Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Final Countdown

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

Like many of my classmates I decided it would be worthwhile to summarize all of my discoveries this month in London. During this post I will focus on six main themes found within London: Parks, Churches, Pubs, Other Religious Institutions, Theatre and Museums. 


Each park that I visited had its own distinct characteristics that separated it from any other. Green Park was the first I visited and after perusing a few others, I realized there was nothing that exciting about it. Located right across from Buckingham Palace, Green Park certainly provides a good place to go and take a break from the busy atmosphere of the area. Besides this however there is not much going on and I would recommend that potential park goers walk the extra distance over to St. James Park.

In addition to the large number of waterfowl heckling people for food which offers consistent entertainment St. James offers some picturesque  flower beds throughout and various monuments along the way. It has the relaxing atmosphere of Green Park with a bit more excitement sprinkled in.

Regents Park offers a completely different feel from Green or St. James. Located in a separate area of London, Regents Park has a history of being used by a higher end crowd. I could tell this immediately from the feel of the park. The decorative shrubbery and elegant architecture throughout gave me a feeling that Regents is not as well used as other parks.

Since I was one of the members of the Parks group that gave a walking tour of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens I could go into a lot more detail about these two green spaces but I will choose not to in an effort to be concise. In summary Hyde Park is the largest green space in London and is often used for larger events such as concerts, festivals etc. It also contains a large number of monuments throughout including the 7/7 memorial and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Kensington Gardens is home to a variety of key monuments but is not as well trodden as Hyde. Overall it makes for a quieter atmosphere, more conducive fo reading or “snogging”.

Regents Park were my two favorite green spaces in London. Regents, is both beautiful, and extremely large and I continually felt the need to go back and explore. Kensington Gardens appealed to me in that it was quainter than Hyde Park but contained a like amount of history and monuments throughout. Although I would be content spending a length of time in any London green space Regents and Kensington would be my top choices.


Overall I enjoyed going to the theatre on so many occasions. What better place to do so than in London after all? Here I will discuss my favorite performances and theatre venues.

All in all I enjoyed all but two of the performances we saw. The two Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theatre were fantastic. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading Troilus and Cressida it made a huge difference to be there so close to the actors. The fantastic drum chorus at the end really sealed the deal. As You Like It was probably my favorite show I saw here in London. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays the actors really made it jump off the page. Being down it the pit was fantastic because of all the ad-libbing and constant interaction with the crowd. I even felt traces of Touchstone’s saliva on my arm at one point.

The other Shakespeare performance I saw, All’s Well That Ends Well, was lackluster. Although the Olivier was my favorite performing venue (this is what an auditorium style theatre should be like…why can’t Dickinson have something like this?) the play itself was odd and ended on an abrupt and odd note.

The other play we saw at the National Theatre, The Pitmen Painters, was fantastic. Although I was dozing a bit because of the Benadryl I took right before the show, the actors kept my attention and I appreciated that the play was based off of a true story. 

Easily the oddest play we saw was Arcadia. An extremely intelligent performance the play juxtaposed two different periods in time and created a singular storyline in which the plot was based. Overall it was an entertaining performance that made me think early and often.

Finally there was Blood Brothers. The lone musical I saw produced feelings of disbelief, anguish and held back laughter. The ridiculous 80’s sound track and creepy narrator just didn’t do it for me. I think it’s safe to say that I was not the only one from Humanities 309 who was a bit surprised to see just about everyone in the audience give it a standing ovation.

I had a very positive experience with the theatre here. I would go back to the globe again and again. I loved being that close to the action. I would also enjoy seeing another show in the Olivier. There really is so much to choose from here. It’s simply a matter of figuring out your tastes and saving your money so you can see a lot of performances.


From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral we saw most of the major churches/cathedrals during our month in London. St. Paul’s was easily my favorite. From the fantastic crypt to the hundreds of stairs up to the tower it had so much to offer in the way of history and mystique. Westminster Abbey fascinated me primarily because of all the literary figures that had been buried inside as well as the room that was dedicated to “The Order of the Bath”. Other churches that I really enjoyed taking a look at were: “St. Martin in the Fields” which sits just outside Trafalgar Square and Nicholas Hawkesmoore’s “Christ’s Church” which is located in very close proximity to Brick Lane.

Other Religious Institutions

Overall the Sikh Gurdwara was my favorite place that we visited. I appreciated the simplicity of the religious doctrine as well as the conviction and honesty with which our tour guide, Mr. Singh spoke. The morning was capped off with a fantastic sit down meal together in which everyone was served the same food and drink.

I had different feelings about the Hindu Mandir. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the Hindu religion is not nearly as modest as Sikhism nor are they trying to be. From the extremely decorative prayer room, to the museum located right in the center of the Mandir I never felt particularly comfortable inside.

The only religious institution I wish we had gotten a chance to visit is a Mosque. I had been to one many years ago but I did not remember a whole lot from my experience. I wonder how much more lively the East End, and all parts of London would be if Ramadan were not taking place during our time here. 


I could go on and on about museums so I will attempt to stay as concise as possible.

The British Museum was massive, convenient since it was so close to the Arran House but a little one dimensional at times.  One of my favorite exhibits at the British Museum was a special exhibit on Living and Dying that drew information from all different time periods and cultures.

The National Gallery was fantastic. Although I have a hard time appreciating some visual art the gallery kept my attention for a number of hours. Seeing so many famous works of art was phenomenal. 

