White House Celebrates Guru Nanak's Birth-Anniversary

WASHINGTON, DC (November 13, 2014) — The White House invited a large group of Sikhs to officially celebrate the 545th birth-anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Ashley Allison, the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, welcomed the group of Sikhs to the White House grounds with a tradition Sikh greeting and said, "Welcome to the White House". The celebration, which included langar in honor of the founder of Sikhism, brought together Sikhs from around the country for this auspicious occasion. The langar began with ardas from Sulakhan Singh. All attendees joined Singh in opening prayers within the White House walls.

Tina Tchen, Special Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady, conveyed the greetings from the First couple and said, "I had the privilege of working with the Sikh community since I have joined the White House and I would like each one of you to stay in touch with us." President Obama had issued a statement on the day of Guru Nanak's birth-anniversary last week congratulating the Sikh community.

Congressman Mike Honda from California, who fought a fierce election battle to be re-elected, joined the celebrations. He reflected on the importance of the day and said, "What Guru Nanak taught is very much relevant today.  Your community has a glorious history in America and you have contributed immensely to this nation. "

He congratulated Jaskeerat Singh, the first full fledged police officer hired in California with his full Sikh identity, whose brother Ravi Singh was in the audience. Congressman Honda also honored the first Sikh American congressperson, Dalip Singh Saund, who is also the first Asian American to be elected to Congress. Saund left a “legacy of change,” said Honda.  Honda spoke about issues of bullying that Sikh youth experience and his efforts to make sure no child is discriminated against.  He added, "We need to make sure that we hire Sikh teachers in the school systems to increase diversity which would also help in creating awareness about Sikh faith and Sikh culture."

The main event began with a kirtan performance by Mata Mandir Kaur, Sat Kartar Singh and Bibi Amarjit Kaur.  This was followed by a musical presentation by young musical stars among Sikhs, Gagandeep Singh from Portland Oregon playing Mandolin accompanied by Jashon Singh from New York on the tabla. They presented a number in Raag Bageshri, enthralling the audience with their engaging performance.

Dr. Rajwant Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education and President of EcoSikh, said, " We are thankful to President Obama for opening the doors of the White House to the Sikh community to make us feel that our religion and our community is well-respected in America."

Simran Jeet Singh, PhD candidate at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Sikh Coalition delivered the keynote speech. Singh spoke about the influence Guru Nanak’s words has had on his own life and how the teacher’s wisdoms on equality and service to others ring true today.

He said, "The values that Guru Nanak imparted closely mirror some of our most basic American values. Sikhism, like America, places immense emphasis on freedom, equal opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness. They are founded on principles of social equality and justice. Both also benefit from holding worldviews that prioritize acceptance, and the outlook of pluralism has helped both communities thrive in contexts of diversity and difference." He added, "Sikhism and America share the fundamental principles of integrity, hard work, and service, and both seek to uphold righteousness in the face of injustice."

In addition to the keynote, two panel discussions were organized. The first focused on school bullying and was paneled by Alice Yao from the White House Initiative on Asian-American and Pacific Islanders and Rajdeep Singh of The Sikh Coalition. The panelists spoke on their organizations’ efforts to combat bullying of young Sikhs in school. Yao is leading a task force for the White House to specifically target bullying issues and identify ways that the federal government can support schools, teachers, and students in creating a safe school environment.

The next panel was composed of EcoSikh President Dr. Rajwant Singh and Dr. Rucha Kavathe of United Sikhs. Dr. Singh acknowledged the landmark agreement between the U.S. and China, which outlines a track for the world’s largest polluting nations to reduce their greenhouse emissions over the next 20 years. He declared, "As we are celebrating Guru Nanak's birthday, we need to commit ourselves to really work on his vision which was to hold earth and God's creation with reverence. Climate change is a moral issue and people of faith need to take a stand and work with our leaders to make the right decisions on this critical issue."

Dr. Singh spoke of the impact climate change has had so far on our environment. Dr. Singh also spoke about EcoSikh’s partnerships with interfaith organizations to create youth workshops on environmental issues and his work with the Department of Energy to create a special liaison for faith leaders concerning climate change. Dr. Singh was accompanied by Dr. Kavathe, who spoke on issues of wellbeing, the Affordable Care Act, and universal healthcare.

“A life saving procedure shouldn’t cost your life savings,” said Dr. Kavathe. United Sikhs has been a health-focused organization that has run blood drives and informational sessions on health issues that plague the Sikh community, such as diabetes and hypertension. Dr. Kavathe ended her remarks with a quote from Dr. Paul Farmer: “I can’t show you how, exactly, healthcare is a basic human right. But what I can argue is that no one should have to die because of a disease that is treatable.”

The evening was brought to a close with remarks from Indra Kaur Alhuwalia, Member of the Board of Directors for the Sikh-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF). “Guru Nanak Dev Ji modeled how to live in a diverse and material world. He showed us how to fully cooperate with others, no matter his or her religion or occupation, and to build an existence based on equality and service,” said Alhuwalia.

“I am proud of the successes and continued efforts of these diverse organizations. Their goals benefit not only the Sikh community but the global community as well,” said Sumeet Kaur, U.S. program manager for EcoSikh. “When we come together and live with the wisdom of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, everyone benefits and we create a more sustainable future,” she continued. “It is the highest honor to be so well received in the White House, and we hope future administrations will continue the rich tradition of recognizing Sikh Americans and their work alive.”

Other attendees of the celebration included Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, who was a Bronze Star medal recipient, Gurwin Singh Ahuja from the White House Trade office, as well as representatives from EcoSikh, Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), Sikh Coalition, SALDEF, National Sikh Campaign, United Sikhs, and many active members of the Sikh community from Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Tina Tchen, Special Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady

Congressman Mike Honda

Kamal Kalsi, Aman Singh, Rajwant Singh, Satkartar Singh and Sapreet Kaur

Kirtan by Bibi Amarjit Kaur and Jashon Singh (right) on Tabla. Satkartar Singh on guitar

Simran Jeet Singh speaking at the White House

Panel on Bullying- Alice Yao from the White House Initiative on Asian-American and Pacific Islanders and Rajdeep Singh of The Sikh Coalition.

Panel on Climate Change and Affordable Care Act - EcoSikh President Dr. Rajwant Singh and Dr. Rucha Kavathe of United Sikhs.

Indira Ahluwalia of SALDEF

Mata Mandir Kaur lea ding the hymn from Japji Sahib written by Guru Nanak

Sikhs at the White House celebrations along with President Obama's staff

Gagandeep Singh on Mandolin and Jashon Singh on Tabla


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