While a freshman at the University of Washington School of Architecture, in Saint Louis, MO, Jaipal Singh asked one of his favorite teachers what it took to be a good architect. His teacher responsed that the world was in need of good people and not of good architects. This startled Singh at first, but the more he thought of it the more it became clear that his teacher was telling him not to focus on labels as such but rather to strive to be the best he can be as a human being and that all the rest will follow.
This message has always accompanied Singh ever since. Actually it was not foreign to him and very much in tune with the education he had received all along from his Indian Sikh parents. Since childhood, Singh’s parents had instilled in him and in his older brother the basic Sikh values of reaching perfection in harmony with the spirit of a unique, everlasting, ubiquitous, loving and just God; to aim at becoming in some ways a “guru”, similar in spirit to the 10 gurus who have founded and shaped Sikhism.
“Every Sikh is a guru, a leader,” says Singh. “God is everywhere and in everyone of us. His name is truth, “satnam,” and we each need to realize this truth within ourselves.”
Growing up, Singh was like an every day American boy, active in sports and on the US karate world team, member of almost every club at school, playing music, excelling academically. Even though religious, he was rather secular in his approach and did not pray every day. He grew long his hair, however, in accordance with the Sikh teachings, and at home, spoke penjabi with his mother, so to keep alive the connection to his ethnic origin.
It is in high school that he started questioning who and what he was and became more involved in religion.
“At age 15 spirituality found me,” he says. “I went to a Sikh summer camp for one week and it changed my life. I found my home.”
At the camp, Singh decided, like strict Sikhs, to become vegetarian, and to devote, from then on, his life to the guru. He started learning the Sikh scriptures; also reading and writing Gurmukhi – a script tightly associated with the Sikh religion, created and standardized in the 16th century CE by the second Sikh Guru Angad, in order to make the reading of punjabi at the reach of every individual and not only the priestly class -; also reading and singing the hymns of the congregation. He also started wearing a turban, instead of only a hair bun, a sign for him of entering manhood, and at the same time of his identity.
From age 15 to 21 Singh made stride in his spiritual growth, adhering strictly to the principles of Sikhism, letting himself be imbibed by its history. It became clear to him that, throughout centuries, Sikhs had not only defended themselves from persecution, but also other religions and humanity as a whole, and that the story of Sikhism had to be seen through the lens of justice for everyone.
By then, Singh having finished high school, had joined the school of architecture.
“My goal in studying architecture was to make the world a better place, to improve people’s lives,” he says. “I also saw social justice in building a space that could be inspirational, in particular a spiritual space of worship where people would connect to the divine and serve others.” In fact Singh contributed significantly to the building of the Sikh house of worship in West Chester, now home to close to 1000 families of the local Sikh community.
At age 21, Singh was asked to join again the summer camp that had radically changed him, but this time as a teacher to the youngsters.
“My role as an educator grew and became very important, forming youth and teaching them about Sikhism and its spiritual and social values,” says Singh. “Half of it is Sikhism one on one, and the other half human activism; divinity and humanity hand in hand…,” he adds. This was also 2001 the year of the terrorist attacks on the USA carried on by individuals who, because of their physical and wearing attributes (dark skinned, long beard, donning a turban), could be easily mistaken for Sikhs.
“But they are not us,” states Singh. “We’re not related and we’re different.”
Since that moment, Singh went on a mission to educate and enlighten others about Sikhism, its history, and its legacy fighting for freedom, for peace and justice, and for the underdog.
Singh by then had also become himself an activist. In 2000, while at Washington University studying architecture, he was caught unwillingly in a demonstration protesting the presidential election’s debate taking place between only major party candidates Bush and Gore, excluding Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Witnessing, however, police brutality beating one of the protesters, he strongly objected to it, was arrested and temporarily jailed. This reminded him of the many Sikhs who, in history, opposed oppression, and determined in him social activism, not to be scared, and to always stand up for who he was and for the right things. Years later, believing in the social values propelled by presidential candidate Obama, then more recently by Hillary Clinton, Singh volunteered at their respective campaigns, canvassing neighborhoods, encouraging people to vote.
In 2003, at the age of 23, and part of his personal spiritual evolution, Singh underwent the Khalsa baptism ceremony committing to total dedication to Sikhism, to shedding his ego and personality, and to fully living up to the high spiritual expectations of the guru.
“My aim has been to live my life with righteousness under the direct authority of the only and ever present God,” says Singh. “Divinity is humility and love, in which one finds compassion and service, no strife, only peace.” “It also requires equality and social justice,” he adds. “I want to live like a guru, and contribute, in whatever I do, to peace and to a better world.”
What is SIKHISM Sikhism is the ninth largest religion in the world with a population of close to 30 million worldwide. There are an estimated 250,000 Sikhs in the USA. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, founded in the Punjab region in India, in the 15th century, by Guru Nanak Dev. It broke from Hinduism due, in part, to its rejection of the caste system. The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, articulated in the sacred scripture Guru Granth Sahib, include faith and meditation on the name of the one creator, unity of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood while living a householder's life. The Sikh place of worship is the gurdwara which means "doorway to God." Traditionally there is no official clergy within the Sikh tradition. Over time however, priests have become more commonplace. Now, many gurdwaras employ priests to conduct services, while others are run entirely by members of the local congregation. Most Sikhs wear one or more of the Five Ks articles of faith as ordered by the 10th Guru Gobind Singh:
Kesh, or unshorn long hair, protected by a turban.
Kangha, small wooden comb to comb the hair twice a day.
Kara, iron bangle worn on the hand used most.
Kachera, specific undergarment for men and women.
Kirpan, short dagger.