As Sikhism celebrates its 500th anniversary this year, the religion is racked by a division that threatens to split its ranks.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (April 9) reports that the seemingly minor issue of whether to take a religious meal while seated at a table or on the floor has unleashed a string of violent incidents, not to mention a defacto schism. Traditionally, Sikh’s have shared the community meal, known as langar, sitting on the floor as a sign of equality.
But in many temples, tables and chairs have been allowed to accommodate the elderly and infirm, especially on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada The conflict first unfolded in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1997, when fundamentalists” removed furniture from a temple. When moderates attempted to bring back the chairs and tables a near riot broke out.
After similar incidents and protests in other temples in the U.S. and Canada, the leader of the Golden Temple, Ranjit Singh, mandated last April that tables and chairs be removed from temple dining halls. Singh has been a favorite of hardliners, although critics note that he was convicted of murdering a rival in 1980 (eventually pardoned, however). A lawsuit filed by moderates last year brought them back into power in the prominent Ross Street Temple in Vancouver, but this only caused a new round of violence.
Last November, the publisher of a community newspaper critical of the hard-liners was shot to death. Another hard-liner in Florida opened fire in a temple killing one person. Ken Bryant, a University of British Columbia expert on Sikhism says the conflict involves Sikhism’s anti-hierarchical and anti-caste origins, where “there was a strong reaction against the notion of expensive temples and paid priests.”