Counterpoint: Why do Sikhs Wear Turbans?

boy in turban

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations” (the Buddha).

Recently when the Quebec Federation of Soccer sought to prevent turbaned Sikhs from playing soccer for safety reasons, there was an uproar from the Sikh community and its supporters. One Canadian Member of Parliament pleaded with the Quebec Federation of Soccer and other soccer organizations to respect the religious rights of the Sikhs affected by the ban and to respect the turban as a religious symbol.

While the QSF decision was rightly questioned, few questioned whether the turban is in fact the religious symbol for Sikhs. Is the turban sacrosanct?

I’m not convinced it is. At best, the turban is a cultural symbol Sikhs have borrowed from Punjabi culture, one with the practical benefit of assisting them in upholding what is a religious practice – the practice of not cutting their hair (‘kesh’).

The Sikh religion does not prescribe any form of head dress (including turbans) for its followers. The Guru Granth Sahib says nothing on this matter.The Sikh tradition holds that the requirement of keeping unshorn hair was ordained by their tenth guru, Gobind Singh, who in 1699, organized the Sikhs into the khalsa, a community which would adopt the five “K’s.” This crucial event, reenacted every year during the Vaisakhi celebration is, as Jasjit Grewal notes in Sikh History From Persian Sources, an essentially hagiographical account and not a strictly historical one in our understanding of the word.

The turban was not one of the five “K’s.” It was rather an Indic, Islamicate and Punjabi cultural symbol, worn by emperors, princes, gurus, faqeers, sadhus, pirs and the ulema alike. As a cultural symbol, it connoted manly honour, nobility and respect. My guess is that it was adopted and absorbed by the Sikh community as such. By comparison, the “kirpan” (one of the five “K’s”), notes Grewal, was adopted into Sikhism from Punjabi culture, in this case from Punjabi Jatt farmers who carried daggers on guard against would be dacoits.

British colonialism also played a major role in turning the turban into a feature of Sikh identity.  Cohn points out that the turban became a part of Sikh identity due to British army recruitment practices. Thanks to the British recruiting the Khalsa Sikhs en masse into the army, the Sikh turban became  “standardized” and distinguished from the turbans of other Punjabis. The result was a distinctive Sikh head-dress and sense of cultural self-identity.

The turban was part of this ongoing quest for self-identification amongst Sikhs from the nineteenth century onwards, including the publication of Sikh revivalist literature, the adoption of the Gurmukhi script for Punjabi by Sikhs and Sikh control of thir own religious institutions.

Finally, in 1950, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), legislated in the Sikh code of conduct that a Sikh must bear “kesh” or unshorn hair. Even the SGPC though did not mandate the use of the turban to keep the “kesh” in place.

So is the Sikh turban a religious symbol and do questions concerning the turban pertain to religious rights and freedoms? The above I hope starts a dialogue on this question rather than have us believe something is sacred just because we’re told so.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

J.S. Grewal, Sikh History from Persian Sources: Translations of Major Texts (ed. J.S. Grewal and Irfan Habib), Tulika, University of Michigan: 2008.

Bernard S. Cohn. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton University Press, 1996).

13 comments on “Counterpoint: Why do Sikhs Wear Turbans?

  1. bhupinder says:

    I just noticed the comment addressed to me by anonymous.
    I used the word evolved in a general (dictionary) sense i.e. To develop or achieve gradually. Hope it clarifies.

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  2. bhupinder says:

    I just noticed the commend addressed to me by anonymous.
    I used the word evolved in a general (dictionary) sense i.e. To develop or achieve gradually. Hope it clarifies.

    Like

  3. Sanjeev says:

    A well written and thought provoking article.

    Having said that, there is another perspective that one needs to consider. If one does not believe in things handed down through generations – be it traditions, knowledge, beliefs – then there may not be any time for anything new : since you’ll always be reinventing the wheel and testing the truth of every belief, knowledge and traditions – generation after generation!

    Today a turban is a symbol of Sikh identity and one should let it be as long Sikhs want it to be so.

