Religion is an important source of strength for many of our members, so we’re asking clergy from different religious traditions to share how their members mark the end of a life. Simran Jeet Singh, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and regular contributor to The New York Times, TIME.com, and The Washington Post, was kind enough to speak about how the Sikh tradition approaches dying and mourning.
What does your faith teach about happens to people when their lives end?
The Sikh tradition (Sikhi) gives no clear explanation on what happens to people when their lives end. Sikhi does not place emphasis on afterlife, and instead, encourages people to focus on what can be achieved within our present lives. According to its religious teachings, this human life is a unique opportunity to connect with the Divine, to realize our potential, and to serve those around us.
How do religious leaders comfort the dying? How do lay people comfort the dying?
Sikhi believes that every individual has the same opportunity to develop a relationship with Divinity, and therefore there is no clergy in the Sikh tradition. Sikhs comfort the dying according to their wishes. Many Sikhs prefer to listen to religious music (kirtan) and recitation (path) during their final moments, and many also choose to spend final time with their loved ones.
How do members of the community traditionally respond to the death of one of their members?
Sikhi views death as a part of life and the Divine Order (hukam). According to Sikh traditions, death is not a time for mourning, but instead a time for gathering, remembering, and celebrating. Community members traditionally respond to the death of one of their members by organizing worship services in which people come together to praise the Divine and reflect on the life of the individual who passed away.
Is there a service to memorialize the dead? What is it like?
When a Sikh passes away, family and community members (sangat) gather together for worship. While the themes of the worship service may vary, people generally take this as an opportunity to express love and gratitude. Sikh worship primarily draws from the Sikh scripture (Guru Granth Sahib) — which is written in verse — and is typically conducted with collective singing and recitation.
What rituals of mourning are there in your faith? Is there a particular amount of time allocated for grieving?
The Sikh tradition teaches that life is to be lived with everlasting optimism (chardi kala). Therefore there is no ritual for mourning or grieving, even in a situation of a loved one’s passing.
What text or passage would you suggest to a member of your faith community who is grieving?
A scriptural composition traditionally sung at the time of one’s passing is Sohila. This composition, which is also a core part of Sikh liturgy, reflects on themes related to life, death, and celebration. The community has sung Sohila collectively since the formative moments of the Sikh tradition, and it continues to provide guidance and solace to those who reflect on its messages.
What words would you share to comfort members of our community who may be mourning?
Upon losing a loved one, it may be comforting to reflect on the transience of life and to remember that we are simply guests in this world. It may also help to reflect on concepts of humility, acceptance and graciousness. This ideas are exemplified throughout the Sikh scripture, including in this prayer from Guru Ramdas: “O Divine, you are the True Creator and my Divine Master. Whatever you please is what comes to pass, and whatever you give is what I receive.”
Is there a tradition from your faith that might be comforting for people of other faiths?
I find the Sikh tradition of framing death as an occasion for celebration to be incredibly comforting and powerful. This approach focuses on the positive contributions of one’s life and allows us to better preserve the memories and feelings of our loved ones. Celebrating rather than mourning also pushes us to count our blessings in a time of emotional vulnerability and helps us bring stability and solace into our lives, families, and communities.
Simran Jeet Singh is a Senior Religion Fellow at the Sikh Coalition. He is responsible for strengthening relationships among faith communities and supporting media outreach.
Simran is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, focusing on devotional traditions and literatures of early modern South Asia. His expertise ranges from the formations of religious communities in early modern South Asia to xenophobia and hate violence in modern America. His dissertation research focuses specifically on the founder of the Sikh tradition – Guru Nanak– and the earliest available manuscript accounts of his life.
He earned an M.A. from the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures of Columbia University (2009), an M.T.S. in South Asian Religious Traditions from Harvard University (2008), and a B.A. in English Literature and Religious Studies from Trinity University (2006). He is currently a Truman National Security Fellow and the Scott and Rachel F. McDermott Fellow for the American Institute of Indian Studies. In addition to his role with the Sikh Coalition, Simran serves in a voluntary capacity as the Director for the Surat Initiative and the board for the Sikh Spirit Foundation.
Simran speaks and writes on a wide range of issues relating to religion and culture. He contributes regularly to a number of media outlets, such as The New York Times, TIME.com, The Washington Post, and Newsweek’s The Daily Beast. He has also appeared on various television and radio programs, including BBC, NPR, CBS, and PBS. and in 2014 Simran delivered a keynote address at The White House.