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Sikhism arose during the 16th Century in the Punjab region of India, which is now part of Pakistan, when a man named Nanak heard what he believed was a direct revelation from God. After renouncing his Hindu upbringing, Nanak fused together aspects of both Hinduism and Islam to create a unique, monotheistic religion. During his lifetime, Guru Nanak1 wandered across India in search of converts to his new religion; he termed his followers Sikhs, or disciples. Today there are over 23 million Sikhs in the world, making Sikhism the fifth largest religion worldwide.
After Guru Nanak's death, he was succeeded by nine more gurus, believed to be his reincarnations. The gurus were critical of other religions, but all strongly believed in religious freedom, which is still true of Sikhs today. The fifth guru, known as Arjan Dev, compiled the Sikh holy book, Adi Granth, in 1604. The Adi Granth is unique in its genre, because beyond the works of important Sikh saints it also contains works that were deemed consistent with the thoughts of the gurus, but written by non-Sikhs.
The tenth and last guru, Gobind Singh, decreed that after his death there would be no more gurus except the Adi Granth. After giving this scripture the name of Guru Granth Sahib, meaning 'Book of God', he died in 1708. The Guru Granth Sahib is regarded as the living embodiment of the gurus and is very much respected. Gobind Singh also formed the Khalsa2 military order that Sikhs were generally expected to join to help his people defend themselves against prevalent persecution by the Muslim Mughal Empire.
The Khalsa Military Order
Initiates into the Khalsa drink amrit, sweetened water stirred with a dagger or sword, as a baptismal rite; Sikh men then take the surname Singh, which translates as 'lion' and Sikh women take the surname Kaur, which translates as 'princess'. Sikhism stresses the full equality of women, who ranked very low in Indian society during the time of the gurus - this equality therefore shocked society; one representation of this doctrine is the female Kaur surname, which a woman keeps her entire life and does not subserviently exchange at marriage for her husband's name. The identical names of all Sikhs reflect the equality that the Sikh believe everyone holds to one another. Equality is a very important concept that is reiterated in many Sikh practices, such as the absence of chairs in their temples.
Members of the Khalsa also observe the five 'k's: They must wear soldier shorts, kaccha, a metal bangle, kara, and a steel dagger, kirpan. They must also have uncut hair, kes, and a comb to hold their hair in place, or khanga. Male members are also required to wear a turban to cover their hair; however this is left optional for women. The turban is extremely important to Sikhs and has become a symbol of this religion3. Members of the Khalsa also pledge to follow a strict code of conduct, which includes abstention from smoking and intoxicants. They uphold the highest Sikh values of commitment, dedication and social consciousness.
Sikh Beliefs, Practices and Temples
Sikhism maintains that there is one transcendent and omnipresent God, and that man can become aware of His presence and rid himself of otherwise-perpetual reincarnation through meditation and the direction of each day's activities towards God. Sikhs believe that God cannot take human form. They meditate on the title of God, His Nam, in spiritual introspection and work in active service for God in their daily lives - in a direct reversal from the withdrawn Hindu ascetic - and normal family life, as opposed to celibacy, is encouraged. They also follow a basic code of conduct, the complete text of which can be found here.
The Sikh's life goal, to escape from reincarnation and merge with God, can often seem completely focussed upon individual devotion and worship, but the congregation is also important in its achievement. Sikh temples are called Gurdwaras which means 'Gateway to the Guru,' and these serve as community centres. There are no restrictions on who may enter a Gurdwara to pray (and this includes any religious distinctions), but one is expected to cover one's head and remove one's shoes while inside as a sign of respect. All worshippers sit upon the floor, and the Guru Granth Sahib is installed somewhere above.
Gurdwaras also contain free community kitchens called Langers, in which people can sit together and enjoy a community meal. Only vegetarian food is served, to avoid causing offence. The community kitchen is a symbol of the belief in a world where everyone is equal and can share in a common meal without distinctions of sex or race; it outlines the important Sikh principles of sharing, service, humility and equality.
The Golden Temple
There are thousands of Gurdwaras throughout the world, but the most famous and beloved of these is the Hari Mandir, the 'Golden Temple', at the city of Amritsar in India. The Golden Temple is the inspirational and historical centre of Sikhism. Because Sikhism rejects what it terms 'blind rituals,' it is not mandatory to make a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple, but many people journey there nonetheless. It is important to note that while the Golden Temple is special to Sikhs, all places where the Guru Granth Sahib is located are equally holy - in fact, the only holy thing on Earth is this book.
The Golden Temple was invaded and desecrated by the Indian Army in June of 1984 during the hunt for the Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his militant followers, who had taken refuge within the temple - this event shocked Sikhs the entire world over. There is more than a little tension between the Sikh community, which makes up only 1.9% of India, and the mainstream Indian community, but nonetheless Westerners seem to stereotype all Indians as Sikhs.
Sikhs believe, like many other Eastern religions, that a divine truth is hidden from us by our everyday illusions, and that man should struggle to see beyond these and thus find sahij, or 'Union with God'. This union with God will then free one from reincarnation.
Further Links about Sikhism
Sikhs.org/ - has a good overview of the religion and history of Sikhism.
Srigurugranthsahib.org/ - is a more in-depth website about Sikh beliefs.
Sikhnet.com/ - is a more news- and contact-oriented website.
Sikhcoalition.org/ - is a reference site about governments, organisations, and individuals from a Sikh viewpoint.