Sikhism is the world’s ninth largest religion with 23 million adherents. A Sikh is a practitioner of Sikhism. The word Sikh originates from the Punjabi language and means student or learner.
Over 60% of Sikhs live in the Northern Indian state of Punjab, forming about two-thirds of the population there. Large communities of Sikhs live in the neighboring states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and Delhi. Because of Sikh migration in the late nineteenth century AD, there are now Sikh communities all over the world, with significant numbers found in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Middle East, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. More recently, Sikh immigrants have settled in the United States, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Although Sikhs compose less than 2% of the Indian population, they are disproportionately represented in Indian politics, business, and the military.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that worships one, timeless, omnipresent, supreme creator called Akal Purakh. Sikhs teach a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, and social justice. Sikhs believe that the true path to achieving salvation and merging with God does not require renunciation of the world or celibacy. But rather, one must live the life of a householder, earn an honest living, and avoid worldly temptations and sins. Sikhism condemns superstitions, blind rituals, pilgrimages, and the worship of the dead and idols. Sikhism preaches that people of different races, religions, and sexes are all equal in the eyes of God. Women may perform any Sikh ceremony. Sikhism is open to all through the teachings of its Ten Gurus, Sikh holy books, and the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
The strictly monotheistic faith of Sikhism developed in northern India in the midst of polytheistic religious culture during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD. It was founded by Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who lived October 1469-May 1539 AD in the village of Talwandi, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore in present-day Pakistan. Nanak was the first of the so-called Ten Gurus. He received a vision to preach the way to enlightenment and God. He believed in the fellowship of all humanity. Consequently, he rejected both the Hindu caste system and idol worship.
His parents were Hindus and belonged to the merchant caste. Nanak was fascinated by religion even as a child. His desire to explore the mysteries of life eventually led him to leave home.
Nanak married Sulkhni of Batala, and they had two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. Nanak’s brother-in-law found a job for him in Sultanpur as the manager of a government granary.
One morning at the age of 28, Nanak made his daily trip to the river to bathe and meditate. Sikh legends say that this time he was gone for three days, and when he reappeared, he was filled with the spirit of God. He declared, “There is no Hindu and no Muslim,” and then began his missionary work to proselytize this and other radical revelations.
He made four great journeys, traveling to all parts of India and into Arabia and Persia, visiting Mecca and Baghdad. He spoke before Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, and Muslims. He spoke in temples and mosques and at various pilgrimage sites. It was during this period that Nanak met Kabir (1441-1518), a saint revered by both Hindus and Muslims. It is also very likely Guru Nanak met Christian and Jewish missionaries during his extensive travels to the West. Christian missionaries were also active in the southern parts of India visited by Guru Nanak.
Guru Nanak spoke out against rote religious rituals, pilgrimages, the caste system, the sacrifice of widows, and the dependence on books to learn true religion. Although he sought to combine the Hindu and Muslim faiths into a single religious creed, he never asked his listeners to follow him. He asked only the Muslims to be true Muslims and the Hindus to be true Hindus.
After the last of these four great journeys, Guru Nanak settled in the town of Kartapur in Punjab on the banks of the Ravi, where he taught for another fifteen years. Followers from all over came to settle in Kartapur to learn, to sing hymns, and to be with him. His followers kept the religions in which they were born, but they gradually became known as the guru’s disciples, or Sikhs.
Nanak told his followers that they could not live apart from the world because there should be no priests or hermits. During one of the common meals, a revolutionary principle of Sikhism began: it required the rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, high caste and low caste, to sit together.
Before Guru Nanak died, he summoned his disciples and requested them to sing Sohila, the evening hymn. He knew that his Hindu followers would want to cremate his body while his Muslim followers would try to bury it. To satisfy both factions, the funeral arrangements would require a miracle. When the sheet covering his corpse was lifted, all that remained were fresh flowers that were equally divided. The Hindus cremated their flowers and the Muslims buried theirs.
Because of its relatively young age and its tolerance of other religions, Sikhism is sometimes misunderstood to be merely a reform movement or branch of older existing religions. However, like all religions, there are some similarities as well as differences.
The most significant historical religious center for the Sikhs is Harmiandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) at Amritsar in the state of Punjab. It is the inspirational center of Sikhism but is not a mandatory place of pilgrimage or worship. All places where the Sikh book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is installed are considered equally holy for Sikhs.
The Ten Gurus
Sikhism was established and developed by the Ten Gurus between 1469 and 1708. The Ten Gurus are not considered divine but are thought of as enlightened teachers through whom God revealed his will. Starting with Sikhism’s founder, each Guru appointed his own successor. They are:
Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539), who founded Sikhism.