The Tate Modern was my least favorite museum here. Although I am trying I have a hard time understanding modern art. After about 45 minutes in this museum it ended up being too much for me.

The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum were two of my favorites. The realization that I was standing in one of the most important places in World War II history was unbelievable. The War Rooms felt so authentic. I really felt as though I had been taken back in time to the 1940’s while inside.

The Victoria and Albert was easily my favorite museum in London. There was so much variety inside and so much to see. I could have easily spent a few days inside. Two of my favorite exhibits were the silver and jewelry exhibits. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person but I found it unbelievable that individuals could even own such treasures. I also enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the V&A staff. At most of the other museums I visited I felt like I was doing them a disservice simply by being there. Although I understand that taking pictures of an object in a museum doesn’t do it  justice I like to be able to have the option of doing so.

The Sir John Soane museum interested me but it wasn’t really my cup of tea in the end. It also had a stuffy atmosphere to it that I didn’t really appreciate. 

One thing I can draw from my experience at museums here is that each and every one has something that distinguishes it. With so many museums I thought that it would be impossible to avoid some overlap but I never really felt that. Cheers to London and its museums.


Finally we have pubs. What would London be without it’s public houses? In some cases pubs are the true museums of London, designating what an area was like in the past and what type of clientele it attracted. During my month here I had a chance to visit a few pubs and get a general sense of what some possible differences could be. It is clear to me that each pub brings something different and unique to the table. The Marlborough Arms was convenient being so close to the Arran House and was a great place to enjoy a pint over a meal with friends. The Court was conducive to socializing in a different way. The music was louder, the people louder and the drinks cheaper. Other places I visited offered other things that made them stand out as well. One thing that i’ve learned about pubs is that it’s hard for one to please everyone. Since everyone has different tastes and desires when it comes to pubs you are better off going to one with a small cohesive group.

To conclude this novel I would just like to say that I think we saw a lot of different faces of London this month. I realize there is much more to see here but between walking tours throughout the city, trips to major monuments and museums and individual exploration I have learned a ton about London, it’s history and where it is going. I look forward to more London explorations in the future but for now, ON TO NORWICH!

Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Henry · Pubs · Theatre

A Matter of Humility

September 9th, 2009 · No Comments

I feel very fortunate to have been to both a Sikh Gurdwara and a Hindu temple in such a short period of time. Truly there are not two better examples of divergent immigrant communities than the Sikh and Hindi. Both religions originated from South Asia but due to differences in their philosophies, have taken to life in England quite differently. The followers at Wembley’s Shri Swaminarayan Mandir seem eager to embrace life in England, while the Sikh Gurdwara in Southall seems more intent on just existing wherever they are. Have these two religions been changed by England, or is it something about their inherent beliefs that have created these two different situations? Unfortunately for this blogger, the answer is: both.

A possible argument can be made for how long each religion has existed. In terms of age, Hinduism is one of the oldest religions to still be widely practiced in the world. Sikhism on the other hand is only an infant in comparison, starting around 1500. However, we cannot judge these two communities based on how long they have been in existence, but rather how long they have existed in their new homeland. Living in a country unlike India, there have undoubtedly been compromises that both religions have had to make in order to survive at the minimum in England. For example, followers of Hinduism in England have to come to terms that many of their non-believing coworkers, neighbors, etc. are very likely to have beef in their diet. On the other hand, Sikhs strictly forbid any kind of abortion, and yet must live in a country where it is tolerated. Therefore, we must consider not the original religions of Sikhism and Hinduism, but the new Sikh/British and Hindu/British identities they have certainly formed. According to the BBC (and their respective links here and here), both the Sikh and Hindis had their first large waves of immigration to England at around 1950, therefore we can not only say that both communities has the same amount of time to develop, but were affected by factors of the same time period. The differences in how their communities have adapted then must be caused by fundamental differences in their religion and how the reacted to life in England.

Thankfully, there are more than enough differences between both their religions and their England-based temples to ascribe these differences to. The largest of these differences is each religion’s sense of humility and how in turn that mentality changes the way each community acts in a capitalist society. As I was guided around each temple with my classmates and was able to look at my surroundings, this factor immediately struck me. The temple itself was furnished very modestly. While there were some places that were elaborate, the most impressive room was the main prayer hall. Although this was the place that an entire of community of Sikhs met to pray, the room was meant to hold the Sikh prayer book, not take away from it. To do this, the entire room was draped in white cloth and the only vibrant color in the entire room was displayed around their holy text. While the building was quite large, every part of it served a function and according to our guide cost around 17 million pounds.

In the case of the Gurdwara, the people who worked at the temple did not even have someone who was trained as a tour guide for their temple. The person that ended up showing us around was purely a student of the religion, and talked to us as such. The focus of his talk (from what I could hear, as he was speaking almost directly to Professor Qualls) was on the philosophies of his faith. What seemed to matter most to the man was the Sikhism’s emphasis of community and how those that followed the religion were part of the community without prejudice. The idea of a tightly knit community seems to be just what Sikh’s in England desire. Although they are immigrants just like the Hindis, they are without a doubt the minority religion of people from India, with there being slightly less than twice as many Hindus than Sikhs. In order to retain their relevance within England, it seems that Sikhs have pushed idea of a unified Sikh community to the level of the 5 K’s, five items that represent the pillars of Sikhism. While caring for and protecting the weak has always been a part of the Sikh religion, it would seem that in their immigration to England, Sikhs expanded this ideal in order to protect their people who in an instant became an even smaller minority than they already were. In addition to wanting to preserve the Sikh community, it seems that the philosophy of Sikhism does not mesh well with British capitalism. Take for example when we were told that we would be getting a free lunch. Most of us couldn’t understand why a temple would give out a free lunch to anyone who came to the temple. Our incredulity was well justified, as it was hard to imagine a group of people working towards pure charity rather than profit. It is likely for these reasons that Sikhism in England has not matched Hinduism in cultural influence.