    There are beliefs that are harmless and others that are not. And I think that the tradition of wearing turban falls in the category of being harmless. After all a turban is a clothing used to cover the head. If it is a security issue, then I guess most clothing is.

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  4. biswajit says:

    dont fool ur brain ,kesh kanga kirpan kacha kara are the five symbol of sikh .turban is to cover the long uncut hai and to protect from dust and to prevent hair fall here and there.THOUGH I am no sikh ,being hindu we love sikh religion ,nobody have any right to ban turban or five k .Sikhs have done enoug for the people of India and as well as whole mankind .If you don not believe pls have a look on the history of sikh during ancient time,world war 1world war 2, Ajad hind fauj(I.N.A.)1965 and 19711965 indo china war,1971 indo pak war ,kargil etc.

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  5. PAHS says:

    There is nothing wrong being in an atheist. Gurbani teaches love for every one: believer or non believer.
    But This a is funny argument to blame British for Sikh Turban, Banda Bhadur Singh was the first one to establish Khalsa Raj in Northern India. He was the first Brave Heart of India to challenge the Might of Mugals. Please read the following book by Mr Madra to enlighten your knowledge: “Sicques, Tigers, or Thieves”:: Eyewitness Accounts of the Sikhs (1606-1809)

    In 1812, Sir John Malcom, a Lieutenant General in the British Army wrote “A Sketch of the Sikhs,” commonly believed to be the first account of the Sikhs written by a non-Sikh. In truth, soldiers, travelers, diplomats, missionaries, and scholars had provided accounts for many years before that. Drawing on this difficult-to-find material, the editors of this volume have compiled a unique source that offers a fascinating insight into the early developments in Sikh history. From the first ever written accounts of the Sikhs by Persian chroniclers of the Moghul Emperor to the travel diary of an Englishwoman, this volume contains material invaluable to those studying the evolution of the Sikh religion.

    Debate is good but history books get re-written by rulers of time to their convenience and justify their logic. Some Sikhs may tie Turban or not but it will always hold very special place in Sikh Psyche and cannot be changed by merely writing books against this practice. Sikhs have given innumerable sacrifices because of their distinct identity and believes for Sarbat Da Bhalla: and they will continue to do so.

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  6. trilok43 says:

    I would ask the activists in France,who complicated the position of the Sikh boys in French Government schools,who were refused permission to wear turbans,not to present Turban as one of the Ks.We have to adopt other logics to explain the turbans on the heads on Indian,Pakistani,Afghani,Irani and other asian men.It is thousand years old tradition among the Asian communities that we cover our heads as honorable persons.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Questions on some of the responses.

    Regarding Bhupinder’s comment that “every religion evolves,” has Sikhism “evolved?”

    Regarding Sadhu’s remark regarding people using emotions to view my argument – what are those emotions based on?

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  8. Anonymous says:

    A good read. Inspired me to start wearing a turban. The problem however, I don’t have any hair.

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  9. rspurewall says:

    Thanks Bhupinder. It is an invented tradition, and a reified one.

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  10. bhupinder says:

    I’d say that the turban as a religious symbol is an “invented tradition”. Every religion evolves, and so has Sikhism, and it adds to its legacy. There may not be an indication of wearing the turban in the texts, but it has become of Sikh identity- thanks to the British.

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  11. Thank you Randeep for writing this article. It is a good piece of writing for a number of reasons. To start, just to raise questions the way you have done (we have long forgotten about Buddha and others like him in our past) is something we need to re-learn to do. Too much blind following all around in our communities. People may agree or disagree but to raise issues as you have done is great. And this is the first I have heard someone raising the question of turbans and Sikhs. It is an issue that needs to be discussed. You will, definitely make some people very angry for doing so. I think your argument is very strong but that will not make much difference. It is not logic but emotions that will be used to view your argument. And what surprised me the most is that you are not even an atheist. – Oh one correction. It is Jasjit Singh Grewal not Jarnail Singh Grewal – the Sikh historian.

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  12. I am serious when I suggest that, if kids are head-butting in soccer, maybe they should ALL wear turbans.

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