MANJIT KAUR, a sixteen-year-old girl, and Sandeep Singh, a fourteenyear-old boy, stand in the gurdwara, the place of Sikh worship, in their
small village in northwestern India. Here in the region known as the
Punjab, Sikhism's ancestral homeland, Manjit and Sandeep are members
of the majority religion, and gurdwaras are common sights in the farming
villages that dot the land. Most of the village has gathered together to
witness the proceedings, and Sandeep and Manjit have spent the morning preparing for this momentous event-their initiation into the Sikh
Khalsa, or community of"Pure Ones." They have both bathed and washed
their long hair carefully and have dressed especially for the occasion.
Most notably, they both don the five articles of faith, known as the Five Ks:
uncut hair, a comb, a steel wristlet, a short sword, and a pair of shorts.
Manjit and Sandeep join a group of five older villagers who also don
the Five Ks and who for this ceremony play the part of the Panj Piare, or
"Beloved Five." They are established members of the Khalsa and will
oversee the initiation. The grouping of five recalls the founding of the
Khalsa centuries ago, when Guru Gobind Singh (1675-1708 C.E.), the
tenth in a line of Gurus going back to Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.),
chose five original initiates who had distinguished themselves for their
loyalty to the Guru and for their commitment to Sikh ideals. On this day
of Amrit Sanchar, the Khalsa initiation ceremony, the stirring memory of
The five Sikh men who participate in the Amrit Sanchar
represent the original "Beloved Five" in commemoration
of the founding of the Khalsa.
Chapter 7 SIKHISM
Significant sites in the
history of Sikhism.
these founding figures and the ideals they embody is palpably felt. But the most vital
presence of all is a large book, lying open on a special platform. It is Sri Guru
Gran th Sahib, or the Adi Granth, the sacred scripture of Sikhism, and the Sikhs' Guru,
or spiritual teacher, from the time of Guru Gobind Singh forward.
Sandeep and Manjit stand before the Panj Piare, one of whom explains the basic
principles of Sikhism. They agree to accept these principles by nodding, the ritual
action that makes the initiation official. The new members of the Khalsa are then served
amrit ("immortalizing fluid"), a special drink made from water and sugar crystals,
which has been mixed by the Panj Piare in an iron bowl and stirred with a two-edged
sword. Meanwhile, hymns from the Adi Granth are sung by the congregation. The
amrit is drunk and sprinkled on the eyes and heads of the initiates, who recite the Mui
Mantra, the summary of Sikh doctrine that comprises the opening lines of the Adi
Granth. The Panj Piare then instruct Manjit and Sandeep about the ethical requirements of the Khalsa. These include prohibitions against the cutting of one's hair, the
eating of meat that has been improperly slaughtered, extramarital sexual relations,
and the use of tobacco. The initiates are also told that all Sikhs are brothers and sisters
and that there should not be any distinctions made on the basis of caste.
TUR-KM EN ISTAN
The Teachings of Sikhism
Manjit and Sandeep are among a minority of
Sikhs, approximately 15 percent, who undergo the
traditional ceremony of initiation into the Khalsa.
Some 70 percent of the approximately 25 million
Sikhs in the world,' however, are popularly considered to be members of the Khalsa, insofar as
they observe the Five Ks, or at least the one that is
generally deemed most important: not cutting
one's hair. And regardless of percentages or degrees of membership, the traditional ways of the
Khalsa greatly influence the practices and customs of the entire Panth, or Sikh community. We
can thus glimpse in this ceremony, with its powerful ties to tradition and its rich symbolism, key aspects that are at the heart of Sikhism. $!~
1469 c.E. Birth of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism.
1520s Establishment by Guru Nanak of the township
of Kartarpur, the first Sikh community.
1539 Death of Guru Nanak.
1606 Death (execution?) of Guru Arjan, under Mug ha I
1675 Execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, under Mughal
1699 Founding of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh.
1708 Death of Guru Gobind Singh and establishment
of the Adi Granth as Guru.
1799 Establishment of independent Sikh kingdom by
Ranj it Singh.
1849 Annexation of Sikh kingdom by the British.
1947 Partition of Punjab with the establishment of
n this chapter we shall study these and other
key aspects, attending in turn to the founding
1984 Indian army attacks and occupies Sikh holy sites,
including the Darbar Sahib (or Golden Temple).
of Sikhism and its primary doctrines, its his1999
Pa nth celebrates the third centenn ial of the
torical development, and its most prevalent rituals
establishment of the Kha lsa.
and worship practices. By virtue of its size alone,
2004 Manmohan Singh elected prime minister of India,
Sikhism is among the major religions of the world.
the first Sikh to attain this office.
