Once, when I was visiting Washington DC, I received a call from a friend of our family, “We want to see you urgently. When can you visit us at the earliest?” To explain the urgency, the lady narrated the following incident in her house:
Last Sunday evening, our friend called my husband and complained, “Your son does not bow to Guru Granth Sahib. Therefore, my son and his friends have stopped bowing to Guru Granth Sahib when they go to the gurdwara. Please advise your son not to set a wrong precedence for his younger friends.” My husband and my son had an argument over it and the situation got worse.
Father: Sonny, you must bow to Guru Granth Sahib. I have been told that you have set a wrong example for other young Sikhs.
Son: Dad, I also wanted to ask you, why do you bow to a book. Almost every day you remind me that medical subjects involve a lot of study but you never told me to bow to my books to become a doctor. You know it well that one cannot become a doctor by bowing to medical books. Similarly, how can I become a Sikh by bowing to the Sikh book. Please, daddy, do not bow to the book. It embarrasses me a lot. You are an educated person and not an illiterate to do that.
Father: I told you that bowing is essential for a Sikh. You live in my house, you must listen to me and not misguide your friends.
Son: I thought this is our house. If it is your house, I will leave it tomorrow.
The situation was getting out of control, therefore, I intervened to end the dialogue. I took the side of my son and told him that it was our house and he has to stay with us. The argument ended with both of them feeling angry. Please come soon and help me calm my son down.
I heard everything with great concern. The best response I could give to soothe her mind was, “Do not worry. All will be settled amicably.” However, I was not sure of how to deal with their firm opposing stands. I immediately phoned their friend’s son and asked him, “How come you never call me even for a cup of tea?” This was said to show my feelings of closeness and informality with the youth. I got a very encouraging response, “Uncle, do you think we need to invite you? Let me know when I can come and pick you up.” We decided to meet at the medical student’s house for an informal get together.
I was then in USA for only a couple of months. To show my naivete, I said, “Last week I visited the office of your uncle in the federal government. A white man came to see him. He took off his hat and put his bare head before the face of your uncle. I felt very mad at his misbehavior. I wanted to talk to you guys and know what we can do about it.” The boys laughed and tried to explain to me that it did not mean any disrespect. Rather, the taking off of one’s hat shows respect for the other person. Everyone had something to tell me about this western culture.
When they were speaking, I kept mum and appeared to be thinking very deeply. One boy asked, “Uncle, what are you thinking?” After a short pause, I responded, “I was comparing your culture with my culture. Instead of presenting ourselves bareheaded before a senior and respectable person, we always appear with a turban on our head. We fold our hands and bow to him to show respect for the elderly person. I was wondering if we practice your culture to show respect to Guru Granth Sahib, what a scene the gurdwara hall will become. Every Sikh reaching near Guru Granth Sahib instead of bowing will take off his turban and start tying it again. The hall will become a turban tying hall.” After saying this in a light mood, I waited to hear their response. The medical student, addressing his friends, responded, “Yes. We do accept and respect the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib. For that reason, we must bow to Guru Granth Sahib.” The other boys responded, “Yes, we can do that, but why do Sikhs worship it as if it were a statue? They feed parshad and langar to it and they take it to the bed for sleeping.”
My mission was achieved. Not to make them guess the purpose of my meeting them, I did not want to discuss that topic anymore. Rather, I made another light comment. “Did you observe the opening ceremony of the Olympics ?” Every student said yes. I asked, “You have another unusual ritual. Why did the players extend their right hand and not their right leg when they took their oath? It is with their legs that they jump and run and not with their hands.” The boys enjoyed my comments. We also discussed the reasons why the President (Ronald Regan was re-elected in 1984) had to raise his right hand for nothing when he took the oath of his office. Talking about the meaninglessness of rituals and customs, we finished our tea in a relaxed mood.
Before leaving, I asked the medical student, “Is your mom or dad home?” The boy called, “Dad, uncle is leaving. He wants to see you.” Dialogue between the father and son started with respectful words. No anger was present in their words. Later, the mother phoned me to tell that they were relieved a lot and thanked God when they heard their son say, “We do respect and accept the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, therefore, we must bow to Guru Granth Sahib.” At that time, they had tears of relief in their eyes.
Olympic athletics were held in Los Angeles, California a few months earlier in 1984