Sikhism, an Introduction
Sikhism, an Introduction
Sikhism is a major religion of India and fifth largest faith in the world. Its followers are called “Sikhs”.
Presently it has about 28 million adherents in the entire world, out of which about 18 million live in Punjab, a region in the north-west of India that has long served to connect South Asia with Middle East and Central Asia.
About 6 million Sikhs live outside Punjab in India and at least 4 million live in the rest of the world.
Of these about half a million Sikhs are located in the United Kingdom, another million are in North America out of which around 468 thousand are residing in Canada and about 500 thousand in the United States of America.
They are present in substantial numbers in East Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Norway and other Asian, African and European countries.
To say it in another way, they are found all over the world.
Wherever they have gone, they have built their own religious places of worship, Gurdwaras, which in addition to being place of worship, also serve as centres of the Sikh culture.
Presently Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism are the major religions of the world, with Sikhism being in the 5th place followed by Judaism in the sixth with a following of about fourteen million.
However, Sikhism is the youngest among all of them.
There are many other faiths which have more followers than Sikhism, but usually they are not counted among the world religions.
The basic principles of Sikh philosophy and its contributions towards social services and sacrifices for human rights and religious freedom of common people have raised its status to that of a unique universal world religion.
Sikhism took its birth in the 15th century in Punjab, among two already well-established religions of Hinduism and Islam.
Punjab at that time was under Islamic rule, with Hinduism as dominant religion. Religion in both communities was limited only to ritualistic practices, rather than inner illumination.
The religious leaders of both communities, Qazis and Brahmins, themselves did not by and large practiced what they preached. There was a great cultural decadence in all facets of the society. The Islamic rulers also were very unjust and oppressive in their governance.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539 A.D.) founded Sikhism as revealed to him by ‘The Supreme Eternal Reality’-- Akal Purakh (God), in 1496 AD, at Sultanpur Lodhi in Punjab.
He declared oneness of God and universal brotherhood of man. He laid down the complete ideology of Sikhism, which matured under his 9 successors.
He preached in the vernacular of the people of the Punjab and composed sacred religious hymns in the language of the local people,
in preference to Sanskrit, which till then was the traditional medium for religious poetry or philosophy. However, Sanskrit was neither spoken nor understood by the common people of the Punjab.
The vernacular of the region at that time was only a dialect and did not have its own script for its real pronunciation and expressions.
Guru Nanak developed the script for local vernacular, which was designated 'Gurmukhi' by his successor, Guru Angad Dev.
Thus Guru Nanak gave to the Sikhs a script for their spoken language which was different from Hindus (Sanskrit--Vedas) and Muslims (Arabic-Quran).
He denounced the divisive Hindu caste system, polytheism, henotheism, idolatry, superstition, renunciation, asceticism, celibacy, hypocrisy and ritualism to appease the deities.
He proclaimed oneness of God and oneness of man and said,
“We are all children of the same father and he takes care of us all.” (GGS, p.611).
Of Islam's specialists in jurisprudence, he said,
Becoming judges, they sit and administer justice.
They chant on their malas, and call upon God.
They accept bribes, and block justice. (GGS, p 951).
The hungry Mullah he accused of turning his home into mosque (GGS, p. 1245), to which the pious poor would come bringing donations.
Guru Nanak also up-braided the rulers of his time and said,
The kings are tigers, and their officials are dogs;
They go out and awaken the sleeping people to harass them. (GGS, p.1288).
He was highly critical of Yogis and Siddhas who led an escapist life of renunciation. He praised the householder’s life, who served the society in another way.
People subdued under rigors of caste system, the oppressive alien rule and religious bigotry, could not be expected to take over the social responsibilities and adjust to the liberation offered by the new society over-night.
The infant Sikh society had to be nurtured for some time to prevent its relapse into the parent societies. So he introduced the system of succession to carry his mission forward.
The message of Nanak was transmitted through his 9 successors.