Theologically, Sikhism's intermixing of concepts
that are common to some Hindu traditions on one
hand and to Islam on the other make it a very interesting subject for the comparative
study of religion. And with nearly 2 million Sikhs living outside of India, and Sikh
communities being found today in most of the large cities of the West, Sikhism clearly
is a global tradition that has a significant impact on the world.
THE TEACHINGS OF SIKHISM
The term Sikh is derived from an ancient Sanskrit term that means "disciple." Sikhs are
thus disciples, specifically of the ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak and ending
with Guru Gobind Singh, founder of the Khalsa. Since then, Sikhs have been disciples
of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the traditional name for their most important sacred text,
the Adi Granth. A sound understanding of Sikhism therefore must begin with a consideration of the origins of this line of Gurus.
By the time Guru Nanak had come on the scene, the important role of the guru
had long been established within Hindu traditions of northern India. A guru is a spiritual teacher. Guru is actually used in three slightly different ways in Sikhism. Along
with being the title of Guru Nanak and his successors and of the sacred text (Sri Guru
Granth Sahib), it is used as a name for God. (In fact, Vahiguru, "Praise to the Guru,"
is the most common name for God used by Sikhs today.) In each case the guru functions as the teacher of God's will. As Sikhs believe that God lovingly reveals the divine
will to humans, God, too, thus functions as Guru.
We now consider the career of the guru of northern India whose extraordinary life
experiences and bold spiritual leadership were to have such a profound impact that a
new religion would arise.
The Life of Guru Nanak
Sikhs pay homage
to Guru Nanak, the
founder of Sikhism,
in a crowded room in
Nanak was born in 1469 C.E. in the small village of Talvandi (modern-day Nankan
Sahib, located near Lahore, Pakistan). He was born to Hindu parents of a mercantile
caste who probably were worshippers of Vishnu (for more information about the caste
system and the worship of Vishnu, see Chapter 4). His parents arranged for him to
marry early, when he was still in his teens, as was customary at the time. Nanak and
his wife, Sulakhani, moved to Sultanpur, where Nanak's older sister Nanaki lived.
Soon Nanak and Sulakhani had two sons.
Sultanpur, located on the main rode between Lahore and Delhi, was a religiously
diverse community, with residents and visitors who practiced varieties of Hinduism
and Islam. Nanak, who is said to have been dissatisfied with traditional forms of religion, gravitated toward a religious outlook similar to Hindu bhakti, the path of devotion (see Chapter 4). Nanak believed in the oneness of God and in the need to move
closer to God. This could best be accomplished, he believed, through meditation and
singing hymns in praise of God. Eventually Nanak began composing his own hymns.
With his friend Mardana, a Muslim musician, accompanying him on the rebab (a stringed
instrument), Nanak sang his hymns at communal worship gatherings. These hymns
are included in the Adi Granth and are sung in Sikh services today.
According to tradition, Nanak became recognized as a spiritual leader early in
his life. He would rise before dawn and bathe in the river, meditate, and then lead
others in singing hymns of praise. When Nanak was about thirty years old, he underwent a crucial experience that led to the
origin of the Sikh tradition.
Receiving God's Revelation One
morning while Nanak was bathing in
the river, he did not resurface from the
water. He was presumed drowned, and
yet his body was not found. Three days
and three nights later, however, Nanak
emerged from the river, and, returning
to the village, he proclaimed: "There is
neither Hindu nor Muslim so whose
path shall I follow? I shall follow God's
path. God is neither Hindu nor Muslim
and the path which I follow is God's."3
The Teachings of Sikhism
When he explained what had happened, Nanak said that he had been escorted to
the court of God, who gave him a cup of amrit (the same drink that is used in the
Khalsa initiation ceremony) and said to him:
This is the cup of the adoration of God's name. Drink it. I am with you.
I bless you and raise you up. Whoever remembers you will enjoy my
favor. Go, rejoice in my name and teach others to do so. I have bestowed the gift of my name upon you. Let this be your calling. 4
The Journeys ofGuru Nanak Deeply moved by this revelation, Guru Nanak spent
the next stage of his life, from age thirty to about age fifty, traveling far and wide and
learning about a variety of religious customs, including Hindu, Muslim, and Jain. He is
said to have undertaken four long journeys: eastward to Assan; southward to Sri Lanka;
northward to the Himalayas; and westward, reaching as far as Mecca and Baghdad.
