“The Sikh Diaspora: A Modern Scientific and Philosophical Approach to Understanding” Essay by Raina Nareg



From the perspective of a third generation Indo-Canadian, I feel that I am amidst a great and undeniable shift from tradition to modernity. The future of Sikhism faces uncertainty. The Sikh diaspora is at risk of losing its historical origins to assimilation. I predict that Sikhism is facing, and will continue to face, the “half-life effect,” similar to what radioactive isotopes face in the field of chemistry. Although present and past generations memorialize Sikh heritage through text and artifacts, Sikh heritage may lose its present value over time as newer generations fail to grasp the significance of the Sikh diaspora and preserve or maintain its cultural aspects. Through a philosophically-focused analysis and argument, my research intends to bring to light evidence that supports my prediction: in upcoming generations, Sikhism will experience drastic loss of culture due to assimilation into the multicultural mosaic of Canadian culture and factors of modernization. My thesis will discuss how cultural loss happens discreetly through barriers associated with the Multicultural Act (Canada), through a lack of cultural transmission which has and will continue to occur between generations, and through members of the third generation that act as an agent of transition into modernity. But first, it is crucial to understand my main point surrounding the “half-life effect” and how it works in connection to the loss of Sikh culture.

Understanding Isotope Half-Life

Radioactive isotopes, or nuclides, are the radioactive form of a chemical element. These atoms contain the same amount of protons in their nucleus, but a different number of neutrons. The chemical properties remain the same, but the overall mass of the nuclide is reduced because of the decay stage in which a nuclide emits particles and energy. Chemists suggest that isotopes will follow a path of stability, or an energy “valley.” This is the process of radioactive decay. In regards to radioactive isotopes, a chemical element could exist in two different variations of an isotope, e.g. Carbon-12 and Carbon-13, where the number indicates atomic mass. The term “half-life” refers to the amount of time it takes for one half of the atoms in a radioactive material to disintegrate. Each isotope has a unique decay pattern. Scientists use this knowledge of isotope half-life to understand radiation intensity that exists in objects, and to date the object’s existence (Dickin, 2005, 7-8; NDT Resources, 2015, December 11). The interesting thing about isotope decay is that the radioactive material never completely disintegrates; it only moves closer to non-existence on a time-domain graph. It is important to note that the intensity and the energy level of the atom depletes as more atomic matter is expelled from the body. Under the same application, this process of energy loss can be likened to the process of cultural loss, which I will refer to as “diasporic half-life progression” for the purpose of this paper. Applying this philosophy to the Sikh diaspora, I theorize that in the first and third Sikh generation, half-life progression has been occurring steadily. As we come to face with the fourth generation, I predict that half-life decay will progress more rapidly as it increasingly loses critical atomic matter and energy—which binds the atom together—from its cultural nucleus, which is language.

Language, Preservation and the Institution

The greatest variable that will contribute to assimilation is adopting English as a primary language. Safran made an important insight within his study of diaspora. In regards to diasporas, such as the Jewish and the Armenian diasporas, they are considered to be “de-diasporizing” as they become engulfed into the majority within host societies that they live with. As a result, their identities become merged and they lose the very markers that may give them their diasporic identity, such as language, religion, lifestyle and a collective cultural memory (Safran, 2004, 15). If a diaspora loses its language marker, it becomes difficult to not only preserve the diaspora but to identify the diaspora within a larger collective community. Language is a connection that one holds with their identity, and it acts as a key to understanding their heritage and maintaining their relationships with others. Most common and often most important are the relationships with their immediate family. As we look into Canadian policy, law, and the Constitution of Rights, we must observe how they all intertwine and ask ourselves whether or not they work in harmony together, and how they collectively impact the lives of Canadians.

