Why Thanksgiving Has Special Significance for Sikhs in America

It was the morning of the Thursday (15 November) before — one full week before Turkey Day, an informal way we here in America refer to Thanksgiving. It was snowing outside. Delaware National Guard’s 36th Annual Prayer Breakfast was that same morning, and I was among the invited.

Like a pucca Indian, when I reached the venue, Cavaliers Country Club, others were about to finish eating. I was courteously led to my designated table after I showed the reception staff my driver’s license to help them out of the struggle with my name.

My friends, (Rev.) Tom Davis and Jack Sanders, got up to give me a hug. Among the others at the same table was Chaplain (Lt Col) Andy Werner, who I later learnt had started this wonderful tradition. He had paid for my breakfast, too. I blessed him even more for that.

In the large hall were men and women in uniform and, of course, the chaplains, most of them in uniform as well, making me wonder if their divine approach was any different from their civilian counterparts.

The woman who came to greet us at the table was the Adjutant General, the official host of the event.

The woman who came to greet us at the table was the Adjutant General, the official host of the event. The only other person I could recognise was Delaware Governor John Carney when he greeted me. We were later informed that representatives of the state’s Congressional delegation were there too.

Driving back, I wondered about the various ways Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Some start with a great breakfast followed by an evening feast of turkey, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole.

Desis like me still follow up the ceremonial participation with kebabs and tikkas. To ensure that these sumptuous dishes don’t feel lonely outside or inside, I keep red wine and single malt scotch handy.

In India and most other countries, such joyous feasting and festivity is reserved for religious events. But this great American festival is for everyone, including those who have no faith or don’t believe in Rab-ji! (God).

Here, we have had our own tradition since 1992. People of different religions in our area come together at an inter-faith Thanksgiving prayer. Clergy members (I am an exception) of different faiths and denominations speak at the event. More than two hundred people attend year after year.

I have been associated with this great tradition from several years. It started when I first attended one of the group’s monthly meetings as a representative of the local Sikh community.

Members of the group have joined me in the last two inter-faith peace walks as part of the Delaware Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month. The Delaware Sikh Awareness Coalition (DSAC) — which I founded and chair — organised the DSAAM resolutions as well as the peace walks in April of 2017 and 2018.

The DSAC also has received tremendous help and support from Rev Cynthia Robinson (my dear “sister”) of the New Ark United Church of Christ. She even knows a couple of Hindi words, learned from her aunt who was a missionary in India — including Batala in Punjab — for several years. One of them is shabash, which Cynthia not only uses appropriately but wonderfully.

Thanksgiving is not just cluck cluck gobble gobble! For me it has divine significance as well. It is celebration of Sarbat Da Bhala enactment that took place in 1620, at a faraway place.     

Last year, when I shared with fellow speakers and the audience why Thanksgiving has this special connection for me, I was mobbed at the end by people to further explain to them the grand idiom of positivity and prosperity — Sarbat Da Bhala!

I told them that every Sikh prayer I had ever heard or read ended with Sarbat Da Bhala, regardless of the occasion, day or time. However, I considered it a religious formality without real life application.

Then I came to America and experienced Thanksgiving. That’s when the bulb in my mind lit up and I understood, for the first time, that the spirit of Sarbat Da Bhala also has practical applications in real life. The native Americans didn’t help the pilgrims because they spoke the same language or had the same colour or because their religions were the same.

And they certainly did not support the same cricket team, nor did their wives belong to the same kitty group. I am sure their kids didn’t go to the same high school, I told them. For me it was simply a living example of Sarbat Da Bhala! It was the embodiment of the divine saying.

And so, I am sure my “sister” Cynthia will not mind when I borrow her word to say, “Shabash Thanksgiving!”

(Charanjeet Minhas is a Delaware resident and Founder and CEO of Tekstrom, Inc, a 25-year-old software company. He is also the founder and chairman of Delaware Sikh Awareness Coalition (DSAC).)

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