FOUNDING OF THE FAITH
The Sikh faith originated in South Asia. Guru Nanak [1469-1539], founder of the faith was born at Talwandi, now in Pakistan. He showed early inclination for search of truth and was deeply distressed by the divide between religious precepts and practice and questioned ritualism shorn of deeper commitment as a path for deliverance. His first pronouncement after he said he was called into Divine presence and given his mission, was – there is no Hindu and no Musalman – they are all the children of one God.
He spent over twenty years traveling far and wide to Bengal, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Iraq, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Tibet and in between spreading his message of love and prayer. His first missionary was to cover the entire Punjab and east to Assam, down to India’s east coast in Orrissa and back. The second missionary covered south to Sri Lanka, west to Dwarka and back. His third missionary was to Kashmir, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Uttarkhand and the fourth to Surat, Aden, Jeddah, Mecca, Madina, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Damascus, Istanbul, Azerbaijan, Teheran, Isfahan, Balkh, Bukhara, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Kandhar, Ghazni, Mazar I Sharif, Kabul, Peshawar and back. In his final years he founded a fraternity of faith, charity, equality, affirmation, trust, mutual help and service at a place he named Kartarpur, the abode of God.
Angad installed as Guru by Nanak five days before his passing moved to Khadur and continued his ministry. He modified the existing Punjabi script, now named Gurmukhi, in which the Sikh scripture is written and wrote an account of Nanak’s life – the first work in prose in Gurmukhi and also started children’s education programs and sporting activity for the youth. The third Guru, Amardas succeeded Angad in 1552 and moved his ministry to Goindwal. He created 22 dioceses, trained and sent 94 men and 52 women as itinerant preachers to far off places. Continuing social reform he discouraged purdah and the practice of sati by women. The fourth Guru, Ram Das founded the city of Amritsar and his compositions include the verses sung to solemnize Sikh weddings – Anand Karaj. The fifth Guru, Arjun completed the tank at Amritsar and built the temple now known as the Golden Temple. He founded the towns of Taran Taran and Kartar Pur, sent missionaries to Kashmir and Sri Lanka and compiled Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture. Jahangir who succeeded Akbar in 1605 ordered some passages be expunged from the Granth. The Guru responded that revealed Word cannot be changed, was imposed heavy fine and on refusal to pay was put to death by torture.
This event brought about a change in Sikh thinking and the sixth Guru; Har Gobind encouraged Sikhs to learn the use of arms. He initiated the doctrine of Miri-Piri i.e. that since spiritual pursuits can only take place in the world we live in, a man of faith has to be concerned about both the temporal and the spiritual. The seventh Guru, Har Rai spent his time in prayer and preaching. The eighth Guru, Har Krishan was 5 when he became Guru. In a prevailing small pox epidemic, he tended to the sick, contracted the disease and died in Delhi. Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru established the town of Anandpur and moved his ministry there. He was a firm believer in the right of freedom of worship and accepted martyrdom at the orders pf Aurangzeb to defend religious freedom of Hindus.
The second martyrdom of a Sikh Guru made the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh conclude that the society in throes of fear and internal divisiveness could only be saved by bold reform. He introduced a new form of baptism and created the Khalsa in 1699 thus changing the Sikhs into a saint-soldier order with special symbols and sacraments. Bravery as well as truth and purity were to be the hallmark of their beliefs. Before his death in 1708 Guru Gobind Singh declared Guru Granth as his spiritual successor and the Khalsa Panth as his successor in matters temporal.
KHALSA AND THE FIVE K’s
Guru Gobind Singh invited his followers from all over India to a special congregation at Anandpur on Baisakhi Day, 30 March 1699. Five congregants who passed the test for willingness to sacrifice their lives for the faith were administered the baptism of sword by the Guru and pronounced khalsa, literally meaning pure or the one who has direct access to God. They were given honorific robes, called the Five Elect – panj piyare – and asked in turn to baptize the Guru, thus emphasizing equality between the Guru and his disciples.
