It is tradition here during Vasakhi at our Gurdwara to ask all those who had received Amrit during the week to stand and be recognized by the sangat. This year, as the jakaaray echoed throughout the hall, I noticed an interesting pattern of those standing before me; most of the new amritdharis were girls. And last week, when all the amrithdhari students attending the Khalsa school were asked to stand and be recognized by the sangat, 25 kids stood up, and 22 of them were girls. I couldn’t help but feel inspired...for a couple reasons. I was proud of these young Kaurs, many of whom challenge American and Punjabi societal pressures to take this step toward the Guru, but more so, as a father of Kaurs, I was happy to see what great role models our community has.
As I was lost in thought during that Vasakhi day, I was quickly shaken by yet another jakaara as the Panj Pyaarey entered the divan hall. I'm always moved by the presence of the Panj Pyaarey. I am reminded not only of my Guru’s ideals, but the struggle and sacrifice our people have endured to preserve it - and most importantly, our panthic responsibility to do the same. The sangat quickly followed the Panj Pyaarey out of the hall for Nishaan Sahib Seva and a Nagar Kirtan.
As the days events came to a close, my mind wouldn’t sit still...
I wondered why is it that we have such a large number of amrithdhari Kaurs, but in my 30+ years going to this Gurdwara, I’ve never seen a Kaur in the Panj Pyaarey.
I realize this is a contentious issue, so much so that at a retreat many years ago, locals had violently threatened to disrupt an Amrit Sanchar after finding out one of the Panj Pyaarey was a woman.
Where did we lose our way?
Is it the Rehat Maryada that prohibits it? Remember...the document written in the 1930’s that so many of us criticize for being outdated and gender-exclusive. Well, under the ‘Amrit Sanskaar’ section, it states:
Despite the clear encouragement from the Rehat Maryada, the common argument here is “no women were part of the original Panj Pyaarey, why should we change that tradition now?” Although I’ve heard a lot of passionate counter-perspectives to this, the one that resonates with me most is that the Panj Pyaarey today are not representing the gender of the original Panj Pyaarey. If so, why stop at gender? Shouldn’t then the current day Panj Pyaarey represent the village the original were from? What about representing their castes too? No...the Panj Pyaarey should instead reflect the discipline, ideals, and spirit of the Khalsa...and if we are implying that women cannot meet that standard...then we have a lot of baani and history to re-read.
Often times, the resistance is more subtle. I recall years ago, a planner of a local Nagar Kirtan asked me to be a youth speaker at the event. I’m not sure what came over me that day, but for whatever reason, I quickly responded..."sure, as long as you can promise me that one of the Panj Pyaarey leading the procession will be a woman." UncleJi gave me a confused look and said, “Beta, I understand this is important to the youth...I will do much better than that...all five will be women!” Immediately I thought to myself, “what a cop out!” I knew what he meant by “all five will be women.” Yes, there will be five women dressed in baana, perhaps even carrying Nishaan Sahibs...but they will be somewhere several rows back from the Panj Pyaarey who are really leading the Nagar Kirtan. My ask is simple...why can’t the Panj Pyaarey be a mix of Singhs and Kaurs so that those who are representing the panth actually look like the panth.
Now...if you’ve been reading carefully, you may have noticed a flaw or two in my argument (it wouldn’t be the first time). On the one hand I’m saying that Sikhi should be gender neutral, so in that regard, why should I care if the Panj Pyaarey are men or women...the guru is the guru. On the other hand I’m adamant that the Panj Pyaarey should include women. Is this a contradiction? Perhaps. But at the same time, I believe that all of our ceremonies and panthic events, whether they are Nagar Kirtans, Dastaar Bandis, Amrit Sanchaars, or Anand Kaaraj’s should be examples for the community. Guru Sahib entrusted the Khalsa Panth to evolve in such a way that we are continuously motivating and inspiring the Sikh nation. And I raise this issue knowing that the decision of who is and who isn’t part of the Panj Pyaarey is not sacrosanct. I know...I've been a part of those discussions, and from my experience, it tends to be good-hearted sevadaars of the community who calls on his peers (typically the same ones year after year) to do this seva. They are our uncles, brothers, fathers, grandfathers...we know them. And all we need are those good-hearted sevadaars to shift their paradigm. Perhaps one or two may be reading this blog :)
I feel strongly about women being a part of the Panj Pyaarey, because I don’t believe my observation that day of the disproportionate number of amritdhari girls is merely an accident...rather, it is a manifestation of the Guru’s message. It is inspired by the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of the Gurus. It is inspired by Mai Bhago and her rallying of the soldiers to battle. It is inspired by the mothers from Mir Mannu’s prison. It is inspired by the women who rose above the countless abuses by the state in 1984.
This movement is not a recent phenomenon. It is the toil of our mothers, grandmothers, great grand-mothers, and their ancestors for hundreds of years.
And it is beautiful
And it is progress
So let's not stand in the way