The Sikh Gurus were:
1. Guru Nanak, born in 1469 and died in 1539.
2. Guru Angad, born in 1504 (Guru 1539 - 52).
3. Guru Amar Das born in 1479 (Guru 1552 -74).
4. Guru Ram Das, born in 1534 (Guru 1574 - 81).
5. Guru Arjan Dev, born in 1563 (Guru 1581 - 1606).
6. Guru Hargobind, born in 1595 (Guru 1606 - 44).
7. Guru Har Rai, born in 1630 (Guru 1644 - 61).
8. Guru Har Krishan, born in 1656 (Guru 1661 - 64).
9. Guru Tegh Bahadur, born in 1621 (Guru 1664 - 75).
10. Guru Gobind Singh, born in 1666 (Guru 1675 - 1708).
The holy scripture of Sikhism (Ādi Granth now Guru Granth Sahib),
the world seat of Sikhism (Gurdwara Darbar Sahib/ Golden Temple) in Amritsar were created by the 5th Guru Arjan Dev in 1604 AD, thereby establishing separate religious identity of Sikhism.
Till then the spread of Sikhism had been carried out through word of mouth by the Sikh Gurus and it had no separate religious existence distinct from Hinduism and Islam.
Because of its principles, Sikhism was acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims.
The erosion of their faiths surprised the religious leaders of both Hinduism (Brahmins/Pandits) and those of Islam (The Qazis/Mullahs). Therefore, they regarded it as threat to their respective faiths.
The Muslim administration, in addition, perceived it as threat to its political power.
The tensions that followed between the Sikhs, Hindus and the Muslim government resulted in the execution of Guru Arjan Dev at Lahore and the consequent move of the Sikh centre from Amritsar to Kiratpur in the Shivalik hills in the 1630s.
Guru Arjan Dev was succeeded by five more Gurus.
Sikhism developed, matured and became established to work its way in the world at the end of two centuries under the guidance of its ten Gurus.
It was formally consecrated by its 10th Guru Gobind Singh on the Vaisakhi day 1699 AD at Anandpur Sahib in the Shivalik foothills in the Punjab, through his Sikh initiation ceremony-Amritpān.
On this day Guru Gobind Singh gave finishing touch to Sikhism:
He laid down distinct Sikh religious code of conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryādā) and gave the Sikhs a distinct corporate identity.
He called the initiated Sikhs 'Khalsa', who now represent and spearhead the tasks of Sikh religion and are recognizable throughout the world as bearded and turbaned Sikhs, supporting the articles of their faith.
Before his departure from this mortal world in 1708 AD, Guru Gobind Singh abolished the personal human Guruship and transferred the authority from individual leaders to the scriptures and the community itself.
He vested the Eternal Guruship into the holy Sikh scripture, “Granth Sahib” and granted it the status of Eternal Guru of the Sikhs, which since then is known as “Guru Granth Sahib” (GGS) and is the symbolic head of Sikhism.
He vested the temporal leadership into the community itself under the patronage of Guru Granth Sahib and named it "Guru Khalsa Panth”.
Thus from the moment of its initiation by Guru Nanak to its ritual consecration by Guru Gobind Singh, a period of barely 200 years,
Sikhism not only acquired its distinctive church and institutions, songs and scriptures, signs and symbols, but also, an unmistakable form or stance.
Sikhism is a revealed religion based on a definitive revelation like Semitic religions of the West and therefore, it can be clearly distinguished from the earlier Indian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc., which have an anonymous mysticism as their source of validity.
It is not simply a set of views or doctrines, but a way of life according to a definite model, `The Guru', for which the Sikh Gurus gave lessons for over a period of 200 years and themselves, led the life of that model.
Those who perfected it came to be known as Sikhs (meaning, the disciples).
Sikhee Sikhiaa Gur Veechaar ||
Contemplating the Guru, I have been taught these teachings; (GGS, Ml, p.465)".
The Guru's Sikh, and the Sikh's Guru, are one and the same;
both spread the Guru's Teachings. (GGS, p. 444)
Guru Gobind Singh called his Khalsa, “Guru Khalsa”.
