From near tragedy, a mission: Satpal Singh speaks on interconnectedness


Traumatic experiences often lead to a chain reaction of consequences. In the face of adversity, some retreat into their shell. Others make it their life’s work to prevent such traumas from impacting others. 

Satpal Singh, a professor at SUNY Buffalo in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, experienced a horrific religion-motivated attack 37 years ago. His life path was forever altered.

Singh spoke on the Chautauqua grounds this week for the first time, but in 2020, he appeared on the CHQ Assembly to discuss Sikhism and how to honor humans’ shared divine light. On Thursday, June 30, in the Hall of Philosophy, Singh delivered his lecture, “Global Consciousness in an Interconnected World,” as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “America’s Global Conscience.”

Singh is a founding trustee of the Sikh Council for Interfaith Relations and the former chairperson of the World Sikh Council America Region, among other renowned accomplishments related to interfaith and human rights. 

Singh received a doctorate in molecular biology from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India. His research on neurodegenerative diseases is his current focus in the field.

Singh’s presence at Chautauqua is rooted in near-tragedy.

“The reason I’m here comes from a night, a specific night, about 37 years ago — a dark, lonely night — the reason that I was driven toward what I’m going to discuss today, which is: What should be (our) values, what should be our conscience, and how should we live in a world that throws significant challenges at you?” Singh said.

While traveling on a train after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which was committed by her two Sikh bodyguards, Singh found himself to be the target of a hate crime. A mob entered the train car searching for Sikh people. 

“This is a group of 25 or so young men in extreme anger, and they knew that it was the end of my journey,” Singh said. 

The men stared into Singh’s eyes, and as he stared back, he said his last prayer.

“I prayed for my family. I prayed for everybody else I knew … and in those 10 seconds in silence, when I was praying, I prayed for the attackers,” Singh said. “I prayed for their peace of mind, (for) their soul.”

Singh was beaten mercilessly, and his unconscious body was thrown under the train tracks to be left for dead. When he finally awoke, he walked to an army headquarters on the railway station. 

“They told me that they were very sorry, but they cannot give me shelter,” Singh said. 

Continuing his journey in search of shelter and assistance, Singh was able to contact the police. They also refused him shelter. 

“They said, ‘Sir, this is your fate. This is your destiny. How can we interfere in your destiny?’ ” Singh said.

After the attack, he moved to America to ensure he could pursue his work safely. 

He said many people wonder how he, moments away from losing his life, could possibly pray for the attackers. 

“The way I had grown up, with the principles I had grown up (with), I could never and still don’t see the difference between you and me,” Singh said. “I grew up with principles (that say) all of us are children of the same God.”

This principle is relevant when discussing America’s global conscience. 

“I don’t think we can make any progress if we don’t see everyone else as (ourselves),” Singh said. “If we see somebody else as Other … we have lost our own connection to our own faith.”

While he believes no human should be looked down upon, Singh also believes everyone has always been deeply interconnected; all humans are children of God in his eyes.

“If we fight with each other, in my mind, it’s the same thing as a mother having two sons and each of those sons look at the other one, saying, ‘My mother is better than your mother,’ ” Singh said. 

Singh transitioned to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he said is not unique. 

“We have seen Darfur, we have seen Rwanda, we have seen Syria, we have seen Chechnya. … What have we not seen? When will it end? We have no idea,” Singh said.

God may have created the Earth and humans, but Singh said God did not create territories, countries or borders. 

“Why did we have to create our own tectonic plates? We know that geological tectonic plates are there, and when they rub against each other, we get earthquakes, we get tsunamis,” Singh said. “We have created our own societal tectonic plates, which rub against each other and create brutalities, oppression and atrocities that are beyond our mind — that are so mind-numbing, that we cannot even put those details in responsible media.”

Despite the separation of domains and borders, Singh said he believes everyone is interconnected — both human to human and the individual conscience to the collective community; global cooperation through shared consciousness is needed to live sustainably.

Singh spoke on three main areas related to global conscience: equality, human rights and democratic principles.

Although America has more equal rights than most countries, he said Americans do not always practice equality. There may be progress toward a better tomorrow, but Singh said the progress is far too slow. 

Singh’s office in Buffalo is within walking distance of the Buffalo Tops Friendly Market that was the site of a race-driven massacre on May 14. Singh asked how we could forget and still assume we are equal.

The Buffalo Tops shooting is not an isolated incident, he said. With mass shootings happening multiple times a week in America, often driven by hatred, how can we be equal?

An emotional Singh quoted Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

In spite of everything, Singh views all humans as one. He believes everyone should be treated equally, with kindness, compassion and respect. 

“Even when other countries or other states or other communities around us mistreat us, that should not make us lose our values. It is not something that we should give up,” Singh said. 

Speaking on human rights, Singh spoke specifically on the mistreatment and abuse of women. America may have more rights protected for women than some other countries, but Singh shared that in America, four women a day die from domestic violence. 

“There are very robust neurological imaging studies that (show that) 80 to 85% of women who suffer domestic abuse have traumatic brain injury,” Singh said. “And if you look at those statistics, there are around 20 million women in America who have suffered traumatic brain injury.”

Although America is looked at as a role model for democracy, Singh said our country needs to sustain that and not become complacent. 

Spiritual leaders serve an important role in the preservation and implementation of equality, human rights and democracy. Even though some say religion leads to division, Singh disagrees.

“People who want to exploit religion (try to divide humans). Religious leaders who believe in their own faith can play a very significant role in bringing up good values and character,” he said. 

To end his speech, Singh gave the audience a call to action. 

“We generally ask what any one individual of us can do, and my general answer is we have to do something, each one of us have to do something,” Singh said. “Whatever tugs at your heart, pick up that. Then pick up what is your strength. You may be good at giving a lecture, you may be good at writing articles, you may be good at organizing a non-governmental organization. … (When) you (go home), think about ‘What is my mission, and what can I do to add to the global conscience of this country?’ ”

Tags : interfaith lectureinterfaith lecture recap

The author Alyssa Bump

Alyssa Bump is a life-long Western New Yorker, but this is her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua. She is eager to recap the Interfaith Lecture Series while broadening her perspective of the human experience. Alyssa is a senior at SUNY Fredonia, majoring in journalism and public relations with a minor in professional writing. As editor-in-chief of her college newspaper, The Leader, Alyssa focuses on becoming a compelling storyteller and an innovative leader.