This interview was originally published by Vehdaa.com on 11.4.2012
What do you do professionally? How did you get into it?
I am currently completing my Ph.D. in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. I focus generally on South Asian religions and help teach courses on different traditions, such as Islam, Hinduism, Sikhi, and Buddhism. My dissertation research looks at biographical writing in all of these religions, and it concentrates specifically on the life of Guru Nanak presented in the Puratan Janamsakhi.
My journey into the study of religion has been guided by my interests and passions. When I was in college, I explored a number of different career paths to find what suited me best. I consulted with my life-mentors, each of whom understood my commitment to make a professional career out of serving others. Teaching and writing had always been some of my favorite forms of service, and becoming a professor seemed like the perfect fit.
What do you like to do outside of work? How do you spend your free time?
In addition to my scholarly work, I enjoy serving various organizations committed to preserving the heritage of Sikhi and Punjab. I’m also very close with my family and friends, so I like to spend time with them whenever I have the opportunity.
I typically relax through physical fitness. I’m a huge sports fan and try to play basketball, soccer, and football as often as possible. I am also a runner and am looking forward to completing my second New York City Marathon this November.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood and background. How did you come to be where you are today?
My background is one of fortune and grace. I was born to amazing parents who raised us with a love for life, deep appreciation for Sikhi, and a general sense of open-mindedness. My three brothers and I grew up in San Antonio, and although each of us is entirely unique, we all share the same values and principles that we learned from our parents.
My family has taught me to live a life of service, and we all have been blessed with more than enough of everything. I feel privileged to have had such an extensive education, and I am thankful to have the opportunity to share what I have learned to help make the world a better place.
Tell us about your experiences as a Sikh/Punjabi? What role has Sikhi and/or Punjabi culture played in your life?
I was raised in a fairly devout Sikh household, and these experiences shaped much of who I am today. My brothers and I grew up reciting nitnem, learning kirtan, attending gurmat camps, and reading Gurmukhi. My parents instilled basic Sikh values within us, and like many young Sikhs today, we were proud of our tradition.
I developed a stronger emotional connection with Sikhi when I started learning about human rights violations in Punjab. I remember identifying with the thousands who were tortured, disappeared, and murdered, and this compelled me to ask more questions about my heritage.
I decided to take ammrit while in high school, and in the subsequent years my interactions with a handful of inspirational mentors really deepened my appreciation for Sikhi. I found the Sikh worldview to be incredibly unique and amazingly insightful. This feeling has stayed with me for the past decade as I have continued engaging with my studies and different community organizations.
What is your relationship with the Sikh/Punjabi community? Tell us a couple of things about the Sikh Panth and/or Punjabi community that you value and appreciate.
As an initiated Sikh, I consider the community to be my master. The Guru Khalsa Panth has long inspired me to focus on developing myself while also helping others – engaging with my sangat has made me a much better person.
I take inspiration from our Panth’s openness to the diversity within and outside of the community. I have observed countless instances in which my Sikh brothers and sisters have handled adversity with grace, by looking beyond difference and embracing oneness. Encountering the application of Guru Nanak’s unique vision by other members of our community reminds me of the potential Sikhi carries for affecting positive social change.
In your opinion, what are the major challenges that our community faces? How would you suggest that we address these challenges?
I believe there are many challenges of which most of us are aware – we all want to improve our educational transmission, media outreach, gurdwara management, etc. I would like to take this opportunity to mention a key issue that tends to slip our attention.
In short, I have observed that our community is gradually slipping towards an exclusively spiritual (piri) notion of religion. We are failing to maintain our commitment to engage in our communities on social and political levels (miri). I would like for us all to think critically about what it means to be a warrior in the modern world – what could we be doing to bring back a balance between the spiritual and temporal (miri-piri), the saint and soldier (sant-sipahi)?
If you could recommend some resources (books, films, etc.) for our readers, what would they be?
As a scholar of religion, a practitioner of Sikhi, a student of early Sikh literature, and a supporter of our various organizations, I have no choice but to recommend the central resource that binds my life together – the Guru Granth Sahib.
I realize that this is not a particularly innovative recommendation; we all know that we should engage with our scripture more. I believe that this is critical to the life and survival of our community for years to come. We lack a collective sense of clarity with regard to gurmat, and we need to push one another to explore the foundations of our tradition.