Sikhism traces its origins to the divinely given words uttered by the first human Guru, Guru Nanak who was born in 1469 in Talwandi, Punjab.
The word Guru is a central concept. ‘Guru’ is comprised on two Punjabi words, ‘gu’, and ‘ru’, the literal meaning of which are ‘darkness’ and ‘light’. ‘Guru’ therefore means ‘that which removes the darkness of spiritual ignorance and gives light or spiritual understanding.’ The word ‘guru’ has several different uses in Sikhism, each of which reflects the literal meaning of the word. ‘Guru’ may be used to describe God, for example Satguru (‘sat’ meaning ‘true’) or Vahiguru (‘vah’ being best translated by the word ‘wow’ indicating awe and wonder). In Sikhism several different words are used for God, each of which describes different qualities of God. ‘Guru’ is also used to describe ten men who were chosen by God to utter divinely given words, which are known as ‘gurbani’, (‘bani’ meaning ‘word’) and were collected in their sacred scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib (‘granth’ meaning ‘collection’).
The Guru Granth Sahib is understood to be God’s living presence among God’s people. Consequently, any use of textual criticism applied to the Guru Granth Sahib is unequivocally rejected. Any place where the Guru Granth Sahib is installed is a gurdwara, or ‘doorway to the Guru’ (‘dwara’ meaning doorway).
Belief and practice
The foundation of Sikh belief and practice is One God and One humanity. Sikhism teaches the equality of birth and gender. Sikhism is a monotheist religion. A summary of Sikh belief is found in the Mul Mantra, which was the first gurbani uttered by Guru Nanak and is both the first words of the Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh morning prayer the Japji Sahib.
The Mul Mantra is:
- Ik onkar: One God (‘ik’ is the numeral ‘one’, ‘onkar’ means ‘supreme being’, ‘God’)
- Sat Nam: True Name (‘Sat’ means ‘truth, ‘nam’ means ‘name’ in the sense of incorporating the entirety of the divine being; the divine essence)
- Karta Purakh: Creator (‘karta’ means ‘creator’); God is transcendent but is also immanent in the divinely created world.
- Nirbhau: Without fear (‘Nir’ means ‘without’ and ‘bhau’ means ‘fear’)
- Nirvair: Without hate (‘Vair’ means ‘hate’)
- Akal Murat: Beyond time, eternal (‘Kal’ means ‘time’ or ‘death’ therefore ‘akal’ means ‘without time or death’, ‘eternal’; ‘murat’ means ‘form or shape’)
- Arjuni: Beyond birth and death
- Saiban: Self creating and has no origin
- Gur Prasad: God’s grace (‘prasad’ means ‘grace’).
Sikhs believe that God’s grace is essential to achieving spiritual liberation, which may be during a person’s lifetime (jivan mukhti) or after death (mukhti). Sikh's believe in a cyclical concept of time and believe in rebirth, although not in a hierarchy of rebirths; i.e. if you are born as a human being you will reborn as a human being.
There are five realms (khands) or spiritual stages:
- Dharam Khand: the realm of righteousness in which a person is born.
- Gian Khand: the realm of knowledge which person can reach through spiritual devotion
- Saram Khand: the realm of effort which a person achieves when they come to internalise their devotion to God.
- Karam Khand: the realm of grace. It is emphasised that a person may receive divine grace when God wishes and during any of the first three khands. A familiar example is that of Sajjan who was a thief and a murder but when he heard Guru Nanak’s kirtan, or meditative singing of gurbani, he was convicted of his evil ways and erected what is traditionally regarded as the first purpose built place devoted to Sikh spiritual practice.
- Sach Khand: the realm of truth is where God dwells together with those who have achieved spiritual liberation. Japji Sahib states: ‘In the realm of Truth, the Formless One abides. Having created creation, God watches over it. By the divine Glance of Grace, God bestows happiness’.
God’s grace is balanced by the responsibility of Sikhs to live a spiritual life. This balance of spiritual-temporal has been central in Sikhism from its earliest times to the present day although their relative emphasis has reflected the circumstances of the day. A familiar passage of gurbani uttered by Guru Nanak is: ‘Truth is high, but higher still is truthful living’.
