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FOUNDED: c. 1499 c.e.


Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of northwestern India five centuries ago. The founder, Guru Nanak, lived from 1469 to 1539. Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that stresses the ideal of achieving spiritual liberation within a person's lifetime through meditation on the divine name. It is also oriented toward action, encouraging the dignity of regular labor as a part of spiritual discipline. Family life and socially responsible living are other important aspects of Sikh teachings.

Sikhism is the youngest of the independent religions of India, where its members make up about 2 percent of the country's 1 billion people. Most live in the Indian state of Punjab. What makes Sikhs significant in India is not their numbers but their contribution in the political and economic spheres.

The global population of Sikhs is between 23 and 24 million. Substantial communities of Sikhs have been established in Southeast Asia, East Africa, the United Kingdom, and North America through successive waves of emigration. Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, a quarter million Sikhs settled in the United States. Observant male Sikhs everywhere are recognized by their beards and turbans, which are the very symbols of their faith.


Sikhism is rooted in a particular religious experience, piety, and culture and is informed by the unique inner revelation of its founder, Guru Nanak, who declared his independence from other thought forms of his day. Those who claimed to be his disciples were known as sikhs, or "learners." Notwithstanding the influences he absorbed from the contemporary religious environment—particularly the devotional tradition of the medieval sants, or "poet-saints," of North India, with whom he shared certain similarities—Guru Nanak established a foundation of teaching, practice, and community from the standpoint of his own religious ideals. Among the religious figures of North India, he had an especially strong sense of mission, compelling him to proclaim his message for the benefit of his audience and for the promotion of socially responsible living.

Nanak was born to an upper-caste professional Hindu family of the village of Talwandi, present-day Nankana Sahib in Pakistan. Much of the material concerning his life comes from hagiographical janam-sakhis (birth narratives). His life may be divided into three distinct phases: his early contemplative years, the enlightenment experience accompanied by extensive travels, and a foundational climax that resulted in the establishment of the first Sikh community in the western Punjab. A local Muslim nobleman employed the young Nanak as a steward at Sultanpur Lodhi. Being a professional accountant of the Khatri (warrior) caste, he worked diligently at his job, but his mind was deeply absorbed in spiritual concerns. Thus, it is not surprising that he spent long hours of each morning and evening in meditation and devotional singing. Early one morning, when he was bathing in the Vein River, he disappeared without leaving a trace. Family members gave him up for dead, but three days later he stepped out of the water with cryptic words: "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim."

This statement, made during the declining years of the Lodhi sultanate, must be understood in the context of the religious culture of the medieval Punjab. The two dominant religions of the region were the Hindu tradition and Islam, both making conflicting truth claims. To a society torn with conflict, Nanak brought a vision of a common humanity and pointed the way to look beyond external labels for a deeper reality. After his threeday immersion in the waters—a metaphor of dissolution, transformation, and spiritual perfection—Nanak was ready to proclaim a new vision for his audience. In one of his own hymns in the Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture, he proclaimed, "I was a minstrel out of work, the Lord assigned me the task of singing the divine Word. He summoned me to his court and bestowed on me [the] robe of honoring him and singing his praise. On me he bestowed the divine nectar [amrit] in a cup, the nectar of his true and holy Name" (Adi Granth, p. 150).

The hymn is intensely autobiographical, explicitly pointing out Guru Nanak's own understanding of his divine mission, and it marked the beginning of his ministry. He was then 30 years of age, had been married to Sulakhani for more than a decade, and was the father of two young sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. He set out on a series of journeys to both Hindu and Muslim places of pilgrimage in India and elsewhere. During his travels he came into contact with the leaders of different religious persuasions and tested the veracity of his own ideas in religious dialogues.

At the end of his travels, in the 1520s, Guru Nanak purchased a piece of land on the right bank of the Ravi River in West Punjab and founded the village of Kartarpur (Creator's Abode). There he lived for the rest of his life as the "spiritual guide" of a newly emerging religious community. His attractive personality and teaching won him many disciples, who received his message of liberation through religious hymns of unique genius and notable beauty. They began to use the hymns in devotional singing (kirtan) as a part of congregational worship. Indeed, the first Sikh families who gathered around Guru Nanak in the early decades of the sixteenth century formed the nucleus of a rudimentary organization of Nanak-panth. (The word panth literally means "path," but here it refers to those Sikhs who followed Guru Nanak's path of liberation.)


The Khanda is the universal symbol of the Sikh religion. The double-edged sword in the middle (also called a Khanda) symbolizes the divine power of the One, Infinite, Omnipresent, Formless, Fearless, Angerless, Omnipotent God. The circle is called the Chakar and symbolizes the perfection of God. The two swords that surround the Chakar represent those worn by the sixth Sikh Guru, Hargobind (1595–1644), symbolizing his spiritual (piri) and temporal (miri) authorities. Sikhs place an equal emphasis on spiritual aspirations and obligations to society.

Guru Nanak prescribed the daily routine, along with agricultural activity for sustenance, for the Kartarpur community. He defined the ideal person as a Gurmukh (one oriented toward the Guru), who practiced the threefold discipline of "the divine Name, charity, and purity" (nam-dan-ishnan). Indeed, these three features—nam (relation with the divine), dan (relation with the society), and ishnan (relation with the self)—provided a balanced approach for the development of the individual and the society. They corresponded to the cognitive, the communal, and the personal aspects of the evolving Sikh identity. For Guru Nanak the true spiritual life required that "one should live on what one has earned through hard work and that one should share with others the fruit of one's exertion" (Adi Granth, p. 1,245). In addition, service (seva), self-respect (pati), truthful living (sach achar), humility, sweetness of the tongue, and taking only one's rightful share (haq halal) were regarded as highly prized ethical virtues in pursuit of liberation. At Kartarpur, Guru Nanak gave practical expression to the ideals that had matured during the period of his travels, and he combined a life of disciplined devotion with worldly activities set in the context of normal family life. As part of the Sikh liturgy, Guru Nanak's Japji (Meditation) was recited in the early hours of the morning, and So Dar (That Door) and Arti (Adoration) were sung in the evening.

Guru Nanak's spiritual message found expression at Kartarpur through key institutions: the sangat (holy fellowship), in which all felt that they belonged to one spiritual fraternity; the dharamsala, the original form of the Sikh place of worship; and the establishment of the langar, the dining convention that required people of all castes to sit in status-free lines (pangat) in order to share a common meal. The institution of langar promoted a spirit of unity and mutual belonging and struck at a major aspect of caste, thereby advancing the process of defining a distinctive Sikh identity. Finally, Guru Nanak created the institution of the Guru, or preceptor, who became the central authority in community life. Before he died in 1539, Guru Nanak designated one of his disciples, Lehna, as his successor by renaming him Angad, meaning "my own limb." Thus, a lineage was established, and a legitimate succession was maintained intact from the appointment of Guru Angad to the death of Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the 10th and last human Guru of the Sikhs.

The second Guru, Angad (1504–52), consolidated the nascent Sikh Panth in the face of the challenge offered by Guru Nanak's eldest son, Baba Sri Chand, the founder of the ascetic Udasi sect. Guru Angad further refined the Gurmukhi script for recording the compilation of the Guru's hymns (bani). The original Gurmukhi script was a systematization of two types of business shorthand Guru Nanak doubtless used professionally as a young man. This was an emphatic rejection of the superiority of the Devanagri and Arabic scripts (along with Sanskrit and the Arabic and Persian languages) and of the hegemonic authority they represented in the scholarly and religious circles of the time. The use of the Gurmukhi script added an element of demarcation and self-identity to the Sikh tradition. In fact, language became the single most important factor in the preservation of Sikh culture and identity and became the corner-stone of the religious distinctiveness that is part and parcel of the Sikh cultural heritage.

A major institutional development took place during the time of the third Guru, Amar Das (1479–1574), who introduced a variety of innovations to provide greater cohesion and unity to the ever-growing Sikh Panth. These included the establishment of the city of Goindval; the biannual festivals of Divali and Baisakhi, which provided an opportunity for the growing community to get together and meet the Guru; a missionary system (manji) for attracting new converts; and the preparation of the Goindval pothis, collections of the compositions of the Gurus and some of the medieval poetsaints.

The fourth Guru, Ram Das (1534–81), founded the city of Ramdaspur, where he constructed a large pool for the purpose of bathing. It was named Amritsar, meaning "the nectar of immortality." To build an independent economic base, the Guru appointed deputies (masands) to collect tithes and other contributions from loyal Sikhs. In addition to a large body of sacred verse, he composed the wedding hymn (lavan) for the solemnization of a Sikh marriage. Indeed, it was Guru Ram Das who explicitly responded to the question "Who is a Sikh?" with the following definition: "He who calls himself Sikh, a follower of the true Guru, should meditate on the divine Name after rising and bathing and recite Japji from memory, thus driving away all evil deeds and vices. As day unfolds he sings gurbani [utterances of the Gurus]; sitting or rising he meditates on the divine Name. He who repeats the divine Name with every breath and bite is indeed a true Sikh [gursikh] who gives pleasure to the Guru" (Adi Granth, pp. 305–6). Thus, the liturgical requirements of the reciting and singing of the sacred word became part of the very definition of being a Sikh. The most significant development was related to the self-image of Sikhs, who perceived themselves as unique and distinct from the other religious communities of North India.

The period of the fifth Guru, Arjan (1563–1606), was marked by a number of far-reaching institutional developments. First, at Amritsar, he built the Harimandir, or Darbar Sahib (later known as the Golden Temple), which acquired prominence as the central place of Sikh worship. Second, he compiled the first canonical scripture, the Adi Granth (Original Book), in 1604. Third, Guru Arjan established the rule of justice and humility (halemi raj) in the town of Ramdaspur, where everyone lived in comfort (Adi Granth, p. 74). He proclaimed, "The divine rule prevails in Ramdaspur due to the grace of the Guru. No tax [jizya] is levied, nor any fine; there is no collector of taxes" (Adi Granth, pp. 430, 817). The administration of the town was evidently in the hands of Guru Arjan, although in a certain sense Ramdaspur was an autonomous town within the context and the framework of the Mughal rule of Emperor Akbar. Fourth, by the end of the sixteenth century the Sikh Panth had developed a strong sense of independent identity, which is evident from Guru Arjan's assertion "We are neither Hindu nor Musalaman" (Adi Granth, p. 1,136).

Fifth, dissensions within the ranks of the Sikh Panth became the source of serious conflict. A great number of the Guru's compositions focus on the issue of dealing with the problems created by "slanderers" (nindak), who were rival claimants to the office of the Guruship. The Udasis and the Bhallas, the latter formed by Guru Amar Da'ss eldest son, Baba Mohan, and his followers, had already established parallel seats of authority and had paved the way for competing views of Sikh identity. The rivalry of these dissenters had been heightened when Guru Arjan was designated for the throne of Ram Das in preference to his eldest brother, Prithi Chand, who even approached the local Mughal administrators to claim the position of his father. At some point Prithi Chand and his followers were branded Minas (dissembling rogues).

Finally, the author of Dabistan-i-Mazahib ("The School of Religions"), a mid-seventeenth-century work in Persian, testifies that the number of Sikhs had rapidly increased during Guru Arjan's period and that "there were not many cities in the inhabited countries where some Sikhs were not to be found." In fact, the growing strength of the Sikh movement attracted the unfavorable attention of the ruling authorities because of the reaction of Muslim revivalists of the Naqshbandi order in Mughal India. There is clear evidence in the compositions of Guru Arjan that a series of complaints were made against him to the functionaries of the Mughal state, giving them an excuse to watch the activities of the Sikhs. The liberal policy of Emperor Akbar may have sheltered the Guru and his followers for a time, but in May 1606, within eight months of Akbar's death, Guru Arjan, under torture by the orders of the new emperor, Jahangir, was executed. The Sikh community perceived his death as the so-called first martyrdom, which became a turning point in the history of the Sikh tradition.

Indeed, a radical reshaping of the Sikh Panth took place after Guru Arjan's martyrdom. The sixth Guru, Hargobind (1595–1644), signaled the formal process when he traditionally donned two swords, symbolizing the spiritual (piri) as well as the temporal (miri) investiture. He also built the Akal Takhat (Throne of the Timeless One) facing the Darbar Sahib, which represented the newly assumed role of temporal authority. Under his direct leadership the Sikh Panth took up arms in order to protect itself from Mughal hostility. From the Sikh perspective this new development was not taken at the cost of abandoning the original spiritual base. Rather, it was meant to achieve a balance between temporal and spiritual concerns. A Sikh theologian of the period, Bhai Gurdas, defended this martial response as "hedging the orchard of the Sikh faith with [the] hardy and thorny kikar tree." After four skirmishes with Mughal troops, Guru Hargobind withdrew to the Shivalik hills, and Kiratpur became the new center of the mainline Sikh tradition. Amritsar fell into the hands of the Minas, who established a parallel line of Guruship with the support of the Mughal authorities.

During the time of the seventh and eighth Gurus, Har Rai (1630–61) and Har Krishan (1656–64), the emphasis on armed conflict with the Mughal authorities receded, but the Gurus held court and kept a regular force of Sikh horsemen. During the period of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur (1621–75), however, the increasing strength of the Sikh movement in rural areas again attracted Mughal attention. Guru Tegh Bahadur's ideas of a just society inspired a spirit of fearlessness among his followers: "He who holds none in fear, nor is afraid of anyone, Nanak, acknowledge him alone as a man of true wisdom" (Adi Granth, p. 1,427). Such ideas posed a direct challenge to the increasingly restrictive policies of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who reigned from 1658 to 1707. Not surprisingly, Guru Tegh Bahadur was summoned to Delhi by the orders of the emperor, and on his refusal to embrace Islam he was publicly executed in Chandni Chowk on 11 November 1675. The Sikhs perceived his death as the second martyrdom, which involved larger issues of human rights and freedom of conscience.

Tradition holds that the Sikhs who were present at the scene of Guru Tegh Bahadur's execution shrank from recognition, concealing their identity for fear they might suffer a similar fate. In order to respond to this new situation, the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, resolved to impose on his followers an outward form that would make them instantly recognizable. He restructured the Sikh Panth and instituted the Khalsa (pure), an order of loyal Sikhs bound by a common identity and discipline. On Baisakhi Day 1699 at Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh initiated the first so-called Cherished Five (panj piare), who formed the nucleus of the new order of the Khalsa. The five volunteers who responded to the Guru's call for loyalty, and who came from different castes and regions of India, received the initiation through a ceremony that involved sweetened water (amrit) stirred with a two-edged sword and sanctified by the recitation of five liturgical prayers.


Adi Granth
Original Book; the primary Sikh scripture
Akal Purakh
Timeless One; God
divine nectar; sweetened water used in the initiation ceremony of the Khalsa
charity; a person's relation with society
reader of scripture and leader of rituals in the gurdwara
door of the Guru; house of worship
a person oriented toward the Guru
spiritual preceptor, either a person or the mystical "voice" of Akal Purakh
Guru Granth, or Guru Granth Sahib
the Adi Granth, or scripture, functioning as Guru
Guru Panth
the Sikh Panth, or community, functioning as Guru
divine order
birth narrative; a hagiographical biography
karah prashad
sanctified food, prepared in a large iron dish, or karahi
influence of a person's past actions on his future lives
a discourse on scripture in a gurdwara; homily
female surname meaning Princess
order of "pure" Sikhs, established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699
devotional singing
community dining
the divine name
the core of a person, including self-respect
holy fellowship; a congregation
rebirth; transmigration
the divine word
Sikh Panth
the Sikh community
Sikh Rahit Maryada
Sikh Code of Conduct
male surname meaning Lion
divine command

From the perspective of ritual studies, three significant issues were linked with the first amrit ceremony. First, all who chose to join the order of the Khalsa through the ceremony were understood to have been "reborn" in the house of the Guru and thus to have assumed a new identity. The male members were given the surname Singh (Lion), and female members were given the surname Kaur (Princess), with the intention of creating a parallel system of aristocratic titles in relation to the Rajput hill chiefs of the surrounding areas of Anandpur. Second, the Guru symbolically transferred his spiritual authority to the Cherished Five when he him-self received the nectar of the double-edged sword from their hands and thus became a part of the Khalsa Panth and subject to its collective will. In this way he not only paved the way for the termination of a personal Guruship but also abolished the institution of the masands, which was becoming increasingly disruptive. Several of the masands had refused to forward collections to the Guru, creating factionalism in the Sikh Panth. In addition, Guru Gobind Singh removed the threat posed by the competing seats of authority when he declared that the Khalsa should have no dealings with the followers of Prithi Chand (Minas), Dhir Mal (Guru Har Rai's elder brother, who established his seat at Kartarpur, Jalandhar), and Ram Rai (Guru Har Krishan's elder brother, who established his seat at Dehra Dun). Finally, Guru Gobind Singh delivered the nucleus of the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Code of Conduct) at the inauguration of the Khalsa. By sanctifying the hair with amrit, he made it "the official seal of the Guru," and the cutting of bodily hair was thus strictly prohibited. The Guru further imposed a rigorous ban on smoking. He made the most visible symbols of external identity, the so-called five Ks, mandatory for the Khalsa, as explained below under SACRED SYMBOLS.

The inauguration of the Khalsa was the culmination of the canonical period in the development of Sikhism. Guru Gobind Singh also closed the Sikh canon by adding a collection of the works of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, to the original compilation of the Adi Granth. Before he died in 1708, he terminated the line of personal Gurus, and he installed the Adi Granth as the eternal Guru for Sikhs. Thereafter, the authority of the Guru was invested together in the scripture (Guru Granth) and in the corporate community (Guru Panth). Sikhism thus evolved in response to four main elements. The first of these was the ideology based on the religious and cultural innovations of Guru Nanak and his nine successors. The second was the rural base of Punjabi society. During the period of Guru Arjan the founding of the villages of Taran Taran, Sri Hargobindpur, and Kartarpur in rural areas saw large numbers of converts from the local Jat peasantry. It may have been the militant traditions of the Jats that brought the Sikh Panth into increasing conflict with Mughal authorities, a conflict that shaped the future direction of the movement. The third factor was the conflict created within the Sikh community by dissidents, which originally worked to counter and then, paradoxically, to enhance the process of the crystallization of the Sikh tradition. The fourth element was the period of Punjabi history from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, in which the Sikh Panth evolved in tension with the Mughal authorities. All four elements combined to produce the mutual interaction between ideology and environment that came to characterize the historical development of Sikhism.


The nature of ultimate reality in Sikh doctrine is succinctly expressed in the Mul Mantar (seed formula), the preamble to the Sikh scripture. The basic theological statement reads as follows: "There is one Supreme Being ['1' Oankar], the Eternal Reality, the Creator, without fear and devoid of enmity, immortal, never incarnated, self-existent, known by grace through the Guru. The Eternal One, from the beginning, through all time, present now, the Everlasting Reality" (Adi Granth, p. 1). The numeral "1" at the beginning of the original Punjabi text represents the unity of Akal Purakh (the Timeless One, or God), a concept that Guru Nanak interpreted in monotheistic terms. It affirms that Akal Purakh is one without a second, the source as well as the goal of all that exists. As the creator and sustainer of the universe, he lovingly watches over it. He is the source of love and grace and responds to the devotion of his humblest followers. Paradoxically, he is both transcendent (nirguna, "without attributes") and immanent (saguna, "with attributes"). Only in personal experience can he be truly known. Despite the stress laid on nirguna discourse within the Sikh tradition, which directs the devotee to worship a nonincarnate, universal God, in Sikh doctrine God is partially embodied in the divine name (nam) and in the collective words (bani) and in the person of the Guru and the saints.

With regard to the creation of the world, there is Guru Nanak's cosmology hymn in Maru Raga (Adi Granth, pp. 1035–36). He maintained that the universe "comes into being by the divine order" (Adi Granth, p. 1). Guru Nanak said further, "From the True One came air and from air came water; from water he created the three worlds and infused in every heart his own light" (Adi Granth, p. 19). He employed the well-known Indic ideas of creation through the five basic elements of air, water, ether, fire, and earth: "The Eternal One created nights, the days of the week, and the seasons of the year. With them came wind and water, fire and the regions established below. Amidst them all was set the earth, wherein the Maker meditates. Wondrous the creatures there created, boundless variety, countless their names. All must be judged for the deeds they perform, by a faultless judge in a perfect court" (Adi Granth, p. 7). As the creation of Akal Purakh, the physical universe is real but subject to constant change. For Guru Nanak the world was divinely inspired. It is a place that provides human beings with an opportunity to perform their duty and to achieve union with Akal Purakh. Thus, actions performed in earthly existence are important, for "all of us carry the fruits of our deeds" (Adi Granth, p. 4).

The notions of karma (actions) and sansar (rebirth, or transmigration) are fundamental to all religious traditions originating in India. Karma is popularly understood in Indian thought as the principle of cause and effect. The principle is logical and inexorable, but karma is also understood as a predisposition that safeguards the notion of free choice. In Sikh doctrine, however, the notion of karma underwent a radical change. For the Gurus the law of karma was not inexorable. In the context of the Guru Nanak's theology, karma is subject to the higher principle of the "divine order" (hukam). The divine order is an "all-embracing principle" that is the sum total of all divinely instituted laws in the cosmos. It is a revelation of the divine nature. Indeed, the law of karma is replaced by Akal Purakh's hukam, which is no longer an impersonal causal phenomenon but falls within the sphere of Akal Purakh's omnipotence and justice: "The divine name can wash away millions of sins in a moment" (Adi Granth, p. 1,283). In fact, the primacy of divine grace over the law of karma is always maintained in Sikh teachings, and divine grace even breaks the chain of adverse karma.

Guru Nanak employed the following key terms to describe the nature of divine revelation in its totality:nam (the divine name), shabad (divine word), and guru (divine preceptor). The nam reflects the manifestation of the divine presence everywhere, yet because of their haumai, or self-centeredness, humans fail to perceive it. The Punjabi term haumai (I, I) signifies the powerful impulse to succumb to personal gratification, so that a person is separated from Akal Purakh and thus continues to suffer within the cycle of rebirth (sansar). Akal Purakh, however, looks graciously upon the suffering of people. He reveals himself through the Guru by uttering the shabad (divine word) that communicates a sufficient understanding of the nam (divine name) to those who are able to hear it. The shabad is the actual "utterance," and in "hearing" it one awakens to the reality of the divine name, immanent in all that lies around and within.

The Adi Granth

The Adi Granth, the principal scripture of the Sikhs, has played a unique role as Guru, or preceptor, in the personal piety, liturgy, and corporate life of the Sikh Panth, or community. It has provided a framework for the shaping of the Sikh Panth and has been a decisive factor in giving Sikhs a distinctive identity. The Adi Granth occupies a central position in all Sikh ceremonies, and the experience of hearing it read has provided the Sikh tradition with a sense of the living presence of the divine Guru. The daily process of "seeking the divine command" by opening the scripture at random inspires Sikhs throughout the world and confirms the function of the scripture as Guru, known as Guru Granth Sahib. Indeed, the Guru Granth Sahib has given Sikhs a sacred focus for reflection and for discovering the meaning of life. It has functioned as a supratextual source of authority within the Sikh tradition. Thus, the ultimate authority within the Sikh Panth for a wide range of personal and public conduct lies in the Guru Granth Sahib. In a certain sense Sikhs have taken their conception of sacred scripture further than the People of the Book such as Jews and Muslims.

The institution of the Guru carries spiritual authority in the Sikh tradition. In most Indian religious traditions the term guru stands for a human teacher who communicates divine knowledge and provides his disciples with a cognitive map for liberation. In Sikhism, however, its meaning has evolved into a cluster of doctrines over a period of time. There are four focal points of spiritual authority, each acknowledged within the Sikh tradition as Guru: (1) doctrine of eternal Guru, (2) doctrine of personal Guru, (3) doctrine of Guru Granth, and (4) doctrine of Guru Panth. First, Guru Nanak used the term in three basic senses: the Guru is Akal Purakh; the Guru is the voice of Akal Purakh; and the Guru is the word, the truth, of Akal Purakh. To experience the eternal Guru is to experience divine guidance. Guru Nanak himself acknowledged Akal Purakh as his Guru: "He who is the infinite, supreme God is the Guru whom Nanak has met" (Adi Granth, p. 599). In Sikh usage, therefore, the Guru is the voice of Akal Purakh, mystically uttered within the human heart, mind, and soul (man).

Second, the personal Guru functions as the channel through whom the voice of Akal Purakh becomes audible. Nanak became the embodiment of the eternal Guru only when he received the divine word and conveyed it to his disciples. The same spirit manifested itself successively in those who followed. In fact, Guru Nanak by-passed the claims of his own son Sri Chand, disqualified by his ascetic ideals, in favor of a more worthy disciple. Guru Angad followed the example of his master when he chose the elderly disciple Amar Das in preference to his own sons. By the time of the third Guru, however, the hereditary pattern asserted itself when Amar Das designated as his successor his son-in-law, Ram Das, who, in turn, was followed by his youngest son, Arjan, the direct ancestor of all later Gurus. Nevertheless, the succession in each case went to the most suitable candidate, not automatically from father to eldest son. In Sikh doctrine a theory of spiritual succession was advanced in the form of "the unity of Guruship," in which there was no difference between the founder and the successors. Thus, all represented one and the same light (jot), just as a single flame can ignite a series of torches. The same principle is illustrated in the Adi Granth by the fact that the six Gurus contributing to the Sikh scripture signed their compositions "Nanak," each being identified by the code word Mahala (King) and the appropriate number. Thus, the compositions labeled Mahala 1 (M 1) are by Guru Nanak, and those labeled M 2, M 3, M 4, M 5, and M 9 are by Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan, and Guru Tegh Bahadur, respectively.

