What is Sikhism?

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Sikhism (derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “learner” or “disciple”) is a religion founded during the 15th century in the Northern Indian subcontinent by the religious teacher Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Sikhism is often viewed as a syncretic religion given that it combines Islamic and Hindu elements.

Founder Guru Nanak

While growing up in a village near Lahore (located in modern day Pakistan) in the 15th century, Guru Nanak became disillusioned with the Hinduism that surrounded him. Islam had also influenced the area since the 10th century, and its importance grew as the Mughal empire in India expanded. Nanak held the Hindu emphasis on ritual, pilgrimage, and reverence for the prophets and holy men to be an obstacle to cultivating a relationship with God, which for him was the most important part of religion. Nanak referred to God by many names, and believed God to be a single omnipresent, and transcendent divinity. Sikhism therefore holds to a monotheistic God concept. At the age of roughly 30, when he had a revelation from God, Nanak devoted his entire life to preaching the path to salvation. He taught that the way believers conducted their lives is integral to achieving unity with God as well as to finding salvation. He accepted the title “guru” (teacher) from his followers, thus becoming the first in a succession of ten Sikh gurus. The teachings of these gurus are collected in the Adi Granth, the Sikh holy book. The book was soon considered the 11th and final guru of Sikhism, and is known as the Guru Granth Sahib. Nanak’s followers became known as Sikhs.

Sacred Texts

Sikhism has two major sacred texts: the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth. The Guru Granth Sahib is the most revered of the religion’s sacred texts. It was composed by ten gurus with the final in this line being Guru Singh. Guru Singh taught that the Guru Granth Sahib is the eternal guru of all Sikhs, and thus acts as their spiritual guide and teacher. The Dasam Granth compositions are attributed to Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), and touch on numerous topics including devotions, daily prayers, poetry, hymns, reflections on Hindu deities, and an autobiography (of Guru Singh). There are also the Janamsākhīs (birth stories), which are biographies of Guru Nanak. These are not considered as important as the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth but are believed to provide important information on Nanak and the origins of Sikhism.

View of God

Sikhs believe in an infinite, omnipresent, and transcendent God who is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God is thought to be beyond human comprehension but not wholly unknowable. One means for communicating with God is through the practice of meditation. Sikhs verbally repeat the name of God in their hearts and on their lips as a way of remembrance. Sikhism also claims that many people cannot find unity with God or cannot see God’s reality because they are blinded by pride and a preoccupation with worldly, material interests. However, Sikhism is not ascetic like some other Indian religious traditions which expect followers to detach themselves from worldly life in order to get to know God.

The Cycle of Death and Rebirth

Sikhism, like other religions of Indian origin such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, holds to belief in the cycle of death and rebirth. The aim of human life is not to attain paradise, for Sikhs do not believe in a final destination of heaven or hell. Rather, to be born a human being is to be provided a God given opportunity to take the path to salvation. Human beings accumulate karma, and how one will be reborn in his or her next life will depend how he or she acts in the present life. Sikhs believe that obtaining knowledge of and a union with God is the means for escaping this cycle of death and rebirth and obtaining liberation. Sikhs believe that the individual needs to pass through five stages to attain liberation: wrongdoing; devotion to God; spiritual union with God; attainment of eternal bliss; and freedom from rebirth.

The Khalsa

The Sikhs follow a strict code of conduct, which was formally laid down by Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru, when he created the order of the Khalsa, the community of all Sikhs baptized into the faith. The Khalsa, founded in 1699, was created in response to persecution of Sikhs under the Islamic Mughal empire when Guru Singh called on fellow believers to lay down their lives in defense of their faith. Sikhs also experienced persecution and contestation from Hindus who viewed their faith as heretical. Guru Singh intended the Khalsa to embody the twofold virtues of bhakti (spirituality or devotion) and shakti (powerfulness). He intended to bring to fruition the “sant-sipahi” (saint solider), a Sikh devoted to God as well as willing to take the role of a warrior to defend the faith or to prevent injustices, if necessary. Moreover, the members of the Khalsa are encouraged to share with others, protect the poor, weak, and oppressed, as well as commit their lives to a virtuous lifestyle, which includes keeping God in mind at all times, embracing chastity and temperance, and abolishing the five vices: lust (kaam), anger (krodh), greed (lobh), emotional attachment (moh), and egotism (ahankar). Sikhs are expected to play an active role in the world through their commitment to family, community, and to social conscience.

The Five Articles of Faith

The Five Articles of Faith, also known as the Five Ks, refers to the Sikh dress code instructed by Guru Singh to be worn at all times as a sign of commitment to the Sikh way of life. The Five Ks are: Kesh (uncut hair tied and wrapped in a Dastar or Turban, which emulates the appearance of Guru Gobind Singh), Kangha (a wooden comb worn beneath the Dastar, which acts as a symbol of cleanliness), Katchera (an undergarment worn as a reminder of the commitment to purity and to control lust,), Kara (a steel or iron bracelet, worn as a symbol of eternity and God’s infinite nature), and the Kirpan (a curved sword or dagger symbolizing bravery, and the Sikh responsibility of coming to the aid of the weak and innocent).

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