Last week, I sat on a panel discussion at an interfaith seminary in Berkeley, California, in front of a class of chaplaincy students where we discussed interfaith work at the ground level and the implications of that work. I participated on this panel on behalf of the Sikh Coalition as a representative of the Sikh faith. Four other panel members represented various Christian traditions and interfaith organizations. I had gone to this event with the hopes to educate the class and that I would represent the Sikh faith well, but I didn’t predict that I would leave the event feeling inspired and enlightened.
Each of the panelists discussed our interfaith work. As part of this, I described being a volunteer for the Sikh Coalition as a Sikh Presenter, and spoke about interfaith aspects of Sikhism: the mission of Guru Nanak and the meaning of “Ik Onkar” (“One God” for all of humanity), the inclusion of the writings of various Hindu and Muslim saints in the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book and Guru of the Sikhs today), among other things.
I also taught the class how to say “Sat Sri Akal” (the Sikh greeting which means “God is Truth”, which they really took to) as a way that the students could break the ice with Sikhs that they come across in their work. Some of the students approached me afterwards and expressed an interest to learn more about Sikhism. It was a very enthusiastic and welcoming group.
It struck me during this discussion that there aren’t many places in the world where people from different faiths come together in a spirit of unity and mutual respect. We accepted each other openly. I felt free to express myself as a Sikh, and welcomed others to express themselves too. There was a common bond among all of us as people of faith, regardless of our tradition, and it was well-recognized and acknowledged. The discussion was not about who was right or who was wrong, nor was it about amalgamating everyone into one theology. Instead, it was about supporting each other in our own faiths and finding the common ground that allows us to pursue our religions while coexisting harmoniously as equals.
Was this not what Guru Nanak preached during all his travels and in his teachings? Guru Nanak traveled all over South Asia, encountering people from all kinds of traditions and practices. His message was one of unity and the connection to the Divine from within. His teachings were universal, and so much so that many Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists consider Guru Nanak as a saintly figure within their own traditions. And, in this interfaith setting that I found myself, there I was experiencing these aspects of Guru Nanak and his message, and not just reading about it.
It’s not a stretch for me to say that I felt Guru Nanak’s presence exuding in this atmosphere. It’s a powerful feeling that still sits within me as I write this. As the Sikhs (i.e. students) of Guru Nanak, we believe that Sikhism is not the only path to God, but it is one among many different paths. Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh taught that we should respect and defend the religious rights of others. What better way to enact these teachings than to involve ourselves in interfaith activities?
I would encourage all of us to take opportunities to engage in interfaith projects to learn to find what is common among us all at our most basic levels as human beings. Connecting to the Divine in others only amplifies that connection within ourselves.