Thirty-three years in the classroom have taught Nikky-Guninder Singh how community is made. Through the shared act of reading and discussing texts, “You create a community,” Singh said, citing Tolstoy, “because the artist or the writer … was so infected. And then passing on your disease was kind of contagious.”
Singh, the Crawford Family Professor Religion, certainly caught the disease. With her infectious energy, she delivered a passionate Last Lecture, illustrating her talk with poems, quotes, and artwork drawn from many of the world’s religions and great thinkers.
The 27-year-old tradition brings together seniors and the winner of the Charles Bassett Teaching Award, chosen by vote of the senior class, as a bridge between finals and Senior Week.
Singh, dressed in a bright sage and coral sari, offered students five “RE’s,” playing upon the two-letter designation for religious studies courses.
“Re-joice!” she shouted with raised arms. “You finished everything—you need to celebrate yourselves,” she said, noting the need to also celebrate society as well as the cosmos. The capacity to celebrate is something we’ve lost, she continued. In a culture obsessed with superficial material things, our lives have become fragmented, devoid of joy, and full of distractions. “So I urge you to pull ourselves together and be in the moment and really celebrate yourselves,” Singh said.
Secondly, “Re-member,” she said, because memories are very important. “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future,” she said, quoting the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. “What we will be is because of the memories we have had,” she said.
“Re-access” was the third point. “Keep on questioning. Never give up,” Singh said, reminding students of the importance of the basic tenet of Buddhism: love yourself, without which “we cannot love the world outside.” Using the image of a lotus flower, she encouraged students to blossom and stay afloat. “Don’t sink. Don’t drown in the murkiness of the world.”
Singh next challenged students to “Re-spond” and take action in a world riddled with complex problems and disparities. “Racism, sexism, classism, and fanaticism are getting more threatening,” she percussed. “Environmental destruction is worse. And we’re infected by phobias: homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia.” Here, Singh quoted the Dalai Lama: “Good wishes are not sufficient; we must become actively engaged.”
Her last point: “Re-turn.” No matter how many students have come and gone in her classroom, Singh misses each one. “Nobody can take your place,” she said. “You take off and go away, but we await to see the direction of your arrow.”
Singh, one of the world’s leading experts on Sikhism, concluded her address with the epilogue from the Sikh scripture Guru Granth:
On the platter lie three dishes,
Truth, contentment, and reflection.
All who taste, all who relish
“If you take anything today, take the message of savoring … the heightening of your senses,” she said. “Don’t be absent from your life. Every end is a beginning.”