Vaisakhi, Baisakhi: Celebrating harvest, new year & Sikh revival

A Vaisakhi street festival in Canada. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A Vaisakhi street festival in Canada. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

SATURDAY, APRIL 13: Around the world Indian communities—especially Sikhs—are celebrating Vaisakhi (or Baisahki; spellings vary). It’s fun. It’s a source of pride and an occasion for colorful processions and public festivals. But explaining its exact meaning is difficult—because Vaisakhi holds many meanings to communities with origins in India.

First, this was an ancient agricultural festival in the Punjab, a time of prayers for bountiful crops. In the Punjab region (and among families with Punjabi roots around the world), one custom is an energetic dance called Bhangra. Centuries ago, while farmers were preparing to reap a harvest of wheat at this time of year, men would pause to perform this dance. The Bhangra has moved through several different eras and forms, according to scholars of Indian folklore. Today, there is a modern revival of the practice, complete with colorful costumes, that is often performed at Vaisakhi festivals.

A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE: VESAK

The festival’s name refers to a month in the traditional Hindu calendar: Vaisakha. Within Buddhism, given the faith’s roots in India, this seasonal period of celebration is related now to what is commonly called “Buddha’s Birthday.” Here is Wikipedia’s overview of the Buddhist Vesak—which actually occurs in May this year. Once again, Buddhist customs for Vesak vary across the many cultures in which Buddhism now is deeply rooted around the planet. Decisions by Buddhist leaders in the mid 20th century are among the factors unifying their Vesak celebration as a divergent festival from Vaisakhi.

A 17th CENTURY SIKH REVIVAL: Birth of the Khalsa

Though celebrated by many, Vaisakhi holds particular significance for Sikhs who, in 1699, established the Khalsa. On Vaisakhi Day in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh emerged from a tent before thousands, asking for five volunteers willing to give their lives. Armed with a sword, the Guru took in the first volunteer; a few minutes later, the Guru emerged from the tent again, his sword covered in blood. By the time five volunteers had come forward, the Guru revealed his true intentions: to call forth a “Beloved Five,” who would be baptized into a new order known as the Khalsa. The five volunteers exited from the tent—unharmed and wearing turbans. (Read more from the BBC.) From that day, Sikhism became a faith of soldier saints—always prepared to fight for justice by protecting the vulnerable.

SIKH VAISAKHI AROUND THE GLOBE

Service for the common good is a major theme at Vaisakhi. In this photo, two young Sikhs operate a tractor with an attached machine that crushes sugar cane to make fresh sweet juice. They are giving the fresh juice to celebrants as their act of service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Service for the common good is a major theme at Vaisakhi. In this photo, two young Sikhs operate a tractor with an attached machine that crushes sugar cane to make fresh sweet juice. They are giving the fresh juice to celebrants as their act of service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tens of thousands of Sikhs make pilgrimage to Pakistani holy sites each year for Vaisakhi—one city even bears the name of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak. Thousands more flock to the birthplace of the Khalsa, as well as to the famed Golden Temple at Amritsar. Sikhs in the United States can travel to Los Angeles, California, for an entire day of Kirtan (spiritual music based on the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib) and a large-scale parade; in Manhattan, New York City, Sikhs flood into the streets to perform seva (selfless service) of charity. Further north, Canadians in British Columbia parade through the streets for Vaisakhi, often drawing 200,000 attendees to the festivities. The UK boasts its own sizeable Sikh population, though most can be found in west London, and events there draw up to 75,000. The prime minister of Malaysia has announced that this year—for the first time—all government workers of Sikh affiliation will be given a day of on Vaisakhi Day.

Snatam Kaur: An American-Born Sikh Musician

Care to read more about America’s own famous Sikh musician, Snatam Kaur? This spring, she is touring across the U.S. Our new profile of Snatam Kaur tells her inspiring story of trying to promote peace through traditional meditative Sikh hymns.

NEWS on Vaisakhi 2013 and EcoSikh

In efforts to promote justice, Sikh organizations are voicing concern over Pakistani rejection of Hindu visas for Sikh occasions such as Vaisakhi. (Times of India reported.)

Meanwhile, Sikhs from Pakistan celebrated the recent Sikh environment day by planting trees and raising awareness of the importance of plant life. The event was organized by both the Pakistan Sikh Council and the Washington, D.C.-based group EcoSikh. (Read more here.)

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