I went to see a friend in Cleveland, Ohio, USA who was to speak on the Sikh faith at an inter-faith gathering. More than half a dozen speakers from different faiths were in attendance. After each one had spoken about the good points of his faith, a simple looking person asked a very embarrassing question, "What do the speakers have to say about the people of other faiths? Will they be saved or not?"
It was very difficult for any speaker to say that the people of only their faith will be saved while the followers of other faiths will not be permitted entry into Heaven. Every speaker, therefore, just kept beating about the bush; their difficulty of giving a straight answer was obvious to the listeners.
For the Sikh answer, the author, who was the last person to speak, replied as follows :
i. Friends, I very much appreciate this interesting and challenging question. However, it is not applicable to the Sikh faith. We believe there is one God, one humanity and hence one faith. Of course, we address God, our common Father, by many Names according to our language. Many names of the Father should not be taken to mean that there are many faiths.
One day Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, did not return from the river when he went there for his regular morning bath. On the third day, when he was seen coming to the village, people gathered around him. In great surprise they asked the Guru, "Where were you? We thought you had drowned in the river." The Guru replied, "I have brought a message from God for you. Do not divide people into Hindus and Muslims, we all are His children and hence equal."
ii. The holy Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, tells us to love God and remember Him by any Name - Allah, Ram, Gobind, God, Guru... the way we love our father by addressing him by any name - dad, daddy, papa. Our Father values sincerity of love and does not care which language we use to address Him. All languages and names belong to Him (To support my above observations, I quoted some hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, which address the Lord by the above Names).
God being our Father, each of us has a right to meet Him without any intercession from other persons. No one can claim a franchise on Him to have exclusive rights. Anyone who loves Him can realize Him; in His court, one is judged by one's deeds alone, the Name adopted by a devotee to address Him has little value there.
iii. The Sikh scripture contains the hymns of six Gurus and more than two dozen other holy persons, including Hindus, Muslims, and so-called low-caste people. A person of any religion, race or caste, rich or poor, can love the Lord and realize Him without the intercession of any third person or a prophet.
The response to this reply was enthusiastic applause from the entire audience. I was elated and reminded of the folk lore - Nanak Shah fakir, Hindu ka guru Musalman ka pir - Guru Nanak was accepted as a guide both by Hindus and Moslems. On that day, the people of all major religions participating in the inter-faith group also accepted Guru Nanak to be a pir.
But the climax was yet to come.
While everyone was enjoying the answer, the smart person was thinking of another question. When the clapping stopped, he stood up and asked, "Well, what you mean is that anybody, whatever his faith, who believes in God will be saved. Everybody here has happily accepted it. But tell us what do you say about those persons who do not believe in God?"
I replied that the answer to that question could be given by my personal example. I have a son in India who was unable to meet me or talk to me since I came to USA in 1984. If my son says that he has no father, I cannot say that he is wrong. He truthfully says what he has experienced. Also, I have a daughter in USA with whom I stay. She knows that I have a son in India who believes that he has no father. However, she prays everyday, "God bless my brother."
Similarly, Sikhs know that all people including even those who do not believe in the Common Father, God, are their brothers and sisters. Therefore, we pray twice a day for the welfare of the people all over the globe, believers and non-believers, our supporters or opponents. A Sikh prayer always concludes with a request, "Father! In thy Name bless the whole humanity."
Hearing this, everyone in the hall stood up and started clapping loudly. This standing ovation to Guru Nanak by people of all faiths, comes to my mind quite often even a decade after it occurred. This unique response shown by non-Sikhs has been shared with the participants at many Sikh youth camps and all have been delighted to hear it.
Later, I met one young man who attended the inter-faith meeting. He had joined a medical college and his self-esteem as a Sikh was very high. It was visible not only from his appearance (turban and beard), but also from the name-plate of his car, Khalsa-I.