Some of the students grumbled about how some of the money that went towards building the Gurdwara should have gone to the surrounding community, but those grumbles only fell to the wayside when we entered the Hindu temple. Although the Gurdwara was a large building, the Hindu temple looked to be almost twice as large, the reason for that being the temple’s head-first dive into capitalism. Upon entering the temple, the first thing you are immediately greeted with is the Cultural Center’s gift shop. The temple was also able to provide an actual tour guide who in many ways was the opposite of the Sikh guide. Instead of explaining about the fundamentals of Hinduism, the man instead explained about the magnificence of the building we were in, and how the materials that it was built from came from only the best places in the world. As a class we were shocked by the 16 million pound cost of the Sikh temple, but it is easy to imagine that a building of the Hindu temples grandeur easily cost hundreds of millions of pounds. While it seems that the Sikhs wish to believe in charity and modest (Pride is actually one of their five “vices”), the Hindus have no problem proving to everyone how great they are. In a country where it is up to each person to create his/her own success, Hinduism seems to be more of a fit than Sikhism.

While we now can possibly guess the reasons behind how these two different religious communities act, there is still the question of reason. Are these communities acting as such in order to assimilate with British society, or are they just trying to survive? It seems that each of the religious groups have chosen different paths, as the Hindus aim to thrive and the Sikhs simply want to exist. Is one choice more effective than the other? Will the Hindu’s give up too much of their beliefs in order to succeed? Will the Sikh’s reluctance to reach outside of their community force them to fade into irrelevancy? Only time will tell, but we can be certain that England will keep calm and carry on, with or without them.

Tags: Paul

We’re ALLLLL in this together

September 9th, 2009 · No Comments

I find the prompt a bit vague and difficult to answer simply because I’m not at all familiar with how Sikhs and Hindus adjust to life in London.  However, based upon what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the cultural identities of the two in the UK.  I actually think that a lot of their adaptation is similar, mainly because I link the two religions in my mind as well.

Just as an aside, I read a quote today by C.S. Lewis that reminded me of our visits to the two temples: “You don’t have a soul./You are a soul./You have a body.”  I think this is the perfect way to sum up Sikh and Hindu ideas regarding the relationship between God and humanity, that is to say, God can exist in all things and in all people.  I was particularly reminded of our guide in the Sikh temple who stressed the transience of the human body and the importance of tending to one’s soul.  However, it could also refer to the Hindu concept of “Atman,” or the true soul which transcends earthly existence and our false egos.  I think the relevance of the quote extends to each in equally significant ways.

I think the sense of community central to both Sikhism and Hinduism plays a huge role in the ways that these people adjust to London life.  Both temples stressed the fact that their buildings are a gathering place where people can congregate and worship.  In Salaam: Brick Lane and Brick Lane, I got the impression that Tarquin Hall and Nanzeen felt isolated in their respective communities because they were forced to adjust on their own.  Since Tarquin Hall and Nanzeen came from such different socioeconomic, cultural, and geographical backgrounds than their neighbors and friends, they both seemed to suffer from loneliness to some degree.  Each managed to cope until they became more comfortable with their surroundings, but it certainly took time and great effort.  I found that this was in direct contrast to the Hindu and Sikh communities that we visited.  They put great emphasis on community and togetherness, which makes for easier adjustment to a new culture simply because they are able to spend time in comfortable places with people who act in a familiar way.  Similarly, I was able to adjust to London life quickly because I am surrounded by people who are going through the same changes that I am.  From a psychological perspective, change is easier when one is not alone, and I think this is applicable to Sikhism and Hinduism.

Along those lines, both attempt to maintain this community through arranged marriages or simply marriages within their religion population.  Interestingly, BBC mentioned that online dating is increasing for both denominations.  This, to me, is the perfect balance between adaptation to a new culture and adherence to one’s background and history.  They are able to try new things while still congregating with those who share their own religious beliefs and morals.

Since this is getting quite long I’ll finish, and perhaps add more later..but for now, I think my general sentiment is that both Sikh and Hindu followers are able to adjust more easily than other religions because of their focus on community and willingness to support one another in their daily lives in London.

Tags: Amy

please observe silence

September 9th, 2009 · 1 Comment

   As I sit in the Hindu temple observing the religious practices, a sign reads “please observe silence.” 

    To me, there is a very thin line that separates the secular world and a religious world. Such a thin line that it is almost blurred. For me the “real world” seems to overpower the religious world. I can not help but to question whether liberation and equality exist in the “real world” even if religion may not always promote such values. The blur might exist for me because of my complicated story. I grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan with an Islamic family from my mother’s side and a Christian family on my father’s side. I was able to follow Islam religion by attending a Mosque once in a while, following the holidays, and observing my grandmother and my uncle praying for 30 days during Ramadan. Besides such factors, I have never considered my family too religious or “straight laced,”  even before coming to the United States, the influence that the U.S.S.R. had on Azerbaijan allowed me to grow up in a Westernized country, where religion was not the driving force  behind the society. Needless to say, I have not been to a Mosque in over nine years  and since coming to the United States, my grandmother and uncle gave up their “duty” of praying during Ramadan. However, there are many principles that I still follow and believe in and will most likely remain in my life. 

