From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
March 15, 2023
A few weeks ago I was talking with a woman who had come to Canada to study in one of our universities and remained when she married a Canadian. She immigrated from India, from the state of Punjab. Knowing just a little about the Punjabi people, I asked her if her maiden name was Singh. It was not, she told me, for she is a woman. Her maiden name was Kaur. Apparently, women from Punjab commonly use Kaur as their surname while men use Singh. This seems confusing to me, and I decided to do a little research.
Many people from the state of Punjab (Punjab borders on Pakistan) are Sikhs. Sikh men are recognized because they wear turbans, and perhaps the most well-known Sikh in Canada is Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the federal NDP party. Sikhism came into existence around 500 years ago and is somewhat influenced by both Islam (which is predominant in Pakistan) and Hinduism (which is predominant in India). Hindus have what is called a caste system which divides all people into different categories or levels, and when you are born into a particular caste, you cannot leave it. Thus, traditionally, people who belonged to lower castes were expected to be servants of those in upper castes. The founders of Sikhism decided that they would reject the caste system, and, in their religion, all people would be considered equal honour in their community. Thus, those who adopted Sikhism as their religion took the names of Singh (men) and Kaur (women). Singh means “lion” and is meant to be a title or name of honour. Kaur means “princess,” thus also giving women honour and status in their community. Although Singh and Kaur are not always family names (surnames) but can be middle names, most people from Punjab who arrive in Canada state their last names to be either Singh or Kaur. Thus, while my guess that the maiden name of the woman I was speaking to was Singh was wrong, I was at least in the ballpark, for I did not know that men and women use different last names. What does fascinate me, though, was that the founders of Sikhism recognized that all people, no matter who they are, are to be honoured.
We might find that having the Sikh system of everyone having the same last name to be somewhat confusing. Those of European descent have a much different system. Last names were common in Europe for centuries, but they would change from generation to generation. A boy names Thomas whose father’s name was John might be identified as Thomas Johnson, but Tom’s son, named Jim, would be known as Jim Thompson. Other times someone would be identified by their occupation (Shoesmith), but their last name could change if they changed jobs and became a grinder of grain (Miller). In the Netherlands last names were fluid and changed often until Napoleon, in the early 1800s, made an edict that last names were to be made permanent. People had to choose a last name (surname) which would be theirs and would not change. Thus, families named themselves after their parents or their occupation or where they lived or what they looked like. Or, occasionally, a last name was given which spoke of a person’s reputation or their associations.
In the book of Acts (11:26) we read that the followers of Jesus Christ were first named “Christians” in the city of Antioch. It does not seem that this was used in a positive sense by those not of the faith, but the followers of Jesus eagerly adopted it as their own. In the Roman world where last names were being used to describe family origins (e.g. Herodian = the house of Herod), the followers of Jesus Christ were eager to have it known that they belonged to the family of Jesus. They had been adopted by God to become God’s children, taking their place alongside of Jesus who is the eternal Son of the Father. It could well be that “Christian” became a kind last name among followers of Jesus, adopted by them to show that they belonged to Jesus Christ. Just as it is easy to identify someone of the Sikh religion by their name, so it would have been relatively easy to identify a follower of Jesus as they introduced themselves. It is speculation on my part, of course, but it is possible that a Christian, when introducing him or herself would say, “My name is Gary Christian.” Or, it is even more likely that they reversed the order as is sometimes done in European countries (Poland being one), and say, “I am Christian Gary.” Reversing our first and last name has the effect of giving others a chance to associate us with a large group or family before they know us as an individual.
I don’t think it likely that we will change the way we introduce ourselves, but perhaps the Sikhs are on to something. There may be more in a name than meets the eye. In Sikhism, names are meant to honour. In Europe they are meant to identify us in the community. Our identity is in Christ who we honour. Maybe our names could reflect that as well.