Kids Corner

Below: Second from bottom - photo of Harmandar Sahib by Gurumustuk Singh. Third from bottom - detail from painting by Amrit Singh and Nirbhe Kaur.


My Faith: A Sikh in America



When I came to this country in 1960, perhaps three or four Sikhs lived in New York City.

There were none in Oregon, where I spent several years as a student.

Today, no major metropolitan area in North America is without a sizable Sikh community.

Most Americans back then had never seen a Sikh; not many know about us even now. I conclude this from the post-9/11 reality when the bearded, turbaned visage of the Sikh is often mistaken on the street for a follower of Osama bin Laden, despite the fact Sikhs have nothing to do with Islam or with bin Laden. But, it gets us the most unwelcome attention.

When I came here, I was a Sikh but with little feeling for Sikhism. My interest in it was driven largely by the fact that I lived in North America in an entirely non-Sikh milieu, and by the innumerable invitations to churches, synagogues and Bible study groups that came my way.

And when non-Sikhs asked me questions, I had little to say that made sense to me, much less to others.

To me, Sikhism speaks of a reality that the senses cannot perceive and the intellect cannot fathom, but with which our inner self can commune. This reality transcends anything that science and technology can measure or formulate.

As in many other spiritual traditions, the "Word" is God. Our scripture - Guru Granth - opens with an alphanumeric devised by the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak.

"Ik Oankar" combines the first primal number "one" with "Oankar", a word that stands for Creator or Doer. Thus it postulates one God - not a partisan Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh God, but one that embraces all creation.

If I can see the oneness in the creator and creation, there is then absolutely no room for distinctions in race, caste, creed, gender, color or national origin. Differences between "them" and "us" vanish. Equality, liberty, fraternity and justice are inherent in that oneness.

And, then, as the Guru Granth says, "I see no stranger or enemy".

Guru Granth is both timeless and universal, so it speaks to me today as it did to countless Sikhs centuries ago. It deliberately shies away from historical events, and absolutely refrains from dispensing specific edicts on particular moral choices, such as abortion, reproductive rights or other bioethical issues.

The idea is not a God who micromanages our existence. In life, many dilemmas test us and new issues of life and death will demand our attention. Our response will evolve with time and technology in a changing world.

Guru Granth does not provide me a sin quotient for every infraction committed or contemplated. It gives me not cut-and-dried solutions as in a catechism or an easily-swallowed pill, but an ethical framework rooted in spiritual values within which to navigate my way. This places all responsibility and accountability squarely on the follower.

To me, Guru Granth has moral clarity and the vocabulary to express it without maudlin oversimplification or self-righteous hubris. It gives life an inner centering, reverence, reason, hope, and calmness in action.

Even though the best prayer is honest self-effort, the results are pure grace (nadar), like manna from heaven.

Faith, to some, is panacea; to others, it is placebo. To me, it is embracing the uncertainty that is life, while knowing in the gut a visceral universal presence and oneness. This, then, becomes walking in the shadow of God, or a life in "hukam".

Sikhism asks of us a productive family life of honest effort and sharing its rewards with others, while holding on always to an awareness of the Infinite within us.

Much of the Guru Granth is in verse that is sung to the strains of classical Indian musicology. The poetry remains some of the most romantic, and speaks of a reality that transcends our puny existence.

My faith and engagement with the Guru in the Granth remains everlasting. Sikhism is now inseparably integrated into everything I think, do or feel - at work or at play.

After almost half a century of living in America, I see that just as it is possible to be a good Jew or a good Christian and a good American at the same time, it is similarly possible to be a good Sikh and a good American.

Despite some disquieting post-9/11 experiences, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. 


[Dr. I.J. Singh is a professor of anatomical sciences at New York University and is a regular columnist for He is also the author of four collections of essays on his journey as a Sikh in North America: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias (1994, 1998); The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress (2001); Being & Becoming a Sikh (2003); The World According to Sikhi (2006).]

The above article is an edited version of the original. Courtesy: The Washington Post/Newsweek

October 20, 2008

Conversation about this article

1: Tejwant (U.S.A.), October 21, 2008, 7:41 PM.

Thanks for sharing your journey. Sikhism is a unique way of life which gives us the tools to learn "wills" and "will-nots" rather than "cans" and "cannots"; a way of life based on pragmatism, not on self-created dogmas, and one that sees oneness in all, irrespective of our hue, creed or faith. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon on 21 July 1969, he was in awe while savouring the 'WOW' factor of the Creator. He rightfully uttered, "That's one small step for [a] Man, one giant leap for mankind." Guru Nanak showed us the same 500 years ago when he said, "There is ONE SOURCE of all - Ik Oan Kaar." In fact, if one reads the Bill of Rights, one would see Sikh values echoing in each word. As long as we keep on dwelling in Me-ism rather than seeking Oneness in all, hatred and intolerance will not cease to exist. However, when some patches of the world societies start pushing this self created hatred out of their circles, then only we can see some positive changes. Mind you, faith-based hatred is the only glue that binds them. So, a whole new mind-set based on pragmatism is needed. Only pragmatic thought process can work as a tide to wash away the muck created by the dogmas which has left us soiled within. Thanks for bringing the Sikh way of life to this forum so that all those who are unaware of it can also savour the beauty they all hold within, and that beauty is to be able to embrace all as One. As the Guru Granth says: "I see no stranger, I feel no enmity".

2: Harpreet Singh (Cambridge, MA, U.S.A.), October 22, 2008, 6:49 AM.

This article was originally published in a mainstream forum hosted by the Washington Post and Newsweek. This is noteworthy only because it is not often that we see Sikhs engaging in mainstream national media. The article provides a clear exposition of Sikh doctrines that is both scholarly and at the same time comprehensible to "Joe-six-packs" and "Joe-the-plumbers" of America. This is indeed a rare skill for which Dr. I.J. Singh should be congratulated.

3: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), October 22, 2008, 2:20 PM.

One of the best articles summing up the wisdom of the Gurus as emanating from Guru Granth Sahib. I think it's timing with the celebration of the 300th Gur-Gaddi Divas of the Granth immensely enhances its importance.

4: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), October 22, 2008, 3:41 PM.

I would echo Harpreet Singh's sentiments. Sharing my comments on the Newsweek site: Dr. Singh is spot on when he says that being a good Sikh and a good American are not mutually exclusive. Sikhs have learnt the lesson of assimilation well from Guru Nanak, the founder of the Faith. Legend has it that on a trip to Multan (in present day Pakistan and a great religious center then) he was offered a cup of milk filled to the brim. The gesture was actually a cryptic message, implying that there was no room for another holy man (ideology) in an already crowded field. The Guru dissolved a few hollow lumps of sugar in the milk and returned it with a flower petal floating on top. The Guru's response was equally symbolic but highly illustrative of how Sikhs might live in a society. Sikhs assimilate (like the sugar bring a sweet flavor) but remain distinct (like the petal). Identity and assimilation is indeed possible.

Comment on "My Faith: A Sikh in America"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.