Third, in Sikh usage the Adi Granth is normally referred to as the Guru Granth Sahib, which implies a confession of faith in the scripture as Guru. As such, the Guru Granth Sahib carries the same status and authority as did the 10 personal Gurus, from Guru Nanak through Guru Gobind Singh, and it must, therefore, be viewed as the source of ultimate authority within the Sikh Panth. In actual practice Guru Granth Sahib performs the role of Guru in the personal piety and corporate identity of the Sikh community. It has become the symbol of ultimate sanctity for the Sikh Panth, and it is treated with the most profound respect when it is installed ceremonially in a gurdwara (Guru's house), the Sikh place of worship.

Finally, the key phrase Guru Panth is normally employed in two senses: first, as the Panth of the Guru, referring to the Sikh community in general; and second, as the Panth as the Guru, pointing specifically to the Sikh community's role as a Guru. This doctrine fully developed from the earlier idea that "the Guru is mystically present in the congregation." At the inauguration of the Khalsa in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh symbolically transferred his authority to the Cherished Five when he received initiation from their hands. Sainapati, the near contemporary author of Gur Sobha (1711), recorded that Guru Gobind Singh designated the Khalsa as the collective embodiment of his divine mandate: "Upon the Khalsa which I have created I shall bestow the succession. The Khalsa is my physical form and I am one with the Khalsa. To all eternity I am manifest in the Khalsa. Those whose hearts are purged of falsehood will be known as the true Khalsa; and the Khalsa, freed from error and illusion, will be my true Guru." Thus, the elite corps of the Khalsa has always claimed to speak authoritatively on behalf of the whole Sikh Panth, although at times non-Khalsa Sikhs interpret the doctrine of Guru Panth as conferring authority on a community more broadly defined. As a practical matter, consensus within the community of Sikhs is achieved by following democratic traditions.

In order to achieve a state of spiritual liberation (jivan mukati) within one's lifetime, one must transcend the unregenerate condition created by the influence of haumai. In fact, haumai is the source of the five evil impulses traditionally known as lust (kam), anger (krodh), covetousness (lobh), attachment to worldly things (moh), and pride (hankar). Under the influence of haumai a person becomes self-willed (manmukh), one who is so attached to his passions for worldly pleasures that he forgets the divine name and wastes his entire life in evil and suffering. This unregenerate condition can be transcended by means of the strictly interior discipline of nam-simaran, or "remembering the divine Name." This three-fold process ranges from the repetition of a sacred word, usually Vahiguru (praise to the eternal Guru), through the devotional singing of hymns with the congregation, to sophisticated meditation on the nature of Akal Purakh. The first and the third levels of this practice involve private devotions, while the second refers to a corporate activity. On the whole the discipline of nam-simaran is designed to bring a person into harmony with the divine order (hukam). The person thus gains the experience of ever growing wonder (vismad) in spiritual life, and he achieves the ultimate condition of blissful equanimity (sahaj) when the spirit ascends to the "realm of Truth" (sach khand), the fifth and the last of the spiritual stages, in which the soul finds mystical union with Akal Purakh, or God.

The primacy of divine grace over personal effort is fundamental to Guru Nanak's theology. There is, however, neither fatalism nor any kind of passive acceptance of a predestined future in his view of life. He proclaimed, "With your own hands carve out your own destiny" (Adi Granth, p. 474). Indeed, personal effort in the form of good actions has a place in Guru Nanak's view of life. His idea of "divine free choice," on the one hand, and his emphasis on a "life of activism" based on human freedom, on the other, reflect his ability to hold in tension seemingly opposed elements. Guru Nanak explicitly saw this balancing of opposed tendencies, which avoids rigid predestination theories and yet enables people to see their own free will as a part of Akal Purakh, as allowing Sikhs the opportunity to create their own destinies, a feature stereotypically associated with Sikh enterprise throughout the world.


In his role as what the sociologist Max Weber called an "ethical prophet," Guru Nanak called for a decisive break with existing formulations and laid the foundations of a new, rational model of normative behavior based on divine authority. Throughout his writings he conceived of his work as divinely commissioned, and he demanded the obedience of his audience as an ethical duty. In fact, Guru Nanak repeatedly proclaimed that the realization of the divine truth depended upon the conduct of the seeker. At the beginning of his Japji (Meditation), he raised the fundamental question "How is Truth to be attained, how the veil of falsehood torn aside?" He then responded, "Nanak, thus it is written: submit to the divine order [hukam], walk in its ways" (Adi Granth, p. 1). Truth obviously is not obtained by intellectual effort or cunning but only by personal commitment. To know truth one must live in it.

The salient features of Sikh ethics are as follows. First, the Sikh ethical structure stands on the firm rock of a "living faith" in Akal Purakh. Accordingly, an action is right or an ideal is good if it contributes toward the love of Akal Purakh. Second, the seeker of the divine truth must live an ethical life. An immoral person is neither worthy of being called a true seeker nor capable of attaining the spiritual goal of life. Any dichotomy between spiritual development and moral conduct is not approved in Sikh ethics. In this context Guru Nanak explicitly said, "Truth is the highest virtue, but higher still is truthful living" (Adi Granth, p. 62). Indeed, truthful conduct (sach achar) is at the heart of Sikh ethics.

Third, the central focus in the Sikh moral scheme involves the cultivation of virtues such as wisdom, contentment, justice, humility, truthfulness, temperance, love, forgiveness, charity, purity, and fear of Akal Purakh. Guru Nanak remarked, "Sweetness and humility are the essence of all virtues" (Adi Granth, p. 470). These virtues not only enrich the personal lives of individuals, but they also promote socially responsible living. The Gurus laid great stress on the need to earn one's living through honest means. In particular, living by alms or begging is strongly rejected. Emphasizing hard work and sharing, Sikh ethics forbids withdrawal from social participation. Fourth, the Gurus offered their own vision of the cultivation of egalitarian ideals in social relations. Such ideals are based on the principle of social equality, gender equality, and human brotherhood. Thus, it is not surprising that any kind of discrimination based on caste or gender is expressly rejected in Sikh ethics.

Fifth, the key element of religious living is to render service (seva) to others in the form of mutual help and voluntary work. The real importance of seva lies in sharing one's resources of "body, mind, and wealth" (tan-man-dhan) with others. This is an expression toward fellow beings of what one feels toward Akal Purakh. The service must be rendered without the desire for self-glorification, and, in addition, self-giving service must be done without setting oneself up as a judge of other people. The Ardas (Petition, or Sikh Prayer) holds in high esteem the quality of "seeing but not judging" (anadith karana). Social bonds are often damaged beyond redemption when people, irrespective of their own limitations, unconscionably judge others. The Sikh Gurus emphasized the need to destroy this root of social strife and enmity through self-giving service.

Finally, in Guru Nanak's view all human actions presuppose the functioning of divine grace. Thus, one must continue to perform good actions at all stages of spiritual development to prevent a "fall from grace" and to set an example for others. Sikhism stresses the dignity of regular labor as a part of spiritual discipline. This is summed up in the following triple commandment: engage in honest labor (kirat karani) for a living, adore the divine name (nam japana), and share the fruit of labor with others (vand chhakana). The formula stresses both the centrality of meditative worship and the necessity of righteous living in the world. The Sikh Gurus placed great emphasis on a spirit of optimism (charhdi kala) in the face of adverse circumstances. They stressed the ideals of moderate living and disciplined worldliness in contrast to the ideals of asceticism and self-mortification. In this context Guru Nanak proclaimed, "As the lotus in the pool and the water fowl in the stream remain dry; so a person should live, untouched by the world. One should meditate on the Name of the Supreme Lord" (Adi Granth, p. 938).


The Adi Granth (Original Book) is the primary scripture of the Sikhs. It contains the works of the first 5 and 9th Sikh Gurus, 4 bards (Satta, Balvand, Sundar, and Mardana), 11 Bhatts (panegyrists associated with the Sikh court), and 15 Bhagats (devotees such as Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, Shaikh Farid, and other medieval poets of Sant, Sufi, and Bhakti origin). The standard version contains a total of 1,430 pages, and each page is identical. The text of the Adi Granth is divided into three major sections. The introductory section includes three liturgical prayers. The middle section, which contains the bulk of the material, is divided into 31 major ragas, or Indian musical patterns. The final section includes an epilogue consisting of miscellaneous works that could not be accommodated in the middle section.

The second sacred collection, the Dasam Granth (Book of the 10th Guru), is attributed to the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, but it must have extended beyond his time to include the writings of others as well. Mani Singh, who died in 1734, compiled the collection early in the eighteenth century. Its modern standard version of 1,428 pages consists of four major types of compositions: devotional texts, autobiographical works, miscellaneous writings, and a collection of mythical narratives and popular anecdotes.

The works of two early Sikhs, Bhai Gurdas (1551–1636) and Bhai Nand Lal Goya (c. 1633–1713), make up the third category of sacred literature. Along with the sacred compositions of the Gurus, their works are approved in the official manual of the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) for singing in the gurdwaras.

The last category of Sikh literature includes three distinct genres: the janam-sakhis (birth narratives), the rahit-namas (manuals of code of conduct), and the gurbilas (pleasure of the Guru) literature. The janam-sakhis are hagiographical accounts of Guru Nanak's life produced by the Sikh community in the seventeenth century. The rahit-namas provide rare insight into the evolving nature of the Khalsa code in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The gur-bilas mainly focuses on the mighty deeds of two warrior Gurus, Guru Hargobind and, particularly, Guru Gobind Singh.


All Sikhs initiated into the order of the Khalsa must observe the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) as enunciated by Guru Gobind Singh and subsequently elaborated. The most significant part of the code is the enjoinder to wear five visible symbols of identity, known from their Punjabi names as the five Ks (panj kakke). These are unshorn hair (kes), symbolizing spirituality and saintliness; a wooden comb (kangha), signifying order and discipline in life; a sword (kirpan), symbolizing divine grace, dignity, and courage; a steel "wrist-ring" (kara), signifying responsibility and allegiance to the Guru; and a pair of short breeches (kachh), symbolizing moral restraint. Among Sikhs the five Ks are outer symbols of the divine word, implying a direct correlation between bani (divine utterance) and bana (Khalsa dress). The five Ks, along with a turban for male Sikhs, symbolize that the Khalsa Sikhs, while reciting prayers, are dressed in the word of God. Their minds are thus purified and inspired, and their bodies are girded to do battle with the day's temptations. In addition, Khalsa Sikhs are prohibited from the four cardinal sins (char kurahit): "cutting the hair, using tobacco, committing adultery, and eating meat that has not come from an animal killed with a single blow."


During the eighteenth century the Khalsa Sikhs were largely occupied in fighting the armies of Mughals and Afghan invaders, until Sikhs emerged victorious with the establishment of rule in the Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who reigned from 1799 to 1839. This brought settled conditions for the Sikh community, and territorial expansion attracted people of different cultural and religious backgrounds into the fold of Sikhism. The contemporary appearance of the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar owes much to the munificent patronage of the maharaja. He patronized scribes, who made beautiful copies of the standard version of the Sikh scripture that were sent as gifts to the Sikh takhats (thrones) and other major historical gurdwaras. Maharaja Ranjit Singh's rule was marked by religious diversity within the Sikh Panth.

The loss of the Sikh kingdom to British India in 1849 created a new situation for the Sikh Panth. In fact, the modern religious and cultural transformation within the Sikh tradition took place during the colonial period at the initiatives of the Singh Sabha (Society of the Singhs). This reform movement began in 1873 at Amritsar under the leadership of four prominent Sikhs: Sardar Thakur Singh Sandhanvalia (1837–87), Baba Khem Singh Bedi (1832–1905), Kanvar Bikrama Singh (1835–87) of Kapurthala, and Giani Gian Singh (1824–84) of Amritsar. The principal objective of the Singh Sabha reformers was to reaffirm the distinctiveness of Sikh identity in the face of the twin threats posed by the casual reversion to Hindu practices during Sikh rule and the explicit challenges from actively proselytizing religious movements such as Christian missionaries and the Arya Samaj (Society of the Aryas). The Tat Khalsa (Pure Khalsa), the dominant wing of the Singh Sabha movement, succeeded in eradicating all forms of religious diversity by the end of the nineteenth century and established norms of religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The reformers were largely successful in making the Khalsa ideal the orthodox form of Sikhism, and they systematized and clarified the Khalsa tradition to make Sikhism consistent and effective for propagation. Indeed, the Tat Khalsa ideal of Sikh identity, which was forged in the colonial crucible, was both old and new.

Further, in the Anand Marriage Act of 1909 the Tat Khalsa reformers secured legal recognition of a distinctive ritual for Sikh weddings, and they reestablished direct Khalsa control of the major historical gurdwaras, many of which had fallen over the years into the hands of corrupt Mahants (Custodians) supported by the British. Inspired by the Tat Khalsa ideal, the Akali movement of the 1920s eventually secured British assent to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925. The immediate effect of the act was to make available to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC; Chief Management Committee of Sikh Shrines) the enormous political and economic benefits that came from control of the gurdwaras. In 1950, after a consensus was reached within the Sikh community, the standard manual, entitled Sikh Rahit Maryada, was published under the auspices of the SGPC. The manual has ever since been regarded as an authoritative statement of Sikh doctrine and behavior.

Master Tara Singh (1885–1967), a president of the SGPC, was the dominant figure on the Sikh political scene for the middle third of the twentieth century. Later Gurcharan Singh Tohra (born in 1924) held the office of the president of the SGPC for more than two decades. The first woman ever to become president of the SGPC was Bibi Jagir Kaur, who held the office in1999–2000. Parallel to the SGPC, the Akali Dal (Army of the Followers of the Timeless One) has functioned as a Sikh political party. Two saintly figures, Sant Fateh Singh (1911–72) and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal (1932–85), were among the prominent leaders of the Akali Dal. After the 1984 assault by Indian government troops on the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar, how-ever, the Akali Dal was divided into several factions, with Parkash Singh Badal becoming the leader of the dominant group.


The first acknowledged Sikh theologian was Bhai Gurdas (1551–1636), whom Guru Arjan chose to act as his assistant during the final recording of the Adi Granth. He was a poet of rare insight whose works are generally regarded as the "key to the Guru Granth Sahib." The most influential among his writings are 39 lengthy vars (ballads) that provide extensive commentaries on the teachings of the Gurus. Throughout his works Bhai Gurdas deals with essential doctrines taught by the Gurus (gurmat): the unity of Guruship, the Sikh way of life, Sikh morality, holy fellowship, the ideal Sikh who has turned toward the Guru (gurmukh), and so on.

Santokh Singh (1788–1843) was the most prominent of all Sikh hagiographers. He earned considerable popularity owing to the fact that he covered the complete range of the Guru's lives in Braj Bhasha, which consists of 51,820 verses. His magnum opus, Suraj Prakash, is frequently used in Sikh discourses (katha) in the gurdwaras. Kahn Singh Nabha (1861–1938) was a renowned scholar of Tat Khalsa ideals. His Mahan Kosh (1930), an encyclopedia of Sikh literature, is a permanent monument to his unmatched industry and erudition. The name of Max Arthur Macauliffe (1837–1913) is deeply revered in the Sikh Panth. A British civil servant assigned to Punjab, he rose to be a deputy commissioner in 1882 and a divisional judge in 1884. Meanwhile, he studied the literature of the Sikhs, and in 1893 he resigned his position to devote his time exclusively to the writing of the six-volume The Sikh Religion (1909), containing the lives of the 10 Gurus and of the poet-saints (bhagats) of the Adi Granth, together with extensive translations of their works. Bhai Vir Singh (1872–1957), a celebrated poet, scholar, and exegete, was the leading intellectual of the Singh Sabha movement and has continued to command considerable respect for his many literary works. Bhai Jodh Singh (1882–1981) was a patriarchal figure for many years in the field of Sikh theology, and his Gurmat Niranay (1932) offers a systematic statement of Sikh doctrines.

Ganda Singh (1900–87) was a doyen of Sikh history whose critical works became influential in northern India. Harbans Singh (1921–98), a distinguished inter-preter of Sikh history and tradition, edited the four-volume The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (1992–98), thus offering a valuable contribution in the area of Sikh studies. Khushwant Singh (born in 1915) has made his mark as a Sikh journalist, and his classic two-volume A History of the Sikhs, originally published in 1963 and published in India in 1977, is widely acclaimed. J.S. Grewal (born in 1927) is considered to be the father of the field of modern Sikh and Punjab studies. As a leading Western scholar of Sikh religion and history, W.H. McLeod (born in 1932) has single-handedly introduced, nourished, and advanced the field of Sikh studies. His works have been received with much enthusiasm and global critical acclaim, and on a number of occasions he has represented the Sikhs and Sikhism to both academic and popular audiences in the English-speaking world. The credit for exporting Sikhism to the West, however, goes to Harbhajan Singh Khalsa (born in 1929), popularly known as Yogi Bhajan, who founded the Sikh Dharma movement in the United States in 1971. The movement, which is best known as 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy Organization), claims several thousand Western adherents scattered over some 17 countries.


Sikhism is strictly a lay organization, which makes the issue of religious authority within the Panth a complex one. The Sikh Panth recognizes no priesthood, and there is no centralized "church" or attendant religious hierarchy. At the inauguration of the Khalsa on Baisakhi Day 1699, Guru Gobind Singh chose five Sikhs (panj piare, the "Cherished Five") of proven loyalty to receive the first initiation of the double-edged sword and then to administer it to the Guru himself and to others. He thus symbolically trans-ferred his authority to the Cherished Five, who became responsible for conducting initiation ceremonies. According to well-established tradition, Guru Gobind Singh conferred his spiritual authority upon the scripture (Guru Granth) and the community (Guru Panth) together when he died in 1708. Since then the twin doctrines of Guru Granth and Guru Panth have successfully provided cohesive ideals for the evolution of the Sikh community.

In 1925 the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC; Chief Management Committee of Sikh Shrines) came into being as an elected body to manage shrines in the Punjab. As a democratic institution, it eventually became the authoritative voice of the Sikh community in religious and political affairs. In order to maintain its control over the large Sikh community, it invokes the authority of the Akal Takhat in Amritsar, which is the seat of religious and temporal authority among Sikhs. The Akal Takhat may issue edicts (hukam-namas) that provide guidance or clarification on any aspect of Sikh doctrine or practice. It may punish any person charged with a violation of religious discipline or with activity "prejudicial" to Sikh interests and unity, and it may place on record individuals who have performed outstanding service or made sacrifices for the sake of the Sikh cause.

The gurdwaras in the Sikh diaspora have their own managing committees. Each congregation (sangat) is a democratic community. Because there are no priests or ordained ministers, lay people actively participate in the various functions of a gurdwara on a voluntary basis. Each gurdwara, however, has an official granthi, or "reader" of the Sikh scriptures, who is responsible for conducting its routine rituals. As with other Sikh institutions, gurdwaras play a central role in community life by making it more religiously and culturally homogenous. They offer a wide variety of educational and cultural programs, such as the teaching and perpetuation of the Punjabi language and of Sikh music and songs among new generations. Some gurdwaras operate a Sikh version of a Sunday school, where children are given formal instruction in the tenets of Sikhism, while others support Sikh charitable and political causes.


The Sikh house of worship is the gurdwara, which literally means "the door of the Guru." In fact, a gurdwara is any place that houses the Guru Granth Sahib. The preeminent gurdwara of the Sikhs is the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, which is constructed in the center of a pool of particular sanctity. A gurdwara generally has an impressive white dome constructed on the model of the architecture of the Darbar Sahib. The presence of a public gurdwara is signaled by a triangular saffron Khalsa flag (nishan sahib) flying above it.

There are five major historic gurdwaras in India, each of which fulfills a special role in the Sikh Panth. These are the takhats (thrones) that play a temporal role in addition to the spiritual functions of all gurdwaras. Akal Takhat is the supreme seat of temporal authority of the Sikh faith, and from its balcony all matters of vital importance to the Panth as a whole are promulgated. The remaining four takhats are associated with the life of Guru Gobind Singh. They are Sri Harmandir Ji in Patna, marking his birthplace; Kesgarh in Anandpur Sahib, birthplace of the Khalsa; Sri Damdama Sahib in the village of Talvandi Sabo, where Guru Gobind Singh rested following his withdrawal to southern Punjab in 1706; and Sri Hazur Sahib in Nander, where he died in 1708. These holy places attract Sikh pilgrims from throughout the world.


As the creation of Akal Purakh, all life is sacred in Sikhism. First, human birth is sacred because it is the epitome of creation: "All other creation is subject to you, [O man/woman!], you reign supreme on this earth" (Adi Granth, p. 374). Indeed, human life provides an individual with the opportunity to remember the divine name and ultimately to join with the Supreme Being. Second, all of the five elements of creation are sacred because they sustain life: "Air is the Guru, water the Father and earth the mighty Mother of all. Day and night are the caring guardians, fondly nurturing all creation" (Adi Granth, p. 8). The protection of the environment is, therefore, an act of sacred duty in Sikhism. Third, all historical places associated with the lives of the 10 Gurus are sacred. Similarly, the Guru's writings, their weapons, and other articles associated with them are sacred relics preserved by the Sikh community. Finally, bathing in the pool of the "nectar of immortality" at the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar is regarded as a sacred activity, since it offers an opportunity to the individual to listen to the continuous singing of the Guru's hymns. Thus, through spiritual cleansing one washes away one's sins.

Major Subgroups of Sikhs

Among the 23–24 million Sikhs in the world, only approximately 15–20 percent are Amrit-dharis (Initiated), those who follow the orthodox form of Khalsa (pure) Sikhism. A large majority (about 70 percent) of Sikhs, however, are Kes-dharis—that is, those who "retain their hair" and thus maintain a visible identity. Although they have not gone through the Khalsa initiation ceremony, these Sikhs follow most of the Khalsa rahit (code).

The number of Sikhs who have shorn their hair, and are thus less conspicuous, is quite large in North America and in the United Kingdom. Popularly known as Mona (Clean-Shaven) Sikhs, they retain a Khalsa affiliation by using the surnames Singh and Kaur. These Sikhs are also called Ichha-dharis because, although they "desire" to keep their hair, they cut it under compulsion. They are sometimes confused with Sahaj-dhari (Gradualist) Sikhs, those who have never accepted the Khalsa discipline. Although Sahaj-dhari Sikhs practice nam-simaran (remembering the divine Name) and follow the teachings of the Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture, they do not observe the Khalsa rahit and, in particular, cut their hair. The number of Sahaj-dharis declined during the last few decades of the twentieth century, but they have not disappeared completely from the Sikh Panth.

Finally, there are those who violate the Khalsa rahit after initiation by cutting their hair. These lapsed Amrit-dharis, who are known as Patit, or Bikh-dhari (Apostate), Sikhs, are found largely in the diaspora.


The most important day in the Sikh calendar is Baisakhi (Vaisakhi) Day, which usually falls on 13 April. It is celebrated as the birthday of the community, since on this day in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa. Following a solar calendar, it is celebrated as New Year's Day in India, and Punjabis celebrate it as a grain harvest festival. Sikhs also celebrate the festival of lights, Divali, to mark the release of Guru Hargobind, who was imprisoned under the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The Darbar Sahib in Amritsar is illuminated for the occasion. The date of Divali varies according to the Indian lunar calendar, but it generally falls during October. Hindus celebrate with the theme of material wealth. It was the third Guru, Amar Das, who originally introduced the celebration of these two seasonal festivals to the Sikh Panth. Guru Gobind Singh added the observance of Hola Mahalla, the day after the Hindu festival of Holi (March/April), for the purpose of military exercises and organized athletic and literary contests. In addition, the anniversaries associated with the births and deaths of the Gurus are marked by the "unbroken reading" (akhand path) of the Sikh scripture by a relay of readers in approximately 48 hours. Such occasions are called Gurpurbs (holidays associated with the Gurus). In particular, the birthdays of Guru Nanak (usually in November) and Guru Gobind Singh (December/January) and the martyrdom days of Guru Arjan (May/June) and Guru Tegh Bahadur (November/December) are celebrated throughout the world.


Sikh women in India often wear salwars, pajama-like trousers, with a long tunic called a kameez over them. This is regarded as a regional dress of the Punjab. The trousers and tunics are comfortable and functional in the rural Punjabi villages, where more than 70 percent of the Sikh population is concentrated. In addition, the sari has become popular among urban Sikh women. It is worn with a full blouse that covers the midriff, so that the injunction warning against "wearing clothes which cause pain to the body or breed lustful thoughts" (Adi Granth, p. 16) is obeyed. To cover their heads, Sikh women wear a muslin scarf (dupatta/chunni).

In villages Sikh men normally wear tight-legged pajama-like trousers with long shirts that hang on the outside. In towns and cities, however, most men wear Western-style trousers and suits, with shirts buttoned at the collar and occasionally a tie. Indeed, Western dress has influenced Sikh men more than women. The Sikh granthis, gianis (traditional scholars), and sants (saints) normally wear white dress that consists of a turban, a long outer shirt (cholara), tight-fitting trousers (reb pajama), a sash (kamar-kasa), and an undergarment (kachh), as well as a sword (kirpan) with a belt running diagonally over the right shoulder. These five garments are part of Khalsa dress (bana).

The turban has a particular prominence in Sikh dress. Most Sikhs normally wear turbans of three colors—deep blue, white, and saffron—all of which have religious significance. For Khalsa Sikhs the significance of deep blue lies in the "highest ideals of character" (nili siahi kada karani) and in the "deepest urges in the life of spirituality" (Adi Granth, p. 16), since the blue sky stands for the highest horizon and the blue ocean stands for the depth. The color white stands for purity, while saffron represents the spirit of sacrifice in Sikh mores. Sikhs may wear a turban of any color, however, to match their clothes. They commonly wear a peaked turban to cover their long hair, unshorn out of respect for its original, God-given form.


