Musically Connected: Music in two different faiths

by Leigh Anne Zinsmeister

Sikhism and Anglicanism appear to be polar opposites, and in many ways they are. Sikhism, born in India 500 years ago, is a relatively young presence in England, whereas the Anglican Church has been the nation’s established church since the 16th century. One thing that ties these two religions together is their reliance on music as part of their worship and faith.

Sikh Music: Spiritual Connection

Sikhs of all ages come to worship in the peaceful prayer hall of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, a temple in Southall, a suburb west of London. They walk quietly up to the front to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, their holy scriptures, which rests on an elaborately decorated altar. Men, women, teens and children make an offering, kneel and touch their heads to the floor. A man waves a short silver baton topped with soft white material over the holy scriptures, keeping the air pure.

The worshipers then sit on the floor, bare feet tucked under so as not to show disrespect. They pray and reflect. Some leave before long, while others linger.

In the corner, three men sit cross-legged on the floor, singing softly and playing string and keyboard instruments. The melodic sounds carry throughout the temple over loudspeakers.

Sikhs are a fairly new, yet dominant presence in Southall. They arrived in masses from northwest India in the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s, seeking work in the textiles industry. The spot where the temple stands was a milk dairy before becoming a place of worship in 1967. The current temple, which is the largest gurdwara outside India, opened in 2003.

Sikhism means “disciple,” “student” or “learner of truth.” Sikhs are expected to earn an honest living, meditate daily about the word of God and be charitable. According to Navraj Singh, who works at the temple, Sikhism is more a way of life than a religion, and its basis is in seeking the truth.

Sikhs value equality and reject discrimination. According to Surinder Singh Purewal, general secretary at the temple, anyone may recite the scriptures. “Women sit side-by-side with men,” he says, emphasizing that there are no gender differences within Sikhism.

Music is an integral part of their worship. According to Navraj Singh, Sikh scriptures are written in poetry. Expressing them vocally through music helps connect them to the mind, body and soul.

Different types of music are played, depending on the day and time, with jubilant sounds for joyous occasions and more subdued notes for somber ones. Although there’s no Sabbath or distinction between days of the week spiritually, musical recitation of the scriptures replaces the instruments from sundown Friday until sunup Sunday.

Traditionally, Sikh music was played on string instruments such as sitars, but today it is mostly played on harmoniums, or small keyboards. “It’s easier to learn,” Navraj Singh says. “People have gotten lazy.”

But traditional string instruments are hardly a thing of the past. Only two blocks from the temple stands BINA Musical, a small store that specializes in making and selling traditional Indian instruments, particularly those used in the Sikh and Hindu faiths. Customers drift in and out of the building, where instruments, music books and religious figures crowd the many shelves lining the walls.

The store is a chain throughout England and India. The owner of the Southall location, K.S. Sura, says that for him, music is as much about religion as it is about entertainment. In modern times, when people are more hesitant to discuss religion in daily life, music helps connect believers of different faiths. “There’s only one Lord,” he says. “We call him by different names, but they’re all one.” He and his store seek to spread this message by selling instruments to complement the sung scriptures and by teaching lessons in drums and harmonium.

Anglican Music: Historical Tradition

Fifteen miles from the Sikh gurdwara, in the heart of central London, sits St. Bartholomew the Great. This old Anglican church is tucked away on a side street, surrounded by a courtyard of plants shaded by centuries-old trees. Inside, in a room off to the side of the incense-filled sanctuary, Peter Foggitt practices the piano on a Sunday afternoon. The heavy, intense sounds pierce the otherwise empty church.

A chorus student at Cambridge University, Foggitt plays for the same reason as the Sikhs—to express his religious beliefs. He also sings in the St. Bartholomew choir each Sunday and practices piano there between services. Foggitt had to audition to join the eight-member choir, which sings at two services every Sunday — a traditional mass in the morning and evensong in the evening. “You have to be approved by the director,” he says. “You have to be able to read [music] well, and you have to be able to sing in Latin and English and German.”

Since the choir is often more about the sound of the music than the meaning behind the message, not all members are religious. Foggitt says St. Bart’s is more high church than he would normally attend. High churches are more traditional and associated with Roman Catholicism, which Anglicanism grew out of in the 16th century. Low churches, on the other hand, are more liberal. “You don’t necessarily believe everything that’s going on, such as the niceties of the sacrament,” Foggitt says. “Sometimes your obligation is to forget what you personally believe and try to communicate what the service is about.” He receives a small amount for singing in the choir, although he says it’s not enough to live on.

In the Anglican Church, music is intertwined with its long history. The choral evensong at St. Bart’s blends vespers and compline — two ancient services of the Catholic Church. “There’s this theory that by hearing the choir singing, whether [the congregation] understood it[s language] or not, they would nonetheless receive some sort of spiritual edification,” Foggitt says. Foggitt thinks people attend evensong at St. Bart’s not because they’re passionate about the text or music alone but because they’re passionate about the combination.

For Anglicans, like Sikhs, music is an age-old way of professing their faith and enhancing their worship.

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