SIKH-AMERICANS: Towards a More Perfect Union

It is a speech Dr. I.J. Singh delivered at Vaisakhi Celebrations at the Indian Consulate on April 16.-EDITOR

Thank you for coming to this very special occasion. This is an important part of the year not just for Sikhs but for many of our non-Sikh neighbors as well. This time of the year we take note of Passover for the Jews and Easter for Christians. For Sikhs it is Vaisakhi that gave final form to the message of Sikhism.

I see many here who know about the significance of Vaisakhi better than I. But I also see some who are on unfamiliar territory. Very briefly we relive the day – mid-April 1699 when the 10th Founder-Guru of Sikhism called a special convocation of Sikhs – around 80,000 attended. He appeared with a flashing naked sword and asked for a head. Consternation! You bet.

Finally one man offered his head. Took into a tent. The Guru came out with a bloody, naked sword and repeated the call for a head. Surely, many looked away or slunk away. Finally one by one 5 from distant parts of India and different castes of society volunteered. From this modest beginning a nation was formed. An egalitarian community with no differences of caste, class, color, gender, race, or such trivia. I come to you as an American who is also a Sikh. Rather than addressing in detail the events and message of Vaisakhi 1699 I want to define a place for Sikhs and Sikhism today within the larger framework of contemporary American society.

I see that we are — all Americans — at one time or another, in one form or another — just off the boat. Many of you came more than two centuries ago; my people – a little over a hundred years; I came 50 years ago. All three are examples of just being off the boat. We are not counting Native Americans here. Like new kids on the block we Sikhs have a checkered and relatively unknown presence in contemporary American society. But Sikhs worked on the Panama Canal when it was built in 1903-04. The West was not opened by the likes of John Wayne alone — Chinese, Italian and Indians, including Sikhs had a hand in it.

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Yes, there were discriminatory laws in place then. The Asian Exclusion Act, prevented Asians from owning land or becoming citizens until 1946. Immigration laws were eased only during Lyndon Johnson’s time as President in the 1960’s. Keep in mind the targeting and profiling of Sikhs in the United States post 9/11. In 1960 when I came here, there were 3 Sikhs in New York. I went to graduate school in Oregon where I was the only one for years. Now there are a tad less than a million in North America. From the day I landed here, the American Dream has been my preoccupation, as it is of all immigrants from anywhere. After a while I began to wonder what exactly we mean when we talk about being and becoming an American.

The flood of immigrants – about 18 million Europeans – came between 1890 and 1920. Israel Zangwill celebrated them in his Broadway play titled The Melting Pot. Thus this defining expression entered our national dialogue. But in a melting pot, the units blend irretrievably together. The individual identity of each item is lost — homogenized. This reminds me of a hostile takeover, not a model of cooperative interaction. This is not how America is. In this land each wave of immigrants has added inestimable value to society. The creativity, vitality and energy of this culture come from its immigrant roots. A melting pot in which immigrants bring none of their traditions, language, culture, music and cuisine would leave the larger society poorer.

Sometimes I think of this society as a mosaic, in which small shards that have little value individually create an enthralling whole with much magic to it. A mosaic is an interactive model where every little piece, no matter how small, has a place such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. However, it is a Static not a Dynamic model. A better metaphor for this society is a large multi-instrument orchestra. Note that in it the lowly cymbals or the triangle, too, have a place. When they speak, the naturally dominant strings and pianos listen. When the mighty and the small talk to each other without drowning the other, the conversation becomes heavenly music. That’s how a rich performance is born.

An orchestra, when well and wisely led, has an organic presence to it. The central idea is that the totality is greater than the sum of the parts. And there is a core of American values that defines and unites us. Think with me a moment: A lynch mob is governance by democratic majority, but we would all reject it. Sometimes a majority turns tyrannical. History speaks eloquently of the struggles of Women, Blacks, the Irish, Jews, Germans, East Europeans, Italians and the Japanese for an equal place in this society. My people as well! A democracy mandates that the rights of the smallest minority are equally protected. In a mosaic or an orchestra the smallest bit is not trampled on, but instead allowed its breathing space. The lot of a minority is never easy. And Sikhs would be a minority no matter where they lived in this world, even in India.