Guru Angad Dev (1504-1552) who developed Gurmukhi, the script used for the Punjab language, and composed 62 hymns that were later included in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Guru Amar Das (1479-1574), who became Guru at the age of 73 and organized three annual gatherings for Sikhs. He also set up the first pilgrimage site at Goindval Sahib and introduced Sikh rituals for birth and death. His most famous hymn, Anand Sahib, is part of Sikh daily ritual.
Guru Ram Das (1534 - 1581) founded Amritsar. His followers dug the pool that became the holy lake surrounding the Golden Temple. He composed the Lavan Marriage Hymn still used in Sikh marriages.
Guru Arjan Dev (1563 - 1606) collected the hymns of previous gurus and added 2,616 of his own to form the first sacred book of Sikhism. Guru Arjan started the compilation in 1601 and had a final draft in 1604. He called the book Pothi Sahib and, because he founded the Golden Temple, he installed the book there. Pothi Sahib quickly became better known as Adi Granth. For the first time in history, the compiler of a holy text would see its acceptance as sacred literature in their lifetime. A century after Guru Arjan died, his book would receive greater honor and a different name.
Guru Hargobind (1595 - 1644) was the son of Guru Arjan. The son was said to be a military as well as spiritual leader, leading to conflict with the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan.
Guru Har Rai (1630 - 1661) was the grandson of Guru Hargobind.
Guru Har Krishan (1656 - 1664) was the younger son of Guru Har Rai. A strain of nepotism is apparent in that Har Krishan was introduced to the high priesthood by his grandfather and was appointed Guru at the age of five. He died of smallpox three years later. He is the only Guru depicted in Sikh art without a beard.
Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621 - 1675) was the great-uncle of Guru Har Krishan and was barred from Amritsar by Sikh rivals. For that reason, he founded the Sikh center of Anandpur. Muslims beheaded him in Delhi for helping Brahmins avoid forcible conversion to Islam.
Guru Gobind Singh (1666 - 1708) was the son of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Of the Ten Gurus, he is second only to Guru Nanak in importance. He is often shown prominently next to Nanak in Sikh artwork. He unsuccessfully resisted oppression by Mughal and Hindu rulers. He is remembered for demonstrating the Sikh ideal of the heroic saint-soldier. He founded the Khalsa and Sikh baptism and composed many poems. His most lasting impact was to nominate the Sikh sacred book as the final and enduring “Guru.”
After Guru Gobind’s assassination, the Muslim Mughal rulers persecuted the Sikhs until 1799 when, under Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), they laid claim to a large part of northwest India. After Ranjit’s death, the Sikh kingdom disintegrated into anarchy. The British moved into the Punjab, and the Sikh Wars followed from 1845-1849.
The Sikhs were defeated, and the British annexed Punjab. In the twentieth century, the Sikhs were given control of their holy places. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, western Punjab became Pakistani territory and the eastern Punjab, part of India. Because of civil unrest and persecution against the Sikhs in Pakistani Punjab, about 2.5 million Sikhs moved into India.
The holiest of the Sikh scriptures is Sri Guru Granth Sahib. It was compiled by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth of the Ten Gurus, and became known as Adi Granth, which translates as “First Scripture.”
In the first part are hymns from Guru Arjan and predecessors such as Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amardas, and Guru Ramdas. Further writings were taken from 15 renowned saints of both the Guru-period and pre-Guru period, among them the works of Hindu, and the popular Muslim writers, Farid and Bhikhen.
Guru Gobind Singh added the hymns of Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1706 and two years later conferred on the book the title Guru of the Sikhs. The writings were then known as Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which today’s Sikhs usually shortened to Granth.
Like much of the world's scriptures, the text of the Granth deals mostly with one’s relationship to God. The Granth is 1,430 pages long, divided into 39 chapters. It is composed of poetry and is arranged in musical measures. Thirty-one out of the 39 chapters are called ragas and are headed by the musical measure, timing, rhythm, and mood appropriate for signing the hymn that follows.
Sikhs regard Sri Guru Granth Sahib as the Living Guru and give it utmost respect. The Granth is always wrapped in clean sheets, ceremoniously opened every morning and deferentially closed at nighttime. It is placed on a small cot with cushions under it and on its sides. Sheets cover the Granth when it is open, and the open copy must be placed under a canopy. Every devotee must bow to it when the practitioner comes into its presence.
Seven other books complete the canon of Sikh holy literature: (1) Dasam Granth; (2) Sarab Loh Granth; (3) the Hukam Namas; (4) Guru Hargobind; (5) Varan Bhai Gurdas I & II; (6) Janam Sakhis; and (7) the works of Bhai Nand Lal.
Guru Granth Sahib
Section 1 (Jup)
One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image Of The Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent. By Guru's Grace ~
Chant And Meditate:
True In The Primal Beginning. True Throughout The Ages.
True Here And Now. O Nanak, Forever And Ever True.