Sikhism does not have a concept of sin such as is found in, for example, Christianity. Guru Granth Sahib teaches that while nam simran, kirt karo and vand kakko are positive spiritual practices the concepts of haumai and maya will distract a person away from the spiritual path and lead to a person becoming manmukh. (‘Man’ refers to a person’s baser emotions or self centred desires and ‘mukh’ means ‘face’; a person following the spiritual path is called ‘gurmukh’). ‘Haumai’ literally means ‘I/me’ but is generally translated as ‘ego’. It is giving priority to yourself and your wants and not following God’s path. ‘Maya’ is usually translated as ‘illusion’ as it refers to a having false or wrong attachment to the world. Although it is wider than this, maya is often summarised as the five evils of lust, covetousness, attachment, anger and pride.
The Ten Gurus
As stated previously, there were ten human Gurus, all of whom were chosen to succeed as Guru because of their inner spirituality.
The years of their birth and death are:
- Guru Nanak: 1469-1539
- Guru Angad: 1504-1552
- Guru Amar Das: 1479-1574
- Guru Ram Das: 1534-1581
- Guru Arjan: 1563- 1606
- Guru Hargobind: 1595-1644
- Guru Har Rai: 1630-1661
- Guru Har Krishnan: 1656-1664
- Guru Tegh Bahadur: 1621-1675
- Guru Gobind Singh: 1666-1708
Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak was Guru from birth, At the age of thirty years old he was taken into the divine presence and given his life’s work: ‘to meditate on God’s name and teach others to do the same’.
For the next thirty years he travelled around India and the surrounding countries, accompanied by a Muslim musician named Mardana. When Guru Nanak was inspired to utter gurbani, Mardana accompanied him playing a rebab which is a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin. Wherever Guru Nanak went, groups of people began to meet together to practice nam simran, or meditation on God’s name, by singing the gurbani to the appropriate raags that Mardana had played; gurbani and raag equals kirtan. To this day, when Sikhs meet together a significant time will be devoted to kirtan.
Secondly, Guru Nanak told Sikhs that they must practice Kirt Karo, which means to earn their living honestly and give a proportion of what they earn to those in need. A familiar example is when Guru Nanak accepted hospitality from Bhai Lalo, whom he praised as an honest carpenter, while rejecting the more lavish hospitality of Malik Bhago whom Guru Nanak criticised for his dishonesty.
Thirdly, Guru Nanak taught that Sikhs must practice Vand Kakko, or altruistic service to God and humanity. This is known as seva. Seva is given to any person in need regardless of birth, gender or religion. In 1999 and as an expression of Sikh spirituality, Sikhs from the West London and Slough areas established Khalsa Aid, a humanitarian relief organisation that has provided support after disasters in many different countries and helps all in need, regardless of their religion. Sikhs will also perform seva in the gurdwara: reading the Guru Granth Sahib, performing kirtan, cleaning the building or in the kitchen preparing, cooking or serving the food which is called langar. Sikhs emphasise that all seva is equal, and that none is more important than another.
Mention in particular needs to be made of the significance of some others of the gurus. For example, Guru Arjan supervised the first collection of gurbani. Reflecting Sikh belief that God may be found in all religions, Guru Arjan included the gurbani uttered by himself and his predecessors, together with the writings of some Hindu bhagats and Muslim pirs that were in conformity with the teaching of the Gurus. These writings are known as the bhagat bani, or words of holy men. In 1604 Guru Arjan installed the Adi Granth in the newly completed Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple as it is now familiarly known. To demonstrate that the Adi Granth had priority over himself as it was gurbani, although he was the Guru (‘Adi’ means ‘first’ in the sense of priority), Guru Arjan prostrated himself before the gurbani.
Today in the gurdwara, Sikhs will prostrate themselves before the sacred scriptures. Guru Arjan was the first Sikh Guru to be martyred for his beliefs and is believed to have told his successor, Guru Hargobind, to ‘sit fully armed on the gurgaddi’ or Guru’s seat of authority. Until the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, relations between the Sikh Gurus and the Mughul Empire that was occupying India during these times, was generally friendly. Consequently, and although challenging the rulers when people were being unjustly treated, the emphasis in the Guru’s teaching had been on the necessity of inner spirituality.
The balance of emphasis between the spiritual and temporal would now change, an outward symbol of which was Guru Hargobind wearing two swords which he named the miri and piri. Mir was the title given to a local political leader and symbolised the temporal, and pir was the title given to a Muslim holy man, symbolising the spiritual.
