What is Sikhism ? History
This is the Hari Mandir, the world’s largest free kitchen. It serves free vegetarian food to about 100,000 people every day.
It’s also the holiest site in Sikhism. The 5th largest and youngest of the world religions.
A religion that preaches about love, peace, and the equality of humankind, but also asks its followers to carry swords.
So who is the Sikh’s, what do they believe, and why does everyone confuse them for Muslims?
Well, Let’s Find Out.
Sikhism originated in the Punjab area of India and Pakistan, 500 years ago.
Punjab, the land of five rivers, is one of the most historically and culturally dense areas on Earth.
This was the home of one of the world’s earliest civilisations, the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Persians, Greeks, Central Asians, Muggles, the British, and others have invaded here….
I meant Mughals, Mughals invaded here. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, and a handful of other faiths have all left their mark on the region.
The diverse culture of Punjab has heavily influenced the Sikhs.
Today there are about 25 million Sikhs. They make up about 2% of India’s population but about 60% of Punjab’s.
The Sikh diaspora is spread out across the world with concentrations in the UK, Canada, The US, East Africa, Australia, and Malaysia.
Sikhs interestingly enough make up almost 1.5% of Canada’s population which is second only to India.
The word Sikh simply means learner. Sikhs called their religion ‘Sikhi’, ‘Gursikhi’, and ‘Gurmat’.
You can’t really understand the Sikhs without understanding their relationship with Gurus.
The word guru means a teacher or spiritual guide. The Guru teaches and the Sikh learns.
The Sikhs follow the teaching of 10 succeeding Gurus that shaped Sikhism.
The first and most important Guru is Guru Nanak. The founder of Sikhism.
Born in 1469 CE near what is today Lahore Pakistan. Nanak was seen as special even as a child.
As a baby, he was said to have had the laugh of an adult man.
As a teen, he preferred to listen to Hindu Saints and Sufi Muslim preachers than follow his parent’s orders.
As an adult Nanak would settle in Sultanpur where he worked for the government.
The actions of his fellow government officials and the rich and powerful disgusted him as they exploited ordinary people and he hated the caste divisions that he saw all around him.
One day while bathing in a river near Sultanpur Nanak had a miraculous experience.
He was swept up into God’s court where God spoke to him. Nanak reappeared three days later declaring: “There is no Hindu and there is no Muslim.”
There was only God.
This was a message inspired by his experience with God, one that spoke in favour of the equality of humankind and against caste, ethnic, and religious divisions.
Nanak would later say:
Accept all humans as your equals And let them be your only sect.
Nine human gurus followed Nanak all preaching the same message of One God and the equality of humankind. Two fundamental events that shaped Sikh history was the martyrdom of two
The First was the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan who was roasted alive by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.
The next martyr would be the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur. He was beheaded by the Mughals while attempting to defend the religious rights of Hindus.
His son Guru Gobind Rai the tenth and final human Guru started a new Sikh community called the Khalsa and ended the line of human Gurus by making the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book the last living Guru.
We’ll look at both of these in a bit.
So with that brief history out of the way, let’s look at the core beliefs of Sikhism.
What is Sikhism ?
The Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib’s opening sentence is just two words. Ik Onkar – “The is only one God”
Nanak made sure it was clear that the focus was on “one”. Ik doesn’t just mean one, it is literary the numeral 1.
One God is by far the most important belief in Sikhism. This may not be the kind of God you’re used to though.
Sikhs believe in a formless, genderless, universal god, beyond description.
This God is all of reality, it is within everything.
They believe no idol or image could ever represent this being, so they use the sacred symbol of Ik Oankar to represent it instead.
Many Sikhs refer to this one God by the name Waheguru, Wondrous Lord.
Guru Nanak and his followers constantly emphasized that this one could be understood in many different ways.
No religion had a monopoly on the Truth. Nanak’s One God could be known as Vishnu, Allah, the Tao, Yahweh, The Algorithm, or any other name or belief.
There was no need to fight over whose god was the true God, as they were all the same One.
Recognize all mankind, whether Muslim or Hindu as one.
The same God is the Creator and Nourisher of all;
Recognize no distinctions among them. The temple and mosque are the same;
So are the Hindu worship and Muslim prayer. Human beings are all one. –
Guru Gobind Singh The lack of gender for this One God means that there is no difference between men and women in Sikhism.
Sikhism was among the first major world religions to make the radical suggestion that maybe women are human beings too.
Women in Sikhism have fought in battles, led religious services, and even acted as some of the longest-reigning leaders of the entire community.
