How to be Good?

A Chat with a Sikh

November 01, 2021 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 16
A Chat with a Sikh
How to be Good?
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How to be Good?
A Chat with a Sikh
Nov 01, 2021 Season 1 Episode 16
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person according to Sikhism? 

We ask Sikh Human Rights Activist, Simran Singh, to share his opinions on being good according to the Sikh way of life. 

In keeping with his Sikh faith, Simran engages in human rights broadly and has a long history of working within the corporate world too. He is a lifelong Senior Fellow at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute and a member of the Rumi Forum's Advisory Council in Washington, DC, and a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

Simran was honored to be the first ethnic European in history to sing at the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, and in 2021 opened the first all-encompassing interfaith events in Guatemala and Costa Rica's history.

Simran is kind, compassionate and full of incredible insight. His openness in this interview makes for a beautiful conversation covering some fundamentals about the Sikh faith alongside the importance of self-love and forgiveness in our personal journeys.

You can find out more about Simran on Instagram at @simran5.0, and you can find out more about Sikhism at SikhNet.com.

And if you'd like to support this podcast, please visit https://www.buymeacoffee.com/exploregoodness - we appreciate you listening and supporting each episode. Thank you!

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person according to Sikhism? 

We ask Sikh Human Rights Activist, Simran Singh, to share his opinions on being good according to the Sikh way of life. 

In keeping with his Sikh faith, Simran engages in human rights broadly and has a long history of working within the corporate world too. He is a lifelong Senior Fellow at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute and a member of the Rumi Forum's Advisory Council in Washington, DC, and a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

Simran was honored to be the first ethnic European in history to sing at the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, and in 2021 opened the first all-encompassing interfaith events in Guatemala and Costa Rica's history.

Simran is kind, compassionate and full of incredible insight. His openness in this interview makes for a beautiful conversation covering some fundamentals about the Sikh faith alongside the importance of self-love and forgiveness in our personal journeys.

You can find out more about Simran on Instagram at @simran5.0, and you can find out more about Sikhism at SikhNet.com.

And if you'd like to support this podcast, please visit https://www.buymeacoffee.com/exploregoodness - we appreciate you listening and supporting each episode. Thank you!

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone! I'm Sarah and this is How to be Good? - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world.

Today we're focusing on Sikhism, and I'm talking with a lifelong Sikh Simran Singh.

Simran Singh  0:19 
Our guiding prayers I'm not good and nobody's bad.

Sarah Buckmaster  0:23 
Simran is a Sikh Human Rights Activist and Social Entrepreneur. In 2021, the National Stop the Violence Alliance honoured him as an outstanding man because of his dedication to peace, compassion, diversity and unity - among many other things,

Simran Singh  0:39 
But you do have to lead with your values. People do business with people they like and trust.

Sarah Buckmaster  0:45 
As a business executive, Simran was a Senior VP at Akal Global which was the largest employer of retired American police officers in the world. And he is the chairman of the advisory board for EOR; an Intel information technology firm supporting the US and allied governments. Simran's openness in this interview made for such a beautiful conversation and, as well as covering fundamentals about the Sikh faith, we spoke about the importance of self love and forgiveness in our personal journeys,

Simran Singh  1:16 
Because what's important is who you are today.

Sarah Buckmaster  1:19  
I asked Simran to start us off with a quick summary of Sikhism. So that's where our conversation gets started.

It is my absolute joy to introduce you all to Simran Singh.

Simran Singh  1:34 
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world. Now, the larger ones have billions or many hundreds of millions of members. And after that comes Sikhism at 25 million.

Sikhism originated in India, like Buddhism, actually. But it's a fairly young religion. It's about 500 years old. And it was born in a time when India had a religious war that had gone on for for many hundreds of years. And remember that Buddha was Indian, but there are virtually no Buddhists, very, very few Buddhists in India. Of course, the Dalai Lama is there in exile. But he's Tibetan. So the Indian Buddhists were in the 1300s, they were wiped out. And what was left then was a large Hindu population... they went back and forth in this multi-100-year religious war, that saw unbelievable atrocities. And a lot of this played out in the Punjab, the land of the five rivers, those come down from the Himalayas. And the Punjab - like Jerusalem - is a place where people move through miles of farmland, and then jungle that today feeds most of India - and and then was the place where invading armies would come through.