The philosophy of Sikhism is different from the philosophy of all the previously existing religions of the world:
It envisages that a true Sikh loves all humanity, earns his livelihood by all fair means, shares his earnings with the deprived and strives for the realization of God by abiding His Will and seeking Grace.
It believes in a revealed scripture, “Guru Granth Sahib” as embodiment of ten Gurus.
It believes in a life of prayer and service of humanity (Seva and Simran).
It expounds Inner Bhakti, which is purely devotional and rejects External Bhakti, which is ritualistic.
It is essentially a religion of devotion whereas the body has to work for the welfare of the family and society, the mind has to remain in tune with the Lord,
Nāma Deva answers, O Trilochan, chant the Lord's Name with your mouth.
With your hands and feet, do all your work,
but let your consciousness remain with the Immaculate Lord. ||213|| (GGS, p.1375).
Its approach to life is realistic therefore it is most modern, practical and rational among all the world religions. Basically it is anti-ritualistic and has no ordained priestly class.
It is highly critical of all intermediaries exploiting the masses in the name of religion.
It does not foster blind faith.
It is a life affirming religion and there is an integral combination between empirical and spiritual life of man.
It does not accept any dichotomy in life whether it is ‘personal and social’, ‘spiritual or material’, ‘faith and reason’ or any other such differentiation.
It believes in now and here and does not believe in the otherworldliness.
It has a positive attitude towards world and emphasizes that normal family life (Gṛihastya Jiwan), lived with virtuous conduct leads to salvation,
While laughing, playing, dressing and eating, he is liberated. ||2|| (GGS, p.522).
It preaches Nām japo (remember God), work honestly), share the fruits of your labour with your fellow beings.
Unlike Yogis, Siddhas and Sadhus (ascetics) who had developed an escapist attitude towards life and had no worthwhile interest in the problems of the society,
Sikhism is a religion of workers and householders and preaches dignity of labour,
Make the effort, and you shall live; practicing it, you shall enjoy peace.
Meditating, you shall meet God, O Nanak, and your anxiety shall vanish. ||1||
It forbids renunciation and all types of ascetic practices and accepts householder's life as the forum of all spiritual activities and growth.
It denounces a life of escapism. It treats this world as field of action and regards its renunciation like a soldier running away from the battlefield.
Sikhism like all major religions of the world has some basic theological concepts which are supreme and inviolate:
Belief in the existence of God is the basic theological concept of Sikhism. It is a monotheistic faith and strictly forbids polytheism and henotheism.
It proclaims that there is One Supreme Eternal Reality not of any particular religion, but of all mankind, under whatever name He is remembered: God, Rāma, Jehovah, Waheguru etc., all mean the same.
Sikhism does not believe in the Hindu theory of trinity (Trimurtī) of God: Brahma (The creator) Vishnu (The sustainer), Shiva (The destroyer).
In Sikhism, Iṣṭā or the chosen ideal is God Himself and none of His incarnations or substitutes. It proclaims fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man,
The One God is our father; we are the children of the One God. You are our Guru.
It says, God is Nirguṇa as well Saguṇa, -He is absolute as also Personal Reality.
Dualism of God in heaven and men on earth has no meaning in Sikh thought. It is a faith concerned with the realization of God within us now and here.
He (God) resides in every heart and the so called diversity is an illusion:
Why going thou to the forest in search of God.
He lives in all and is yet distinct. He abides with thee also.
As fragrance dwells in a flower or reflection in a mirror
so doth He (God) dwells inside everything,
seek Him, therefore, in thy-self.
Whoever, through grace, becomes aware of the inner activity of the immanent God as Guru, and responds to that voice in obedience to God's command (hukam), attains spiritual liberation while in body. At death the soul (ātmā or jot) will live in the divine presence, never to be reincarnated.
Sikhism believes that this universe is God's creation and it operates under His order (hukam). Unlike Vedanta (Hinduism), it believes in the reality of God and reality of the world and does not dismiss world out of hand as mere Maya or illusion.
Guru Nanak says,
God is a reality (exists) and his creation is a reality.
