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Founded in northern India in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, followers of Sikhism believe in one God, rejecting idol worship and the caste system. Now based in India and Pakistan, Sikhism blends Hindu traditions with Islamic monotheistic traditions. Adherents to Sikhism are known as Sikhs.



Feature Article

Who Are the Sikhs?


As religions go, Sikhism is a relatively new one, its founding dating from the fifteenth century. The religion was centered in northwest India, a part of the world where Hindus and Muslims had lived side by side for four centuries, always in tension and sometimes in open conflict. Sikhism drew from both religions but developed a character of its own.

While Sikhism is a syncretic religion, it is not the result of a simple reworking of Hinduism and Islam. Rather, Sikhs believe that God appeared to Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, charging him with the mission of redeeming a divided world.

The ground had already been prepared for Nanak by men who had seen the need for a new religion, but had concentrated their efforts on reforming Hinduism, which they believed to have become decadent.

Known in India as Musulmans, the Muslims had reached India by the eighth century, and came to hold enormous power, dominating all of northwest India by the eleventh century, and had extended their reach to all of India.

A Hindu sect was established in the fourteenth century, by a reformer named Rmananda, which rejected the Hindu caste system, as well as its prohibitions against eating meat. His disciple, Kabir, had even more influence on local religions. Raised by Muslims, he hated idols, and did not believe that God could live in an image of stone. He rejected many of the external forms of religion, such as the rituals, pilgrimages, and baths in the Ganges, unless they were accompanied by inward morality.

Nanak was born in 1469 to Hindu parents of the mercantile caste known as Khatri, but they were low on the economic scale, his father being an accountant and farmer. He was raised in the village of Talwandi, which was governed by a Hindu who had been converted to Islam, but remained tolerant of Hindus. Growing up in an area that contained both Muslims and Hindus, Nanak was familiar with both faiths.

After God assigned him the task of creating a new religion, he went about it enthusiastically, spending years touring north and west India, gathering disciples and spreading the message. When he died in 1858, at the age of sixty-nine, tradition has it that Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims all gathered to mourn him.

What was the religion that he created? What do the Sikhs believe, and how do they practice their faith?

Despite the blending of two very different faiths, Sikh doctrine is not complex. It involved the adherence to one God, who Nanak referred to as the True Name. He believed that the True Name is manifest in many ways, and other many names, but that he was eternally one, the omnipotent God.

Nanak incorporated the Hindu doctrine of maya, but did not give it the connotation of pure illusion, teaching instead that material objects, although they exist in reality, may build up a wall of falsehood. God, he believed, created matter as a veil about himself that only spiritual minds could penetrate. God was the true creator, not maya. Like the Sufi Muslims, Sikhism emphasizes that God dwells within the world, as well as in the human heart.

In his teachings, Nanak denounced both Hindus and Muslims for practicing the forms of worship without truly thinking about God. He viewed religious rituals as a distraction from true worship.

He also held that Sikhs had a social mission to perform, and one that should be extended to everyone in the community, regardless of their class, society, or religion. He criticized the Hindus for running away from the problems of the world, and the Muslims for confining themselves to the duties and rituals associated with the mosques, and for their intolerance toward non-Muslims.

The creed that Nanak subscribed to was entirely peaceful and conciliatory. He believed that a good Sikh must accept others without regard to caste, to avoid arrogance or quarrelsome topics, and to be respectful of others.

Upon the death of Nanak, he was succeeded by nine gurus. The first four followed, essentially, the teachings of Nanak. The fifth guru, Guru Arjan, began a transition that became more militant. Largely, this was due to changes in the attitudes of Muslim authorities.

Arjan also compiled the Adi Granth, which became the Sikh Bible. In this work, he brought together the devotional hymns that were used by Sikhs in worship, along with many of his own composition, and some that had been composed by the second, third and fourth gurus.

Guru Arjan was charged by the Muslim authorities with political conspiracy, and tortured to death. Before he died however, Arjan appointed his son, Har Govind, to sit on his throne, with an injunction that he maintain an army. Guru Har Govind also began carrying a sword. He refused to wear the turban and necklace that had been worn by his predecessors, viewing them as being reminiscent of pacifism. Instead, he wore a turban adorned with a royal aigrette.

Guru Har Govind was arrested by the same Muslim ruler who had ordered the death of his father but, after the death of the ruler, he was released upon payment of a fine. The next three gurus continued the practice of maintaining a defensive militarism.

The tenth guru, originally called Guru Govind Rai, became better known as Guru Govind Singh. While continuing the militarism of his more recent predecessors, he also composed songs, many of which had a militant theme, compiling them into the Dasam Granth, which was also known as The Granth of the Tenth Guru, and also made a supplement to the Adi Granth.

Guru Govind Rai began was became known as the Order of Singhs, within the larger religion of Sikhism. Members of the Order were required to wear the Five K's:

  1. the Kesh, which referred to long, uncut  hair on the head and chin;
  2. the Kangha, which is a small comb;
  3. the Kachh, or short drawers;
  4. the Kara, a steel bracelet; and
  5. the Kirpan, a sword.

Members of the Order of Singhs also vowed to rise before dawn each day and bathe in cold water, followed by meditation and prayer. They gave up the use of all stimulants, alcohol, and tobacco. They were encouraged to begin eating meat, as long as it was slain by a single stroke of a sword.

Guru Govind also became a Singh, after which he became known as Guru Govind Singh. He opened the Order to men of every class, regardless of caste.

Not all Sikhs became Singhs. Some remained Nanakpanthis, who practiced various degrees of pacifism and remained skeptical of the militarism of the Singhs.

Guru Singh lost all four of his sons to struggles with the Muslims, two in battle and two by execution, and he was himself assassinated by a Muslim in 1708. He had provided for this event, however. After the death of his sons, he proclaimed that after his death, Sikhs were to regard the Granth as their guru, declaring that there was no need of any leadership other than the teachings of the holy book. This is the practice that has been continued by the Sikhs since that time.

Following the death of their last guru, the Sikhs won many battles, and came to dominate the entire Punjab. When the British came in 1845 and 1848, they put up a fight, but Maharajah Dhulip, the last Sikh ruler, eventually surrendered in 1849.

Having pledged their loyalty to Britain, at the time of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Singhs fought on the side of Britain. When the British left in 1947, the division into India and Pakistan was tragic for the Sikhs, as half of them found themselves in Pakistan, where violence shortly broke out between them and the Muslim majority. Many Sikhs fled Pakistan, trading the farms they had in Pakistan for much smaller homesteads in India. Even worse, they lost their holy places in Pakistan, including the birthplace of Nanak.

Today, most Sikhs remain in India, where they make up roughly seventy percent of the population of Punjab, the only region where they are in the majority. Zail Singh, a Sikh, was elected president of India in 1982, serving until 1987, but the Sikhs have otherwise played a minority role politically.

Some Sikhs have demanded political independence, and militant Sikhs were responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Interestingly, while sentencing the three assassins, the Delhi High Court stated that the crime had been motivated by "the highest and noblest impulses - loyalty to one's religion."

Not all Sikhs are in favor of political independence from India, but the violence that has continued in that country has included militant Sikhs.

Other Sikhs have immigrated to East Africa, the Far East, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Sikhs wear turbans, which differ considerably from the head coverings worn by Muslims, although they are often mistaken for Muslims in Western countries.

Sikhs do not actively seek converts, so they have remained ethnically homogenous, although the faith does include some non-Indian adherents, mostly in New Mexico and California.

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