What happened after hundreds and hundreds of years of fighting there, over which God and which religion was better... there was a man and he dressed as half a Muslim and half a Hindu, and he had a Muslim and a Hindu musician. And he said, God is in everyone. And that was his philosophy.

And over the next few hundred years, the Sikh kind of started as a social movement; everybody's equal before God, and God is in every heart. And it turned into integrated armies that liberated India.

Anyways, to Sikhs, we pride ourselves, we pray that we get to protect people, that we are strong enough and compassionate enough and courageous enough to protect the weakest among us. And India certainly has human rights issues, many, many, many of them - but it is a pluralistic country. All the religions are there and by and large, get along and love and accept each other.

Sarah Buckmaster  3:51 
Thank you - and mentioning compassion and that want to protect, what does it mean within Sikhism to be a good person and to live a life of goodness?

Simran Singh  4:01  
I love that question. And I've listened to your shows and I want to challenge our binary thinking a little bit here.

Yes, as Sikhs we have five vices. Five Thieves, they steal joy from our lives, they steal our connectedness to each other, to our own hearts, to ourselves, to our divinity; that's lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride. So we are supposed to stay away from that. And we are asked to live within five virtues; which describe our commitment to truth, compassion, contentment, humility, and love. Easy enough to say and now I'm right into binary thinking; if I can just live this way, if I ignore the Five Thieves and if I walked towards the five virtues, then I must be a good person. But then our Scripture says, I'm not good and nobody's bad. So we have to reconcile that.

If I'm striving to live the kind of life that these vices and virtues require of me, at the end of that I'm still not good. And nobody else is bad...

Our movies and our stories have villains, and they have good and bad. And so we love to talk about, you know, we love to want to be good. And we kind of have a hard time getting there. We pray that we can move towards it. If you could do that, you probably would be enlightened. And then we love to cancel people, we love to point to others as bad people - who don't agree with us, especially in the US, we have two political parties. Each one thinks the other one is absolutely horrible. And even as Sikhs we have this ethic of fighting, standing up for truth, fighting for truth. But that just gets us to two sides fighting over who is good and who is bad. And you don't get to each others hearts. You don't get to having a real conversation, understanding the other side. So I really love this Sikh prayer and the Sikh reflection that I'm not good, and nobody's bad. And everything is God's will.

Sarah Buckmaster  6:14 
Thank you. Taht Sikh prayer is such a beautiful reminder to not slip into binary thinking. And, as you know, it's something that's come up in a lot of these interviews. And we focused a bite-size episode on the dangers of binary thinking because it's such an easy habit to slip into in our day-to-day lives. You also mentioned the five vices to stay away from - so lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride. I'm really interested to hear how the concept of forgiveness works within Sikhism. So if you happen to fall into one of those vices or your behaviour started going in the direction of one of those five vices, how does the concept of forgiveness work? Is there the opportunity for redemption? How is that within Sikhism?

Simran Singh  7:01 
That's an incredible question. And I think especially in the West, much, much contemplated, how do I go from being bad, having been born in sin, to now being good? Where's my redemption point?

And then the question begs what I do when I disappoint myself, and I become bad again? Who wakes up good all the time? It's not a realistic concept to us. But forgiveness is, and self love is, and working towards these five virtues - working towards becoming a person that embodies this and these virtues snd is thereby happy, that is thereby content, that thereby lives a life that they're proud of. Not to avoid being bad, but to align with what our prayer is for our presence in this world and getting the job done that we came here to do.

Sikhism believes in reincarnation, as do most dharmic traditions. And most Abrahamic faiths take a different approach. And we love and respect all of them. And we don't think it particularly matters because what's important is who you are today. But, if you believe in reincarnation, and that reincarnation is a kind of evolutionary process where you get to today, you have spent millions of lives in that philosophy, committing just about every crime, and every person, and every horrible thing that can be done. The things that are being done to you today, you have done to others, early on this life. Maybe you did it yesterday. Maybe you did it 10 lifetimes ago. And so if we believe in reincarnation, even as a philosophy, then we have to understand that we've done all these things ourselves. So we start with self love, and forgiveness.

