Looking within from beyond borders

Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions

By I J Singh
Ethnic Island. Pages 210. $15

IT was in 1911 that the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society established the first gurdwara in America at Stockton, California. However, it was in the 1970s and 1980s that the Sikhs started migrating to the US in significant numbers.

Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions

Sikhs Today: Ideas & Opinions by I J Singh

Preceding them, however, were some doctors and academics who had migrated to America in the earlier decades, made it their home and made a name for themselves in their chosen fields. Prof I J Singh is one such person. After a long and distinguished academic career, he is now Professor Emeritus of anatomical sciences, New York University, and is considered a significant voice of the American Sikh disapora.

The latest book is his fifth collection of essays on various aspects of the Sikh faith. The chapter “Finding, losing and having fun,” starts with some swipes at a generation that got lost while finding itself in the 1960s, before getting serious and saying: “To find meaning in your life, you have to look beyond your own needs and wants, and distinguish between the two that is how one finds meaning in life. When it happens you have found a purpose to your life that is bigger than the self and that you can claim all that you can give, and more, of yourself that when you have found yourself.”

Singh speaks out against a Punjab-centric view of Sikhism. He points out to how the Gurus reached out to wide corners of the world around them, of how Guru Amar Das established 22 diocesan centres (manjis) to spread the message of Sikhism far and wide, and how eight of the manji-holders were women. Guru Granth Sahib has in it many verses from non-Sikh saints who lived in different parts of India. The Gurus themselves were multi-lingual.

Sikhi, to me, is a message that is unique, universal, timeless and a thinking person’s way of live, but today we seem to have reduced it to Sikhi by inheritance and limited to Punjabi culture, cuisine, music and ambiance ” says the author, a sentiment that finds a widespread resonance in today’s Sikh diaspora.

In a later chapter, he recalls the time when an “excellent well-respected president of the gurdwara was barred from re-election because of constitutionally mandated term limits. He wanted the laws overlooked or changed to accommodate him since he was so ‘good’. He was seriously offended at my suggestion that he become a vice-president or secretary. That, he said, would be a demotion and a slap on his face.”

In his typical fashion, Singh then gives some examples from US history to prove his point — President Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court after he left the White House and former Vice-President Richard Nixon ran for office of Governor of California in 1962 (he lost). It is this effortless transition between the sub-continent and the wider world beyond it that marks Singh’s writing. It explains why he draws in a large number of readers from the younger generations.

Many diaspora Sikhs were born abroad, have seldom visited India and are more comfortable with the culture of their adopted lands than the one that was the cradle of their religion. They are deeply conscious of their religious identity and seek to know more about their religion, its teachings and practices. I. J. Singh’s latest collection of 30 essays will certainly find a ready audience not only in the diaspora Sikhs, but also in India where discerning readers will enjoy the lucid take on the Sikhs and the issues they face today.

This review by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on March 31, 2013.

You may also like to read my reviews of these books by Dr I J Singh:

The World According to Sikhi

The Sikh Way, A Pilgrim’s Progress



Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.