This is the latest installment in a long story about my struggles with BYU's administration after finding out that although I'd been allowed a beard in order to act in Church films (despite a rule BYU has had against beards since the late 1960s), a Sikh friends of mine had been denied permission to keep a beard in accordance with Khalsa Sikh religious practice. If you're interested in this story, you should probably start reading at the beginning.
Part Four: Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
One of the best parts of transferring to BYU was getting the opportunity to take a Hindi class. Hindi, in addition to being the language of Bollywood cinema, is closely related to Urdu, a language with a poetic tradition I'm particularly enthralled with, and to my grandfather's native language, Punjabi (which, despite my great-grandmother's efforts, I'd never learned). Understandably, the small liberal arts college I came from did not offer Hindi, so I was very excited to be in a school that did.
As it turned out, my teacher, Akash, was a native Punjabi speaker! He was an international student from Deradun, in northern India, who was in his final year in a computer science degree. I also noticed he was wearing a kara, the steel bangle which is one of the "five Ks," symbols of Sikhism. Because Akash was clean-shaven, though, I assumed he either wasn't part of the Khalsa (the Sikh lay priesthood) or else wasn't orthodox.
I'd been in class for over a month before the subject somehow came up, and I found out I was wrong. Akash had been raised into a devout family and never cut his hair for the first eighteen years of his life. He was accepted to BYU and arrived still wearing long beard and carefully-combed hair under a turban. Only then did he discover that BYU would require him, also, to cut his hair and shave. He tried meeting with various officials to be granted an exemption, but was told that BYU no longer granted religious exemptions to this particular provision of its Honor Code. They had once done so, but were concerned that some people had faked religious convictions to be allowed beards, and the administration's solution was to stop granting any waivers.
Akash was left with basically two options: give up his admission and accompanying student visa and return to India and hope for the best for another school year somewhere else, or break his religious covenant to keep certain symbols as expressions of his faith in order to remain.
He talked to his family who, he told me, were split on the issue: his grandfather, in particular, didn't want Akash to compromise his faith and assimilate. His mother, in particular, was more concerned about the high stakes in terms of getting education and preparing himself for a stable economic future.
Akash chose to stay. When I knew him, though, he still hadn't reconciled himself to his decision. "Guru Gobind Singh told us: that's your identity" he said of the kesh, or uncut hair, "No one can take that away from you." And yet, in a way, they had: Akash had been given a choice, true: he didn't need to come to BYU (although I doubt they made a point of telling him that his faith wouldn't justify a rules exemption before he came); he didn't have to stay. And yet with all the opportunity BYU presented and the university's failure to make clear their position in advance, is it really fair to say this was all a matter of Akash's choice? Even if we are always technically free, certain pressures are strong enough to count as coercive.
Akash was forced, by a religious university, to compromise his own religion. That's wrong. It's especially wrong that for the sake of some church films I, a non-Sikh, could keep a long beard where as he, who had made a promise to God not to cut his hair and beard, had not been granted an exemption.
At the time, I thought of it basically as a tragic oversight: BYU officials, ignorant of Sikhism (they'd even initially listed Akash as Hindu on their records: a clerical error that particularly upset him as someone who grew up in the shadow of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots), just didn't understand the implications of their policy for Sikhs. If someone could just explain to them, in Mormon terms, what they were doing, they would see that the policy needed to change. . . wouldn't they?
Next up: in Part Five, taking action to encourage change.
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