Mukhya Khalsa: Living the Sikh life in Juneau

Posted: Friday, July 26, 2002

Mukhya Khalsa began learning Kundalini yoga in California when she was 16, and by the time she was 18 was practicing the Sikh dharma, the lifestyle of Sikhism.

"The master of Kundalini yoga was a Sikh, so eventually a lot of us students were like, 'You wear this turban, what is your religion?' " Khalsa said. "He started telling us stories and it just felt right; there was just this click there for a lot of us. A lot that we do in Kundalini yoga segues real nicely with being a Sikh."

Sikhism was founded in 1469 in Northern India by Guru Nanak and has about 23 million adherents. Early Sikh settlers started arriving in North America at the end of the 19th century.

"Yoga is just a technology we use," said Mukhya's husband, Hari Dev Singh Khalsa. "Sikhism is a whole different spiritual practice. There shouldn't be any confusion."

Sikhism's central theological belief is there is one God for all of creation that is attainable through meditation and remembrance of the name of God. Sikhism teaches tolerance and respect for all individuals regardless of their color, creed, gender, religion or national origin.

After Mukhya Khalsa graduated from college, she didn't know where she wanted to live. Her mother's friend was going to Anchorage, and, knowing there were Sikhs in Anchorage, she asked to go along.

Mukhya met Hari Dev Singh Khalsa there, and they were married for 10 years before moving to Juneau in 1990.

"He grew up in Anchorage and was just checking out the Sikhs when I got there," Mukhya said. "I'd been a Sikh for about six years already."

As far as they know, Mukhya, Hari Dev Singh Khalsa and their family are the only Sikhs in Juneau.

"It's tough," Hari Dev Singh Khalsa said. "It's lonely sometimes."

Patty Fluegel, a family friend, joked that in Juneau there might be a Sikh in hiding whom they are unaware of, and Mukhya and Hari Dev Singh agreed that if it were true, they must find him.

"I'd say to him, 'Come on out, it's safe now, all the white people will leave you alone,' " Hari Dev Singh Khalsa said with a laugh. "The food's not that good, but we'll cook for you."

Mukhya Khalsa has lived in Juneau for 11 years and works for the National Marine Fisheries Service as a computer programmer. She has a 22-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son who are in college. She has been teaching Kundalini yoga for 11 years, just recently cutting back to two informal classes a week.

Mukhya Khalsa said there are many things people do normally as they live without thinking of the effects, while the Sikh dharma calls for a conscious-thought lifestyle.

"I think of it as scientific because there's a technology," she said. " 'To rise early in the morning' - that's a phrase we use. To meditate in the Amrit Vela (early morning). We take a cold shower or bath first thing in the morning.

"We get up and for those of us who do yoga we do yoga and we meditate and do Sikh prayers," she said.

Mukhya Khalsa said an important Sikh concept is giving 10 percent of one's time to God, and meditating on God's name throughout the day by repeating it on one's breath.

"That's how intimate your feeling of God should be," she said. "Your breath comes from God; you're remembering God with every breath. If you've mastered it, you're conscious of it all the time. It's like an altered state of awareness where you're conscious of reality."

Another tenet of Sikh dharma is to earn one's own living, a concept that is stated specifically because in India it is part of some religions to beg, she said. Because of this belief, Sikhs do not gamble and must give away some of what they earn.

"We feed a lot of people," Mukhya Khalsa said. "There's a tradition in India, ayurvedic medicine, that has to do with how you eat so that it's good for you, so it's healing, it's medicine.

"You don't eat just because it tastes good but because it's medicine."

Her dress is symbolic in the Sikh dharma. There are five symbols every Sikh should have, Mukhya Khalsa said - Kesh, Kirpan, Kara, Kanga and Kacchehra.

"Kesh is our hair," she said. "We never cut any of our hair, anywhere on our bodies because we don't believe in changing the way God made us. God made our body parts with a function; it's not accidental."

Kirpan is a sword representing the straight edge of truth, which she wears symbolically as a sword-pendant around her neck. She said it represents defense of the weak and innocent and has great historical significance.

Kara is a steel circle worn on the wrist, signifying bondage to truth and freedom from entanglement; it symbolizes the commitment of Sikhs to bow down only to God.

Kacchehra is specially made cotton underwear, worn as a reminder of a Sikh's commitment to purity.

"It represents chastity," she said. "We get married and we don't have sex out of marriage."

Kanga is a wooden comb tucked into a turban as a symbol of cleanliness. The turban is required for a variety of reasons, but generally acts as a crown of spirituality and a symbolic affront to caste systems. Historically, only the rulers in India could wear the style of turban Sikhs now wear.

"They were not supposed to wear this style of turban because it was punishable by death," Mukhya Khalsa said. "Sikhs throughout history have done a lot of things to break castes, which were really this iron straitjacket on the people of India."

In November 2001, Mukhya and Hari Dev Singh Khalsa went to India on a Yatra, or spiritual journey. They visited Amritsar, the home of Sikhism and the Golden Temple, the most sacred of the Sikh shrines.

"Our goal was to go to the Golden Temple and pray for world peace every morning," Hari Dev Singh Khalsa said. "We would go there about 2 a.m. every morning and stay there for several hours until it got crowded."

They also visited the boarding school their children attended in India.

"They learned a lot about being Sikhs there, a lot more than I could help them with," Mukhya Khalsa said. "They take instruction better from strangers."

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