It regards the world as house of God and He lives in there.
Sikhism does not agree with the view of Hinduism and Buddhism that human body was impure and must be subjected to ascetic practices, tortuous exercises or to rigorous penances so that its desires were killed and emancipation of the soul attained.
On the contrary it regards the human body as "the temple of the God" worthy of adoration and reverence.
According to Gurbani, Ram (God) resides in human body and the human soul-“ātmā" and "The Supreme Soul-Ram /“Paramātmā" are fundamentally by quality the same.
Sikhism does not believe that life is sinful in origin or that it was evil and source of suffering inherent in it.
On the contrary, it believes that having emerged from a ‘pure source’ was, pure in essence’,
He Himself is True, and all that He has made is True.
The entire creation came from God. (GGS, p.294).
It explicitly rejects the authority of the Vedas and their Brahmin interpreters.
It believes in the doctrine of karma, transmigration, salvation-(Mukti), Heaven, Nāraka (Hell), Hukam (Raza) and Grace, but according to its own philosophy.
It preaches a life of truth, right actions and controlled desire,
“Truth is higher than everything; but higher still is truthful living. ||5||”
It strongly denounces renunciation, asceticism and ritualism. It condemns the escapist life of yogīs, siddhas and sadhus and their way of living on alms.
It believes in sharing all social responsibilities by leading householder’s life, earning one’s living through hard work and sharing it with the needy and less fortunate,
One who works for what he eats, and gives some of what he has
- O Nanak, he knows the Path. ||1|| (GGS, p.1245).
It believes in Ahimsa, but according to its own philosophy, as Guru Gobind Singh says,
“It is righteous to use sword, when all peaceful means fail”, (Guru Gobind Singh).
Among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and radical saints, Ahiṁsā is deemed to be a cardinal virtue and meat eating s a prohibition,
but according to Guru Nanak, only fools argue whether to eat meat or not, who knows where the sin lies, being a vegetarian or non-vegetarian”,
The fools argue about flesh and meat,
but they know nothing about meditation and spiritual wisdom.
What is called meat, and what is called green vegetables?
What leads to sin? (GGS, p.1289).
He further says, “Every food grain that we eat has life in it,”.
He further adds,
First, there is life in the water, by which everything else is made green.,
(GGS, Var Asa M1, p.472).
The use of alcohol (Sharāb) and all other intoxicants is strictly prohibited in Sikhism.
Drinking the wine, his intelligence departs, and madness enters his mind;
He cannot distinguish between his own and others,
and he is struck down by his Lord and Master.
Drinking it, he forgets his Lord and Master,
and he is punished in the Court of the Lord.
Do not drink the false wine at all, if it is in your power.
/GGS, p.554. /
The use of tobacco in any form is a taboo in Sikhism.
Sikhism believes in equality of all human beings. It forbids discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, class, religion and gender and guarantees equal rights/opportunities to all.
It strongly denounces the divisive Hindu caste system (Varṇa Ashram Dharma), which limits one's right to worship, learning (education) and choice of profession.
It grants everyone the right to become a fighter and a priest.
Guru Gobind Singh in Dasam Granth says, -"Treat all mankind alike".
It preaches a secularism, which respects other people's right to be different.
It does not believe in imposing its values on others. It is not a religion of chosen people, but instead it is the religion of entire humanity. It rises above regional barriers,
"The Guru wishes the well- being of all the creation".
Democracy, an important aspect of modem society, is the guiding rule of the Khalsa, which entrusts all decisions to the elected Sikhs (Sangat /Panches / Sarbat Khalsa).
Mythology, hypocrisy and ritualism have no place in Sikhism. It lays on the practice of religious life of inner illumination and not on formalism or ritualism.
It does believe in the Hindu concept of pollution and ritual purification. It does not believe in vegetarianism, sacredness of cow, sacredness of fire (Havan) and sacrifices.
