World Religions other than Christianity
A Brief Introduction
The Sikh religion originated in the North West Indian region of Punjab in the 15th century CE. The religion was founded by Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1538), who travelled widely teaching that all are equal before God and of the importance of brotherly love. Sikh means a pupil or disciple.
The Sikh movement was originally designed to seek unity between the best of Hinduism and of Islam but it actually evolved as a distinctive religion and culture.
Guru Nanak was born near Lahore in 1469 and was brought up as a Hindu but taught by a Muslim poet and musician. He learned from both faiths but came to believe that religious ritual was unimportant and unhelpful, as were the endless arguments between Hindus and Muslims. He said:
“There is neither Hindu nor Muslim … I shall follow God’s path”.
“God is everywhere; He has created us all. He who realises this is a true Hindu or Muslim.”
After Guru Nanak there were nine other gurus, who continued to develop the new faith, some contributing to the writings that ultimately became the Sikh scriptures, the Adi Granth. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh (1661-1708), established the Khalsa, the brotherhood of Sikhs, in 1699 CE and decreed that his successor should not be a person, but the Sikh scriptures, thus giving to the Adi Granth the title of Guru – the Guru Granth Sahib.
The Sikh homeland of the Punjab (the land of ‘five streams’, all flowing into the River Indus), where most Sikhs still live, became divided between India and Pakistan at the time of partition and independence in 1947. Lahore, the capital of Punjab is now in Pakistan, while the most important Sikh temple, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, is in India. Some Sikhs believe that there should be a separate Sikh state, Khalistan – the land of the Khalsa (brotherhood/family).
Over the last two centuries various Sikh reform movements have arisen, most of them seeking to re-establish the purity of the religion, especially in response to Christian and Hindu proselytising movements. Best-known among these are the Sant Nirankaris movement and the Singh Sabha movement.
There are about 23 million Sikhs in the world. Many Sikhs continue to live in the Punjab and in other parts of India. Those Sikhs who have moved outside India appear on the whole to have migrated to English speaking areas. About half a million Sikhs now live in Britain (the largest community outside the Indian sub-continent), where there are more than a hundred Sikh temples (gurdwaras). Apart from the sizeable Sikh community in Britain, other settled communities can be found in places like North America, Australia and New Zealand, with relatively small numbers in various Western European countries.
Sikhs believe in one God and do not worship idols. They believe in remembering God at all times, earning their own livelihood and sharing what they have with others.
Sikhs believe that the soul goes through cycles of birth and rebirth and that to stop this they should lead lives of caring and service to others, so as to move towards unity with God.
Sikhs pray daily and wear five symbols known as the five Ks (panj kakkar in Punjabi). These are important symbols of belonging to the Sikh family, the Khalsa (which means ‘the pure ones’).
The five Ks are:
- Kesh (uncut hair). Sikhs do not cut their hair or their beards. Men wash their hair regularly, and tie it up in a knot and cover it with a turban to keep it clean. This is a sign of living in harmony with the will of God.
- Kanga(comb). This is used to keep the hair tidy and is an indication of order and self-discipline.
- Kirpan (sword). A short sword (about 15cm) indicates that Sikhs should be willing to uphold truth and justice. This is regarded as a defensive weapon and should not be used offensively.
- Kaccha (shorts). A practical and hygienic alternative to traditional Indian dress, indicating modesty and chastity. In India they may be worn for working on the land, but in colder climates they are worn as an undergarment.
- Kara (bracelet). An iron or steel bracelet worn on the right wrist is a symbol of eternity and of the unity and oneness of God.
The Sikh symbol (the Khanda) combines a number of symbols that represent basic Sikh beliefs – unity, the power of truth and the need to defend the faith.
Teenage Sikhs over 14 years of age, male and female alike, can choose to be initiated into the Sikh Khalsa, by means of a special Amrit ceremony – sometimes called Sikh baptism. It is a moment of commitment to the Sikh way of life, reminding Sikhs of the initiation of the panj piare, the first five Sikhs to be initiated by Guru Gobind Singh. To show that they are members of the Khalsa male Sikhs all take the name Singh (which means lion) and women take the name Kaur (princess). Members of the Khalsa are forbidden to take alcohol or tobacco or to eat meat killed according to the Muslim manner (i.e. by bleeding).
The tenth and last of the living Gurus, Gobind Singh, did not elect a human successor but instead decreed that the scriptures would be the permanent future guide of all Sikhs. Thus the collected scriptures of the Sikh faith, the Adi Granth (which means ‘the first word’), was to be known as the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs treat the book with great reverence, both in worship and when it is not being read.