The Adi Granth does not prescribe dietary rules, although it lays emphasis on "consuming only those foods which do not cause pain in the body or breed evil thoughts in the mind" (Adi Granth, p. 16). Most Punjabi Sikhs have a diet of simple vegetables and milk products. One favorite is a diet of corn bread and mustard greens (makki di roti and sag) with buttermilk (lassi). Punjabis also eat rice and chapati, a flat wheat bread, supplemented by a lentil curry (dal) and other vegetables. The Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) strictly forbids the consumption of kuttha meat (halal meat prepared according to the Muslim convention) but permits the eating of jhataka meat (meat killed with a single blow). Sikhs in Punjabi villages frequently consume the meat of goats and chickens. In order to maintain the egalitarian emphasis of the Gurus, the serving of eggs and meat is not permitted in the community kitchens (langars) of gurdwaras, where the food is exclusively vegetarian. The use of tobacco and other drugs is strictly prohibited to Khalsa Sikhs. Similarly, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden, although a large majority of the Punjabi population, particularly those from villages, is renowned for its use of hard liquor.


The daily routine of a devout Sikh begins with the practice of meditation upon the divine name. This occurs during the amritvela, the "ambrosial hours" (that is, the last watch of the night, between three and six in the morning), immediately after rising and bathing. Meditation is followed by the recitation of five liturgical prayers, which include the Japji of Guru Nanak. In most cases the early-morning devotion concludes in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib—that is, the scripture serving as Guru—in which the whole family gathers to receive the divine command (vak laina, or "taking God's word") by reading a passage selected at random. Similarly, a collection of hymns, Sodar Rahiras (Supplication at That Door), is prescribed for the evening prayers, and the Kirtan Sohila (Song of Praise) is recited before retiring for the night.

Congregational worship takes place in the gurdwara, where the main focus is upon the Guru Granth Sahib, installed in a ceremony every morning. Worship consists mainly of the singing of scriptural passages set to music, with the accompaniment of instruments. The singing of hymns (kirtan) in a congregational setting is the heart of the Sikh devotional experience. Through such kirtan the devotees attune themselves to vibrate in harmony with the divine word, which has the power to transform and unify their consciousness. The exposition of the scriptures, known as katha (homily), may be delivered at an appropriate time during the service by the granthi of the gurdwara or by the traditional Sikh scholar (giani). At the conclusion of the service, all who are present join in reciting the Ardas (Petition, or Sikh Prayer), which invokes divine grace and recalls the rich common heritage of the community. Then follows the reading of the vak (divine command) and the distribution of karah prashad (sanctified food).


The central feature of the key life-cycle rituals is always the Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture serving as Guru. When a child is to be named, the family takes the baby to the gurdwara and offers karah prashad (sanctified food). After giving thanks and offering prayers through Ardas, the scripture is opened at random, and a name is chosen beginning with the same letter as the first composition on the left-hand page. Thus, the process of vak laina (divine command) functions to provide the first letter of the name. The underlying principle is that the child derives his or her identity from the Guru's word and begins life as a Sikh. To a boy's chosen name the surname Singh (Lion) is added, and to a girl's chosen name Kaur (Princess) is added. In some cases, however, particularly in North America, people employ caste names (for example, Ahluwalia, Dhaliwal, Grewal, Kalsi, Sawhney, or Sethi) as the last element, and for them Singh and Kaur become middle names. In addition, the infant is administered sweetened water that is stirred with a sword, and the first five stanzas of Guru Nanak's Japji are recited.

A Sikh wedding, according to the Anand (Bliss) ceremony, also takes place in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, and the performance of the actual marriage requires the couple to circumambulate the sacred scripture four times to take four vows. Before the bridegroom and the bride make each round, they listen to a verse of the Lavan, or "wedding hymn" (Adi Granth, pp. 773–74), by the fourth Guru, Ram Das, as given by a scriptural reader. They bow before the scripture and then stand up to make their round while professional musicians sing the same verse with the congregation.

During the process of their clockwise movements around the scripture, they take the following four vows: (1) to lead an action-oriented life based upon righteousness and never to shun the obligations of family and society; (2) to maintain a bond of reverence and dignity between them; (3) to keep enthusiasm for life alive in the face of adverse circumstances and to remain removed from worldly attachments; and (4) to cultivate a "balanced approach" (sahaj) in life, avoiding all extremes. The pattern of circumambulation in the Anand marriage ceremony is the enactment of the primordial movement of life, in which there is no beginning and no end. Remembering the four marital vows is designed to make the life of the couple blissful.

The key initiation ceremony (amrit sanskar) for a Sikh must take place in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. There is no fixed age for initiation, which may be done at any time the person is willing to accept the Khalsa discipline. Five Khalsa Sikhs, representing the collectivity of the original Cherished Five (panj piare), conduct the ceremony. Each recites from memory one of the five liturgical prayers while stirring the sweetened water (amrit) with a double-edged sword. The novice then drinks the amrit five times so that his body is purified from the influence of five vices, and five times the amrit is sprinkled on his eyes to transform his outlook toward life. Finally, the amrit is poured on his head five times to sanctify his hair so that he will preserve his natural form and listen to the voice of conscience. Throughout each of the procedures the Sikh being initiated formally takes the oath by repeating the following declaration: Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa! Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh! (Khalsa belongs to the Wonderful Lord! Victory belongs to the Wonderful Lord!). Thus, a person becomes a Khalsa Sikh through the transforming power of the sacred word. At the conclusion of the ceremony a vak (divine command) is given, and karah prashad is distributed.

Finally, at the time of death, both in the period preceding cremation and in the postcremation rites, hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib are sung. In addition, a reading of the entire scripture takes place at home or in a gurdwara. Within 10 days of the conclusion of the reading, a bhog (completion) ceremony is held, at which final prayers are offered in memory of the deceased.


Although Sikhism is an organized religion, the issue of membership is complex. Punjabi society is kinship-based, with most of the people Sikhs by birth. To a certain extent it is a closed society, and Sikhs are not ordinarily known as aggressively expansionist in urging their beliefs upon others. Despite the absence of an active agenda to proselytize non-Sikhs into the tradition, people may join Sikhism of their own free will. In fact, conversion to Sikhism indicates the extent to which a person incorporates the ideals of the Guru (gurbani, prashad, amrit, rahit, and so on) into his life when he formally joins the Khalsa order through the initiation ceremony. It is interesting to note that in Sikh society the idea of conversion does not carry with it the same notions as in Christianity, out of which the term originally evolved. On the one hand, Sikhism does not actively seek converts by knocking on people's doors, but, on the other, it does not refuse admission to any person who makes a conscious effort to join the Sikh fold.

In the 1970s a group of American and Canadian Caucasians converted to the Sikh faith at the inspiration of their Yoga teacher, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa (Yogi Bhajan), who founded the Sikh Dharma movement. These so-called white, or gora, Sikhs, male and female alike, wear white turbans, tunics, and tight trousers. They live and raise families in communal houses, spending long hours in meditation and chanting while performing various postures of tantric yoga. They have thus introduced the Sikh tradition into a new cultural environment. Most Punjabi Sikhs have shown an ambivalent attitude toward these converts. On the one hand, they praise the strict Khalsa-style discipline of the white Sikhs; on the other hand, they express doubts about the mixing of the Sikh tradition with the ideals of tantric yoga.


The ability to accept religious pluralism is a necessary condition of religious tolerance. Religious pluralism requires that people of different faiths be able to live together harmoniously, which provides an opportunity for spiritual self-judgment and growth. It is in this context that Sikhism expresses ideals of coexistence and mutual understanding. Sikhism emphasizes the principles of tolerance and the acceptance of the diversity of faith and practice. It is thus able to enter freely into fruitful interreligious dialogue with an open attitude. Such an attitude signifies a willingness to learn from other traditions and yet to retain the integrity of one's own tradition. It also involves the preservation of differences with dignity and mutual respect.

The Sikh Gurus were strongly opposed to the claim of any particular tradition to possess the sole religious truth. Indeed, a spirit of accommodation has always been an integral part of the Sikh attitude toward other traditions. The inclusion of the works of the 15 medieval non-Sikh saints (bhagat bani, the "utterances of the devotees" of Sant, Sufi, and Bhakti origins), along with the compositions of the Gurus, in the foundational text of the Sikhs provides an example of the kind of catholicity that promotes mutual respect and tolerance. For instance, the Muslim voice of the devotee Shaikh Farid is allowed to express itself on matters of doctrine and practice. This is the ideal Sikhs frequently stress in interfaith dialogues.

The presence of the bhagat bani in the Sikh scripture offers a four-point theory of religious pluralism. First, one must acknowledge at the outset that all religious traditions have gone through a process of self-definition in response to changing historical contexts. Thus, in any dialogue the dignity of the religious identities of the individual participants must be maintained. One must be able to honor a commitment as absolute for oneself while respecting different absolute commitments for others. For this reason the quest for a universal religion and the attempt to place one religious tradition above others must be abandoned. Second, the doctrinal stand-points of different religious traditions must be maintained with mutual respect and dignity. Third, all participants must enter into a dialogue with an open attitude, one that allows not only true understanding of other traditions but also disagreements on crucial doctrinal points. Finally, the experience of the person of another faith must be incorporated into the self.


Guru Nanak advocated the virtue of justice in its legal sense and made it the principal characteristic of the ruler and the administrator. Thus, he severely condemned the contemporary Muslim jurist (qazi), who had become morally corrupt by selling justice and who had no concern for truth: "The qazi tells lies and eats filth" (Adi Granth, p. 662). In those days the qazi took "bribes" in order to deprive people of justice (Adi Granth, p. 951), and in Punjabi culture the phrase "to eat filth" came to refer to "unlawfully earned food." Guru Nanak further proclaimed, "To deprive others of their rights must be avoided as scrupulously as Muslims avoid the pork and the Hindus consider beef as a taboo" (Adi Granth, p. 141). Here one can see how, on religious grounds, Guru Nanak regarded the violation of human rights as a serious moral offense. The Sikh view of justice is, in fact, based on two principles: first, respect for the rights of others; and, second, the nonexploitation of others. To treat everyone's right as sacred is a necessary constituent of justice. A just person will not exploit others, even if he has the means and opportunity for doing so.

Guru Gobind Singh advocated the doctrine that, in the pursuit of justice, a person must try all peaceful means of negotiations. Only when all such methods of redress have failed does it become legitimate to draw the sword in defense of righteousness. The following celebrated verse of the Zafarnama ("Letter of Victory"), written to Emperor Aurangzeb, makes this point explicitly: "When all other methods have been explored and all other means have been tried, then may the sword be drawn from the scabbard, then may the sword be used" (verse 22). In this context W.H. McLeod, in his book The Sikhs, has made an important observation: "None of this should suggest that the Panth exists only to breathe fire or wield naked swords." The use of force is allowed in Sikh doctrine, but it is authorized only in defense of justice and then only as a last resort. Moreover, in the face of tyranny, justice can be defended and maintained only through sacrifices. The Zafarnama stresses that no sacrifice is too great for the sake of truth and justice: "It does not matter if my four sons have been killed, the Khalsa is still there at my back" (verse 78). For the Sikhs of the Khalsa the dominant ethical duty is the quest for justice. As McLeod has said in his book Sikhism, "The Khalsa was created to fight injustice, and fighting injustice is still its calling."

Indeed, Sikhism is dedicated to human rights and resistance against injustice. It strives to eliminate poverty and to offer voluntary help to the less privileged. Its commitment is to the ideal of universal brotherhood, with an altruistic concern for humanity as a whole (sarbat da bhala). In a celebrated passage from the Akal Ustat ("Praise of Immortal One"), Guru Gobind Singh declared that "humankind is one, and that all people belong to a single humanity" (verse 85). Here it is important to underline the Guru's role as a conciliator who tried to persuade the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah to walk the ways of peace. Even though Guru Gobind Singh had to spend the major part of his life fighting battles that were forced upon him by Hindu hill rajas and Mughal authorities, a longing for peace and fellowship with both Hindus and Muslims may be seen in the following passage from the Akal Ustat: "The temple and the mosque are the same, so are the Hindu worship [puja] and Muslim prayer [namaz]. All people are one, it is through error that they appear different … Allah and Abhekh are the same, the Purana and the Qur'an are the same. They are all alike, all the creation of the One" (verse 86). The above verses emphatically stress the irenic belief that the differences dividing people are in reality meaningless. In fact, all people are fundamentally the same because they all are the creations of the same Supreme Being. To pursue this ideal, Sikhs conclude their morning and evening prayers with the words "Says Nanak: may thy Name and glory be ever triumphant, and in thy will, O Lord, may peace and prosperity come to one and all."


Rejecting the ascetic alternative, Guru Nanak stressed the way of the householder as the ideal pattern of life for the person who seeks liberation. His successors upheld the ideal of family life, expressing it in their own lives as well as in their teachings. The third Guru, Amar Das, proclaimed, "Family life is superior to ascetic life in sectarian garb because it is from householders that ascetics meet their needs by begging" (Adi Granth, p. 586). To understand family relationships, one must address issues of caste and gender from the Sikh perspective.

In Punjabi society family life is based upon broad kinship relationships. Every individual is a member of a joint family, a biradari (brotherhood), a got (exogamous group), and a zat (endogamous group). Like most other Indians, Sikhs are endogamous by caste (zat) and exogamous by subcaste (got). That is, a Sikh may marry within the same caste but not within the same subcaste. Descent is always patrilineal, and marriages link two groups of kin rather than two individuals. Within the framework of the patriarchal structures of Punjabi society, the cultural norms of honor (izzat) and modesty play a significant role in family relationships. The Gurus employed the term pati, which essentially refers to the core of a person, encompassing honor, self-respect, and social standing.

Guru Nanak and the succeeding Gurus emphatically proclaimed that the divine name was the only sure means of liberation for all four castes: the Khatri, originally the Kshatriya (warrior); the Brahman (priest); the Shudra (servant/agriculturalist); and the Vaishya (tradesman). In the works of the Gurus, the Khatris were always placed above the Brahmans in the caste hierarchy, while the Shudras were raised above the Vaishyas. This was an interesting way of breaking the rigidity of the centuries-old caste system. All of the Gurus were Khatris, which made them a top-ranking mercantile caste in Punjab's urban hierarchy, followed by Aroras (merchants) and Ahluwalias (brewers). In the rural caste hierarchy an absolute majority (almost two-thirds) of Sikhs are Jats (peasants), followed by Ramgarhias (artisans), Ramdasias (cobblers), and Mazhabis (sweepers). Although Brahmans are at the apex of the Hindu caste hierarchy, Sikhs place Brahmans distinctly lower on the caste scale. This is partly because of the strictures the Sikh Gurus laid upon Brahman pride and partly because the reorganization of Punjabi rural society conferred dominance on the Jat caste.

Doctrinally, caste has never been one of the defining criteria of Sikh identity. In the Sikh congregation there is no place for any kind of injustice or hurtful discrimination based upon caste identity. In the gurdwara, Sikhs eat together in the community kitchen, share the same sanctified food, and worship together. The Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) explicitly states, "No account should be taken of caste; a Sikh woman should be married only to a Sikh man; and Sikhs should not be married as children." This is the ideal, however, and in practice most Sikh marriages are arranged between members of the same endogamous caste group. Caste, therefore, still prevails within the Sikh community as a marriage convention. Nevertheless, intercaste marriages take place frequently among professional Sikhs in India and elsewhere.

The Sikh Gurus addressed the issues of gender within the parameters established by traditional patriarchal structures. In their view an ideal woman plays the role of a good daughter or sister and a good wife and mother within the context of family life. They condemned both women and men alike who did not observe the cultural norms of modesty and honor in their lives. It is in this context that images of the immoral woman and the unregenerate man are frequently encountered in the scriptural texts. There is no tolerance for any kind of premarital or extramarital sexual relationships, and rape in particular is regarded as a violation of women's honor in Punjabi culture. Rape amounts to the loss of family honor, which in turn becomes the loss of one's social standing in the community. The notion of family honor is thus intimately linked to the status of women.

The third Guru, Amar Das, proclaimed, "They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. Rather, they alone are called husband and wife who have one soul in two bodies" (Adi Granth, p. 788). This proclamation has become the basis of Sikh engagement and marriage, which traditionally emphasizes a spiritual commitment between two partners over any material or physical advantages of the union. At every step the traditions surrounding Sikh marriages aim to ensure the spiritual compatibility of the couple to be married. To this end Sikh marriages are arranged by the families of the prospective couple. While the involvement of the couple itself has increased over time, the involvement and input of the family has remained vital. This emphasis on family, reflected in every aspect of Sikh life, from the communal eating halls of the gurdwaras to the common practice of identifying oneself through one's parentage, is among the most important precepts of Sikhism. At every stage in the Sikh process of engagement and marriage, the opinion of each partner's family is respected, considered, and valued.


The issue of gender has received a great a deal of attention within the Sikh Panth. It is notable that the Sikh Gurus offered a vision of gender equality within the Sikh community and took practical steps to foster respect for womanhood. They were ahead of their times when they championed the cause of equal access for women in spiritual and temporal matters. Guru Nanak raised a strong voice against the position of inferiority assigned to women in society at the time: "From women born, shaped in the womb, to woman betrothed and wed; we are bound to women by ties of affection, on women man's future depends. If one woman dies he seeks another; with a woman he orders his life. Why then should one speak evil of women, they who give birth to kings?" (Adi Granth, p. 473). He sought to bring home the realization that the survival of the human race depended upon women, who were unjustifiably ostracized within society. Guru Amar Das abolished the customs among women of the veil and of sati (self-immolation) and permitted the remarriage of widows. He further appointed women as Sikh missionaries. Indeed, Sikh women were given equal rights with men to conduct prayers and other ceremonies in gurdwaras.

In actual practice, however, males dominate most Sikh institutions, and Sikh women continue to live in a patriarchal society based on Punjabi cultural assumptions. In this respect they differ little from their counter-parts in other religious communities in India. Although there is a large gap between the ideal and reality, there is clear doctrinal support for the equality of rights for men and women within the Sikh Panth. In contemporary times the feminine dimension of the Sikh tradition has received considerable attention. Under the influence of feminist movements, for example, Sikh women have begun to assert themselves in addressing the bioethical issues of birth control and abortion. Sikhism does not approve of abortion just because raising a child would be "inconvenient to one's lifestyle" or, in the case of female children, "uneconomical." When, however, the mother's life is in danger, or in cases of incest and rape, Sikhism allows abortion of the fetus by medical procedure. On the other hand, it regards the cloning of humans as unethical, since this is seen as "playing God rather than walking in His will."

After the independence of India in 1947, there was growing hostility between the government and the Akali Dal, the Sikh political group, over the issue of increased autonomy for the provinces. The Congress government evidently sought to provoke disruption within the Akali ranks by promoting the interests of a young militant leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranvale (1947–84), who followed a fundamentalist approach. He proved more radical than the moderate Akali leadership, and to instigate religious violence, he occupied the building of the Akal Takhat in the Darbar Sahib complex. This led to an assault by the Indian army on the complex in June 1984, which resulted in the death of Bhindranvale along with many other Sikhs. Consequently, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 by her own Sikh bodyguards. For several days unchecked Hindu mobs in Delhi and elsewhere killed thousands of Sikhs. The militancy in Punjab created a worldwide identity crisis within the Panth, with Sikhs becoming divided into liberal and conservative camps.

In the diaspora Sikhs have faced new issues and challenges with respect to the wearing of the five Ks. From time to time fierce controversy has erupted in particular over the right to wear the kirpan (sword) and over the minimum size required. Normally a total length of six inches, with a blade of about two and a half inches, is regarded as satisfactory. The constitution of India specifically protects the right of Sikhs to wear and carry a kirpan as a symbol of their faith. Many Canadians and Americans, however, perceive the kirpan to be a weapon and object to it on the grounds of public safety. Again and again, whenever the question of the kirpan as a religious symbol or a weapon has arisen, Sikhs have had to fight legal cases. For instance, in January 1994 three Sikh students wearing kirpans were excluded from school in Fresno, California. In June 1994 a federal court judge turned down a request by the children that they be allowed to attend school wearing their kirpans while the lawsuit was being resolved. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, however, ruled in September 1994 in favor of the Sikh children, overruling a lower-court decision that had backed the school district. The appellant court ruled that the school district had not tried to compromise with the children, who said they were willing to wear shorter, blunt kirpans sewn securely into a sheath. Thus, the children returned to school with their kirpans, and through mediation it was agreed to limit the length of the blade of the kirpan to the legal limit of two and a half inches.

Another problem for Sikhs is a widespread misunderstanding of who they are. This was shown, for example, after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. The first victim of the backlash was a Sikh, Balbir Singh Sodhi of Arizona, who was shot dead by an angry gunman calling himself a patriot. Sodhi was a victim of mistaken identity, a target because the gunman took him to be a Middle Easterner. Indeed, there remains a great deal of ignorance in North America about Sikhs and their religious traditions. People simply do not know who and what Sikhs are, and they look at the Sikh turban and kirpan with suspicion. They do not realize, for example, that the Sikh style of turban is distinctively different from any style worn by people from the Middle East or Afghanistan or even from the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent. In response to such threats, the Sikh community has mobilized to reach out to various ethnic groups, with prominent Sikh leaders participating in interreligious dialogues as a way of bridging the gulfs of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding among different cultures of the world.


Sikhism is the only world religion in which the founder was a musician who preached his message primarily through song and music, and it is thus a forceful example of the combination of religion and music. Indeed, sacred music is at the heart of the Sikh devotional experience. Guru Nanak and the succeeding Gurus laid great emphasis on ragas that would produce a balancing effect on the minds of both listeners and performers. Further, Guru Arjan created a theological and musical coherence in the very structure of the Adi Granth when he placed both classical and folk traditions side by side in the final sequence. The key organizing principle of the Sikh scripture is based upon a welldefined system of 31 classical ragas, along with an equal number of regional varieties. The Adi Granth presents a combination of lyrical and rational elements and is far more complex than any simple explanation or description. It should be added that understanding the ragas of the Adi Granth and their organization solely in terms of the modern North Indian musical tradition is inadequate. Modern North Indian music is unlikely to go back to traditions before Tansen (died in 1586), the most famous musician in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and it is probably traceable only to the eighteenth or nineteenth century. In fact, scholars of music have taken a keen interest in examining the influence of both the Adi Granth raga system and of treatises of the time on modern North Indian musical traditions, since the former seems to be crucial in understanding the latter.

Sikh artistic activities began with the illumination of the manuscripts of scriptural traditions in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The opening folio of the first canonical text of the Adi Granth (1604) was profusely decorated. Sikh scribes followed the Koranic tradition of illuminating the margins and the opening folios of the text. The earliest existing paintings of Guru Nanak go back to a janam-sakhi (birth narrative) of the mid-seventeenth century. Although the janam-sakhi genre of illustrations continued to evolve, it changed dramatically with the coming of the printing press to the Punjab in the nineteenth century. Sikh arts such as painting, carving, armour, brassware, jewelry, textiles, and architecture flourished under the patronage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who reigned from 1799 to 1839, and under other Sikh rulers. The works of artists and of writers such as Emily Eden, who published the well-known Portraits and People of India in 1844, have provided evidence of fine court paintings, the romantic artwork of visiting European dignitaries, the dazzling treasures of the Sikh kingdom, evocative images of the court of Ranjit Singh, with its handsome Sikh warriors, and the distinctive elements of Sikh architecture. Murals and frescoes, in particular, became popular at the time of the reign of Ranjit Singh. There are wall paintings of major events from Sikh history at the Darbar Sahib and at other historical gurdwaras.

In the twentieth century, in addition to the popular art of bazaar posters, great works of art emerged from the talent of renowned Sikh artists such as Sobha Singh (1901–86) and Kirpal Singh (1923–90). Sobha Singh, who was particularly known for his portraits of the Gurus, was skilled in the Western classical technique of oil painting, but his themes came from the romantic lore of the Punjab, from Indian epics, and from the Sikh tradition. Kirpal Singh's specialization was capturing on canvas episodes from Sikh history, including aweinspiring scenes of martyrs and the realistic portrayal of battle scenes. Some of his original works are displayed in the Central Sikh Museum in the Darbar Sahib complex at Amritsar. A number of Sikh women have also made a name for themselves as artists. For instance, Amrita Shergill (1911–41) was a talented artist who depicted scenes of Indian village life. The works of Amrit Kaur Singh and Rabindra Kaur Singh have shown the cohesion of modern Sikh family life in the multicultural north of England. Similarly, Arpana Caur's painting 1984, depicting the massacre that occurred during the Indian army's assault on the Darbar Sahib complex, shows the dark side of India.

A rich literary tradition began in the early Sikh community with the writing of the Guru's hymns in the Gurmukhi script. The principal source of Sikh devotional literature is, of course, the Adi Granth, which may be seen as the main inspiration behind the poetic works of Bhai Gurdas and other Sikh writers. The janam-sakhis, which represent the first Punjabi prose form, belong to a second category of devotional literature. As a literary genre they enjoyed complete dominance before the emergence of the twentieth-century novel. It is easy to see the impact of Sikh devotional literature on the writings of celebrated modern authors such as Bhai Vir Singh, Kahn Singh Nabha, and Mohan Singh Vaid. Their writings reflect a spirit of optimism, resolute determination, faith, and love toward fellow human beings. Max Arthur Macauliffe, who went to India as a civil servant of the British government, resigned from his post to devote his life to Sikh devotional literature. It was people such as these who played a leadership role in the Singh Sabha reform movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although Western forms have become common in contemporary Punjabi literature, Sikh devotional literature is still a source of inspiration for the passionate lyricism of the new generation of writers, as it was for Bhai Vir Singh, whose cosmic vision can be traced to the works of the Gurus.

Pashaura Singh


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Uberoi, J.P.S. Religion, Civil Society and the State: A Study in Sikhism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.


views updated May 21 2018


SIKHISM . The word Sikh means disciple or student (from Sanskrit śiya, Pali sikha ). Sikhism is traced to the person and ideology of Gurū Nānak, who was born in the Punjab in 1469. The religion developed through Nānak's nine successor gurūs within the historical and geographical parameters of Hinduism and Islam. In the early twenty-first century there are twenty million Sikhs. The vast majority lives in the fertile plains of the Punjab, with agriculture as a major occupation. But with their spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship skills, many have migrated to other parts of India and around the globe. Sikhs follow the teachings of their ten gurūsfrom Nānak to Gobind Singh. They believe in the oneness of reality. They revere their sacred text, the Gurū Granth. They conduct public worship in a gurdwara, with the Gurū Granth as the center of all their rites and ceremonies. Both Sikh men and women keep their hair unshorn and identify themselves in the code given by their tenth gurū.

