Category Archives: sikhism

The subtle knife

Reader -k from The Blonde Canadian has alerted me to another interesting religious issue, following on from my post about hijabs at school. The issue involves the kirpan, the ceremonial sword worn by baptised Sikhs, or Khalsa Sikhs.

To wear a kirpan is one of the five commandments followed by a baptised Sikh. Others include not cutting the hair, carrying or wearing a wooden comb in the hair, wearing special undergarments and wearing a steel bracelet called a kara.

The wearing of a kirpan shows that the Sikhs are to be as fearless as lions. (The name Singh, which all Sikh men have as a middle name or surname, means “lion”). It also symbolises the power of truth to cut through untruth. For many years, Sikhs in the Punjab were forbidden from wearing kirpans, and thus it has an important symbolism.

The Sikh principle is “Fear not, Frighten not.” Sikhs are to protect the weak from tyranny and slavery. The kirpan is never to be used aggressively, according to the principle of ahimsa or non-violence. However, a Sikh must not stand by while violence is being done. In those circumstances, a kirpan can be used to prevent violence towards a defenceless person, but only as an absolute last resort.

I have some close Sikh friends, and they can indeed be as fierce as lions, but they are also very compassionate people. When I first met my husband, he had to withstand the scrutiny of my “Indian brothers” – the fact that they approved of him was an important indicator of his qualities, added to the fact that he took the scrutiny in his stride. And he came to a bhangra dance night with me. What a trooper!

The Victorian Multicultural Commission has made a submission to a Parliamentary Commission saying that students should be allowed to wear signs of their faith to school. This includes Sikh students, whom the VMC says should be allowed to wear kirpans to school.

But the President of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess has reportedly responded, saying, “I would not support this in any way, shape or form. It’s not appropriate that something that can be used as a weapon is brought into school. Can you take it on an aircraft? Can you take it into the MCG?”

The President of the Victorian Australian Education Union, Mary Bluett agreed, saying, “There’s no place for weapons of any kind, ceremonial or otherwise, in schools.”

It’s true that carrying a kirpan is a vexed issue in this security conscious society. The Sikh Coalition has a summary of recent legal cases in the US, the UK and Canada on the topic. But it seems to me that Mr Burgess and Ms Bluett have acted instinctively to say that kirpans should not be carried, without a deeper understanding of what the kirpan symbolises, and when it is to be used. A Khalsa Sikh who used the kirpan in anger as a weapon could face excommunication by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in Amritsar, Punjab (the body which passes verdict on Sikh matters). A person who used the kirpan inappropriately could also face ostracism by their community.

It seems to me that a minority of students would wear a kirpan, and that, with a full understanding of Sikh tradition, it can be seen that the likelihood of students using the kirpan in an inappropriate or violent manner would be very low indeed.  In this context, it seems appropriate that Khalsa Sikhs should be able to wear a kirpan to school.

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