Sikhism isn’t based on doing things to get into some heaven or hell.
Hell is just life on Earth, which your soul is constantly reborn into after you die. Which is ehhh…pretty dark.
You see, Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, similar to Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains.
But. Sikhs believe that karma is modified by God. As in karma might decide what life your born into but God makes sure that everyone can become a good person in their lifetime if they try.
The goal of Sikh life is to break free from the cycle of rebirth by merging their soul back into God’s soul.
One does this by releasing that you are already a part of god, you just need to let go of your ego.
When your soul remerges back into God’s this is called Mukti, which is similar to Hinduism’s moksha and means liberation.
When you remerge your soul is released from the cycle of rebirth and death and becomes infinite, timeless, and blissful. This is the closest thing Sikhs have to heaven.
Sikhs believe that God is real, God is the universe that we exist in. But we forget this because humans are distracted by illusion or Maya, which is anything that takes your mind off God.
Maya keeps people trapped in the cycle of rebirth and death. Guru Nanak thought that Maya built a wall between people and God.
The wall of Maya is
built with the 5 Thieves:
Lust (Kham), Anger (Krodh),
Greed (Lobh), Attachment (Moh),
and Pride (ahankar).
It is the duty of all Sikhs to avoid these thieves.
The five thieves are caused by humans, literally I-Myself. Haumai makes people say I am this I am that, it separates you from others.
Which blocks you from realising your oneness with God.
This ego causes people to live only for themselves, to spew negativity, and to crave power and wealth.
Such a person is called manmukh, facing towards desires.
Guru Nanak saw the world’s problems as the negative effects of ego. Hindu v Muslim, Israeli v Palestinian, Sitting down wipers v Standing up wipers.
All these conflicts are caused by Ego and Maya. The Guru Granth Sahib said it is not a religion or race but ‘it is wealth that divides brothers’ (GG: 417).
But Guru Nanak taught that there was another direction people could face. By being a spiritual person practicing Compassion (Daya), Truth (Sat), Contentment (Santokh), Humility (Nimrata), and Love (Pyar) and meditating on God you could instead become Gurmukh, facing towards the Guru.
How does one become Gurmukh and egoless?
Well, Sikhism offers a path to follow that can help, called the Three Pillars.
The Three Pillars are:
Naam Japo: Meditation on God and the reciting and chanting of God’s Name—Waheguru.
This is normally done in the morning and before bed.
This isn’t supposed to just be some mindless ritual either, Sikhs are supposed to genuinely reflect on the qualities of God as they do this.
What is Sikhism ?
Kirat Karni: – Working hard and making an honest living.
Guru Nanak said, “Only he who earns his living by the sweat of his brow and shares his earnings with others has discovered the path of righteousness.”
Wand chhakna: – Sharing the fruits of your labour with others, providing free food, and donating to the community.
The Sikh tradition of a communal meal (langar) at the gurdwaras is part of Wand Chhakna.
The langar or communal free kitchen inside a Sikh gurdwara, which is their equivalent of a church or mosque, is open to all who visit. Regardless of caste, faith, or gender.
These serve vegetarian food to all, not because Sikhs have to be vegetarian but simply because that means all people of all diets can partake.
So if you want a taste of typical Punjabi food just visit a gurdwara.
In Guru Nanak’s time, the idea of different castes sitting together on the floor and eating side by side was a revolutionary act.
Famously the Mughal Emperor Akbar visited Guru Arjan and the Guru would not meet him until he partook in the langar. Which the Emperor did, sitting side by side with peasants.
Guru Nanak claimed an enlightened person are ‘those who view everyone equally, like the air touching king and beggar alike’ (GG: 272).
Another vital part of Sikhism that isn’t one of the Three Pillars is Seva – selfless service.
Through service to their community, Sikhs can become more humble and overcome their ego.
Seva can include cleaning up the gurdwara, preparing food, or cleaning dishes in the langar or it can include volunteering, building things for your community, or subscribing and ringing the notification bell on educational Youtube channels.
Through remembering God’s name, honest work, and sharing, selfless service, and avoiding the Five Thieves a person can rid themselves of egoism and be released from the cycle of rebirth and death.
Guru Gobind Rai was the son of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the Mughals and his body was abandoned by his Sikh entourage.
They fled easily because no one could recognise them. So Guru Gobind decided the give Sikhs a distinct look from now on so that they would be compelled to always uphold Sikh values.
In 1699 Guru Gobind brought his Sikhs together at Anandpur. After their morning prayer, he stood in front of the huge crowd and demanded a human sacrifice.
