Wisdom Stories from all Traditions
In Search of a Shared Narrative
by Ralph Singh
I have been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I honed my skills at the feet of the great Master, H.H. Baba Virsa Singh ji of Gobind Sadan. As his first foreign devotee, I had the privilege of translating stories from the lives of those we refer to as Messiah, Prophets, Avatars, and Saints. He loved to share them with audiences to inspire love for all who brought the message that, at the core of our teachings, there is one God who does not discriminate based on religion.
After returning from India at the end of 1976, my wife and I bought a house in the quiet farming village, Elbridge, NY. To anyone who asked about Elbridge, I said that we came from a very high pedigree area – surrounded by 500 pure-bred Holsteins on one side and 30,000 chickens on the other.
As it turned out, as Sikhs we were the only visible minority in town at the time. When our boys were small, they stood out with their patkas and turbans. So each year they would bring me to school for show and tell.
The teacher would ask my boys, “Chetan and Tegbir, what have you brought for show and tell today?” The class would break into laughter when they said, “I brought my Dad!”
When the laughter subsided, I would explain how the turban and long hair was our uniform; how it stood for our faith in God, doing our best in school and work, and helping others in need.
I would also tell a story, often “The Real Bargain.” In it a young Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism, was given money by his father to buy whatever goods he needed in the bazaar. He chose to use the money to buy food and clothing for a group of poor people he met along the way. He thought it a better bargain than using the money for himself. I mention how this story inspired the Sikh institution of langar, or community meal, practiced worldwide in Sikh gurdwaras, that is, houses of worship.
The kids were enthralled and bullying would subside in the class. But on the bus and playground, with kids who hadn’t heard the story, our boys were teased, sometimes mercilessly.
In 1978 my wife and I were invited to run programs at Sikh camps near where we lived, and soon summers became devoted to three main camps.
Helping to develop the education programs for first generation Sikh kids was a study in modern religious education. Key questions: What was universal? What was particular to Sikhism, and what was culture specific? And how did each piece of history, ritual, or scripture translate into Western society?
An Interfaith Journey to Character Education
For the past 50 years, from my life in India to the formation of the North American Interfaith Network, I’ve participated in the local, national, international interfaith movement. Today the interfaith movement continues to add chairs to the table for those traditionally seen as “other.” At the same time we’ve watched societies harden their borders, “circling their wagons” against the perceived threat of the “other.”
Our conversations about shared values are not reaching the roots of society nor influencing national conversations. While interfaith organizations are becoming more inclusive, and our collective voices are inspiring more people, our communal and societal narratives are pushing back. If you want to know what interfaith dialogue means, step out on the street with a turban on your head. You’d quickly be confronted verbally or non-verbally with those who wanted to engage you.
Following 9-11, as a white American Sikh wearing a turban, I was turned from Aladdin (or Aladin, as the Hindi Bollywood version spells it) into Osama bin Ladin overnight. Kids who used to point with big smiles, saying “Mommy, there’s Aladin,” were now hiding behind their scowling mothers in the grocery stores. The power of media to capture and determine the narrative of turban-wearing people was appalling. It was time to change the dominant narrative from fear and conflict to understanding and peace.
I formed Wisdom Thinkers Network to connect people, and especially children, through the wisdom of stories. We believe stories have the power to change the world. By reweaving the wisdom of our traditional stories and new understandings into education and public life, we strengthen our social fabric and foster a more compassionate, inclusive, civil society. The Network focuses on building curricula around traditional wisdom stories and training teachers how to integrate them into their daily routine.
One day, working on a successful local drug awareness poster contest, I turned to a colleague and said, “You know, as successful as this program is, these are just band aids. We are treating the symptoms. Isn’t anyone focused on the spiritual emptiness and lack of values in our society?” “Funny you should ask,” he replied. “Our CNY Education consortium has just formed a task force for values in public schools. Tomorrow is our first meeting, and I want you to attend.”
Thus my formal work in character education began 25 years ago with the “Schools of Character” project. When the question of how to teach our little ones arose in one of our leadership groups, I replied, “Tell them ‘Bible stories,’ but from all traditions.” The seed to build our multi-cultural and interfaith stories to be used in public schools was sown.
