Celebrating 10 years and 500 episodes
In this episode we connect with artist and activist Vishavjit Singh as he shares his experience and practices of being a Sikh. "Sikhi is an action, it's a verb." Vishavjit tells how he was introduced to the teachings of the Gurus who developed Sikhi through stories and comics. He explains how he left the faith and made a conscious return to the practice and belief. He also shares the horrific experience of being a child in Dehli in 1984 as mobs of people attacked and killed thousands of Sikhs. It is through his faith and his practice that he helps spread compassion and peace.
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Vishavjit Singh is a cartoonist, writer, performance artist (aka Sikh Captain America) and creator of Sikhtoons.com based in New York City. He is a public speaker expounding on diversity, inclusion, storytelling and power of art in schools, universities and companies across the nation. He currently works in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in FDNY.
"We wear many labels. I knew I was American at the time. I was born here, I was going to go back to the US. But then I also used to say, I'm also Indian. But in the aftermath of 1984 and how things transpired, I made a decision, I would not use the word Indian as a label for myself."
Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Ethnic Studies is a series of discussions about race, ethnicity, indigeneity, and the strategies used in historical movements for social transformation, resistance, and liberation.
Guest: Vishavjit Singh
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by Past Forward in partnership with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University.
Vishavjit Singh (00:03): Stories are so important to every faith and culture and national tradition. You name any tradition, any community around the globe, somehow storytelling is integral to their sense of who they are. My connection to Sikhi as a young child and even a teenager and a young adult, was really through stories. I heard a lot of these stories but I also read about them. And there were comic books that also took some of these stories in the form of comic books. So to me, these stories were my introduction to these amazing, not only the founders, but some Sikhs who followed the founders.
Host (00:45): Chapman University's, Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Passed Forward, present Engaging the World: Leading The Conversation on Ethnic Studies. In this series, we explore ethnicity through race, religion, indigeneity, and cultural identity, examining how the stories of these communities are told and their histories are taught, if at all. Through art, education, scholarship, and activism, our guests fight to have their voices heard, their heritage celebrated, and their contributions to the fabric of American society recognized.
In this episode, we connect with storyteller, artist and activist Vishavjit Singh as he shares his experience with Sikhi through trauma, the loss and return to faith, and the lessons he continues to learn. Here is Vishavjit Singh.
"Sikhi to me is a path. It's a journey, it's something you... In my engagements, I tell people it's an action, it's a verb. It's not a label, although we use labels. And it's something you do, it's something you live. And it took me a long time to figure that out."
Vishavjit Singh (01:43): Sikhi to me is a path. It's a journey, it's something you... In my engagements, I tell people it's an action, it's a verb. It's not a label, although we use labels. And it's something you do, it's something you live. And it took me a long time to figure that out. I was raised with this label, put this label on myself, and then I shed this label because of a lot of societal pressures and anxieties and vulnerabilities and tragedies and challenges. And when I did eventually at some point decide, I want to explore this path, I realized, it is a path, it's something you do and then you make a connection to this label. So to me, Sikhi is really something that, it's a way of living based on a path that was charted by Guru Nanak, who's the founder of this faith, followed by nine other men, gurus, we call them.
(02:58): And now we follow the wisdom written in a poetic collection of many poems across 1400 pages. And you try to find the experiential wisdom in those poems to live your life according Sikhi. My connection to Sikhi as a young child and even a teenager and a young adult, was really through stories. There's a few stories, and there's a lot of fantastical stories. Sikhi has a tradition of audio storytelling. Some of it is written down and it just gets passed on from one generation to another. But I heard a lot of these stories, but I also read about them, and they were comic books that also took some of these stories in the form of comic books. So to me, these stories were my introduction to these amazing, not only the founders, but some Sikhs who followed the founders. And that's my connection. And then of course, when I started practicing, I connected those stories to the actual practice.
"I think a lot of folks in the West because of broader culture, entertainment and Hollywood and news, see turban and beards as something that only Muslim men or some Muslim wear, and I think that then leads to just many other stereotypes that come with that perception."
Host (04:19): Obviously, we here in the west have a lot of misunderstandings and a lot of ignorance when it comes to really anything, unfortunately. But what are some of the common misconceptions that people have about Sikhi or Sikhism?
Vishavjit Singh (04:44): I think most people don't know what Sikhi or Sikhism is. The few I do know will place it in India. But again, there's varying levels of understanding. Is it a faith of its own? Is it a combination of Islam, Hinduism? But the broader misconceptions are people visually go with the turban and beards which most Sikh men sport. And people, Americans, and even not only Americans, I think a lot of folks in the West because of broader culture, entertainment and Hollywood and news, see turban and beards as something that only Muslim men or some Muslim wear, and I think that then leads to just many other stereotypes that come with that perception.
