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Sikh scholar’s message for interfaith event: Lose fear of ‘the alien’

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh Special to The Bee

The Interfaith Scholar Weekend will have its first Sikh presenter April 8-10 in Fresno and Selma.

The annual event was started in 1998 by Community United Church of Christ and Temple Beth Israel and is sponsored by more than 25 churches and organizations.

This year’s speaker is Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, a professor of religious studies at Colby College in Maine who has written extensively about Sikhism.

Jim Grant, chair of the Interfaith Scholar Weekend Committee and director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, hopes the weekend is an enriching experience that leaves participants with a better appreciation for other traditions and their own.

The Interfaith Scholar Weekend is a wonderful forum that provides us the space – physical, emotional, spiritual – to become familiar with one another so we lose our fear of the ‘alien.’

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

Grant says Singh, who knows staff at Fresno State, was recommended as having written the best introduction to Sikhism.

She is the author of a number of books, including: “Of Sacred and Secular Desire: An Anthology of Lyrics from the Punjab,” “Sikhism: An Introduction,” “Cosmic Symphony,” “The Birth of Khalsa: A Feminist Re-memory of Sikh Identity,” “The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent,” “Sikhism,” “The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus,” and “The Guru Granth Sahib: Its Physics and Metaphysics.”

Singh stresses the teachings of the 10th Sikh guru: Humanity is the only caste and “we are all of the same body, the same light.”

She talks with The Bee about her work and upcoming lectures:

Q: You wrote, “Some of us may unnecessarily fear that by reading another’s holy book we may lose faith in our own.” How do you talk with people who are afraid of different beliefs about the value of interfaith education and relationships?

A: If another’s holy book is daunting, I suggest we pick it up as though it were a work of poetic art. Across religions, the sacred texts have extraordinary aesthetic and literary vitality. And art belongs to all of us equally. Therefore, by accessing the sacred text of the “other” as poetry, we bridge the gulf between the foreign and the self, between the sacred and the everyday. As Heidegger said, “language is poetry in the essential sense.” The multivalency and universality of sacred texts transcends narrow and rigid categories of exclusivism. Reading any holy book as poetry shatters alienating walls and opens up the reader to an authentic personal experience.

When we read scriptures from other religions, not only do we experience what is important to them, but we also end up getting a better sense of ourselves, of our neighbors, and of the globe we inhabit.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

As I said before, when we read scriptures from other religions, not only do we experience what is important to them, but we also end up getting a better sense of ourselves, of our neighbors, and of the globe we inhabit. In their own and different ways, the Vedas, the Hebrew Bible, the Tao Te Ching, the New Testament, the Dhammapada, the holy Quran, the Shobogenzo, and the Guru Granth Sahib provide us with kaleidoscopic glimpses into the beyond, and simultaneously make us feel much more at home on our planet Earth.

Q: What are the core beliefs of Sikhism?

A: The fundamental doctrine of Sikhism is the presence of the singular infinite reality permeating all space and time (ikk oan kar). This inclusive imaginary must be experienced here and now. More important than the belief in a supreme being is the actual living, for Guru Nanak the founder unambiguously proclaimed: “higher than everything is Truth but higher still is true living” (GGS: 62). There is no separation between sacred and secular, or between high and low. Living midst family and society, we cultivate our humanity and experience the divine. The singular Sikh metaphysical reality inspires fresh theological interpretations, social equality, ecological sensitivity, and acceptance of “other” cultural and belief systems.

Q: What has been the focus of your teaching and writing?

A: A close reading of the sacred scriptures of Asia with my students has been the focus of my teaching. This literature provides us with knowledge of a world beyond the West. It introduces us to different ethical models and to different ways of articulating truth and reality, which I think are important resources for our global society.

Our world is getting to be a smaller and smaller place, and our students need to face the world of difference and diversity.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

Our world is getting to be a smaller and smaller place, and our students need to face the world of difference and diversity. … Sikh scripture is the focus of my writing. I have been doing translations of the original text in Gurmukhi into English. The affinity between languages across continents never ceases to amaze me. … I am also profoundly interested in feminist interpretation of the Sikh sacred text.

Q: You wrote, “The ‘mother’ as a theological principle reveals the potential to create – physically, intellectually, emotionally, politically, and spiritually.” Are women portrayed predominantly one way, in the religious traditions you have studied? How do you think people should view these descriptions of women?

A: Unfortunately the exegetes in the various religious traditions have been the male elites, and they have interpreted the theological principle from their own masculine perspective. The female imaginary and her feminine import have been either misconstrued or simply neglected. That is why it is important we all read the sacred texts with our personal lenses, without androcentric mediations.

Q: What do you hope your talks do for people during the Interfaith Scholar Weekend?

A: The Interfaith Scholar Weekend is a wonderful forum that provides us the space – physical, emotional, spiritual – to become familiar with one another so we lose our fear of the “alien.” I am most grateful to Rev. Jim Grant and all the organizers for inviting me. I look forward to the exciting weekend where I can be in the Gurdwara Sahib, Temple Beth Israel, and Unitarian Universalist Church. I hope our interfaith encounters will enable us to create arabesques of understanding so we enjoy our common humanity.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Attend the Interfaith Scholar Weekend

Nikky-Guninder Singh will speak April 8-10 at the following locations:

Sikh Center of the Pacific Coast, 2211 S. Highland Ave., Selma: “Pluralistic Elements in Early Sikh Art” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 8.

Temple Beth Israel, 6622 N. Maroa Ave., Fresno: “Sikh Scripture and Its Aesthetic Horizon” at 9:15 a.m., “Sikh Identity in a Multi-Faith Context” at 10:45 a.m., and “Sikhism and Contemporary Issues” at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 9.

Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, 2672 E Alluvial Ave., Fresno: “Sikhism in Global Society” at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, April 10.

Registration is $55 or $10 for students and includes Saturday breakfast, lunch and snacks. Friday and Sunday’s talks are free. People can register at Temple Beth Israel on Saturday, online at interfaithscholar.org/registration/, or by mailing a check to Community United Church of Christ, 5550 N. Fresno St., Fresno, CA 93710.

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