Sikh Foundation Being A Sikh: Interview With Professor Pashaura Singh

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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Being a Sikh VII: Interview with Prof. Pashaura Singh Phd

by Misha Kapany Schwarz

Professor Pashaura Singh is the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair at UC. Riverside, California. He combines a command of classical and colloquial Punjabi and Hindi languages(including a working knowledge of Sanskrit) and a sound knowledge of traditional Sikh learning, manuscripts in archaic forms of Gurmukhi script and Indian religious traditions, with a mastery of contemporary issues in textual studies, canonicity, hermeneutics, literary theory, and history of religions.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Punjab, India and raised in a village there. I attended the village school, and we had a college and hospital there.

What made you become a Sikh?
I was born in a Sikh family. My mother was a very devout Sikh, and her influence was quite large on me. I also chose to be a Sikh, and have been a very proud Sikh right from the beginning.

What are the core ideals of the religion or what do you like about Sikhism?
You have to be a very honest and truthful person, and you have to earn your living through truthful means, remember God all the time, and share. Being Sikh means to be in high spirits all the time, to be a confident person, who can survive in difficult circumstances.

How does being Sikh affect your everyday life?
It affects profession, status in the family, almost everything depends on being a Sikh. You have to a truthful and honest person in the workplace, and loving and affectionate family person. Being a Sikh has been an effort in my life, and I have passed down Sikh ideals to my children. My daughter is now a doctor at Stanford doing research in bipolar medicine. She is very accomplished and worked very hard, and followed my example. My son in Chicago also follows Sikh ideals. You have to live by your religion, and pass it down to the next generations.

What does it mean to you to be a Sikh?
To me it means to belong to a religion which is worldwide at this moment. This religion is very scientific, and it encourages a rational thinking, and living a practical way of life. It means to belong to community of Sikhs around the world, who are highly accomplished. Even though we are a minority, we stand out because we are soldiers, doctors, scientists and highly accomplished people. It gives you a sense of courage. You will not find any beggar in India who is a Sikh. Sikhs work really hard. Sikhs are something to be proud of because they make up a small percentage of the 1 billion people living in India. We belong to a community that is very successful all over the world, with our determination and hard work. It means to have a sense of pride.

Have you ever had to deal with racial profiling and/or prejudice?
Not really, I went to India, and at Delhi airport they pat my turban, but this is a modern routine. I am singled out because of the turban, but this is a normal. There is no incident where I was racially abused or anything; no I have not experienced any racial abuse.

Is it difficult being a Sikh and living in America?
No, I don’t think so. If you are putting your ideals into practice, you will be admired by people around you. Colleagues, family, and friends will admire your work and sense of pride and admire you for being a distinctive person. You stand out because of your identity, turban, and other things, like religious symbols. It’s not really difficult. I have enjoyed living in Canada, since 1980, and then migrated to America in 1992. It has never been difficult living in North America being a Sikh.

After 9/11 have there been any mistaken accusations of Sikhs?
There have been a number of incidents which I am aware of, such as racial slurs and name calling. Even when I was in Michigan at the time of 9/11, I was walking and a group of young students remarked “Bin Laden go back to Afghanistan.” But they didn’t know who I was. It was a mistake in identity. In Arizona, the first Sikh was shot after 9/11.

How do you practice Sikhism in America?
I just follow my daily routine. I get up early in the morning and do the 5 prayers from memory, which I learned as a child. Then I listen to emotional singing on television coming from Amritsar every day, which is a very powerful experience. For 4 hours they broadcast the singing from Golden Temple. You listen and watch early in the morning. So I just practice Sikhism like that. Then I go to university and do my professorial job and teach students. That’s how I practice. I just practice Sikhism in the way that I was raised. When I drive my car, rather than wasting time, I listen to kirtan.

Are there many events in the Sikh community in America? Can you tell us about these events and/or festivals?
I attend the Kirtan in Yuba City. And every year in the first week of November, Sikhs around the world come to University, which is a very powerful celebration, because it is not only uniting the community, it exposes the community to non Sikhs, you can speak to the politicians and put your demands before them. There is also a big celebration in April, and Sikh plays in New York and Washington.

Do you visit gurudwaras often? Why or why not?
Sometimes I go to gurudwaras. They are not of interest to many people, but anyhow you just go there and are a part of the community. In India I visited many historical gurudwaras there, which was quite an experience.

How can Sikhs educate Americans about Sikhism, and/or prevent discrimination against Sikhs?
There should be an education program. Currently there are 8 chairs in North America in Sikh Studies, and I am holding the chair at UC Riverside. There is a chair in the Fremont area, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Michigan, Hofstra, Canada, and others. These chairs are doing a great job in spreading the message of Sikhism to Sikhs and non Sikhs, because non Sikhs have the same opportunity to learn the message. As Sunday school at gurudwaras, children have the opportunity to learn the language and religion. There, we are passing language and values to next generation. We also must open a public school where the standard is applied, in addition to the education and history of Sikhism. Many more universities have instituted the study of Punjabi. But we Sikhs have to do more, like mixing up with non Sikh communities and telling them about Sikhism. We get together in the gurudwara as a community, but we need to go out and reach out to other communities with dialogues, religious meetings, community events, and make our presence felt there as well. That will also make Sikhism exposed to the total population. After 9/11 Sikhs have done a great job in educating other people. There is a very positive development going on within the Sikh community. We need to spread the message of Sikhism.

Is there a problem with the Sikh youth today? / How can we educate the youth about Sikhism?
The problem is parents are not exposing the youth to Sikh values because as teenagers they are under tremendous peer pressure in America. For only 4 hours a week (in Sunday School) they are in a culture setting where they are exposed to Sikhism. If you are not exposed to Sikh values and culture then it dies down, and you have moved away from religion and culture. Parents do not pay much attention to children, and then children challenge the religion when they grow up, and parents aren’t able to answer the questions. One other fundamental problem is that gurudwaras are held in the Punjabi language, and many students only know English, so they should be exposed to the religion through that language. Sunday schools, summer camp, there are number of students participating in those events. There are many Sikh youth who aren’t exposed to Sikhism, and we need to educate them and bring them back to their cultural roots.

How does Sikhism affect your profession?
I am a Professor at UC Riverside and hold the Sikh Studies Chair, so I teach Sikhism, and also other religions of South Asia and the different scriptures of the world. Being a Sikh affects my students, because they listen to me, and then they learn from the textbooks. It has a positive affect in my profession. If they are Sikhs they will be inspired. If they are non Sikhs they will be inspired.

Check back next month for the next interview!


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