What is Sikhism?

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

Founder Guru Nanak

Growing up in a village near Lahore (located in modern-day Pakistan) in the fifteenth century, Guru Nanak became disillusioned with the Hinduism that surrounded him. Islam had also influenced the area since the tenth 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 thirty, when he received a revelation from God, Nanak devoted his life to preaching the path to salvation. He taught that the way believers conducted their lives is crucial to attaining unity with God and finding salvation. He accepted the title “guru” (teacher) from his followers and became 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 considered the eleventh 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 produced by ten gurus with the final one being Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). Guru Singh taught that the Guru Granth Sahib is the eternal guru of all Sikhs and acts as their spiritual guide and teacher.

The Dasam Granth compositions are attributed to Guru Gobind Singh and engage various topics including devotions, daily prayers, poetry, hymns, reflections on Hindu deities, and an autobiography (of Guru Gobind 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 origin 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 beyond human comprehension but not wholly unknowable. One can communicate with God 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. Sikhism is not ascetic like several other Indian religious traditions that expect followers to detach themselves from worldly life.

The Cycle of Death and Rebirth

Sikhism, like other religions of Indian origin (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) affirms the cycle of death and rebirth. Life is not about attaining paradise because Sikhs do not believe in a final destination of heaven or hell. Instead, to be born is to be provided a God-given opportunity to take the path to salvation. The individual accumulates karma and how he will be reborn will depend on his acts in the present life. Sikhs believe that obtaining knowledge of and a union with God is the means for attaining liberation and escaping the cycle of death and rebirth. 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

Sikhs follow a strict code of conduct that was formally laid down by Guru Gobind Singh when he created the Khalsa, the community of all Sikhs baptized into the faith. The Khalsa was founded in 1699 in response to the persecution of Sikhs under the Islamic Mughal empire. Guru Singh called on believers to lay down their lives in defense of their faith. Sikhs also experienced persecution and contestation from Hindus who viewed the Sikh faith as heretical.

Guru Singh intended the Khalsa to embody the twofold virtues of bhakti (spirituality or devotion) and shakti (powerfulness). He wanted to bring to materialize the sant-sipahi (saint soldier), namely a Sikh devoted to God and who is willing to take the role of a warrior in order to defend the faith or to prevent injustices. 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 must embrace an active role in the world through their commitment to family and community.

The Five Articles of Faith

The Five Articles of Faith, also known as the Five Ks, refer to the Sikh dress code instructed 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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