I  Introduction

Sikhism founded on the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev and nine successive gurus in fifteenth century Northern India, is the fifth-largest religion in the world. The history of Sikhism began with the birth in 1469 AD of Guru Nanak Dev. The initiation (baptism) ceremony and other traditions of the religion were formalized by 1699 AD. This system of religious philosophy and expression has been traditionally known as the Gurmat (literally, the counsel of the gurus) or the Sikh Dharma. Sikhism originated from the word Sikh, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit root sisya meaning "disciple" or "learner", or siksa meaning "instruction". Sikhism advocates the pursuit of salvation through disciplined, personal meditation on the name and message of God.

A key distinctive feature of Sikhism is a non-anthropomorphic concept of God, to the extent that one can interpret God as the Universe itself. The followers of Sikhism are ordained to follow the teachings of the ten Sikh gurus, or enlightened leaders, as well as the holy scripture entitled the Guru Granth Sahib, which includes the selected works of many authors from diverse socioeconomic and religious backgrounds. The text was decreed by Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, as the final guru of the Khalsa Panth. Sikhism's traditions and teachings are distinctly associated with the history, society and culture of the Punjab. Adherents of Sikhism are known as Sikhs (meaning, students or disciples) and number over 23 million across the world. Most Sikhs live in the state of Punjab in India and, prior to the country's partition, millions of Sikhs lived in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan.

II  Demography

Worldwide, Sikhs number more than 23 million, but more than 90% of Sikhs live in the Indian state of Punjab, where they are close to 65% of the population. Large communities of Sikhs live in the neighboring states, and large communities of Sikhs can be found across India. Sikhs, currently number approximately 25 million across the globe, placing Sikhism below Buddhism and above Judaism in terms of size. SikhismHowever, Sikhs are only about 2% of the Indian population. Migration beginning from the 19th century led to the creation of significant communities in Canada, the UK, the Middle East, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and more recently, the US, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Smaller population of Sikhs are found in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Fiji and other countries.

As with most world religions, there are groups of Sikhs (such as the Namdharis, Ravidasis, and Udasis) who do not adhere to the mainstream principles followed by most Sikhs. Some of these groups may not consider themselves a part of Sikhism, although from an outsider's perspective similarities in beliefs and principles may firmly render them a part of the Sikh religious domain. Groups such as the Nirankaris have a history of bad relations with mainstream Sikhism, and are considered pariahs by some Sikhs. Others, such as the Nihangs tend to have little difference in belief and practice, and are considered Sikhs proper by mainstream Sikhism.

III  Scriptures

There are two primary sources of scriptures for the Sikhs: The Guru Granth Sahib and The Dasam Granth. It is a 1430-pages text containing hymns written directly by Guru Nanak Dev and later gurus. The Guru Granth Sahib may be referred to as the Adi Granth-literally, The First Volume-and these two terms are often used synonymously. However, the Adi Granth refers to the version of the scripture created by Arjun Dev in 1604. The Guru Granth Sahib refers to the final version of the scripture created by Gobind Singh.

The Dasam Granth (i.e., The Book of the Tenth Master) is an eighteenth-century collection of miscellaneous works generally attributed to Guru Gobind Singh. The teachings of Gobind Singh were not included in Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book of the Sikhs, and instead were collected in the Dasam Granth. Unlike the Guru Granth Sahib, the Dasam Granth was never declared to hold guruship. The authenticity of some portions of the Granth has been questioned and the appropriateness of the Granth's content still causes much debate.

The Janamsakhis (literally, birth stories), are writings which profess to be biographies of Guru Nanak Dev. Although not scripture in the strictest sense, they provide an interesting look at Nanak's life and the early start of Sikhism. There are several-often contradictory and sometimes unreliable-Janamsakhis and they are not held in the same regard as other sources of scriptural knowledge.

IV Philosophy & Teachings

Sikh religious philosophy has roots in the religious traditions of Northern India. The Sant Math traditions are fundamental to the teachings of Sikhism's founder Nanak. Especially important to the connection with Sikhism were the teachings of some of the saints such as Ravidas and Kabir. Sikhism is also inspired by the emphasis on devotion to God in the traditions of Vaishnavism, especially through the Bhakti Movement, as well as influences of Sufism. However, Nanak's teachings diverge significantly from Vaishnavism in their rejection of idol worship, the doctrine of divine incarnation, and the strict emphasis on inward devotion; Sikhism is professed to be a more difficult personal pursuit than Bhakti. The evolution of Nanak's thoughts on the basis of his own experiences and study have also given Sikhism a distinctly unique feature.