   Traveling to Sikh Gurdwara and  the Hindu temple has proven to be an experience that not only has allowed me to explore Sikhism and Hinduism but allowed me to question how I have interconnected my religion with my daily “real world” and furthermore question whether it is possible to be both religious and still live in a secular world. Therefore, I have tried to research how first and second generations have tried to maintain their religions while living in a very westernized world of England and how certain beliefs and concepts cross that blurred line that makes it impossible for someone like myself to follow strictly one religion. 

   Both, Sikhism and Hinduism have a following in London and England in general which would explain the large structures that were built in order to provide a space for practicing. Both of the religions have extensive histories and have specific worshipping rituals that include praying a few times a day, meditation, holy days, promote non-violence, and encourage continuous learning. One aspect of both religions that stuck out to me was the relationships the Temple, and the Gurdwara to form with younger generations because here is where the blurred line comes into play.

   Upon taking our tours, the topics of abortion, marriage, female and male roles, and liberation ran through my mind. My desire during the tours was to chat with those “youngsters” practicing in the Gurdwara, females who were sitting in the back while males were praying in the front of the Temple, males who are training to become monks and gurus and anyone else who is a first, second, or third generation individual trying to get rid of the blurred line and have their religion and their westernized culture exist together. 

   Although, I was not able to chat with any individuals besides our tour guides, I was able to find a few stories told by Second Generation Sikhs on the BBC website. In many recollections, the Sikhs such as Sody Singh Kahlon, mentioned being an eternal student and scholar. The attitudes of older generations and how they encourage younger generations to maintain their religions differ in Sikhism and Hinduism. When mentioning the “youngsters” during our group tour, it was made clear that the Sikhs encourage their younger generations to adapt as much as they can from the religion while continuing to live in “the real world” that is now England. Their focus is to pass on as many of their religious teachings as possible but the elders are also willing to learn from younger generations who live their lives in the western world. Although geographically the Gurdwara was separated from Central London, it seemed that their religion is accepting of changes, of equality of women and men praying in the same space. 

   The Hindu concepts seemed to be true original roots of caste systems, gurus, cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. When it comes to the younger generations, Hindus still seem to hold men in a higher position than they do women. My conclusion is based on the fact that men and women were separated in the praying room, with men sitting in the front of the room and being allowed to offer their prayers to Gods first while women follow. Also, the young men, no matter what generation, are encouraged to become priests and then follow on to hopefully become monks. Instead of incorporating their current worlds with their religion, the men are encouraged to follow their religion strictly. And here is when the line presents itself for me. Certain ethics in Hinduism seems to cloud over my “real world” believes such as into pro-choice when it comes to abortion, in the right to pick your own partner in marriage. How can one separate their daily beliefs while still following their religion? Is there a way to separate praising God and living your daily life? 

   I am sure adjusting to the life in a Westernized country such as England is tough, especially for the first generations that are caught between their ethics and ethics of their parents. As of now, I have been choosing the “real world,” over the religious world because I have not found a way to interconnect the two worlds together. I do have a lot of respect for those individuals who have found a way to cross the blurred line and be happy.

Tags: Jeyla

Aidan’s Diversity and Religion Post (with Muslims, too!)

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments


I’ll start by discussing our trip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir on Sunday, which I think was on balance a positive experience, despite my serious reservations about the implications of some aspects of their tour. I liked best having a chance to learn about all the functions and spaces of a Hindu temple and also getting a sense of Hindu prayer, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never really looked into. On the other hand, I really disliked some aspects of the tour, particularly the Hinduism exhibit and what I’ll call the “wall of famous white people who approve of us.”

Some of the former was presentation of simple facts about Hinduism as a whole, but not nearly enough of it was. The rest of it sought to elevate their particular sect above the rest, elevate Indian civilization above western civilization, and at the same time imply that quotes from white historians and writers about Hinduism should be what convince the British masses to accept Hinduism. I can understand being proud of one’s particular sect, but the last two do a disservice to the exhibit. I approve of recognizing the formidable achievements of Indians throughout history as part of a Hinduism exhibit, but I cannot support essentially saying that every innovation in history is proof of the superiority of Indian civilization (the most silly panel was something like this: Indians invented the concept of zero, think how many times those crazy Romans would have to write M to get to 10 million before we set them straight!)

The quotes from white historians and “wall of famous white people who approve of us” are altogether more problematic. The fact that they were a centerpiece of the tour makes me feel as though the Mandir has more of an interest in making Hinduism superficially palatable to the UK population rather than really providing a place where the curious and faithful alike can get a better and deeper sense of the true meanings of Hinduism. Although I may not like it, the wall is proof that this particular mandir does a good job (of superficially) getting its name out there and interacting with the community around it and indeed the nation’s leaders. While I understand that not every Hindu temple has the resources or inclination to do this, the fact that such a large one manages to do this can be seen as proof that Hinduism is on track to do better rather than worse in acculturation. If there’s anything working against Hindus on that front, it’s likely current population. Hindus were only 1% of the UK population in 2001 (which really surprises me) and this might be detrimental to the population’s visibility within the country.

