Baccalaureate address to the Class of 2022 by Dr. Simran Jeet Singh

The following is the prepared text of the address by Dr. Simran Jeet Singh for delivery at Stanford’s Baccalaureate ceremony for 2022 graduates on June 10, 2022.

Good morning!

It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere!

It’s good to be with you. It’s good to be with anyone!

Truly, how lucky are we? It’s easy to forget that sometimes. Life is hard. But that’s also why it’s so critical that we acknowledge our gifts when we receive them.

And what’s a greater gift than the present?

There’s so much for us to celebrate. What you’ve accomplished. What you’ve endured. What comes next. And most importantly, that you’re here. Now. In this moment.

Just take a moment to hold that.
You. Are here. Right now.
We. Are here. Together.

Look left. Look right. Look down. Look up.

Now close your eyes and take a deep breath.

Gratitude for the air we breathe.
Gratitude for the earth that holds us up.
Gratitude for the those who have supported us.
Gratitude for all we have.

Gratitude for to be here. Now.

Do you feel that? The tingling? The sparkling? The light dancing around, inside of you and all around you?

That’s grace. In my tradition, we call that kirpa. Or mehar.

And here’s what I want to share with you today. This beautiful, overpowering feeling that you’re feeling right now. It doesn’t have to be limited to moments like these – to celebrating milestones, or to being surrounded by family and loved ones, or even to sitting in sunny Palo Alto, California.

What my Sikh faith has taught me is that these fleeting moments of happiness that we all feel  temporarily can become permanent fixtures of how we experience this world, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are. That despite the difficulties of our lives and despite the challenges that life throws at us, we can taste life’s sweetness at every turn.

And what’s more, tapping into life’s sweetness – what we refer to in Punjabi as mithaas – does not require some superhuman ability or some magical superpower. We tap into with a simple shift in how we see ourselves and one another.

I share this, not just as someone who studies and researches religious wisdom, but as someone who also practices it and tries to live by it. What I want to share with you is practical wisdom I have absorbed from my tradition, as well as my own lived experience of it.

My story begins in South Texas.

I’m not quite sure why my parents thought that of all places in this country, Texas would be the place to raise four rambunctious, brown-skinned, turban-wearing, beard-loving boys. But that’s what they chose, and that’s where my three brothers and I were born and raised – Deep in the Heart of Texas.

I was 11 the first time someone called me a terrorist. It was before a soccer game, and during our pre-game equipment checks, he announced that he’d be checking my turban too.

“Hey, little terrorist! You’re not hiding bombs or knives in there, are you?” he said. “I know how you people like to blow shit up.”

My fists clenched tightly and my body tensed. I wanted to punch him. But in that moment, I decided to lean my head forward instead. I hadn’t ever let someone touch my turban before. But I wanted to play. And I was a kid.

You might praise me for not reacting with violence, but my response came from pragmatism, not principle. As an 11-year-old boy, I wasn’t about to fight a grown man.

I hated being put in that position, and I hated even more how I responded. For the rest of that game, the 6-hour-car ride home, and in the days and nights that followed, I seethed with anger. I resented the referee for how he treated me – like a criminal – and I resented myself for not having the courage to take a stand.

After a few weeks of reflection and talking through it with my family, I became less angry with myself for giving into an ignorant man’s racism. I started to see this interaction as a learning moment. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could promise to do better in the future.

Less than a year later, I found myself in a similar situation. We were in the locker room after basketball practice at my middle school in San Antonio. Like typical adolescent boys, we skipped our showers and instead doused ourselves with way too much of our dads’ cologne. We often playfought while getting ready, and today, I was shadowboxing with my friend Monroe. We had played basketball for years together, so I was a bit surprised when, while we were playfighting, he said out loud: “Y’all can’t fight. No wonder y’all use bombs on us instead.” All the guys laughed, or at least that’s what it felt like. I even remember thinking that although his comment was racist, at least it was clever.

But then, he reached up and yanked the turban off my head.

Again, my fists clenched and my body tensed. I remembered my promise to stand up for myself. And suddenly, my fists started flying. The guys separated us, but not before I gave him a bloody nose and opened up a cut on his cheek.

No one talked as we packed our bags to head home. I think Monroe and my teammates knew they had crossed a line. I felt I had crossed a line too.

Was I right to fight a friend over a racist joke? Was this what standing up for myself looked like?

