“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations” (the Buddha).
Recently when the Quebec Federation of Soccer sought to prevent turbaned Sikhs from playing soccer for safety reasons, there was an uproar from the Sikh community and its supporters. One Canadian Member of Parliament pleaded with the Quebec Federation of Soccer and other soccer organizations to respect the religious rights of the Sikhs affected by the ban and to respect the turban as a religious symbol.
While the QSF decision was rightly questioned, few questioned whether the turban is in fact the religious symbol for Sikhs. Is the turban sacrosanct?
I’m not convinced it is. At best, the turban is a cultural symbol Sikhs have borrowed from Punjabi culture, one with the practical benefit of assisting them in upholding what is a religious practice – the practice of not cutting their hair (‘kesh’).
The Sikh religion does not prescribe any form of head dress (including turbans) for its followers. The Guru Granth Sahib says nothing on this matter.The Sikh tradition holds that the requirement of keeping unshorn hair was ordained by their tenth guru, Gobind Singh, who in 1699, organized the Sikhs into thekhalsa, a community which would adopt the five “K’s.” This crucial event, reenacted every year during the Vaisakhi celebration is, as Jasjit Grewal notes in Sikh History From Persian Sources, an essentially hagiographical account and not a strictly historical one in our understanding of the word.
The turban was not one of the five “K’s.” It was rather an Indic, Islamicate and Punjabi cultural symbol, worn by emperors, princes, gurus, faqeers, sadhus, pirs and the ulema alike. As a cultural symbol, it connoted manly honour, nobility and respect. My guess is that it was adopted and absorbed by the Sikh community as such. By comparison, the “kirpan” (one of the five “K’s”), notes Grewal, was adopted into Sikhism from Punjabi culture, in this case from Punjabi Jatt farmers who carried daggers on guard against would be dacoits.
British colonialism also played a major role in turning the turban into a feature of Sikh identity. Cohn points out that the turban became a part of Sikh identity due to British army recruitment practices. Thanks to the British recruiting the Khalsa Sikhs en masse into the army, the Sikh turban became “standardized” and distinguished from the turbans of other Punjabis. The result was a distinctive Sikh head-dress and sense of cultural self-identity.
The turban was part of this ongoing quest for self-identification amongst Sikhs from the nineteenth century onwards, including the publication of Sikh revivalist literature, the adoption of the Gurmukhi script for Punjabi by Sikhs and Sikh control of thir own religious institutions.
Finally, in 1950, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), legislated in the Sikh code of conduct that a Sikh must bear “kesh” or unshorn hair. Even the SGPC though did not mandate the use of the turban to keep the “kesh” in place.
So is the Sikh turban a religious symbol and do questions concerning the turban pertain to religious rights and freedoms? The above I hope starts a dialogue on this question rather than have us believe something is sacred just because we’re told so.
J.S. Grewal, Sikh History from Persian Sources: Translations of Major Texts (ed. J.S. Grewal and Irfan Habib), Tulika, University of Michigan: 2008.
Bernard S. Cohn. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton University Press, 1996).