Sikhs appear to face a few unique challenges to acculturating. The first of which is dress, which is more distinctively strict (at least among devoted Sikhs) than in Hinduism or Islam. While I think it is certainly possible to acculturate with strict religious dress, some groups in history (Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, for instance) have relaxed religious dress as sort of the first step to full scale integration into their new nation. If this would also be true for Sikhs, it will have the negative side effect of forcing individual Sikhs to choose devotion to religion or the possible benefits of acculturation, and perhaps put a greater gulf between the older and younger generation of Sikhs (which if we are to believe our tour guide Mr. Singh, is already there). I’d like to do a bit of research into the Sikh population as a whole in Britain, perhaps to see if there’s a guardwara in London that serves a similar kind of function as the Mandir does (in terms of outreach). If so, that would likely be beneficial for them in terms of becoming part of getting Sikhism in the national consciousness. The Southall guardwara seemed less used to public relations and (while in a diverse community) seems a bit cut off from the whole of London.

Although we haven’t discussed them in a bit and didn’t get the chance to go to a mosque, I felt the need to mention Muslims in Britain and where they may fit into all of this. Muslims, too, have a unique problem as evidenced by the cover of last night’s evening papers.  British Muslims, though they make up the largest share of the population among these three religions, seem to mostly get in the papers in relation to extremism or terrorism. Over the weekend, there were violent protests of Islamic fundamentalism in Birmingham which led to ninety arrests (it’s unknown if the protesters or counter-protesters started the violence, but unfortunately it looks as though it all might happen again). Our reading from about a week and a half ago about police and national relations with the Muslim community mentions that one of the scariest things to many Britons about 7/7 was that one of the planners spoke in his tape with a broad Yorkshire accent, making British Muslims to some seem like the frighteningly hidden enemy within.

That same article outlined ways to improve relations between Muslims and national institutions like the police and the press through mutual respect and cooperation. Hopefully this will come about. Working for Muslims, although I’m not sure of the more recent immigration trends, is that they make up a slightly larger percentage of the population, closer to three percent than the one percent of Hindus and Sikhs. Muslims have already made large parts of the bigger English cities (London and Birmingham, for example) their own, so they likely don’t have the exposure problem Sikhs and Hindus might. Now it’s just a matter of getting better exposure. Predicting acculturation into a new national identity is always tricky, and without foreknowledge of events and immigration trends I won’t bet on any of these three groups to be there first. Each seems to have unique advantages and challenges, and how each community will manage them doesn’t yet seem clear to me.

Tags: Aidan

My thoughts for now..

September 8th, 2009 · 1 Comment

My high school was a very small all girls, Catholic, private school in the outskirts of Boston.  When most people hear this they imagine a few things: uniforms (which we didn’t have), nuns roaming around the halls (which we didn’t have), and very strict Catholic religion classes (which we also didn’t have).  It is the last of those things that I am most proud of, at my school I was fortunate to study all different religions during my time and my senior year I was exposed briefly to Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. This being said, I had previously visited a Hindu temple and experienced the lives of those Hindus living and adapting to life in Central Massachusetts. I assumed that my visits to the Hindu temple and the Sikh gurdwara would be easy, peaceful, and educational as other locations that I had visited, however I was surprised when both of these visits took a different turn for me.

We visited the Sikh gurdwara first, before our journey I investigated the BBC religion site to learn some of the basics of the Sikh religion.  Learning that Sikhism was a practice where its worshipers were completely and totally devote to one God.  They believe everyone is equal to one God, and dedication to ones community is of the utmost importance.  The man who took us around the temple was just a local from the community rather than a trained tour guide.  For me this was a valuable experience because instead of just learning about Sikhism from a book we were getting an inside perspective of the religion.  His opinions, feelings, fears, and love of this one belief.  He discussed his community, and the special place the Sikh temple holds in the community. They were very open and receptive to us coming in and appreciated our interest.  There aren’t many Sikh gurdwaras outside of India, and so making a place outside of India will take some time, and open minds.

Going to the Hindu temple I expected a similar experience to visiting the Sikh gurdwara or the Hindu temple I visited three years ago in Massachusetts, however I was shocked by what I saw instead.  Walking through the London neighborhood not knowing exaclty what to expect I almost stopped short when I saw the enormous temple rising above eyesight.  We put our bags in security, walked through a metal detector, and then met up with an official temple tour guide.  There were so many people in the area, old and young, Hindus and visitors– it was a strange discovery.  And then walking around and listening to the guide talk about all of the large Hindu temples around the world and seeing all of the famous visitors I realized that Hinduism is really beginning to be a major player in worldwide religions, especially in London.  I felt that the Hindu temple I visited before was in a place where they were struggling to find their place.  I did not feel like it was as much as an issue here.  I don’t mean to sound cynical, but with so much funding and exposure to me this community is widely accepted in London society.  Some may argue with me, that the Sikh temple we visited also received large sums of money, but from my own personal eye I felt that this community was not as acclimated to society as the Hindus.