Heritage: GurŪ NĀnak and the Origins of Sikhism

Sikhism began with the religious experience of Nānak. When he was twenty-nine years old, he had a divine revelation. Thereafter Nānak traveled extensively, spreading his message of the singularity of the ultimate reality and the consequent unity of humanity. Poetry was his medium of expression. At the end of his travels, he settled on the banks of the river Ravi, where a community of Sikhs gathered. Several institutions that are vital to Sikh spirituality and morality in the twenty-first century had their genesis in this first community established by Nānak.

Sevā, voluntary service, was for Nānak an essential condition of moral discipline. Through service to their community, Sikh believers cultivate humility, overcome egotism, and purify their body and mind. Sevā may take the form of attending to the holy book, sweeping and dusting Sikh shrines, or preparing and serving food. It also includes helping the larger community by building schools, hospitals, orphanages, and charity homes.

Langar is both the community meal and the kitchen in which it is prepared. In Gurū Nānak's time, the idea of different castes eating together was revolutionary. It has evolved into a central practice of Sikhism. Eating together in a gurdwara complex means a lot to Sikhs, especially in diasporic communities. So long as they cover their heads, non-Sikhs are welcomed too. Langar testifies to the social equality and familyhood of all people.

Sangat is a sacred gathering of Sikhs. Gurū Nānak welcomed everyone who wished to follow his teachings. It is an egalitarian community without priests or ordained ministers. Members of a Sikh congregation sit on the floor as they sing hymns, listen to scriptural readings, and pray together without restrictions of gender, race, creed, or caste. According to Sikh scripture, sangat has transformative powers: "Just as iron rubbed against the philosopher's stone turns into gold, so does dark ignorance transform into brilliant light in company of the good" (Gurū Granth 303).

A gurū, for Nānak, is someone who reveals the divine. The role of the gurū is to apply the eyeliner of knowledge (gyān anjan ) to enhance vision so one can see the transcendent One (Gurū Granth 610). Before Gurū Nānak passed away, he appointed Angad as his successor, bequeathing him his inspired utterances.

The second gurū continued the tradition of sacred poetry, which he felt was important for the knowledge it brought to human life. The transference of guruship from Nānak to Angad was repeated successively until the installation of the tenth gurū, Gobind Singh. The ten gurūs are:

  • Gurū Nānak (14691539)
  • Gurū Angad (15041552)
  • Gurū Amar Das (14791574)
  • Gurū Ram Das (15341581)
  • Gurū Arjan (15631606)
  • Gurū Hargobind (15951644)
  • Gurū Har Rai (16301661)
  • Gurū Har Kishen (16561664)
  • Gurū Tegh Bahadur (16211675)
  • Gurū Gobind Singh (16661708)

For the Sikhs the same light is reflected in these ten different bodies, and the same voice speaks through all ten.

Before his death in 1708, the tenth gurū ended the line of personal gurūs by investing the Granth with guruship. From that time on, Sikhs have revered the Granth as their ever present gurū and derived their guidance and inspiration from this sacred book. There is no other gurū. Thus the message and the mission begun by Gurū Nānak continued through nine more gurūs and culminated in the Gurū Granth. Sikhs celebrate the identity between their gurūs and their poetic utterances: "Bani [voice] is the gurū, the gurū is Bani, within Bani lie all elixirs" (Gurū Granth 982).

GurŪ Arjan and the Crystallization of Sikh Religion

Gurū Arjan, the fifth gurū, was the son of Bibi Bhani (daughter of Gurū Amar Das, the third gurū) and Gurū Ram Das (the fourth gurū). During his guruship, Sikhism acquired strong scriptural, doctrinal, and organizational foundations. Gurū Arjan gave Sikhism its scripture, the Gurū Granth, and its sacred space, the Golden Temple (Harī Mandir). He encouraged agriculture and trade and organized a system of financial support for the Sikh religion. During this period Sikhs traded in Afghanistan, Persia, and Turkey. Gurū Arjan articulated a distinct Sikh identity that was clearly different from Hinduism and Islam: "I do not make the ājj nor any Hindu pilgrimage, I serve the One and no other. I neither perform Hindu worship nor do I offer Muslim prayers, I have taken the formless One into my heart. I am neither Hindu nor Muslim" (Gurū Granth 1136). Arjan's compilation of the Granth and his building of the Harī Mandir were both vital phenomena for the construction of Sikh psyche and Sikh identity.

The Gurū Granth

With Bhai Gurdas as his scribe, Arjan compiled the Gurū Granth in 1604. He gathered together the passionate expressions of the Sikh gurūs, Hindu bhaktas, and Muslim saints. The Sikh gurū's editorial lens did not demarcate boundaries between Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim: the spiritual language was common to them all. Whatever resonated philosophically and artistically with the verse of the founding gurū, he included it in the Granth. But Arjan did not model the Sikh text on either Muslim or Hindu scriptures, nor did he include passages from either of their revered scriptures. Against a divisive backdrop in which God was either Rām or Rahim, the worship was either namaz or puja, the place of worship mandir or masjid, and the language of scripture either Sanskrit or Arabic, the Sikh gurū brought together voices that expressed a common spiritual quest. What governed Gurū Arjan's choice was not a syncretism or synthesis of concepts and doctrines from prevailing religious traditions but rather his penetrating insight into the divine. Like his predecessors, Gurū Arjan believed that knowledge of the transcendent is attained neither through servitude to a god of the Hindu pantheon (sevai gosain ) nor through worship to Allah (sevai allāh ). It is received through an active recognition of, and participation in, the divine will (hukam ):

Some address Rām, some Khuda, Some worship Gosain, some Allah . Says Nānak, those who recognize the divine will It is they who know the secret of the transcendent One. (Gurū Granth 885)

Arjan was a prolific poet and reiterated Nānak's metaphysical formulation, "Ik Oakār" (literally, "1 Being Is") in vivid imagery and from a variety of perspectives. The Granth contains 2,218 hymns by him, including his popular hymn Sukhmani (The pearl of peace).

Once the Granth was complete, Gurū Arjan set most of its hymns to thirty-one classical Indian rāgas. In this way he harmonized the verses with the natural rhythm of the day, season, region, and inner moods and emotions. But he did not limit the musical measures to the classical rāga system; he also utilized folk musical patterns with elemental beats as well as regional bhakti and kafi forms with their own primal rhythms and other musical styles extending from Afghanistan to the south of the Indian Peninsula. Rather than construct theological treatises or list ethical injunctions, he gave the Sikhs a body of literature, which he wanted them to eat (khavai ) and savor (bhunchai ). In his epilogue to the Granth, Arjan offers the Granth as a platter: "they who eat this, they who relish it / they are liberated."

The Gurū Granth is a thal (large metal dish) on which lies truth (sat ), contentment (santokh ), and contemplation (vicaru ). The epistemological value of these dishes is savored and absorbed by the body. The fifth gurū made Nānak's aesthetic experience the quintessential practice for the growing Sikh community.

The Harī Mandir

On August 16, 1604, Gurū Arjan ceremoniously put the Granth in the inner sanctuary of the Harī Mandir in Amritsar. He had built the gurdwara in the center of a pool his father had begun. The gurū-architect's structural plans and designs concretized the philosophical message and the literary patterns of the sacred verse. Later patrons, including Māharājā Ranjit Singh, employed Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh craftspeople to build upon and embellish the unique Sikh ideals cherished by Gurū Arjan. Emerging from the shimmering waters, Gurū Arjan's structure appears to stand without any solid borders or boundaries. The innumerable abstract patterns on its walls set the imagination in motion. The panoramic view of the building merging at once with transparent waters and radiant sunlight sweeps the visitor into a sensory swirl. Here the Sikhs visually encounter Gurū Nānak's perception of the infinite One.

The entry into the Golden Temple complex requires a downward motion. The physical descent ensures that the precincts are entered with a sense of humility. Gurū Nānak had said, "Getting rid of ego, we receive the word" (Gurū Granth 228). In order to absorb the divine, the selfish, egotistical "I" must be emptied. Gurū Arjan reiterated the pathogenic effects of egocentricity: "By getting rid of arrogance we become devoid of hatred" (Gurū Granth 183). The poison of arrogance and egocentricity fills arteries with hostility toward the human family and the mind with inertia and ignorance.

The four doors of the Harī Mandir were Arjan's architectural translation of his ethical injunction: "katriya, brahman, śūdra, and vaiśya, all four classes have the same mandate" (Gurū Granth 747). Rejecting societal distinctions, the Granth declares that religion succeeds "when the entire earth becomes one color" (Gurū Granth 663). "Color" (varna ) is the standard Indian word for the four classes, so by calling for the world to be of "one color," it is demanding an end to class discrimination. The four doors opened up to welcome people from all castes and complexions. Walking through the doors, Sikhs could understand what Nānak meant: "accept all humans as your equals, and let them be your only sect" (Japu 28).

GurŪ Gobind Singh and the Cultivation of Sikh Identity

The tenth gurū, Gobind Singh, created the Khālsā (Community of the Pure) in 1699 and translated Nānak's metaphysical ideal of the singular divine into an effective social reality. Gurū Tegh Bahadur (the ninth gurū and father of Gurū Gobind Singh) gave up his life for religious freedom. The tenth gurū was barely nine at that time. His mother, Mata Gujari, brought him up courageously. Sikhs pay homage at the two shrines dedicated to her near the town of Sirhind: Gurdwara Mata Gujari, where she spent the last four days of her life and, just a mile away, Gurdwara Joti Sarup, where she was cremated.

The Khālsā was born when Gurū Gobind Singh invited the first five initiates to sip amrit, the sacred nectar, from the same bowl. By sipping from the same bowl, these five people from different castes boldly denounced the divisions of caste, class, and hereditary profession. Gurū Gobind Singh had prepared the drink by stirring water in a steel bowl with his double-edged sword while sacred hymns were recited. His wife, Mata Jitoji, added sugar puffs, intermingling the strength of steel with the sweetness of sugar. The drink nourished the initiates physically and psychologically to fight against oppressive and unjust leaders and uphold the values of liberty and equality.

The amrit initiation is open to both Sikh men and women, and both are equally enjoined to wear the emblems of the Khālsā, popularly known as the "five K's":

  1. kesha, uncut hair,
  2. kangha, a comb tucked in the hair to keep it tidy,
  3. kara, a steel bracelet worn around the right wrist,
  4. kacha, long underwear,
  5. kirpan, a sword.

These five K's have become an essential part of their individual and communal identity. Furthermore all Sikh men have the surname Singh, meaning "lion," and all women have the surname Kaur, meaning "princess." Thus Sikh men and women abandon their former castes, hereditary occupations, belief systems, and rituals and join the new family. Women are liberated from tracing their lineage to their father or adopting a husband's name after marriage.

Gurū Gobind Singh was also a superb poet. He composed heroic and martial poetry to inspire bravery and infuse the hearts of men and women with self-confidence and love for the divine. His verses are included in the collection known as the Dasam Granth (Tenth book).

MĀharĀjĀ Ranjit Singh (17801839) and the Sikh Kingdom

By the middle of the eighteenth century Sikhs had become a major political force, and at the end of the century they established a state of their own. In 1799 Ranjit Singh, the nineteen-year-old leader of a Khālsā band, seized power peacefully in the city of Lahore. Guided by Sada Kaur (17621832), his mother-in-law, Ranjit Singh integrated twelve warring Sikh bands into a sovereign state. In 1801 the Sikhs crowned him māharājā of the Punjab. Known as the "Lion of the Punjab," Ranjit Singh ruled for forty years. He created a formidable army and added Multan, Kashmir, and Peshawar to his kingdom. His court represented unparalleled pageantry and brilliance. He wore the world's largest diamond (the Kohinoor) on his right arm.

The māharājā remained a devout Sikh who built and renovated many shrines. Even his foreign employees had to live by the Sikh code: they had to wear their beards long and refrain from eating beef and from smoking tobacco. A decade after his death, Sikhs lost their enormous and splendid kingdom to the British in 1849. Ranjit Singh's wife, Maharani Jindan (18171863), was famous for her sharp intelligence, and the British referred to her as the only courageous "man" in the area. The Sikh māharājā's Kohinoor diamond was cut down to fit Queen Victoria's crown, and his young son Dalip (18381893) was converted to Christianity and exiled to England. Generations of heroic Sikhs began to serve the British army, valorously fighting in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Sikhs formed a major part of the imperial army in World War I.

Singh Sabha and the Rediscovery of Sikh Identity

Māharājā Ranjit Singh loved pomp and ceremony, and at his court he reintroduced many of the Brahmanic rites that had been discarded by the Sikh gurūs. Later, under colonial rule, Christian missionaries started to make conversions among the Sikhs. In response to this loss of Sikh identity, the Singh Sabha movement was founded in Amritsar in 1873. Its goal was to reform and renew Sikh philosophy and culture. Similar movements were founded by Hindus and Muslims to counteract Christian missionary activity. The Singh Sabha promoted the building of Sikh schools and colleges; one of its greatest achievements was the founding of the Khālsā College at Amritsar in 1892. The Singh Sabha also encouraged the production of books and newspapers to help bring Sikhs back to the teachings of their ten gurūs. Bhai Vir Singh, the most prolific and inspiring Singh Sabha author, created vivid female characters like Sundari, Rani Raj Kaur, and Subhag Kaur as paradigms for Sikh morality.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, established in 1920, continues to be the highest Sikh executive committee. With its headquarters in Amritsar, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee sets up rules and regulations for Sikhs to follow throughout the world.

In an attempt to formalize the message of the gurūs, the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh code of conduct) was published in 1950. This thirty-seven-page document was produced after years of deliberation and consultation amongst eminent Sikhs both in India and abroad. It is used as the standard guide by Sikhs in their performance of personal (shakhsi ) and organizational (panthak ) duties. The Sikh Rahit Maryada forbids both men and women to cut or trim their hair. It also forbids them to eat meat from an animal that has been slowly bled to death in the alāl method (Sikhs may only eat jhatka meatfrom an animal killed in one stroke). It prohibits adultery and the use of tobacco and narcotics. This important Sikh manual also tries to combat female oppression. Sikh women should not veil their faces; female infanticide is forbidden; and widows are free to remarry. It also abolishes the old Punjabi custom whereby a widow was shamefully wrapped in a sheet and carried away to the brother of her dead husband.

Worship: GurŪ Granth

Reading their sacred verse, hearing it, singing it, or sitting in its presence constitute the core of Sikh ritual. To have a room in their homes enshrining the Gurū Granth is the aspiration of most Sikhs. Both at home and in public places of worship, the Gurū Granth is treated with the highest respect and veneration. It is draped in cloth (called rumala ), placed on quilted mats, and supported by cushions. A canopy hangs over it for protection, and a whisk is waved over it as a sign of respect. Sikhs everywhere bow before the Gurū Granth and seat themselves on the floor. They remove their shoes and cover their heads in the presence of their holy book. The Gurū Granth is opened at dawn. This act of opening the holy book is called prakash, "making the light manifest." Vak, or "the order of the day," is obtained by opening the book at random and reading the passage on the top of the left-hand page. After dusk, the Gurū Granth is closed. The closing ritual is called sukhasan, which means "to place at rest." The Gurū Granth is read for all rites of passage, for any family celebration (e.g., a new house, a new job, an engagement), and for all times of uncertainty and difficulty (e.g., sickness or death). The reading at these events may be saptah, a seven-day reading, or it may be akhand, a forty-eight hour, nonstop reading of its 1,430 portfolio pages, during which several readers take turns. Any Sikh, male or female, who can read Gurmukhi script may read the Gurū Granth. Kirtan is the singing of the scriptural verses. Harmonium and tabla (a set of drums) are the most common musical accompaniments.

Special social functions and rites of passage are marked by the bhog ceremony. The word bhog literally means "pleasure." In Sikhism it signifies the gratification attained by having concluded a reading of the scriptures. It has similar connotations to the Greek word eucharist, which means "thanksgiving" and refers specifically the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. Bhog involves reading the concluding pages of the Gurū Granth, saying ardas (the Sikh counterpart of the Lord's Prayer in Christianity), and partaking of the Sikh sacrament of karahprashad, which concludes every religious ceremony. Karahprashad is a sweet sacrament consisting of equal portions of butter, flour, sugar, and water. During its preparation, Sikh men and women keep their heads covered and their feet bare and recite the verses of the gurūs. When the karahprashad is ready, it is put in a large flat dish and placed on the right side of the Gurū Granth. After scriptural readings, the warm and aromatic sacrament is distributed to the entire congregation.


In public, Sikh worship is conducted in a gurdwara ; literally, the doorway (dwara ) to the gurū. The shrines serve as a central point for the local Sikh community: they are its source of information, assistance, food, shelter, and fellowship. The gurdwaras are designed on the open and inclusive architectural patterns of the Harī Mandir. There is no central chamber from which any male or female is excluded, for the Gurū Granth is the focal point to which everyone has equal access.

Besides the Harī Mandir, there are five places that are particularly important for the Sikhs. They are called the five takhts, the five seats of temporal authority. The Akal Takht in Amritsar faces the Golden Temple and is regarded as the supreme seat of religious and temporal authority. The other four are associated with the tenth gurū: Patna Sāhib in Bihar, where he was born; Keshgarh, in Anandpur, where he created the Khālsā; Hazur Sāhib in Nander, where he died; and Damdama, near Bhatinda, which later developed into a center of Sikh learning.


True living for Sikhs involves remembering the one reality as often and as intimately as possible. The daily spiritual routine (nit nem ) consists of recitations of hymns from the various gurūs, including Gurū Nānak's Japu, which is read, recited, or heard on tape in the morning.

Annually Sikhs celebrate gurpurabs (the days of the gurū). These days commemorate the birthdays of their gurūs, important historical events, and the martyrdom of their heroes. All over the world Sikhs joyously celebrate the birth of Gurū Nānak, the installation of the Gurū Granth in the Harī Mandir, and the birth of the Khālsā. Baisakhi, which is also the first day of the Sikh calendar and commemorates Gurū Gobind Singh's creation of the Khālsā. During gurpurabs, uninterrupted readings of scripture take place, intellectual symposiums are held, and musical performances are organized. Gurpurab celebrations also include huge Sikh processions with colorful floats carrying the Gurū Granth and depicting different aspects of Sikh life. Throughout the gurpurab, Sikhs will stop fast-moving cars and buses on the road and offer langar (food and snacks) to the travelers.

The Punjabi folk dances, gidda and bhangra, are popular performances during Sikh celebrations. Gidda is choreographed by women in gentle and lithesome movement. Together they celebrate nature and its bountiful gifts through the seasons of spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. Amid sparkling agrarian scenes, gidda captures simple activities: how they milk cows, cook mustard seeds, do needlework, fan in the summer, buy glass bangles, churn milk in the morning, carry water in earthenware pitchers sturdily balanced on their heads, and help with plowing and harvesting. Bhangra is traditionally performed by a group of men. It dates back to the fourteenth century, originating in West Punjab (now a part of Pakistan). But in modern times bhangra has become extremely popular with both Sikh men and women. Dressed in bright colors, the group dances in an elemental rhythm to the beat of a large drum, and everybody joins in songs celebrating Punjabi village life. With the migration of Sikh communities to the West, this Punjabi folk dance has become popular with young music lovers in Britain, Europe, and North America. The modern form of bhangra combines North Indian folk music with a kaleidoscope of contemporary styles, including reggae and Western pop.

Rites of Passage

In Sikhism there are four rites of passage: name giving, amrit initiation, marriage, and death.

Name Giving

Sikh children are named in consultation with the holy book. While the spine of the book rests on the cushions, a reader (a family member if the rite is held at the home, an official reader if it is at the gurdwara ) holds the Gurū Granth closed with both hands and then gently lets it open at random. The child is given a name that begins with the first letter appearing at the top of the left-hand page where the Gurū Granth opens. Sikhs do not have different names for boys and girls. The addition of the name Kaur or Singh indicates the gender of the child. The child also receives his or her first kara or steel bracelet. The recitation of kirtan (hymns of praise) readings from the Gurū Granth, the recitation of ardas (the daily prayer), and the partaking of langar are the central activities, just as they are for all Sikh rites of passage.

Amrit initiation

No particular age is prescribed for amrit initiation. It may be as soon as a boy or a girl is old enough to be able to read the scripture and comprehend the articles of the Sikh faith. The initiation is open to all. According to the Rahit Maryada, "Any man or woman of whatever nationality, race, or social standing, who is prepared to accept the rules governing the Sikh community, has the right to receive amrit initiation." It follows the pattern established by Gurū Gobind Singh on Baiskahi 1699. Sikhs firmly believe that during Baisakhi (the first day of the Indian New Year) festivities in Anand pur that year, the guru and his wife prepared amrit and five men from different castes sipped it from the same bowl. The drink purified them of all mental constraints, ending centuries of hereditary oppressions of caste, class, and profession. Zealous proselytization is alien to Sikhs.


Anand Karaj (from anand, "bliss," and karaj, "event") is the Sikh rite of marriage. No words or gestures are directly exchanged between the bride and groom, nor are any legal formalities performed between their families. The wedding takes place either in a gurdwara or in the home of the bride, with everyone seated on the floor in front of the Gurū Granth. Anand Karaj begins with the father of the bride handing one end of a scarf (about two and a quarter yards in length) to the groom and the other to his daughter. Through the auspiciously colored scarf (pink, saffron, or red), the couple is bonded together. Each holding one end of the scarf, the groom and the bride then walk around the holy book four times. The four circumambulations by the couple correspond to the four lavan (circle) passages read by the official reader of the Gurū Granth. After each circling of the book, the bride and the groom touch their foreheads to the ground and rejoin the congregation by seating themselves on the floor in front. Bowing together to the Gurū Granth marks their acceptance of each other. They are solelyand equallybound to the sacred word rather than to any legal or social authority. The rite concludes with Gurū Amar Das's rapturous hymn Anand, the name of the wedding ceremony itself. This popular scriptural hymn by the third gurū is liturgically recited at the conclusion of all Sikh congregational services and joyful ceremonies. But with its focus on the bliss that results from the union of the individual with the divine, Anand is particularly appropriate for the wedding ceremony.


Life and death are regarded as natural processes, and just as each day that dawns must set, so must all people depart. The dead body is carried on a stretcher by the closest male relatives and friends of the family to the funeral grounds, where it is cremated. As customary from ancient times, the pyre is lighted by the oldest son. The body returns to the elements it is made up of: the fire of the person merges with the crematory flames, his or her breath merges with the air, his or her body merges with the body of the earth, and his or her ashes and bones (phul ; literally, "flowers") are immersed in the flowing waters of a river or stream. Death in the family is marked by a reading of the Gurū Granth. A bhog ceremony takes place on the tenth day, with the final prayers recited for peace to the deceased. At the death anniversary, the family will supply langar to the community.

Popular Morality

Sikhism validates normal activities: "While laughing, playing, dressing up, and eating we attain liberation" (Gurū Granth 522). Its strong work ethic is summed up in a popular maxim: "Work hard [kirat karni ], remember the divine [nām japna ], and share your enjoyment with others [vand chhakna ]." Sikhs bring the divine into the daily rhythms of their lives, and they even exalt the divine in their everyday greetings: whenever they want to say hello or goodbye, they join their hands and say "sat sri akal" (truth is timeless). Their frequent exclamationwaheguru surges with a sense of wonder and echoes Gurū Nānak's awe (wah ) when he first experienced the transcendent One.

See Also

Ādi Granth; Dasam Granth; Hindi Religious Traditions; Nānak; Singh, Gobind.


For a basic introduction to Sikhism, see Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs, 2d rev. ed. (New Delhi, 1994); Hew McLeod, Sikhism (London, 1997); Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, 2d ed. (Delhi, 1991); Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors (Oxford, 1909); Owen Cole and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, 2d ed. (Brighton, U.K., 1995); J. S. Grewal, From Guru Nanak to Maharaja Ranjit Singh : Essays in Sikh History (Amritsar, India, 1972); and Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Sikhism (New York, 1993). For an introduction to Sikh sacred literature, see Hew McLeod, Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism (Manchester, U.K., 1984; reprint, Chicago, 1990); and Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, trans., The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus (San Francisco, 1995). The standard reference is Harbans Singh, The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (Patiala, India, 1992).

For studies on the development of the Gurū Granth, see Pashaura Singh, The Guru Granth: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Delhi, 2000); Gurinder Singh Mann, The Making of Sikh Scripture (New York, 2001); and S. S. Kohli, A Critical Study of the Ādi Granth, 2d ed. (Delhi, 1976).

Scholars have studied Sikhism from a variety of perspectives. See Surjit Hans, A Reconstruction of Sikh History from Sikh Literature (Jalandhar, India, 1988); Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition (New Delhi, 1990); Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (Chicago, 1994); Cynthia Mahmood, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants (Philadelphia, 1997); Louis Fenech, Martyrdrom in the Sikh Tradition (Delhi, 2000); and Brian Axel, The Nation's Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh Diaspora (Durham, N.C., 2001).

Also see Mark Juergensmeyer and Gerry Barrier, eds., Sikh Studies: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition (Berkeley, 1979); Gurdev Singh, ed., Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition (Chandigarh, India, 1986); Joseph T. O'Connell, Milton Israel, and Willard G. Oxtoby, eds., Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century (Toronto, 1988); Jasbir Singh Mann and Kharak Singh, eds., Recent Researches in Sikhism (Patiala, India, 1992); Christopher Shackle, Gurharpal Singh, and Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, eds., Sikh Religion, Culture, and Ethnicity (Richmond, U.K., 2001); and Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier, eds., Sikhism and History (New Delhi, 2004).