Khalsa are to accept equality, common worship, common baptism, common name and common external appearance. These were the means besides common leadership and the community of aspiration that brought a major transformation of a demoralized people to come together and aggressively seek to repair their place and position in corporate life.
The five symbols of Sikh observance are commonly known as the ‘Five Ks’ because they start with letter K representing Kakka in the Punjabi language. They are:
- Kes or unshorn hair, covered with turban by men. Symbolic of saintliness.
- Kangha or the comb to keep the hair clean and tidy.
- Kara or the steel bracelet, reminder of vows taken.
- Kachh or the soldiers shorts reminder for control over passions and desires
- Kirpan or the ceremonial sword symbolic of courage, dignity and readiness to defend righteousness.
SIKH SACRED & TRADITIONAL TEXTS
Guru Granth Sahib
The Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib consists of 1430 pages and is an anthology of prayers and hymns. It does not contain any dogmatic prescriptions, instructions for observance, historical accounts or mythology. Its contents are hymns addressed to God in a spirit of deep humility and compassion for mankind. It transcends religious barriers and speaks of Truth as the religion of all humanity. Initially known as the Adi Granth, it was compiled by Guru Arjan in 1604 with Guru Gobind Singh adding the compositions of Guru Tegh Bahadur later on. Written in Gurmukhi, it contains the actual words and verses as uttered by the Sikh Gurus. Also included are the compositions of several Hindu, Muslim and Shudra saints of the time.
Guru Granth Sahib is written in uniquely lyrical poetry and set to Ragas. The language, despite its wide variety, is the spoken tongue of people. The choice of words and imagery are from nature and life – the sun, the moon, the stars, day, night, changing hues of sky, rain, clouds, cool breeze, budding flowers, trees, woods, animals prancing in the wild, chirping birds, breaking dawn, the early morning feeling of expectancy – so much so it reaches the inner depth of one’s being transporting one to a state of ecstatic wonderment [vismad] and oneness with God’s creation, closer to a deep, uplifting spiritual experience.
The Sikhs are enjoined to seek the guidance from Guru Granth Sahib in their spiritual quest. The revealed Word is given the position of living Guru. All Sikh worship and rites of passage are performed in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib.
Compiled by Bhai Mani Singh in 1734, Dasam Granth contains over 17,000 verses composed by Guru Gobind Singh and his court of poets written in various languages and dialects.
Compiled with the participation of Sikh sangat, it enumerates the Sikh code for leading a believer’s life.
TAPESTRY OF BELIEFS
The basic concept of God in Sikhism is enshrined in the Mool Mantra, the first verse in Guru Granth Sahib:
“There is but one God
Eternal truth is His name
The all-pervading Creator [is]
Without fear, without enmity
Timeless, unborn, self-existent [and is]
Attainable by grace of the Guru, the Enlightener
True in the beginning, true through the ages,
True now, Nanak, and He forever shall be true”
The practice of Simran – constant remembrance of His name and Kirtan – singing His praises – facilitates the inner peace and tranquility and connecting with the Divine.
The Sikh faith:
- Preaches equality of all the family of man with common fatherhood of God (barabari)
- Prays for the well being of all (sarbath da bhala).
- Advocates self reliant, honest and responsible living (Kirit)
- Commends sharing fruit of one’s honest labor with others in gratitude of God’s blessing (vand chhakna)
- Encourages service of the community of man (sewa) and protection of the weak
- Preaches pro active participation in life’s activities with humility, forbearance, courage and compassion
- Seeking society of the virtuous (sadh sangat)
- Understanding God’s purpose and accepting God’s will (bhana)
- Extols the uniqueness of human life for the opportunity it affords for communion with God through nature by aesthetic intuition
- Stresses physical and spiritual poise and balance as also balance between knowledge, action and devotion (sahaj).
- Is universal in outlook, propagating the idea of a world where human community can enjoy God’s blessings in freedom with dignity and without fear.
