Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak in Punjab (Panjab), India, in the late fifteenth century. An adherent of the faith is called a Sikh, which means “follower” in Sanskrit. There are roughly 19 million Sikhs, the majority in Punjab in the northwestern part of India. About 2 million have emigrated to live and work in the United States, Europe, or in parts of what used to be the British colonies.
Sikhism is a young religion; it is also a monotheistic one. Sikhs believe in one God called Waheguru (great teacher). Scholars think Sikhism evolved as a Hindu reform movement or as a mixture of Hinduism and Islam. The Sikhs reject that theory and claim their religion grew out of the divine inspiration of Guru Nanak and the nine gurus who came after him.
Nevertheless, Nanak was born a Hindu in Punjab in 1469. Just as many predicted that Siddhartha Gautama would become a Buddha, so did people predict that Nanak would praise God and teach many others to do the same. As a youth, he worked for a local Muslim politician, and it’s recorded that he impressed everyone with his wisdom and learning. He was part of a group that would sit by the side of a river to pray and discuss religion. He meditated frequently and discussed religious notions with Hindus and Muslims. In time, he formed a group of friends, united by their spiritual concerns, who would gather along a river to pray and worship together.
There are stories told about Nanak’s childhood and his amazing abilities. At school, he was taught the classical lessons in addition to Persian and Arabic languages and Muslim literature. His teacher realized he had reached the point where there wasn’t any more he could teach him; he was learning from Nanak.
At one point he was absent from this routine for three days. When he came back, he didn’t speak for a day. When he did, he said, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Muslim and the path I follow is God’s.” There are other reports on what Nanak might have said, but the essence of having received enlightenment seems to be reliable.
After his revelation in his late twenties, he left his wife and two sons to travel in search of truth and wisdom. After about twenty years, he acquired farmland and settled in central Punjab, where he founded the town of Kartarpur and became Guru Nanak. The Sikh religion was born and Nanak was its first guru.
To understand how the Sikhs developed it helps to get to know The Ten Gurus. The word “guru” normally means “teacher,” but when the Sikhs speak of the Guru, they mean God, the Great Teacher.
Pieces of Sikhhistory can be related to a particular guru; each one of them had an influence on the beliefs of the religion, and some of them had political influence. The period from the first to the last guru was likely the mid-1500s to the late 1600s. Each guru appointed his successor.
The Ten Gurus in historical order are:
Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was founder of the Sikh religion.
Guru Angad (1504–1552) was a Hindu before turning to Sikhism. Born Bhai Lehna, he made pilgrimages every year and became a close disciple of Guru Nanak, who eventually anointed him. He devised a script used for writing the Sikh scriptures. His work is found in the Guru Granth Sahib — the Holy Book.
Guru Amar Das (1479–1574) collected the hymns of Guru Nanak and added his own. He developed the custom of the langar, the communal meal, which was devised as a social kitchen to remove caste distinctions and establish social harmony among his followers.
Guru Ram Das (1534–1581) was the son-in-law of Guru Amar Das. He founded the city of Ramdaspur, now known as Amritsar, which became the Sikh holy city to which he initiated pilgrimages. The construction of the Golden Temple began during his time. He also contributed to the Guru Granth Sahib. In particular, he wrote the Sikh wedding hymn.
Guru Arjan (1563–1606) was the youngest son of Guru Ram Das. He compiled the Adi Granth, the most important segment of the Guru Granth Sahib, and completed the building of the Golden Temple. He made the Sikhs very popular and such a presence that the Muslim Mughals came to see the Sikhs as a growing menace. The emperor had him tortured and killed.
Guru Hargobind (1595–1644), the son of Guru Arjan, instilled a sense of Sikh militancy and tried to organize the Sikhs and the Hindus against the Mughals and was imprisoned for a short time. He perfected the dress code introduced by his father and started the tradition of wearing two swords, one signifying his political authority, the other his religious authority.
Guru Har Rai (1630–1661), grandson of Guru Hargobind, supported the elder brother of Emperor Aurangzab in a conflict and as a reprisal the Mughals held his son hostage. He had a reputation for medicine and opened hospitals where treatment was provided free.
Guru Har Krishan (1656–1664), known as “the boy guru,” was the second son of Guru Har Rai and succeeded his father at the age of five when his brother was still being held hostage by the Mughals. The emperor summoned the boy guru to Delhi and kept him under house arrest. He contracted smallpox and died.
Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621–1675) was the second son of Guru Hargobind. Tegh Bahadur (“brave sword”) was not his original name, it was given to him by his subjects because of his resistance to Emperor Aurangzab. He gained a reputation for feeding the hungry, and he wrote many hymns that are now in the Guru Granth Sahib. He predicted the coming of the Western powers to the Indian subcontinent and the downfall of the Mughals. He was beheaded after refusing to accept Islam.
Guru Gobind Singh (1675–1708), the tenth and last guru, was the most famous after Guru Nanak. He organized the Sikhs to oppose the tyranny of the Mughals and established a military defense group known as the Khalsa (the brotherhood of the pure), which still remains. The Khalsa are considered a chosen race of soldier-saints willing to give up their lives to uphold their faith and defend the weak. Guru Gobind Singh gave all Sikhs the name singh (“lion”) for men and kaur (“princess”) for women, to do away with all traces of the caste system.
Sikhs developed a warrior attitude because of the violence against them by the Mughals. This attitude was reinforced when the Khalsa was founded and the five tenets known as Ks were instituted — kesh (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel bracelet), and kachch (short pants for use in battle). As a result, Sikhs wear long uncut hair with a comb in it and a steel bracelet on the right wrist. The sword and short pants are reserved for battle.
He also decreed that the writings of the Guru Granth Sahib would be the authority from which the Sikhs would be governed. The book is treated as if it were a living thing; wherever it is moved, it is attended by five Sikhs who represent the Khalsa. In his efforts to oppose the Mughals, he lost his two sons and was finally assassinated. He has been called “the most glorious hero of our race.”
Sikhism is based on the discipline of purification and the overcoming of the five vices: greed, anger, false pride, lust, and attachments to material goods. At the end of a person’s life, the good and the bad conduct are balanced out and the result determines the family, race, and character of the person when reborn. There is no direct belief in heaven or hell as places, but those who have been selfish or cruel in the current life will suffer in their next existence. Those who acted with compassion and honesty will be better off in their next incarnation. The soul develops as it passes through the many incarnations until it becomes united with the infinite one.
Sikhs are opposed to the idea of austere asceticism; rather, they emphasize the ideal of achieving saintliness as active members of society. Sikhism prohibits idolatry, the caste system, and the use of wine or tobacco. Stress is placed on the importance of leading a good moral life that includes loyalty, gratitude for all favors received, philanthropy, justice, truth, and honesty.
Rituals and Customs
Births and naming are carried out in different ways by different faiths. The Christians have christening, the Jews circumcision, and the Sikhs have the naming ceremony.
After the birth, the parents takethe child to the gurdwara. Hymns are sung that express gratitude for the birth of a baby. The Adi Granth is then opened at random and the child is given a name beginning with the first letter of the first word on the left page. The parents take time to reflect then choose a name. Then more hymns are sung.
Marriage can still be arranged between the families of the bride and groom. But Sikhs now accept the right of the man or the woman to reject the person chosen for them. However, marriage is still seen as the joining of two families.
Traditionally, the bride wears red and gold, with her head covered with a red scarf, her hands and feet decorated with patterns, and a good deal of gold jewelry. The groom sports a colored turban and scarf and carries a long sword.
The Sikh conducting the marriage ceremony explains the ideals of marriage to the couple. The bridegroom’s sister (or other prominent female in his life) drapes a long scarf around the groom’s shoulders and places the right end in his hand. The father of the bride then takes the left end of the groom’s scarf and arranges it over the bride’s shoulders and puts the left end in her hand.
A wedding hymn, the Lavan of Guru Ram Das, is sung. While that is happening, the couple walks around the Guru Granth Sahib four times. As they finish each circuit, they bow to the holy book. The families follow the couple to show support for them. The bride and groom are then free to go to their new home.
Death could be a new beginning for a Sikh because they believe in the cycle of reincarnation. It is not necessary to mourn excessively since the deceased lives on in another body.
Hymns may be read by family and friends from the Guru Granth Sahib and prayers for the peace of the soul will be said, followed by evening prayers. The period of mourning usually lasts ten days. During that time, relatives visit to offer their condolences. The body is washed and dressed before the service.
In India, it may be cremated on a funeral pyre, but taking the body to the crematorium is also acceptable. The ashes are usually scattered in a river or the sea. If the ceremony takes place in India, the ashes are scattered in a sacred river, such as the Ganges.
Festivals and Ceremonies
Many ceremonies are held to celebrate the births and deaths of the ten gurus, two to commemorate the deaths of martyrs, and a festival for the anniversary of the Baisakhi, the date the Khalsa was founded, which was originally a harvest festival. The five major observances include Baisakhi, the birthdays of Gurus Nanak and Gobind Singh, and the martyrdom of Gurus Arjan and Tegh Bahadur.