Here’s what I learned from those two incidents. Our species is wired to meet difficult moments in one of two ways: Fight or flight. Yet neither of these helps us find resolution, and neither approach leaves us feeling fulfilled. We see this constantly as we look at the world around us. When we engage, we’re outraged. Frustrated. Activated. Angry. Our only escape is to step away and check out.

We need another approach, one that enables to care sincerely and engage – yet not get sucked into the negativity that swirls around us. One that enables us to fight hate with love. A middle path, if you will.

I found something unexpected in my search for this middle way. That the answer I’d been looking for had been with me all along – it came in the form of Sikh wisdom.

It’s been through understanding and practicing Sikh philosophy that have helped me develop a different way of understanding myself and my relationship with the world around me.

Here are three principles of Sikh philosophy that transformed my life: oneness, love, and service. I wish I’d applied them in my life sooner and my hope today is to pass them on to you.

As James Baldwin taught us, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.”

These three elements – oneness, love, and service – build on and reinforce one another. May these three principles serve you, too, as you enter new stage in your life.

The first of these principles, and the foundational principle underlying the Sikh worldview, is ik oankar. Ik oankar refers to the interconnectedness of our world, the belief that there is a single divine force that binds us all together.

It’s the first term in Sikh scripture and the first teaching imparted to us as Sikhs. It’s the first concept my parents learned growing up in South Asia. It’s the first concept I learned growing up in Texas. And it’s the first concept I’ve taught to my daughters as we’re raising them in New York City.

The concept is simple yet profound, intuitive yet practical. Divinity resides in each person equally. We all have the same divine light within us. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, refers to this divine light as joti. Every evening, for centuries now, Sikhs recite his line, “sabh mahi jot, jot hai soi, tis de chaanan sabh mai chaanan hoi.” The same divine light is in us all.

The thing about light is that it’s always around us. The sun is always shining. Our ability to see it depends on our vantage point, our perspective.

This way of looking at the world runs counter to what we’re accustomed to in our lives. When we see ourselves and one another as vessels of the same light, then there’s no room for binaries. Or discrimination. Or supremacies. In the words of Guru Nanak: “Ham nahi changay bura nahi koi. I am not good, and no one is bad.”

A composition in Sikh scripture by Bhagat Kabir builds on this perspective: Aval allah nur upaaiaa kudrat ke sabh banday. Ek noor te sabh jag upjaia kaun bhalay kau manday. First the divine created the light, and then the people of the world. If the entire world is created from that light, then how can we call anyone good or bad?

The Sikh principle of oneness is simple, but not simplistic. It’s the capacity to see ourselves in one another, rather than seeing ourselves in opposition to one another. It’s when we see our interconnectedness that we truly begin to understand Guru Nanak’s idea of ik oankar.

It’s this worldview that’s enabled me to see the humanity in people who don’t see mine. The volunteer who refuses to serve me water while I’m running a marathon and instead calls me a “filthy Muslim.” The teenager who calls me “Osama” – with a few additional descriptors – when I jog by him, too. The elderly woman who falls in the street and reaches up her hand refuses my help when she sees my turban – and then I help her up anyway.

My responses in these moments are measured because I have learned to see people for who they are, even if they might not see me for who I am.

The thing is, I’m no spiritual prophet or guru. I’m just a regular person. If I can live this way, then so can you. How might you begin? You can start by making it a daily practice to see the humanity in someone you might not yet know. You might find, as I did, that with daily practice, we can grow our capacity to see the good in one another. Ultimately, we might even be able to care for those same people who clearly don’t care for us.

Seeing the world as interconnected, and seeing our lives as being bound up with another’s, has given me a different way of living into these moments.

Changing how we see ourselves and one another is critical, especially given what we’re grappling with in our world right now. But I would also submit that simply changing our perception is not enough. Understanding an idea is not transformative in and of itself. We all see so much, we all know so much. We’re the most educated society in human history. And yet, look where we are right now. The hatred. The division. The suffering. We need more than rightful knowledge in our brains.

So what comes next?

Sikh teachings assert that once we engage a practice of seeing our connectedness, we can then begin feeling it. This state of constant connection, tasting the daily sweetness of life – we all know that feeling because we’ve all felt it before. That feeling is love.

Love, as we all know, is the most powerful of human experiences. It’s constant and unconditional and it’s life-giving. I can be standing before you right now in California, miles away from my little girls in New York City – yet they’re still right here with me. We’re connected. I feel them. Even while I’m speaking to you, they’re right here in my heart.

That’s what love is. It’s constant connection.