The government of Canada is often understood to have founded the country on two languages; English and French, English being the primarily spoken language. With the addition of the Multiculturalism Act, Pierre Trudeau reasoned that all individuals had the right to uphold, embrace and preserve their culture and respect diversity as part of a collective community. This, I believe, can send a mixed signal to a Canadian audience. The message received may be: “Be who you are, but be Canadian first.” In other words, it is not necessary for one to let go of their markers of uniqueness, but, if you have adopted Canada as your new home, then it is important to uphold Canada’s ideals as your own, as that is the duty you owe for being an immigrant. When the first colonizers came across Indigenous territories, which are now collectively recognized as Canada, they imposed upon the will of the Indigenous groups and communities. It was all too common for Indigenous individuals to express that the introduction of official language by decree of Western foreigners in their land was a threat to their communities’ cultural survival and posed the risk of assimilation. Furthermore, this underscored the urgency of language preservation in fear of the new bilingual system—which excluded Indigenous languages—suggesting that the bilingual system would be the cause to bring an end to their culture and the languages of their ancestors (Haque, 2014, 122). As residential schools were introduced into the system, their native languages were torn from them so that they could no longer communicate with their people because they had been removed from their cultural resources.

Kamala Nayar touches upon this very issue in her thesis as she brings to light the tension that exists between cultural preservation and social integration. She recognizes that multiculturalism policies have enabled immigrant communities to continue onwards with their way of life as they did in India in regards to their customs and values. On the other hand, it is apparent that these customs and values clash with modern Canadian values. This will ultimately hinder successful integration as ethnic groups are placed in a position to either remain distinct, or to assimilate into mainstream involuntarily (Nayar, 2004, 229). This being said, it would be unfair to jump the gun and blame the government for being at fault if language is not being preserved. The issue begins with ethnic insularity. Only those who are part of the community and understand its culture are able to fully transmit culture to new generations. For this to happen, individuals must cherish the historic value of their culture, and have a desire to continue its course (Nayar, 2004, 231). It is crucial that written culture be published in literature to ensure that it remains as close to its learned form as possible. For that reason, it should be recorded with haste. The further we go on into the future, the greater the gap that is created between the present and past history. It is natural to forget what happened yesterday; imagine the damage done to historical memory if it is not written or cared for. The unfortunate truth is that every person will one day meet their fate of death, and when that happens, that individual’s stories, their history, their memories, their values and interpretations of life are all lost when they die. It is even more difficult for those who are illiterate in written culture since they may not have the means to transmit culture through literature. However, their orality allows them to profess their life experiences and values to those who are able to understand.

Those who do not transmit the cultural matter are not under the obligation to do so, but they will hold some accountability for contributing to diasporic half-life progression as it is necessary, for Sikhs who are steeped more deeply in their culture, to hold onto the atomic matter (which is culture) rather than giving off energy and mass (not instilling cultural teachings within new generations) if they want to pass along their culture. New generations ought not to be held with accountability as they may not recognize the importance of their culture if they are not taught the importance of it. New generations may absorb what is taught in the mainstream and within the Canadian culture around them, and will probably adopt that as part of their hybrid identities, regardless of whether or not the process of native cultural transmission is carried through successfully. This may create barriers between the youngest generation in relation to previous and older generations. Cultural connectedness may differ since each generation may value things that others do not, such as their perspectives on family upbringing, work, religion, relationships and associations, family recipes and traditional foods. If language is added into the mix, it further complicates matters. For those who are mainly still in the orality and literacy mode as per Nayar’s theory, it is a given that their mother tongue is of great value and used frequently, if not all the time. If newer generations are not taught this language, communication between the generational gaps is broken. To convey a message and have it received depends on the other person’s capacity to understand what is being communicated. Many native words are also time-dependent, meaning that they may bear meaning based on their historical period. They could also be geologically-dependent, based on a location of the community. These culturally significant words can become non-existent if there is a failure to transmit them. The people who have knowledge of this language must feel that this language is important in order to preserve and transmit it, but the receiver should also feel that it is significant to them and worth preserving.

