Title

Circuits of Faith: Transnational Religion, Caste, and Gender in the Punjabi Sikh Diaspora of the Pacific Northwest

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

American Studies

First Advisor

Grewal, Inderpal

Abstract

This dissertation examines the intertwining of race, gender, and caste, a complex form of social stratification in Hinduism based on purity and pollution, in the Sikh diaspora of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) borderland. I build on studies of borders to trace the ways that Sikhs in the PNW regularly travel between the U.S. and Canada to access religious community, family and friends, and consumer goods. In tracing the flows of people and commodities, I chronicle the practices of caste and gender that travel alongside this religious community. I use the PNW—a historically situated national and imperial borderland region that has been home to the Asian diaspora since the early twentieth century, and that today houses one of the largest Sikh diasporic communities in the world—to understand how cross-border communities, based on longer histories of migration, sustain their faith and culture through numerous practices of transnational travel and affiliation. While it is assumed that diasporic spaces produce new forms of identity and belonging, and that caste does not matter once South Asians leave their homeland, I find that is not the case. Caste remains a central mode of differentiating within the Sikh community in PNW, and the transnational circuit of religion ensures the sedimentation of caste in the diaspora. I emphasize the racial, casteist, and gendered dimensions of Sikhism in particular because one of this religion’s founding tenets was an intentional resistance to the Hindu caste system. In practice, however, many Sikhs hold onto caste, especially if they identify as Jats (landowning and most powerful caste in Punjab, India, and across the diaspora), and view Chamar and Mazbhi (otherwise known as Dalit, or low-caste) Sikhs as subordinate to them. I unpack how Jat Sikh men in the PNW diaspora define themselves through a caste identity and come to embody varied notions of masculinity – warrior, paternalistic, and the cultural aesthetic of “Jat cool” – to position themselves in relation to white supremacy. My research shows that ideologies of caste and gender circulate across the border not only through music, film, community organizations, but also through religious preachers and recordings of religious instruction and explanation. As these commodities travel, caste ideologies circulate alongside these flows which further entrenches hierarchical epistemologies of caste. I trace these circuits—of people, goods, and ideas—to understand how religion, and its attendant practices of caste and gender, become meaningful in the PNW Sikh diaspora. This study also focuses on how race, in the context of the PNW, intersects with understandings and practices of caste. I further track the ways in which caste, religion, and gender have shaped spatial practices and the landscape of the PNW diaspora. Finally, I examine how Dalits create their own communities in relation to emerging transnational Dalit activism in India, revealing how caste identities construct solidarities in the diaspora. This project intervenes in Asian American Studies, Religious Studies, and Diaspora Studies. Circuits of Faith changes our understandings of diasporic religion as transnational and transregional, constituted in one borderland community through formations of race, caste, and gender. Research of minoritized religions, such as Sikhism, refocuses our attention on how religion shifts Asian American identity formations, and can offer a model for understanding how Asian American communities have transformed in the contemporary period.

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