He visited holy sites and encountered a wide variety of religious people. He also proclaimed and practiced his own teachings, sometimes to hostile audiences.
Several incidents during Guru Nanak's travels illuminate the new message he proclaimed. On one occasion, while visiting a Hindu shrine in Haridwar, India, he found
himself among brahmins throwing water toward the rising sun as an offering to their
dead ancestors. Nanak turned and threw water the other way, explaining, "If you can
send water to your dead ancestors in heaven, surely I can send it to my fields in the
Punjab." 5 On another occasion, Nanak was awakened from sleep by an angry Muslim
who chastised him for sleeping with his feet pointing toward the Ka'ba in Mecca, the
most sacred site in Islam. (Showing the soles of one's feet is considered by many Muslims
to be a grave insult.) Nanak responded: "Then turn my feet in some other direction
where God does not exist."6
Such stories as these illustrate a general theme of Nanak's religious outlook. He
consistently rejected traditional rituals and "proper" religious protocol, whether Hindu
Founding the Sikh Community Drawing from his revelation experience and years
of journeying, Nanak continued proclaiming his own religious ideals, among them
monotheism; lack of distinctions based on gender, caste, or creed (for example, whether
Hindu or Muslim); and doing good deeds. Nanak attracted a large following. At about
the age of fifty, he established a new settlement called Kartarpur ("abode of the creator")
in what is now Pakistan. Here he and his followers formed the first Sikh community
and instituted the lifestyle that has characterized Sikh society to this day.
Guru Nanak erected a special building, a dharamsala ("abode of faith"), for worship. In so doing, he provided the prototype of the gurdwara, which today is the central
structure of any particular Sikh community. (The term dharamsala gradually was replaced in the eighteenth century with gurdwara to designate the Sikh place of worship.)
Nanak welcomed people from all segments of society to reside in Kartarpur and to
work together to maintain it. Nanak himself joined in the work, which was primarily
agrarian. And though in most respects a regular member of the community, Nanak sat
on a special seat when addressing the congregation. Followers recognized the nature of
the Guru as merely human and yet also as very spiritually advanced.
On September 22, 1539, after leading the Kartarpur community for about twenty
years, Guru Nanak died. According to the traditional account the Guru, aware of his
approaching death, settled a dispute regarding the proper disposal of his body.
Compare Guru Nanak to
founding figures of
traditions, with regard
teachings and way of
life and to the founding
figure as a role model
for others to follow.
Hindus and Muslims who had put their faith in the divine Name began
to debate what should be done with the Guru's corpse. "We shall bury
him," said the Muslims. "No, let us cremate his body," said the
Hindus. "Place flowers on both sides of my body," said Baba Nanak,
"flowers from the Hindus on the right side and flowers from the
Muslims on the left. If tomorrow the Hindus' flowers are still fresh
let my body be burned, and if the Muslims' flowers are still fresh let
it be buried."
Baba Nanak then commanded the congregation to sing. They sang
Kirtan Sohila and Arati. ... Baba Nanak then covered himself with a
sheet and passed away. Those who had gathered around him prostrated themselves, and when the sheet was removed they found that
there was nothing under it. The flowers on both sides remained fresh,
and both Hindus and Muslims took their respective shares. All who
were gathered there prostrated themselves again.7
Even with his death, Guru Nanak encouraged Hindus and Muslims to transcend their
differences and to let peace prevail.
Guru Nanak's example powerfully informs the beliefs and practices of Sikhs up to
the present day. We will next turn our attention briefly to Sikh scripture, the collection
of texts that contains the doctrinal position as set forth by Guru Nanak and his
We have previously identified the Adi Granth, commonly known as Sri Guru Granth
Sahib, as Sikhism's most important sacred text. This is without question true for all
Sikhs today. There are, however, other texts that most Sikhs would classify as scripture, of which the most important are the Dasam Granth and the Rahit, both of which
we consider here. In addition, works by two disciples of the Gurus are granted sufficient
status to be recited in the gurdwara: Bhai Gurda (disciple of Guru Arjan and Guru
Hargobind) and Nand Lal (disciple of Guru Gobind Singh). A collection of stories
about the life of Guru Nanak, called the ]anam-sakhi, also deserves mention. The account of Guru Nanak's death cited in the previous section is from the ]anam-sakhi.