(05:39): And those that again, also place this faith in India, there's not a deeper understanding of how Sikhi is unique and might be different from some of the other faiths that come out of that part of the world. It's interesting. When I went to college in the US, I took a Western civilization class because I had to, and I learned about the three Western religions, Islam, Christianity, Judaism. And they were born in this very similar geography. Different obviously time span, but a very close proximity. And then you have the eastern faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, two major faiths that we know about. And Sikhi comes from the same geographic space of today, what we call the Indian subcontinent.
(06:34): And Sikhi, interestingly, now that I know a little bit more about Sikhi having practiced it, has some things in common with Buddhism, has some things in common with certain strands within Islam, Sufism to be more specific, and perhaps even certain understandings within the Hindu faith. And then like I mentioned, Buddhism. You have diversity within faiths as well. And Sikhi is a very young religion, which in some ways helps because you have writings of actual gurus and people who just lived 3, 4, 500 years ago. So I think going back to misunderstanding and misperception, it really is broadly our lack of understanding about different faiths and the faiths that are predominant itself. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have a lot in common actually as well. But today's narratives put Islam as just very different from Christianity and Judaism somehow, and it's an eastern religion.
(07:51): And people forget that actually Islam, Christianity, Judaism, were born in what we know as modern day Middle East before they branch out and travel to other parts of the world. I'm working on creating a training on religious diversity at the fire department in New York City where I work today. And as I was doing research for it, I discovered an essay at one of Harvard University's pluralism project that it's called Rivers of Faith. And it talks about how faiths are like rivers. They change over space and time. And I find that to be a very beautiful and apt description. There's always learning to be done and we have so much... I just love reading about different faiths. And I know I'm going on tangents now, but I read a book this year by a Christian priest who is Spanish, and he wrote a book of his meditation practices that come from Zen Buddhism to be precise.
(09:05): And it was just really wonderful to read him as a Christian practicing Zen Buddhism, at least a zen meditation practice. And it doesn't mean that he's leaving his Christian faith, but he's experimenting in zen meditation and going... they're not necessarily completely different paths, they at some level, crisscross. And to me that's the... To answer your question, yes, there's a lot of misconceptions about Sikhi, but once you get to know a lot of your own faith and other faiths, you realize, once you take all the visual layers off and others, we have a lot in common. They're not that different.
"Some days you falter, some days you don't. So that is a constant struggle in Sikhi and I think across every faith tradition."
Host (09:52): I would imagine faith, it's not just a belief system, it is a practice. And in that practice, in that dedication to a faith of any kind, in that daily commitment, it would create a discipline in your personality that would spread to all areas of your life. Would you agree with that?
Vishavjit Singh (10:20): Yes, I do. I think in every faith tradition there is value placed on daily practices, and Sikhi definitely has that. We have a word called Rehat, in the Sikh tradition, and it basically means it's a daily practice. What is your Rehat? And there is an explanation within the tradition that you're supposed to do this every day, read this many prayers. But yes, the act of discipline, habits. So at a level that everybody can understand, there is a very high value placed on daily habits, repetition. So reading scriptures, listening to scriptures, or perhaps setting them to music and doing kirtan, which is what we call in our tradition and some of the other traditions too.
(11:26): But sound is very integral to the Sikh faith, which is true in many of the faiths as well. So reading, listening from the Sikh scriptures is something that should be part of the daily practice. So I try to do that. Some days you falter, some days you don't. So that is a constant struggle in Sikhi and I think across every faith tradition. But yes, to answer your question, spiritual habits, daily habits are very critical to this practice. And there's literally terms where the tenth guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobin, saying has this common phrase that most Sikhs have heard of, to me more than a Sikh being dear to me, what is more dear is the practice of Sikhi. So he highlighted the fact that look, make Sikhi your daily meditation. So yes, there's so many books today, Atomic Habits, Habits, these classics that people read about.
(12:39): Well, yes, it's that wisdom that we're learning through modern psychology, faith traditions discovered that a long time ago and told it's followers, listen, it's the practice that's very important. And in some ways what we call beliefs and rituals is really a way of taking those practices or habits and putting them into cultural practice. But again, the fine line between when those habits become just rituals, they lose their meaning and being habits that you're very mindful. So that mindfulness is so critical to your habits because you don't want them just becoming, well, I'll just do it and... It loses the meaning. So it's that sitting on that edge and being mindful of that edge that hey, be mindful and don't let these practices become... You want them to be second nature, you want them to be part of who you are, but at the same time, you have to be mindful. And that's a struggle.
