Changigarh, India — Looking every inch a king or a maharajah, the Sikh Army officer strode into the hotel lobby -- erect and proud with a magnificent black beard, a twirled-up moustache, and a royal-red turban.
A model for his fellow 13 million Sikhs in this land of 652 million people?
Not necessarily. Many of them would sooner dispense with the colorful, conspicuous headgear and melt into the Indian masses. But this would be contrary to the Sikh religion.
Sikhism, which sprang from Hinduism 500 years ago as a protest against Hindu subservience to a tyrannical (Mislim) Mogul overlordship and became a fighting force, is a religion apart.
Sikhs (the word Sikh means disciple) do not smoke or take intoxicants. Some even refuse tea or coffee because they contain caffeine, a stimulant.
But it is their beards and turbans, apart from their capacity for efficiency and and hard work, that singles them out in India, even though they represent less than 2 percent of the total population. and that's the rub. More and more Sikhs are taking off their turbans and shaving their beards, says a non-Sikh computer scientist returning to the Punjab, home of the Sikhs, after a visit to Norway.
"They say, 'What is the logic? It's more important what you think than what what you wear." . . . I would say 90 percent of the sikhs who go abroad are stopping wearing the turban. They say they don't want to be different in this modern world."
Another non-Sikh says, "I was at a New Year's party given by Sikhs. Most of the Sikhs were not wearing turbans and some were even smoking." All this pains orthodox Sikh Gurdial Singh, a New Delhi schoolteacher who says it takes him only about five minutes every morning to put on his emerald green turban (it can take others up to 25 minutes).
Mr. Singh concedes that casting off the turban is becoming a growing trend but adds that the logic "for not wanting to appear Sikh is not good. What we wear is our identification -- a sign to other Sikhs that we can help them. This dress is also our discipline. If we are not a disciplined class, we cannot progress."
Discipline is a highly developed trait in Sikhs, whose greatest contributions have been in the Army (about one in every four in the Indian Army is a Sikh, though they are only 1 in 50 in the total population), in transport, and farming where they have possibly done more than anyone else to lift Indian agriculture to self-sufficiency.
Dr. D. S. Sidhu, professor of economics at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana and himself a Sikh, says: "Prayer, hard work, and distribution [of charity]. These are a must for every Sikh."
Sikhism was not just a militant reaction to Islam. It is a distinct faith that brought about a social revolution in north India five centuries ago. It rejected the caste system, provided equal opportunity to the depressed, and was a general leveler of society -- characteristics that Sikhs claim Mohandas Gandhi incorporated in his philosophy.
Girdan Singh, the Sikh New Delhi schoolteacher, says stress on individual hard work and charity to each other means Sikhs are never a social burden.
"You can see Sikhs all over the place in the world," he explains. "You'll never find, well, very seldom find a Sikh beggar because out guru [spiritual leader] said whatever you get you must divide up among yourselves."
Sikh charity even extends to a free meal to anyone, irrespective of religion, who is present at a Sikh temple at midday. Any notion though that Sikhism is merely an offshoot of Hinduism is categorically rejected by S.S. Johar, information bureau in NEw Delhi Who is also a Sikh:
"We're certainly not Hindus. We don't believe in their gods. We do not believe in many deities. Only one God. Just like Christians. To us God is just God."