Focus

Young - and emphatically orthodox

Surrey, B.C. — From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Bikramjit Singh Sandhar says that to be an effective leader he has to unify the temple's members, including the 7,000 people who didn't vote for him. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)

When he was elected leader of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara - one of the largest and wealthiest Sikh temples in Canada, and definitely the most controversial - Bikramjit Singh Sandhar was up all night, meditating and reciting prayers with a circle of friends.

The Sikh leader, who bristles at the term "fundamentalist" but whose young slate of candidates was considered very conservative, kept to his practice of saying prayers, which he does three times every day.

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It's all part of being a Sikh, he says. Other keys to his brand of Sikhism: no alcohol, no drugs, no adultery and no cutting of any body hair. While Mr. Sandhar's beliefs may be considered orthodox, the man himself comes across as anything but. He is a rousing, inspirational speaker who quotes the Sikh scriptures regularly, but whose demeanour is calm and positive.

It's that confidence and optimism that helped him respond to angry attacks during the election at Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, which for the past decade has been the front line in the battle over Sikh religious customs in Canada. The temple is controversial for its battles, but also closely watched by other Sikh communities across the country because of its size and influence. The resounding victory last week of the young, religiously conservative slate, which claimed two-thirds of the 21,700 votes cast, is sure to spark similar movements in temples across the country.

The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara made national headlines 12 years ago when fundamentalist Sikhs tried to remove tables and chairs from the dining hall, insisting that the religion required everyone to sit on the floor on mats for a ritual meal as a sign of equality, since furniture and place at a table can confer status. Mr. Sandhar was not involved in that clash, which turned into a bloody skirmish.

Since then, moderate Sikhs maintained control of the temple, but that leadership was ousted by the youth slate, led by Mr. Sandhar. Their campaign was considered Obamaesque - with a charismatic leader and run by energetic, tech-savvy young people.

Mr. Sandhar, 43, is one of the elder members of the slate, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. He strongly believes that Sikh youth are looking for more from their religion than many temples currently provide.

"We're trying to bring about a change in the gurdwara," he says. "We want to make sure people find out the real meaning of Sikhism, instead of just hearing about quarrels that have been going on for years."

Along with more religious instruction, Mr. Sandhar says that providing activities for youth is crucial to keep them off the streets and away from negative peer pressure.

He is also critical of labels that draw distinctions between moderate Sikhs and fundamentalists. For him, there is just Sikhism. "You cannot believe in some things and not others and still say you believe," he says. "It's like saying you only believe in five of the Ten Commandments."

Sikhism embraced by the youth slate involves belief in the Sikh scriptures and saying prayers three times a day. As baptized Sikhs, they make a commitment not to cut hair and to wear a comb, a steel bangle on the right arm, a white cotton undergarment and a symbolic sword.

"It's the uniform you wear," Mr. Sandhar says.

Mr. Sandhar's adherence to ritual raised fears during the election campaign: Some temple members campaigning for the status quo questioned whether clean-shaven men or women in jeans would be stopped at the temple doorstep. They asked whether tighter restrictions would be imposed on who could chant hymns for the congregation.

Mr. Sandhar responded with a compromise: Tables and chairs would be provided for those who need them and everyone else would use mats. He insists that the youth slate intends to open up the temple to more people, not restrict it to fewer.

"So now it is not the issue of tables and chairs," he says. "Now it is about learning why we are at the gurdwara, what that really means - the basic fundamentals of Sikhism. People do not know it.

"You have to know why you come to the gurdwara. People do not even know the names of the gurus. ... For the last 10 or 12 years, all they knew about was tables and chairs."

TEMPLE A BEEHIVE OF ACTIVITY

The Guru Naka Sikh Gurdwara is a majestic building along a busy commercial thoroughfare with chain-store shopping centres next to smaller stores sporting signs in Punjabi. The temple - with "One God" prominently displayed on the wall below the dome - draws a steady stream of worshippers throughout the day. More than 200 people can be found in the dining hall at lunch. The temple collects around $100,000 a month in donations for maintenance of the facility and for charity.

In recent years, according to Balwant Gill, the temple's outgoing president, there have been extensive renovations, new facilities built and $2-million in debts paid off. They provided a Punjabi school, supported hospitals and offered scholarships to encourage education. They translated Punjabi prayers into English for Canadian-born Sikhs unfamiliar with the language.

He wonders: What else could have been expected of them?

Mr. Sandhar's answer: The temple does not offer enough to spur a young person's attachment to the religion.

That is why the Surrey Sikh youth slate adopted an ambitious agenda of increased services to appeal to youth, women and seniors, with a focus on expanding educational services to encourage spirituality and teach the Punjabi language, Sikh religion and culture. It also commits to closer ties between the temple and the community and to greater pride in being a religious Sikh.

"Those things [education, sports and religion]are key to keeping children away from trouble," Mr. Sandhar says.

BAPTIZED AT 30

Mr. Sandhar makes his living as an insurance broker and mutual-fund adviser, and lives on a suburban cul-de-sac in Surrey. On his living-room wall, there is a photo of Sant Teja Singh, who helped Sikhs in Vancouver organize when the Canadian government in 1908 came up with a plan to have all Sikhs in Canada move to the British Honduras (now Belize). A high-school basketball trophy, from the days before he embraced the traditions of the Sikh religion, sits on the fireplace.

His appeal to youth stems in part from his personal history. He grew up in Canada but spent enough time in India to develop a deep attachment to the country. He was not raised in a religious home, but he went back to India for an arranged marriage. He and his new bride made a commitment to embrace the traditions of Sikhism on the day before he came back to Canada in 1993.

He was almost 30 before he was baptized and started wearing a turban.

He says he began with a lot of questions about the religion. As he learned more, others asked him questions. "The answers just popped up. I don't even know how that happened. And I thought, 'I have to remember that one, that was a good answer.'"

His faith grew as his questions were answered. Once he knew how to recite religious hymns, he began to get up three hours before sunrise to meditate and say his prayers.

Mr. Sandhar places unity of the membership as his top priority. He sees his critics at the temple as people to win over, not as opponents.

Despite the youth slate's unequivocal victory, he says he thinks about those who did not back him. "Seven thousand people did not vote for us," he says. "Our goal is to make sure we can bring those 7,000 along with us."

Robert Matas is a member of The Globe and Mail's Vancouver bureau.

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