Sikh cosmology says that for eons and eons of time there was just God. At some point, God willed and the creation came into being. God creates, sustains, destroys and recreates all that is seen or unseen in the universe. This process is continuous and the creation expands or regresses as God wills. The entire universe is subject to God’s will. The creation is real, not illusory but subject to decay, dissolution and death.
In the midst of this creation God installed the earth, the abode of duty, action. God is immanent in His creation and this world is His home. The world that we see is in the likeness of otherwise formless God, His visible manifestation and is intended by God to be a place of beauty and an arena for virtuous deeds and moral actions and not a place of suffering or sin.
On the earth abide beings of myriad hues and infinite forms. Of all living beings God gave humans extra merits. Notwithstanding his pivotal role, the man is reminded that he must accept the governing principle in nature, the Divine ordinance and that God loves His creation the way it is and looks at it joyfully and cares for all.
For Guru Nanak one single essence pervades the entire multiplicity of the cosmic existence. The material body provides the outer form and color to the spirit/soul that dwells within. The relationship between God and soul is likened to the sun and its rays. There is inter-connectedness between matter and spirit; the divine and the gross; God and nature.
Gurus encourage Sikhs to take a holistic look at life. They are told that as humans, they have the rare opportunity, blessed as they are with intellect and ability to discriminate, to use their free will to make such choices that may bring them closer to God. They are enjoined to live a householder’s life, persuaded to work hard, provide for themselves and their families, share with the needy, seek the company of virtuous and devote themselves to prayerful, ethical living. Denial and austerities are not commended. The persuasion is for progressive, constructive, responsible living in harmony with and caring for God’s creation.
Love is important to achieve unity with God for God speaks the tongue of abundant love. One cannot even think of freedom from cycle of birth and death without love in his heart. Those who love God are not vain and do not inflict violence on others. At the same time Sikhs are persuaded not to run away from righteous action. In fact Sikhs pray that God should grant them the courage and fortitude not to shy from just and righteous causes.
The ideal of perfection that may end transmigration has to be attained living this life. There is no heaven or hell, it is all here in this world. What is important is the way you live your life, the choices you make. In fact any place where the righteous come together, where people join in harmony to serve God’s purpose is heaven.
Sikhs accept diversity. There is no distinction of high or low, rich or poor, caste, creed etc. It has been an accepting faith and recognizes that there can be and are several paths to reach God. The Gurus prayed for God to save this burning world in His mercy and let (people) find liberation through whichever path (faith persuasion) they may be able to. The scripture also commends acceptance of all languages (literature) and science or technology (developed) anywhere.
Prayer is important to find peace, for healing, to get strength to tolerate suffering and its consequences. The faithful are enjoined to recognize that in His will, pain and pleasure come together and that humans cannot run away from either but must exercise balance in dealing with both the states. The persuasion is to absorb oneself in prayer, live in peace and amity, perform one’s worldly duties and yet remain detached. The battle is fought within and if one wins that struggle, there is no more to win.
Forgiveness has a place of importance in this matrix of human acts of omission and commission. The Gurus sing paeans of praise of God for His acts of forgiveness. God, true to His nature does not bother about the devotee’s merits or demerits if in His grace, He chooses to bestow His beneficence.
The Gurus caution Sikhs to guard against five evil propensities viz.: kam, karodh, lobh, moh and ahankar – concupiscence, wrath, covetousness, attachment and pride. Control over these urges would help in bringing about a more tranquil state of mind and at the same time make a person sensitive to the shared needs of the society
Acceptance of differences in approach and working through them is recommended. Men should be gentle in their choice of words and avoid rancor for there is affinity between love and genteel dialogue. They are reminded that courtesy and humility is not only more acceptable, it is also an essence of merit and virtue of a person.
