There were more than a few things that confused me as I was beginning my understanding of Sikhism just last year. I was born in the U.S. and have attended several Gurdwaras among Sikhs from different backgrounds. I have been largely muddling along on my own, trying to figure things out. Coming to Sikhi from knowing it to be the truth of me instead of from an understanding of the lifestyle or teachings has been a very interesting evolution that has brought about the following consternation.
When Sikhs go to Gurdwara to celebrate amongst each other, many wear bana, the traditional clothes of Punjab or the outer appearance given by our Guru Gobind Singh. Yet on the street, I cannot tell a Sikh from any other American unless they happen to wear a turban.
Some have told me that bana is outdated; that it was a sign for the times of Guru Gobind Singh and that it has no meaning in modern society. I have also heard that it’s impractical, too expensive and just not worn all the time.
So then, why wear it at all? I do wear bana most of the time. It started as an acceptance of my vision of me, not as a true understanding of it. Everything about practicing Sikhi has been a process of surrender for me and often a difficult path to which to submit my ego. What I found as a woman wearing a turban was that people were confused by or afraid of me. Instead of being asked about my faith, people asked about the fashion of it, or if I had cancer or a head injury. I am sure part of that is because I don’t look the least bit exotic, but part of it was because at that time I felt like half a Sikh, so it was actually the Guru was talking to me. I started looking in my closet and realized that none of the clothes there went with this turban or this projection of me. Without Guru Gobind Singh’s given form, my image as his daughter was simply not complete.
Some say that wearing bana to the Gurdwara is a sign of respect. Does that mean the Guru is only present in that particular building? I want to take that presence with me wherever I go. By wearing bana everywhere I am constantly reminded of who I am. I want to represent the Great Love to everyone I see, and so allow the Guru to come through me. Can I do that in jeans? Absolutely. It just makes it a lot harder to be seen. My bana is my projection. People remember kindness shown to them by a turbaned soul dressed in white. While people might forget how to say my name, they never forget they met a Sikh.
Opportunities to connect with like-minded people come about because they feel comfortable discussing spirituality or sharing their faith with me and the most wonderful friendships develop with people who would have otherwise remained strangers. People tell me their deepest fears and ask the big questions because, seeing me in bana, they know they are safe.
Did not Guru Gobind Singh ask us to stand out for this reason? In a time when Sikhs are concerned about educating the public about the faith, I cannot think of a better way than expressing it fully in myself. I am no spiritual teacher or wise woman. I am stumbling along just like you. Being in the Guru’s form helps me stop, take a breath and let the Guru come through. People are always watching, which helps me be the best I can be. Guru Gobind Singh Ji did not give us this bana unknowingly.
Wearing bana does not mean I have become a perfect Sikh. It does not mean I have memorized all the banis or that I get up at 3 a.m. unfailingly.
I was compelled to finally write this today specifically because I could not drag myself out of bed at that time this morning. The commitments of Amrit are made to the Guru for ourselves. Each tool, each discipline, is a teacher. Each one gives a way to separate ourselves from Maya, control our bodies and minds and strengthen our connection to Waheguru. If every time I leave the house I have to put myself together in bana, I also have to remember to put my mind in the hands of the Guru. I have to exhibit excellence to represent all of us which helps me be conscious in all I do.
Despite the great love I have for the Guru, this morning I could not master my tired body, fully knowing that if I had, a cold shower would have instantly revitalized my energy. I will still perform all those tasks I have sworn to do and love to do, and ask for the hukam of my Guru.
Now it’s just a bit later. So who have I really upset by deviating from the discipline? Only myself. The practice of Sikhi is a gift to myself. There is ultimately only this one relationship between me and God and that is why bana is so important to me. When I outwardly wear my faith in trust, it eventually brings radiance internally. Wear it yourself every day for awhile and see. Until I did, I did not know what courage was. Wearing bana made me understand my faith, know my mind and how I rationalize and lie to myself. It also showed me my challenges, my strength and my deep connection to my Guru.
Bana, to me, says “I give up myself for you.” That seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be a Sikh of the Guru.
About the author: I am a second-year physician assistant student out of Pacific University in Hillsboro, Oregon currently on rotation for the summer in wonderful Rapid City, South Dakota. Since I will be traveling around for the next 14 months, I think the Guru dressed me in bana to spread awareness of Sikhi, besides what it does for me.
Photos by Ravitej Singh Khalsa, Eugene OR
Related Video: “Bana and the Sikh Identity” by Guruka Singh.