One must consider that although people who are stronger in their connection to cultural origins are accountable for the transmission of culture, some barriers and factors can contribute to unsuccessful cultural transmission. Living in a modern era, individuals are tight on time due to varying schedules. Families may lack the time together due to their own personal or provisional responsibilities, and therefore lack the required, valuable time that would be necessary to fulfill such cultural obligations. Others may lack cohesiveness in the family setting. Tightly knit families can communicate well together and naturally pick up on the culture and language if it is practiced actively within the family. On the other hand, families who have relationship barriers and distance between them may not have the same opportunities. Others may not have long-term funding or the resources necessary to carry out projects to educate others on culture and heritage. Unfortunately all these factors, when in play, contribute to the diasporic half-life progression. By default, the responsibility of cultural transmission falls on those who hold the greater mass of cultural atomic matter, as the nature of atomic decay will undoubtedly occur. Atomic decay will occur more rapidly in stable and inactive isotopes, which can be likened to older generations (According to N. Gill, personal communication, September 7, 2016). The mass which they hold is most concentrated. For the progression of decay to be less rapid, older generations would need to be active in their transmission of culture, and newer generations would need to be more readily available to accept the transmission of matter.

Cultural transmission across generations

Unsuccessful cultural transmission will have an effect on how a diaspora exists in a new generation. As the newer generations become more integrated with their host societies, their intellect develops as they are exposed to new ways of thinking and encouraged to self-actualize. The trouble with modern individuals who are also analytics—abstract thinkers, conceptualizers, individualists—is that “modern individuals lack a clear identity and purpose in life because they lack cultural coherence” (Merry, 2005, 477). It is an arduous task for a generation to build upon an identity if they do not have any knowledge or understanding of it, let alone pass it forward to their offspring. In addition, we have to accept certain facts about human development and social modalities which contribute to personal identity and well-being so that individuals can thrive with cultural coherence (Merry, 2005, 478). The third generation may desire to be loved and accepted at an individual level and appreciated for their independent achievements (Nayar, 2004, 80-81). When analytical individuals in the third generation fail to receive this love, a conflict arises in which they reject old ways of thinking—rejecting atomic matter from the cultural nucleus—and adopt new ones to shape their hybrid identity, which contributes to the half-life progression. Additionally, a generation that is further away in time and distance from native Sikh identity will have a greater difficulty accessing the experiences of the Sikh diaspora.

The diaspora is a condition of subjectivity that emerges from the social phenomenon in which diasporic generations can channel the “postmemory” of their hostland and its history, along with the cultures associated with leaving the homeland (Kim, 2007, 338). How can one have genuine membership in a diaspora if they are not living through the framework of this postmemory and diasporic culture? In order to identify with the diaspora, you need to have lived through the diaspora, walked in the shoes of the diaspora and understood the diaspora. To suggest that one has a diasporic identity also implies that there is a tension between being in, living in, and experiencing a physical space (the hostland) while regularly thinking of their original or native space. Generations present and future may identify with a diaspora as they give thought to their history and their unique qualities based on their culture. Although they may not identify with the diaspora in regards to the physical space of cultural identity, newer diasporic generations can still connect to diasporic identity through wondering what their homeland is like and which parts of their culture are present within them as individuals. The ways in which people experience how ancestral traditions, ideology, religion and so forth are practiced and imagined may fade as generations pass, but a diaspora remains real as long as there is someone who can identify with it.

Diasporic half-life progression is also impacted by many factors in addition to the internalization of values within the individual. Shifts in areas such as social settings, economic mobility, demographic changes, and discontinued intergenerational relations all influence how much culture is transmitted (Professor S. Bains, personal communication, September 9, 2016). In order to reverse the rapid pace of diasporic half-life progression, cultural transmission needs to occur in a way that such factors have minimal influence. Preserving the cultural nucleus, the non-radioactive form of the element, will slow the process of half-life progression. Thus, by the fourth generation, the likelihood of Sikh individuals understanding Sikh culture with deep appreciation may not be very high. It depends on whether the third generation agent held onto that matter within the cultural nucleus. If it did not, then the probability of the fifth and sixth generation doing so is unlikely as the patterns continue and the value of Sikh culture diminishes.

