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Conflict over seating arrangements

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Sikh dispute concerning furniture:

A serious dispute broke out among Sikhs in Canada in the late 1990s. This has been described in the media as a conflict between fundamentalists and moderates - terms that the media appears to have adapted from Christian terminology. Sikhs do not use these terms. For example, conservative Sikhs recognize:

bulletSikhs: those who accept and follow all Sikh beliefs and practices, and   
bulletNon-practicing Sikhs: those who follow only some Sikh beliefs and practices. For example, "third and fourth generation Sikhs in England and Canada are more likely to be into drinking beer, smoking, cutting their hair, and living a non-Sikh way of life than being a practicing Sikh." 1

Many persons considered by observant Sikhs as "non-practicing" believe that they have full status as Sikhs even though they have deviated from some of their faith's traditional practices. We will use the terms "conservative" and "liberal" in this essay to describe the two divisions within the Sikh faith group.

For 500 years, Sikhs had always sat on the floor, while eating after religious services. This practice emphasizes the teachings of the Guru that every person is of equal value. The Sikh religion strongly rejects elitism. A few decades ago, some Sikh Temples in Canada deviated from this practice, and introduced tables and chairs. The tables and chairs are made identical in order to preserve the concept of equality. Still, the practice of eating at tables is considered elitism in India, and by many conservative Sikhs.

In 1996, some Sikhs began calling for the removal of the tables and chairs, and a return to floor sitting during meals. Some claim that the dispute over the furniture is largely symbolic, and that the real reason for the dispute is that many Sikhs are weakening their faith by accommodating to modern practices. A riot broke out at the temple on 1997-JAN-11. Several Sikhs were charged with various crimes, from mischief to attempted murder. Many were injured, but none died.

The Jathedar of the Akal Takhat Sahib is the individual who was elected to guide the modern affairs of the collective world-wide Sikh community. He is the final authority in any religious disputes within the faith. In 1998-APR, he issued a hukamnama (edict) against the use of furniture in Sikh Temples. They ruled that the furniture must be removed by 1998-MAY-29.  This ruling was appealed. Those opposing the ruling cited a number of reasons why they prefer to not sit on the floor: the colder temperature in North America makes this uncomfortable, elderly people find the arrangement difficult, and younger members may refuse to be married in the temple if they had to sit on the floor. Some Sikh societies in the United States and England agreed to write to the Jathedar in support of the appeal. However, the Ontario Gurudawaras Committee, which represents all 25 of the province's temples, sent a letter to Bahai Ranjit Singh, Sikh's highest priest, calling his original ruling "praiseworthy."

Sikh leaders asked members to remain calm until the matter is resolved.

The Akal Takhat reaffirmed the original edict. Thousands of Sikhs in the Greater Vancouver area risked excommunication from their religion if they sat at tables to have the ceremonial meal after prayers on 1998-MAY-30. Leaders of 21 Sikh societies in British Columbia and Alberta vowed to keep the furniture.

By 1998-JUN-8, three reform priests had been suspended for defying the ban on tables and chairs. They complained to the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, stating that they have been discriminated against on religious grounds. Meanwhile, most Sikh priests in the Vancouver area started a strike as of JUN-2 in order to persuade temple executives to remove temple furniture.

In mid 1998-JUL, five or six prominent liberal Sikhs were summoned to Amristar, India by JUL-25 to explain why they oppose a ban on tables and chairs. The group included a newspaper editor, a priest and three temple executives. They did not appear and were excommunicated. On JUL-26, a disturbance broke out at North America's oldest Sikh temple: the Ross Street Temple, established by the Khalsa Diwan Society in 1905. Conservative Sikhs tried to prevent a liberal, excommunicated executive member from addressing the congregation. On AUG-2, the police shut down the temple. It  remained closed until the police chief, Bruce Chambers, was able to broker an agreement between conservative and liberal Sikhs.

On 1998-NOV-18, Tara Hayer was killed by an unknown assassin. He was an outspoken supporter of the liberal side, the publisher of a Sikh newspaper, and one of the 6 who had been excommunicated.

During 1998-NOV and DEC, members voted in favor of liberal slates of candidates for management positions within a number of Sikh temples in British Columbia. Jarnail Singh Bhandal became head of the Ross Street temple in Vancouver. He called for a peacemaking conference of all Sikh factions - the first community-wide meeting in several years.

Sikh Jathedar (senior elected official) Ranjit Singh planned a visit to the United States in 1999-JAN.  Liberal Sikhs appear  concerned that his visit might inflame religious tensions in North America. They intervened with the U.S. authorities, pointing out that the Jathedar had served a lengthy jail term in 1980 for murdering the leader of a rival religious sect, and that he has never renounced the use of violence against religious opponents. His visa was canceled at the last moment. A large ad in the Washington Post called on the U.S. president to overrule the immigration authorities, comparing Mr. Singh's status among Sikhs as comparable to the pope among Roman Catholics. Actually, he cannot really be compared to the pope. He was elected to represent the Sikh community, but was granted no higher spiritual authority than any other Sikh.

The present Jathedar is Joginder Singh Vedanti.

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References used:

  1. Sorry, we have lost the citation for this statement.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2006-MAR-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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