The Background of Sikhism

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Words: 2898 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Nov 8, 2019

Words: 2898|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Nov 8, 2019

Sikhism began to arise in a period of tension between Muslims and Hindus in India in the sixth century A.D. The Moguls had conquered India and brought Islam with them, and some people sought to establish harmony between the two religions based on the concept that God goes beyond any limitations placed on him by any religion (Corduan, 2006).It was in this context that Guru Nanak was born in Punjab, an area of India that was half-Muslim and half-Hindu and through which outer powers fought their way into and out of India (Fisher, 2014). Guru Nanak himself had a Hindu father and a Muslim mother, leading him to combine a lot of Hindu and Muslim beliefs and practices so much so that his slogan became, “There is no Hindu and there is no Muslim” (Corduan, 2006). Upon immersion in water for three days, during which he was taken into the presence of God, Guru Nanak began travelling through India, the Himalayas, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Arabia, mocking certain religious practices of both Hinduism and Islam and encouraging other religious practices of both Islam and Hinduism (Fisher, 2014).

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When Guru Nanak died, he designated his servant as his successor, which the community of those who chose to follow Guru Nanak accepted him as the next guru. Over the next two centuries, there were many developments that shaped the Sikh religion. The Sikh community grew and established its headquarters in Amritsar. The Sikh community transitioned between ten gurus, each making important contributions, one of the major of these being that of the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev, who collected the hymns and chants written by all the gurus, including himself, and issued this as the “exalted book,” the Adi Granth, or the Guru Granth Sahib (Corduan, 2006).

Arjan Dev’s son, Hargobind, then began a policy of building a military side to Sikhism, thus putting a hold to the focus on peace to focus on war and battle, which was completed by the tenth guru, Gobind Rai. This policy continued to spur the Sikh community into warfare, generally working with the British against Muslim and Hindu majorities. In the midst of all of this conflict, the Punjab came under heavy attack as a mid-ground between two new states, suffering heaving losses for the Sikhs. This led to independence movements working for the establishment of a new state, Khalistan. Through this, in an overthrow of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, many Sikhs were killed, and greater animosity grew between Hindus and Sikhs (Corduan, 2006).

With all of this involvement in conflict, there are approximately 27 million Sikhs in the world. Out of these 27 million, 83% live in India, approximately 21 million of which live in Punjab. Outside of India, Sikhs can essentially be found all around the world, typically tending to migrate to Southeast Asia and English-speaking nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Other centers for Sikhism around the world include Italy, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Fiji, New Zealand, and Ireland (Oxford Sikhs, 2008).

With constant changing and shifting taking place in Sikhism, it is to no surprise that there is no priesthood, centralized “church,” or attendant religious hierarchy. However, in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh chose five Sikhs who had proven themselves loyal to receive his authority and to become responsible for conducting initiation ceremonies. Guru Gobind Singh also conferred his spiritual authority upon the scripture and the community when he died, both of which then provided cohesive ideals for the evolution of the Sikh community. In 1925, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee came into being as an elected body to manage shrines in the Punjab. Because this was a democratic institution, it became the authoritative voice of the Sikh community for religious and political affairs. Gurdwaras in the Sikh communities have their own managing committees and each congregation is a democratic community. Each gurdwara has an official granthi who is responsible for conducting its regular rituals, but because there are no priests, lay people volunteer for the various functions (Riggs, 2006).

The definition of God can be found in the opening sentence of Guru Granth Sahib, proclaiming that there is one God, without an equal, who is the Eternal Truth, the Creator, the All-Pervading Divine Spirit, unfearful, without hate, immortal entity, unborn, self-existent, realized by his own grace, true before creation, true in the beginning of the creation, true now, and will be true forever. God is concealed in every heart. God is both impersonal and personal. Impersonal God is formless and beyond human reach, but when he reveals himself through creation, he becomes personal. God is beyond all description and understanding and self-radiant, shining his own splendor (Sikh Missionary Center, 1990). God pervades his creation and is timeless. He is without fear and enmity, does not come in the womb, faultless, flawless, light, good, holy, beautiful, almighty, omnipresent, omniscient, the primal cause, the essence, beyond cognizance, above all, all-pervasive, everlasting, and the parent or father of all (Kohli, 1976).