Host (13:46): In the 1980s, something horrible happened, which ended up bringing in a large influx of Sikh here to the United States. Is that when your parents came?
Vishavjit Singh (14:02): So my parents didn't come because of what happened. 1984 is the big year, but it is a journey, a story that starts in the late seventies in India in the state of Punjab, which is where a lot of Sikhs who hailed from India come from, including my parents. And a lot of political, religious, social, economic events converge. And then 1984, two very big things happen in the month of June and November that I'll get into briefly. But actually my dad came to the US in the early 1970s, actually 1970, to work. He was working for the Indian government, but he came to Washington DC to work actually in the Indian Embassy and I was born here. And then my family parents went back and I went back with them. And so I spent my childhood from first to 12th grade in India. We were living in the capital city for most of that time.
(15:02): But I spent all my summers in the state of Punjab because that's where my parents' family was. So summer holidays were spent in Punjab. So I have very fond memories from family members who were mostly in cities, rural areas, farming. So as this struggle that started in the late seventies between the Indian state, certain groups, Sikhs, where the Indian state happened, it converged into June 1984 in the state of Punjab where the Indian prime minister leader at the time, Indira Gandhi, decided she's going to send armed forces into the holiest of Sikh houses of worship, which is popularly known as Golden Temple, known to us Sikhs as Darbār Sahib, beautiful space. Many probably have seen photos of it. It's in the city of Amritsar, northwest India, very close to the Punjab border, the Punjab and Pakistan and Punjab and India.
(16:08): Pre-partition Punjab was this huge land mass spanning from modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan into India. So the army goes in to flush out what the Indian state calls were Sikh terrorists. A lot of damage happens. Thousands of people are killed. We will never know that number. A lot of innocents get killed, collateral damage, and a lot of damage happens to this sacred site. And then six months later, October 31st, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, is killed as a direct result of what happened in June, her decision to send the army in. Two of her bodyguards who happened to be Sikh, shot and killed her. We're coming on the 39th anniversary of that date in a week. And I was living with my parents in Delhi at the time and my dad was working in downtown Delhi when this happened. So he comes home and he tells us. I was in school when this happened and I found out on a radio transistor.
(17:17): I was not supposed to be listening to a commentary to a cricket match happening in Pakistan but I was listening to a commentary while school is happening, and I hear the match has been canceled because something tragic has happened. I went to a predominantly Sikh school, so we come back to that decision that my father made to send me and my brother to a Sikh school. Somehow our principal and our teachers knew that this had happened, this had transpired, Indira Gandhi was killed by two Sikh party guards. Our administration makes the decision to send all kids back home. We go back home and we still don't know what has happened. I know something very tragic has happened. We go back home and at home my mother, I believe, had told us the Prime Minister has been killed. We didn't know at the time it was two Sikh bodyguards who had done that.
(18:07): And we waited for our father to come home. And we were a little nervous because he came home a little late, late afternoon, and he told us that the Indian Prime Minister was shot and killed by two of the Sikh bodyguards and there are mobs forming in downtown Delhi. Fast forward to the next day, my parents curfewed themselves, like we're not going to go anywhere, something bad is going to happen. So we're home, the curtains are shut and the nation is in mourning. Everybody's home. But specifically, we are not to go out. But something really bizarre happens. Around late morning, noon, I see in the distance police officers, and I also see some of my Hindu friends playing cricket in a field right in front of our house. We were in an apartment building and I'm like, "That's interesting. They're playing cricket, but we're not supposed to go out."
(19:05): This is all happening in my head. I was 11, 12 years old at the time so I'm just thinking in my head, this is bizarre and interesting. But I also felt a sense of safety seeing these police officers because I'm thinking, "Well, they're here to protect us, or anything bad that happens, they're there to safeguard us." And then a little while later, I remember hearing footsteps. And this is how I describe to people, Lord of the Rings movies, you hear when we have these armies of characters, humans who are walking and you can hear these footsteps of hundreds of people marching, that's what I heard. And when we look through the crack of our curtain in our bedroom, I could see men for as far as the eye could see in triple, quadruple file, just marching with metal rods, wooden rods in their hands, and they're going in one direction.
"There's a mob forming, we can hear them cussing, saying, let's bring these Sikhs down. That was the only day that I sensed death."
