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Ruppa is a 25-year-old Minnesota native from an Indian family. She has been attending the Gurdwara her whole life, and was raised speaking Punjabi as her first language. Ruppa is deeply religious, but she acknowledges a shift in her experience at the Gurdwara over time. Up until college, she went to the Gurdwara specifically to be "in my zone," praying and singing and "centering myself." Now, as her participation in Sikh activism has increased, her focus while at the Gurdwara has shifted. Ruppa barely has time to sit inside the Divan hall during worship, because she has to maximize her time at the Gurdwara for completing the tasks she is responsible for. Instead, she takes time at home to listen to prayers on her iPod or on YouTube and to pray at home.
Ruppa says that she finds the most support in her faith during the toughest times. "I guess during the tougher times, like I mentioned once, when childhood friends have passed away, it's during those times that I really seek for answers, like why is this happening, and they were so young, they had so much going on for them, so much ahead of them. What I do in those situations is…go in my room and start praying, or playing on the harmonium. And we hear this every day, but whatever happens, happens for a reason and I feel like that's important in our Guru Granth Sahib so it's just kind of thinking about the positive, like this happened and it's very unfortunate but what did they bring to my life, what did they bring to the community, what did they bring to the world, and remembering them for those positive things instead of the situation that happened. I think especially during sad times, when you really need that extra hand, is when I seek the books and the prayers and things like that." The prayer she refers back to the most is the Mool Mantar, which is the prayer Sikhs first learn as children and the prayer they pray first thing in the morning.
For Ruppa, much of the importance of Sikhism lies in community, connections, prayer, language, and history. "I would say that the core values that I take out of Sikhism… Seva, obviously, is a huge one, giving back without kind of expecting anything in return. That's huge, so I try to, you know, volunteer, give back to the Gurdwara, just do little things that are positive on the day to day, it can be something little or something big, so Seva is definitely a huge one. Another one would be equality, I kind of consider myself almost a feminist…within our religion, equality is a huge thing, treating men and women equally, whether that is at the Gurdwara having women be able to preach and do the prayers and also having the men do that as well, so equality is definitely a huge one that I think is unique compared to other religions. So definitely Seva, equality, also being humble. Obviously that's sometimes hard, being in a materialistic society, an ongoing fast-paced society, but definitely being humble and loving and giving, and just being appreciative of where we came from and what we can give back and focusing on others and not just yourself. I feel like those are the main things that I try to embody every day, some are a little bit more tough, but in the end that's what I feel like are the core qualities of Sikhism that resonate with me the most."
In an earlier conversation, on the importance of equality in Sikhism, particularly between men and women, Ruppa spoke of the tension between Sikh religious values and Punjabi cultural values. She used issues around gender as an illustrator of this tension. She brought up high levels of domestic violence in India as an example of the ways that Indian culture doesn't always embody the values promoted by religion. Despite the emphasis on gender equality in Sikh ideals, Ruppa pointed out that at the Gurdwara, the Sikhs who speak and partake in leading worship are primarily men. "We as a community have room to change. It is our duty as Sikhs to promote equality."
Ruppa sees a slight divide among Sikhs with regard to social issues, saying that the younger generation "gets it" and will be the generation to drive necessary social change. "I think the younger generation has a lot to do, a lot a lot to work on. So within our religion I feel like it's almost divided, we have the older generation, our parents and grandparents, who have immigrated here from India and other parts of the world. Their thinking is sometimes…they mix a lot of religion with culture. With the younger generation, we know what the main qualities are in Sikhism and I think what we are trying to focus on is changing perceptions, whether in the media or just the way that we portray ourselves in our communities. We can focus on Seva [service], actually do Seva and explain why it's important to us, whereas growing up, a lot of that wasn't explained. It'd be like yeah, this is a part of our religion but why is it a part of our religion. So I think the younger generation is taking those key qualities of Sikhism and translating them in ways we understand now, because with so much media and so much going on, a lot of what we get is through Facebook or through the internet, so what are ways that we can get our community involved. I think a lot of that comes from different conferences that are specifically for the older kids, like 18+, and I think having that community of like-minded people the same age as you, that kind of thing is the first step to making that happen. Also, getting people to start organizations within their communities, like Jakara, things on their campus, getting people who are willing to jump out there and spread the word in a more rapid pace."
Ruppa started attending Sikh camps at age four, and for her, camps and conferences have been hugely important for building community and understanding her faith. She is has been involved in many leadership organization, including a highly selective Sikh leadership development program that brought 20 young Sikhs from across the country together to collaborate on efforts to improve perceptions of Sikhs in America. Ruppa recently started the Jakara Movement's Minnesota branch, and she regularly organizes workshops and camps at the Gurdwara. Much of her focus is on using the media to combat anti-Sikh sentiments, because, "The media is a huge factor in perpetuating stereotypes of Sikhs, so it needs to be used as a way to combat those stereotypes." Right now, Ruppa is especially excited about The National Sikh Campaign, which is a campaign "to change perceptions of Sikhs in America, and its unique because we're getting people to work together instead of working separately with their own Sikh organizations." The first goal of the campaign is to use grassroots movements to fund a TV commercial that shows that "Sikhs are Americans, too" and that they have a lot to contribute to society. Part of the struggle Sikhs face against prejudice has to do with image. "Overcoming image is huge, because Sikhs do have such a recognizable image, but Sikhism is more than that."