God is understood as one who “protects His saints and devotees from dangers, unless He wills that their sufferings and martyrdom should serve a higher purpose” (Sikh Missionary Center, 1990). Many saints have prayed for aid in the midst of danger and received help from God. Guru Nanak explains that a sinner without any protection can surrender to God and become pure, being blessed by his grace, this act of redemption of repentant sinners being a huge characteristic of God. The Sikh Missionary Center explains very succinctly the purpose of human life:

The purpose of human life in Sikhism is not to attain paradise or Swarga of the popular Hindu conception, but to seek God, and be united with Him. The ultimate goal of Sikh religion is to merge with the Supreme Soul and then enjoy the Uninterrupted Bliss forever. A Sikh aspires for spiritual union with the Lord – a state of Bliss. Human life is an opportunity to attain that goal, if it is missed, a person falls back in the cycle of birth and rebirth. (1990)

The Sikh Missionary Center also does a lot to explain what Guru Nanak had to say about what it takes to achieve salvation. Guru Nanak explains that because the human life is only attained after passing through numerous lives, it has compiles impurities from every life it has passed through. Therefore, the human mind cannot merge with God, who is absolutely pure, while it is impure. So as the mind becomes pure through praise and prayer to God, the soul will merge with God (Sikh Missionary Center, 1990).

The Adi Granth is the authoritative scripture of Sikhism. It was compiled and edited by the fifth guru, Guru Arjan and is 1,430 pages in Gurumukhi script, containing songs of the Sikh gurus and 36 Hindu and Muslim saints (Kohli, 1976). It is divided into three major sections: three liturgical prayers, 31 major ragas, or Indian musical patterns, and an epilogue consisting of miscellaneous works that could not be placed in the middle section (Riggs, 2006). The language of this scripture is Sant-Bhasa, which was used by medieval saints throughout India, but varying from region to region due to differing dialects. One can also find songs in “Marathi, Persian, and a mixture of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Aphabhramsa called Sahaskriti” (Kohli, 1976).Within the Adi Granth, one can find the Sikh beliefs concerning the conception of God, the attributes of God, the unity of God, the name of God, creation, the soul, the body, the mind and intellect, the necessity of a true Guru, and the doctrines of karma, grace, transmigration, devotion, nirvana, satsang, and spiritual stages (Kohli, 1976).

Other sacred collections, held to be true but not as authoritative as the Adi Granth, include the Dasam Granth, the works of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal Goya, and a final category, which consists of three distinct genres: the janam-sakhis, the rahit-namas, and the gur-bilas. The Dasam Granth, or the Book of the 10th Guru includes the writings of the 10th Guru and some writings of other Gurus consists of four major types of compositions: devotional texts, autobiographical works, miscellaneous writings, and a collection of mythical narratives and popular anecdotes. Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal Goya were two early Sikhs who compiled works that are approved in the Sikh Code of Conduct for singing in the gurdwaras. The janam-sakhis are the birth narratives and contain accounts of Guru Nanak’s life. The rahit-namas are the manuals of code of conduct and provide insight into the evolving nature of the Khalsa code. The final genre is the gur-bilas, which is the pleasure of the Guru and mainly focuses on the mighty deeds of two warrior Gurus, Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh (Riggs, 2006).

There are a lot of celebrations that take place in the Sikh religion. There is a celebration for the birth, day of becoming a guru, and day of death of each of the ten gurus, as well as the first installation of the Adi Granth, its recognition as guru, and, most importantly, the creation of the Khalsa (Corduan, 2006). On top of that, other festival celebrated by Sikhs include Divali and Hola Mahalla. The inauguration of the Khalsa, or Baisakhi, is celebrated as New Year’s Day in India, the grain harvest festival by Punjabis, and the birthday of the community (Riggs, 2006). Baisakhi is celebrated in by continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, community prayer, kirtan, special langar, displays of martial arts, adept swordplay, and initiation of new Khalsa members (Fisher, 2014). The celebrations of the births and deaths of the gurus, also called Gurpurbs, are celebrated with “unbroken reading” of the Sikh scripture by a relay of readers over approximately 48 hours. Divali is celebrated to mark the release of Guru Hargobind, who had been imprisoned under the Mughal emperor Jahangir, by illuminating the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. Hola Mahalla was introduced by Guru Gobind Singh for the purpose of military exercises and organized athletic and literary contests (Riggs, 2006).

Apart from the bigger temples, such as the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi, Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, are generally plain buildings on the inside and the outside. They will typically have a domed roof, and the Sikh insignia proudly displayed. Bigger gurdwaras will also have shallow pools containing water with purifying value. They consist of simply carpeted floor, an altar on which the Adi Granth lies during the day under a canopy, and a bed for the Granth at night. Gurdwaras will typically have a kitchen and dining area and some North American gurdwaras will have tables and chairs, although the typical tradition is to sit on the floor (Corduan, 2006).

Within the Sikh faith, there are two major symbols that encompass the ideals of the faith. The first symbol is the khanda. This represents the Sikh faith to the outside world. In the center of the symbol is the actual khanda, or double-edged sword, with the chakkar, or circular throwing weapon, around it and two kirpans, or ceremonial swords, on each side representing the spiritual and political dimensions of the Sikh community. The second symbol refers to the unity of God, with a symbol looking like the Western numeral 9, meaning 1, and another symbol meaning “the only one.” Literally understood, this symbol means that God is the “one and only one,” or “Ekankar” in Punjabi (Corduan, 2006).

