The term “Sikh” comes from the Sanskrit word shishya meaning disciple, learner, a seeker of truth.
Founders: Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539) and nine successive gurus until 1708.
Central Shrine: The Golden Temple in the Pool of Immortality at Amritsar, in the Punjab region of India. The leader of the Golden Temple is the final arbiter in doctrinal and ritual matters for all Sikhs.
Adherents: Worldwide: Estimated 12-15 million, mostly in Punjab region of India. United States: Estimated 250,000 in 50 gurdwaras, or worship and community centers (1993).
The Atlanta, Georgia, gurdwara is located near Stone Mountain. The largest Sikh ashram (spiritual center) in the U.S. is located in Espanola, New Mexico. The U.S. head-quarters of the Sikh Dharma is Los Angeles. The Sikh faith arrived in the USA over 150 years ago.
Male Sikhs take the name “Singh,” which means “lion,” while female Sikhs take the name “Kaur,” which means “princess.” Male Sikhs are recognized by their beards and turbans.
Major U.S. Leader: Yogi Bhajan (Singh Sahib), born 1929. Yogi Bhajan has promoted the teachings in A Course in Miracles, a “channeled” book popular among New Age adherents, for many years.
Scripture: Adi Granth (or Guru Granth Sahib). The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji proclaimed the Granth Sahib, with 5,894 verses on 1,430 pages, the last Guru, hence its name. It is believed to be the only “authentic universal holy scripture.” The Granth is the central object of worship and ritual for Sikhs.
Beginnings: Sikhism arose in India in the late fifteenth century during a period of religious turmoil and struggle between militant Muslims and ascetic Hindus. Sikhs deny their faith is a blend or reproduction of earlier religions, insisting it is a new revelation from the One Supreme God. However, most scholars see Sikhism as a “middle-way” between militant Islam and ascetic Hinduism.
A number of sects has arisen over the years within Sikhism. Some Sikhs may identify more with one Guru than another, or differ on the color or length of their garments, or the necessity of shaving the face or cutting the hair.
Sikhs participated in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Illinois.
Teachings of Sikhism
Mool Mantar: The Mool Mantar (literally “the root verse”) is a hymn composed by Guru Nanak and sums up the basic beliefs of Sikhs. It is the first verse in the Guru Granth Sahib. Every Sikh is expected to recite it each day. Its English translation is:
There is only one God
His Name is Eternal Truth
He is the Creator of all
He is without fear
He is without hate
He is beyond time
His spirit pervades the Universe
He is beyond birth and death
He is self-existent
He is realized (known) by the Guru’s grace.
God: Sikhism adopted the Muslim teaching that God is the One Supreme Being and Creator. “Like Thee there is no other. Thou art in all ages the only One.” Nanak used the Arabic word for God, Allah, as well as the names of Hindu deities. The chief name for God in Sikhism is “Sat nam,” meaning “True Name.” Sikhism, like Islam, uses impersonal terms to describe God and defines God as Truth or Reality. He is infinite and formless. God is both Personal and Impersonal. He is beyond human reach until He reveals Himself through creation.
The Mool Mantar teaches that God is also supreme, omnipresent, and beyond birth and death. Sikhism teaches that God cannot assume any physical form or be incarnated in human form, but manifested his attributes in the ten Gurus. God is unknowable except through the Gurus.
Gurus: Gurus in Sikhism are enlighteners and messengers. They appear in human form when necessary. Their goal is to free people’s minds from bigotry and superstition, dogmas and rituals, so they can be one with God.
Gurus are servants of God and must not be worshipped.
Mankind: Mankind is the epitome of God’s creation. Although separated from God, mankind has the conscious awareness to reach the desired spiritual goal. Through the Granth Sahib, mankind can escape maya (materialism) and arrive at the ultimate destination which is absolute, uninterrupted bliss.
Sikhism rejects the resurrection of the body. Instead, the soul is reincarnated through various lower species (8.4 million times) before reaching the human level. Karma, the Hindu teaching of the law of cause and effect, continually operates on the soul and determines whether the human advances or falls back in the cycles of birth and rebirth. Liberation from the cycles of birth and death can take place while in the body as a result of a sincere eagerness to serve God.