The shocked crowd was silent for a while before one Sikh rose up and entered the Guru’s tent. The Guru followed them in.
What is Sikhism ?
The guru comes out with blood on his sword. He demands another sacrifice, another Sikh offers themselves and enters the tent…..
Again only the Guru comes back out of the tent, bloody sword in hand…
again another sacrifice….and again…
until finally after the 5th sacrifice the Guru reemerges with the 5 Sikhs all wearing saffron-colored robes
The Guru declares these to be the panj pyarey, the five beloved ones. They would form the centre of a new Sikh community called the Khalsa.
He offered them Amrit, a bowl of sweetened holy water.
All five, who belong to different caste groups, drank the Amrit from the same bowl, which would have been a huge deal back then. This signified that they had joined a new, casteless family, the Khalsa.
Each of the volunteers had to leave behind their old surnames or caste names and adopt the same surname, Singh. Which comes from the Sanskrit word Simba, meaning lion…
I KNOW RIGHT! It has no relation to the Bantu word Simba which also means lion, it’s just a weird coincidence.
The Guru then begged the Five Beloved ones to let him join their Khalsa. They offered him the Amrit and the Guru became Guru Gobind Singh.
Women were admitted to the Khalsa, the same way as men. After drinking the Amrit they received the surname Kaur, which means princess.
The Khalsa gave the Sikhs a new unified identity. Tied together as one family, with one name, without caste with the goal of defending the weak and promoting justice.
Today many Sikhs still undergo the Amrit ceremony and take the surnames, Singh and Kaur.
The Khalsa were also given new rules to follow which include the wearing of the panj kakaar or the Five K’s.
kes – Uncut hair to represent discipline
kargha – A small comb in the hair
kirpan – A sword to uphold justice and protect the weak, nowadays it’s usually a small sword. It is not an offensive weapon and the Sikh Code of Conduct claims it can only be used to “destroy tyrants and oppressors. It must not be used for anything else”
kachhahira – A kind of loose-fitting boxer shorts, to represent sexual restraint
and kara – A steel bracelet, its circular shape represents the infinity of God
Interestingly the turban is not one of the Five K’s. Instead, it’s worn to cover the Sikh’s long uncut hair, the kes. Turbans have become essential to Sikh identity and hold very special significance to them. If you see someone wearing a turban that vast majority of the time it will be a Sikh, not a Muslim.
What is Sikhism ?
Guru Granth Sahib
The Guru Granth Sahib is the Holy Book of the Sikhs. It contains the teachings of the Gurus and acts as a spiritual guide for Sikhs around the world.
It is probably one of the only Holy Books that contains not only the writing of the religious founders, written by themselves, rather than after their death. But also the writing of people from other faiths.
The writings of Muslims and Hindus can be found throughout along with references to Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Before his death in 1708, the tenth Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of human gurus by bestowing guruship on the Adi Granth, turning it into the Guru Granth Sahib, making it similar to both the Bible or Koran and a living Prophet at the same time.
Guru means Guru, Granth means book and Sahib means lord.
Since that moment, the Guru Granth Sahib has been revered as the current living guru. It is treated with extreme care and respect.
The Granth is not only read but sung, it’s made up of thousands of hymns.
Sikhs don’t have mass or service but a kirtan, meaning communal singing. Normally these are set to classical Indian music.
Gurdwara Sikhs gather at gurdwaras, a word meaning ‘doorway to the Guru’. A gurdwara is only a gurdwara because it has a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib in it.
Men and women of all castes and social standing gather there to join in prayer, singing, and eating.
This is where you will find the langar. Anyone can visit a Gurdwara and partake in the service and meal.
You only need to follow basic etiquette. Cover your head, remove your shoes, wash your hands as you enter, and don’t bring any tobacco or drugs inside.
The most important Gurdwara in the world is the Hari Mandir or Golden Temple located in Amritsar, India.
In 1604 Guru Arjan completed work on the Golden Temple and had the Guru Granth Sahib installed in it.
As a gesture of religious tolerance, Guru Arjan invited a Muslim, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple.
The Temple has four doors opening on all four sides, to show an openness to all cultures and peoples.
But on the inside only one door leads to the inner sanctum, indicating that all paths and beliefs eventually lead to the One God.
The Golden Temple is the most visited place in the world with around 6 million visitors each year.
The Langar at the Golden Temple serves a free meal to about 100,000 people each day, making it the world’s largest free serving kitchen. All run and staffed by volunteers.
The waiting list to volunteer in the Golden Temple has hundreds of thousands of names on it.
Thanks a lot for reading. Please do comment.