The following are some of the important beliefs in Sikhism:

(1) There is only One God. He is the same God for all people of all religions;

(2) The soul goes through cycles of births and deaths before it reaches the human form. The goal of our life is to lead an exemplary existence so that one may merge with God. Sikhs should remember God at all times and practice living a virtuous and truthful life while maintaining a balance between their spiritual obligations and temporal obligations;

(3) The true path to achieving salvation and merging with God does not equire renunciation of the world or celibacy, but living the life of a house-holder, earning a honest living and avoiding worldly temptations and sins;

(4) Sikhism condemns rituals such as fasting, visiting places of pilgrimage, superstitions, worship of the dead, idol worship etc.;

(5) Sikhism preaches that people of different races, religions, or sex are all equal in the eyes of God. It teaches the full equality of men and women. Women can participate in any religious function or perform any Sikh ceremony or to lead the congregation in prayer.

V  God in Sikhism

The concept of God in Sikhism is of oneness with the entire universe and its spirit. God is found not by searching in remote places, but by eliminating ego, which is said to allow a deeper, more accurate perspective on the nature of reality. In Sikhism, God-termed Vahiguru-is formless, eternal, and unobserved: nirankar, akal, and alakh. The beginning of the first composition of Sikh scripture is the figure "1"-signifying the universality of God. It states that God is omnipresent and infinite. Sikhs believe that prior to creation, all that existed was God and his hukam (will or order). When God willed, the entire cosmos was created. From these beginnings, God nurtured "enticement and attachment" to maya, or the human perception of reality.

While a full understanding of God is beyond human beings, Nanak described God as not wholly unknowable. God is omnipresent in all creation and visible everywhere to the spirituality awakened. Nanak stressed that God must be seen from "the inward eye" or the "heart", of a human being: devotees must meditate to progress towards enlightenment. Nanak emphasized the revelation through meditation, as its rigorous application permits the existence of communication between God and human beings. God has no gender in Sikhism, though translations may incorrectly present a masculine God. In addition, Nanak wrote that there are many worlds on which God has created life.

VI  The Ten Gurus

The term Guru comes from the Sanskrit guru, meaning teacher, guide or mentor. The traditions and philosophy of Sikhism were established by ten specific gurus from 1507 to 1708. Each guru added to and reinforced the message taught by the previous, resulting in the creation of the Sikh religion. Guru Nanak Dev was the first guru and appointed a disciple as successor. Guru Gobind Singh was the final guru in human form. Before his death, Gobind Singh decreed that the Guru Granth Sahib would be the final and perpetual guru of the Sikhs. The period of the 10 gurus can be described as follows: (1) Nanak Dev (1507-1539); (2) Angad Dev (1539-1552); (3) Amar Das (1552-1574); (4) Ram Das (1574-1581); (5) Arjun Dev (1581-1606); (6) Har Gobind (1606-1644); (7) Har Rai (1644-1661); (8) Har Krishan (1661-1664); (9) Teg Behadur (1665-1675); and (10) Gobind Singh (1675-1708).

VII Observances and Ceremonies

(1) Gurdwaras and Worship: Observant Sikhs adhere to long-standing practices and traditions to strengthen and express their faith. The daily recitation from memory of specific passages from the Guru Granth Sahib, especially the Japu (literally, Chant) hymns is recommended immediately after rising and bathing. Family customs include both reading passages from the scripture and attending the Gurdwara (meaning, the doorway to God). There are many gurdwaras prominently constructed and maintained across India, as well as in almost every nation where Sikhs reside. Gurdwaras are open to all, regardless of religion, background, caste or race. Worship in a gurdwara consists chiefly of singing of passages from the scripture. Sikhs will commonly enter the temple, touch the ground before the holy scripture with their foreheads, and make an offering. The most sacred shrine is the Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar, famously known as the Golden Temple. Groups of Sikhs regularly visit and congregate at the Harimandir Sahib.

(2) Festivals: Festivals in Sikhism mostly center around the lives of the Gurus and Sikh martyrs. The SGPC, the Sikh organization in charge of upkeep of the gurdwaras, organises celebrations based on the new Nanakshahi calendar. This calendar is highly controversial among Sikhs and is not universally accepted. Several festivals (i.e., Hola Mohalla, Diwali, and Guru Nanak's Birthday) continue to be celebrated using the Hindu calendar. Sikh festivals include: Gurupurabs, Vaisakhi, Diwali, and Hola Mohalla.