(20:06): They're passing by our apartment building and they're going in one direction. And I didn't know at the time what they were doing, but they seemed... And the police officers I'd seen early were guiding that. So I'm like, "That's interesting." A few hours later, some of those men are returning with goods in their hands, sacks or tin canisters. And my friends are playing out there. I'm just going, this is a bizarre scene. But somehow this seemed harmless so my dad decides he's going to go out the balcony and check out what's going on. So we follow my dad and we're thinking it's safe to go out. A man spots us from a distance and he starts cussing. So my dad and me and my brother did not have turbans on our heads, but we had our buns on top of our head and my dad has a beard, so we're quickly identified as Sikhs.
(20:59): So this man in the distance starts screaming and yelling profanities in Hindi on our mother, and he's basically saying, let's go get these Sikhs. And suddenly we rushed in and we huddled in a circle. We started praying. We were on a first floor, ground level. There's a mob forming, we can hear them cussing, saying, let's bring these Sikhs down. That was the only day that I sensed death. Death is always near us. You never know when your time's going to come. But that was the only day that I consciously remember, today I can die. Long story short, there's so much more I can describe but basically for the next few days, mobs around cities, mostly in north and east India, but mostly in the north half of India, mobs of men went out, hunted Sikh men and women, killed thousands of Sikh men, mostly by pouring kerosene gasoline on them, setting them on fire, ransacking houses of worship.
(22:09): Businesses that belonged to Sikhs. My school was partly destroyed. My local Gurdwara house of worship was partly destroyed. Every Sikh owned business in my neighborhood was destroyed. Sikh women were violated. It took us a few days to go out for the first time. And it was such a surreal experience. I felt just weird going out, people staring at me. And we'll never know how many people were killed. There's this number given out, 3000 people killed in Delhi, but there were people who were killed all... And they were burnt alive so you'll never find out remains. It's been 39 years. Most people who did this, who orchestrated this from the top of the Indian government to security forces who enabled it, most people got away. So to me, the struggle is we're not going to get justice, but how do we tell this story?
(23:03): And most people don't know around the globe that this happened. Most people in India know a version of this story, and my struggle as a survivor of this genocidal massacre is how do I tell this story to do justice to those who did not survive that day? We know from the Holocaust to many other genocides, the genocide of indigenous people in the United States. Who gets to tell the story is so critical because history can do justice and injustice to those who are killed at the hands of tyrants, be it in autocracies, theocracies, dictatorships or in democracies. And to me, one of the big pain points is that this was a democracy that committed acts of genocide and terror on its own people. And we don't talk about it.
Host (23:57): So, I imagine you will always have challenging feelings towards the Indian government, specifically at that time. How do you come to terms and manage those feelings now? How do you separate the humanity of the Indian population from the political machinations of the government?
Vishavjit Singh (24:24): That's a great question. It's challenging. One thing that I lost in the aftermath of 1984 was my sense of an Indian identity, that political identity. We wear many labels. I knew I was American at the time. I was born here, I was going to go back to the US. But then I also used to say, I'm also Indian. But in the aftermath of 1984 and how things transpired, I made a decision, I would not use the word Indian as a label for myself. So that was one thing I did. But I did also recognize that not everybody who's Indian is bad. In fact, many came to the rescue of Sikhs, and we spent a few nights at one of our Hindu neighbors house because we knew now the mob knew where we lived, they could come back. I don't hold everybody in India accountable, necessarily. There's a lot of good people there. But I do hold the Indian political apparatus responsible, be it political leadership, judicial leadership, security apparatus.
(25:27): And because justice was never served. For me, it's a very deep pain point. And I always wonder and there's a question mark whether India can be home, a safe home and equitable home to minorities like Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhist and Dalits, and Christians, when things 1984 have transpired where justice was never served, that question mark is always there. And India is right now going through one of the deepest phases of Islamophobia, a phobia against one of the minorities, if you may. And in some ways, the cultural mindset of India, I would say is even worse than it was in the 1980s against Sikhs, because I feel like the sense of intense feelings against Muslims and how they live has permeated even more sectors of Indian society than 1980s had feedings towards Sikhs. So it's a challenge.
