Being a Sikh IV – Dr. I.J Singh
by Misha Kapany Schwarz.
Dr. I.J Singh
Dr. I.J. Singh is Professor Emeritus, Basic Sciences at the New York University and is also a writer and speaker on Sikh's and Sikhism in the diasporas. He stands astride both the East and West. Himself a citizen of the diasporas –born in India but having spent most of his life in the United States.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in what is now Pakistan, northwest of India. In 1947 the country was partitioned, and we moved to what is now India. I’ve spent much of my life in New York, a little in India, and a little in Pakistan.
What made you become a Sikh?
I was born into a Sikh family, my parents and siblings were Sikh. You learn to do some practices that the family does but that does not make you come to terms with the religion that you are. I came to this country when there were only 2-3 Sikhs living in New York, and I lived in Oregon for a couple of years, and I was the only Sikh around. So a lot of people asked me what I was, so I had two choices: to walk away from Sikhism, or to learn about it. I think the most important thing about Sikhism is becoming a Sikh, not being one.
What are the core ideals of the religion or what do you like about Sikhism?
I can express the core of Sikhism in two words: Ik (one) Onkaar (god) – it’s not telling you that there is a Christian god, or Jewish god, or Hindu god, but one god for all. The difference between us and them disappears, because there is a universal God. There is no difference in gender, race, color, or ethnicity, so everyone is equal.
How does being Sikh affect your everyday life?
Any religion is a way a life, so what you do in life is determined by what the core values are, so I can see no difference in race, gender, caste, or ethnicity. Those values determine how you live. It gives you a sense of justice, liberty, fraternity etc.
What does it mean to you to be a Sikh?
It teaches me to live honestly, with dignity, and work hard. It teaches me to keep the universal connectivity of God, and share my wealth with other human beings.
Have you ever had to deal with racial profiling and/or prejudice?
Of course! In any society, fear of the stranger is universal. We always fear something that we don’t know what to make of. I was the only guy walking around in a turban in Portland, Oregon, so I would consider that racial profiling.
Is it difficult being a Sikh and living in America?
No more than anywhere else in the world. Less than 2% of the population of India is Sikh. Therefore, I appear as a stranger to many people. I don’t think there is great difficulty being a Sikh in America. I would like to tell people there have been many other terrorists in the country, none of which were Sikh.
After 9/11 have there been any mistaken accusations of Sikhs?
I was walking on the street one day with a “white american” fellow, with a nicer suit and briefcase than mine, and we were having a conversation about Sikhism. He asked me a question “If your people came here one hundred years ago, why did they not leave your religion back home?” I looked at him and realized he was a white American, not a Native American.
How do you practice Sikhism in America?
I stick to the core values, and I think that the core values are pretty universal.
Are there many events in the Sikh community in America? Can you tell us about these events and/or festivals?
In people’s cultures there is always a history, and there are always historical markers or days that are important, and the communities celebrate them and bond over them. And we celebrate them too, like the day Guru Gobind Singh established the Sikhism as an official religion.So there are 4-5 holy days which we celebrate, but it depends on the community on how much they celebrate them. It is a good way for people to come together. A lot of people come to the gurudwaras because at the end, there is free food. This is a very fun day for all that come to celebrate.
Do you visit gurudwaras often? Why or why not?
Not as often as one would think I do, there is one perhaps 40 minutes away by drive and the other is a 15 minute drive, and I try to go there maybe twice a month.
ow can Sikhs educate Americans about Sikhism, and/or prevent discrimination against Sikhs?
Discrimination occurs because people don’t know you, it occurs from not malice but ignorance, if we interact with them it would end. It’s a two way street, we came here as the new kids on the block, so they not only need to learn about us but we need to learn about them. It depends on how well we form human relationships with our neighbors, neighbors need to know each other, and we need to play our part in that, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the interactions fail, and we need to pay attention to those things, more than we do.
Is there a problem with the Sikh youth today?
I’m an old man, in that sense, if people go back there was a problem with the young people as well. There is always a problem with the youth that is the way the world has always been, and that is the way the world will always be. I don’t think there is a problem with the youth, they are born new into this world so there are many things that attract their attention, and Sikhism is not the only thing. But they need to learn about the traditions and grow an interest in it, and then they will truly enjoy Sikhism.
How can we educate the youth about Sikhism?
By making it available and providing opportunities, and they will learn. I’ve spent almost 50 years in this country teaching anatomy at the university. And my first lecture to medical students, I told them “I’m not here to teach you anatomy, I’m not here to teach you anything, you are not empty buckets that I can fill with information, what I can do is make it possible what your talents and inclinations allow, whatever they allow you to learn, you will learn, and I will be there to assist the process.” So I think we have to use the same model here, not force the information in to them.
How does Sikhism affect your profession?
Not directly, but how does any religion affect what you do, because it’s a way of life and provides you a sense of ethics. Sikhism is unique in one sense, it doesn’t tell you “if you’ve done this wrong, then go say 10 prayers and your slate will be clean”. It gives you a sense of ethics. It tells you how to view and treat the world around you. It tells you how to do the work that you do. It tells you how to live your life. It defines everything I do, whether I’m teaching a course in science, or teaching a course in Sikhism.