Singh discusses Sikhism in the U.S.

Although many students on the Hill may not have heard of Sikhism, the College, in partnership with Crawford Family Professor of Religion Nikky Singh, is pioneering the study of this little-known tradition. In the United States, very little is known about Sikhism, a religion founded in India based on the teachings of Guru Nanak.

“It’s a forgotten tradition,” explained Singh, a Professor of Religious Studies who has taught at the College for over 20 years.

The academic study of Sikhism in North America began here at the College, which was the first institution of higher learning in North America to offer a course of Sikhism (taught by Singh).

“It’s a very young tradition with 25 million followers that came to the U.S. as early as 1896,” explained Singh, “but still, U.S. citizens are oblivious to it.”

Singh’s global Sikhism course fits neatly into the Center for Arts and Humanities’ theme for the year: Migrations. “I have a really wonderful group of students who have been doing excellent presentations and papers who all come from different backgrounds, “ said Singh. “I really enjoy my class.”

Singh’s goal, as well as that of the Center for Arts and Humanities, is to educate people about Sikhism. When Sikhs first immigrated to the U.S., they could not own land or marry white women and were victims of racial violence. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sikhs once again became victims of ignorant violence. Sikhs keep long hair, wear turbans and grow beards; “they have a certain physical identity,” said Singh, and after 9/11, these people were wrongfully associated with terrorism.

“It’s a case of mistaken identity,” said Singh. “People think that because they wear turbans that they are followers of bin Laden.” The turban, Singh explained, has become a symbol of the “other.” Even if a Sikh was born in the United States and simply follows the tradition, Americans still see them as foreign.

One of the most violent incidents occurred in August of 2012 with a mass shooting in a Sikh temple during a time of peaceful worship. “We [in the U.S.] have never understood their identity even though there are so many of them,” said Singh. In 1984, Sikhs in India were targeted in mass killings after the assassination of India’s prime minister, after which many migrated to the United States.   

Singh, in conjunction with the Economics Department, the Religious Studies Department, the Goldfarb Institute and the OAK Institute for Human Rights, hosted Dr. Pritam Singh of Oxford-Brookes University on Nov. 6 to give a talk entitled “Global Sikh Diaspora: Migrant Experiences and Responses to Ecology and Human Rights.” Dr. Pritam Singh has taught for over 20 years in the U.K.

“I think he was very impressed with the students,” said Singh. “Liberal arts undergraduate students were making very sophisticated comments, and I think it made am impression on him.” Dr. Singh also gave a dinnertime talk in Dana on Nov. 5 entitled “Ecological Implications of the Rising Economic Power of BRICS.” 

Singh said that all the people from the different departments who helped bring Dr. Singh were generous and enthusiastic, and described these talks as “very important.” “Sikhs played an important role in history and have been neglected and not acknowledged,” Singh said. “We can’t stereotype people just because we see them wearing a turban.”

Leave a Reply