(26:36): To answer your question, it's a challenge, but I have to remind myself every day, I don't want to color the entire Indian body politic and everybody who lives in India with that brush of, well, your nation committed a genocide against my people, therefore you're all responsible. Life is very complicated and there's a lot of gray areas. But I will hold India. Has India moved past and learned its lessons from 1984? I would say in some ways, no. Because the intolerance you see in India today, it's pretty grave. And I know that many Indians will deny it. They'll say, no, we're not an intolerant nation, or we're not more intolerant today than we were back in the 80s. As somebody who has lived through 1984, I would disagree with that. So it's a constant struggle. But my faith tells me that I have to operate and live my life from a place of understanding and compassion, and I have to extend that compassion even to those who committed these crimes in the 80s.
"Our past connects us, in some ways our future is connected to the present and the past, and how we are able to merge all of those in a way that does justice is so critical."
Host (27:54): You touched on this a bit, and I know that your work with illustration and storytelling is all a part of this answer, but how important is it to share this story and your family's story and the story of your faith and your people and your practices to build awareness and understanding and empathy?
Vishavjit Singh (28:24): It is very, very important. I feel stories are so important to every faith and culture and national tradition. Name any tradition, any community around the globe, somehow storytelling is integral to their sense of who they are. Our past connects us, in some ways our future is connected to the present and the past, and how we are able to merge all of those in a way that does justice is so critical. So I'll give an example this way. We have something we call Ardas, which we do every day in our places of worship, even in our homes. It's a supplication, it's a prayer. Most Sikhs know it. They know it by heart because we've heard it so many times. And that prayer talks about the 10 gurus who started the faith, it talks about those who followed that faith, it talks about those who sacrificed their lives for this faith, and it talks about wellbeing for the entire planet and every living creature. And it's a beautiful prayer.
(29:37): And this prayer talks about those who were chopped into pieces, who were set on fire. They did not lose their faith. Remember them. But the prayer does not focus on those who committed crimes. The prayer focuses on the resilience, the compassion, the practice of those who have lived this faith for the past 500 years. And it's just this beautiful storytelling. It encompasses 500 years. And to me, that prayer is the best encapsulation of where we come from and what we hold dear and how compassion is at the core of who you are. Our vulnerability is in that prayer and how that vulnerability leads to courage is in that prayer. And I didn't know this as a kid, but today as I do a lot of my work around illustrations and diversity, inclusion, equity and storytelling, we all have vulnerabilities. Every community, every individual, every nation state, every belief system has vulnerabilities.
(30:51): And to know those vulnerabilities, be transparent with them, and somehow living through those vulnerabilities and finding courage to be better today, better tomorrow, and be a better version of you by learning from those stories, the past and the mistakes as well. We make mistakes as well. So I am somebody who wants to tell the story of our sufferings, of our tragedies, but at the same time want to remind our people, we also at times connect atrocities not to that level, but we also sometimes commit acts of violence or acts of pain or pain inducing acts. And how do we learn from our past to become more compassionate human beings? And even though you might have to go into a battlefield today or tomorrow, how do you fight in a battlefield by having compassion in your heart? Those are all the challenges that I see facing us as humanity.
(32:08): And it's hard. How do you stay compassionate when somebody is attacking you? But to me, that is a challenge that every Sikh guru tells us to focus on. Thich Nhat Hanh, whose works I love, reminds you of that. Every faith tradition. The other name I'll throw is Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, one of my all-time favorite storytellers. All of these people whose names I'm throwing out are my teachers. And their storytelling and their wisdom is not very different from the Sikh tradition. And I think our challenge as humanity is how do we take all this wisdom that exists from different traditions and from different sufferings and tragedies, the Vietnam War to the Holocaust to the tragedies that Sikhs have gone through, and almost every other community, how do we learn from it and become better versions of ourselves and better versions of humanity?
Host (33:18): So I end with this question, which I always roll my eyes when I ask it because I know how it sounds. But what does the term American dream make you feel when you hear it? And then what does the American dream look like for you?
Vishavjit Singh (33:40): You hear that term a lot. American dream. It's become a catchphrase. And a lot has been said about it, and I sometimes wonder what I'm about to say, is that something that's coming from within me? Is that something that I've picked up and I'm hashing it all together? American dream is a dream of a world, of a nation, that serves, works, figures out how it's going to be equitable, how it's going to be free and just to its people. It's a struggle. We've come, we made some progress. To me, that's the American dream, feeling a sense of freedom, equality and justice living here. Certainly there's so many other economic and political opportunities that come out of this framework, but really, to me, it's those three things. And I know we have some ways to go, but I do think we have made progress.
Host (34:44): If you would like to continue the conversation, visit chapman.edu/wilkinson to hear all of the lectures from this series. To access recommended books from our guests for further learning and for more socially conscious content, visit us at pastforward.org or follow us at Apple, Spotify, or wherever you podcast.
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