As Sikhs, and in particular those of us who have taken up Amrit, that is baptized in the khalsa order are supposed to keep the Five Ks. These are Kesh or unshorn hair, Kanga or wooden comb, Kara or iron/steel bracelet, Kachera or boxer shorts and Kirpan or dagger. These were prescribed by Guru Gobind Singhji in the first Amrit/Khanda ki Paul ceremony. Although I have not come across any exact explanations by Guruji in his own words, there are various sources (google it) that examine, rationalize and expound on the reasons behind the 5 Ks. The thoughts being expressed here may or may not be in line with others and I only ask you read with an open mind. This is going to be a long post, first a bit of background.
At around 13-14 years of age I took up Amrit together with my younger brothers. I wasn’t 100% sure and had some doubts on whether I’d be able to keep up with it, but still went ahead with some pressure from my family. As I grew up and went to the US for college, my doubts began to increase in line with the open atmosphere I suddenly found myself in. It wasn’t like wearing a turban bothered me, being one of the few amongst thousands in my college was kinda cool in its own regard. However, as is the case in early adulthood being different also severely limited my abilities of find a girlfriend 🙂 or so I thought. Over the course of time it started trimming my beard and for a brief period even stopped wearing my turban. Being from a very conservative family, I could never gather enough courage to just tell my parents about all this even if they partly suspected it. One thing I realized was that hair or turban wasn’t what was the problem, it was my own self confidence and how I carried my self. Still I used to trim my beard because it just made it “easy to manage” so to speak. Also, being a rebellious in nature it gave me an excuse to not listen to my family.
Now coming to my rationalized disagreements on hair, they may seem naive but bear with me. Oh it was a social custom so long ago, it doesn’t apply anymore. It’s not even practical anymore, maybe it was at that time. What’s the point of keeping it as God sent it, don’t I have free will? So why don’t we just be good human beings in accordance with teachings of all the Gurus which in my mind is more important? Oh some people just keep the Hair and Turban and pretend they are pious outside and don’t even follow the teachings. Why do I have to be Khalsa, can’t I just be a person who follows the Sikh teachings philosophically. Blah .. Blah .. Blah…
My mom once told me, don’t compare yourself to any ideals that other people live up to, follow your own heart and find out for yourself. So I’m not going to attempt to answer all the questions above, but just explain how I have reconciled it as I stand today. I have stopped trimming my beard for a few months now, and it’s getting close to its original form.
First, I believe it is a question of faith and following your masters word. When one goes to a Doctor for a severe illness and he puts in the needle, we accept it on good faith that what is being prescribed must be good and have some reason behind it. So if you don’t start here it be very difficult to rationalize on top of it. I truly believe that Guru Gobind Singhji wanted his Khalsa Sikhs to look different and recognize each other distinctly. Even today in India most Hindus sport just a mustache, Muslims just beards and then the Sikhs both. The point is not to divide us but to recognize that our paths to the divine are different and we hitch rides with our fellow travelers. A very important point that some of the traditional Sikh families misinterpret in my opinion is that Guruji never said everyone has to take up Amrit. He said who among you would come out of your own love for me to follow this path. There is pressure but it is not an ultimatum as it is made out to be today. Other faiths like Jains and Buddhists that also came out of a primarily Hindu framework have almost been completely reabsorbed, but with our unique identity it makes us stand out and think twice about the teachings and ideals we have to live up to on a daily basis. There have been several occasions where I have heard from friends an acquaintances of stories where they encountered Sikhs who helped them out of a tough spot or went out of their way to help them.
Second, I think it is also practical in some ways. I’m practically bald now but have no worries about it since there is a nice colorful Turban I wear everyday 🙂 But seriously in Minnesota, it protected me from the extreme cold and in India from the extreme sun. Sometimes I bump my head and it doesn’t hurt as much 🙂 and I can imagine the same ideas held when the Khalsa were guerilla fighting in the jungles with the Mughals while being persecuted for their “heretical” beliefs. There are some theories around how a Turban tied tightly around the head can help keep the bones of the head aligned properly and similar theories are there around keeping of hair. I might have felt it sometimes but can’t say for sure on the science around this but I’m exploring more in this direction. Will write an update if I find anything.
Lastly, like a lot of other things the feeling to keep the Kesh and Pagadi should come from inside. For me it had been nagging me for a while and although in a trimmed beard a lot of people said I looked good and all, inside it bothered me that I was not following my Guru because of my vanity. Also, I feel sometimes there are feelings of guilt, coercion or pride/ego are used with young people, which I think instead of helping, at times makes the situation worse. Our Gurus stood for love, devotion and fought against the exact things that we sometimes fall into. If each Sikh, young or old could focus on their own nature, understand that best, become a Gurumukh (one who has moved away from the vagaries of the mind and moved it towards the True Guru) in all sense of the word, the Guru will gently guide us to realize our true nature. Sometimes it may not be enough for people born in one faith to want to follow that path and I think they should be given the space to find it out themselves. For people who willingly take up this path may also have doubts at a later stage and again I feel by going inside we will find the answers.
If my views have unintentionally hurt some feelings I would like to apologize and ask for forgiveness for this inexperienced mind.
Udpate May 12, 2010: I was reading the Guru Granth Sahib this morning and came across a couplet/doha from Bhagat Kabirji that got me thinking about this topic again:
Mood mundaye jo sidh payee; mukti bhayd na gaeya kaaee.
If cutting hair or being bald you could attain perfection,
Then the sheep would surely have attained liberation?
Kabirji is known for his tongue and cheek couplets called Dohas that are said in simple language for everyone to understand. More so they are supposed to prick your brain to rise it from its stupor. In this case Kabirji is referring to the fact that during his time people who wanted to go on a spiritual path were almost expected to shave of their heads and become monks. This was particularly true for the Buddhist faith and Jains take it to another extreme of actually pulling out all their hair one by one (yeow!). Also, the Hindu brahmin pandits are usually bald except for small bunch of hair on top called the bodhi.
Now, I can imagine a society where if you’re bald (not balding :)) you are probably considered someone holy and to be respected. But Kabirji says that how can becoming bald give you spiritual perfection? Is there a real need for it? Now, this is purely my opinion so take it for what it is. Could it be that Guru Gobind Singhji decree of asking all Khalsa Sikhs to keep hair was to build equality amongst us? To explain that we are all created equal in the eyes of the lord and it doesn’t matter either way. Also, my rational mind is springing another thought. If just being bald was not a path of spiritual perfection then just keeping hair can not be either. As a Sikhs we need to remember that just by keeping our hair it is not going to automatically lead to nirvana. We need to live the philosophy and teachings, not judge other people and understand that we are all just students, Sikhs (which stands or seeker or learner) in the eyes of our Guru. It’s just that, some of us may be in pre-school and some in high school!