Beginning in the early 11th century, the Muslim incursions into India, particularly in the northwestern area called the Punjab, introduced into the Hindu world there the concept of one God. This was not an abstract Godhead with many personal manifestations, as already existed in the Hindu worldview, but a single deity with a single name. In time this would develop into a new religion that came to be known as Sikhism. Today there are 20 million Sikhs in the world, most of them living in India, but with several million in the U.S. and Canada.
Sikhism believes that there is only one God, who is the same for all people of all religions. The goal of Sikhism is union with God, who is said to dwell in each human being. It teaches that the soul goes through cycles of births and deaths before it reaches the human form. But although Sikhs accept the laws of karma and reincarnation that are part of the Indian worldview, Sikhism rejects Hindu image-worship, Vedic rituals, visiting places of pilgrimage, worship of the dead, asceticism, yoga, and caste distinctions. Sikhs are urged to remember God at all times and practice living a virtuous and truthful life while maintaining a balance between their spiritual obligations and temporal obligations. Sikhism also preaches that people of different races, religions, castes, and sex are all equal in the eyes of God. Women can participate in any religious function, perform any Sikh ceremony, or lead the congregation in prayer.
Sikhism (derived from a word meaning “disciple”) developed from divine revelation bestowed on Guru Nanak (c. 1469-1539). Born into a family of the kshatriya (warrior) caste in an area of India that was heavily populated with Muslims, Nanak first abandoned the Hinduism of his family, then tried and rejected Islam. According to tradition, he disappeared for three days while bathing in a river, and returned claiming to have been taken to God’s court and given amrita (“nectar”) to drink. He said he had been told to rejoice in the name of God and to teach others to do the same. His first pronouncement upon returning concluded, “God is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and the path I follow is God’s.”
Through meditation and singing God’s name, Nanak developed a theology that combined elements of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, while seeking to transcend what he saw as the limitations of all of them. Nanak accepted the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation, and a belief in a formless God that is the essence of Islam. His emphasis on surrender to a single imageless God explains the symbol Ek Oankar (“There is One God”) displayed on the canopy over the Sikh holy scripture. Separation from God results from self-centeredness, considered the major evil by Sikhism. Nanak’s teachings, monotheistic and egalitarian, oppose idolatry and the oppression of women.
Nanak established a Sikh community based in northwest India in a region known today as the Punjab. He began a chain of Sikh gurus which continued unbroken until the tenth, Guru Gobind (or Govind) Singh (1666-1708) named the holy scripture itself, Adi Granth (“Original Collection”), as the only true guru. Begun by Guru Amar Das and completed by Singh in 1705, it is now known as Guru Granth Sahib. It contains over 3,300 hymns written not only by Nanak and other gurus but also by non-Sikh authors considered to have spoken divine revelation, such as the mystical poet Kabir. Meditation and kirtan, the devotional singing of God’s name and praises, are an important part of Sikh spiritual life.
In the formation of his beliefs, Nanak was profoundly influenced by Kabir (c. 1440-1518), a poet and the first great Indian spokesman for a devotional faith that combined elements of Hinduism and Islam. The common bond was the Hindu concept of bhakti, the yoga of devotion, which coincided with Islam’s goal of salvation through the passionate love of God.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, historical events set Sikhs against Muslim rulers in the North. Guru Hargobind (1606-1645), the sixth guru, encouraged Sikhs to abandon vegetarianism and develop strong bodies, a tradition that has continued to the present day. He raised a Sikh army and assumed the title Miri Piri Da Malik (“Lord of the Secular and the Spiritual”), effectively uniting religion and politics in a blend that is an integral part of the modern Sikh community.
Guru Gobind later formed a brotherhood called the Pure Order, or Khalsa, which forbade alcohol, tobacco, and sexual relations with Muslims. Members took on the marks of their faith, the Five K’s: unshorn hair worn in a turban (kes), the comb (kangha), dagger (kirpan), iron bracelet or wrist guard (kara), and undershorts (kach). Male members of the Pure Order took the name Singh (“lion”) as their second name, and women took Kaur (“princess”). Because of their self-defense orientation, Sikhs became known as great fighters, and their regiments in the Indian army were highly regarded by the British.
The center of Sikh activities is the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar (named for the nectar Nanak was given), which includes the Akal Takht, or “Timeless Throne,” built by Guru Hargobind and dedicated to merging of spiritual and secular spheres. the complex has been the sight of bloody clashes with Indian troops beginning in 1984, when Indian forces stormed the holy shrine and killed hundreds of extremists demanding independence from India. After two Sikhs in Indira Gandhi’s personal bodyguard assassinated the Prime Minister later that year, Hindus rioted and slaughtered hundreds of Sikhs in New Delhi. The continuing conflict claims thousands of Indian lives each year.
Concentrated in the Punjab, richest of India’s provinces, the industrious and successful Sikhs are more determined than ever to become an independent nation called Khalistan, state of the Khalsa, or “pure.” Some Sikh extremists think of Khalistan as extending to include most of present-day India, although Sikhs make up only about two percent of the entire population.
The foremost advocate of Sikhism in the U.S. is Yogi Bhajan (Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, b.1929), head of the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, or 3HO.