And how many of us have done things in this life that we aren't proud of? I have many, many, many times. They can be painful to think about. But do we still get to love ourselves? Do we still get to respect ourselves? Do we still get to look in the mirror? And if I make a mistake today, which I probably will do, I still get to turn around tomorrow and say, I love myself. And I'm okay. And I'm going to try my best again and again and again. And that same philosophy goes on here to suggest that it's by the grace of the Divine, that which guides us that we do good or bad things. It's our responsibility. But when our hearts open and we become virtuous, as our scriptures describe, that's a gift. That almost it's our responsibility to get there. But it's almost not up to us. It's a gift to be so connected to yourself, that you can be kind to somebody else.

Sarah Buckmaster  9:41 
What would be some of the practices you would do as an individual to get closer to that? - is that through prayer, meditation or movement? Are there specific practices within Sikhism for that purpose?

Simran Singh  9:53  
Our prayer as Sikhs is that all people might prosper. And we do believe that all rivers lead to the ocean. Now you have to swim. But they do take you there. And so our prayer is that people practice their faith, honestly and purely, and with complete devotion and self love and self respect, and respect with that which created them.

For Sikhs, there are three pillars to our lives; we call them Naam Japna, which means to meditate on the divine. So to work towards the connection. We know, meditation is not, you know, it can be boring, it can be burdensome, and some people love it. And many hundreds of millions in the West want to try it and haven't. Because it's too scary to sit there with your eyes closed. But what what does meditating on the divine mean to us? It means a certain connection; our hearts are in the heart of the Divine. So we look for connection. That doesn't mean we try to be good, it means we try to be connected and act from that place. We have our second pillar, which describes honest living. And it's been described as working by the sweat of your brow, which means you work honestly, you work as a producing contributing member of society to the best of your ability. And it's important for us because in India, there is a propensity to renounce the world. And we have it here; we have nuns and monks, and there are Sikhs who do withdraw and and really focus on their faith. But for the large body of Sikhs, we look to be members of our family, contributing members of our family, in society, in our local, national, regional and international levels, we try to contribute we try to be present. And we try to do that honestly. And then the third pillar pillar is sharing with others. So part of what we learn, honestly, we would then contribute back to society. Those are the three pillars of life that we see as a practising Sikh.

Now to get to a point of, of having mental clarity, and connectedness, that's our meditation. Those are our prayers, there's a meditation practice, there's a devotional practice. We are deeply, deeply in love with music, all our worship services have music, and we sing, and we say prayers every day, that try to get us to this point. Now those prayers aren't so much designed rationally to get us to think about how to not be bad. But the word 'man' means mind. And 'tra' means to tune. So a mantra, that means to tune the mind. So we say them. And by saying them, we become more like what the prayers aspire towards. It's more of a meditative process than a rational process; it tries to move beyond the rationality of it. And I can say, fortunately, for me, it works. And for some people, it works and for some people, it doesn't. And that's okay. It's not required. Whether or not what works in your life, to us it's a gift that you receive, we just hope that you find what works for you.

Sarah Buckmaster  13:23 
And with sharing that, you were born in Germany, and then lived as a student and teacher in India and then moved across to America. So you've experienced three quite different cultures. How is your idea of what being a good person - or maybe you would say being more connected - how has that evolved, as you've made those geographical moves and those cultural moves?

Simran Singh  13:45 
It's very clear that cultures look at it differently. And within cultures, subcultures look at it differently. I can say in the US, a Democrat thinks it's good to be a Democrat and Republican thinks it's good to be a Republican, and there's very little common ground. Germans work in right or wrong. That's what we do. And India's much more fluid in its interpretation, of right and wrong, but works towards this connectedness that I fell in love with, when I was there. And what I love about the US is its striving for the liberty of each individual to be held sacred. It's the the First Amendment of our Constitution, which protects our right to have any state of mind that our conscience dictates as long as it doesn't harm other people.

