Millennial Sikhs show vitality on elite level, lagging influence in congregational life

American Sikhs of the millennial generation are pioneering new human rights and political groups and are highly literate when it comes to Sikh teachings and rituals, but their influence has yet to be felt on the local congregational level. That is the conclusion of a series of articles on Sikh millennials in a special issue of the journal Sikh Formations (December). Millennial Sikhs are the first generation brought up without the memory of Sikh conflict in India and the subsequent waves of immigration to the West. Instead, they are more influenced by the impact of 9/11 and their backgrounds of American upbringing by immigrant parents who attempted to inoculate them from losing their faith and traditions through establishing schools associated with their gudwaras (or congregations). Charles Townsend writes that such training has made the millennial generation well-versed in the sacred musical and performative practice known as Gurbani kirtan, making them capable of performing all the rituals that a granthi (leader of the gudwara) does. Yet the younger generation, especially its elite members, have instead channeled their energies into online and home-based religious practice, political activism, and a concern with fighting discrimination. One young Sikh leader, Simaran Jeet Singh, has gained a following by stressing how a “divine force” brings people together under an umbrella of spirituality, equality, and service —drawing on the formative influence that Star Wars has had on this generation by even using the phrase “May the force be with you” in talks.

In another article, Pashaura Singh writes that the most successful millennial Sikh anti-discrimination effort has been a campaign to allow Sikhs in the military to practice their faith, including wearing the turban and other religious symbols. The small swords that Sikhs carry have been reinterpreted from being signs of militancy to fighting for social justice. Sikh millennial elites have lined up on both sides of the political aisle. Some took pride when Sikh prayers were recited at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and when Nikki Haley, who is of Sikh background but publicly identifies as Christian, was nominated as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. Singh writes that these Sikh millennial elites have “followed the method of ‘pick and choose’ from the received Sikh tradition and presented universal Sikh values in such a way that will make sense to a large majority of people from Judeo-Christian backgrounds in North America.” But these elites, and many Sikh millennials in general, have not sought to gain entry to leadership in gudwaras—not yet catching up to other religious traditions where the second generation has made its mark on congregational life. Leaders consist of Indian nationals and older immigrants where Punjab is still the standard language, and the sharp growth of gudwaras in recent years (to about 400) has been marked by factionalism and politics—all factors that turn off millennials, who tend to stress cooperation. Other trends that Singh cites among millennials include a growth of women in Sikh organizations and a growth of Sikh martial arts.

(Sikh Formations,