Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What is a Sikh?

With the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin a few days ago, a few people have asked me what I know about the Sikh religion. I do actually know a bit about it, as I had an acquaintance at work some years ago who was an adherent.

Sikhism originated in the Punjab region, which is a borderland between modern day India and Pakistan. It developed in the 15th century by Guru Nanak (1469–1539). Until about 1700, Sikhism more or less was confined to a regional sect which followed a succession of various Gurus.


The tenth guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa in the year 1699, which means "Akal Purakh de fauj" – the Army of God during a time of growing militancy against Muslim rule. The creation of a Sikh Empire began when Guru Gobind Singh sent his brave Sikh general, Banda Singh Bahadur along with some hundred Singhs to punish those who had committed atrocities against Pir Buddhu Shah and avenge the murder of his youngest sons.

Long story short: it turned out that the assassin was hired by the Mughals. The Sikhs sought revenge, and Guru Gobind Singh killed the attacker with his sword, while the assassin's companion tried to flee but was killed by some Sikhs who had rushed in upon hearing the noise. A European surgeon stitched the Guru's wound. However, the wound re-opened as the Guru tugged at a hard strong bow after a few days, and caused profuse bleeding. The death of the Guru reached Banda Singh and Sikhs all over Punjab. After this the Sikhs took over many Muslim and Mughal lands, establishing a Sikh Empire.


The Sikh nation's embrace of military and political organisation made it a considerable regional force in medieval India and it continued to evolve after the demise of the gurus. The Sikh Empire finally fell into disorder and was eventually annexed by the British Empire after the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars. This brought the Punjab under the British Raj.


There is one primary source of scripture for the Sikhs: the Gurū Granth Sāhib. There are other sources of scriptures such as the Dasam Granth (the reputed sayings of the 10th Guru) and so called Janamsakhis (birth stories of the Nanak). These however, have been the subject of controversial debate amongst the Sikh community.



Observant Sikhs adhere to long-standing practices and traditions to strengthen and express their faith. The daily recitation from memory of specific passages from the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Family customs include both reading passages from the scripture and attending the gurdwara (also gurduārā, meaning the doorway to God; sometimes transliterated as gurudwara). There are many gurdwaras prominently constructed and maintained across India, as well as in almost every nation where Sikhs reside. Gurdwaras are open to all, regardless of religion, background, caste, or race. This is the building that the media is referring to as a "temple" where the shooting took place in Wisconsin.

Worship in a gurdwara consists chiefly of singing of passages from the scripture. Sikhs will commonly enter the gurdwara, touch the ground before the holy scripture with their foreheads. The recitation of the eighteenth century ardās is also customary for attending Sikhs. The ardās recalls past sufferings and glories of the community, invoking divine grace for all humanity.The Sikh faith also participates in the custom of "Langar" or the community meal. All gurdwaras are open to anyone of any faith for a free meal. People can enter and eat together and are served by faithful members of the community.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji taught that rituals, religious ceremonies, or idol worship are of little use and Sikhs are discouraged from fasting or going on pilgrimages. Sikhs do not believe in converting people but converts to Sikhi by choice are welcomed. The morning and evening prayers take about two hours a day, starting in the very early morning hours.

The Guru addresses God as having no form, no country, and no religion but as the seed of seeds, sun of suns, and the song of songs. The Jaap Sahib asserts that God is the cause of conflict as well as peace, and of destruction as well as creation. Devotees learn that there is nothing outside of God's presence, nothing outside of God's control. Devout Sikhs are encouraged to begin the day with private meditations on the name of God.

Upon a child's birth, the Guru Granth Sahib is opened at a random point and the child is named using the first letter on the top left hand corner of the left page. All boys are given the last name Singh, and all girls are given the last name Kaur.

Khalsa (meaning "Sovereign") is the collective name given by Gobind Singh to all Sikhs, male or female, who have been baptised or initiated by taking ammrit in a ceremony called ammrit sañcār. Baptised Sikhs are bound to wear the Five Ks (in Punjabi known as pañj kakkē or pañj kakār), or articles of faith, at all times. The 5 items are: kēs (uncut hair), kaṅghā (small wooden comb), kaṛā (circular steel or iron bracelet), kirpān (sword/dagger), and kacchera (special undergarment). The Five Ks have both practical and symbolic purposes.

From the World Almanac: Worldwide, there are 25.8 million Sikhs, which make up only 0.39% of the world's population. Approximately 75% of Sikhs live in the Punjab, where they constitute about 60% of the state's population.

Sikhs have several religious prohibitions and have a very interesting diet. At least the friend of mine whom I knew some years ago was a variety of the Sikh that washed several times a day. I am not sure why that was because Sikhism seems to have a prohibition against ritual purification and blind spiritualism. Maybe that was just a cultural thing that wasn't religious.

That's about all I know. I have never understood many Far Eastern religions because they seldom tend to a logical/Newtonian type of theology that Western Christians tend to have in their theology. Unlike Hinduism, however, Sikhism is at least digestible (at least in parts) to Western thinkers. Guru Nanak's teachings are founded not on a final destination of heaven or hell, but on a spiritual union with God which results in salvation. This is not unlike the idea of theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Sikhs do tend to follow, on some level, the Platonic notion of the world of forms and ideals. Sikhs call it Māyā—defined as illusion or "unreality." In their theology, they advocate the pursuit of God and salvation: by not being distracted from devotion by worldly attractions which give only illusory satisfaction. Sikhs have a version of the Deadly Sins, though in Sikhism they are known as the 5 Evils: ego, anger, greed, attachment, and lust.

Sikhs do believe in Divine revelation. Nśabad (the divine Word) emphasizes the totality of the revelation. Nanak designated the word guru (meaning teacher) as the voice of God and the source and guide for knowledge and salvation. Salvation can be reached only through rigorous and disciplined devotion to God. Nanak distinctly emphasized the irrelevance of outward observations such as rites, pilgrimages, or asceticism. Certainly, Christianity has struggled with this issue, particularly among the Puritans and in the Iconoclastic controversy in Eastern Christianity. Also, Sikhs believe that no matter what race, sex, or religion one is, all are equal in God's eyes. Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.


That's about all I know of Sikhism. I hope that's helpful to people who don't know anything about them. They are not Hindu, nor are they Muslim.

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