By thinking, He cannot be reduced to thought, even by thinking hundreds of thousands of times.
By remaining silent, inner silence is not obtained, even by remaining lovingly absorbed deep within.
The hunger of the hungry is not appeased, even by piling up loads of worldly goods.
Hundreds of thousands of clever tricks, but not even one of them will go along with you in the end.
So how can you become truthful? And how can the veil of illusion be torn away?
O Nanak, it is written that you shall obey the Hukam of His Command, and walk in the Way of His Will.
By His Command, bodies are created; His Command cannot be described.
By His Command, souls come into being; by His Command, glory and greatness are obtained.
By His Command, some are high and some are low; by His Written Command, pain and pleasure are obtained.
Some, by His Command, are blessed and forgiven; others, by His Command, wander aimlessly forever.
Everyone is subject to His Command; no one is beyond His Command.
O Nanak, one who understands His Command, does not speak in ego.
Some sing of His Power-who has that Power?
Some sing of His Gifts, and know His Sign and Insignia.
Some sing of His Glorious Virtues, Greatness and Beauty.
Some sing of knowledge obtained of Him, through difficult philosophical studies.
Some sing that He fashions the body, and then again reduces it to dust.
Some sing that He takes life away, and then again restores it.
Some sing that He seems so very far away.
Section 6 (Raag Maajh)
Raag Maajh, Chau-Padas, First House, Fourth Mehl:
One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image Of The Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent. By Guru's Grace:
The Name of the Lord, Har, Har, is pleasing to my mind.
By great good fortune, I meditate on the Lord's Name.
The Perfect Guru has attained spiritual perfection in the Name of the Lord. How rare are those who follow the Guru's Teachings.
I have loaded my pack with the provisions of the Name of the Lord, Har, Har.
The Companion of my breath of life shall always be with me.
The Perfect Guru has implanted the Lord's Name within me. I have the Imperishable Treasure of the Lord in my lap.
The Lord, Har, Har, is my Best Friend; He is my Beloved Lord King.
If only someone would come and introduce me to Him, the Rejuvenator of my breath of life.
I cannot survive without seeing my Beloved. My eyes are welling up with tears.
My Friend, the True Guru, has been my Best Friend since I was very young.
I cannot survive without seeing Him, O my mother!
O Dear Lord, please show Mercy to me, that I may meet the Guru. Servant Nanak gathers the Wealth of the Lord's Name in his lap.
Maajh, Fourth Mehl:
The Lord is my mind, body and breath of life.
I do not know any other than the Lord.
If only I could have the good fortune to meet some friendly Saint; he might show me the Way to my Beloved Lord God.
I have searched my mind and body, through and through.
How can I meet my Darling Beloved, O my mother?
Joining the Sat Sangat, the True Congregation, I ask about the Path to God. In that Congregation, the Lord God abides.
My Darling Beloved True Guru is my Protector.
I am a helpless child – please cherish me.
The Guru, the Perfect True Guru, is my Mother and Father. Obtaining the Water of the Guru, the lotus of my heart blossoms forth.
Without seeing my Guru, sleep does not come.
My mind and body are afflicted with the pain of separation from the Guru.
O Lord, Har, Har, show mercy to me, that I may meet my Guru. Meeting the Guru, servant Nanak blossoms forth.
Sikhism believes in: (1) a single all-powerful God; (2) the utterances and teachings of the Ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh; (3) the sacred authority of “The Living Guru,” Sri Guru Granth Sahib, (4) living an honest life and treating all equally; and (5) allegiance to no other religions.
Most religions have temples where people can gather together to contemplate God and pray. Where Sikhs gather is called a gurdwara, which means “Gateway to the Guru.”
In Sikhism, personal dedication to living a good life and meditating on God are important, but equally important is corporate participation in the sangat (congregation). There are thousands of gurdwaras throughout Punjab and the rest of the world, serving as community centers for adherents. There are no restrictions on who may enter a gurdwara for prayer. People of all religions are welcome.
A feature common to all gurdwaras around the world is the langer, the free community kitchen. Food is served communally to all peoples regardless of race, creed, color, caste, sex, age, or national origin. This is the tangible and living symbol of Sikhism’s spirited belief in true unity.
Many of the gurdwaras in Punjab have a pool (sarovar) in which to bathe. In Sikhism, one can wash in these pools as one wishes, but one should be pure inside to get any real benefit. The underlying thought is: though the water may cleanse the outside, it cannot clean the inside. A pure heart is what smells sweet to God.
Unlike some religions, pilgrimage is not a part of Sikhism. Sikhs may visit any gurdwara, considering them all equally sacred, although The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, is regarded as the most important of the Sikh shrines.