The circumstances of the death of Guru Arjan led to Guru Hargobind developing a standing army that could defend Sikhs if they were attacked. Guru Hargobind also gave his army an emblem, the nishan sahib, which today is flown from the flagpole of gurdwaras to signify that any person will be given one night’s accommodation free of charge. All gurdwaras also provide langar, free of charge, to all visitors. A well known incident that is remembered by Sikhs at the festival of Divali annually was when Guru Hargobind was imprisoned in the Gwalior Fort. When the Mughul Emperor ordered his release, the Guru refused to leave unless 52 Hindu rajas who had also been unfairly imprisoned were released with him. When Guru Hargobind returned to Amritsar, fireworks were lit to celebrate his return. This incident, and the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, is often cited by Sikhs as exemplifying their belief in defending the rites of those unfairly treated, and their respect for people of all faiths.
Guru Tegh Bahadur
Guru Tegh Bahadur is understood to be a martyr by both Sikhs and Hindus. During a time of persecution some Hindu bhagats, or holy men, from Kashmir visited Guru Tegh Bahadur requesting his help in challenging the religious persecution they were suffering at the hands of the Mughul rulers. Sikhs believe his young son Gobind, overhearing the conversation, encouraged his father by asking rhetorically who was more worthy than the Guru to defend the religious rites of people. Consequently Guru Tegh Bahadur journeyed to Delhi, which was the headquarters in India of the Mughul Emperor. When the Guru was threatened with death unless he rejected his Sikh faith he refused and, after witnessing his two Sikh companions being killed, was himself beheaded. Gurdwara Sis Ganj was erected on the site of his martyrdom.
Guru Gobind Singh
Guru Tegh Badahur was succeeded by his son Gobind, although only nine years old. His Guruship was recognized as a period of increased persecution of Sikhs by the ruling Mughul Empire. Consequently, Guru Gobind Singh’s time was primarily occupied by military actions in defence of the Sikh faith. To ensure that the actions of his army were consistent with Sikh spirituality, he developed rules for a dharam yudh or righteous path.
1. That it should be a last resort. Guru Gobind stated that ‘When all other means have failed, it is but lawful to take to the sword’.
2. War should be waged without enmity or desire for revenge.
3. Territory should not be annexed, and property captured during the war must be restored. Looting was forbidden.
4. Only practising Sikhs should be members of the army and conduct must always be in accordance with Sikh spiritual practice.
5. The minimum force necessary to achieve the objective is to be used.
Guru Gobind Singh is particularly significant for two actions. First, in 1699 he summoned all Sikhs to gather at Anandpur for the harvest festival of Vaisakhi. Echoing the words of Guru Nanak who, when explaining devotion to God told his followers that ‘if you want to play the game of love [for God] come with your head on your palm to the Guru’, Guru Gobind asked the gathered crowd which of them would come with their head on their palm to the Guru. Whereas in Guru Nanak’s day such an offering would have reflected a person’s inner devotion and spirituality, for Guru Gobind Singh’s hearers this may also have resulted in their physical death. Gradually five Sikhs in turn accepted Guru Gobind Singh’s offer. Because of their devotion, they are known as the panj piare (‘panj’ is the numeral five and ‘piare’ means ‘loved ones’.) The panj piare became the first members of the Khalsa, a group of committed Sikhs who were to be sant-sipahi.
Sant-sipahi is usually, and misleadingly, translated as ‘saint-soldiers’. ‘Sant’ is a title of respect given to a person in acknowledgement of their spirituality; because of this inner spirituality a sant-sipahi will have the courage and bravery of a soldier to defend those who are unjustly treated. Guru Gobind Singh also introduced a ceremony, amrit ka pahul, by which a man or woman will become a member of the Khalsa. All members of the Khalsa must follow a daily practice, known as the Rahit Maryada. This includes saying set prayers morning, evening and at night time, practicing seva, and visiting the gurdwara. Guru Gobind Singh also prescribed the wearing of five symbols, known as the 5Ks which have both practical and spiritual significance.
- Kesh: A Sikh should not cut or pluck their hair. Guru Nanak said,’ A Sikh should die with their hair in tact; the hair with which they were born’. Sikh men, and some women, cover their hair with a turban. In acknowledgement of the importance of the turban, the 1976 Motor Cycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act gave exemption from wearing a crash helmet to turban wearing Sikhs.