Sikhism is very strongly against religion being used for or providing cover for social or political dominance. Nanak was concerned about ethical purity and commitment to universal and humanistic values. In his social philosophy, social and human concerns and purposeful action for such concerns was the test for true religiosity. The Sikh view on societal ills is rooted in these fundamental premises
The persuasion is that social evils must be confronted and suffering of the people alleviated. Sikhs must not shy away from righteous action — and be determined to right the wrongs, fight to win. Inaction being the result of a deliberate choice by the individual is not commended in the face of tyranny, coercion, and exploitation or in pursuit of a righteous cause. Injustice, oppression, discrimination at the societal level must touch their conscience. The ideal social environment is where no one causes any body to be afraid nor is anyone fearful and where the rulers are just and modest.
The concept of equality in Sikhs draws its basic inspiration from the belief that all human beings emanate from one common Father. The concept of equality was carried further as a moral factor in conflict situations. The Guru believed that if a mighty one overpowers his equal, it might not be a cause for grievance— (but) if a tiger mauls herding cattle, the Master must answer.
Women are accorded a place of equality and dignity. The Gurus were against purdah or wearing of a veil by women. They also strongly protested against the custom of sati under which a widow was expected to immolate herself on the burning pyre of her dead husband. Sikh women in history have been in a variety of leadership roles including preachers, warriors, even martyrs.
The Sikh concept of Miri & Piri put simply, is to stress the basic unity of the temporal and the spiritual in life. The Gurus advocated active involvement in social upliftment and promoting equality and justice as a moral imperative and the themes of social concern and social changes have pervaded the Sikh thought from the early days of the faith.
The Sikh house of worship is called Gurudwara. Guru Granth Sahib is installed in the main hall, which is used for prayer and daily service. All are welcome to the Gurdwara as long as they cover their heads and remove their shoes. The service invariably consists of Kirtan, discourse (Katha), thanksgiving (Anand Sahib), supplication (Ardas), call to God’s victory (Jaikara), God’s message (Mukhvaak), distribution of prasad, and partaking of Guru ka Langar.
The tradition of Sikh sacred music, kirtan, started with Guru Nanak. He and the successor Gurus were all well versed in music, commended kirtan as the highest expression of one’s devotion and gave kirtan the position of centrality in Sikh worship. The Gurus even developed new instruments like sarinda, jodi, and taus for providing accompaniment in kirtan.
In its early stages professional singers sang the hymns, set to ragas, continuity provided by association of generations of certain music traditions with the Guru’s court. The practice of congregational singing and kirtan by laypersons started in the time of the fifth Master.
SIKH RELIGIOUS EMBLEMS
The first two words in Guru Granth Sahib meaning, “There is but one God”; is one of the cornerstones of the faith.
The symbol derives its name from Khanda, a double-edged sword in the middle of the emblem. The sword, a metaphor of divine knowledge, its sharp edges cleaving Truth from Falsehood. The circle [chakar] symbolizes, without beginning or end, the eternal perfection of God – including everything and wanting nothing, without beginning or end and absolute. The two swords [kirpan] symbolize the twin concept of placing equal emphasis on spiritual aspirations [left] and societal obligations [right].
The Sikh flag is a saffron-colored triangular-shaped cloth, usually reinforced in the middle with Sikh insignia in blue. It is usually mounted on a long steel pole (which is also covered with saffron-colored cloth) headed with a Khanda.
RESPECT FOR OTHER FAITHS
Sikh faith has been accepting of other persuasions and the Gurus repeatedly stress that one should live by one’s faith precepts to be a true devotee. Gurus also visited holy places of other faiths and had extensive dialogues with their religious leaders during their travels and missionaries. Guru Arjan asked Mian Mir, a Muslim saint to lay the corner stone of the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden temple.
The Gurus and subsequently the Sikh rulers stayed steadfast for the right to free worship and helped places of worship of other faiths. Guru Hargobind constructed a mosque for Muslims, picturesquely situated on a hill overlooking a curve on the banks of the mighty Beas river in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district. According to Sikh tradition, the Guru had converted the house of a dead Muslim into a mosque and set up a common kitchen for the poor.