BRANCHES OF SIKHISM
There are three branches of Sikhism. Udasis are an order of ascetics and holy men who often serve as missionaries. Sahajdharis are clean-shaven and do not follow the third branch of Sikhism, the Khalsa tradition.
The Khalsa take their name from “Pure,” the title Guru Gobind Singh bestowed on all Sikhs who have been baptized in a 300-year-old ceremony called Amrit Sanchar. The Khalsa must carry five symbols, Panj Kakka, also known as the “Five Ks.” These are:
Uncut hair is meant to represent the natural appearance of sainthood. Some argue that saints are not distinguished by hair length, but Khalsa who do think it is important wear a small turban underneath a larger turban. In that way the kesh, or uncut hair, is kept in place.
A small comb is the second saintly symbol that gains increasing practical use with each passing year as the kesh grows.
Short trousers help a warrior when he is moving about the battlefield. They also remind him of the need for chastity.
This iron bangle is a sign of restraint and bondage, and is symbolic of dedication to the Ten Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed that wearing the kara would remove the fears of all practitioners.
The sword for defense symbolizes dignity, power, and courage, all of which will be needed if the sword has to be drawn.
The Khalsa were founded when Guru Gobind Singh asked a crowd of Sikhs which ones would die for their faith and for them to step into a tent. One man walked into the tent, and the Guru followed. A few seconds later only the Guru emerged, holding his sword covered in blood. After asking if there were any more volunteers, four people went into the tent, ready to be slaughtered for their faith.
It was then that the crowd found out that none of the five men were actually killed. They were the first of The Khalsa Brotherhood. They were baptized, and in turn baptized others who follow the Five Ks and the other requirements into “the brotherhood.”
SIKHISM IN THE MARKETPLACE
Sikh beliefs translate into three practices in commerce.
The first is that honest labor and hard work (kirat karna) are the approved way of life. It is considered honorable to earn one’s daily bread without begging or using dishonest means. It is written that, “He [or she] who eats what he [or she] earns through his [or her] earnest labor and from his [or her] hand gives something in charity; he [or she] alone, O Nanak, knows the true way of life.”
The Sikh work ethic is legendary and translates into greater economic prosperity than other faiths. The state of Punjab is known as India’s breadbasket, owing to its significant production of staple crops, it and supports one of the most industrialized economies in the nation. In India and across the world, Sikhs are often either an important mercantile class or successful in the skilled professions. These accomplishments are owed to a close-knit community structure, progressive farming techniques, and a cultural emphasis on education.
While belief in hard work bodes well for individual Sikhs and their communities, at times it opens the door to corruption, nepotism, and cronyism. This is particularly true when Sikhs deal with non-Sikhs. Priority is placed on community first and foremost, and the interests of outsiders are hardly noted by comparison.
The second practice is harmony. Sikhs believe that the purpose of life is to love God. They use self-discipline to replace greed, desire, anger, and pride with contentment, humility, and forgiveness. Guru Granth Sahib says, “Do not cause any being to suffer, and you shall go to your true home with honor.”
Sikhs emphasize the importance of work with hands, head, and heart in the service of themselves, their families, and their social communities. In following God’s will, Sikhs hope to lose their sense of self-importance and gain a sense of harmony with God.
While Sikh theology emphasized equality and unity from the time of Guru Nanak’s explicit condemnation of the caste system, socio-economic divisions have developed among Punjabis of the urban mercantile class. There have arisen caste-like divisions with other Punjabi communities. This re-emergence of the caste-like system facilitates corruption in trade because one group favors its own kind at the expense of other groups.
Lastly, to Sikhs, cheating, lying, black-marketeering, profiteering, and bribery are not approved by the Father of the Universe. God’s displeasure cannot bring peace and happiness, but too often it does not end bad behavior. Gaurhi Sukhmani Mahla Panjvaan instructs, “Unethical action may bring more money and give satisfaction at least temporarily.”
To cheat someone is strongly disapproved of in the Sikh Scriptures: “To deprive someone of his or her due share is like eating pork for a Muslim and eating beef for a Hindu. The Guru will stand by you if you do not consume someone else’s share, which is deadly for you.”
A problem arises, however, when Sikh teachings run headlong into the laws of governments. Sikhs may believe that amoral governments make laws for people who do not know what ethics mean. What Guru is a bureaucrat following, if any? How true to Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity are parliamentarians? Aren’t a judge’s “ethics” just a cover for hypocrisy? And aren’t the government’s sanctions against people of true understanding just stepping-stones of greed?
Sikh tradition advises that “The greatest business that will give you a good name in the Court of God is your truthful dealing with absolute Truth.” From this perspective, the secular world (or those ignorant of religious matters) need not apply to the absolute. Hence, when Sikh tradition finds itself in conflict with minimum wage regulations, income tax laws, health and safety codes, this Truth combats law.