It's been interesting moving through these cultures. I know that in Germany, I'm from Hamburg, Hamburg is a beautiful city. It has the highest concentration of millionaires and billionaires of any city in the world. It's small, it's just less than a few million people. And it's tremendous fun. We have the third most shows and musicals in the World after New York and London but then we're so tiny. And then you get to India, which is overpopulated, which is short, several hundred million toilets, and where poverty is pervasive and everywhere. But over the weeks and months, I saw the poorest people I've ever seen smile bigger than the richest kids I knew from Hamburg. And it started confusing me as to what the nature of happiness was, and what the nature of goodness was.

And I also noticed Western fragility. I think many of us in the West, we don't really like to think about how bad of a condition the third world is, really. And so growing up between those worlds, makes you roll your eyes a little bit at, at our own fragility, when confronted with poverty. And I stopped listening to lectures of what it meant to be good from the western perspective, because I started understanding that human suffering was far far larger than the West was contemplated. And I couldn't reconcile while people could suffer and still smile big. That was a big spiritual moment for me, I was 12 years old at the time.

Sarah Buckmaster  16:16 
How do you balance, not only the experience of seeing that in India, but also those Sikh values, how do you balance that then dealing with that push from corporate America?

Simran Singh  16:27 
You do hear this all the time - that either you are... in fact, I had this conversation this week with somebody who said, 'if I want to be a successful business person, I can't be a spiritual person, it's either or'. Business is all about taking as much as possible, getting ahead or getting wealthy. And if you're spiritual, you are not that way. So they're fundamentally in conflict. But, that's not what I found in the parts of the US corporate sector that I worked with.

I walked in with the turban and a beard to many of my meetings. So what I did have to do is explain who I was, in cases where people were confused by the appearance, and that's most cases, to be fair, but then if I could do that in Washington, then people would be happy to partner and happy to work together and happy to explore how to build a stronger country, and how to make money. This US ability to be a melting pot and include everyone is really, to me has been incredible. But you do have to lead with your values. Even there, you can't lead with the numbers until you lead with the values as I learned it. People do business with people they like and trust. So how do you look so different and how to get to a place of trust? For me, it's been through connectedness and I've found my best friends in the world, and incredible partnerships, through that work.

Sarah Buckmaster  17:56 
And that's your experience as a Sikh man within that American corporate world and I imagine it could be quite different for a Sikh woman within that same environment. How do gender roles - and how is the gender debate - developing within Sikhism?

Simran Singh  18:11 
That is a constant and still evolving conversation within Sikhism. And you know, you can talk about gender balance and you can talk about transgender issues. And you can certainly talk about gay rights issues and all kinds of other human rights issues that we understand religions to infringe upon, when they're male-lead, and cling to what we hope are outdated cultural norms.

The founding values of Sikhism are very clearly that men and women are equal in every way. And as it's explained to me in my upbringing, women have far more capacity than men to be intuitive, and connected, and spiritual, for that matter... that really these things should be led by women. So that has been my closely held belief. But then when I look at the Sikh religion, we have really 10 Key saints, they're all men. So I do have a have a bit of a difficult time explaining that to my daughters. Now, all those men are known to have honoured and revered women in ways that were absolutely groundbreaking western standards, (and really - as academically studied - a very sexist part of the world). They were pioneers in women's rights.

Nevertheless, from how many faiths do we have sense that our men? Something doesn't quite add up to me personally there.

As Sikhs we are constantly exploring this relationship between women, and women who who get to perform religious functions. In some of our temples, women don't get to be priests and others we do - so it's very much an alive and active conversation,

Sarah Buckmaster  20:02 
Have you personally ever had any moments throughout your journey that you've doubted whether you're a good person? Have there been any shaky parts of what you were doing where you thought, I didn't feel that I was kind of a good person in that moment?