Both are religions that initially came from India.  Sikhism is more surrounded around communal prayer, and Hinduism around individual prayer.  Although similar , they are also very different, and I think these differences may play a factor in how they fit in with London society. Both religions came to London relatively around the same time, Hinduism may have more followers which is why I feel it fits in with society better, but I don’t think I’ll ever truly know.  I’m also fairly certain my opinion on this matter could change from day to day as I am exposed more to these two religions, but this is what I thinking/feeling now after much contemplation and a little research on the BBC website.

Tags: Amanda · Uncategorized

Mary Poppins always said that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…

September 8th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Do beliefs make a difference in how two faiths adjust to life in the UK? Of course. Hinduism and Sikhism are incredibly different religions. One is polytheistic, the other monotheistic. One needs pages to define its practices and customs, the other a couple sentences. One supports offerings in shrines at the home, the other preaches the importance of meditation. One has a gift shop in a temple, the other a type of soup kitchen. The beliefs of Hinduism are so foreign to the English culture that it seems to attract people by its mystery. It’s something that could go either way; that is, its very noticeable differences could have inspired intense fear or interest in the English people.

Based on the observations of a person who has limited knowledge on the subject, the English seem to have responded to Hinduism in the latter manner. And who wouldn’t be impressed with the absolutely gorgeous images that are associated with the religion? The figures of their gods, the hand-carved wood that adorns their walls, the bright colors of their dress- Hinduism is without a doubt a very eye-pleasing religion. Sikhism, on the other hand dresses, itself in a quite dull manner in comparison. That’s not to say that both places of worship on the outside are anything less than impressive. But the first thing that greets you at the Hindu temple is a gift shop filled with beautiful figurines that you can’t help but want to have. Conversely, the first thing you see at the Sikh temple is a small closet in which you are to place your shoes. It’s more than a little different. This discrepancy in design is more than a difference in taste. A religion that sees gods in many different forms has more to show off than a religion that recognizes only one. That’s quite understandable.

What is a little less understandable is how differently the two religions were accepted into Britain. Both found a presence here in the 1950s with the Indian immigrants came over to find safety after the 1947 Partition of India. Members from both the Sikh and Hindu faiths came to England in hopes to get away from the tension and fighting that was occurring in India. This, of course, is not the sole reason for the influx of Sikhs and Hindus to England but it was definitely a major cause of it. Both the Sikhs and Hindus differ from the traditional English appearance immensely. The Sikhs wear turbans, cannot cut their hair, and tote swords. The Hindus wear bright colors and have bright red dots on their foreheads. The English wear grey and black and, while many carry knives, none too many have a sword at the hip. Though both are clearly different from the traditional British appearance, what is important to note is how the two were affected by prejudice towards that different appearance and how they remember that experience. On the BBC website, the Sikhs mention that they changed their appearance in efforts to be employed in London. The Hindus, on a website from the same news source, make no mention of racial prejudice against them whatsoever. No matter how peaceful a new group of people might be, London has never failed to have a prejudice against a group of newcomers. It’s something that would be nice to not be true but alas in my understanding it’s not. So, why this discrepancy? Both Hindus and Sikhs came from the same land around the same time for similar reasons and yet only one actually mentions the ‘dirty’ details: that there was religious turmoil that needed to be fled, and that once a safe place was found, life was less than instantly easy. I don’t really have an answer for this.

I would argue that there might be certain tendencies that help point to an answer. The Hindu temple tended to be more of a bragging ground to flaunt how grand the religion was. In fact, in the museum, a sign proclaimed that there was absolutely no hypocrisy in the Hindu religion. I applaud them if that’s the case but my observations found this not to be true. Again, I have limited exposure to the religion but one that ignores the huge discrepancy in male and female rights present in the religion might be said to have some hypocrisy lurking around. The Sikh temple by comparison was what it was. It was a huge temple that also made sure to note how much it cost to build; still, it lacked a museum. In place of that and a gift shop, the Sikh gurdwara has a place to feed community members who need a meal. One recognizes the faults with the world while the other seems to cover them up with beautiful decorations. Is that what it takes to fit into British society? Maybe. But even if the Hindu section of the BBC website refuses to recognize that London may have been less than welcoming to them at times, the people who first greeted us when we came to the temple were armed guards. They were quite kind but their smiles couldn’t hide the bulletproof vests they had on. Clearly, both communities have found difficulties in coming to London. How they deal with this prejudice is quite different.

Tags: Audrey

Growing Pains

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments

Whenever I have been observing other cultures, religions, and areas on our tours of London, this one quote from Brick Lane always resounds through my head: “If you mix with all these people, even if they are good people, you have to give up your culture to accept theirs. That’s how it is.” No matter how much some people try to create their lifestyle exactly like how it was from where they come from, it can never be quite exact. I believe that in order for people to adjust and live here in the United Kingdom they have to give up something of themselves because it is just not completely possible to fully live like they used to or want to. The results, I feel, can be both positive and negative.

One of the positives (and negatives) of having these many diverse cultures and religions all found throughout the UK and all trying to adjust, is that it can allow both for ignorance and knowledge. I am sure many people would look the other way when noticing, for example, the splendor of the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and choose not to learn anything about their lifestyle or religion. They either keep their remarks and thoughts to themselves, or let it out in the form of harsh words and criticisms that do nothing for anybody but make things more complicated. Then there are people, like our group, who (somewhat) chose to visit the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and tried to keep an open mind when learning about their lifestyle. We may not particularly agree with few or any part of their religion and lives, but I bet every one of us learned something about them. As much as the adjustment of a “new” culture into another can promote ignorance, I feel that it also gives a chance for further knowledge.