The Adi Granth Compiled by Guru Arjan in 1603-1604, the Adi Granth contains the
works of his four predecessors, along with his own hymns and various works by poets,
The Teachings of Sikhism
such as Kabir (c. 1440-1518). Through the centuries, the Adi
Granth has occupied a central place in Sikhism. Whereas the
Gurus once sat on a special seat amid Sikh disciples, since the
time of the tenth and last historical Guru, Gobind Singh, the Adi
Granth has occupied the same type of seat in the middle of any
place of worship. And whereas the Gurus were once the authorities on religious matters, now Sikhs consult the Adi Granth.
The name ''Adi Granth" ("the Original Volume" or "the First
Book") is standard among scholars. Sikhs commonly express
their reverence for the scripture by referring to it as Sri Guru
Granth Sahib (sahib is a title of respect). Every copy is identical in both script and page number; there are 1,430 pages in
every copy. It was composed using the Gurmukhi script and a
variety of languages that were used in northern India at the
time, most prevalently Punjabi. It also contains some words
in Arabic, Persian, Prakrit, and Sanskrit. All of these factors
render the Adi Granth somewhat difficult to read, as well as
difficult to translate. Today, however, English and French
translations are available. Many Sikh families have at least a
condensed version of the Adi Granth, containing all of the
works used in daily prayers, including Guru Nanak's ]apji, which
is the only portion of the entire Adi Granth that is chanted,
rather than sung. For Sikhs, the Adi Granth rings with brilliance when it is set to
music and proclaimed in its original language. In the words of one commentator: "The
poetic excellence, the spiritual content, and the haunting, lilting melodies of the
hymns of the Adi Granth are Sikhism's greatest attraction to this day."8
The Dasam Granth The composition of the Dasam Granth ("Volume of the Tenth
Master") has been traditionally attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, although many
Sikhs today regard only some parts to have been authored by the Guru. The first
compilation of works into the Dasam Granth is thought to have taken place in 1734
(twenty-six years after the death of Guru Gobind Singh), although in the ensuing
decades variant versions appeared. In 1902, the version that is used today was officially
During the eighteenth century, the Dasam Granth was considered to be Guru alongside the Adi Granth. Today, however, only one group of Sikhs, the Nihangs, bestow equal
honor on the Dasam Granth. Nevertheless, the sections of the text that all Sikhs
attribute to Guru Gobind Singh can safely be categorized as Sikh scripture. These
sections include the well-known]ap Sahib and the Ten Savayyas; both are recited daily
in morning prayers.
The Rahit In the chapter's opening, we observed that the Amrit Sanchar, the Khalsa
initiation ceremony, is undertaken only by a minority of Sikhs, even though the Khalsa
A Sikh reads from Sri
Guru Granth Sahib, here
occupying its customary
place on a cushion
within a gurdwara.
Chapter 7 SIKHISM
continues to exemplify the ideals of Sikhism. These ideals are spelled out in written
form in rahit-namas, texts composed over the centuries and collectively referred to as
the Rahit. Traditionally, the contents of the Rahit are believed to stem from the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh himself. In both this section on Sikh doctrinal teachings
and the following section on Sikh religious life, we shall draw frequently from the
contents of the Rahit.
On God, the Human Condition, and Spiritual Liberation
More than anything else, Sikhism is a religious path to spiritual liberation through
devotional praise of God, most especially by way of meditation on the divine Name.
This meditation is often done through prayerful recitation of sacred words. In this
section, we take up in more detail three main aspects of Sikh teachings that will shed
light on this religious path: the nature of God and the "divine Name"; the nature of
the human condition and its need, through the aid of the Guru, to move from darkness to enlightenment; and the nature ofliberation, which is release from samsara, the
cycle of death and rebirth.
Sikhism teaches that the ultimate purpose of life is to attain mukti (spiritual
liberation). This liberation is similar to Hindu moksha, "release" from samsara, the
cycle of death and rebirth (a concept Sikhism also adopted from Hinduism). This
release is believed to bring about an experience of being in the presence of God, a state
of eternal bliss.
God: Formless One, Creator, True Guru Guru Nanak's understanding of the
nature of God is the center from which all Sikh teachings emerge. It is fitting that the
Adi Granth begins with a concise summary of Sikh theology. This summary is ...
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