Other major symbols, found in the Sikh Rahit Maryada, or the Sikh Code of Conduct, are the five Ks, or the Panj kakke, which are to be worn. Riggs explains the five Ks to be:

Unshorn hair, symbolizing spirituality and saintliness; a wooden comb, signifying order and discipline in life; a sword, symbolizing divine grace, dignity, and courage; a steel “wrist-ring”, signifying responsibility and allegiance to the Guru; and a pair of short breeches, symbolizing moral restraint. (Riggs, 2006).

These are the outer symbols of the divine word, thus making them dressed in the word of God. This means that their minds are purified and their bodies are ready to battle temptations (Riggs, 2006).

Sacred practices in Sikhism include “hours of daily prayer, continual inner repetition of the name of God, and detachment from negative, worldly mind-states” (Fisher, 2014). Apart from this, Sikhs also enjoy coming together for worship to engage in community, fellowship, and affirming one another. There are prayer services held multiple times a day, starting very early in the morning, consisting primarily of the chanting of passages from the Adi Granth with various instruments playing in the background, along with a leading member of the community behind the altar, waving away physical and spiritual impurities from the Adi Granth, and ending with everyone receiving a sweet made of nuts and honey. This all concludes with a communal meal shared with everyone, regardless of social or economic standing (Corduan, 2006).

“Sikhism’s major focus is loving devotion to one God, whom Sikhs recognize as the same One who is worshiped by many different names around the world” (Fisher, 2014). Because of this Sikhism does not claim to have the only path to God and does not try to convert others to its way. Sikhism is pledged to protect the freedom of all religions, but oppose empty rituals. All people are to be treated equally since God’s light dwells in all. Sikhism also believes in a series of lives, with karma governing transmigration of the soul into new bodies (Fisher, 2014).

Other major beliefs held in Sikhism include grace, karma, transmigration, bhakti, nirvana, satsung, and spiritual stages. Although there is emphasis on karma, Sikhs recognize that final union with God can only be obtained by his grace. Karma is both good and bad, good karma coming about by doing good works and bringing appreciation in this world and in the presence of the Lord and bad karma leading toward misery. Both kinds of karma are done according to the will of God and everyone is destined from the beginning for certain karmas. Whatever one did in a previous life makes his present life because the soul is tied by karmas (Kohli, 1967).

This leads to the idea of transmigration, the cycle of births and deaths, which is caused by the influence of the ego and does not end until the attainment of the name of the Lord. There is virtue and sin and heaven and hell, but the bhakta of the Lord has no desire for heaven nor fear of hell, for he is above virtue and sin, and thus heaven and hell, and seeks to break free of transmigration and remain at the feet of the Lord for all time. The bhakti are those devoted to the Lord through listening, singing praises, remembering, worship of feet, offerings, prayer, humility, friendship, and sacrifice of self (Kohli, 1967).

Very few Sikhs reach nirvana, even of the bhakti. Nirvana, also known as the fourth state is attained only by those who rise above the first three states: waking experience, dream state, and dreamless sleep. Nirvana is only attained through the grace of the Guru and karma does not help in the attainment of this state. One who achieves this state rises above the worldly plane, is never sleepy or hungry, and is always imbued with the nectar of the name of the Lord. Among those who may achieve nirvana is the satsung, or the saints in whose company a devotee can rise high in the spiritual sphere, who speak only about the name of the Lord, and who are attuned with God, always live in his presence, and receive his grace (Kohli, 1967).

Both Christianity believe in one God who is infinitely powerful and beyond human comprehension, and indeed both Christians and Sikhs have a similar view of God as both impersonal and personal in that they believe that God is beyond reach, but also close to those who call upon his name. In both faiths, he is beyond time and space, however Christianity differs in that God took on the form of one who is in time and space, making him more personal than any Sikh understanding of God could make him.

Both Sikhism and Christianity also agree upon the fact that God is full of grace. However, this means slightly different things for Christians and for Sikhs. Christians believe in grace as only God reaching out to humanity and out of that flowing human actions of good for God and stemming from an act of belief that Jesus Christ has given this grace. In contrast, Sikhs believe in a grace that goes hand in hand with their karma and actions and there is a certain point at which karma plays no part in this grace at which the person must simply hope that they may receive this grace.

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Sikhism and Christianity also contrast in the fact that Christians believe in a person living one life, whereas Sikhs believe in the reincarnation of multiple lives. However, they do agree upon an enduring soul in each person, in which the Spirit of God dwells eternally. Both Sikhs and Christians also share the importance and power of prayer, the recitation and understanding of scriptures, singing praise, offerings, humility, community, and the sacrifice of self for others. In the end, both Sikhism and Christianity believe in loving devotion to one God, whom they will be in the presence of for all eternity.

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The Background of Sikhism. (2019, September 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
“The Background of Sikhism.” GradesFixer, 13 Sept. 2019,
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