With his turban and beard, Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa is not your quintessential Punjabi Sikh. He was born in America to parents who converted to Sikhism before he was born. As founder and CEO of SikhNet.com, one of the biggest online portals for Sikhs around the world, Gurumustuk shows how comfortable he is in his beliefs and wants to promote the message of inclusion, love and peace.
Talking about Gurumustuk would be incomplete without the mention of his parents, whose product he clearly is. America in the 1960s was a tumultuous decade defined by counterculture protests and the civil rights movements. It was a time when Yogi Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, the man who introduced his version of Kundalini yoga to the United States, was visiting.
According to Gurumustuk, many people then were doing drugs and trying to find some connection to God and spirituality. Yogi Harbhajan showed people a healthy alternative to their lifestyle through mediation, yoga and shared with them the message of the Guru, which aligned with many of the things they were searching for. For many of the people who started with yoga and meditation, their next question was: what is the turban, the beard and religion about?
Like hundreds of others at the time, Gurumustuk’s parents (his mother was born Jewish and his father was born into a Christian family), became part of the generation that started leaning about Sikh gurus and they adopted the Sikh faith and made it their own. Incidentally, his mother was also a gur granthi (caretaker) for the gurudwara. “Both my parents are very dharmik (religious). I was brought up in an environment where meditation and spirituality was a big part of our everyday life,” reflects Gurumustuk.
On the advice of Yogi Harbhajan, many people sent their kids to school in India “to get that maturity being in the land of the gurus”. So in 1983, Gurumustuk was among the 100 odd kids from Espanola in the southern US state of New Mexico to go to the Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary school in Mussoorie, northern India. He was just nine years of age.
“It was a big school up in the mountains and I was among the 900 children there. It was a challenge and a very different time then when you think about India now with all the satellite TV, modernisation and western culture influence,” recalls Gurumustuk.
The hardships he faced and the experiences of cultures in India gave him an understanding of what people are like. But after completion of his studies in Mussoorie and nearby Dehradun, when he got back to the States he went through an identity crisis of sorts. “I think probably anybody of any cultural faith that looks different is going to have some confrontation of their identity and what they believe especially in America where it is the melting pot; you want to fit it,” says Gurumustuk.
There was a challenge trying to make the choices for himself. The pressures to fit in sometimes felt so great that he went partying, he wanted to make some friends, have a girlfriend and so on, but one thing Gurumustuk noticed was, after some time of that he was nagged by an empty feeling. “I think at that point I started to go through that duality.”
At the same time he was curious about understanding the mind and how the youth related to Sikhism and spirituality. “I always felt that in India when things were presented to me about being a Sikh, it was more like how to do it, doesn’t matter why and I always felt that my generation who were there didn’t relate to that. We needed to come to our own experience and understanding of what it meant to be a Sikh,” says Gurumustuk.
That was when he got an idea of getting together with some of his friends and creating a book to create a narrative that would resonate with other young people. The internet was still not there. So Gurumustuk started collecting articles and writing different things. A year later when the internet came, he thought not many kids were going to read books and the way to bring youth together was through technology and connecting with others. “That was the starting of SihkNet.com,” he reflects. It was the Spring of 1996.
Setting up SikhNet and meeting his wife at a camp around the same time was what transformed Gurumustuk. “When my wife who wasn’t born a Sikh told me, ‘You look so handsome’, I was like ‘wow, I can be myself, I don’t have to fit in’.” He felt free of the pressures he felt earlier from other people who didn’t relate to him as a Sikh and those who wanted to mould him to their expectations.
But in all this an important lesson he learnt was developing a compassion and understanding to other people’s journey. “Sometimes we need to feel miserable, we need to make mistakes, we need to go through all this for us to wake up and realise what it is that we are here to do.”
SikhNet.com gradually grew as a big entity, albeit slowly. Gurumustuk initially worked on the website during his free time in the evening when his day job got over. At the time he was working for a computer company and that’s where, he admits, he acquired many of his skills. “At a certain point I got carpal tunnel syndrome because I was working all day – sometimes sleeping under my desk on the weekends so I could use the office computer.”
It got to a pivotal part where he wanted to turn it into full time work as it became a passion. He loved seeing how the website impacted other people’s lives and found it very fulfilling. “That’s what differentiates it from smaller sewa (service) projects that people do. SikhNet has had this consistency, it has always been there and a lot of the types of things at SikhNet takes more than just a little bit of free time.”
And it was an area that nobody else was that much interested in, so Gurumustuk saw the need to build this bridge. “I grew up in India, I understood western culture and I felt I could share things in a way some of the young people might appreciate and feel more welcome and not feel judged.” The other advantage was there was just one other Sikh website at that time. Since most Sikhs are very career-oriented and very entrepreneurial, doing work online as a mission wasn’t as common, says Gurumustuk.
Today SikhNet.com has grown into one of the biggest online platforms for Sikhs. It is a global virtual community for Sikhs and all those interested in the Sikh way of life. Annually, about seven million people visit the website with about 800,000 visits per month.
SikhNet provide news, educational services, and educational materials on Sikhism. It also broadcasts temple services and devotional music over its internet-based streaming services. The most popular feature is the Daily Hukamnama followed by many other services such as the daily SikhNet News, SikhNet radio, the Gurbani Archive, childrens stories, inspirational videos, Sikhiwiki, discussion forums, Youth Q&A, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib online and downloads (Bani files, kirtan audios, Gurmukhi fonts, etc).
With a number of staff and contractors working from different locations, it is a whole operation. “We have so many different programs, each one of them require attention and energy to create the content. It’s not like a-20 dollar website hosting. We have six different servers and our main office is in New Mexico. We try to keep it very efficient, more budgeted and we try to do as much as we can with the resource available – donations from users,” says Gurumustuk.
When it introduced Sikh matrimonial.com, it was ahead of its time. “The revenue from that supported SikhNet before we had donations. Then as other big companies in India came in and pumped million dollars into building huge teams, matrimonials wasn’t our core focus but that was how we used to get our support initially. It still exists but it doesn’t draw as much traffic as it did,” adds Gurumustuk.
From a hobby, Gurumustuk developed SikhNet into a non-profit organization in December 1995. “I never had this grand plan about SikhNet. I felt it was the Guru guiding me and my own journey unfolded through that. What I feel passionate about is promoting the message of understanding passion, about not being judgemental, about seeing the other person as you. I feel that too often in our community and in the world in general, there is a lot of racism, hate, fear of otherness. I have seen so much criticism and judgment towards me that I know what it feels like to be the other”
Gurumustuk believes Sikhism is not just for Sikhs, it is for the world. “Until we as a community start looking at it that way and not being so rigid in our outlook towards each other, it would be difficult for that to shared outside our community.”
In Australia to participate in leadership camps and to connect with the community here, Gurumustuk is interested in learning about the community and what the needs are so that he can serve better through SikhNet. “My role in SikhNet is trying to promote that message of inclusion, that everybody is welcome.”
By Indira Laisram