Exploring Interfaith

March 3, 2024
Reading Time
8 Minutes

Exploring Interfaith

Nanakacharya, Nanak Rishi, Guru Rimpochiya, Vali Hind, Nanak Peer, Baba Nanak are all names of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji around the world. When it comes to interfaith, the clearest example I can think of is Guru Nanak Sahib Ji’s udasiaa. He traveled on foot all across Asia to spread his message of peace, compassion, righteousness, equality, and truth. For me, these messages are exactly what interfaith boils down to at a fundamental level.

My Interfaith Travels:

ਦੇਹਰਾ ਮਸੀਤ ਸੋਈ ਪੂਜਾ ਔ ਨਿਵਾਜ ਓਈ ਮਾਨਸ ਸਬੈ ਏਕ ਪੈ ਅਨੇਕ ਕੋ ਭ੍ਰਮਾਉ ਹੈ ॥

dheharaa maseet soiee poojaa aau nivaaj oiee maanas sabai ek pai anek ko bhramaau hai ||

The temple and the mosque are the same, there is no difference between a Hindu worship and Muslim prayer; all human beings are the same, but the illusion is of various types.

– Guru Gobind Singh Ji, Dasam Bani – Pannaa 14

Prior to my trip to Washington DC, the bani above is what I had heard at my local Gurdwara sahib for Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s gurpurab. That Sunday, the kirtani (kirtan singer) explained how we as a society have not moved past the caste system. I had not given much thought to this bani until I was sitting listening to Rabbi Or talk about Heshcel’s “disease of the eyes”. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish born American rabbi, described racism as an “eye disease, a cancer of the soul”. These words made me think back to sitting in divan (prayer hall) that past Sunday and how we as humans easily use religion to build barriers even though it should be what unites us the most.

For some context, I was never someone who would just attend a lecture by a rabbi or any other religious figure. It was not because of any bias or anything, it was just not anything I had ever done before, until I was selected to be a member of the inaugural class of the Building Interfaith Leadership Initiative fellowship (BILI). The BILI fellowship was created by Interfaith America and The Miller Center at the Hebrew College at my school with the purpose of educating and providing resources to students to host interfaith conversation on their campuses and in their communities.

Initially, when I attended the Leadership Summit hosted by Interfaith America in Chicago, I had gone with the lens of being a Sikh-Punjabi first generation American undergraduate student. I didn’t understand what exactly interfaith was until I listened to Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith America, speak about his potlucks. He told us his story of connecting with his community through hosting potlucks. The meals everyone bought were reminders of tradition and memories and everyone was able to connect through conversation. Through small talk about food, everyone was able to learn more about each other’s families, passions, experiences, and get a glimpse of their life overall.

Faith is one of the most personal topics for pretty much anyone, and it is also the hardest to talk about with strangers. This faith can be a belief in anything, and it doesn’t always have to be just religious nor positive; for some, faith is a topic filled with trauma. Faith and spirituality can shape how individuals may deal with traumatic events in their lives or with mental health. In a country and world deeply divided by binary thoughts, we interact with each other through barriers, but by starting discourse and education about faith, we can hopefully start breaking down these barricades.

The 48 hours I was in DC for my fellowship were full of learning about how we can better interact and build a future more accepting of each other. This trip was full of revelations like the comparison between Martin Luther King’s speech to the sanitation workers during the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike over the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker due to the constant abuse of black workers: “Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out” and Jaswant Singh Khalra’s final speech “Darkness set its foot on the Earth, but it is said — far away, in some hut, one little Lamp lifted his head. It proclaimed, ‘I challenge the Darkness. If nothing else, then at least around myself, I will not let it settle. Around myself I will establish Light.” The idea of light is ever present in many conversations of spirituality and these two specific verses opened my eyes to the many similarities between faiths.

Throughout my trip, the majority of our conversations focused on defining the intersection between interfaith and action. On our second day, we started off our day visiting the holocaust museum where we learned stories of local communities who came together during this time of immense evil to provide shelter and protection to those trying to escape persecution. In high school I learned about the dark and evil of the holocaust but this trip provided a perspective of community and human response. Later, we visited the US Institute of Peace and the Department of Justice to learn more about how interfaith is taken into perspective when creating policies and international relations. It wasn’t a factor that I considered went into creating policies but it was interesting to learn there were people focusing on integrating these relationships into the fabric of our nation. We ended our day by speaking with Reverend Rob Schenk, the president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute. We learned about Schenk’s experience of being a religious leader and the impact that had on those around him. This made me consider how I am present as a student leader in my community. These conversations kept continuing as we walked from one site to another as we discussed how our lives are impacted by interfaith, whether that be how to interact with each other or as citizens of a global community.

When sitting at the airport after these 48 hours, my mind was left shocked. All I could do was write down my thoughts while waiting for my flight and think about the fundamental idea of Ik. All my life I was raised with the idea of how Waheguru was within everyone, making us all equal, yet all these religious comparisons further defined this idea for me. Guru Nanak Sahib Ji traveled Asia by foot during his udasiaa and explored this idea of interfaith with everyone he met. Everyday he interacted with individuals of different faiths and backgrounds, while sharing the idea of true devotion without rituals.

Interfaith and Sikh History

Activism and spirituality are the words that come to my mind when I think of Sikhi, and after my trip, I focused on looking deeper at our history to further see these examples of how people of different faiths interacted with each other.

Bhai Mardana Ji

Bhai Mardana was the loyal companion of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji, he accompanied him on his udasiaa to spread Guru Nanak’s message. Both of them were born in the same village but Bhai Mardana was born to a Mirasi couple, while Guru Nanak Sahib Ji was born to a khatri family. Yet this difference was never a hindrance for them. Their friendship from the beginning was the symbol of Guru Nanak Sahib’s boundless love and Sikhi.