Arguably, it could be suggested that identifying with a diaspora places responsibility upon an individual to “upkeep” that diaspora. However, the concept of a diaspora also can also be viewed as involving people who have complicated relationships with their languages and heritage cultures. Some individuals grow up in areas where they internalize the belief that their culture and language is something to be ashamed of, and therefore preservation may not occur because culture and language may not be practiced due to fear of oppression. Diasporas often have complicated stories that hinder the preservation process over generations. It is an unfortunate truth, and the lack of success in cultural transmission may be a result of many reasons. This sheds light on the complexity and depth of diasporic identity. Diasporic identities highlight personal, individual and community struggles to fight to keep culture alive, even when an identity is not understood from within.

Imagined communities and “the myth of return”

Benedict Anderson discusses the concept of  “imagined communities,” which is a socially constructed community of residents who are commonly grounded by nationality. Though Anderson says most of the members of the imagined community will never know their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them, in their mind they create an image of communion because they collectively share general beliefs, attitudes, opinions and sentiments (Anderson, 2006, 6). He takes an evolutionist and transformative approach to the idea of culture and community, and as his thesis forms, he gives light to the notion that the imagination of a community creates a limitless, timeless future for nationalism and belonging to a community. This imagination can prolong the life of a cultural entity because it continues to exist in the mind of those who cherish it.

Members of diasporic communities often have a fantasy of returning to their homeland, or a certain nostalgia for a homeland. This is sometimes referred to as “the myth of return,” as Nayar touches upon in her thesis. Members of a diaspora might want to return to experience what life is like in their homeland and see whether or not it is what they imagined it would be. The offspring of immigrants in a hostland may exercise their imagination and create a “homeland” image in their mind so that they are able to speak of or comprehend thoughts or ideas without having experienced them (Nayar, 2004, 28). Folklore and stories can feed this imagination. However, reality, if faced, can be dull when compared to the imagination since conceptual ideas of the homeland may be heightened and excited to great extremes. The attraction of a homeland can weaken if the reality does not conform to its perceived image (Safran, 2004, 17). Perspective of memory can also add to this excitement. Memory is dependent on the perception of the storyteller or their source of information, which can be misleading to the receiver. As memory fades, the energy of the culture within these stories fades with it.

The third generation as agents of transition

As the Sikh diaspora shifts further astray from classical Sikh culture, existing generations should do what they can to maintain the richness of their remaining culture, in order to preserve culture through transmission. Once culture is lost, the damage has great impact, as it becomes difficult to regain cultural knowledge as new generations move forward and older generations pass. As the third, analytical-mode generation faces modernity, some may feel that it is time to emotionally detach from traditional thinking and conform to or adopt more modern values, such as those of reason and theoretical and scientific understanding (Nayar, 2004, 109). The third, analytical-mode generation may try to break away from the “group think” of previous generations and establish its own individual identity, to be recognized as one member in the group, rather than being represented as a collective group. Individualists do not often follow the creed of the majority—they form their own that is suited towards what they want. Analytical individualists may embrace modern values such as personal choice, self-orientation and success by merit (Nayar, 2004, 70). This is oppositional to the classical Sikh value of izzat (honour), which the first and second generation may uphold and ultimately preserve in their culture and tradition. The duty of honour implies that there is deep respect for what is considered to be valuable. The more the third generation adopts modernity, the less honour they may show towards traditions. Older generations may view this as disrespectful from a standpoint that reflects accumulated life experience and wisdom (Nayar, 2004, 69).

Perhaps izzat is used to coerce individuals to follow cultural norms as a means of subservience (Professor Satwinder Bains, personal communication, September 9, 2016). Nevertheless, the new values of the third generation cannot fit congruently with that of old ones, and so the old matter is rejected from the cultural nucleus. Analytical individualists of the third generation may constantly question and discard information that they deem irrelevant to their identity. In this process, it can seem that the hybridity of old and new values has some aspects of an individualistic perspective due to the creation of a brand new, independent and progressive identity that is dependent on modern language and thinking. Diasporic half-life progression can occur with this instance of hybridity because there is a replacement of old parts until it is rebuilt into a new identity—an identity that adopts pieces of the modern versions of both Sikh culture and Canadian culture. However, hybrid identities consist of more than just individualism. Some hybrid identities consist of more complex stories, such as those of mixed ethnicities, which an individualist theory may not account for. In such cases, the theory of diasporic half-life progression becomes more complicated as it tries to preserve multiple ethnic backgrounds within Canadian society, in addition to cultures of modernity and tradition.

