At a Sikh temple, opinions reflect conflicting religious traditions

On the day that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the temple of the Sikh Religious Society here in Palatine, Ill., was quiet. On the unadorned lower level, the priest, Mohindar Singh, greeted his visitors. He asked them to take off their shoes and he covered their heads with kerchiefs before leading them upstairs to the place of worship. There, in a large and naturally lighted room, Mr. Singh bowed deeply before the Sikh holy book, then sat cross-legged on the carpeting.

''I don't like this kind of killing,'' he says of the recent assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. ''It's not the solution.'' But others in this congregation of about 500 famillies saw it as necessary, he adds.

The different reactions point out a chronic problem with Sikhs in the United States. Traditionally, they have been divided. So divided, in fact, that ''there is no Sikh community in the United States,'' says Gerald Barrier, a history professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. There are only Sikh factions, he says, divided by caste and regional differences.

For the moment, these deep divisions have been forgotten, as angry Sikhs have rallied behind the call for greater Sikh autonomy. But it is not at all clear whether this unity can be preserved after the anger dies down, observers say.

In part, this is due to differences among Sikh immigrants. The first wave consisted of peasants, settling during the early 1900s in the logging country of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest and the fertile farmland of northern California. In the 1960s and '70s, a second wave of Sikh professionals formed large communities in the cities of New York, Houston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. More recently, their less-educated relatives have also been coming in. At least 60,000 Sikhs, perhaps many more, live in North America today, says Bruce La Brack, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of the Pacific.

But the splits are also due to the Sikh religion itself.

''The Sikhs don't see a difference between religious community and political community,'' says Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of religious studies at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley. ''And they feel whatever political order there is should reflect the religious character of their society.''

The problem is that since its beginnings in medieval Hinduism, Sikhism has tried to balance two, contradictory traditions. While the Sikhs' first guru, Nanak, preached nonviolence, their 10th and last guru, Govind Singh, used the religion to organize Sikhs into a military force.

Periodically, this warlike tradition - with its paranoidal need for an enemy - has resurfaced, experts say. In the early 1900s, Sikhs participated in and finally took over the radical Ghadr Party in the United States, aiming to free India from the British Empire. During World War I, the underground group collaborated with the Germans. In 1921, several hundred American Sikhs returned to India to continue the fight.

Even today, this dilemma between pacifism and militarism has not been solved.

''In the religion, we don't condone violence,'' Singh says. But when all the peaceful means are exhausted, ''you should put your hand on the sword.''

The dilemma between pacifism and militarism continues. 'In the religion, we don't condone violence,' says Mohindar Singh. But when all peaceful means are exhausted, 'you should put your hand on the sword.'

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