Simran Singh  20:16 
Sadly, every day. That doesn't end. And if I start to think I'm good, then I have to contrast that with others being bad. But our guiding prayer is: I'm not good, and nobody's bad. So where does that leave me? That leaves me with self-respect, prayer that I get to do my best every day, and forgiveness. Because clearly, my actions are my responsibility; I've done plenty of things I regret, and I'll probably do some today, I'll put my foot in my mouth, that tends to be my favourite one, to say something that I shouldn't. And then to move on and to try to do better.

But I will say for me, my meditation practice each morning, is what really keeps me balanced, because I can get up in the morning, like many of us do, and go, Oh here comes another day. Here comes me again, ready to do things that are less than perfect. How many of us like to be perfectionist? And then to get into prayerful state where I connect, and I feel like it's going to be okay, and I might even do some good in between all the chaos.

But as Sikhs, we say the bad I do is my responsibility and the good I do is because that was permitted by God. So it's a very high standard - to take responsibility for all your shortcomings, and to hand on all of your virtues as being being a gift from the Divine. It's a tall standard, and that does have to lead you to humility, which is where we try to stay while being very active in the world.

And there's a key juxtaposition there in Sikhism, two kind of opposing forces of devotion and action... of spirituality and life. And they both have to exist side by side. So confronting your shortcomings seems to be a key, the key mission of our spirituality, and of our faith.

Sarah Buckmaster  22:19 
Thinking about that balance between devotion and action, and you've mentioned during this conversation, how important it is within Sikhism, to be active within your community, your local and the global community. Where does the emphasis lie when thinking about your intention versus your action? Within some religions, their emphasis is really on having good intention, whereas others really believe it's the action regardless of intention that's most important. How does that emphasis feel to you as a Sikh?

Simran Singh  22:47 
That emphasis, as I've learned it, is your ability to discipline yourself. To live a disciplined life. Because who does all good things all day long? - who wants to be that good all the time?... maybe... kind every moment? you don't get to even have a bad thought, you don't get to do anything that's not perfect, and if you do - now you're bad. That is an incredible burden. But we look toward this self discipline, and when we commit to something, and we decide to do something, say if it's meditating a half hour in the morning, or pray a certain number of times a day or at certain times, or say all our prayers, or never raise our voice. Or, don't be angry, it's hard to command your mind not to be angry if you need to go to anger management. But this is where we look towards our discipline, to guide us to the life we want to live. We consider our discipline to be our friend.

Sarah Buckmaster  22:51 
If you could give our listeners one piece of advice about how they could go out today or tomorrow and live a life of goodness and be the best person they could be what would be a one piece of advice that you'd like to share with them.?

Simran Singh  24:04 
My piece of advice would be to fill your own tank, to take care of yourself first. And not out of selfishness, but as a gift to everyone around you. Because if you are well, then you will help make the people around you well. If you think you have to be so good that you have to run around and do all these good things and you're not centred in yourself, you don't love or respect yourself, you're not calm and focused but irate, then you might do a lot more damage than good in attempting to get there.

And if you can take care of yourself, then you'll show up differently for your partner for your families, for your work, for your service to society - and even your dog will get treated a little better if you fill your tank. And our prayer as Sikhs is that your tank may be full and that you may be blessed and happy.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  25:05 
My deepest thanks to Simran for taking the time to talk with me.

And I also want to send a huge thanks to everyone at SikhNet who connected me to Simran for this interview. Sikhnet is a global virtual community for all those interested in the Sikh way of life, and it's a great place to go if you're curious and want to learn more about Sikhism. You can visit SikhNet.com - I'll add a link in the show description - and they provide news, educational services, and educational materials on Sikhism. They've created a beautiful, non-judgmental community for anyone interested in Sikhism, and I can personally vouch for how friendly and approachable the Sikhnet community is.

Sarah Buckmaster  25:44 
If you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please visit www.howtobegood.co.uk or subscribe on your favourite podcast listening platform.

And if you'd like to support the podcast, then head over to buymeacoffee.com/exploregoodness, and you can buy me a warm drink to help with the creation of these episodes.

Thank you for listening. Please share with your friends. And if you have any questions or suggestions, email me at any time. It's sarah@howtobegood.co.uk and I always love to hear from you.

Thank you!

[Podcast Theme Music, fades out]

Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Sarah Buckmaster