NEW DELHI, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The top priest of the Sikh religion has issued a directive forbidding same-sex marriages among the Sikhs, a move that has stirred a hornet's nest in lands as far as in Canada, where the Liberal government is about to introduce a bill in the parliament next month.
Joginder Singh Vedanti, the chief of Akal Takht, the highest spiritual and temporal seat of the Sikhs, has said in the edict that same sex marriages have no place in Sikhism. The directive was issued on the eve of Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin's ongoing visit to India.
Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside India. At least six lawmakers in Canadian parliament are Sikhs, and they may be caught between religion and politics when it comes to voting on the bill.
Vedanti's directive bars Sikh priests all over the world from solemnizing same-sex marriages in gurudwaras, or Sikh places of worship.
The religious edict, which is binding on the Sikhs, reads that the rising trend of same-sex marriages in Western countries was a matter of concern to the Sikh religion. The moves of certain countries to give legal recognition to such unions has already initiated a worldwide debate.
The top priest said the Sikh code of conduct did not allow same-sex marriages, saying, "Same-sex marriage originates from a sick mind."
"The trend needs to be curbed," he said.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who is visiting India, has called off his visit to Amritsar, home to Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrine. His predecessor, Jean Chretien, had visited the Golden Temple to pay his obeisance a few days before he relinquished the office.
While former premier of British Columbia and Canada's Federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, who was to accompany Martin to Amritsar, said that the Canadian government was committed to allowing same-sex marriages, Gurmant Grewal, three-time member of Canadian Parliament, held that in 1998 the House of Commons had said that the traditional definition of marriage, meaning that it was between a man and a woman, should be retained.
The six Sikh Members of Parliament have taken different stands on the issue, The Tribune daily reported. While four Sikh lawmakers are Liberals, two are Conservatives. The directive calls upon the Sikhs worldwide not to support political parties or governments that support gay marriages.
Martin told reporters in New Delhi Tuesday: "This is a question of civil marriage, not of religious marriage.
"I would point out that we are a country of ethnic and religious minorities,'' Martin said, adding "And the purpose of the Charter of Rights is to protect minorities, to protect them against the oppression of the majority.''
Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, said that same-sex legislation "would not have, I think, wide appreciation" in India.
Canadian media reports suggested that Martin's itinerary was changed, dropping the scheduled Amritsar visit, to make time for last weekend's stopovers in tsunami-stricken regions of Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Dosanjh said that he believed the edict would not influence the political views of Canadian Sikhs. "I mean, Prime Minister Martin and (former) Prime Minister Chretien both were Catholics. The Vatican (stand against same-sex marriage) didn't have an impact on them. And therefore no other religious institution would have an impact on anybody else."
Gurbax Singh Malhi, a Bramalea, Ontario, Liberal MP, said he would vote against his government's bill, which is likely to be introduced in February.
"I believe in religion. That is why I'm against same sex-marriage," Malhi told CTV News.
"Traditionally . . . everybody works under the guidelines of the Golden Temple," Malhi added. "For the Sikhs, (Vedanti) is next to God. So I think whatever he says, the people have to follow the rules and regulations of the traditions.''
But Brampton, Ontario, MP Ruby Dhalla said while the Sikh high priest is equivalent to the pope, she's not in Parliament to "impose my religious views or my faith on anybody."
Sikhism is considered to be the youngest organized religion in the world, and there are nearly 20 million Sikhs all over the world, but primarily in India's northern state of Punjab. Sikhism has had 10 gurus in its history. However, today it recognizes no human guru but only the "perpetual Guru" - the Holy Book called Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs strictly oppose the discrimination of women, which has been rampant in traditional Indian culture -- for example, the burning of widows (sati) and female infanticide.
All male Sikhs have the middle or last name of Singh, meaning lion. It is a name they adopt during the initiation rite comparable to Christian baptism but celebrated at an age when they are old enough to understand their religious obligations.
Sikh men wear a pointed turban covering the long hair and they also sport a beard. Sikhs are just 2 percent of India's one billion people but are considered an influential minority. Marriage is an integral institution of the religion, and Sikh clergy are allowed to marry and have a family.