On Wednesday, October 25, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, Executive Director of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, visited the John Templeton Foundation to speak with staff about Sikh wisdom on love and how it ties in with justice and interconnectedness.
Dr. Singh is the author of the book The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. His thought leadership on bias, empathy, wisdom, and justice extends across corporate, educational, and government settings, and in 2020, TIME Magazine recognized him as one of sixteen people fighting for a more equal America.
In his talk, Singh shared his experience growing up in Texas with his two brothers, where they often faced bigotry and prejudice.
“I think what we had to learn early, as many marginalized groups do, is, how do you find a way to go beyond other people's perceptions of you?”
he said. Singh said he was 11 years old when he was first called a terrorist by a soccer referee, who insisted on checking under his turban for weapons. When he was a senior in high school, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, forcing his family to stay inside after they received death threats.
“What do you do when people make assumptions about you that you can’t control?” he asked. “And up until this point in my life, the answer had been, ignore it, right? Pretend it doesn’t exist, turn the other cheek, let it go.”
“[But] actually ignoring the hatred isn’t enough. I had to start being proactive in responding. And this is where I started to turn a bit towards my Sikh tradition.”
Singh explained that in Sikh philosophy, the first building block that children learn from the scripture is the word ik onkar, which means “the oneness of all creation.” The very foundation of understanding in Sikh philosophy is that we are all interconnected, and when we start from a place of oneness, from interconnectedness, then our diversity does not threaten us.
“The second building block in Sikh philosophy is love,” he said. “The oneness, the understanding, the awareness that we are all interconnected, that the world is infused with divinity. There’s no part of the world that doesn’t have divinity, and when you can experience the world in that way, then you’re living with love.”
Singh then shared the third building block in Sikh philosophy: if you can have love, if you can experience love in your life, then what is the expression of that love?
"The difference with infusing everything love, with starting with love as a foundation for the action, is that love is not ego driven,”
he said. “Love is selfless. It’s other oriented. You’re not doing to appease yourself. You’re doing based on what other people need. And I think that’s such an important answer to some of what we’re struggling with as a society right now.”
These building blocks led Singh to where he is today, as an educator, writer, and advocate of empathy and wisdom, and the importance of justice.
The discussion ended with Singh describing his work as both a parent of small children and an activist. “It’s tiring, but I don’t feel burnt out,” he said. “I’ve never felt burnt out as a parent. I don’t feel burnt out as an activist, as a scholar, living in this world. And sometimes I wonder why that is.”
The answer to his own question tied the whole talk together:
“Love. Because I’m operating from a place where I feel nourished by what it is that I’m doing every day.”