So, there are days when I hear the multiinstrument orchestra in my soul, and the “world’s mine oyster” as Shakespeare said Then there are days that are not so kind. So, I remain particularly sensitive to our place in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation such as this; the triangle and the cymbal among the powerful strings and pianos are always on my mind. In Sikh belief, as in many spiritual traditions, the “Word” is God. Sikh scripture – the Guru Granth – opens with an alphanumeric devised by Guru Nanak the founder of the faith over 500 years ago. “Ik Oankar”, he formulated, joining the first numeral, “one” with “Oankar”, a word that stands for Creator or Doer. Ik Oankar then postulates One God – not a partisan Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh God, but one that embraces all creation.

To experience God one needs to discover unity in the diversity of creation. If I can see the oneness in the creator and creation, there is absolutely no room left 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 Sikh scripture says, “I see no stranger.” Vaisakhi today reconnects us to these ideals. This nurturing and celebrating unity in diversity is how I understand this nation’s motto: E Pluribus Unum that defines us — One from the many – that is our motto, and our way to a more perfect union. An equal place at the table for the diversity that comprises this society. This is how I see Sikh presence in this country – small but significant. Fear of the stranger has, at times, produced discriminatory laws. But as FDR said in a different context, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Emerson reminds us, “A nation, like a tree, does not thrive well till it is engrafted with a foreign stock”. The idea I am pushing is integration, not assimilation beyond recognition and definitely not pockets of isolation either. Such were the values of this nation’s founding fathers. The inscription “In God We Trust” on our currency, and “One Nation under God” in our Oath of Allegiance would not find approval in their eyes. In fact, these words were added only in the 1950’s during the Joe McCarthy days. Jefferson reminds us: “It does me no harm if my neighbor thinks there are twenty gods or that there is none.” This tells me that much as it is possible to be a good Christian and a good American, or a good Jew and a good American, or even an atheist and a good American, it is similarly possible to be a good Sikh and a good American.

These are not mutually exclusive ideas. Let me recount a brief story: It was a day or two after 9/11 and I was one of the few people walking about wearing a turban in New York City. I fell into conversation with a bright, educated ‘white’ American. And wellto- do — his brief case was better than mine and his suit more expensive. We talked a while about Sikhs in America. “Tell me,” finally, he said “your people have been here a hundred years. Why did they not leave their religion back home when they came here?” I was taken aback but recovered. So I asked. “Your people have likely been here over 200 years. Tell me, when they came here, why did they not leave their religion back home. No natives here between you and I!” It was his turn to be thoughtfully silent a moment. Then he said: “You have a point. Let’s have a cup of coffee.” We did and remain friends now, so many years later. To understand the meaning of diversity, we need to see “us” in “them” and “them” in “us”. Unity of faiths and peoples is created by the Creator but cultivating this unity and its awareness is not the craft of heaven – it is our awesome duty on Earth.

About I.J. Singh
Dr. I. J. Singh came to the United States in 1960 on a Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and now is professor emeritus of anatomical sciences at New York University. He earned a PhD in Anatomical Sciences from the University of Oregon Medical School and a DDS degree from Columbia University, New York. Dr. Singh serves on the Advisory Board of the United Sikhs and the Board of the Sikh Research Institute. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of the Sikh Review (Kolkata) and Nishaan (New Delhi), has authored five collections of essays on his journey as a Sikh in North America, is a regular columnist on the Internet and has lectured extensively on interfaith issues.

Dr. Singh was born in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. His father was a senior officer with the Punjab Public Service Commission. Strangely enough, while all his brothers chose to serve Indian defense forces, Dr. Singh alone chose the field of academics. One brother was a commander in the navy; the other a commander in the air force. His brother-in-law retired as a brigadier in the Indian army. Only he and his father in the family were civilians.

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