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Simran Jeet Singh, More Than Coursework: Graduate Students Who Lead and Serve

With Pam Crosby

HeadShot-HuffPost_Singh.jpgSimran Jeet Singh

Doctoral Candidate in Department of Religion at Columbia University
Member of Interfaith Committee for World Sikh Council

B.A. from Trinity University (2006)
M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School (2008)
M.A. from Columbia University (2009)
M. Phil. from Columbia University (2012)

How does your own faith contribute to your work, research, and commitment to interfaith?

As a practicing Sikh, my faith contributes significantly to my work. I selected the founder of the Sikh tradition as the foundation of my dissertation project, and I am constantly inspired by his unique contributions. Guru Nanak’s emphasis on maintaining an attitude of service in all actions informs the way in which I approach my work.

Guru Nanak placed little emphasis on missionary or conversion efforts, and his openness towards other types of thinking and believing provides a useful model for approaching diverse religious traditions. Moreover, his deep engagement with politics and society reminds me to stay grounded and socially relevant, and his commitment to education and awareness has shaped my love for teaching and sharing on various levels. His doctrine of universal oneness led him to challenge the rigidity of social divisions and advocate for social integration and cohesion. Each of these qualities has come to serve as paradigms that I try to emulate in my work.

You recently ran the New York City Marathon and were selected as a “featured runner.” What does that mean?  How were you selected to be a featured runner? What has been your greatest challenge in getting ready for the event?

Simran running a marathon

I’ve been into sports since I was a kid, and I joined my high school cross country team to supplement my endurance for soccer. I’ve continued to run ever since, though I never really imagined that I would run a full marathon.

Last year, my best friend’s mother passed away from breast cancer, and I decided to run a marathon to honor her memory and to raise money for cancer research.  I signed up for the New York City marathon—the largest in the world—and just started training.

About halfway through the training, my brother Raj helped me make a video that explained why I was running the marathon and what it meant to me. The marathon sponsor, ING, selected me as one of their six featured runners. This was an amazing experience. They set me up with a blog where I could post reflections and images, and this was a wonderful opportunity for me to reach a wide audience and introduce people to Sikh experiences in America. I wrote on a variety of issues, from personal encounters with religious discrimination to features that highlighted the accomplishments of inspiring individuals and organizations.

For me, the biggest challenge in training for the marathon was the mental discipline it entailed. I knew when I signed up that it would be physically demanding, but I was shocked to learn how much discipline and mental fortitude goes into running. The rigorous schedule pushed my limits on a daily basis, and I was pleasantly surprised when I started observing my increased mental discipline translated into other aspects of my life. I found myself making the right decisions more regularly, and I also noticed how much more confident and positive this increased discipline made me. Effectively, I think that the greatest challenge turned out to be the greatest gift.

Your dissertation research at Columbia focuses specifically on the life of Guru Nanak.  Please tell us more about this individual.

Guru Nanak was an amazing individual. More than 500 years after his passing, the Sikh tradition continues to honor the spirit of its founder and first Guru by maintaining his commitment to spiritual development and social activism.

Guru Nanak lived in South Asia during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and his monotheistic worldview inspired him to work towards social, political, and spiritual equality. His vision of universal oneness led him to reject social divisions and hierarchies, and he spoke out publicly against political injustices. Guru Nanak’s compassion and activism emerged from a feeling of Divine Love, and his emphasis on Divine Love is situated at the core of Sikh belief and practice.

Guru Nanak made a number of social and political contributions that were inspired by Divine Love. He formalized a new script (Gurmukhi), instituted centers for worship and learning, and even established an economically productive town that still exists today (Kartarpur). He also formalized the practice of providing food and shelter to anyone of need, regardless of social or religious background, and this tradition continues to be practiced by the global Sikh community.

As a teaching assistant at Columbia, you teach courses of many religious traditions and cultures including Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. How have your studies of different religions influenced your teaching?

Simran posing for a picture with a Monk
in Thailand

Studying various religions and cultures exposes students to new ways of thinking about and relating to the world. I make this process of expanding and opening my students’ minds the centerpiece of my teaching methodology and structure my courses around challenging my students to empathize and connect with the communities that we study.

I believe a responsible study of religion requires the scholar to develop a deep appreciation and broad openness for the outlooks of diverse traditions, and I try to facilitate this development in relation to each and every religious tradition.

What do you write about in the Huffington Post? For those student activists who would like to write for a publication such as the Huffington Post, what advice would you give them?

I have so far limited my Huffington Post pieces to my area of expertise—religion. I aim to write these pieces for more general audiences and introduce them to key issues faced by the minority communities to which they can relate. For example, I recently wrote a piece about the challenges of negotiating multiple identities, and the ways in which human rights violations connect with feelings of national identity. I have also discussed issues relating to the violent mistreatment of minorities in post-9/11 America, and I am currently working on a piece that relates specifically to civil rights violations faced by Sikhs in the United States.

