Sisters and Marble
On the Issue of Women Being Able to Perform Seva at the Golden Temple
Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa
SikhNet Communications Director
It’s 3 am on Sunday morning and I’m driving into the parking lot of the Hacienda de Guru Ram Das Gurdwara in Espanola, New Mexico. It’s February, cold winter morning, with the stars bright and crisp. The wind cuts against my cheeks as I walk from my car to the Gurdwara. This precious gold-domed building, which holds not more than a couple hundred people, is the heart of the community for Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere. Two months ago, the marbling of the Gurdwara was finally complete after years of planning. Marble purchased in India, shipped halfway across the world. Months of careful, painstaking craftsmanship went into laying the marble and now, on Sunday morning, members of the community have the opportunity to do ishnan (floor-washing) seva at the Gurdwara – washing the marble together, getting the blessings of the dust of the saints’ feet.
I have never had the blessing of traveling from the United States to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I have no point of comparison, but I am sure what is happening here in New Mexico is very different than what is happening in Amritsar. Still, there is a deep feeling of sacred delight as I arrive in the darkness of the early morning. When I walk into the Gurdwara, the lights are on but no one is there. A few minutes later, another sevadar comes in and glances nervously at the empty room. It’s my first time performing the ishnan seva so I’m not sure what to do. “We start with Japji Sahib,” she tells me. “Then we vacuum the rugs. After that, we wrap everything and move everything out. And then we wash the floors.” Again we glance at the empty room. “There will be plenty of people here by the end,” she says.
Another young Khalsa woman in her early 20’s enters a few minutes later. The three of us sit down and recite Japji Sahib together. It’s cozy and sweet, one of those moments that remind me why I became a Sikh. It is difficult enough in this world to engage in an honest and genuine spiritual journey. It is especially difficult if you’re a woman. Many spiritual schools either place men in the superior position or somehow denounce the life of the householder, which is, in essence, the realm of the woman. When I met the Siri Singh Sahib, also known as Yogi Bhajan, he shared the Guru’s Words with me. Guru Nanak said women are the ones who give birth to kings, saints and sages – so how can she be inferior? He told me that marriage and the life of the householder is the highest spiritual path of all. These teachings healed something deep within me. Raised Catholic, I was brought up with a sense of shame about being a woman bearing the legacy of Eve. If it hadn’t been for Eve tempting Adam with the apple, we would all still be in paradise. But the Guru gave me a different vision of being a woman, one that redeemed me and honored the creative power that I hold and carry. The Sikh Rehit turns the home of a Gursikh into the central arena for spiritual life. The Guru’s teachings on women and the way the Siri Singh Sahib has explained them saved me from more pain than I can even describe.
After Japji Sahib, the three of us begin to dust and vacuum the Gurdwara. Soon, two other women join us and we begin the careful process of wrapping and moving the rugs, swords, and Manji Sahib. It takes almost an hour before everything is cleared away and the electrical outlets are covered with tape. One of the sevadars brings in buckets of water and places them at strategic spots on the floor. Although the ishnan seva is open to the entire community, men, women and children, on this particular morning there are seven of us – seven women – with our heads wrapped in turbans. “Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Whahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh!” The buckets are picked up and the water thrown joyously across the floor.
There is something in me that wants to cry. There are six billion people in the world, and an infinite number of ways a person can live. By some great good fortune, look at the blessing that is on our foreheads. We’re seven of us washing the marble of the Guru Ram Das Gurdwara. I get down on my knees and with my hands, begin washing the water back and forth over the marble. And I see the dust – little flecks of it – floating in the water. The dust of those saints who have sat together, meditated together, and sung Gurbani Kirtan together. And I know that this seva is healing me, that it is saving me because I am a woman who has never learned the meaning of the word humility. I have too much ego. I want to take credit for everything I do and deny that God is the Real Doer. But as I watch the other sevadars, my sisters, washing the floor with me, the burden of ego slips away. Most of them have been Sikhs for more than 20 years and I know that the only reason I even have this chance is because their steadfast devotion allowed this Gurdwara to be built in the first place. Their selfless love and service brought the marble from India and laid it. Their sacrifice created a Sikh Dharma community with roots so deep and genuine, spiritual progress is possible. Possible, that is, if you are willing to surrender yourself and go through the fire of it. That pure dust is washing over me as I’m washing the floors, and for the first time in my life, I begin to realize how stupid I’ve been.
By the end, as the floors are rubbed dry. A dozen or so people have come to help with the seva. Almost all of them are women. It has taken longer to wash the floors than expected on this day because fewer people came than we thought would come. One of the women looks at me and says, “In Amritsar, they’re fighting with each other to wash the floors of the Golden Temple.” And it’s true. I read it in the news the next day. They ARE fighting, fighting to keep the women out, and my heart breaks because I know somewhere in India, there is a woman like me. A sister who has a genuine longing to experience God through Guru’s seva. A sister who cannot break through the trap of her own ego just by meditation alone. A sister who needs the blessing of the saints’ feet. A sister who needs to humble herself, on her hands and her knees, and wash the floors to remember – we are what we are because of the sacrifice of those who came before us. And I know my sister, wherever she is, is trapped by tradition and by false interpretations of the Guru’s Words. My sister is locked in a world where power, status and authority matter more than whether or not she grows spiritually or ever becomes a Khalsa.
Sister-I am with you. I am praying for you. And when God blesses me to get on my hands and knees to wash the marble the next time, I will be holding you in my heart.