We are not all the same, and in our difference we are divine

Seeing oneness in difference is the only way I know for us to move beyond our supremacies and to begin treating one another as equals.

A young Sikh boy lights a candle at the Golden Temple, illuminated in the pre-dawn hours during the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, in Amritsar, India, on Nov. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill)

(RNS) — I spend a lot of time in interfaith, multicultural and racial justice spaces because I think that bridging divides is a critical issue of our time.

There’s a lot to love in these worlds. I’m especially moved by the spirit and passion of those who work in these worlds and the feeling of being a part of a rich lineage with people I admire.

There’s also much we can improve. I’m a firm believer that there’s always room for improvement: There always has been and there always will be. It’s not an indictment to point out flaws. I mean this in the spirit of growth and progress.

One of the issues I think we can improve is how those of us who care about these efforts think about human difference. It’s not uncommon to hear people in these spaces make the case for this work by simply saying, “We’re all the same.”

I realize people mean well with this truism, and I understand what they’re trying to say. But I don’t think it accomplishes what they want it to.

“We’re all the same” is a problematic outlook because it ignores our differences instead of honoring and celebrating them. For many people, the aspects that distinguish us from our peers are deeply important to us and are an important part of our self-identity.

When someone says, “We’re all the same,” I feel unseen, as if they are looking past the complexities of who I am as a person and my unique life experiences.

Simply ignoring our differences — especially when they are formative to who we are as people — does not give us a deeper appreciation for one another. It just enables us to tolerate one another. To me, that’s not good enough. We need a model that helps us create deeper and more meaningful connections.

In the spirit of sharing, I want to offer a window into the unique logic of Sikh wisdom, which I believe offers us a model for thinking about diversity in a way that is substantive and powerful.

Sikhi teaches that people can achieve enlightenment from different religious paths, so long as the approach is grounded in love and oneness.

The Sikh Gurus themselves compiled the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scriptural canon), and in addition to their own writings, they included compositions of spiritually enlightened figures from other religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam. Sikhs refer to these poet-saints as bhagats and consider them to have been spiritual exemplars.

The idea of pluralism is so deeply embedded within the Sikh psyche that it makes its way into Sikh architecture. Darbar Sahib of Amritsar — also known as the Golden Temple — is the most historically significant site for the Sikh community. Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, designed the gurdwara, and his design captures the Sikh spirit of pluralism. It has entrances on each of its four different sides, representing that anyone and everyone is welcome. Yet it has a single walkway to the center.

Seeing oneness in diversity is central to Sikh theology. The core idea is that divinity permeates absolutely every aspect of our world. Difference is real and it is to be celebrated — not denigrated — because everything and everyone is a manifestation of divinity.

In a liturgical prayer that Sikhs have been reciting nightly for centuries, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi, writes: “There are countless seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months. There is one sun, yet many seasons. O Nanak, the Creator has many forms!”

We break down time into various components. And although each of these components is objectively distinct, all of them are mediated by a single source. The seasons are similar in this regard. In addition to being another way of breaking down time, seasons also offer a more sensory example of how such diversity is connected by the sun.

Similarly, Guru Nanak points out, divinity takes on diverse forms. This is how Sikhi teaches me to see oneness in plurality.

The logic of embracing and celebrating difference as divine seems absent from our world today. The constant portrayal of the self as superior and otherness as inferior has come to plague our society. This is the logic of supremacy. This is the logic that fueled and sustained colonialism.

It’s a logic that continues to cause immense violence in our world today. And until we find and accept an alternative way of viewing the world, we will continue in our cycles of oppression, repression and depression.

Seeing oneness in difference. Connecting through diversity. This, to me, is the way of progress. It’s the only way I know for us to move beyond our supremacies and to begin seeing and treating one another as equals.

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