(3) Rituals and Ceremonies: Nanak taught that rituals, religious ceremonies or empty worship is of little use and Sikhs are discouraged from fasting or going on pilgrimages. However, during the period of the later gurus, and due to increased institutionalisation of the religion, some ceremonies and rites did arise. Sikhism is not a proslytizing religion and most Sikhs do not make active attempts to gain converts. However, converts to Sikhism are welcomed, although there is no formal conversion ceremony. 

(4) Marriage and Death: According to Sikh religious rites, neither husband nor wife are permitted to divorce. A Sikh couple that wishes to divorce may be able to do so in a civil court-but this is not condoned. Upon death, the body of a Sikh is usually cremated. If this is not possible, any means of disposing the body may be employed. Sikhs believe that upon death one merges back into the universal nature, just as a drop of rain merges back into the ocean. Individuality is lost. Sikhs do not believe in heaven or hell. Heaven can be experienced by being in tune with God while still alive. Conversely, the suffering and pain caused by ego is seen as hell on earth. Sikhism views spiritual pursuits as positive experiences in and of themselves that transcend death, not as sacrifices made in order to collect a reward that is waiting until after death.

(5) Salvation: Nanak's teachings are founded not on a final destination of heaven or hell, but on a spiritual union with God which results in salvation. The chief obstacles to the attainment of salvation are social conflicts and an attachment to worldly pursuits, which commit men and women to an endless cycle of birth-a concept known as reincarnation. In Sikhism, the influences of ego, anger, greed, attachment, and lust-known as the Five Evils-are believed to be particularly pernicious. Salvation can be reached only through rigorous and disciplined devotion to God. Nanak stressed kirat karo: that a Sikh should balance work, worship, and charity, and should defend the rights of all creatures, and in particular, fellow human beings.

(6) Equality of Men & Women: Sikhs view men and women as being completely equal. Women are expected to participate in daily and religious life in the same way as men. Barring or discouraging women from any activity or position based on sex is against the principles of Sikhism. All individuals, regardless of race, gender, or nationality, are free to become Sikhs. Young children who are not yet capable of understanding the philosophy of Sikhism and making their own decisions are not eligible to be initiated into the faith until they have grown older. One does not have to be a Sikh to participate in Sikh religious services and activities. Members of other religions are welcome.

(7) Attitude Toward Other Religions: Sikhs believe they have no right to impose their beliefs on others or even to cajole members of other religions to convert. Such practices are strictly forbidden in Sikhism. Sikhs are required to defend the freedom of worship of other religions just as they would their own. Sikhs do not believe that followers of other religions are doomed in the eyes of God regardless of their personal character and behavior, nor does being born into a Sikh family guarantee salvation.

(8) Clergy in Worship: In Sikhism, every person is fully responsible for leading a moral life. Sikhs do not believe an intermediary can supplicate on one's behalf to God. Hence, Sikhs have no priestly class. Those educated in religious affairs or with a special insight on God are free to teach or guide others, but they cannot claim to have a monopoly on access to God. Religious services are usually conducted by a Giani, literally, one who is educated in religious affairs. However, members of the congregation are also expected to be active participants.

(9) Baptism & Five Ks: Khalsa (meaning, pure) is the name given by Gobindh Singh to all Sikhs who have been baptized or initiated by taking ammrit in a ceremony called ammrit sancar. Baptized Sikhs are bound to wear the Five Ks (in Punjabi known as panj kakke or panj kakar), or articles of faith, at all times. The tenth guru, ordered these Five Ks to be worn so that a Sikh could actively use them to make a difference to their own and to others' spirituality. The five items are: kes (uncut hair), kangha (small comb), kara (circular heavy metal bracelet), kirpan (ceremonial short sword), and kaccha (special undergarment). The Five Ks have both practical and symbolic purposes.

VIII  Sikhism in the Western World

Due to the turbans Sikhs wear and the relative scarcity of Sikhs, there have been incidents of mistaking Sikhs in western countries for Middle Eastern men and/or Muslims. This has negatively affected Sikhs living in the west especially with respect to the 9/11 terrorist attack and recent Iraq War conflict.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, some people associated Sikhs with terrorists or members of the Taliban. A few days after the attack Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, was gunned down by a person who thought that the victim had ties to Al-Qaeda. CNN suggests that there has been an increase in hate-crimes against Sikh men in the US and the UK.

Sikhism as a faith has never actively sought converts, thus the Sikhs have remained a relatively heterogeneous racial group. However, mainly due to the activities of Harbhajan Singh Yogi via his Kundalini Yoga focused 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy) Organization, Sikhism has witnessed a moderate growth in non-Indian adherents, and were mainly centered around Espanola, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California.

(Various Sources are Consulted)

Rev. Johnson Thomaskutty