled their reaction and smiled. “I have the best parents in the world. They were taken aback, but they soon understood that this was what I wanted.”

His sister, however, said that she wouldn’t see his face again if he didn’t shave.

“I said ‘okay, whatever,’” he laughed. “After just one hour, she was okay. She’s my sister after all.”

The only aspect of his previous life stopping him from fully assimilating is his name, ‘Dinesh,’ which means ‘Lord of the Day’ in Hindu mythology. He was stopped twice by immigration officers in India for having a beard and turban, but a Hindu name. Upon returning to Ireland, he asked his Sikh friends to suggest a new first name. For now, he is leaning towards ‘Jarnail,’ the Punjabi translation for ‘General.’

For Singh, Ireland will always hold a special significance. This is where he found his true calling.
“I have sangat (company) here,” he said. “I learnt keertan here. I prefer to live here and serve my guru my whole life.”

Laughing at the wild prospect of finding Sikhism in Ireland through St. Patrick’s Day, he said, “It’s just destiny. I had to be a Sikh. It doesn’t matter if I spent 22 years in India being Hindu. I am a Sikh now. That’s destiny.”