Leaping into the Whirlwind
For Sikh-American activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur, healing her divided nation begins with taking divine risks.
“Tati Vao Na Lagi, Par Brahm Sharnai…”
My grandfather taught me this prayer when I was a little girl. He would hum it as he tied his turban, worked in the garden, and drove us to school in the mornings. I took this prayer, this shabad from Sikh scripture, as the secret to his fearlessness. When I grew up, I wanted to be as fearless as him.
This prayer was on my lips when I was 20 years old and hiding in my bedroom. A man from my community had just been murdered. A woman stabbed. And another chased by an angry mob. Anti-Muslim hate crimes had erupted across the US after 9/11 but weren’t appearing on the evening news. As a third-generation Sikh American, my family had settled in the US nearly 100 years earlier. But in that moment, our turbans and dark skin marked us automatically suspect, perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist.
I was scared and numb. It felt like a whirlwind brewing outside my bedroom window. I wanted to do something, but the script I was holding told me that a young woman of color without a college degree should keep her head down.
I have come to think of crises like these as “whirlwind” moments. In these moments, the script we have been handed does not read true. A dissonance rings in our ears, our hands begin to tremble, a moral stirring arises in our hearts, and we have a choice: to continue supporting the status quo, or to follow our moral compass—and leap.
I could not leap alone. But with my grandfather’s prayer in my heart, I grabbed my camera and began a road trip across the country to chronicle stories of hate crimes against Sikh, Muslim, and other Americans. At first, it felt like flying. I felt invincible with my camera, and soon I was using it to chronicle stories of people fighting for justice.
Until one day. In 2004, I was arrested with force while filming a protest in New York City. Behind bars, nursing a dead arm that had been badly twisted by a police officer, I experienced what women have known for centuries: challenging the status quo exacts a toll. When we leap into the whirlwind, we fall. Women and girls all over the world who speak out against oppression in their families or communities or countries bear the costs—sometimes with their lives.
Ten years later, I’m 30. Barack Obama is president; Osama bin Laden is dead. I still cannot write without pain in my twisted wrist. But this pain has shown me that ending cycles of violence requires healing the bodies and minds of victims and oppressors. It requires humanizing our opponents so that we work to transform them, rather than destroy and replace them. I now believe that the way we make change is just as important as the change we make. I would never have learned this without falling into the whirlwind.
Today I’m working with extraordinary teammates lifting up buried stories—through films and reports and lawsuits—to help heal a still divided nation. The whirlwinds have multiplied. The issues are myriad, and the need for humanity in our struggles for justice has never been greater.
A few weeks ago, I shared my story with the girls of San Domenico School, an all-girls high school north of San Francisco. At the end of my talk, I asked them to share their own whirlwind moments.
One girl raised her hand. “I jumped into the whirlwind when I came out to my parents as bisexual. It was hard, and they didn’t understand at first. That was the cost. But now I’m learning to be free.”
“My whirlwind was coming to this country from China as an immigrant,” another girl said.
“My whirlwind was coming out as Jewish in a Christian high school,” said another.
Here’s what I learned in crisscrossing the US to 150 cities, listening to school assemblies, congregations, and corporate roundtables. There is a groundswell out there—a groundswell of young people who are calling upon their faith tradition or moral compass to leap into whirlwinds large and small.
This groundswell is sparing no area of society:campaigns as diverse as immigration reform, religious freedom, and LGBTQ equality are bound up in one struggle for justice, one movement to heal and repair the world. We are witnessing the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate causes, once perceived of and fought as separate campaigns. And many of us are drawing upon our faith and moral traditions to engage in the fight. When we as women and girls link arms and jump into the whirlwind together, we change the world.
When my grandfather died, I was angry with him for leaving me before teaching me the secret to his fearlessness. The night before his funeral, I finally looked up the meaning to the prayer he sung me as a child.
“Tati Vao Na Lagi, Par Brahm Sharnai…” It means, “The hot winds cannot touch me; I am sheltered by the Divine.”
This was his last lesson to me: When you leap into the whirlwind, you will fall. But with truth in your heart, you will be sheltered from the swirling hot winds—and rise up to change the world.