For feminist perspectives, see Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge, U.K., 1993); and Doris Jakobsh, Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation, Meaning, and Identity (Delhi, 2003). For Sikh art and literature, see Madanjit Kaur, The Golden Temple: Past and Present (Amritsar, India, 1983); Patwant Singh, The Golden Temple (Hong Kong, 1988); Susan Stronge, ed., The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms (London, 1999); Kerry Brown, ed., Sikh Art and Literature (London, 1999); and B. N. Goswamy, Piety and Splendour: Sikh Heritage in Art (New Delhi, 2000).

For studies on the Sikh diaspora, see Parminder Bhachu, Twice Migrants: East African Sikh Settlers in Britain (New York, 1985); Bruce La Brack, The Sikhs of Northern California, 19041975 (New York, 1988); Gerry Barrier and Verne A. Dusenbery, eds., The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and the Experience Beyond Punjab (Delhi, 1989); D. S. Tatla, Sikhs in North America: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1991); Pashaura Singh and Gerry Barrier, eds., Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change (Delhi, 1999); Harold Coward, ed., The South Asian Religious Diaspora in Britain, Canada, and the United State s (Albany, N.Y., 2000); and Cynthia Mahmood and Stacy Brady, Guru's Gift: An Ethnography Exploring Gender Equality with North American Sikh Women (Mountain View, Calif., 2000).

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh (2005)


views updated May 18 2018


The faith called Sikhism receives its name from a Sanskrit word that means "disciple" or "learner." It originated in the fifteenth century in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan. It is still principally an Indian religion. Its followers are called Sikhs, usually mispronounced in the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas) as "seek" but correctly pronounced "se-ikh," with the "kh" pronounced gutturally, in the back of the throat. Sikhism's origins have been the subject of considerable debate. Some historians argue that Sikhism was a combination of other Indian religions, including Hinduism, Islam, and local beliefs and practices. Others believe that Sikhism developed as a kind of purification or renewal of Hinduism. Many Sikhs, however, see their religion as unique and reject the view that it was derived from Hinduism or Islam.

Sikhism's founder was Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469–1539). (Guru means "teacher" or "leader.") Guru Nanak preached that inner beliefs were more important than external forms of worship. Accordingly, he rejected many of the beliefs and practices of the Hindus who surrounded him, as well as what he saw as the intolerance of Indian Muslims. He opposed the caste system of Hindus, which ranked people by social class, and any form of idol worship, or the worship of objects as gods. He adopted the monotheism (belief in one supreme god) of Islam and emphasized the brotherhood of all humankind.

The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism are relatively simple. Sikhs believe that the purpose of religion is to create a close, loving relationship with God, particularly through prayer and meditation. Meditation is quiet reflection or focus on a single point. The God of the Sikhs is a single God who fills the universe. He has no form that can be represented in, for example, a painting or a sculpture. Sikhs believe in the Hindu concepts of samsara, or the endlessly repeated cycle of birth, life, and death; karma, or the concept that the sum of a person's accumulated good and bad actions determines how he or she lives a future life; and reincarnation, or rebirth following death.


Akhand Paath:
Any occasion, such as a marriage or a death, when the Granth Sahib is read in its entirety.
Anand Karaj:
The Sikh wedding ceremony.
A solution of water and sugar, used in the ceremony when Sikhs are initiated into the faith.
Amrit Sanskar:
The initiation ceremony for young Sikhs.
Ek Onkar:
The "True God" of Sikhism.
five k's:
The five symbols of Sikhism that initiates wear: Kesh, Kungha, Kasha, Kara, and Kirpan.
Golden Temple:
The chief Sikh temple, located in the city of Amritsar in India; more formally, the Sri Harmandir Sahib.
A Sikh temple or place of worship.
A religious teacher.
A steel bracelet, worn by Sikhs as a symbol of God.
The white shorts worn by Sikhs as a symbol of purity.
Uncut hair, a symbol of Sikhism.
The militant "brotherhood" of Sikhism, founded by Guru Gobind Singh.
The emblem of Sikhism.
A sword or dagger worn by Sikhs as a symbol of their willingness to fight to defend their faith.
The wooden comb used to groom hair, a symbol of Sikhism.
A free community kitchen maintained by a gurdwara.
Naam Karam:
The naming ceremony for children.
Rehit Maryada:
The Sikh code of ethical conduct.
Seats of spiritual authority in Sikhism. The "Five Takhts" are gurdwaras located in India.

The homeland of the Sikhs is the Punjab state of northwest India. About nineteen million people, or 61 percent of the Punjabi population, are Sikhs. Outside India about 500,000 to 750,000 live in the United Kingdom, 225,000 in Canada, and 100,000 to 150,000 in the United States. Other small communities can be found in Malaysia and east Africa. Overall, it is estimated that the number of Sikhs worldwide is about twenty-three million, making it the ninth-largest religion in the world. Sikhism's members have preserved their cultural identity wherever they have settled throughout the world.

History and development

The founder of Sikhism, Nanak Dev Ji, was born in the village of Talwandi (now Nankana Sahib), near Lahore in present-day Pakistan. His father was a civil servant, so he grew up in a middle-class family. From an early age, he was exposed to a variety of religious beliefs, including Hinduism and Islam, and he soon gained a reputation for questioning those beliefs. As a teenager, he worked as a herder, but he later moved to the city of Sultanpur, where he held an administrative job for the region's governor.

In 1499, according to Sikh belief, Nanak took a swim in a nearby river and did not resurface for three days. When he reappeared, he said that he had had a revelation. He famously proclaimed, "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim." He wanted to offer the people a new religion that combined the best elements of these and other faiths.

The Ten Gurus

In the years that followed Nanak traveled widely, earning a reputation as a religious teacher, or guru. He remained tolerant of other religions, but he spoke out against idol worship, meaningless rituals, and discrimination against women. He also opposed the Hindu caste system, which divides people into social classes ranked from highest to lowest. At the top are Brahmins, or priests, followed by warriors and rulers, skilled workers and traders, and unskilled workers and laborers. Below all of these are the "untouchables," who perform menial tasks such as cleaning sewage and burying dead animals. Nanak preached that giving food to a poor person was a holier act than offering a sacrifice to God. At the same time, he believed firmly in one God, as do Muslims, and preached that the only way to know God is through prayer and meditation, since God fills the universe ("Endless are His Actions, endless are His Gifts," says a Sikh prayer).

Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh faith, died on September 7, 1539. He was followed by a succession of nine gurus:

Guru Angad (1504–1552), known primarily for developing Gurmukhi, a written form of the Punjabi language.

Guru Amar Das (1479–1574), who started the tradition of community kitchens called langars that still operate in Sikh temples.

Guru Ram Das (1534–1581), who created the spiritual center of Sikhism, the Indian city of Amritsar, with its famous Golden Temple.

Guru Arjan Dev (1563–1606), who compiled the Sikh sacred scripture, the Granth Sahib, and died as a martyr to the faith when he was killed for refusing to convert to Islam.

About Sikhism

  • Belief. Sikhism believes in a single God, in the authority of the ten living gurus, and in the truth of the Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred scripture.
  • Followers. Most of the world's twenty-three million Sikhs live in the Punjab region of India, though sizable communities live in England, Canada, and the United States. Sikhism is the ninth-largest religion in the world.
  • Name of God. The God of the Sikhs is variously referred to as Waheguru ("The Wonderful Lord"), Ek Onkar ("True God"), Onkar, Satguru ("True Guru"), Satnaam ("True Name"), Akal-Purkh, Hari, Raam, and Pritam.
  • Symbols. The chief symbols of Sikhism include the "five K's," the Sikh articles of faith: kesh, uncut hair; kungha, the wooden comb; kasha, white shorts; kara, the steel bracelet; and kirpan, the sword. Other symbols include an insignia called the Khanda and Ek Onkar, the first two words of the Granth Sahib.
  • Worship. Worship is conducted both through private prayer and at temples called gurdwaras, where the focus of worship is readings from the Granth Sahib.
  • Dress. Male Sikhs are generally recognizable by the long turbans carefully wrapped around their hair. Initiates also wear the kasha, or white shorts, which symbolize purity. In Western societies, Sikhs wear Western clothes, except for the turban. Women may choose to cover their hair.
  • Texts. The chief scripture of Sikhism is the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of hymns and sacred writings first compiled by Guru Arjan Dev. The Granth Sahib fulfills the role of the eleventh and final guru of Sikhism
  • Sites. The most important sacred site for Sikhs is the city of Amritsar, founded in 1577 by Guru Ram Das. Amritsar is the site of the Golden Temple, the focus of Sikh authority and the spiritual center of Sikhism.
  • Observances. Most of the observances of Sikhism focus either on key events in a Sikh's life (naming, initiation, marriage) or on key historical events, such as the birth of the first guru.
  • Phrases. No particular phrases are associated with Sikhism, though words and phrases from the Granth Sahib are an important part of Sikh life. Included among these are Ek Onkar, or "True God," and hukam, meaning "divine will."

Guru Hargobind (1595–1644), who took steps to increase the military readiness of Sikhs to defend themselves against threats to the religion.

Guru Har Rai (1630–1661), whose leadership was a time of peace for Sikhs.

Guru Harkrishan (1656–1664), who became a guru as a child and died at the age of eight.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621–1675), who, like Arjan Dev, refused to convert to Islam and died a martyr.

Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708), who reformed Sikhism and declared that the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, would serve in the role of guru after him.

Since 1708 the leadership of Sikhism has been invested in the Granth Sahib. People no longer served as gurus, but rather the Granth Sahib serves as the eleventh and final guru of Sikhism. It is considered to be the embodiment, or representation, of all the previous gurus.

Religion and politics

The history of Sikhism is as much a political history as a religious one. From the mid-1400s the Punjab region had been under the control of Muslims, who had moved eastward into the region from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Until the early seventeenth century Muslim rulers were tolerant of Sikhism and other religious beliefs. That tolerance ended, however, in the early 1600s under the Muslim emperor Jahangir (1569–1627), who opposed Sikhism and was determined to convert its followers, including Guru Arjan Dev, to Islam. In the decades that followed, Sikhs armed themselves and took part in military training to defend their faith. Violent battles between Sikh and Muslim armies broke out. By the early eighteenth century, under the military leadership of Banda Singh Bahadur (1670–1716), the Sikhs had become an effective fighting force determined to defend the principle of religious tolerance, not just of Sikhs but of Hindus as well.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Sikhs found themselves in conflict with Great Britain. The British controlled southern India, but they competed with Sikhs for control of northern India. Leading the Sikhs in the early nineteenth century was Ranjit Singh (1780–1839). In 1799 he had captured the city of Lahore from Afghan Muslims and declared himself the ruler of a unified Sikh state. Under his leadership the number of Sikhs in northern India grew, and the region enjoyed relative peace. After his death in 1839, however, his empire collapsed. Tensions between Sikhs and the British led to two "Anglo-Sikh Wars," one lasting from 1845 to 1846 and another from 1848 to 1849. British forces were too powerful for the Sikhs, and the Punjab region came firmly under the control of the British.

In the twentieth century, however, tensions increased again. In the 1920s Indian nationalists, including many Sikhs, began to call for independence from British rule. (Nationalists promote the establishment of their own state.) Although as many as 100,000 Sikhs fought on the side of the British during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), Sikhs generally supported Indian independence. Agreements between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus originally guaranteed that minorities in India would have their rights respected. At the end of the summer of 1946, however, the president of the Indian National Congress (the organization that led the Indian independence movement) rejected that agreement. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) declared that the Congress would not be bound by agreements made while the British were in control of the country. Nehru's statement led directly to the division of British India into two separate states: modern India, which is mostly Hindu, and Pakistan, which is mostly Muslim. When Indian independence finally came in 1948, the Punjab was divided between the largely Hindu state of India and the largely Muslim state of Pakistan. Violence erupted between Sikhs and Muslims as Pakistani Sikhs fled to India and Indian Muslims fled to Pakistan.

In the decades following independence, tensions grew between Sikhs and the Indian government. Sikhs in India felt discriminated against by the majority Hindus. In the late 1940s, some Indian officials classified Sikhs as "a criminal tribe" and gave instructions that they should be shot if they did not obey Hindu officials. Sikh separatists (those who wanted a separate Sikh nation) grew angrier and caused more violence by desecrating Hindu temples. On June 5, 1984, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984) ordered Indian troops to attack Sikh extremists who had taken refuge in Amritsar. The resulting deaths and destruction deeply divided India and likely contributed to the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, by one of her bodyguards, who was a Sikh.

In the years that followed, the Indian government was able to control the Sikh separatists and prevent the outbreak of further violence. In 2004 Manmohan Singh (1932–) became the first Sikh prime minister in the history of India. The political unrest of the late twentieth century, though, has tarnished the reputation of Sikhism. In the eyes of some, Sikhism is representative of aggressive nationalism rather than tolerance. (Nationalism is loyalty and devotion to the interests, culture, social values, and religion of a particular group or nation.)

Sects and schisms

The majority of Sikhs practice orthodox, or traditional, Sikhism and follow the faith's basic beliefs and practices. However, a number of smaller sects, or groups, exist. These sects are not recognized by orthodox Sikhs.

One sect is the Udasis, founded by Nanak's son, Baba Sri Chand (1494–1629). This is a small group of holy men who are celibate (do not have sex) and live naked or wear a yellow robe. Like Hindu sanyassins, or holy men, they beg for alms (money) and food with a begging bowl, and they have been active as missionaries for the faith. Begging, though, is forbidden by orthodox Sikhism, which places emphasis on work and industry.

A second sect is the Sahajdharis, a name that means "slow adopters." This group includes a number of smaller sects, whose members distinguish themselves from orthodox Sikhs by their shaved heads.

A final group is referred to as the Keshadharis, or "hair wearers." This group, too, includes a number of smaller sects. The Nirmalas live in secluded monasteries, or buildings that house a community of monks, and lead lives of contemplation and prayer, a practice that most Sikhs reject. The Nihangs, in contrast, are the most militant, or confrontational, faction of Sikhism, and its members actually carry weapons in order to defend their faith, if necessary. They live a somewhat nomadic life, meaning that they do not settle in one place, and they see themselves as carrying on the tradition of the Khalsa army founded by Guru Gobind Singh. This group also conducts mock, or pretend, battles during the festival of Hola Mohalla held each year in March. Two other groups within the Keshadharis include the Nirankaris and the Namdari. The Nirankaris were founded by Baba Dayal in the early nineteenth century. This group follows living gurus rather than regarding the Granth Sahib as Sikhism's guru. Similarly, the Nam-dari, also known as the Kukas, accept a living guru who is a descendant of the original ten gurus.

Finally, although they are not sects, the traditional (keeping with past practices) and liberal (more accepting of change) wings of Sikhism are often in conflict with one another. Traditional Sikhs believe that to be a true Sikh, one has to follow all the traditions, such as not cutting the hair, wearing the turban (a piece of cloth that is wound tightly around the head to contain the hair), and avoiding alcohol. More liberal Sikhs, especially those who live outside India, believe that they can be Sikhs while accommodating themselves to the surrounding culture. In Canada, for example, a major conflict occurred over the use of furniture while eating. Traditional Sikhism requires meals to be eaten while sitting on the floor to emphasize that all people are equal in the eyes of God. In the mid-1990s, however, some Canadian gurdwaras (temples) began serving meals at tables with chairs, citing the colder temperatures of Canada, the discomfort of the elderly when they sat on floors, and the reluctance of young Sikhs to get married in gurdwaras when the meal is served on the floor. The conflict became so heated that it led to strikes, the excommunication (expulsion) of six Sikh leaders in Canada, and, it is suspected, even the assassination of one of the excommunicated leaders.

The Khalsa

The Khalsa was formed in 1699. In 1675 Gobind Singh's father, Guru Tegh Bahadar, was executed by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707), the Muslim ruler of India. He refused to convert to Islam, even after he had witnessed the brutal execution of three of his closest followers. Gobind Singh was only nine years old at the time. After he became guru in early 1676, Gobind Singh decided to build up the military capabilities of the faith. Then in 1699, after years of conflict with Muslim authorities and their local supporters, he assembled the Sikhs and asked for a volunteer who would be willing to sacrifice his life for the faith. He took the first volunteer into a tent, then came out bearing a bloody sword. He then asked for a second volunteer, who again followed him into the tent. Eventually, five volunteers offered their lives.

The volunteers, however, did not die. Their lives were spared, and the blood on Gobind Singh's sword was that of a goat. They emerged from the tent, and Gobind Singh declared them the "blessed ones," or the Khalsa. They were blessed in a baptism-like ritual with amrit, a concentrated solution of sugar in water. The six, including Gobind Singh, were members of different castes, but they all drank from the same bowl during the ceremony, signifying the unity of all Sikhs regardless of their social status and background. (The caste system in India was a hereditary, or birth, system that determined things such as what jobs people could do and who they could marry. It greatly divided society, for there was little interaction between castes.) They all took the name Singh, meaning "lion," and they became soldiers of the faith.

Within days of the first amrit ritual, fifty thousand Sikhs joined the Khalsa, and the Sikhs became a formidable fighting force. Guru Gobind Singh is therefore credited with giving a strong identity to the Sikh religion. In the twenty-first century, male Sikhs who undergo the amrit initiation still take the name Singh. When women are baptized as Sikhs, they take the name Kaur, meaning "princess."

Basic beliefs

The principal belief of Sikhism is that there is only one God, and that this God is the same as the God of other religions. This belief is stated clearly in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred scripture: "There is only one Supreme Lord; there is no other." Names for God in Sikhism include Waheguru, or "The Wonderful Lord" in the Punjabi language, as well as Ek (or Ik) Onkar ("True God"), Onkar, Satguru ("True Guru"), Satnaam ("True Name"), Akal-Purkh, Hari, Raam, and Pritam.

The God of the Sikhs is infinite, or endless, and can be described only through an infinite number of names and qualities. Everything in the universe is God's creation; as the Granth Sahib explains: "He formed the planets, the solar system, and the nether regions, and brought what was hidden to manifestation [existence]. When He so willed, He created the world. Without any supporting power, He sustained the universe." To know God, Sikhs are urged to remember Him always and to meditate or focus on His qualities: "Those contented souls who meditate on the Lord with single-minded love, meet the True Lord."

A second primary belief of Sikhism is that every creature has a soul. This soul is eternal (neverending) and its goal is liberation from the body. Sikhs believe in the basic Hindu concepts of reincarnation, samsara, and karma. Reincarnation means that at death the soul passes to another living creature. Karma refers to the accumulated impact of a person's actions on his or her future life: A person who builds up good karma will be reborn in a future life as a higher creature and eventually reach spiritual perfection and union with God. A person who accumulates bad karma by committing evil deeds is reborn as a lower creature, such as a plant or an insect. Samsara refers to the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth which Sikhs, as well as Hindus, Buddhists, and those from other religions, seek to escape. These basic beliefs are expressed in the Granth Sahib in this way: "Virtue and vice do not come by mere words; actions repeated, over and over again, are engraved [written] on the soul."

Basic behaviors

Guru Nanak preached the brotherhood of humanity, a doctrine that Sikhs in the twenty-first century try to uphold. Sikhs try to avoid any kind of racial, gender, or ethnic discrimination (unfair treatment). Consistent with this belief is the conviction that there are many paths to God, so Sikhs are famously tolerant of other religious beliefs. The Granth Sahib is likely the only major sacred scripture in the world that actually tries to teach members of other religions, including Christians and Muslims. It states, "Some read the Vedas, and some the Koran. Some wear blue robes, and some wear white. Some call themselves Muslim, and some call themselves Hindu. Some yearn for paradise, and others long for heaven. Says Nanak, one who knows … God's will, knows the secrets of his Lord and Master." Another passage states, "By His power the Vedas and the Puraanas exist, and the Holy Scriptures of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions. By His power all deliberations exist."

A final basic belief of Sikhism has to do with how a person lives his or her life. Sikhs are urged to maintain an upbeat, positive attitude, knowing that God is always present to help. They are urged to lead a life of discipline, through such practices as prayer and meditation, rising early and engaging in work, leading a simple life, and avoiding alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Sikhs, who tend to be well-educated and successful in business endeavors, devote much of their income to charity. Further, Sikhs are urged to avoid the "five thieves": lust (c'ham), anger (kr'odh), greed (lob'H), attachment to material things (mo'H), and pride (a'hankar). The chief way to do so is to attack human weakness with the "five weapons": contentment (santokh), charity (dan), kindness (daya), positive energy (chardi kala), and humility (nimarta).

Sacred writings

The fifth guru, Arjan Dev, compiled the Sikh holy text, the Granth Sahib (sometimes called the Adi Granth), in 1603. At the time the book consisted of the hymns and writings of Sikhism's first five gurus, particularly those of Nanak, who composed them with the aid of his musician companion, Mardana. It also included the writings of various Hindu and Muslim saints. A saint is a deceased person honored for living a virtuous and holy life. In the years that followed, the Granth Sahib was updated to include the writings of later gurus. In all, it contains the work of six gurus: Nanak, Angad, Amar Das, Ram Das, Arjan Dev, and Tegh Bahadur.

In the early eighteenth century the last of the living gurus, Gobind Singh, compiled all of these writings into an updated version of the Granth Sahib. He then proclaimed the text the eleventh and final guru of Sikhism. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib is still considered the final guru, and acts as the living embodiment, or personification, of the previous gurus. ("Sri" is a term of respect that is sometimes used before the names of objects, books, and places, as well as before the names of people.) It remains the sacred scripture and spiritual guide of Sikhism. While it is not regarded as the direct word of God, it is considered to be divinely inspired.

The Granth Sahib consists of 5,894 hymns in some 15,000 stanzas. Most of the text is written in the dialect spoken in the Punjab region at the time, though some sections are written in Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Marathi, Persian, and various local Indian dialects. They are written down in Gurmukhi, a Punjabi script that was developed and popularized by the second guru, Angad. The text is exactly 1,430 pages in length, and the material is arranged in a very precise manner. The first of its thirty-three sections is the Jup, an epic poem written by Nanak. Unlike the rest of the text, it is not meant to be sung. The next thirty-one sections are the ragas, which are songs or hymns based on traditional melodic patterns in Indian music. The ragas are organized according to the melody to which they are sung, then by the nature of the meter, or rhythm, of their lines, and finally by the musical key in which they are sung. The final section consists of assorted verses that were composed by musical groups.

The Granth Sahib is the focus of worship in a Sikh temple, called a gurdwara. Any place of worship that contains a copy of the Granth Sahib can be considered a gurdwara, a word that means "residence of (or "gateway to") the Guru." The Granth Sahib is stored in a room by itself during the night. When Sikhs assemble to worship, the Granth Sahib is carried out in ceremonial fashion and placed on a raised platform or throne, where it is covered by a rich cloth when it is not being read.

An ongoing issue in the Sikh faith is whether the Granth Sahib should be translated. Some traditional Sikhs believe that translating the book would diminish its holiness. Others, however, note that the original language of the Granth Sahib is difficult and one that is entirely unfamiliar to younger Sikhs living in the West. This group urges translation of the Granth Sahib so that younger Sikhs can carry on the faith's traditions.

Other texts

The other major text of Sikhism is the Dasam Granth. Most of this 1,400-page collection of verse was written by the tenth guru, Gobind Singh. It was compiled in 1734 by a Sikh scholar, Bhai Mani Singh. Parts of the Dasam Granth consist of Gobind Singh's autobiography, describing his childhood and his conflicts with Muslim emperors. A major portion consists of meditations on the nature of God. While the Dasam Granth is an important text, it is not considered sacred in the same way as the Granth Sahib.

In addition, two other texts are important to Sikhs. One is the Janam Sakhis, or "life stories," about Nanak. The other is the Rehit Maryada, or the Sikh code of conduct, written in the twentieth century by a committee of Sikhs. The Rehit Maryada describes how a Sikh can lead an ethical, moral life in relation to God and to other people.

Sacred symbols

Strict Sikhs continue to display the five emblems, or symbols, of Sikhism, sometimes called the "five K's" because each begins with the letter K, or kakka in Punjabi, the language of most Sikhs. These emblems were introduced by Guru Gobind Singh, and devout Sikhs incorporate them into their daily lives. By doing so, they readily identify themselves as Sikhs to the world at large. This identification not only creates a community spirit among Sikhs but also makes them responsible for their actions by revealing their religious identity to the world.

  1. Kesh, uncut hair. Hair is seen as a gift from God, and growing hair is seen as a sign of God's will. By keeping hair in its natural state, Sikhs bow to the will of God. The practice of allowing the hair to grow was started by Guru Nanak. Male Sikhs can typically be recognized by the turban that is wound tightly around the head to contain the hair.
  2. Kungha, a wooden comb to keep the hair neat. Devout Sikhs groom their hair with the kungha twice each day. The kungha, in combination with the kesh and the turban, is symbolic of the group solidarity of Sikhs.
  3. Kasha (or kachh), an undergarment, similar to shorts, that was worn by Sikh soldiers and suggests chastity and cleanliness. The kasha not only allowed freedom of movement for Sikh warriors but served as a constant reminder of the need to overcome earthly passions.
  1. Kara, a steel bracelet that, because it is a perfect circle with no beginning or end, symbolizes a connection with God. It also serves as a reminder to avoid doing evil deeds, especially with the hands. The kara is always worn on the right wrist.
  2. Kirpan, a sword carried in readiness to defend the weak or uphold the right. It symbolizes the dignity of Sikhs and their readiness to fight injustice. In the words of Guru Gobind Singh, "When the affairs are past other remedies, it is justifiable to unsheathe the sword." The kirpan in modern life is not an actual weapon but a small symbolic reminder.

