Flesh and Spirit

With her lifelong scholarship in Sikhism, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh seeks a better world for all

Crawford Family Professor of Religion Nikky Singh
By Claire SykesPhotography by Brian Fitzgerald
June 12, 2023

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, the Crawford Family Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Colby, always wanted to be a teacher. Her father, Professor Harbans Singh, was chair of the religious studies department at Punjabi University in India, where she grew up.

As a teenager, Singh happily left for a girls’ preparatory school in Virginia. There, homesickness and discovering Walt Whitman’s A Passage to India strengthened her Sikh roots, setting her on a lifelong path of scholarship in Sikhism and other Asian religions and in Punjabi literary translation.

Among the top scholars in her field, Singh joined Colby in 1986 and has published 14 books and more than 100 articles and book chapters—focusing on sacred poetry and feminist issues—and has received several awards for her work.

In January India’s Jaipur Literature Festival featured Singh and Navtej Sarna, the former Indian Ambassador to the United States, in discussion about her book Guru Nanak: Poems from the Sikh Sacred Tradition (Harvard University Press, 2023). During that trip, she was honored at the Bhai Vir Singh Literary Center in New Delhi for her book Janamsakhi: Paintings of Guru Nanak in Early Sikh Art (Roli Books, 2023), which she dedicated to Jay Holman ’13 and Molly Rogers ’13.

Singh recently spoke about her work. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Your latest book is what’s known as a janamsakhi. It’s one of numerous oral, literary, and/or visual legendary biographies of Guru Nanak [1469-1539], founder of the Sikh religion and its first guru. In your volume, 57 iconotexts with paintings by Alam Chand Raj, created in 1733, are paired with your interpretations of each. Why did you take on this book project and dedicate it to Holman and Rogers?

I had already studied some of these early Sikh paintings, held at the British Library in London. They’re from one of the earliest manuscripts that bears the date and names of the artist, scribe, and patron who commissioned it. It’s about Guru Nanak’s travels by foot up mountains and through jungles to mosques, shrines, Hindu temples, and meditation sites. Jay, a religious studies student and avid hiker, wanted to do his honors thesis on Guru Nanak’s spiritual experiences as “journeys,” which got me excited about the narratives and their illustrations. The book was my “pandemic project.” Stuck at home, I got to travel with Guru Nanak and revisit the stories I had heard in the lap of my grandmother. So, I dedicated the book to Jay and Molly, who asked me to officiate their wedding, which was such an honor. Past and present came together beautifully for me.

How do your janamsakhi interpretations differ from others?

Rather than as miracles performed by Guru Nanak, my interpretations tell of the extraordinary power of life in the world here and now. The artist did a great job of conveying Guru Nanak’s progressive ideas. It amazes me how his premodern images raise critical matters of religion, gender, and sexuality challenging us today. In my narrative titled “Enchantresses are Enchanted,” a king’s slave girls are sent to test Guru Nanak. Instead of being tempted, he recites his verses about women’s spirituality, and they become empowered by way of the divine manifested in their bodies. In Chand’s other paintings, we see a cross-gendered saint and multi-religious reciprocity. I never heard these interpretations growing up, and I wanted to bring them to the collective memory of the Sikhs and open them to the general readership. These stories are as much about Guru Nanak’s worldview and poetry as they are our capacity to be transformed.

Your book Guru Nanak: Poems from the Sikh Sacred Tradition is a translation of your selection from his 974 hymns. How do you approach translating from Punjabi to English?

It’s quite a creative process. How to echo the intrinsic sound and sense of the original Punjabi? How to transmit the taste from one tongue to another? I find most translations marred with colonial and Biblical diction. Guru Nanak’s all-inclusive singular transcendent is converted into a monotheistic masculine god. The term “lord” appears frequently, distancing the divine that is no different from you and me. And the term “soul” is latched onto women figures, distorting lovely three-dimensional humans into ghostly metaphors.

I aspire to make transparent what is already there in the original: elemental simplicity, beauty, unicity, intimacy, and gender inclusivity. Of course, to reproduce the elemental simplicity, sharpness, and musicality of Guru Nanak’s lyrics is terribly challenging. How to rebound his beautiful alliterations, assonance, and rhymes? He utilizes numerous words for borderless love, but English has only one word for love. I try to feel the Punjabi lyrics viscerally, which makes me receptive to their newness and uniqueness. Once we flush out old, intellectual habits and clichés, unexpected equivalents appear. Punjabi and English ultimately embrace each other.

Guru Arjan [1563-1606], the fifth of Sikhism’s Gurus, compiled the religious scripture, called the Guru Granth Sahib (also commonly referred to as the GGS). What does your book Poems from the Guru Granth Sahib tell us about this centuries-old text that remains central to Sikhism? And what do you want readers to experience?

Since Guru Nanak’s works are foundational for the GGS, my book serves as a blueprint for the unity of the divine and the equality of humanity, all expressed in sensuous poetry across the GGS. This huge scriptural text is a chorus of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim voices, including even those from the lowest castes. But as it stipulates, this platter of true knowledge must be savored, taken inside the body. So, I want my readers to enjoy its pluralistic ingredients. My book upholds Guru Nanak’s vision that these poems composed in the language of infinite love belong to us all, equally, and that they not be merely eaten (khavai) but savored intensely (bhuncai). His pluriversal and timeless poetry invites us to bring our particular cultural perspectives to it, engage sensuously with it, delight in it, and let it navigate our personal worldview.

What’s next, and what are your hopes?

I’m completing a book on Guru Nanak’s transcendent aesthetics and moving on to paintings by Sikh women artists. The scholarly spotlight has been on the first Sikh Guru’s doctrinal contributions, and the aniconic Sikh tradition has overlooked the visuals. I want the neglected literary and artistic expressions to reach wide audiences.

Aesthetics is not some external embellishment of Guru Nanak’s poetics, but the very medium of his body-sanctifying textures resonant with love for the transcendent one, for fellow beings, and for the environment. Sikh artists are articulating this in the language of colors. Experiencing the transcendent through our senses breaks the wall between the sacred and the secular, expanding our intellectual, emotional, imaginative, and spiritual repertoire. Racism, casteism, classism, sexism, and religious fundamentalism also break down, so we can build mutuality and reciprocity with each other. Poetry and art should nourish us. With this nourishment, we can act and create beauty for ourselves—and a better world for all.