In the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Temple, I noticed their adaptions to living in the UK. One of the major things I noticed  that the temple was geared towards educating the public and those of their religion as well. Unlike the Sikh temple, who was not used to giving tours, the Shir Swaminarayan Mandir was clearly adept to giving tours to all those interested and curious. The museum and exhibition (namely called ‘Understanding Hinduism‘) was definitely geared towards those who either had little or no knowledge on their religion. It seemed that the Mandir made a concious choice to allow those curious about their religion to come in and be educated about it. After going through that museum, one could no longer claim they were “ignorant” about that religion.

Even though the Sikh Temple in Southall was a little less “showy” than the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, I think they also strove to make sure those interested in their lifestyle were educated. Even though they were a little less adept to giving tours to the curious public, they still had pamplets with information on their religion and even welcomed anyone to come and eat with them. Both the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and the Sikh Temple allowed and welcomed visitors into their places of worship. In addition to giving tours, both religious institutions had libraries for anyone who wanted to browse and learn more. Even though their difference in beliefs and religion might divide them from others, people only have to come and learn more about them. This is partially what makes for these cultures to have trouble adjusting to a new one, for it does not help anyone when one culture refuses to learn about another. People, I feel, don’t want to take the time to find these possible parallels between other time periods, cultures and religions, but they are out there, all they have to do is learn.

Another part of the trouble of some of these religions’ adjustments or even trying to fully create this lifestyle close to home, is generations (mostly the second generations) that want to reject or modify the customs and practices. You see in White Teeth, for example, these conflicts in Magid and Millat, the twin boys of Samad, a man who grew up in Bangladesh. Magid is sent to Bangladesh to be brought up in the proper ways of Islamic teaching. Millat stays here in the UK and grows up and learns in a different manner. The complete opposite happens between the twin boys, for Millat becomes a religious radical and Magid becomes more “English”. These conflicts, whether positive or negative, are necessary for the advancement of a society and a religion. In every century, in every decade, religions and cultures are always being modified, even if it is just slightly. Even though I think that it is sometimes detrimental that these religions have to make some adjustments in order to reside here in the UK, it is the way of life and sometimes can even turn into a positive for their lifestyle.

Tags: Alli · readings

Change is Hard

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments

Identity…. What is that? I honestly don’t know. Just thinking about this topic makes my head spin. How do our surroundings influence our identity? Do we identify with something because WE choose or because of outside factors such as religion and education?  From what I absorbed from both the Sikh Gurdwara and the Hindu Mandir both faiths are more of a way of life rather than a religion. Both require life-long practice to even begin to understand. In Sikhism, the devotee is a constant student, trying to liberate the mind from the body to ascend into a state of ultimate knowledge and union with God. In Hinduism the ultimate goal is to break the cycle of life and death to remain eternally in the presence of God. So how do you take responsibility for your Karma in 21st century Britain? Can you take the religion/lifestyle out of its homeland? Certain customs and rituals have to be tweaked to ‘fit’ in the mainstream British culture. Sikhs are not allowed to carry their defensive swords because of certain laws, and some men have to cut their hair for certain jobs. The restrains of modern society make it more difficult for Sikhs and Hindus to observe certain traditional rites, but does this make them less “religious.” Personally, I don’t think so. When you are forced to adapt or willingly relocate somewhere else, everything changes, choices are made.

Some people have formed tight communities that don’t even attempt to make ties to their new environment, like the character Mrs. Suri in Salaam Brick Lane. Mrs. Suri and her network of Aunties have created their own version of India within each other’s living rooms. These people seek a comfort zone full of everything they know.  Other people rebel completely and break away form everything they know. The character of Clara in White Teeth completely turns her back on her Jehovah’s Witness background (and her mother) and severs all ties with her former life. Either way, a choice was made. I don’t light Shabbat candles every Friday night… does that make me a bad Jew? I still believe in what in God and I pray in my own way. I have adapted to my situation and made choices. You do what you think is right and then run with it. This is religion for the 21st century.  So what about tradition and education for the younger generations? I’m all for it… I think that both the Gurdwara and the Mandir have excellent education and community centers. The Mandir especially has gone above and beyond to provide the children in the area with a top-notch secular education as well as a religious education on the Hindu faith. Learning the traditions of your ancestors is wonderful, and it is important to remember the past. But ultimately, I think it is up to each individual person to decide his or her identity (whatever that may mean). Are you Hindu and British? Sikh and Welsh? Can you be both? Change is hard, but you can either resist or adapt.

I hope I will live to see the day when the world accepts everyone’s religion but right now that does not seem likely. People will keep being prejudiced and ignorant until they are otherwise educated on the subject. However, as Sikhism teaches us, this is a momentous obstacle. The Gurwara and the Mandir are helping the process by opening their sacred places to visitors off all backgrounds. Both faiths seem willing to teach outsiders and I felt that I received a warm welcome from both establishments. When you live in the modern UK adjustments have to be made due to secular laws. However, you are still free to practice whatever it is you believe. I still am not sure as to what identity means. All I know is that I have to be true to myself.