Holy Writings and Worship
There is only one canonical work, the Adi Granth (First Book), also known as the Guru Granth Sahib, compiled by Guru Arjan in 1604. There were at least three versions of the book, but the one recognizedas authentic was revised by Guru Gobind Singh in 1704. The Adi Granth has about 6,000 hymns composed by the first five Gurus. Other contributors to the book include Bhakta saints and Muslim Sufis.
The Adi Granth occupies a focal point in all Sikh temples. The gurdwara (doorway to the Guru) contains a cot under a canopy. A copy of the Adi Granth is placed on cushions within the gurdwara and covered by elaborate decorations. All who enter the gurdwara in the temple must cover their heads, take off their shoes, and wash their feet. Services may take place at any time; there is no special time of worship.
Worshipers will bow in front of the Guru Granth Sahib and during services prayers will be said, there will be a sermon, chanting of hymns, and finally a communal meal. In accordance with the principles of equality in Sikhism, men and women share the tasks of preparing and serving the langar that is made available after most services to anyone who wishes to indulge.
The chief gurdwara is the magnificent Harimandir (the Golden Temple) at Amritsar in Punjab state. However, in the average gurdwara there may be readings, Sikh music, study classes, and even physical activities.
The Dasam Granth (tenth book), a compilation of writings ascribed to Guru Gobind Singh, is not paid the same reverence as the Adi Granth. There is some disagreement about the authenticity of the contents.
In their homes, most Sikhs set aside a room for a gurdwara to hold a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib. Daily readings are part of the duties of the household. Many Sikhs will recite verses during their daily activities. Because not every person or family has the accommodations to set aside a separate room for the Guru Granth Sahib, they instead have a copy of excerpts, known as the Gutkha, from which to say morning and evening prayers.
Diversification into Modern Society
The history of the development of the Sikhs over the past 500 years has at times been tumultuous and bloody. The involvement of the British only propagated the violent fighting between the Sikhs and theHindus. The subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947. The Sikh population was divided equally on both sides of the boundary line.
In 1984, Indian troops attacked the Golden Temple, where militants had established their headquarters. There was considerable damage and the militants were driven out. It is believed that the angry reaction of the Sikhs led to the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh members of her bodyguard later that year. The reaction to that dreadful event led to riots and the massacre of many Sikhs.
The separatist movement has the establishment of an independent Sikh state to be called Khalistan (Land of the Pure) as its goal.
The Path of Guru Nanak
Guru Nanak followed the not-unusual path of the prophets who preceded him. He would forego a job with the governor for a life of traveling and teaching. He taught in far outlying areas and set up communitiesof followers along the way. In time, he became known as Guru (“teacher)” Nanak.
Part of his teaching was that public rituals are not the essence of worship and that God is ill defined by any one religion. He spoke out against what he saw as inequities (the Hindu caste system, for example), stressing that all people were equal.
Nanak’s childhood friend, Mardan, a professional musician, accompanied him on his travels. Nanak liked to sing and did so in the form of hymns. So he and Mardan entertained the local populace while getting the message out. As part of his message, Nanak wore a mixture of Hindu and Muslim clothes when he and Mardan toured.
Many of the Hindu and Muslim audiences became followers of the fledgling religion. As he gathered followers around him, his spiritual ideas bore fruit and his composed hymns, which were written down, eventually became the core of the Sikh sacred text, the Adi Granth (“original book”).
In the final phases of his life, Guru Nanak returned from all the traveling to his established Sikh community at Kartarpur and settled down with his wife and sons. It was time for him to consider a successor and most people thought he would appoint one of his sons.
But his insistence on the principle of equality that he had been teaching for years and had made part of the religion made him choose Lehna, a man who had become an ardent disciple. Nanak blessed Lehna and gave him a new name, Angad, meaning “part of me.” He anointed him with a saffron mark on his forehead. When Guru Nanak gathered his followers together for prayers, he invited Angad to occupy the seat of the Guru. In that way, Guru Angad was ordained as the successor to Guru Nanak.
The myth goes that when he died, Guru Nanak asked for flowers to be placed on either side of him, from the Hindus on his right and from the Muslims on his left. He explained that those whose flowers remained fresh the next day would have their way. He then asked his disciples to pray, and he lay down and covered himself with a sheet. In the early hours of the next morning, September 22, 1539, Guru Nanak merged with the eternal light of the Creator.
After Nanak’s death, his followers lifted the sheet covering him and found nothing except the flowers, all of which were fresh. The Hindus took theirs and cremated them. The Muslims took theirs and buried them.