Since becoming the victim of a hate attack last week, my friend Prabhjot Singh says he has been the recipient of extreme kindness and compassion. Complete strangers on the street came to his aid. He received medical attention at the very hospital he practices as a physician. His friends rallied around him. The NYPD are treating his case with extreme diligence.
Some folks were shocked to see that in a media interview after the attack, Prabhjot issued an open invitation to his attackers to ask questions about our common Sikh faith, and to meet him at a Sikh place of worship, or Gurdwara, to understand the Sikh religion.
He meant it.
Only if we welcome these misguided youths to engage with us, can we really try to make sure they have an opportunity to learn from such misguided acts. Merely holding them accountable through the criminal justice system, which we know is itself imperfect, would fall short of improving these youths so they are better people as a result of their mistake. Even though they attacked Prabhjot, in the true spirit of Sikhism, he wants them to become better people. They should take responsibility for their actions, but also remedy their poor judgment and ignorance.
Prabhjot and I have a lot in common. We are both practicing Sikhs, with beards and turbans. We both are proud alums of the University of Rochester. We are both professors with a PhD, teaching at universities. We are both fathers to toddler boys who we are raising with Sikh traditions.
I can only hope though, that amidst the kind of media turmoil Prabhjot was undergoing during the week after being attacked, I would respond with as much grace, resolve, and virtue as he did. Prabhjot’s gracious, and graceful, response was the Sikh response par excellence. He has learned much from our common Sikh faith. Originating on the modern India-Pakistan border 500 years ago, the Sikh tradition is a unique faith with 25 million adherents around the globe.
According to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the greatest problem in this world is that we fall short of seeing the world from a divine perspective and instead are engulfed in shortsighted struggles for our self-preservation. This is the root of what some in other traditions might call “evil.” Not the devil, not a force in battle with God, but our own sense of self-importance and self-righteousness.
The Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture) teaches that our great challenge in life is to see the world the way God sees it. God does not see difference when looking at us, neither should have those people who attacked my friend. But we would be making a big mistake if we kept perpetuating ignorance with knee-jerk ignorant responses to even those who hate us. We can be so much more successful in this world, in God’s eyes, if we take the long view in any situation.
Prabhjot’s attackers acted out of a very limited notion of self.
And what good would it be to perpetuate anger, violence, and hatred? Isn’t it so much better to try and end it with inclusion, education, and mutual engagement?
A core principle of Sikh ethics is the unity of all people under one deity, who is called by many names but is beyond being named. That is why we pray daily for the well being of all humanity (sarbat da bhalaa).
That is why after the hate shooter Wade Michael Page killed himself after shooting up at a Gurdwara in Wisconsin last year, Sikh survivors prayed for his soul at the memorial service. The statement they made was that we may be lost souls, but we are all souls that belong to God.
Sikh principles were at work in those three people who helped Prabhjot off the sidewalk that night. They could have just kept walking, like sometimes happens in New York City. But they saw something was wrong and did what was right, beyond serving their own individual self-interest. That’s the kind of community we need to build.
The Sikh faith teaches us to serve, to care, and to engage the world for the greater good. Prabhjot studies and teaches community health in academia and focusing on the contributions of community health workers, creating opportunities for people while increasing health outcomes over the long term. It’s all about communities, he insists. He tries to bring the best low-cost, global solutions in healthcare (like the idea of community health workers) back to America. This week, amazingly, in spite of the attack and the healing he needs to do, he’s already back to working for the greater good.
Both our young sons will someday look like young Sikh men do, with turbans and beards, if they choose to follow the path of their ancestors. But, according to a recent Stanford University study, 70% of Americans see people in turbans and have no idea who they are even though 99% of people in America who wear turbans are Sikh-Americans.
A stereotype that Prabhjot and I would love to see emerge by the time our sons are young men is that of people in turbans as those you can rely on for help in a difficult situation, people that you’re relieved to sit next to you on the plane, people even to help you with your groceries on the sidewalk.
We also want to give our sons, as well as their teachers and peers, the tools to engage others. We have to insist on communities where we engage with one another even if it means having to answer somewhat annoying questions about ourselves instead of having to be yelled at or violently attacked.
That’s the America we want for our children.