Several other events helped focus my work.
Soon after 9-11, Gobind Sadan, USA, where my family worshipped, was a victim of arson. This was the first attack on a Sikh house of worship. Four kids got drunk and thought our turbans signified we were followers of bin Laden. They decided to do their patriotic duty and burn us out.
Two great miracles happened: First our holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib ji, did not burn – in a 100 year old converted farm house it triumphed over the flames of hatred. Even the tons of water poured to quench the fire didn’t damage it. Second, we immediately went public with a message of forgiveness which was carried around the world. It galvanized the broader community and eventually led to transforming the lives of the young arsonists. They wrote to us from prison, “if only we’d known your story, we never would have done this. If only we knew what you stood for.”
Stories to Light Our Way
I took my cue from the boys and started compiling diverse stories, both sacred and secular, which could easily be used by schools, religious institutions, and interfaith organizations.
Just in time for the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, I wrote and recorded Stories to Light Our Way, a Parents Choice award-winning CD of stories from 11 different traditions, in which each starred a child or an animal as the protagonist. I remember, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, the Nobel nominee, coming up to me following my brief presentation, “I’m leaving for Afghanistan tonight and I must have one to share these with my girls.” I gave close to a thousand of them away that first year.
I took on the challenge of framing the stories within the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution so they could be used in public schools. Charles Haynes, a national leader in first amendment issues, said of the book: “Stories to Light Our Way is a wonderful resource for introducing young people to the wisdom and moral lessons found in the world's religions and cultures … The Wisdom Thinkers Network's approach to story-telling is an educationally and constitutionally sound way for public schools to build good character and encourage cross-cultural understanding.”
The stories we choose to tell and how we tell them helps determine the future course of civilization. The wisdom stories children learn at their grandparents’ feet or within their own traditions becomes tested and may feel irrelevant the minute a child walks into school. By bringing teaching stories back to school, children can hear stories told from their own traditions, affirming their identity and informing other children about each child’s background.
Our educational system does a fabulous job of socialization but a terrible job of building character and ethics. Introducing wisdom stories from the world’s traditions in pre-school and elementary school that teach or reinforce core values and familiarize students with different cultures, becomes the foundation of “wisdom-based” learning and critical thinking in middle and high school.
Currently Wisdom Thinkers Network focuses on training teachers to use multi-cultural wisdom stories to honor diversity, nurture character, and deter bullying. We have combined the academic, aligned with U.S. common core standards, with the social-emotional learning competencies and character-education traits that lead to more compassionate, engaged citizens. We want to nurture children who are able to think critically to excel as much in emotional intelligence as they do in academic subjects.
Teachers were quick to praise. One said, “The stories have helped the children quickly internalize behavioral messages that have otherwise been difficult to teach. They will carry these stories with them for the rest of their lives.” And the response to Wisdom Thinkers from kids?
“The stories make people think more about what they say before they speak.”
“The lessons make me want to try harder.”
“Wisdom Thinkers teaches us to think about the feelings of others.”
“We can all live in a better community if we care about others.”
To bring peace in the world, we must strive to share stories and actually enact them. When we lose our stories, we lose our culture and cease to be human. There are those who would homogenize our world, particularly those who revel in being in control. Stories allow us to breathe free and create a climate in which peace can dawn.
I remember helping to translate for a Druze delegation visiting Baba Virsa Singh ji from Lebanon. Following Babaji’s discourse, he invited questions, saying, “When you ask, the Voice inside me answers, and I learn too.”
Their key question, “Right now the world seems cloaked in darkness Will we ever see light again?”
Babaji answered, “There has always been a struggle between good and evil that plays out in the world. While today we watch the actions of those who wish evil, there is a wave of good souls taking birth and they will change the story!”
Stories have the power to recreate a positive narrative for our children and our world. Stories which have sustained cultures and kept civilizations together carry the same power to children today. I am convinced that this storytelling can restore a common ethos in schools and communities that fosters more compassionate and responsible, fully engaged citizens in a pluralistic civil society. Please join me in this journey.
Header Photo: Pxhere