Faculty Research Spotlight: Professor Nikky Singh’s The First Sikh

Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Crawford Family Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the department (pictured left), has been teaching at Colby for 34 years. She is an internationally renowned scholar of Sikhism, and has published several books, translations, and articles on the topic. She has also co-authored with some of her Colby students. She recently published The First Sikh: The Life and Legacy of Guru Nanak, which is a biography of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of Sikhism. Professor Singh’s book is unique for its focus on Guru Nanak’s poetry.

So what exactly is Sikhism? It is one of the five major world religions with over 28 million Sikhs living across the globe (the word Sikh means “disciple” or “seeker”). Since the late nineteenth century, Sikhs have been a vibrant presence in North America, and yet many people in the United States don’t know much about them. The religion originated in the

Punjab region of India in the late 15th century, and is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and the nine Gurus who followed him. The tenth Guru ended the line of personal Gurus and endowed the scripture as the Guru forever. Professor Singh, who was raised in a Sikh home in India before coming to the United States, said that “Sikhism is about the oneness of the divine reality — which has to be existentially experienced. It is a monotheistic tradition expressing the divine literally as numeral One. No one is excluded from this all-inclusive singular reality. The timeless infinite is everywhere and everything and everyone—the sun, the moon, the plants, the ants, the rivers, and human beings of all complexions equally share in this one reality.” Sikhism is opposed to hierarchies, with no priests, no rituals, and no caste system. The sole holy object is the scripture, a large text which incorporates the poetry of the Sikh gurus, as well as Hindu and Muslim saints. In Sikh temples (Gurdwaras, or sacred spaces), people sit on the floor, listen to readings of the scripture, share vegetarian meals (langar), and listen to sacred music together.

Professor Singh has had a deep lifelong connection to Sikhism. Her father pioneered the field of the academic study of religion in India, publishing The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. He was a visiting professor at the Center for World Religions at Harvard and returned to India to chair the first department of Religious Studies at the Punjabi University in Patiala, which attracted scholars from all over the world. Many Americans visited their home, and Professor Singh learned about some girls’ high schools in the USA, so as a teenager she came to Virginia to attend a boarding school. She then went to college at Wellesley, where her senior thesis was on the Physics and Metaphysics of Sikh scripture. “How could metaphysical words flowing spontaneously and speedily shape into such physical symmetries, artistic designs, innovative similes, enchanting paradoxes, and brilliant metaphors? That initial question continues to intrigue me to date. I’d say it is the ground of my scholarship,” she said.

Photograph of the unveiling of The First Sikh in Chandigarh, India by the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana. Published in Ajit Punjabi Newspaper.

The First Sikh began with the editor of Penguin Random House inviting Professor Singh to write a biography of the founding Sikh Guru. The factual documentation on Guru Nanak’s life is minimal, so Professor Singh focused on the primary source: his own poetic repertoire. Guru Nanak wrote 974 poetic hymns, which are recorded in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. Professor Singh felt that the best way she could get to know Guru Nanak was by listening to his own voice. Most simply see him as a Guru and focus on his theology and doctrines, but Professor Singh wanted to explore Guru Nanak’s identity as a poet. “Poetry is universal,” she told us. “Poets are the prophets, the unacknowledged legislators of the future, as Shelley remarked.” She searched through the many genres of Guru Nanak’s poetic corpus to determine his views on topics such as philosophy, feminism, environmentalism, art, and music, all based on inclusive, egalitarian, and humanitarian values. He didn’t see any separation between the secular and the sacred realms, and urged people to live in the real world, by making good choices in their day to day lives. Guru Nanak is said to have travelled across Asia visiting various sacred places, dialoguing with people from different religious backgrounds and spreading the message of the oneness of the divine and of humanity. He created a community on the banks of a river in the Punjab, where people of all castes, religions, and genders, farmed and lived side by side — singing and celebrating the magnificence of the infinite One.

Professor Singh’s research on Sikhism has, and will continue to have, a feminist perspective. She is a pioneer in her feminist approach to the Sikh tradition and its literature, and has opened up the field to other academics. Her feminist translations of Sikh scripture are gender-inclusive. “Language does not simply mirror reality, language has the power to transform reality,” she said; and so Professor Singh stays close to the primary Punjabi Sikh text, and tries to translate its original sound and sense into English. Her translations avoid the words “God”, “Lord” and “soul”, which are found in most English translations of Sikh scripture. “These three tiny words impose a patriarchal and dualistic framework that misrepresent the language and philosophy of Sikh scripture. For me, its authors were feminist because they championed equality and justice for both men and womenjust as they did for the elite and the untouchable, Hindu and Muslim. No one was to be treated any more nor any less than the other. For the scriptural authors, gender justice is an issue of human rights. It is entangled with broader historical, political, and economic circumstances. Their words need to be heard from their unique perspective and aesthetic taste.”

Currently, she is working on yet another book about Guru Nanak, this time with an emphasis on his aesthetics. “It’s capturing the sensuousness of his writing. I’m amazed by how tactile his language is,” she said. “This is something people dismiss in religion. If I say he’s a poet, people think I’m being sacrilegious.” She went on to say “Aesthetics is the opposite of anesthetic—it awakens us to the magic, the beauty of this world.” She believes that Guru Nanak’s vision “artistically expressed is radically progressive, and very relevant to our times. Each simple brief passage is so richly packed that it can be utilized to navigate any aspect of life at any stage. His timeless lyrics infiltrate precise historical moments and emotions to generate new values, new attitudes, new orientations, new social relationships of mutual harmony and unity that our dangerously divided and polarized world so desperately needs.”

Professor Singh told us that she was grateful for the role the Center for the Arts and Humanities plays for the Colby community. “It’s inspirational, a fabulous resource,” she said. “We get to hear wonderful speakers, engage with them, have meals with them.  The social and intellectual ambiance the Center creates for us all is so exciting. I’ll always be grateful to the Center for providing me memorable moments with my two icons—Salman Rushdie and Cornel West.”

Please consider purchasing Professor Singh’s vivid and complex biography of Guru Nanak here. You can also purchase her recently republished translation of Sikh poetry, Hymns of the Sikh Gurushere.