At a Sikh Temple in Queens Even the Air Around the Guru Granth Sahib is Holy

An elderly woman approaches the raised platform in a Gurdwara Sikh Center of New York in Flushing, Queens, where the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, rests comfortably on a small bed. For all Sikhs, this platform is immediately recognizable as the takht, the Punjabi word for throne.

The woman’s feebleness is evident through the cane that supports her every move. When she finally arrives at the takht, she drops a dollar as an offering. Then she drops her cane to floor, takes a step back and falls to her knees. She places her head down and stretches her arms out to the Guru Granth Sahib.

Directly across from her, on the other side of the tahkt, an old man adorned in white garments and a white turban waves a traditional ceremonial whisk known as the Chaur Sahib with the flick of the wrist to cleanse the air surrounding the Guru Granth Sahib.

After a succession of living Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib was appointed as the eleventh and final Guru by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. For Sikhs across the world, Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of teachings compiled by the fifth Gurus and his successors, is seen as the ultimate teacher of Sikhs.

According to Sartaj Alag, a practicing Sikh in Virginia, the ritual of the Chaur Sahib represents a symbolic acceptance of the Guru Granth Sahib as a Guru rather than merely a holy book. During the time of the Sikh gurus, it was custom for someone to wave the Chaur Sahib to protect the Guru from the heat and flies. Not only was this a display of deep respect but an opportunity for the volunteer to be as close to the Guru as possible. This traditional act of reverence for the living guru carried over to the Guru Granth Sahi. In this Gurdwara in Queens, both men and women share this coveted role known to Sikhs as the Sevadar.

Another indication of the divinity of the book is the incense that saturates the air near the tahkt. In Hinduism, the smell of incense is said to be the fragrance of the gods. While there is only one god in Sikhism, the use of incense is common in Gurdwaras across the world. Alag suggests that the use of incense to mitigate flagrant smells was common during the time of Gurus. So like with the chaura, the practice of incense continued when Guru Granth Sahib was recognized as the final guru. In his own religious practice, Alag finds the smell of incense conducive to his meditation and reflection on Holy Scripture.

 

On the right and left corners of the tahkt, bouquets of flowers decorate the holy space of the Guru Granth Sahib. Accorring to Alag the use of flowers in religious display is a tradition carried over from Hinduism with a key difference. In Hinduism flowers are offerings to the gods while in Gurdwaras they are used to create a welcoming environment for both the Guru Granth Sahib and the congregation.

In between delicate bouquets of flowers, nine curved swords, known to Sikhs as kirpans, are carefully laid out. The fierce display of kirpans acts in a symbolic protection of the Guru Granth Sahib. When Sikhism was first founded under Guru Nanak in the 15th century it flourished under the Moghul Emperor Akbar. Although Akbar was Muslim, he was tolerant of other faiths.

Akbar’s successor Jenangir, however, was militantly protective over Islam. Due to the increasing number of Muslim converts, the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev was summoned and executed by Jenagir’s orders. The execution had an immediate influence on Guru Arjun’s successor Guru Harobind, who first conceptualized the idea of the kirpan through the notion of the Saint Sipachi, or “saint solider.” The tenth Guru further enhanced the importance of the kripan when he suggested that the kirpan must be one of five religious artifacts every Sikh must wear.

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Members of the Sikh congregation expain Sikh Tradition to Columbia Students

Ana Singh

After a moment or two, the woman emerges from her deep bow. She picks up her cane and inches to her left where three Sikh men are singing the punjabi hymms of Shabad from the Guru Granth Sahib while playing traditional Indian instruments. Since the first Guru, Guru Nanak, religious musical expression has been an integral role in Sikh worship as a way to praise God. The poetic lyrics, enhanced by the sounds of the musical instruments, can be heard throughout the Gurdwara.

The woman then walks around to the other side of takht. She gives a brief acknowledgement to the sevador before bending slightly into a light bow to the Guru Granth Sahib.