Thursday 11 November 2010: 8/10

Better than yesterday.

Today I had a most remarkable experience.  I spent a whole day with two groups of people I had not ever spent time with, nor had ever particularly thought about spending time with.  Not because I am against them, you understand, just because it would not have occurred to me to seek them out en mass.  These two groups were the Armed Forces and the Sikh community.

About 18 months ago, when I was doing the virtue project, I interviewed Mandeep Kaur.  Mandeep is the senior most woman cleric in the Sikh community in the UK.  She is also the civilian chaplain to Sikhs in the armed forces.  I was utterly charmed and impressed by her thoughtfulness, kindness, and profound intelligence when I met her last year and, encountering her yesterday both leading a prayer service and orchestrating the event, caused her go up in my opinion.  Leading a Sikh prayer service is not for the faint hearted.  Sikhs are a noisy lot, when they are not being silent.  Singing, chanting, participating in responses, asking for and maintaining silence, reading from the holy book:  worship is about both rejoicing publicly and looking inward to confront your chattering mind until it becomes still, and reveals yourself to you.  Ideas must enter your mind before they can become reality and they will only enter your mind in stillness.  A Sikh seeks.  To change your world you must change your mind.

Changing minds was the order of the day yesterday as a group of about 200 people met, very deliberately on armistice day, to learn about the Sikh contribution to the armed forces over a several hundred year period.  The audience was populated with armed services personnel, both Sikh and non Sikh, and civilians, both Sikh and non Sikh.  Sikhs are called the warrior saints and they have served HM armed forces in many battles and have suffered many losses over a several hundred year period.  They have been commended for their bravery and ferocity by people from Queen Victoria to senior officers in both the Indian and the British armed forces.  What drives Sikhs is discipline, duty, kindness, generosity, serving the human community in the broadest sense, and using force only as a last resort.  To that end they are excellent members of the armed forces, as Lieutenant General Mark Mans said in his address, because their value system is a match with that of the armed forces.  The gurus commanded the Sikhs to wear their unshorn hair in turbans so they could be identified in a crowd.  If anyone is in trouble, the gurus said, let them be able to identify Sikhs as a sure source of aid.  One could argue the same ideal holds true with the uniform of the armed forces of this country.

The day was inclusive, inspirational, and deeply moving.  Standing there, in a Sikh temple surrounded by strangers, the tears rolled down my cheeks as we observed the two minute silence together.  I cannot tell you why.  There was no trumpet and nobody was wearing black.  No graves.  No cenotaph.  Maybe it was the piercing cry that preceded the silence, the one that called us to attention.  Maybe it was being surrounded by service men and women.  Maybe it was simply the humanity in the room, the longing to belong to one another.  Maybe it was just me, the outsider in so many ways, longing to belong at all.

One can belong to the Sikhs, in a way, for as much time as one likes.  Temples are open and welcoming.  People help you with the shoe issue (shoes off) and the head covering issue (heads are covered and cloth is available should you not have a handy scarf in your pocket) the hand washing issue (lots of hand washing, lots of sinks) and the food issue (vegetarian and free to all who want it whenever they want it).  I went into the wrong part of the building at first and was taken, in person, to the right part of the building by an old aunty who wanted to show me the way herself in spite of the rain.  I was met by someone who showed me where to put my shoes and how to cover my head.  The food was plentiful and delicious.  The rotis were fat and juicy, and Mandeep Kaur, the hostess, spiritual leader, and instigator and organiser of this event, was handing them out in the universal sign of welcome.

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