- Kara: A comb worn in their hair to ensure that it is, like their lives, neat and orderly.
- Kangha: A bangle usually worn on the right wrist. As a symbol of the equality of humanity the kangha must be made of either iron or steel, in contrast to the costly bracelets worn by wealthy people at the time. Some Sikhs also consider the kangha to a symbol of God who has no beginning and end. 4 Kachchera: Loose knee length shorts that were more practical in battle, but that is also a symbol of the high moral and ethical standards by which all Sikhs should live.
- Kirpan: A sword that is 6-9 inches long. For ceremonial occasions it may be a metre long. Recognising the requirement of Sikhs to wear the kirpan, Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Action, 1988 that made it an offence to have an article with a blade or point in a public place included the defence that it was necessary for religious reason. Note that the kirpan should never be called a dagger.
The second significant action of Guru Gobind Singh was that shortly before his death he added the gurbani of Gurus Hargobind and Tegh Bahadur to the Adi Granth, and declared it to be the new Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib. He stated that there would be no more human Gurus but Sikhs should consult the Guru Granth Sahib for spiritual guidance and the Khalsa for temporal guidance.
Spiritual and temporal guidance
The Guru Granth Sahib
The Guru Granth Sahib is written in a special script called Gurumukhi, which literally means ‘from the mouth of the Guru’. Although the scriptures have been translated in different languages, only copies in Gurumukhi are installed in gurdwaras. In the gurdwara the Guru Granth Sahib is installed on a high platform called a takht (literally ‘throne’) and the room is known as the diwan hall (‘diwan’ means ‘royal court’) because the person entering is coming into the living presence of God. As did Guru Arjan when installing the Adi Granth in the Harmandir Sahib, a person will make prostration to the Guru Granth Sahib.
Congregational gatherings, called diwan, are centred on the words of gurbani: either hearing it read, meditative singing of its words (kirtan) or listening to short explanations of its teachings. Near the end, the Guru Granth Sahib is opened at random and the passage on the top left hand page read aloud. This is understood to be God’s words of guidance to those present. All aspects of Sikh life are centred on the Guru Granth Sahib which is, for example, understood to be the witness at a marriage ceremony and is consulted when choosing a name for a newborn child.
To whom Sikhs turn for temporal guidance today is less clear. For practical reasons, gurdwaras generally have management committees although it is important to emphasise the egalitarian nature of Sikhism; committee members are performing seva, there is no hierarchy. However, in 1925, a recently created group called the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) were appointed by the Indian government to manage the gurdwaras in Punjab and the surrounding states. The SGPC headquarters are in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. They encourage research, printing and publications of works on the Sikh religion and also organise schools and colleges. One of the most important publications was a Rahit Maryada (Code of Daily Conduct) in 1945. They also issue occasional rulings, called hukamnamas.
The British Sikh Community
Although a central teaching of Sikhism is equality of humanity, within the Punjabi culture in which it had it origins there was a jagmani system of society. Basically this divided people in landowners, or Jats, and skilled craftsmen, or Ramgarhia.
When the East India Company opened up the British colonies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the Ramgarhias had the skills needed to build the railways and were attracted by high wages. Between 1897 and 1901 32,00 workers were recruited from Punjab, predominantly Sikhs. Of these 21% remained after the end of their three year contracts.
After 1945, Britain had a shortage of labour consequently local authorities and large companies went to the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean encouraging migration. Those that came at this time were single men who were unskilled, few of who spoke English. On arrival in Britain they encountered extensive racism and Sikhs had to cut their hair in order to gain employment. They were joined by Indian members of the British army who chose to stay in Britain after demobilisation. It was not until the late 1960 that these Sikhs, who were predominantly Jats, were joined by their families, and wives whom they married during visits back to Punjab.
In the 1960s, the independence from British rule of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda led to an exodus of Asians, many of them Sikhs, to countries such as Britain and Canada. These Sikhs, who were predominantly Ramgarhia, were skilled professionals educated in the British schools system who fluently spoke English. They arrived in the UK in family groups and had little difficulty in obtaining employment or in retaining the 5Ks.