Sikhs practice a form of baptism to become Khalsa (“pure ones”). Water is stirred with a double-edged sword, symbolizing courage and heroism, to which sugar-puffs, symbolizing humility, has been added.
The Sikh Code of Discipline: A Sikh is supposed to avoid the five primary sins of lust, pride, anger, greed and undue worldly attachment. Adultery is forbidden. All women (other than a wife) are to be treated as a mother, sister, or daughter.
Sikhism rejects the dietary restrictions of Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, barring only foods that “disturbs the mental and bodily tranquility.” Followers are forbidden to use intoxicants, including tobacco and alcohol.
Trimming, shaving or removing hair from the body is all forbidden in the Sikh code of discipline, however, not all Sikhs follow the code.
Salvation: Sikhism teaches there are many different paths to God, the destination of all religions. Salvation is seen as a union with or absorption into God, rather than communion with Him while retaining individual identity.
In Sikhism, singing or reciting the names of God are superior forms of meditation designed to lead the consciousness into the presence of God. The solution to the human predicament is to become God-centered. Sikhs practice bhakti (love or devotion to God) which was borrowed from Hindu yoga of the same name. As long as the Sikh follows the Five Ks and the Sikh code of discipline, he will win glory. Indifference to these requirements will hamper his progress.
The Granth speaks of heaven and hell as well as God’s kindness and grace to those who worship Him. Some Sikhs may refer to a Sikh paradise using the Buddhist term Nirvana.
The Five Ks: The five sacred Sikh symbols are commonly known as the “Five Ks” because they start with the letter K representing kakka in the Punjabi language. Both men and women wear the Five Ks. They are:
Kes or unshorn hair, regarded as a symbol of saintliness and spirituality and as living in harmony with the will of God. Cutting hair is taboo for the Sikh, but is not rigidly followed by all Sikhs.
Kangha or the comb is necessary to keep the hair clean and neat. A Sikh is supposed to comb his hair twice daily and tie his turban neatly. Turbans are worn as protection for the hair, and for social identity and cohesion.
Kara or a steel wrist band symbolizes restraint from evil deeds. It is worn on the right wrist to remind the Sikh of the vows taken not to do anything which would bring shame or disgrace on himself or his faith. The Kara also reminds the Sikh that he/she is a servant of God.
Kacch (from which the English word “khaki” comes) or soldier’s shorts must be worn at all times. The cotton shorts remind the Sikh of his/her commitment to chastity and procreation.
Kirpan or sword is the symbol of courage and self-defense, and reminds the Sikh of his commitment to defend the poor, the weak and the innocent. Although pacifist in theory, Sikhism teaches, “When all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword.”
The Five Ks and the turban constitute the Sikh uniform, and are a reminder of vows made at the time of baptism and a testimony of his/her faith as a Sikh.
Worship: Sikhism is a corporate faith emphasizing the Granth Sahib. Worship consists of the singing of hymns, reading from the Granth Sahib and sermons. There is very little formal liturgy and no taking of “sacraments” in Sikhism. There is no regular or weekly holy day, although some gurdwaras emphasize the first day of the lunar month.
Sikh festivals include anniversaries associated with the births or deaths of the Gurus.
The Sikh symbol (Khanda): There are three symbols in the khanda. The two-edged sword symbolizes God’s concern for truth and justice; the two outer swords symbolize God’s spiritual and temporal power, and the circle represents the unity of God.
Conclusion: Sikhs are a small minority in India and have experienced governmental, economic, and religious discrimination at the hands of the Hindu majority. In June 1984, 38 Sikh temples, including the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines, were attacked by Hindus. Since that attack, Sikhs claim over 110,000 followers have been killed by government forces, while thousands of Sikhs have been jailed. On 7 October 1987, Sikhs in the Punjab region declared independence and formed the separate country of Khalistan. Their effort has not been recognized by India or the rest of the world.
Gary Leazeris the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc. He received a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College, and a master’s of divinity and doctorate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of research have been the New Age Movement, the occult, sects and the world religions. He served on the staff of the Home Mission Board’s Interfaith Witness Department for 14 years.
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