Instead it initiates a moral code distinct from the Hindu ethics among its followers:
It strictly forbids idol (Mūrti) worship, stone (Saligram) worship, grave and tomb worship, picture worship, pilgrimage to the sacred rivers and tanks, worship of sun, moon, earth, trees etc.
It does not believe in notion of auspicious and in-auspicious days, magic, occult powers, superstitions, good and bad omens, Yantras, Mantras, Tantras and ritual practices to appease the deities.
Woman, who was given the most inferior place in the Hinduism, is elevated to the highest hierarchy of human beings in Sikhism and she symbolizes "the principle of eternal creation".
Guru Nanak says,
-"So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.”(GGS, p.473)
It strictly forbids veiling of women, their seclusion from society, slander, burning of widows on the pyre of their dead husbands (Sati) and female infanticide.
Marriage in Sikhism is called 'Anand Karaj', "A blissful union".
It is not regarded as a contract, but an act of socio-spiritual union of two souls,
They are not said to be husband and wife, who merely sit together.
They alone are called husband and wife, who have one light in two bodies. ||3||
Celibacy in Hinduism is regarded as a means to achieve bliss, but Sikhism does not subscribe to this view. Guru Nanak says,
If someone could save himself by celibacy, O Siblings of Destiny,
Why then haven't eunuchs obtained the state of supreme dignity? ||3||
They call themselves celibate, and abandon their homes,
but they do not know the true way of life.
Adultery is a taboo in Sikhism,
But, like the companionship of a poisonous snake,
so is the desire for another's spouse. ||2||
(GGS, Asa M5, p.403).
It is not irreligious to acquire wealth in Sikhism provided it is acquired through honest and fair means and is used not only to derive personal comfort for oneself or one's family but also to give comfort to society also:
"For a religious man, it is not unholy to get wealth,
provided he spends it in God's way and gives and lives in comfort"
‘Wealth is a necessity of life’ (Guru Hargobind).
However, Sikhism is definitely against the exploitive collection of wealth:
Guru Nanak says:
To take what rightfully belongs to another,
is like a Muslim eating pork, or a Hindu eating beef. /GGS, p. 141/
It teaches morality. Guru Nanak says,
If one's clothes are stained with blood, the garment becomes polluted.
Those who suck the blood of human beings-how can their consciousness be pure?
Sikhism preaches spirituality and inculcates love for God, truthful living, universal brotherhood, peaceful co- existence, loyalty,
gratitude for all the favours received, justice, impartiality, honesty, humility, forgiveness, charitableness, self-control, courage, contentment, tolerance and all other moral and domestic virtues known to any holiest man in this world.
It stands for promoting education among masses:
It lays great emphasis on the attainment of knowledge (both, spiritual and temporal) as it dispels the darkness of ignorance. Guru Nanak says,
When the sun rises, the moon is not visible.
Wherever spiritual wisdom appears, ignorance is dispelled. (GGS, p.791).
Sikhism is a religion of hope and optimism with traditions of ever-rising spirits (active optimism). Pessimism has no place in Sikh thought.
Sikh discipline is a conscious effort to live in harmony with nature and carry out the altruistic divine will. It aims at authentic religious life and demands deeper penetration of one's own religion in thought, devotion and action.
It does not believe in religious conversion (Proselytization) through bait or force, but anybody, who likes its ideals, is welcome to embrace it.
The glory of Sikhism is its universality which cannot brook sectarianism or narrow loyalties in any shape or form. It is thus a universal religion having an appeal for all and is most practical in its application. It aims to destroy barriers and to unite all mankind.
In Sri Rag the Guru Says, "The true Guru is one who unites all".
The essence of Sikh faith then is harmony, universal love, truthful living, universal brotherhood, peaceful co-existence, tolerance, humility, honest labour,
complete faith in one Almighty (God) and to resist and fight against social injustice, all kinds of oppression and exploitation.
It is the zenith of eastern spirituality and it is the only indigenous revolutionary philosophy of Indian subcontinent, which took birth in Punjab.
Thus Sikhism and Sikhs form a unique religion and a unique society, which and who can be clearly distinguished from other religions and political societies of the world.