For those who aspire to write for similar publications, I would make a few basic suggestions:

  • Write about something that inspires you – A writer’s voice is much more powerful and compelling when addressing a topic that hits close to home. Readers pick up on this and engage much more when the writer is engaged.
  •  Connect with your audience – Chances are that your topic directly pertains to a particular subset of readers. Broaden your audience by presenting your material in a way that every reader can relate and empathize.
  • Be critical yet constructive – Too much of modern journalism seeks to divide and inflame, and I find it amazingly powerful when one uses writing and media as vehicles for progress. It’s always easy to point out problems, but it’s more useful to suggest possible solutions.

You recently participated in Odyssey’s Town Hall meeting. What was the purpose of the meeting?  What did you talk about?

The Odyssey Town Hall was an excellent program in which a number of professionals came together to discuss the various ways in which religion and media can work together to create positive change. A variety of individuals shared their unique experiences and successes, and their stories reminded me of the important role that each of us can play in cultivating a more peaceful and productive society.

I served on a panel that related to blogging, and I spoke specifically on my experiences as a blogger for the New York City marathon. As I mentioned previously, I was selected as a “featured runner” for the event, and part of my responsibility included daily postings to a blog. I used this opportunity as a platform for introducing people to the issues faced by Sikh Americans, and I received such a positive response that I was invited to start contributing to the Huffington Post.On the panel, I spoke briefly about the ways in which online platforms offer a unique opportunity for mass education, and the importance of using these for constructive purposes. From other panels, I learned about the power of media for organizing and empowering communities, and I hope to implement these lessons in my future efforts

What was your greatest challenge as founder, writer, activist, speaker, public intellectual?

I still think it’s a tough balancing act to represent specific religious traditions. It’s impossible to capture the diversity of ideas, practices, and experiences of practitioners within various religions, yet one has to try to account for these in all arenas.

It’s even tougher to represent the diversity within my own tradition, Sikhism, and I constantly aim to challenge myself to connect with and articulate the perspectives of other Sikhs across space and time. I have to make a conscious and sustained effort not to read my own interpretations as normative, and I challenge myself to represent the varieties of interpretations on a level playing field. This approach has improved the ways in which I have been able to engage and connect with my various audiences, but it has been a challenge to develop and maintain this ability.

What is the downside of being involved in so many activities? And how do you best cope with problems that arise? What are the high points?

Time management is a priceless skill. Everyone has a million things to do—the most successful people are able to prioritize and complete the tasks that will yield the highest rewards.

Getting involved in various projects is particularly useful for helping narrow down one’s interests and passions. In college, I wasn’t all that sure what major I wanted to pursue, and it turned out that I discovered my true passions outside of the classroom. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t put myself out there and expose myself to a variety of different experiences, and like countless other people, this open-mindedness helped me figure out what really makes me happy in life.

Furthermore, I firmly believe that it’s important to keep balance in life. A lot of people get stressed because they lose perspective and start to take themselves too seriously. For me, it’s always been helpful to remind myself that I’m not as important to the world as I think I am, and this humility goes a long way in decreasing the pressures I place on myself.

At the same time, it’s incredibly rewarding to feel like you are helping, serving, or enriching someone’s life. I put a lot of effort into teaching and assisting others, and although it requires a lot of input from my end, the end results typically prove to be worthwhile.

College peer culture can have both positive and negative influences on students’ personal, social, and academic life.  What do you see as interfaith programs and initiatives that might moderate the negative influences of peer culture?

Interfaith activities have helped me stay humble, and this has been an amazing contribution to my life—humility is an incredible gift for young adults who are searching for emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth. Interfaith forums require one to listen to people from other communities and understand their perspectives, and these connections allow participants to open their minds and accept that there doesn’t need to be an absolute or singular way in which one can lead a productive life. For me, this recognition of plurality contributed to a deepening sense of humility.

Interfaith programs also provide a unique opportunity to develop an appreciation for other people and see the world from their perspective. For example, when I was in college, we began a program called “Tie-A-Turban-Day,” in which we would tie turbans on students and discuss various aspects of the Sikh tradition. These sorts of programs go beyond talk and dialogue and let people experience the world from other peoples’ shoes (or turbans). Initiatives such as these (e.g., visiting different places of worship, interacting with unique practices) will go a long way in cultivating mutual respect and appreciation of different religious and cultural groups.

Explain how you would respond to some religious educational leaders who might say that they do not have enough time to teach young people about their own religion and that interfaith cooperation cannot be a priority for them in terms of their efforts.

Unlike interfaith education, interfaith efforts do not seek to impart exhaustive information. I see interfaith as aiming to build bridges across communities by connecting on overlapping and intersecting issues and themes. It’s an incredibly fruitful enterprise that offers opportunities for community-building and peace-building, and religious educational leaders would have much to gain from these efforts. I would encourage every young person to participate in at least one interfaith program to understand its potential for enriching one’s life.

Sibling Wedding: Simran (far left) comes from a large family, from which he derives his deepest values, friendships, and jumping abilities.