The Khanda

The chief symbol of Sikhism is called the Khanda. The Khanda is made up of several symbols, but it takes its name from the central one, the Khanda itself. The Khanda is a double-edged sword, or dagger, with a triangular point at the top. The Khanda was used by Guru Gobind Singh to stir the amrit in the first amrit ritual used to create the Khalsa, the Sikhs' seventeenth-century fighting force. While the Khanda was a dagger used in battle, it also has spiritual significance. The right edge symbolizes freedom; the left, divine justice. In the center of the Khanda is a circle called a chakkar. This is actually a circular iron weapon with a sharpened outer edge (popularized in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess). As with many circular religious symbols, it represents the eternity of God, who is without beginning and end. Finally, two crossed swords encircle the insignia. The left sword, called Piri, represents spiritual freedom; the right sword, called Miri, represents political freedom. Piri and Miri were the names Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru, gave to his personal weapons. Guru Hargobind also developed the Sikh flag, called Nishan Sahib, which depicts the Khanda on a triangular piece of saffron or ochre (yellow, yellowish-brown, or orange) colored material. This flag is flown outside of all Sikh temples.

A final symbol of Sikhism is the phrase Ek Onkar. These are the first words of the Granth Sahib and mean "There is only one God." The words are a prominent symbol of Sikhism's firm belief in a single God.


Sikh places of worship are called gurdwaras, usually translated as "residence of the guru" or "gateway to the guru." The guru in this case refers to the Granth Sahib contained inside, which can also be called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. In theory any structure that contains a copy of the Granth Sahib can be considered a gurdwara, including a home. In practice Sikhs worship at temples where the Granth Sahib can be kept secure. There are approximately two hundred gurdwaras in India and an equal number in the United States. Though some are open twenty-four hours a day, others open before dawn and remain open until late in the evening. Communal worship is generally held on Sundays. Sikhs are opposed to any form of idol worship, which is the worship of any physical object as if it were a god. To avoid even the possibility of idol worship, gurdwaras do not have paintings, photographs, statues, bells, or any similar items, though many gurdwaras are beautifully decorated.

Each gurdwara has four doors leading into it: the Door of Livelihood, the Door of Peace, the Door of Grace, and the Door of Learning. The four doors have symbolic meaning. They suggest that anyone is welcome from the four points of the compass. They also suggest that members of any of the four Indian castes are welcome. A light is always kept burning in the gurdwara to show that the teachings of the Granth Sahib are accessible to anyone at any time.

Head Coverings

One way in which Sikh men and women follow their religion is by covering their heads. Sikhs wear a turban to cover their heads. On women, the most common head covering is a round turban and a chunni, or veil. Some women wear only a turban or only a chunni. Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth Sikh guru, officially established that Sikhs must cover their hair. This was, in part, to eliminate the use of turbans as a status symbol. People from higher classes used to wear turbans, while those from lower classes did not. Guru Gobind Singh used the turban to show that all Sikhs are equal. The turban is always worn when a Sikh is in public.

Other religions, such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, also ask their followers to cover their heads. It is common for Muslim men to cover their heads with a cap or other covering while at prayer. Many Muslim women cover their hair with a head scarf, or hijab. Jewish men wear a yarmulke, or skullcap. Jewish women may cover their hair with a kerchief or wig. The early history of Christianity depicts its followers with covered heads as well. Women, such as Mary, the mother of the son of God, are shown veiled. Priests and other members of the Christian clergy, or priesthood, often don hats or other head coverings during a ceremony.

Not all followers of these faiths, however, may follow these practices. Nevertheless, in religion, head coverings can represent many things, including respect and devotion to God, and are a visible sign of the religion's teachings. They also symbolize membership in the community of one's faith.

All gurdwaras carry out three major functions. The first is called Kirtan, which refers to the singing of hymns from the Granth Sahib. The second is Katha, referring to readings from the Granth Sahib, with discussion and explanation. The third is a community function, the langar, or free community kitchens. Volunteers in these kitchens cook and serve meals that can be eaten at any time during the day. Everyone sits on the floor, and the meal is vegetarian (without meat) so that people of all faiths can be accommodated. In addition to these functions, gurdwaras can serve as libraries and schools, and some provide overnight accommodations for travelers.

Because the gurdwara houses the Granth Sahib, people who enter for diwann, or communal worship, show great respect. The shoes are removed, and the head is covered. There is also a ritual washing of the hands, and, in some gurdwaras, of the feet as well. All worshippers sit on the floor, with the Granth Sahib at a higher level. The Granth Sahib, which is stored in a separate room, is carried out with great ceremony, placed on a table, and covered with a richly embroidered cloth when it is not being read. While a leader, called a Granthi, does read passages from the Granth Sahib for the congregation, this person is not a priest. Indeed, the concept of priests is foreign to Sikhs, who place great emphasis on the equality of all people, men and women. The Granthi, whether a man or a woman, is regarded simply as a reader and custodian of the Granth Sahib, although anyone who adopts this duty is expected to live a good and exemplary life.

Observances and pilgrimages

The Sikh calendar is based on the movements of both the sun and the moon. The year consists of twelve months of twenty-nine or thirty days. The beginning of each month coincides with the new moon. A thirteenth month is added every three years to adjust the calendar to the movements of the sun. The full moon has significance for Sikhs because Guru Nanak was born during a full moon.


Sikhism is not known for having holy days or ceremonial occasions. Sikhs regard every day as holy. Nonetheless, a few days hold special significance because they mark important events in the life of a Sikh. One is called Naam Karam, or the naming of a child. As soon after the birth of a child as possible, the family gathers at the gurdwara, where hymns are sung and the parents prepare and distribute a sweet pudding called karah prashad. Then the Granthi opens the Granth Sahib at random and reads the hymn on that page. (The practice of opening the book at random is common in Sikhism, suggesting submission to the will of God.) The parents then choose a name for the child, whose name will contain the first letter of that in the randomly selected hymn.

Another ceremony that holds special significance is the Sikh initiation ritual, called Amrit Sanskar. During this ceremony, five Sikhs called Panj Piaray, or the "five elect," initiate the young Sikh into the faith. They prepare holy water called amrit, which is made of water and sugar. They mix the solution with the Khanda, or double-edged sword, in a large iron bowl while reciting prayers. They then pour it into the hands of the initiate and sprinkle some of it into the hair and eyes five times. The initiate is now considered a member of the Khalsa brotherhood and is required to follow the Sikh code of conduct (Rehit Maryada) for life. Male initiates take the name Singh, meaning "lion," and female initiates take the name Kaur, meaning "princess."

A final ceremony is the Akhand Paath, which is any occasion when the Granth Sahib is read in its entirety. This occurs on any number of special days, such as births, marriages, and deaths. The goal is to encourage Sikhs on these special occasions to reflect on the gurus' teachings.


Sikhs celebrate a number of holidays and festivals, most of them commemorating important events in Sikh history. Some of these festivals include the following:

  • Baisakhi: This holiday, celebrated in mid-April, marks the founding of the Khalsa brotherhood by Guru Gobind Singh. This anniver sary is regarded as the founding of the Sikh nation, an event that gave identity and unity to the Sikh faith.
  • Bandi Chhor: This holiday, which falls between the end of October and mid-November, marks the anniversary of Guru Hargobind's release from prison in 1617. He had been imprisoned by the Muslim emperor Jahangir because of his efforts to arm the Sikhs. Hargobind spent several months as a political prisoner before he was released. This holiday generally coincides with Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
  • Maghi: Occurring on January 13, this holiday commemorates the martyrdom of forty Sikhs who were killed by a Muslim army as they fought for Guru Gobind Singh on December 29, 1705.
  • Hola Mohalla: This holiday in mid-March is intended to help Sikhs maintain their fighting spirit. The holiday is marked by athletic events, martial arts exhibitions, and mock battles.
  • Gurupurabs (often spelled Gurupurbs): These are anniversaries associated with the lives of the ten living gurus, so ten are celebrated each year. The most important is the birthday of Guru Nanak, called the Guru Nanak Jayanti, or Guru Nanak's birthday. The festival is also called Prakash Utsav, meaning "Festival of Light," because it is believed that Guru Nanak brought enlightenment to the world. The holiday begins three days before the actual birthday and is marked by a reading of the entire Granth Sahib. On the day itself, the Granth Sahib is carried in an elaborate procession through the streets. The holiday takes place in the Sikh month of Kartik, which corresponds to October-November. Also important are the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh and the days remembering the martyrdom of Gurus Arjan Dev and Tegh Bahadur. Martyrdom is suffering and death for one's cause.

The Golden Temple

Like holidays, pilgrimages do not occupy an important place in Sikhism, for Sikhs regard every place on Earth as holy. Nonetheless, the spiritual center of Sikhism is the city of Amritsar in India. This city holds considerable historical interest for Sikhs worldwide. Originally Amritsar was the name of a lake, then the name of the Sikh temple complex, then the name of the entire site, including the surrounding city.

Amritsar was founded in 1577 by the fourth guru, Ram Das. The name comes from the words amrit, referring to the sacred water used in Sikh baptisms, and sarowar, meaning "lake." The lake had long been used as a retreat for wandering sages, or wise men, and others who were drawn to its peacefulness, including Guru Nanak. Guru Ram Das had the lake enlarged and contained, and in time it became an appealing location for people looking for spiritual renewal, including not only mystics and spiritual leaders but also writers, musicians, scholars, and artists.

Ram Das's son, Arjan Dev, the fifth guru, then built a temple in the lake called Sri Harmandir Sahib. To finance the initial construction of the temple, Guru Arjan Dev decreed that each Sikh was to contribute one-tenth of his or her income. This requirement remains an important tenet for Sikhs, who generally contribute one-tenth of their incomes to charity. His successor, Guru Hargobind, built a smaller temple facing the Harmandir, where he administered the worldly affairs of Sikhism. From the early 1600s to the mid-1700s the site was repeatedly attacked by Muslim armies, and the temple was repeatedly destroyed. Each time it was rebuilt, and each new temple was more magnificent than the last. It took its present form under the leadership of Ranjit Singh, who imported marble and precious stones to ornament the temple. He also had it covered in gold-plated copper, so the temple came to be called the Golden Temple.

The Golden Temple is a mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles. While Muslims believe that a temple (mosque) should be entered from the west and Hindus believe a temple should be entered from the east, the Golden Temple has four doors so that one can enter from any direction, a practice carried out in Sikh gurdwaras. As Arjan Dev said, "My faith is for the people of all castes and all creeds from whichever direction they come and to whichever direction they bow."

The Five Takhts

Sikhs also visit the "Five Takhts," which are regarded as seats of spiritual authority (the word takht means "seat" or "throne"). One is the Akal Takht, the smaller temple that Guru Hargobind built facing the Golden Temple. He believed that the earthly affairs of the Sikh faith should not be administered in the Golden Temple, so he built the smaller temple for this purpose. The Akal Takht remains the primary center of authority for Sikhs. The other four takhts are:

  • Takht Damdama: At this site near the village of Talwandi Sabo, Guru Gobind Singh lived for a year as he compiled an edition of the Granth Sahib.
  • Takht Keshgarh: At this site in the city of Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa.
  • Takht Hazoor: This was the place where Guru Gobind Singh died and where his ashes are kept.
  • Takht Patna: This is the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh.

Everyday living

The essence of Sikh life concerns personal behavior, not ritual. Sikhs generally do not value fasting (going without food) or withdrawal from life. Rather, they believe in the need to live within the world and to confront the problems that it presents. In their daily lives, devout Sikhs attempt to follow the commandments laid down by the ten gurus. These commandments can be grouped into a number of categories. The first category concerns the worship of God. Sikhs are required to worship one God, to make worship of God part of daily life (by recitation of prayers, for example), and to avoid any type of superstition, meaningless ritual, or idol worship. God is to be worshipped in an abstract form, not as a person or an image.

A second category has to do with leading an honest and industrious life. Sikhs are required to work hard, share their earnings with others through charitable contributions, help the needy, avoid harm to others, and maintain good relationships with their children and parents. Further, Sikhs believe that all people are the children of God and that all are equal. Sikhs try never to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, or caste. Sikhs tend to be strong believers in democratic institutions.

Finally, Sikhs are expected to live a sober life. All forms of tobacco, drugs, and alcohol are forbidden, as is gambling. While many Sikhs are vegetarian, those who are not eat meat prepared by Jewish kosher standards. (Kosher standards govern how animals are to be killed, which animal products may be eaten, and even how such products are consumed.)

Rites of passage

Sikhs generally avoid ritual, though they do take part in naming and baptism rituals. A rite of passage for adolescent boys, though, is learning to tie the turban. The boy is taken to the gurdwara, and after the recitation of prayers, a Sikh elder ties the boy's turban, which is made of fine cotton or muslin cloth and can be up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) in length. The process is difficult, and it can take years for a young man to learn to tie his turban well. Elderly men tend to prefer white turbans, signifying wisdom. Middle-aged men tend to prefer saffron or deep blue, signifying a fighting spirit, while young men often prefer brighter, flashier colors.

Sikh weddings are frequently elaborate affairs, particularly in India. Weddings are often arranged by the couple's families, though the couple is required to consent to the marriage. Often, an engagement party called a kurmaj is held a week before the wedding. The wedding ceremony itself, called Anand Karaj, takes place either in a gurdwara or in the home of the bride or groom, anywhere a copy of the Granth Sahib is present. Brides are elaborately dressed, with a great deal of jewelry on their hands; grooms are typically covered with flowers. The ceremony consists of readings from the Granth Sahib and the binding of the couple with a saffron-colored scarf by the bride's father. The couple circles the Granth Sahib four times as the congregation (group of worshippers) sings hymns. The fourth time around, the congregation throws flower petals at the couple, and the service is complete.

Because Sikhs believe in reincarnation, funeral services tend not to be elaborate, nor are periods of mourning very lengthy. Funeral rites consist of two parts. The first is cremation of the body, often conducted by a close relative. The ashes are gathered and placed in any nearby river or the sea. Many Sikhs who live outside of India carry the ashes of loved ones to Punjab for disposal. No headstones or monuments, which are associated with idol worship, are permitted. The second part of the funeral consists of a memorial service, held within ten days of the person's death. This service is marked by a reading of the Granth Sahib and a communal meal.

Sikhism's influences

Sikhism has had widespread influence both in India and throughout the world. While the religion is built on many traditional beliefs and practices, Sikhs believe that it is a religion suited to modern life, primarily because it does not preach blind acceptance of religious belief and because it avoids meaningless rituals. Sikhism places a great deal of emphasis on hard work and self-reliance. For this reason, Sikhs believe, the Punjab is the most agriculturally advanced region in all of India.

Sikhs place considerable emphasis on education. They regard theirs as an intellectual religion that stresses knowledge and thought. Driven by this value, Sikhs readily adopt new technologies and have become highly successful as business entrepreneurs.

While Sikhs tend to be wealthy, with many serving as doctors, engineers, college professors, or computer specialists, the faith has a strong tradition of community and charitable service. In Glasgow, Scotland, the Sikh Community Care Project and the Central Gurdwara Sigh Sabha won the 2003 Queen's Award for Voluntary Service. When the first gurdwara was established in the United States in Stockton, California, in 1915, members of the Sikh faith immediately turned their attention to serving the needs of the poor, offering meals to homeless men passing by on the local railroad line.

Sikhism is a religion that is holding steady. While the number of Sikhs worldwide has not increased in recent years, neither has it declined. The challenges faced by Sikhism in the modern world are many. Older Sikhs believe that younger Sikhs are in danger of losing their faith because of influences in the surrounding world. Many young Sikhs lack familiarity with the Punjabi language and reject such customs as the ban on alcohol or the cutting of their hair.

Sikhism's largest population center remains in the Punjab region of India, and tensions between Indians and Sikhs do still exist. Sikh nationalism remains a problem, with demands for a separate Sikh nation always simmering under the surface in Indian politics. In the West, people sometimes confuse Sikhs with Muslims. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by Islamic terrorists on the United States, this confusion has caused problems for some Sikhs, particularly men who wear the turban. (Terrorists are extremists who try to instill fear and create political, cultural, or other change through violence. Religious extremists tend to believe that they can only bring about their vision for their religion through violent means.) In some countries efforts have been made to ban Sikh articles of faith in schools, including the kirpan in Canada and the turban in France. Many Sikhs believe that Sikhism needs to improve its communication with those outside the faith. They feel that some of these issues will diminish in importance as more people become familiar with the faith.

For More Information


Hoffman, Nancy. Sikhism. Detroit, MI: Lucent Books, 2006.

Kalsi, Sewa Singh. Simple Guide to Sikhism. Folkestone, England: Global Press, 1999.

Mann, Gurinder Singh. Sikhism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Singh, Pashaura. The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Singh, Patwant. The Sikhs. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001.


Brar, Sandeep Singh. "Sikhism." (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Kapoor, Sukhbir Singh. "Introduction to Sikhism." (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Religion and Ethics: Sikhism." British Broadcasting Corporation. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Sikhism: History, Beliefs, Practices." Religious (accessed on June 5, 2006).


views updated May 23 2018


SIKHISM Sikhism is the religious faith of those who call themselves Sikhs, the followers of Guru Nanak, his nine successors and their teachings, embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs. The Sikh population worldwide at the beginning of the twenty-first century was estimated at 20 million; of these, 17 million reside in India, with 14 million living in Punjab. Of the 2 million or so Sikhs who live outside India, the Sikh diaspora, the majority are in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada.

Origins and Early Sikh History

Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of northwestern India during a time when many religious teachers, known as "Sants," were seeking to reconcile the two opposing dominant faiths, Hinduism and Islam. The Sants expressed their teachings in vernacular poetry based on inner experience. Although the teachings of Guru Nanak were broadly aligned with some of the Sants, his own mission is thought to have emerged out of his direct experience of the divine, initiated with the words na koi Hindu, na koi Mussalman ..("there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim") signaling a third way that was to become the Nanak Panth, or the path of Nanak. The first community of his disciples, those who chose to follow Nanak as their Guru (divine teacher), was composed primarily of former Hindus, who came to call themselves his "Sikhs" (followers).

For the details of Guru Nanak's life Sikh tradition relies on a body of hagiographical literature called the janamsakhis (life testimonies), which appeared a century and a half after Nanak's death, undergoing expansion for sometime until printed editions were made in the nineteenth century. Sikhs today mainly rely on the accounts given in the Puratan Janamsakhi, which expounds four main cycles in Nanak's life story. In the first cycle, Nanak was born in 1469 in Talwandi, a village 40 miles (64 km) from Lahore, and was acclaimed by Muslims and Hindus alike as a future religious leader. In the second cycle, Nanak was married at twelve, his wife joining him at age nineteen; they had two sons. Nanak experienced difficulty settling into any profession, trying his hand as a herdsman, a trader, and finally as an accountant for a local official at Sultanpur. Nanak seemed to be mainly preoccupied with spiritual concerns, preferring the company of holy men and ascetics. Together with his closest associate, a Muslim bard named Mardana, Nanak organized regular nightly singing of devotional hymns, going to bathe in a nearby river before daybreak. During one of these sessions, at age thirty, Nanak underwent his first major mystical experience, in which he received a calling to teach people a path of devotion to the divine Name. According to the Puratan Janamsakhi, shortly after this experience Nanak entered the third phase of his life, in which he spent the next twelve years traveling eastward to Banaras (Varanasi), Bengal, and Orissa, southward to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, northward to Tibet, and finally westward to the Muslim regions as far as Mecca, Medina, and Baghdad. In the final phase of his life at about the age of fifty, Nanak founded a settlement at Kartarpur where he led a community of disciples, instructing them in spiritual practice and study, with nam simaran (remembrance of the Name) and kirtan (singing hymns of praise) regular features of devotion. At the same time he insisted that his disciples remain fully involved in worldly affairs by doing practical labor (Nanak himself tended his own crops) while maintaining a regular family life.

Shortly before his death in 1539 at age seventy, Guru Nanak's appointment of a successor not only inaugurated a two-centuries long politico-spiritual lineage, with each successor taking the title of Guru, but also marked a break with prior Sant practice of not appointing spiritual successors. During the next two centuries the early Sikh Panth (community) underwent significant expansion and development into a defined and disciplined order, with different steps taking place under successive Gurus. The second Guru, Angad (b. 1504; r. 1539–1552) collected Nanak's hymns, developed the alphabetic script called Gurmukhi ("from the Guru's mouth"), and institutionalized the langar, or communal kitchen, to feed disciples who came to visit Nanak's dharamsalas. Guru Amardas (b. 1479; r. 1552–1574), the third Guru, encouraged the observance of separate Sikh shrines, pilgrimage traditions and festivals, as well as instituting the manji system of supervising distant congregations. The fourth Guru, Ramdas (b. 1534; r. 1574–1581), founded a new center called Ramdaspur (later named Amritsar), where he supervised the excavation of the sacred pool that later became the central site of Sikh pilgrimage. Guru Ramdas appointed masands, or deputies, to represent the Guru's authority in his more dispersed congregations.

Sikhism became more firmly established under the fifth Guru Arjan (b. 1563; r. 1581–1606), who introduced several important innovations. Relying on extant collections, Arjan supervised the compilation and canonization of a scripture, the Adi Granth ("original text"), which contains the compositions of Sikh Gurus and other non-Sikh saints. The completion of the Harimandir temple, and the installation therein of the Adi Granth in 1604, proved to be highly significant for molding Sikh identity. Guru Arjan also founded new towns, such as Tarn Taran, Kartarpur, and Sri Hargobindpur, and extended trading links across India's northwestern frontier into Afghanistan and beyond. The increasing success and expansion of the Sikhs in Punjab inevitably led to confrontation with the Mughal authority under the emperor Jahangir. Guru Arjan was accused of supporting a rebellion led by Jahangir's son Amir Khushru. Charges of sedition were followed by imprisonment and finally execution in Lahore in 1606. Guru Arjan's martyrdom led to increased militarization and overt political involvement under his son and successor, the sixth Guru Hargobind (b. 1595; r. 1606–1644), symbolized by his donning of two swords, one representing spiritual authority (miri), the other representing political authority (piri). Maintaining a small but effective army, Guru Hargobind consciously prepared the Sikhs to resist willful state oppression. Although confrontation receded during the tenure of his successor Gurus, Har Rai and Har Krishan, they nevertheless maintained a similar style of leadership with a retinue of armed followers. It was the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur (b. 1621; r. 1664–1675), who again was forced to confront the increasingly restrictive policies of Jahangir's grandson, the emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707), which included enforcement of Islamic laws and taxes and the replacement of local Hindu temples by Muslim mosques. Guru Tegh Bahadur's active resistance against such policies, his public defense of Hindus' rights to practice their religion freely, and his own refusal to accept Islam under pain of death led to his imprisonment and execution in Delhi's Chandni Chowk in 1675.

The Sikh Panth's involvement in political resistance came to a climax with the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh (b. 1666; r. 1675–1708). Shortly after the execution of his father, the ninth Guru, the young Gobind Rai moved from Anandpur deeper into the Himalayan foothills. Neighboring hill chieftans, nervous about the young Guru's increasing power, unsuccessfully attacked his men at Bhangani. Following this episode the Guru moved back to Anandpur, where he successfully fought a Mughal force at Nadaun. The Guru built several other fortresses at Anandpur, Lohgarh, Keshgarh, and Fategarh. His best-known contribution to the development of Sikhism was to redefine the very core of the Sikh Panth as a military-cum-spiritual order, the Khalsa ("sovereign" or "free"). According to tradition, he called his followers to assemble for the Baisakhi festival in 1699 at Anandpur. There he called for five volunteers to pass a test of absolute loyalty. Those who passed the test, the so-called panj piare (five beloved ones) were initiated into the new Khalsa order by a ceremonial rite called khande ka pahul (baptism of the double-edged sword), thus forming the nucleus of a sovereign, casteless community. Each member of the Khalsa order undertook to wear the five external symbols, or five "K"s (kesh, long, uncut hair; kirpan, short sword; kanga, comb; kara, steel bracelet; kaccha, breeches), to adhere to a formal code of conduct (rahit), and to relinquish family surnames, with males assuming the name Singh (lion) and females assuming the name Kaur (princess), thereby removing sexual inequality while maintaining gender difference. The Guru in turn received the same initiation from the panj piare, thereby assuming the name Singh and signifying a merger of identities between Guru and disciples. Many thousands more accepted this initiation. The last nine years of Guru Gobind Singh's life were spent either in protracted battles against the combined forces of Aurangzeb and the hill rajas, in which the Guru lost his four sons and his mother, himself becoming a fugitive relentlessly hunted by the Mughals. Despite these setbacks, the Guru resurrected his army, and upon Aurangzeb's death supported the succession of his son Bahadur Shah to the throne. While at Nander, the Guru commissioned a hermit named Banda Singh to inflict punishment on Wazir Khan, one of Aurangzeb's generals.

The tenth Guru was a prolific writer, composing literature in Braj, Hindi, Persian, and Sanskrit. Much of this literature forms the Dasam Granth (Book of the Tenth Master), which contains devotional hymns such as Jaap, Svaye, Chaupas, mythological treatises such as Chandi Ki Var (Tales of the goddess), and a semiautobiographical work Bachitar Natak (The wonderful drama). Tradition records that Guru Gobind Singh also recomposed from memory the entire contents of the Adi Granth, since the extant copies were either lost during his battles, or remained in the hands of rival claimants to the Guru's position. Guru Gobind Singh died in 1708 at the hands of an assassin. Before his death, however, he declared the line of living Gurus to be at an end, issuing a command for the Sikh community to look to dual sources of authority, namely, the scriptural text (Adi Granth), which henceforth became known as the Guru Granth Sahib, and the body politic of the Khalsa Panth.

The Post-Guru Period

The Sikhs faced their most difficult period during the first few decades of the eighteenth century, their fortunes depending on the degree to which they could assert themselves against Mughal forces in the southeast and the steadily increasing incursions of the Afghans in the northwest, at the same time jockeying for position with the local Hindu princes in Punjab.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Sikhs had forged themselves into twelve independent militia units, or misls, which were instrumental in eventually dislodging the Mughals from power. The twelve misls were finally unified by the most illustrious Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who took Lahore and was proclaimed maharaja of the Punjab. After a series of successful campaigns against the Afghans and Pathans, Ranjit Singh had also secured India's northwestern frontier by the 1820s. Among other things, Maharajah Ranjit Singh is celebrated as the benefactor of the Harimandir (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, which he covered in gold leaf. Shortly after the maharaja's death in 1839, however, in-fighting broke out among his successors, the Sikh kingdom fell into disarray, and, after a series of hard-fought battles, was annexed by the British Raj in 1849.