The scriptures include many hymns and poems, some of them by Guru Nanak (written down by the second Guru, Angad). Also included are many writings by Muslims and Hindus – a mark of the respect shown by Sikhs for other religions.
Sikhs regard the Guru Granth Sahib as the living voice of God. At its very beginning there is a thirty-eight verse hymn by Guru Nanak, the Japji. The first verse is known as the Mul Mantra, which sums up Sikh beliefs and is used regularly in prayers:
There is one God
Eternal Truth is his name
Maker of all things
Fearing nothing and hating nothing
Immortal, unborn, self-existent
By the grace of the Guru, made known to men.
Most Sikhs go to the temple, known as a gurdwara, to worship. It is an important meeting place for the community, with rooms for discussion and children’s classes and a community kitchen and dining room called a langar. There is no special day of worship and people may go to the gurdwara at any time.
Gurdwara means “the door to the Guru”. Many gurdwaras are open all day and night and hospitality is offered to people of all religions. The langar meal is vegetarian so that people of all religions can eat together. It is paid for by contributions from members of the Sikh community.
On entering the prayer hall in the gurdwara people remove their shoes and cover their heads. Everyone sits on the floor, as a sign of equality, usually with men and women on different sides. The focal point is the rakht (a raised platform or dais with a canopy above it) from where the Guru Granth Sahib is read.
The most important part of Sikh worship is the reading of the scriptures – the Guru Granth Sahib. When the Guru Granth Sahib is carried (held above the head as sign of respect) into the prayer hall everyone stands and then bows before sitting down. When it is not being read it is covered by a highly decorated cloth. During reading the reader holds a chauri – a fan made of yak hair which is moved from time to time over the holy book. At night the Guru Granth Sahib is placed in a special room and laid in a canopied bed with the respect that would be shown to a living Guru.
There are no priests in the Sikh religion. Any man or woman may read from the Guru Granth Sahib, although they may receive special training to become readers or Granthis.
Sikh worship does not follow a set form and involves the singing of hymns and listening to the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. After final prayers karah parshad (a mixture of flour, sugar, butter and water) is shared. On special occasions the whole of the Guru Granth Sahib may be read continuously, taking about 48 hours.
Around the prayer hall (the diwan hall) there are usually pictures of the first and last Gurus (Nanak and Gobind Singh). Most gurdwaras fly the Sikh flag (the Nishan Sahib) outside – an orange flag with the Khanda symbol in the middle – to represent the unity of all Sikhs.
Sikhs may also worship at home if they have a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs observe several gurpurbs (holidays) and melas (celebrations and fairs). Gurpurbs mark special events (such as birthdays or martyrdoms) in the lives of the Gurus, and are celebrated with prayers, processions and the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib.
The best known of the Sikh festivals are:
Baisakhi – an ancient Punjabi harvest festival and now the New Year mela (April) celebrating the establishment of Sikhism and the founding of the Khalsa in 1699. There are street processions, games, dances, sports; new clothes are worn; flags are replaced and the flagpoles washed. (It is sometimes spelt in English as Vaisakhi.)
The Birthday of Guru Nanak (October/November) – three days of celebrations, beginning with the continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Other Sikh festivals include:
- The Birthday of Guru Gobind Singh (December/January);
- The Martyrdom of the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev Ji (May/June);
- The Martyrdom of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur (November/December);
- Hola Mohalla – a local festival in Anandpur in the Punjab, falling the day after the Hindu festival of Holi – a day of mock battles, poetry, music and lectures; and
- Diwali – for Sikhs this celebrates the release of the sixth Guru, Har Gobind, from imprisonment in Delhi.
Diwali is a festival of lights in Sikhism as well as in Hinduism. When Guru Har Gobind was released the Golden Temple at Amritsar was illuminated by many lights and today lights are lit outside gurdwaras and sweets are given out. The Golden Temple continues to be a focal point for this occasion, with thousands of lights.
Some Sikh communities follow the lunar Bikrami calendar, while others, especially those based in the West, follow the new Nanakshahi calendar which standardises dates according to the Western system to ensure that they fall on the same date each year.
Sikhs in Northern Ireland
There have been Sikhs in Northern Ireland since the late 1920s – many of them former members of the British Army. The small community in Northern Ireland is mostly based in or near the city of Derry/Londonderry, where a gurdwara and a Sikh Cultural and Community Centre is based in a former church school building. A few other families are based elsewhere in the province, and in recent years a small community has grown up in North Belfast where there is also a small gurdwara.
- Cole, W. O. (2003) Teach Yourself Sikhism, London: Hodder Headline/Teach Yourself
The following dating system has been used:
- BCE: Before the Common Era;
- CE: Common Era.