Living Religions

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah

When I was growing up, my grandmother was in the habit of spending half the year in India and half the year in London, near the small British town where I lived with my family. She was an imposing woman, large and proud. Us grandkids would sleep in the same room as her and when she snored, the whole house would shake. I actually found this comforting, and I still think of her sometimes when we run our loud washing machine at night.

I remember writing a poem about her and winning a competition where I had to read it out loud at school. As I remember it, the poem went something like this:

You’re like a gargantuan mountain on the threshold of detonation,

You’re as consoling as a snug fireplace.

When you sleep, the whole world sleeps, too.

My grandmother spoke some English. She wasn’t fluent, but that didn’t stop her from becoming an enthusiastic fan of The Ten Commandments, the old film with Charlton Heston. You might not have imagined that an old Sikh Indian woman who spoke Punjabi could feel such a passion for this Christian classic. But she did, and lovingly demanded that I watch it with her on television as though it were an important cultural event. I liked the Technicolor, and I think that the film reminded both of us of the Bollywood classics. But I could see that my grandmother was responding to something deeper, regarding the movie as sacred in a way. She could appreciate it on that level, even if it wasn’t from her own religion. My family always had a curiosity and a respect about other people’s faiths.

I was 18 years old the first time I visited my grandmother in India by myself. She had decided to live there full-time in her retirement. She was a disciplined woman, and we’d get up early to clean the entire house and scrub the veranda. My great-grandmother, who was over 100 at the time, did the same at her home, and I can still see her bent over double to sweep the courtyard floor.

After hours of these early morning chores, it was time for the tea. I loved to make it. I’d boil the tea three times until it frothed and add the creamy milk, crushed cardamom pods, and a touch of tea masala before I poured the mixture into nice china cups. I’d put it on a tray and bring the tea to my grandmother. It had to be very hot. My grandmother would then pour a bit of the tea onto her saucer and slurp. Sometimes I still like to drink tea this way myself.

Later in the day we’d often tour different places of worship in Punjab. We’d visit Hindu temples, mosques, churches, Jain temples, and of course our own Harmandir Sahib (the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, just a short drive away). There was a giant pool of water that was surrounded by marble, and you had to take a bridged pathway to the Golden Temple in the middle. It had four doors, representing openness to people of all types from the four cardinal directions of the world. And it had been built close to the ground as a symbol of humility, respect, and service. My understanding is that when the foundation was laid, the first brick was placed by a Muslim, not a Sikh. The idea was that someone from a different religion should be involved to symbolize the temple as a place of inclusivity. Anyone was welcome and no one was refused. Like all Sikh temples, it’s built around a community kitchen that offers free meals to all visitors, with no exceptions. So I’ve always thought of the Golden Temple as the world’s largest soup kitchen, serving something like 50,000 handmade vegetarian meals to visitors every day. When I visited for the first time at the tender age of 6, my mother and I sat on the floor with people from all walks of life to share a meal as equals. This was a powerful way of being in the context of India’s oppressive caste system. Our fundamental openness to other religions was not just a value in my family, but a fundamental teaching of Sikhism. Especially in India, where the caste system sees entire swaths of people as “untouchable,” eating at the Golden Temple didn’t just feel good—it was a political act that broke down the caste system, one meal at a time.

I’ve been thinking about my early exposure to different religious beliefs and ways of life as I prepare to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. this summer, for several weeks starting in late June. (You’re invited, by the way!) This year’s theme is “living religions,” and ISC is partnering with the festival to present daily storytelling-based sessions. In organizing around this theme, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my Sikh background. Sikhs are committed to truth, respect, and humanity’s fundamental interconnectedness, which are values that are also central to us in storytelling. So these subjects all seem very closely related in my heart and mind and memory.

When I first moved to East Tennessee, I landed this beautiful job in a place where I didn’t know a single person personally. That was daunting. In the American South, if you move to a new town, church is a good way to introduce yourself to the community. But there are no Sikh temples here, and very few Sikh people. It helped to remember that in Sikhism, in many ways we regard every place of worship as a Sikh temple. They are sacred places to learn and be in community, and despite differences in specific traditions and beliefs, there is the sense that God is around, binding us all.

When I first arrived in town, I’d go exploring throughout the region. Often I drove to Asheville on the weekend to look for community, but this became laborious. One day I walked just a few blocks from my house and found a small meeting of five people. They were a Unity church and I found myself really appreciating the service. The pastor’s sermon seemed intellectual, thought provoking, and inclusive. And in fact there was a sign that said We welcome all people of different faiths and traditions. Immediately, I felt the sense of community that I had been looking for. I had been searching in a 100-mile radius, but it turned out that this place was practically in my backyard.

As I welcomed new friends onto my front porch and into my living room, and as we talked and worked together more deeply on the social justice issues we care about, it felt important to activate in prayer and justice. Sikhs consider community service (“seva”) to be our highest form of prayer. I took my personal faith tradition out into the world, as I participated in vigils and was asked to speak at Christian churches. And I invited the world into my home, where we fasted for Muslim Ramadan and celebrated Jewish Passover. One year, a Jewish friend and I realized that Pesach (Jewish Passover) and Vaisakhi (a Sikh spring festival) were set to coincide. We organized an event that we called “Pesakhi,” making masala matzah balls and tandoori latke cakes. We invited our neighbors and friends and shared the stories of Exodus and stories of liberation and freedom from Sikhism (as well as the poetry of Audre Lourde and Bell Hooks). Later in the year, for Hanukkah, I tracked down a menorah at the local Target and invited some Episcopalian friends over to my house to light the candles and conduct the prayers.

In a recent conversation I had with storyteller Sheila Arnold, we talked about the power of the kitchen table. Sure, storytelling is great when it happens in our tents here in Jonesborough. But the stories that shape our lives and build our communities are often taking place at our kitchen tables. We go into those conversations curious to learn about one another, instead of wanting to debate or argue. Finding truth and meaning of other people’s most sacred beliefs is a powerful way to explore the world and has been an important part of my own faith as a Sikh.

In Sikhism, the 10th guru asked all Sikhs to recognize the entire human race as one. The idea is that when we meet others, we should remember that we’re all human first. Beyond places of worship, and in life, there is something that binds us all when we’re willing to open our hearts and minds. Learning about different lives and perspectives and worldviews is a form of community service—and a form of prayer.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival will take place on June 29 – July 4 and July 6 – 9 on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C. As a participating partner in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah will lead daily “kitchen table”-style conversations that explore stories as living expressions of culture, faith, and tradition that help us make meaning as we move through the world.