Emergence of Modern Sikhism

The advent of British colonial rule not only marks the entry of Sikhism into Western modernity, but also the emergence of three reform movements (the Nirankaris, the Namdharis, and the Singh Sabha movement), each attempting to revive a sense of separate religious identity among Sikhs at a time when most such traditions were considered to be sects of Hinduism. The Namdharis, founded by Baba Dyal Das (1783–1853), took their name from their condemnation of idolatry and participation in Hindu rituals that had become prevalent among many Sikhs. The Namdharis, founded by Baba Ram Singh (1816–1884), came to be regarded as a separatist movement when they instituted a separate baptismal ritual and code of conduct. Ram Singh advocated strict vegetarianism, the wearing of all-white dress, and loud chanting, which led to their nickname, kukas (howlers), because of their spontaneous outbursts during devotional trances. In 1871 the Namdharis came into conflict with the British when they violently opposed the colonial administration's reintroduction of cow slaughter (previously banned by Maharaja Ranjit Singh), and in the process killed Muslim butchers in Amritsar and Ludhiana. The British ruthlessly suppressed the uprising by tying sixty-five Namdharis to the mouths of cannons, blowing them to pieces.

By far the most influential Sikh reformist movement was the Singh Sabha, founded in 1863 under aristocratic patronage. By 1879 the movement had suffered an internal schism that led to the formation of the conservative Amritsar-based faction, led by Baba Khem Singh Bedi, and the more radical (and ultimately far more successful) Lahore-based faction, led initially by Giani Ditt Singh and Principal Gurmukh Singh, and subsequently by Kahn Singh Nabha, Teja Singh, Vir Singh, and Jodh Singh. Through its political functionary, the Chief Khalsa Diwan (CKD), a body set up in 1902 to jointly conduct the affairs of the Amritsar and Lahore factions, the Singh Sabha movement achieved the most successful reinterpretation of Sikhism adapted to modernity, which has, until recently, exerted a hegemonic influence on Sikh identity. Their reformulation was based on the colonially inspired distinction between, on the one hand, a monotheistic-historical Sikhism centered on the authority of a clearly recognizable scripture and embodied by the Tat (authentic) Khalsa ideal, and on the other hand, a pantheistic ahistorical Hinduism. Crucially the Singh Sabha redefined the means by which the tradition was communicated. Making use of British colonial patronage and new forms of transportation, commerce, and communication (especially the printing press), the Singh Sabhas were able to develop an extensive network of chapters across North India. Through the combined effect of tract publications and more systematic works of theology and history, the leading Singh Sabha scholars redefined the doctrinal foundations of Sikhism. Major political successes include the passing of the Anand Marriage Act in 1909, which prescribed circumambulation of the Guru Granth Sahib in Sikh marriages, replacing circumambulation of the Vedic fire. Under the banner of the Akali Dal Party, political successors to the CKD, a more violent campaign was launched in the early 1920s to wrest control of the Harimandir and other historical gurdwaras from the Mahants or traditional custodians, resulting in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925, which handed administration of these gurdwaras back to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), an elected body dominated by the Akali Dal, which continues to dominate the religious and political affairs of the Sikh Panth. An important milestone for the SGPC was the publication of the Sikh Rahit Maryada, or Sikh Code of Conduct, in the 1950's, which guaranteed greater uniformity of Sikh religious practices.

Following British withdrawal in 1947, the partition of India split the traditional Sikh homeland of Punjab into two parts, its western half going to Pakistan, and its eastern to India, with its capital in Amritsar. Amid widescale ethnic and religious violence, approximately 3 million Sikhs were displaced from western Punjab, fleeing across a hastily, ineptly drawn border to India's Punjab. At the time of partition, there were some who called for the creation of a Sikh homeland, to be called Sikhistan or Khalistan, but this suggestion received no official support. However, the desire to create a majority Sikh state in Indian Punjab encouraged the Akali Dal to agitate for a Punjabi-speaking state as part of the Indian Union, which was achieved in 1966 through the separation of Sikh-majority Punjab from Hindu-majority Haryana. Continuing this tradition of political agitation into the late 1970s and early 1980s (when an increasingly Hindu-dominated India viewed Sikh demands for improving Punjab's economic resources with hostility) resulted in a violent confrontation between the central government of India, led by Indira Gandhi, and groups of Sikh militants. Events culminated in June 1984, when Prime Minister Gandhi ordered India's army to launch its deadly Operation Bluestar, sending tanks into Amritsar's Golden Temple to remove Sikh militants, led by the charismatic preacher Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, killing over a thousand Sikhs according to government records. In retaliation, Indira Ganhi was assassinated that October by two of her Sikh bodyguards; subsequently Hindu mobs launched reprisals against Sikhs, killing thousands in Delhi alone. More than five thousand innocent Sikhs were killed that November throughout India. Violence escalated throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s as young Sikh militants, supported by Sikhs of the diaspora, revived the demand for a separate Sikh Khalistan.

Sikh Theological Doctrine, Worship, and Customs

The distinctive nature of Sikhism may be traced from Guru Nanak himself, embodied in his hymns that are part of the Adi Granth, and amplified in the lives and works of his nine Guru successors, explained in the exegetical writings of Sikh scholars, such as Bhai Gurdas in the sixteenth century, or Bhai Vir Singh in the twentieth century. For devout Sikhs the most succinct expression of Nanak's thought is encapsulated in the syllable ik oankar, which appears at the very beginning of Nanak's Japji Sahib (the first and most authoritative hymn in the Adi Granth), and which is often translated in conformity to the rationalized idiom of monotheism as "One God Exists," though it is more accurately translated as "The One Absolute, Manifested through Primal Word-Sound." According to Guru Nanak, the Absolute is nondual (One). From the conceptual standpoint of the human ego, however, the Absolute is perceived dualistically in terms of either/or distinctions, such as nirgun/sargun (without qualities/with qualities; formless/form), or in terms of the difference between God and man. A person limited to mere conceptuality is manmukh (ego-centered individual) and therefore unfree, ignorant, limited by a self-generating consciousness. For Guru Nanak, the Absolute cannot be conceptualized or obtained through rituals (sochai soch na hovi), through mere silencing of the mind (chupai chup na hovi), or by satisfying one's cravings (bhukhian bhuk na uttari). The Absolute can only be realized through experience. As such, the nonduality of the Absolute is conceptually inseparable from the notion of freedom (mukti) found in the classic mystical themes of separation and fusion between lover and beloved. To realize the One, the individual must be grounded in a state of existence that relinquishes the individuality of the self, so that what remains when ego is abandoned—the man (heart/mind/soul)—emerges as the lover and is able to merge with the Other (its Beloved). In this state, one instinctively avoids relating to the One in terms of subject and object. Such a realized individual (gurmukh) no longer represents the Absolute to himself, since the conscious distinction between self and other, I and not-I, lover and beloved, disappears, leaving an ecstatic and purely spontaneous form of existence (sahaj).

In Sikh tradition, the figure of the gurmukh and the spontaneous freedom associated with it are seen as an intensely creative form of existence that is "oriented toward the guru" and aligned with the divine order (hukam) yet released from the mechanism of individuation (haumai). The transition from duality to nonduality (or, stated otherwise, the transition from manmukh to gurmukh) turns on the efficacy of naam (the Name), which is both the object of love and the means of loving attachment to the beloved. Being the point of contact between transcendence (God) and immanence (world), naam is the medium by which the ego loses itself in human communication with others, that is, the medium par excellence for experiencing the condition of nonduality. In Nanak's hymns, naam is not a particular word or mantra, but is both written within and yet comprises the vibration of the cosmos. Being the link between mystic interiority and worldly action, naam is appropriated by the gurmukh through the practice of simaran (constant remembrance or repetition of the Name)—a form of meditation in which the One simultaneously becomes the focus of an individual's awareness (surati) and his motivation to perform righteous action (karam kamahe). However, naam cannot be obtained voluntarily. Its attainment depends on grace or the favorable glance of the Guru (kirpa/nadar), receiving which the individual can change his predestined nature (likhia nal) into the spontaneous being of the gurmukh, which no longer generates saṃskāras (the soul passed from one life to another). Sikhs therefore hold a belief in the transmigration of souls, which come and go (avan jan) until one is liberated from the bonds of the ego. From the standpoint of the gurmukh, the conceptual duality between religion and politics, mysticism and violence, and so on, becomes superfluous, as is evident in the lived experience of the Sikh Gurus, for whom there was no contradiction between mystical experience and the life of a soldier or householder.

As one of the central terms in Sikh doctrine, the term "Guru" takes on theologico-political connotations that go well beyond its meaning and application in Hinduism, where it is limited to a teacher, initially of worldly knowledge, or a conveyor of spiritual insight. In Sikhism the term "Guru" automatically incorporates this earlier meaning, referring thereby to Guru Nanak and his nine successor Gurus. Metaphorically it refers to the same divine light manifested in all ten Gurus; practically it serves to indicate the authority vested in the name "Nanak." Thus the hymns of the different Gurus in the Adi Granth are cited by referring to their respective composers as sequential locations (mahalas) for the manifestation of the name "Nanak." Just before the death of the tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, authority was jointly vested, on the one hand, in the Adi Granth (henceforth Guru Granth Sahib), leading to the doctrine of scripture or Word as Guru (shabad-guru), and on the other hand, in the collective wisdom of the initiated community, the Khalsa, giving the doctrine of Panth as Guru (gurupanth). Underpinning all of these notions is the fourth notion of Guru in Sikhism, namely, the satguru, or true Guru, which recurs in the hymns as identical to the divine principle itself: that which bestows or gives to those who follow in the way (hukam).

Sikh congregational worship takes place in the gurdwara (door of the Guru), which is essentially any building in which the Guru Granth Sahib can be appropriately installed. The modern gurdwara has evolved out of the dharamsalas (resting places) established by Guru Nanak during his travels. The principal congregational activities in the gurdwara include kirtan (the singing of hymns), katha vachic (narrative exposition of Sikh philosophy and history), and more recently, akhand path (unbroken recitation of the entire Guru Granth Sahib), funeral services, and marriage ceremonies. Any adult Sikh, male or female, can conduct religious ceremonies. Specialized readers of the sacred texts, called granthis, and professional singers are qualified to perform congregational duties by skill rather than by ritual ordination. In most gurdwaras meditational worship begins before dawn with recitals of Guru Nanak's Asa di Var, followed at dawn with his Japji, and by Guru Gobind Singh's Jaap.

Sikh festivals known as gurpurbs (the rising of a guru) are associated with an event in the respective Guru's life. The most important gurpurbs are Guru Nanak's birthday, celebrated on the full moon in November, Guru Gobind Singh's birthday (December–January), and the martyrdoms of Guru Arjan and Tegh Bahadur (May–June), all of which follow a lunar calendar. Sikh festivals that follow a solar calendar include Baisakhi and Divali. Baisakhi, celebrated as New Year's Day in North India, usually falls on the thirteenth of April. Originally a grain harvest festival for Hindus, it has acquired particular importance for Sikhs due to Guru Gobind Singh's creation of the Khalsa on Baisakhi of 1699. Sikhs today celebrate Baisakhi as a historical birthday for the community. Similarly, while for Hindus Divali is a festival of lights celebrating the return of Ram Chandra to Ayodhya, for Sikhs Divali marks the return of the sixth Guru Hargobind from his imprisonment by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Another Sikh festival is Hola Mohalla, the day after Holi (which Hindus celebrate by freely throwing colored powder on each other to commemorate an event in the life of Prahlad, a devotee of Vishnu). Sikhs follow the same custom but for different reasons. The emphasis Guru Gobind Singh gave to Sikh observance was to channel people's energies toward military exercises through organized athletic and literary contests.

Arvind-Pal S. Mandair

See alsoAmritsar ; Bahadur Shah I ; Gandhi, Indira ; Guru Nanak ; Jahangir ; Sikh Institutions and Parties ; Singh, Maharaja Ranjit


Grewal, J. S. The Sikhs of the Punjab. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Macauliffe, Max Arthur. The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors. 6 vols. New Delhi: S. Chand and Co., 1986.

McLeod, W. H. Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1984.

——. Sikhism. London: Penguin, 1997.

McLeod, W. H., and Karine Schomer, eds. The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. New Delhi: Motilalal Banarsidass, 1987.

Oberoi, Harjot. The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Singh, Harbans, ed. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. 2nd ed. Patiala: Punjabi University, 1996.


views updated May 17 2018


Sikhism originated in the Punjab region, in northwest India, five centuries ago. It is the youngest of all independent religions in India, where the Sikhs are less than 2 percent (1.8%) of India's one billion people. What makes Sikhs significant is not their numbers but their contribution in the political and economic spheres. The global population of the Sikhs is approximately 20 million, which is slightly more than the worldwide total of Jewish people. About 18 million Sikhs live in the state of Punjab, while the rest have settled in other parts of India, including the substantial communities of Sikhs now established in Southeast Asia, East Africa, the United Kingdom, and North America through successive waves of emigration. During the last century, a quarter million Sikhs have settled in the United States of America. The observant male Sikhs are easily recognized by their beards and turbans—which are the very symbols of their faith.

The Origins and Development of Sikhism

Sikhism is rooted in a particular religious experience, piety, and culture and informed by a unique inner revelation of its founder, Guru Nanak (1469–1539). It evolved in response to three main elements. The first of these was the ideology based on religious and cultural innovations of Guru Nanak and his nine successors. The second was the rural base of the Punjabi society. The third significant element was the period of Punjab history. All three elements combined to produce the mutual interaction between ideology and environment in the historical development of Sikhism.

During the period of the ten Gurus (Preceptors), three key events took place in the evolution of Sikhism. The first was the establishment of the first Sikh community at Kartarpur in west Punjab during the last two decades of Guru Nanak's life. To ensure its survival, Guru Nanak formally appointed a successor before he passed away in 1539. Thus, a lineage was established, and a legitimate succession was maintained intact from the appointment of the second Guru, Angad (1504–1552), to the death of Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the tenth and the last Guru of the Sikhs. The second event was the compilation of the canonical scripture, the Adi Granth (AG) in 1604 by the fifth Guru, Arjan (1563–1606). It provided a framework for the shaping of the Sikh community. The third was the founding of the institution of the Khalsa (pure) by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, an order of loyal Sikhs bound by common identity and discipline.

The inauguration of the Khalsa was the culmination of the canonical period of the development of Sikhism. The most visible symbols of Sikhism known as the Five Ks—namely uncut hair, a wrist ring, a short sword, a comb for the topknot, and breeches—are mandatory to the Khalsa. Guru Gobind Singh terminated the line of personal Gurus before he passed away in 1708, and installed the Adi Granth as Guru Eternal for theSikhs. Thereafter, the authority of the Guru was to vest in the scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the corporate community itself.

Family in Sikh Thought and Practice

Guru Nanak stressed the way of the householder as the ideal pattern of life for the seeker of liberation, rejecting the ascetic alternative. His successors upheld the same ideal of normal family life, expressing it in their own lives as well as in their teachings. The third Guru, Amar Das (1479–1574) proclaimed: "Family life is superior to ascetic life in sectarian garb because it is from householders that ascetics meet their needs by begging" (AG, p. 586). To understand the family relationships, caste and gender issues need to be addressed from the Sikh perspective.

In Punjabi society, family life is based upon broad kinship relationships. Every individual is a member of a joint family, a biradari (brotherhood), a got (exogamous group), and a zat (endogamous group). Like most other Indians, Sikhs are endogamous by caste (zat) and exogamous by subcaste (got). Descent is always patrilineal, and marriages link two groups of kin rather than two individuals. The cultural norms of honor (izzat) and modesty play a significant role in family relationships within the framework of patriarchal structures of Punjabi society. The Gurus employ the term pati that essentially refers to the core of a person, encompassing honor, self-respect, and social standing.

Guru Nanak and the succeeding Gurus emphatically proclaimed that divine Name is the only sure means of liberation for all four castes: the Khatri (originally Kshatriya, warrior), the Brahmin (priest), the Shudra ("servant") and the Vaishya (tradesman). In the Gurus' works, the Khatris are always placed above the Brahmins in caste hierarchy, while the Shudras are raised above the Vaishyas. This was an interesting way of breaking the rigidity of the centuries-old caste system. All the Gurus were Khatris, and this made them a topranking caste in Punjab's urban hierarchy, followed by Aroras (merchants) and Ahluvalias (brewers). In rural caste hierarchy, an absolute majority (64%) among the Sikhs are Jats (peasants), who are followed by Ramgarhias (artisans), Ramdasias (cobblers) and Mazhabis (sweepers). Although Brahmins are at the apex in Hindu caste hierarchy, Sikhs place them distinctly lower on the caste scale. This is partly due to the strictures that the Sikh Gurus laid upon Brahmin pride and partly to the reorganization of Punjabi rural society that confers dominance on the Jat caste.

Doctrinally, caste has never been one of the defining criteria of Sikh identity. In the Sikh congregation, there is no place for any kind of injustice or hurtful discrimination based upon caste identity. Sikhs eat together in the community kitchen, worship together, and share the same sacramental food in the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). However, caste still prevails within the Sikh community as a marriage convention. Most of the Sikh marriages are arranged between members of the same endogamous caste group. Nevertheless, intercaste marriages are now taking place frequently among the professional Sikhs in India and abroad.

The Sikh Gurus offered their vision of gender equality within the Sikh community and took practical steps to foster respect for womanhood. They were certainly ahead of their times when they championed the cause of women with equal access in spiritual and temporal matters. Guru Nanak raised a strong voice against the position of inferiority assigned to women in contemporary society: "From women born, shaped in the womb, to woman betrothed and wed; we are bound to women by ties of affection, on women man's future depends. If one woman dies he seeks another; with a woman he orders his life. Why then should one speak evil of women, they who give birth to kings?" (AG, p. 473). Guru Nanak brought home to the harsh critics of women the realization that the survival of the human race depends upon women whom they unjustifiably ostracized within the society. Guru Amar Das abolished the prevalent customs of "veil" and sati (self-immolation) by widows, and permitted widows to remarry. He further appointed women as Sikh missionaries. Indeed, Sikh women have equal rights with men to conduct prayers and other ceremonies in the gurdwaras.

The Gurus were addressing the issues of gender within the parameters set by traditional patriarchal structures. In their view, an ideal woman plays the role of a good daughter or sister, a good wife and good mother within the context of family life. They condemned both women and men alike who did not observe the cultural norms of modesty and honor in their lives. In this context, the images of immoral woman and unregenerate man are frequently encountered in the scriptural texts. There is thus no tolerance for any kind of premarital or extramarital sexual relationships. In particular, Guru Nanak was deeply anguished over the rape of women when Babur's army invaded India in 1526. He employs the Punjabi phrase "stripping of one's honor" to describe the rape of women by the Mughal army. In fact, rape is regarded as a violation of women's honor in the Punjabi culture. It amounts to the loss of family honor, which in turn, becomes the loss of one's social standing in the community. The notion of family honor is intimately linked with the status of women in Punjabi society.

The Anand Marriage Ceremony

The third Guru, Amar Das, proclaimed: "They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together. Rather, they alone are called husband and wife who have one soul in two bodies" (AG, p. 788). This proclamation has become the basis of the Sikh engagement and marriage process, which traditionally emphasizes a spiritual commitment between two partners over any material or physical advantages of the union. At every step, tradition surrounding Sikh marriages seeks to insure the spiritual compatibility of the couple to be married.

To this end, Sikh marriages are arranged by the family of the prospective couples. Although the involvement of the couple themselves has increased over time, the involvement and input of the family has remained vital. This emphasis on family, reflected in every aspect of Sikh life, from the communal eating halls of the gurdwaras to the common practice of identifying oneself through one's parentage, is among the most important precepts of Sikhism. At every stage in the Sikh process of engagement and marriage, the opinion of each partner's family is respected, considered, and valued.

A Sikh wedding, according to the Anand (Bliss) rite, takes place in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, and the performance of the actual marriage requires the couple to circumambulate the sacred scripture four times to take four vows. Before the bridegroom and the bride make each round, they listen to a verse of the wedding hymn (AG, pp. 773–74) by the fourth Guru, Ram Das (1534–1581), being read by a scriptural reader. Then they bow before the Guru Granth Sahib and get up to make the round while professional musicians sing the same verse in the congregation. During the process of their clockwise movement around the scripture four times, they take the following four vows: (1) To lead an action-oriented life based on righteousness and to never shun obligations of family and society; (2) to maintain a bond of reverence and dignity between them; (3) to keep enthusiasm for life alive in the face of adverse circumstances and remain detached from worldly attachments; and (4) to cultivate a "balanced approach" in life, avoiding all extremes. The pattern of circumambulation in the Anand marriage ceremony is in fact the re-actualization of the primordial movement of life in which there is no beginning and no end. The continuous remembrance of the four marital vows makes the life of the couple blissful.

The standard manual of Sikh Code of Conduct, Sikh Rahit Maryada, explicitly states: "No account should be taken of caste; a Sikh woman should be married only to a Sikh man; and Sikhs should not be married as children." This is an ideal arrangement. In actual practice, however, a large majority of Sikh marriages take careful account of the prospective partner's caste. In initial inquiries, the choosing of a partner requires that the marriage should be arranged with a member of the same zat, but that it must exclude got of the father, the mother, the father's mother, and the mother's mother. In addition, rural Sikhs maintain the custom of village exogamy, such that marriages should not be arranged between two families of the same village. It further ensures that a married daughter does not live in her father's village, strengthening the rule that inheritance in Punjabi village families is always through the male lineage. The custom of village exogamy still operates even when the families move to towns or overseas locations. Most rural Sikhs living in the diaspora know the identity of their "ancestral village," and hence they normally observe this custom (McLeod 1997).

The situation with urban Sikhs is entirely different. By tradition, the Khatris are large-scale traders, and they live in the big cities to conduct their business. The small-scale traders among the Sikhs are mostly Aroras. Both of these groups are not too rigid about caste requirements in choosing a marriage partner. The Khatri and Arora families frequently intermarry, and there is no custom of city exogamy among them. Marriages between cousins (i.e., marrying mother's sister's son or daughter, or marrying father's sister's son or daughter) are also possible. This is due to the influence of Muslim culture on these groups, who moved to India from Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947. Further, marriages between Hindus and Sikhs are common in the case of Khatri and Arora families.

Changing Trends in Sikh Marriages

Sikh marriage patterns are showing signs of significant changes in the following areas. First, a difference between the education of the groom and the bride is narrowing. This preference for comparable educational qualifications in the selection of prospective partners, leading ultimately to the earning capacity of both spouses, shows the growth of individualism and decline in joint families and kinship ties. Such marriages have become possible due to the impact of economic and educational factors, including the processes of urbanization and modernization. Second, a favorable attitude towards intercaste marriages shows the decline of caste ties. Caste as a principle of endogamy is, however, losing its importance more in urban cities than in rural villages. The Singh Sabha reforms within Sikhism in the last century have enhanced this process. Third, young men and women now marry later than they did in earlier times. Finally, obtaining the consent of the young man and the woman in matrimonial alliances, favoring widow remarriage, agreeing to divorce as a last resort, and getting married again after divorce, are the practices that indicate the impact of Western urban influences (Rajagopalan and Singh 1967).

Another tradition has been an important part of the Sikh marriage process. The fundamental respect for the judgement of family is reflected in the ancient practice of not meeting one's partner between the time of engagement and the time of marriage. It is understood that, at the time of engagement, a spiritual commitment to one's fiancé(e) has been made. Respect for the family makes impossible any second-guessing of that commitment. Over many centuries, this practice expanded and became tradition, so that even when the family is unavailable or uninvolved, the custom of not meeting one's fiancé(e) before the marriage ceremony continues. In recent decades, however, many young Sikhs have chosen not to follow this established tradition, and the rigid procedure surrounding Sikh arranged marriages is on the decline. Nevertheless, for many devout Sikhs, the above practice continues to be an important reflection of their faith and tradition. To be forced to ignore or violate long-standing tradition by meeting one's fiancé(e) between the engagement and the ceremony could cloud the sanctity of the marriage process in the minds of those devout Sikhs involved.

In the diaspora, Sikh marriages are undergoing significant changes. The second-generation Sikhs are raising questions concerning the traditional form of marriage. Like their peer groups from other religious faiths, they tend to follow the idea of romantic love in choosing their partners. They frequently date prospective mates to test their compatibility in standard situations. Living in a complex multiethnic environment, they are exposed to people of different faiths and cultures. Not surprisingly, this results in occasional marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh partners. These marriages provide new challenges to both partners to make necessary adjustments in their lives.


In Sikh households, the selection of a marriage partner is arranged formally with parental approval. The idea of romantic love is gaining some popularity among contemporary youth, but economic, educational, and family considerations are still among the important factors in most decisions to marry. Caste endogamy is on the decline among Sikh professionals. Doctrinally, women enjoy complete equality, but in actual practice they have yet to achieve equal representation within various Sikh organizations. In the pluralistic societies of the postmodern world, where emphasis is being placed upon liberty, diversity, tolerance, and equality of race and gender, Sikh ideals are thoroughly in place and congenial to the developing values of the society.

