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A trans Sikh interfaith leader reflects on Vaisakhi’s meaning

Vaisakhi is a reminder of the power of an ethnically, economically and sexually diverse movement.

Devotees are silhouetted as they throng the illuminated Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, on the occasion of Vaisakhi, in Amritsar, India, Tuesday, April 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

(Interfaith America) — Sikhs across the world are joining together in sangat (community) to observe Vaisakhi Friday (April 14), a celebration of our tradition’s formal founding in 1699. On this day 323 years ago, Guru Gobind Singh, the final in a lineage of 10 Sikh gurus, gathered followers of a radically inclusive and equitable movement that had been steadily growing since Guru Nanak’s first divine revelations in the late 15th century. Converging at Anandpur Sahib during a time when many minorities were defending their religious and social freedoms, Guru Gobind Singh’s disciples sought cohesion, a shared identity that unified, strengthened and preserved their movement. Guru Gobind Singh responded to this call for unity by formally establishing the Khalsa, the global united community of committed Sikhs. The Panj Pyare (Five Beloved Ones) stepped forth as the first initiates of this newly formalized movement for liberation, who then anointed Guru Gobind Singh as a radical blurring of the lines of teacher and student, leader and follower.

Each year on this day, I revel in the joy of this history-altering moment, one that has impacted my family (and countless others) for generations. I remember the shaheeds (martyrs) who gave their bodies for our liberation. I revisit the shabads that ground me and reaffirm my religious and spiritual orientations. I retell the stories of our gurus that exemplify the Sikh tradition’s foundational principle of Oneness, from Guru Nanak’s first recitation of the Mool Mantar; to Guru Arjan’s unflinching commitment to his people in the midst of inconceivably cruel torture; to Guru Hargobind’s establishment of Miri-Piri, the Sikh mandate to engage in both spiritual and worldly liberation. And each year, I express gratitude to the Divine Ultimate for guiding me to interfaith work, a form of movement-building that has been critical in the entirety of Sikh history.

This year, however, the joyous celebration of Vaisakhi is tinged with grief. As a trans nonbinary person, I have woken up every day for the last several months to news of state and federal legislators seeking to strip trans Americans of our civil and human rights. Today is no different. So far this year, 492 bills have been introduced across the country limiting trans people’s access to life-saving health care, engagement in public life, and, most importantly, our dignity. Even the Trans Day of Visibility, which I proudly celebrated in community exactly two weeks ago, was colored by the fear of physical, verbal and political violence against our bodies and spirits. What’s more, many proponents of these anti-trans campaigns claim to be religious people, supporting their exclusionary views with their faith.

Protesters of Kentucky Senate bill SB150, known as the Transgender Health Bill, cheer on speakers during a rally on the lawn of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Protesters of Kentucky Senate bill SB150, known as the Transgender Health Bill, cheer on speakers during a rally on the lawn of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

This realization pains me deeply, as an interfaith leader, as a Sikh and as a trans person. My days at Interfaith America are filled with nourishing moments of deep relationship-building across difference. I’m privileged to find and nurture the humanity in all those I encounter, regardless of their religious, ethical or ideological commitments. In fact, it’s because of the diversity of these commitments that I’m able to lean into Interfaith America’s mission of strengthening our religiously diverse democracy and weaving a social fabric that celebrates all of us.

I grieve knowing that some of my religiously identifying counterparts around the country are so willing to reject my humanity, despite the invitation I extend to them to cultivate a loving, diverse community. I grieve knowing that the founders of the world’s countless religious, ethical and worldview traditions have consistently affirmed the need for revolutionary love and that their visions have been discarded by those who affirm a strict boundary of “us versus them.” I grieve knowing that despite the Sikh tradition being non-dual (meaning there is no distinction between Self and Other), many Sikhs among the Khalsa antagonize me and other queer and trans Sikhs simply for living authentically.

Despite the weight of this grief, I stand steady in my commitments as an interfaith leader and a trans Sikh. The 10 Sikh gurus teach us the value of perseverance, Chardi Kala (radical optimism) and camaraderie, all in the name of Sarbat Da Bhala (the welfare of all). In formally establishing the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh shows us the power and potential of unity in the face of unimaginable persecution and that this power is accessed through an ethnically, economically and sexually diverse movement. Whether or not some leaders deny my humanity, my dignity and my rights, I feel affirmed each day knowing that millions of Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Buddhists, Secular Humanists and others are organizing to guarantee my welfare, as I am working to guarantee theirs.

(Harmeet Kaur Kamboj is a program manager at Interfaith America, where this column was originally published. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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