Sikhism originated from the word Sikh, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit root śiṣya meaning disciple or learner. It is the world’s fifth largest religion, with approximately 27 million adherents. The majority of Sikhs live in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan; however Sikhs live all over the world with more than 336,000 in the UK alone. Sikhism was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak and is based on his teachings, and those of the nine Sikh gurus who followed him.
Guru Nanak was born into a Hindu family at a time in history, not unlike our own when Hindu’s and Muslims where in a state of extreme conflict. He felt compelled to form the Sikh religion stating, “”There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow the path of God.” Guru Nanak and those who followed him rejected the Hindu caste system and went to great lengths to eradicate it from their thinking. Because the caste system was, at one time identifiable by surname, all male Sikhs use the name Singh, meaning lion, and the women the name Saur, meaning princess.
Nine enlightened men followed Guru Nanak and together they became known as the ten gurus. The word guru is from the Sanskrit language and means, teacher, honoured person, religious person or saint. Sikhism adds a very specific definition to the word guru – the descent of divine guidance to humankind through the ten enlightened ones. The establishment of the Sikh religion began with Guru Nanak in 1469; the divine spirit was passed through each guru.
After the death of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh in 1708, the Sikh Holy Scriptures were called Guru Granth Sahib. The Granth was compiled by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev ji. He undertook the enormous task of collecting, compiling, and scrutinizing the hymns and compositions of Guru Nanak and his predecessors. He decided to include not only the hymns of the Gurus but also that of other righteous men including both Muslims and Hindus. It is not clear whether the Guru Granth Sahib is considered to be revelation or inspiration from God however its teachings are practised in three ways: Chanting the Holy Name and thus remembering God at all times, making a living honestly, and sharing with others and helping those in need. Thus, with this in mind, a very simplified form the teachings of Sikhism could be described as follows,
- There is only one God. Worship and pray to the one God and to none other
- Remember God, work hard and help others
- God is pleased with honest work and true living
- There is no rich, no poor, no black and no white, before God. Actions make you good or bad.
- Men and Women are all equal before God
- Love everyone and pray for the good of all
- Be kind to people, animals and birds
- Fear not, Frighten not.
- Always speak the truth.
- Be simple in your food, dress and habits.
Unlike most other religions, Sikhs wear the five articles of their faith. These are, known as the five Ks. Kesh, un cut hair kept very clean and considered to be God given.Kangha, a small wooden comb to keep the hair tidy and act as a reminder to keep well ordered lives. Kirpan is a short sword, about 15 cm long. It signifies honour, dignity, bravery and the Sikh duty to defend the weak and oppressed, and uphold truth. The Kirpan should never be drawn in anger, but once drawn it should not re-sheathed without shedding blood. The Kara is a steel bracelet worn on the right wrist (unless the wearer is left-handed). The circle of the bracelet is a symbol of God and unity, and the steel symbolises strength and fighting for right. Kachs are short underpants tied with a drawstring allowing ease of movement in battle. They also symbolise purity and modesty, and are a reminder of the necessity to remain faithful to their spouses.
The most widely recognised symbol of Sikhism is the turban worn by men. It symbolizes discipline, integrity, humility, and spirituality, and is a mandatory part of Sikh faith, not a social custom. The long uncut hair is covered by approximately 15 feet of cloth. Both men and women cover their heads in public as a sign of respect for the gurus and God.
Sikhs worship in a building known as a Gurdwara (the door of the Guru) and it is usually also a community centre consisting of two halls, one a prayer hall, and a room in which the Guru Granth Sahib is kept when not in use in the prayer hall. Sikhs have no particular day of devotion however there are usually daily services, often several times a day in the larger centres. A saffron and blue Nishan Sahib (flag) flies outside the gurdwara to indicate a place of hospitality. No one is allowed to bring tobacco, alcohol or intoxicating drugs inside. Worshippers leave their shoes outside and respectfully cover their heads when entering.
Inside the Gudwara the Guru Granth sahib is usually on display and worshippers bow to the ground before it and make offers of food and or money. Most often men and women usually sit separately but this is a cultural, not religious requirement. An important feature of the service is the distribution and sharing of Kara parshad, a mixture of semolina, sugar and ghee. This mixture is blessed near the end of a service by stirring with the small sword known as the kirpan. In the large gudwaras, where services are offered throughout the day Kara pashard is distributed as worshippers either enter or leave the building.
In part two we will look at the Sikh concept of God and compare some of the Sikh beliefs with Islam.