See also:India; Religion


jyoti, s. k. (1983). marriage practices of the sikhs: a study of intergenerational differences. new delhi: deep & deep.

mcleod, w. h. (1995). historical dictionary of sikhism.lanham, md: scarecrow press.

mcleod, w. h. (1997). sikhism. london: penguin books.

rajagopalan, c., and singh, j. (1967). "changing trends insikh marriage." the journal of family welfare 14(2):24–32.

singh, h., ed. (1992–1998). the encyclopaedia of sikhism,vols. 1–4. patiala: punjabi university.

singh, j. (1968). "sikh marriage in transition." social action: a review of social trends 18(3):224–230.

singh, k. (1996). "the condition of women as depicted in the adi guru granth." journal of sikh studies 20(2):9–15.

singh, k., trans. (1994). sikh rahit maryada: the code ofsikh conduct and conventions. amritsar: dharam parchar committee, sgpc.

singh, p. (2000). the guru granth sahib: canon, meaning and authority. new delhi: oxford university press.

talib, g. s., trans. (1984–1990). sri guru granth sahib,vols. 1–4. patiala: punjabi university.



views updated May 29 2018



Sikhism, a religion that emerged in the Punjab region of India in the fifteenth century, can be said to be the cultural product of the collision between Hinduism and Islam. As such, it combines elements of Islam, such as monotheism and iconoclasm, with certain features of Hinduism, such as the doctrines of reincarnation, karma, and nirvána. While Sikhism is often regarded as a syncretic religion, this interpretation is offensive to Sikhs, who regard their religion as a direct and separate revelation. Crucial to the distinctive character of Sikhism, however, was the rejection of the caste system and its associated rituals and legal apparatus by the Sikh Gurus, or teachers.

Sikhism was founded by Guru Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539), who was born at Talwandi, a village that is now known as Nankana Sahib, near Lahore in Pakistan. Leaving home to gain religious knowledge, Nanak is said to have encountered Kabir (1440-1518), a saintly figure who was revered by the followers of many religious traditions. Nanak promoted religious tolerance and the equality of women. His most famous saying was: There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim. Nanak undertook four extensive journeys around and beyond India, spreading his teaching in Bengal and Assam, in Shri Lanka via Tamil Nadu, in the north toward Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet, and finally toward Baghdad and Mecca.

As a system of religious philosophy, Sikhism was traditionally known as the Gurmat (the teachings of the gurus) or Sikh dharma. There were ten Gurus who led the community from the time of Nanaka until 1708. These Gurus came from the Khatri jati, a mercantile caste. The term Sikhism comes from the Sanskrit root sisya, signifying a disciple or student. Sikhs, who now number over twenty-three million adherents around the world, are predominantly inhabitants of the Punjab, where they represent 65 percent of the population. In practical terms, Sikhs are distinguished by the custom in which baptized Sikhs wear the panj kakke (the Five Ks): uncut hair, a small comb, a metal bracelet, a short sword, and a special undergarment. Sikhs served in the British army between 1870 and 1947, and many of them settled outside the Punjab after they were discharged. Thus, there is now a large Sikh diaspora.

Nanak emphasized personal devotion to and intimate faith in God. The principal belief is faith in Vahiguru, or God, who is conceived without gender as a single, personal, and transcendental creator God. Vahiguru is omnipresent and can be comprehended by the heart of the true disciple, who achieves religious enlightenment through meditation. The chief obstacles to knowledge and salvation are human attachment to worldly pursuits and interests that determine human involvement in the endless cycle of birth and death, or samsara. This collection of beliefs about sin, responsibility, rebirth and release can be referred to as the dharma-karma-samsara system that Sikhism shares with other religions of the Indian subcontinent. The pursuit of material interests is an illusion, or maya, which is evident in the Five Evils of egoism, anger, greed, attachment, and lust. These evils can only be avoided by intense meditation and verbal repetition of the name of God. In terms of its social teaching, in addition to rejecting caste, Nanak taught that Sikhs should respect the rights of all creatures, especially of human beings. Sikh teaching also underlines egalitarianism, charity, and the sharing of resources.

There are two sources of scriptural authority in Sikhism: the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth. The Guru Granth Singh may be referred to as the Adi Granth, or the First Volume. The Adi Granth is the scriptural version created by Arjun Dev in 1604, while the Guru Granth Sahib is the final version produced by Gobind Singh. These teachings take the form of hymns arranged into thirty-one ragas (musical forms) in which they were originally composed. These hymns were originally written in many different languages, and there are both Sanskrit and Arabic portions. The Granth is regarded as the living embodiment of the eleven teachers, and great respect is required in reading them, such as covering the head with a turban or piece of cloth.

Under the guruship of Nanaka, Sikhism was an informal collection of followers, but it eventually came to have a political identity. Guru Ram Das (1534-1581) created the city of Ramdaspur, subsequently known as Amritsar. Guru Arjun Dev (1563-1606) built the Golden Temple (Harimandir Sahib), which was completed in 1601, and prepared the sacred text of the Adi Granth. As a result of conflicts with the Mughal authorities, the Sikhs founded the Khalsa (brotherhood and sisterhood of followers who join the community at puberty by undertaking certain rituals) in 1699 to provide for the defense of the community or Panth. As the Sikh community developed a military and political organization, Sikhism became a considerable force in medieval India.

With the death of Banda (Guru Tegh) Bahadur (1621-1675), the ninth Guru of the Sikh faith, the misls, a confederation of Sikh warrior bands, was formed. Toward the end of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858), a Sikh kingdom arose under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, with a capital in Lahore and outer boundaries from the Khyber Pass to China. Eventually, this kingdom (1799-1849) came under British control after the Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845-1846 and 1848-1849).

The partition of India occurred in 1947, and the Sikhs suffered greatly from the resulting violence. Millions were forced to leave their ancestral homeland in the West Punjab. Although the Sikhs eventually prospered, there has been a movement ( Damdami Taksal ), led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (1947-1984), to create an independent state of Khalistan. This movement led to clashes with the government and communal violence. Bhindranwale was killed in June 1984 in the Golden Temple during a clash with the Indian army. In retaliation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard in October 1984.

The attempt to remove Bhindranwale was known as Operation Blue Star in the Indian army, but for Sikhs it represented a desecration of the sacred Golden Temple and the Sikh community. As a result of the military attack, Bhindranwale acquired the status of a martyr, and following Indira Gandhis assassination there was further communal killing of Sikhs. The consequence of these conflicts was to reinforce the sense of Sikh identity, but also to stimulate the exodus of Sikhs to Europe, North America and East Africa, thereby augmenting the already large Sikh diaspora.

SEE ALSO Gandhi, Indira; Hinduism; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Monotheism; Reincarnation; Religion; Secession; Supreme Being


Cole, W. Owen. 1984. Sikhism. In A Handbook of Living Religions, ed. John R. Hinnells, 237255. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin.

Mann, Gurinder Singh. 2001. The Making of Sikh Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Singh, Khushwant 2006. The Illustrated History of the Sikhs. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Smart, Ninian 1989. The Worlds Religions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bryan S. Turner


views updated May 17 2018

Sikhism. The religion and life-way of those who are Sikhs. The word sikh (Pañjābī; cf. Skt., śikṣya) means ‘a learner’, ‘a disciple’. Sikhs are those who believe in one God (Ik Onkar) and are disciples of the Gurū. In Indian usage, gurū can apply to any religious teacher or guide, but for Sikhs it is restricted to God as Sat Gurū (true teacher), the ten Gurūs (listed under Gurū) from Gurū Nānak (b. 1469 CE) to Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (d. 1708), and to the Ādi Granth (Sikh scripture), known as Gurū Granth Sāhib and revered as such. Sikhs accept initiation with amrit, according to the rahit maryādā which gives detailed requirements. Together Sikhs make up the panth in which it is believed that the guidance of the Gurū is also present, but in a more limited way. Fully committed and initiated Sikhs belong to the khālsā. There are c.14 million Sikhs in India, four-fifths in Pañjāb. In a wide diaspora, the largest community (c.300,000) is in the UK.

Sikhism began in the context of the Muslim–Hindu confrontation in N. India, when some (e.g. Kabīr) were seeking reconciling truth. It was a time also of vivid and moving devotion to God (bhakti), all of which (especially the Vaiṣṇavites) was influential on Gurū Nānak, though even more so was his own profound experience of God. He did not attempt to merge Hinduism and Islam, but simply insisted on the worship of the True Name (Nām), God who can be found within and does not require the rituals and doctrinal controversies of existing religions. God does not become present in the world (in contrast to Hindu understandings of avatāra), but makes his will and his way known. In discerning this, meditation (nām simaran) on śabda (‘sound’) is of paramount importance, especially through repetition of the Name, or on the hymns of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Karma and saṃsāra are accepted: the way to release or liberation is to move one's life against one's own wilful and disordered inclination (haumai) into alignment with the will (hukam) of God. This is only possible because of the help of God, the equivalent of grace, described in many words, e.g. kirpā, nadar, praśād. Those who do so pass through stages (khaṇḍ): dharam khaṇḍ (living appropriately; cf. dharma); giān̄ khaṇḍ (deeper knowledge); saram khaṇḍ (effort or joy); karam khaṇḍ (effort or joy); sach khaṇḍ (bliss beyond words and beyond rebirth, merging with the divine as a drop in an ocean or as a spark in a flame). Sikhs remain grihasth (‘house-holders’), in contrast to the four āśramas of the Hindus, for whom gṛhastha is only one stage, to be followed by progressive renunciation.

Under the first four Gurūs, there was no conflict with the surrounding majority religions, but marks of identity were further developed—e.g. Sikh days in the religious calendar. Under Rām Dās, ‘the tank of nectar’, Amritsar, was built, leading to the Harimandīr (Golden Temple), the centre of Sikh identity. Always more at ease in general with Hindus, Sikhs found tensions with Muslims and the Mughal emperors increasing; this led to the forming of the khālsā under the tenth Gurū, Gobind Siṅgh. The khālsā is the community of Sikhs who have received khaṇḍe-dī-pāhul, and are distinguished by the Five Ks. Various reform movements emerged, notably that of Dyāl Dās (1783–1855) whose Niraṅkārīs (the formless) resisted the use of images, even of the Gurūs; Sain Sahib (d. 1862) whose Namdhāris attacked all reversion to Hinduism and held that a continuing Gurū is necessary; and Sant Niraṅkārī Maṇḍal (the Universal Brotherhood, not to be confused with the Niraṅkārīs), which has modified traditional practices and was banned or boycotted by the Akal Takht in 1978. In response to Christian missionaries, the Siṅgh Sabhā was formed. The British recognized with some gratitude Sikh assistance during the Mutiny, and reinforced their spiritual independence. Partly from this encouragement, the Akāli movement emerged, which secured the return of gurdwārās to Sikh control and remains committed to Sikh autonomy in the Puñjāb (Khālistān).

The communal nature of the Sikh religion is greatly emphasized by its institutions, with sevā (community service) being highly valued. Gurū Nānak had established the dharmsālā as a place of assembly, in distinction from Hindu temples, not least by including the langar as a basis for communal meals. The dharmsālā led to the gurdwārā (though Namdhāris retain the older name). Worship is simple compared with Hindu ritual; and kīrtan is prominent.


views updated May 17 2018


An indigenous Indian religion, found predominantly in the Punjāb region of India; founded by Gurū Nānak (14691538), a Hindu raised under Muslim rule and influence, who combined Hindu and Islamic beliefs to achieve religious and social harmony. According to his doctrine, there is but one True God (Ik Onkar), a transcendent and almighty Creator. Everything on earth is determined by the will of God (hukam). God can be approached from the interior of one's heart, without the need for elaborate rituals and ceremonies. Sikhism emerged as a distinct religion because of Gurū Nānak's personal rejection of pilgrimages, his stress on living the good life on earth, and his appointment of a successor as the master (guru ) for his disciples (sikhs ).

Of the succeeding gurus, Angad (153952) developed the Gurmukhi script in which to record Nānak's life and doctrine; Amar Dās (155274) fixed Sikh funeral and marriage rites, forbade intoxicants and cruel Hindu customs, and established 22 centers of worship and missionary activity; Rām Dā (157481) built the most famous Sikh shrine, the Amritsār; and Arjun (15811606) compiled the Ādi Granth (First Book), the canon of hymns and sayings of Gurū Nānak and his successors, to be revered by the Sikhs. Gobind Singh (16751708), the 10th and last guru, completed the transformation of the Sikhs into a militant community to defend against Muslim incursions. In 1699, he established the Khālsa, the sworn brotherhood of fighting Sikhs, with its initiation, distinctive marks, and sanctions. Having lost his sons in war, he provided for the succession to the guruship by prescribing obeisance and offering to the Granth Sāhib (Sacred Book; an enlargement of the Ādi Granth with his own writings), as "the visible guru" and by exalting the Khālsa as the embodiment of the guru.

A long period of internal strife ended under Ranjīt Singh (17801839), who founded the Sikh kingdom in the Punjāb. At his death, however, the Sikhs rapidly declined in power and deviated from the teachings of the gurus by tolerating widow burning (satī ), cow veneration, and caste division among Sikhs. In 1848 they fell under British rule. Later, when Christian and Hindu missionaries became active, the Singh Sabhā society was formed to foster education and teach the Granth Sāhib, missionaries were appointed, and the Khālsa Tract Society was organized to distribute religious literature.

Bibliography: g. singh, The Religion of the Sikhs (New York 1971). w. o. cole, Sikhism and Its Indian Context, 14691708: The Attitude of Guru Nanak and Early Sikhism to Indian Religious Beliefs and Practices (London 1984). w. h. mcleod, The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society (New York 1989). m. macauliffe and k. singh, The Sikhs: Their Religion, Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors (Oxford 1989). g. r. thursby, The Sikhs (Leiden-New York 1992). w. cole and p.s. singh, Sikhism and Christianity: A Comparative Study (New York 1993). k. singh, A History of the Sikhs (Oxford 1999). j. p. singh uberoi, Religion, Civil Society and the State: A Study of Sikhism (New York 1996). w. h. mcleod, Sikhs and Sikhism (New York 1999). w. h. mcleod, Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh Identity, Culture and Thought (Oxford 2000). g. s. mann, The Making of Sikh Scripture (Oxford/New York 2001). c. shackle, g. singh and a.-p. singh mandair, Sikh Religion, Culture and Ethnicity (Richmond, Surrey, England 2001).

[a. s. rosso/eds.]


views updated Jun 11 2018


Sikh Council of North America

Sikh Dharma

Sikh Council of North America

95-30 118th St., Richmond Hill, NY 11419

Alternate Address

International Sikh Organization, 2025 Eye St. NW, No. 109, Washington, D.C. 20006 • International Sikh Organization, 238 Davenport Rd., Ste. 125, Toronto, ON Canada M2R 1J6.

The Sikh Council of North America attempts to provide communication and coordination for Sikh congregations and temples across the United States; its members are predominantly Indian American Sikhs. Since 1965 the number of Sikhs has risen dramatically, doubling between 1975 and 1985.

The beginning of Sikh organization in America traces to the arrival of Jawala Singh and Wisakha Singh, two advocates of Indian independence who came to California in 1908. They owned a ranch on the Holtville River, near Sacramento, where they practiced Gurbani Kirtan (singing the songs from Sri Guru Granth Sahib). Then, in 1912, a lot was purchased at Stockton, California, and the Sri Guru Granth Sahib was installed in a gurdwara (place of worship). The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society was organized to raise money for a temple. A wooden temple was constructed in 1916 but was replaced with a brick structure in 1929. For several decades it was the only Sikh center in the United States, and large gatherings were held there four times a year.

The temple in Stockton was closely associated with the Ghadar Party, an organization established in 1913 in San Francisco and financed in large part by Jawala Singh; the group advocated Indian independence from British rule. Though largely destroyed during World War I because of its ties to German supporters, it continued into the 1940s, and its building has been turned into a memorial to the struggle for Indian independence. In more recent years the Stockton temple has become identified with those Sikhs in the Punjab seeking independence from Indian rule.

After World War II and India’s gaining of independence in 1948, there was an additional spurt of migration of Punjabis, enough to support the construction of a second temple at El Centro, California. In 1969 the largest Sikh temple in the world was erected in Yuba City, California. By 1974 there were close to 100,000 Sikhs from the Punjab in the United States. Centers can now be found in cities and towns across the United States.

In the 1970s the Sikh Foundation emerged as a public voice for East Indian Sikhs in the United States. From its headquarters in Redwood City, California, it published the quarterly Sikh Sandar and Sikhs in the U.S.A. and Canada, a directory. The foundation was later superseded by the council.


By the early twenty-first century there were an estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the United States.


Sikh Council of North America.

Singh, Wadhawa. Introduction to the Sikh Temple, Stockton, and the Ghadar Party. Stockton, CA: Sikh Temple, 1983.

———. Introduction to Sikhism and Its Holy Scripture: Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Stockton, CA: Sikh Temple, 1981.

Sikhs in the U.S.A. & Canada. Redwood City, CA: Sikh Foundation, 1972.

Sikh Dharma

PO Box 35330, Los Angeles, CA 90035

Alternate Address

Dr. Sat-kaur Khalsa, Secretary of Religion, 409 E Coronado Rd., No. 3, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505.

The chief religious and administrative authority for the Sikh Dharma in the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere is Yogi Bhajan, who arrived in the United States in 1969 and founded the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (better known as 3HO Foundation), the nonsecular educational affiliate of the Sikh Dharma. Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, popularly known as Yogi Bhajan, is a priest of the Sikh Dharma, which is headquartered in Amritsar, India. The teachings are based upon those of the Ten Sikh Gurus (the first being Guru Nanak, about whom the organization has published a book) and center on the praise of God’s name and the practice of kundalini (primal spiritual or erotic force or energy) yoga (a practice that has earned the Sikh Dharma some criticism from other orthodox Sikhs).

As Sikhs (literally “students of truth”), members follow the admonition of the Ten Sikh Gurus to rise before sunrise, bathe, and meditate upon God’s name. These individual practices are followed by gathering together with the congregation and singing the guru’s hymns (known as gurbani kirtan). Sikhs bow to the word of God contained in Siri Guru Granth Sahib (the scriptures compiled from the original teachings of the ten gurus), which now serves as the “living” guru. A copy of Siri Guru Granth Sahib is enthroned in every Sikh gurudwara (place of worship).

Members of the Sikh Dharma may be baptized and accept traditional Sikh practice. A baptized member is called an Amritdhari Sikh. Others affiliated with the group are called Sahajdhari. Members are vegetarian, and every gurudwara has a free kitchen. Several members have even opened vegetarian restaurants and grocery stores. Alcohol, tobacco, and intoxicating drugs are forbidden.

Leadership of the Sikh Dharma is vested in the Khalsa Council, which functions under Yogi Bhajan. It consists of the administrative and regional ministers, known as the Mukhia Singh Sahibs (men) and Mukhia Sardarni Sahibas (women), who oversee the local centers and local ministers.

Aside from the center in Los Angeles, there is a second headquarters complex in Espanola, New Mexico, where Yogi Bhajan resides part of the time. It is also the site of the semiannual international gatherings on the summer solstice and of summer camps for women and children. There is also a women’s auxiliary, the GGMWW (Grace of God Movement of the Women of the World), based on a body of teachings dealing with the evolving role of women. Women are viewed as shakti, or manifested divine power, and are accorded equal opportunities at all levels of leadership in the organization. In addition, the Kundalini Research Institute gathers data on the effectiveness of kundalini yoga and publishes much of the movement’s literature.

Kundalini yoga, an energetic yoga of awareness, incorporates traditional hatha yoga postures and regulated breathing techniques. The goal of this practice of yoga is enable the practitioner to remain centered and neutral in the face of adversity; it also seeks to enhance one’s ability meditate on God’s name.


In 1995 there were more than 139 ashrams and/or teaching centers in the United States, 11 in Canada, and 86 additional centers in 26 countries of the world. There are approximately 500,000 Sikhs in North America, of whom over 10,000 reside in or near Sikh Dharma ashrams and community centers.


The Science of Keeping Up. Order from 3H0 Foundation, 1620 Preuss Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90035.


Sikh Dharma.

Kaur, Sardarni Premka. Guru for the Aquarian Age. San Rafael, CA: Spiritual Community, 1972.

Kundalini Yoga/Sadhana Guidelines. Pomona, CA: KRI Publications, 1978.

Singh, Sahib Harbhajan [Yogi Bhajan]. The Experience of Consciousness. Pomona, CA: KRI Publications, 1977.

———. The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1977.


views updated May 29 2018



Sikh Council of North America

95-30 118th St.
Richmond Hill, NY 11419

Alternate Address: International Sikh Organization, 2025 Eye St. NW, No. 109, Washington, D.C. 20006; International Sikh Organization, 238 Davenport Rd., Ste. 125, Toronto, ON Canada M2R 1J6.

The Sikh Council for North America is the major organization which attempts to provide communication and coordination for those Sikh congregations and temples located across the United States serving predominantly Indian-American Sikhs. Since 1965, the number of Sikhs has risen dramatically, doubling between 1975 and 1985.

The beginning of Sikh organization in America can be traced to the arrival of Jawala Singh and Wisakha Singh, two advocates of Indian independence, who came to California in 1908. They owned a ranch on the Holtville River near Sacramento where they practiced Gurbani Kirtan (singing the songs from Sri Guru Granth Sahib). Then in 1912 a lot was purchased at Stockton, California, and the Sri Guru Granth Sahib installed in a gurdwara (place of worship). The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society was organized to raise money for a temple. An original wooden temple was constructed in 1916, replaced with a brick structure in 1929. For several decades it was the only Sikh center in the United States and large gatherings were held there four times a year.

The temple in Stockton was closely associated with the Ghadar Party, an organization established in 1913 in San Francisco and financed in large part by Jawala Singh, which advocated Indian independence from British rule. Though largely destroyed during World War I due to its ties with German supporters, it continued into the 1940s and its building has been turned into a memorial to the struggle for Indian independence. In more recent years the Stockton temple has become identified with those Sikhs in the Punjab seeking independence from Indian rule which is largely Hindu.

After World War II and India's gaining of independence in 1948, there was further migration of Punjabis, enough so that a second temple was constructed at El Centro, California. In 1969 the largest Sikh temple in the world was erected in Yuba City, California. By 1974 there were close to 100,000 Sikhs from the Punjab in the United States. Centers can now be found in cities and towns across the United States.

In the 1970s the Sikh Foundation emerged as a public voice for East Indian Sikhs in the United States. From its headquarters in Redwood City, California, it published the quarterly, Sikh Sandar, and Sikhs in the U.S.A. and Canada, a directory. The Foundation was recently superceded by the Council.

Membership: As of the mid-1980s there are an estimated 250,000 Sikhs in the United States.


Singh, Wadhawa. Introduction to the Sikh Temple, Stockton, and the Ghadar Party. Stockton, CA: Sikh Temple, 1983.

——. Introduction to Sikhism and Its Holy Scripture: Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Stockton, CA: Sikh Temple, 1981.

Sikhs in the U.S.A. & Canada. Redwood City, CA: Sikh Foundation, 1972.


Sikh Dharma

Box 35330
Los Angeles, CA 90035

The chief religious and administrative authority for the Sikh Dharma in the United States, and the rest of the Western Hemisphere as well, is Yogi Bhajan, who arrived in the United States in 1969 and founded the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (better known as 3HO Foundation), the non-secular educational affiliate of the Sikh Dharma. Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, popularly known as Yogi Bhajan, is a priest of the Sikh Dharma, which is headquartered in Amritsar, India. The teachings are based upon those of the Ten Sikh Gurus (the First being Guru Nanak, about whom the organization has published a book) and center on the praise of Gods name and the practice of kundalini yoga (a practice that has earned the Sikh Dharma some criticism from other orthodox Sikhs). (Although there are teachers of the Sikh Dharma, such as Yogi Bhajan, there will never be another Guru in human form.)

As Sikhs (literally "students of truth"), members follow the admonition of the Ten Sikh Gurus to rise before sunrise, bathe, and meditate upon Gods name. These individual practices are followed by gathering together with the congregation and singing the Gurus hymns (known as Gurbani Kirtan). Sikhs bow to the Wordof God contained in Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the scriptures compiled from the original teachings of the Ten Gurus, that now serves as the "living" Guru. A copy of Siri Guru Granth Sahib is enthroned in every Sikh gurudwara (place of worship).

Members of the Sikh Dharma may be baptized and accept the 5 Ks of traditional Sikh practice. A baptized member is called an Amritdhari Sikh. Others affiliated with the group are called Sahajdhari. Members are vegetarian, and every Gurudwara has a free-kitchen. Several members have even opened vegetarian restaurants and grocery stores. Alcohol, tobacco, and intoxicating drugs are forbidden.

Leadership of the Sikh Dharma is vested in the Khalsa Council, which functions under Yogi Bhajan. It consists of the administrative and regional ministers, known as the Mukhia Singh Sahibs (men) and Mukhia Sardarni Sahibas (women), who oversee the local centers and local ministers.

Besides the center in Los Angeles, a second headquarters complex is located in Espanola, New Mexico, where Yogi Bhajan resides part of the time. It is also the site of the semiannual international gatherings on the summer solstice and of summer camps for women and children. There is also a womens auxiliary, the GGMWW (Grace of God Movement of the Women of the World), based on a body of teachings dealing with the evolving role of women. Women are "Shakti," or divine power in manifestation, and are accorded equal opportunities at all levels of leadership in the organization. In addition, the Kundalini Research Institute gathers data on the effectiveness of kundalini yoga, and publishes much of the movements literature.

Kundalini yoga, the yoga of awareness, is a particularly energetic form of yoga incorporating traditional hatha yoga postures and regulated breathing techniques. The practice of yoga has as its goal being able to remain centered and neutral in the face of lifes various challenges. It is also a method by which to help prepare and strengthen the nervous system to better be able to sit and meditate on Gods name.

Membership: In 1995 there were more than 139 ashrams and/ or teaching centers in the United States, 11 in Canada, and 86 additional centers in 26 countries of the world. There are approximately 250,000 Sikhs in North America of which over 10,000 reside in or near Sikh Dharma ashrams and community centers.

Periodicals: The Science of Keeping Up. Order from 3H0 Foundation, 1620 Preuss Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90035.


Kundalini Yoga/Sadhana Guidelines. Pomona, CA: KRI Publications, 1978.

Sahib Harbhajan Singh [Yogi Bhajan]. The Experience of Consciousness. Pomona, CA: KRI Publications, 1977.

——. The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1977.

Kaur, Sardarni Premka. Guru for the Aquarian Age. San Rafael, CA: Spiritual Community, 1972.