Sikhs of Chahar Mazra village in Ropar District built a mosque for their Muslim neighbors who used to travel several miles to offer their prayers. An ancient Krishna Hindu temple in village Kishankot has also been maintained by Sikhs. Canadian Sikhs presented a four-feet tall, 150-pound bronze sculpture to Vatican at the turn of the third millennium. The sculpture titled ‘The Column of Brotherhood’ is the work of Canadian sculptor Hugh Russel and consists of an Ionic column with figures and symbols from Sikhism and Christianity and bears the inscription ‘From Our House to Your House’ in English and Latin.
With the geographic spread of Sikhism the issues of identity confronting the Sikhs are changing and in some ways becoming more complex. The Diaspora youth view Sikhi as a universal text based faith and want the Gurdwara to be a place to grow spiritually. Their cultural heritage is their passion. They value the language and seek a broader connection unrestricted by faith i.e. trans national Punjabi, not just Sikh Punjabi. They value the Sikh concepts of meeri/peeri, gender equality, absence of race/caste distinctions but would like greater possibility for questioning and experimenting. Arranged marriages and kes are important part of their debate. They also look for role models in the Granthies, Ragis and Kathakars, as also in Gurdwara leadership.
SIKHS IN HISTORY
After the Guru period, the first half of the 18th century was a very trying period for Sikhs when, in the see saw struggle Sikh men, women and children were killed in thousands. During the second half of the 18th century the influence of Delhi became minimal due to repeated Afghan attacks and the rise of Sikh Misls and in later part of the century Sikhs gained control ending in the emergence of Sikh rule under Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1799 over a large chunk of the territory now constituting Pakistan plus some parts of India. The Sikh empire was the last part of India to be annexed by the British in 1849.
The Sikh rule was characterized by its secular approach. Maharaja had a number of Hindu and Muslim ministers, treated all his subjects alike and gave grants to all the faith institutions. People felt secure, were economically well off and arts and culture thrived.
The British sought the Sikhs to serve in the military and allowed them to keep their vows when serving. The Sikhs fought alongside the British in Afghan wars, the two World wars etc. and were the recipients of highest number of gallantry awards including Victoria Crosses.
The Sikhs also were the first to challenge British domination in 1870’s. They were in the forefront of Indian freedom movement and constituted over four fifth of those who lost their lives in the struggle.
SIKHS IN AMERICA
Sikhs today, almost twenty two million globally, are resident in almost all the continents. Even though majority of the Sikh population continues to be in Punjab, India, they have sizable populations in Australia, U.K., U.S.A, Canada, Malaysia, Thailand, and East Africa. The Sikh emigration to the US goes back to late 19th, early 20th century. Dalip Singh, a Sikh was a member of the US congress in 50’s/60’s.
Sikhs in the US have had their share of success in realizing the American dream. Many who had come for higher education stayed on and moved into professions. Several went into small businesses as they accumulated some capital. Some created larger business entities and have had variable degree of success. In the overall they are self supporting albeit with limited cash surplus as a community.
The main focus of the Sikhs has been to pool their resources first to establish Gurdwaras but even now several travel for an hour or two to reach a house of worship. Progressively Sikh studies programs have been created at a few universities though almost entirely financially supported by the community. The Sikh cultural activities are also beginning to take place. The demands on Sikh resources are heavy and may be expected to remain that way as long as public interest in them and their travails remains dormant.
Sikhs and mainstream America so far have been spatially and culturally distant or at best interfacing with each other. The benign presence of Sikhs as law abiding, tax-paying citizens has not created any waves in the public interest domain. Thus the dynamics of growth and spread of Sikh expatriates in the American society and the emergence of Sikh religious and cultural activities has not invoked any perceptible interest in the mainstream media and TV.
Post September11, in more than half of the reported incidents of harassment, vandalism, intimidation and violence, the targets were Sikhs, whose men wear beards and turbans in accordance with their religious beliefs. The Sikh community activists have been trying to enhance awareness about their faith in the mainstream to correct perceptions of mistaken identity – undoubtedly not an easy task!
New Cumberland, PA
July 5, 2007