Tags: Grace · readings

Sikhism and Hinduism: One Country of Origin, Very Different Results

September 7th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Going into the trip at the Sikh Gurdwara last Thursday I was unsure of what to expect. By the time I came out I felt very positive about the experience. Things could not have been more different for me at the Hindu Mandir. From the moment I saw the Temple and noticed that there were security guards in front I had an odd feeling. This did not go away. After depositing my bag and all my valuables in the security trailer across the street I made my way into the Mandir. After depositing my shoes in a rack similar to the Gurdwara our tour guide began speaking with us about the Hindu religion. After a quick introduction he began immediately by praising Hinduism and the Mandir pointing out the intricacies of the building including the ceiling which is made from a special wood found in Burma. Unlike Mr. Singh at the Gurdwara who was dressed in traditional Sikh prayer garb our guide at the Mandir was dressed in western attire with a button-up collared shirt and slacks. After walking through the humungous prayer room my hypothesis that Hinduism and Sikhism should be polarized with one another seemed pretty accurate. The prayer room featured one giant ornate rug that covered the majority of the room. On the walls there were giant portraits depicting the past four Spiritual Guru’s of the Swaminarayan Faith and lifesize statues of each. The prayer room also featured two giant projectors in the front of the room so those that are praying in the back of the room can get a phenomenal view of the front stage. In addition there were skylights located in the center of the hall that could be opened or closed at any time. 

After hearing about the prayer room we crossed over to the other side of the Mandir where we entered an exhibit explaining the ins and outs of Hinduism. Although our guide said that the Mandir served a multi-purpose role not only as a place for people to pray but also a place where people can learn, I was still a little disconcerted by the presence of a museum in the middle of a place of worship. While waiting to enter the exhibit the class looked at a wall outside that featured  pictures of all the famous world politicians that had come and visited in the past. The wall also featured certificates and awards that the Mandir had won.

Inside the museum I learned a lot about Hinduism but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of humility with which the information was presented. There were quotes from notable figures such as Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau praising the Indian way of life and the Hindu religion. An example is: 

“It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end the self-destruction of the human race…At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way”  – Dr. Arnold Toynbee (British Historian. 1889-1975).

Other parts of the exhibit not so diplomatically claimed that the Hindu’s invented the concept of zero and created the first university over 2,700 years ago. Everything seemed glorified and most definitely biased. Although I expect every museum to have some sort of bias I did not expect it to be as brutally obvious as the Mandir made it seem.

To sum up my experiences at the Sikh Gurdwara and the Hindu Mandir it is safe to say that they were vastly different from one another. Since Hinduism is the oldest living religion in the world it makes sense for them to refer to many of their ways as “Indian”. Despite this fact I couldn’t help but notice that Sikh’s were being excluded when these descriptions were being made.

The best way to describe the Hindu religion and the Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is immodest. Everything both in and outside was big, new and technologically driven. Even when our class had an opportunity to participate in a traditional Hindu prayer I found it hard to concentrate because there were security guards standing around the premises. Although the Sikh Gurdwara was certainly big and looked fairly new the message preached inside was of simplicity, the polar opposite of what I sensed at the Mandir. Although I still did not feel entirely comfortable paying my respects to the guru at the Gurdwara I felt that had I participated in prayer I could have felt at peace. Even something as small as just sitting down to a meal together was significant to me. Especially since every single Gurdwara serves the same meal to every single person everywhere. To me this example completely JUXTAPOSES the Hindu tradition of hierarchy rooted in their caste system. Since Sikhism is a fairly new religion and has not fully been recognized by much of the world there are bound to be some bumps in the road but it seems to me that part of the reason Sikhism was founded in India was to rebel against the values of Hinduism.

As far as where I see these two religions going within Great Britain it is hard to say. Both Southall and Neasden seemed to be pretty homogeneous communities with mostly people of Indian descent in both regions. Because of this I think that both the Hindu and Sikh religions will have their place within London, at least for a while. Using the example of Mrs. Suri in Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane it seems that the Indian community remains tightly knit regardless of where members of the community immigrate to. The Indian community itself  traditionally churns out millions of educated “youngsters” every year many of which go on to hold prominent positions in a variety of fields including business, law and medicine. Because of this the Indian community as a whole is in no danger of disintegrating anytime soon. 

As Mr. Singh told us at the Gurdwara he wishes that a day will come when he can go to the security check point at an airport and the security guard will know that he is a Sikh, therefore a peaceful man, and let him pass without any hassle. Due to the fact that Sikhism is such a young and upcoming religion (according to the BBC there are 336,000 Sikhs currently living in Britain) one can only hope that over time and with more exposure in the U.K. people will come to understand it better and the Sikh’s will find their place here in London. The only obstacle I see Sikh’s facing is their ability to blend in to the professional work force here in London. Some businesses may require that men shave off their facial hair in an attempt to look more like the typical British professional. As a Sikh one would have to ask himself how much that part of his religion means to him and whether he feels like he is sacrificing anything by shaving. If the answer is that the Sikh feels like he is sacrificing something than it will be difficult to predict what will happen. 

With Hinduism being the world’s oldest living religion it is clear that Hindu’s have managed to traverse many obstacles throughout the years. In addition, they have completely modernized their religion to fit 21st century standards. Although I did not enjoy my experience at the Mandir all that much I have to admit there is certainly a rare brilliance and resilience that comes with being a Hindu. With some of the world’s smartest, most self-motivated and disciplined individuals running the show Hinduism is not going anywhere in London or in the U.K. In fact I see it growing steadily, especially with all the adaptations Hindus have made to fit the times.

Tags: Henry