The turban was made for man, and not man for the turban


The story has gone viral and circled the world. Harman Singh, 22, of South Aukland, New Zealand, was lounging around at home when he heard the screech of car tyres and then a lot of commotion. He went outside to investigate. “I saw a child down on the ground and a lady was holding him,” he said. “His head was bleeding, so I unveiled my turban and put it under his head.

The people marvelled: “He didn’t care that his head was uncovered in public – he just wanted to help this little boy,” said fellow Sikh Gagan Dhillon.

And so Mr Singh is being “lauded worldwide” for “breaking strict religious protocol” or “religious rule and strict tradition” to meet an urgent humanitarian need. There’s even a Facebook fan page, where one contributor has written: “Good on you, Harman!! You are a credit to your religion and just a damn fine human being!” Another exclaims: “Just wish there were more people in the world like you.” And another: “I am so glad you were driven by your humanity first… Love and respect.”

Mr Singh is rather taken aback by all the media attention. “I think anyone else would have done the same as me,” he said, in a matter-of-fact, unfazed kind of way.

Well, quite.

The amplified reaction to Mr Sing’s impulse in response to a medical emergency is indicative of the media’s fundamental religious illiteracy. It is almost as though they view Sikhism through the lens of Islam. Sikhism is not a religion of law. Unlike Jews, Christians and Muslims, Sikhs have no revealed, immutable precepts: there is no ‘book of law’, as such. The Guru Granth Sahib is a collection of devotional writings intended for worship. Certainly, there are certain dogmatic Sikhs who are are more militant in their interpretation of orthodoxy, and for whom the Guru Granth Sahib is more than a mere devotional, the precepts of which are absolute requirements of the religion. But Sikhs like Harman Singh understand that the Five Ks do not equate to the Five Pillars of Islam.

There is no ‘religious rule’ or ‘strict tradition’ that is set down by Waheguru and dictated verbatim to Guru Gobind Singh: practices such as the wearing of a turban are historic and cultural. Those Sikhs who do not wear the Five Ks are no less Sikh than those who do, though some of their orthodox co-religionists will doubtless disagree. And those who eat meat or drink alcohol are no less Sikh than those who refrain. Historically, Sikhs adopted practices which permitted them to be distinguished from Muslims: the kirpan was symbolic of their preparedness to die for their faith; not eating meat which had been sacrificed to Allah helped them to forge a distinct identity. And so now does the turban, which tends not to be worn by Western or subcontinental Muslims for that very reason (though there are regional cultural exceptions).

The turban was originally a means of covering long hair to keep the sand out of it. It was a practical garment, rather like a coat, which has metamorphosed into an ostentatious symbol of hierarchy and orthodoxy. Harman Singh’s turban happens to double as a portable first-aid kit. Religious ‘law’ which obstructs mercy and cripples acts of compassion is no law of God.