Until the middle of the 1960s there were no gurdwaras or meetings for kirtan in Britain. However, gradually local community halls were hired or existing buildings, sometimes houses or shops, adapted to be gurdwaras. Initially all Sikhs generally attended the single gurdwara in a town, however as the community increased in numbers Ramgarhias established their own gurdwaras. In Britain, for organisational reasons, there is a Ramgarhia Association. Others gurdwaras, usually identified by having the words ‘Singh Sabha’ in their title, look to the SGPC in Amritsar for guidance. There is also a third strand, usually described as sant gurdwaras. In the 1960s groups of raagi, or musicians, visited Britain performing kirtan. Some of these raagi were perceived to be deeply spiritual - one such was described to me as a ‘living Guru Granth Sahib such was his spirituality - and are often given the title of respect ‘babaji’ or ‘sant’. Gradually some gurdwaras have been opened ‘with the blessing of’ a particular sant. Instead of looking to the Ramgarhia Association or the SGPC for guidance, they will consult the sant with whose blessings the gurdwara was opened.
In Britain, a well known sant gurdwara is the Nishkam Seva Jatha, Soho Road, Birmingham. Mention also needs to be made of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In the 1980s Sant Bindranwale led a campaign in the Punjab to encourage Sikhs to take amrit ka pahul and become members of the Khalsa. While his motivation was spiritual, his use of violence led to political unrest in Punjab culminating in the invasion of the Golden Temple by the Indian army on June 6th 1984 in what is known as Operation Bluestar. A subsequent White Paper into the events stated that 493 people were killed, including Sant Bhindranwale, and 68 injured in the invasion however these figures do not include an estimated 1,600 people who were also present. To this day, the impact of Operation Bluestar continues to affect Sikhs both in India and throughout the world. For example, in London Sikhs hold a procession on the weekend nearest 6th June each year to remember those who died as a consequence of Operation Bluestar, both in the Golden Temple complex and in its aftermath.
Guru Granth Sahib
- McLeod, W.H. trans. and ed. Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1984. (The is a translation into English, with explanation, of some passages from the Guru Granth Sahib)
- Singh, Manmohan. _ Sri Guru Granth Sahib_ Ji (8 volumes). Amritsar, SGPC (This is a translation into English and modern Punjabi, and including the Gurumukhi script, of the Guru Granth Sahib.)
Sikh history and belief
- B40 Janam Sakhi. W.H.McLeod, trans. Amritsar, Guru Nanak Dev University, 1980
- Brown, Kerry, ed. Sikh Art and Literature. London, Routledge, 1999
- Cole, W. Owen and Sambhi, Piara Singh. The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Brighton, Sussex Academic Press, 1995.
- O’Connell, J.T. and Israel, M. and Oxtoby, W.G. Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century. Toronto, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, 1968
- Nesbitt, Eleanor. Sikhism: a very short introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005
- Macauliffe, M.A. The Sikh Religion. Delhi, Low Price Publications, 1990
- Shackle, C. Guru Nanak Glossary. London, S.O.A.S.
- Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Rahit Maryada. Amritsar, 1978
- Singh, Gopal History of the Sikh People. New Delhi, World Book Centre, 1988
- Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs, Volume 1, London, Oxford University Press, 1963
- Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs, Volume 2, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1977 (These two volumes above include a translation into English of passages from the Guru Granth Sahib)
- Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur. The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993
- Tully, Mark and Jacob, Satish. Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle. London, Jonathan Cape, 1985
- Singh, Harbans, ed. Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (volume 1) Patiala, Punjabi University, 1992
- Singh, Harbans, ed. Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (volume 2) Patiala, Punjabi University, 1996
- Singh, Harbans, ed. Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (volume 3) Patiala, Punjabi University, 1997
- Singh, Harbans, ed. Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (volume 4) Patiala, Punjabi University, 1998
- Agnihotei, R.K. Crises of Identity: Sikhs in England. New Delhi, Bahri Publications, 1987
- Barrier, N.G. and Dusenbury, V.A. eds. The Sikh Diaspora. Delhi, Chanayaka, 1989
- Bhachu, Parminder: East African Sikh Settlers in Britain: Twice Migrants. London, Tavistock, 1985
- Helweg, A.W. Sikh Identity in England: the development of a migrant community. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1979.
- Kalsi, Sewa Singh: The Origin of the Sikh Community in Britain. Leeds, University of Leeds, 1992
NB: An efficient and economical source of books on Sikhism, including those published in India, is: The Sikh Missionary Society, 8-10 Featherstone Road, Southall, Middlesex UB2 5AA; telephone 020 8574 1902