Nearly every evening for my entire life, I’ve recited these words as part of the evening Sikh prayer: “aakhaan jeevan visarai mar jau. In remembrance, I live. In forgetting, I die.”

For years, I thought about this as a commentary on the importance of meditation. But over time, I’ve come to realize that it’s more than that. That in relationships of love, we are most alive when we feel connected, and most afflicted when we’re apart. I’ve now come to view the line through a new lens: “When we love, we live. When we don’t love, we die.”

This outlook makes sense with my lived experience, and it also lines up with my understanding of Sikh philosophy. There’s a reason why Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, sang the words: “raj na chahu, mukt na chahu, man preet charan kamlaaray. I don’t want power. Raj. I don’t even want salvation. Mukti. All I want is to be in love at your feet.”

According to Sikh philosophy, love is the ultimate goal of our lives. No one has ever found joy through chasing wealth and power, and the Sikh gurus place little emphasis on chasing happiness in an unknown afterlife.

Instead, we can find joy in the here and now, and that experience – of an expansive, all-consuming love – is grounded in the firmament of ik oankar. As the Sufi poet Baba Farid teaches us, “dilahu muhabbati jin sei sachia. Jin man hor mukh hor se kaandhay kachia. The True ones are those who love from the heart. Those who have one thing in their hearts but say something else; those people are immature.”

What Baba Farid is talking about here is authenticity. Integrity. Being integrated. Oneness.

How do achieve such a love, one that goes beyond our sense of selves and one that transcends the darkness that comes and goes? The answer, according to Sikh wisdom, is as obvious as it is powerful: We cultivate love by living with love daily. The goal is the same as the process, the ends are the same as the means.

It’s simple, really. We become love by practicing love. Our ideals and values can be learned. But instilling them into our character? That’s earned.

So what will you do each day to become more loving? One place to start could be to give of yourself daily. Generosity has unique power to open up our hearts.

Learning to feel love – a deeper, more expansive, and constant kind of love – is itself a gift. But as any of you who has felt love already knows, the feeling does not just live inside of us. Love moves us to action. Service is a natural expression of love.

We all know this, because we’ve all seen it before our eyes and we’ve all experienced it too.

I don’t take care of my daughters because I expect something in return. I take care of them because I care for them, just like any other parent does. And as some of you may learn soon enough, that kind of love doesn’t have a snooze button (though sometimes I wish it did).

For those familiar with the Christian tradition, you’ll know that we hear this directly from Paul in Corinthians: Love is not self-seeking. In Sikhism, Guru Angad offers a similar perspective: A true lover isn’t someone who trades for their own account. A true lover is someone who remains constantly immersed in love.

Love, as we all know it, inspires action. Not for ourselves, but for the good of all people. It’s why some of the greatest lovers of humanity that our world has seen – Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha, Guru Nanak – are also some of the greatest social and political revolutionaries. It’s why Cornel West says that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

This vision of service – grounded in oneness and love – is selfless and it’s justice-oriented. In the Sikh tradition, we call this seva. And it has so much to offer us all, personally and collectively.

Imagine what our world could be if all of our social movements social structures were infused with these principles – oneness, love, and seva. Wouldn’t the world be such a better place, one more oriented toward equity and justice? This vision of seva has the potential to shift our culture for the better.

And there’s also more to it than that. Who could we be if we engaged in seva as a daily practice? More generous. Less self-centered. Empathetic. Humble. Kind.

And how might cultivating those qualities through daily practice change how we experience the world? Here’s what I’ve learned through trying my best to live this way, each and every day.

We may not solve the world’s problems, and life will continue to throw challenges our way. Our world is imperfect, and humans are too.

But life doesn’t have to be so hard. We can approach it in a new way, one that gives us more ease. More comfort. More joy.

This is what I’ve gained through applying Sikh teachings to my life. It’s not my wisdom – I’ve just inherited it and try my best to live by it. But as I look around the world right now and see so many people suffering and so many people lost, I believe there are some pearls in this wisdom that can be a balm for our world. For me. For you. For them. For all of us.

The world might at times seem hopeless and dark, but you each carry the potential to brighten it and better it. All we have to do is learn to see and share the divine light that already resides in each of us.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with you all, and I’m hopeful that applying these teachings might help more joy and fulfillment to your life, just as it has to mine.

Thank you for being here with me today, congratulations to the graduates on your incredible achievement, and best wishes to every single one of you, as you move forward in this life, with oneness, love, and seva.

Thank you.