Within hybridity, there are also connections made between a language and its influence on lifestyle. If a hybrid individual is bilingual, there is likeliness that they speak one language primarily. The language which they speak primarily is the one associated with the identity they connect with most. The language that we choose to speak regularly ultimately shapes an individual’s worldview, as it is not only a personal choice, but a social one as well (Crawford et al., 2004, 88). If that is the case, then an individual is more likely to value the identity of their chosen language and will probably preserve that one over the other. That is, if a Sikh diasporic individual speaks English more prominently, they likely connect with the Western culture and the values associated with it. We can compare this to someone of the first generation who may only knows Punjabi as their main source of language. They may declare that they are Sikh, but Canadian due to their physical residence.

Further contributing to this issue of language with analytics of the third generation could be the purpose which a language serves in an individual’s life. Those of different languages in Canada—such as those with a native tongue in French and Spanish—seem to use English as their primary language based on their academic paths, careers, social circles and so forth. Although they may speak their native tongue, they may have greater strength, fluency and confidence in speaking English. When this is the situation, they may create an attachment with the identity associated with the English speaking lifestyle, detach from the identity associated with their native lifestyle, and disconnect from cultural origin (Crawford et al., 2004, 93, 96). This is further evidence that the diaspora of Sikhism could experience half-life progression with regards to culture loss.


With the third generation of Sikhs in Canada experiencing modernity and living in culturally hybrid identities, the ability to preserve the uniqueness of their ancestral culture weakens. There are barriers when it comes to transmission, and some of these barriers are unpreventable. As well, with older generations trying to remain traditional, the analytical third and upcoming generations may choose to reject old ways of thinking and adopt new values that are more tailored towards their culturally hybrid identities. While the third generation and new generations cross over into modernity, it is likely they will primarily use English since the values they choose to adopt and the lifestyle they choose to live are associated closely with the English language. As a result of all these factors, I believe that the diaspora of Sikhism is likely to experience what I call diasporic half-life progression over the course of its lifetime. If the native tongue is no longer being spoken, seldom spoken or has deviated away from its native form, then the culture disintegrates with it. Sikh culture is currently experiencing irreversible changes that are happening to its crucial atomic matter; this may be preventable it is if one takes the opportune time to preserve the great value of Sikhism.

References and Bibliography

Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. (Revised ed.). London, UK: Verso.

Crawford, T., Lengeling, M., Pablo, I.M., Ocampo, R.H. (2004). Hybrid identity in academic writing: “Are there two of me?”. Profile: Issues in Teacher’s Professional Development. 16(2), p.87-100. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15446/profile.v16n2.40192 

Dickin, A.P. (2005). Radiogenic isotope geology. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haque, E. (2014). Multiculturalism within a bilingual framework: A retrospective. Canadian Ethnic Studies. 46(2), p. 119-125. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/ces.2014.0034

Kim, S.S. (2007). Redefining diaspora through a phenomenology of postmemory. Diaspora. 16(3). p. 337-352. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/dsp.2007.0015 

Merry, M.S. (2005). Cultural coherence and the schooling for identity maintenance. Journal of Philosophy of Education. 39(3). p. 477-496. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9752.2005.00449.x

Nayar, K. (2004). The Sikh diaspora in Vancouver: Three generations amid tradition, modernity and multiculturalism. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.

NDT Resource Center. (2015, December 11). Radioactive half-life. In Education Resources. Retrieved from https://www.ndeed.org/EducationResources/HighSchool/Radiography/halflife2.htm.

Safran, W. (2004). Deconstructing and comparing diasporas. Diasporaidentity, and new directions in theory and research. p.9-30. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780203401057_chapter_1

Raina Nareg
Raina Nareg is Bachelor of Social Work student at the University of the Fraser Valley. She was raised in a traditional Indo-Canadian home with parents who are both first-generation and second-generation Indo-Canadian. This personal experience led her to explore the issue of cultural identity within her studies and education, as well as her work with young children.


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