Shaheedi of Guru Tegh Bahadur

During the reign of Aurungzeb, South Asia experienced forced conversion to Islam, specifically for Kashmiri Pandits. Fearful for their lives, the pandits went to share their predicament with Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji. Upon hearing this injustice and sharing the story with young Guru Gobind Singh Ji, he knew he had to go to Delhi. There, when he didn’t succumb to Aurungzeb’s commands to convert, he was tortured and chained for 8 days until his execution. Guru Ji died for the right of religious freedom for all, not just for his own right to be a Sikh.  

Bhai Kanhaiya Ji

The sakhi of Bhai Kanhaiya is one I grew up hearing. The moral of the story being to treat everyone equally. Bhai Kanhaiya was born to a wealthy family and at a young age he would keep coins in his pockets. Whenever he saw anyone in need he would always give away his coins. As he grew up his compassion to the less fortunate never wavered and after he heard bani being recited he went on a quest to find Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, he stayed with the guru as a water carrier. Later, after skirmishes between the Sikhs and enemies Bhai Kanhaiya would be seen giving out water to anyone around him, to both Sikhs and the enemies. Many other soldiers frustrated with Bhai Sahib giving out all the water complained to Guru Gobind Singh Ji but when Guru Ji asked Kanhaiya he said, “Yes, my Guru, what they say is true. But Maharaj, I saw no Mughal or Sikh on the battlefield. I only saw human beings. And, … Guru Ji, they all have the same spirit of Waheguru? – Guru Ji, have you not taught us to treat all Waheguru’s people as the same?”. It was clear Bhai Kanhaiya truly understood the Guru’s message of Ik.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Khalsa Raj

During the height of the Sikh Empire religious freedom was emphasized for all. After experiencing the tyranny of the Mughal Empire, it was important to Maharaja Ranjit Singh to create a peaceful society that accepted everyone. Sikhs were not treated as a privileged class and Maharaja Ranjit Singh did not interfere with any religious or cultural life, rather he participated in celebrations for Eid, Holi, Dussehra, etc. He also translated the holy books of Muslims and Hindus into other languages. Non-Sikhs were never taxed or tariffed, and any person could rise in their social standing, regardless of background. His religious tolerance and respect stemmed from the teachings of Guru  Sahib.

Oak Creek Shooting  

As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, the Oak Creek shooting hit very close to home. The hate was carried out by a white supremacist but the stories that I remember from the shooting are of those where the community came together. Many of the churches and other places of worship in our area came and paid respects to the families who lost loved ones and tried to learn more about Sikhi. The story that stays with me is the story of Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist. Pardeep Singh Kaleka, the son of one of the victims, connected with Arno to understand more about why someone was even this hateful in the first place. Both together created Serve 2 Unite, an organization to help connect children of all ethnicities and to cherish humanity together.

All of these stories, from hundreds of years ago to recent years, remind me of the fundamental concept of Ik and revolutionary love. Sikhi teaches that Waheguru is within all of us. The idea of interfaith is consistent in our history yet we allow differences to tear us apart.

Our Current State

When remembering this history, it is hard to fathom the current state of South Asia and the rise of discrimination. Everyday, my social media feed is full of videos of violence because of religious differences, even between people of the same faith. With the wounds of 1984 still fresh, it is hard to ignore the rise of Hindutva and the recent unlawful arrests in Punjab. As a society we find it easy to create differences between us for small differences when we don’t agree with the same things, and the biggest differences we can see within each other are the differences of faith.

This difference of faith seeps into further systematic differences, causing further political separation. Faith today is used like a weapon, to either separate or unite. This weaponization can also be seen within Sikhs today. Many youths today who try to embrace the Sikh community are met with judgment for their backgrounds and non-tolerance. Instead of accepting and trying to educate each other together we create rifts and further segregation within the panth.

Further, today the caste system is prevalent as well in many different scenarios. People refuse to go to certain gurdware because of the casteism that is prevalent in the sangat there. Marriage is dictated by caste, rather than by the quality of the person. Popular culture between many Sikh teenagers and young adults is around the hierarchy of caste and emphasis of Jatt culture, exemplified by the majority of popular Punjabi songs. The panj pyare were a direct response to this separation between castes, the purpose of the creation of the Khalsa was to emphasize our own unique Sikh society. Yet even on Vaisakhi we forget why we all come together. We as the panth have a fundamental responsibility to eradicate these beliefs, as emphasized by Guru Nanak Sahib Ji.

Going Forward

After reflecting on all these topics, my personal course of action is trying to start dialogue and communication between the South Asian groups on my campus. This path does not have to be the way for everyone to start conversations around interfaith, but this was my path. The different South Asian organizations on my campus interact with each other when it comes to cultural similarities, yet religion is always taboo for us. Intergenerational trauma is true for all of us whether it’s about the pariton, 1984 or other atrocities yet it’s up to us how to act on these feelings. As I am currently planning out what this interaction might look like I am trying to include all these different groups as much as possible to give a voice to everyone while not suppressing any one’s perspective.  

While it might seem like having an open conversation with your friends of different religious identities about their relationship with faith might not change the world, it does open the door to that change. These conversations lead to empathy, compassion, and understanding rather than allowing barriers to keep getting built.

Today, as we all practice our religion and beliefs in different ways, it is important for us to recognize how that is something that brings us closer rather than divides us. We are all human beings before any other way we identify ourselves. By reinforcing illusions that we are all different creates a separated community in which it is acceptable to hate on others for not sharing the same ideas. So, I urge you to be curious and start these conversations in your daily life and recognize the Ik within all of us.

Sources and Further Reading:


Amanpreet Kaur

Amanpreet Kaur is a current sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the co-founder and CEO of SikhTeens.

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