Sikhism is the religion and the way of life for those who call themselves Sikhs. The word sikh (Panjabi; Sanskrit, siksya) means «a learner» or «a disciple.» Sikhs believe in one God, Ik Onkar, and are disciples of the Guru. In Indian usage guru can refer to any religious teacher or guide, but when used by Sikhs it strictly refers to God as Sat Guru (true teacher), as well as referring to ten listed Gurus extending from Guru Nanak (b. 1469 AD) to Guru Gobind Singh (d. 1708), and to the Adi Granth (Sikh scripture), known as Guru Granth Sahib, and revered to as such.

The Sikhs accept initiation with amrit, according to the rahit maryana, which gives detailed requirements. Together the Sikhs make up the panth in which it is believed that the guidance of the Guru is also present, but in a more limited way. Fully committed and initiated Sikhs belong to the khalsa. There are about fourteen million Sikhs in India, four-fifths in Panjab, and, the largest number in diaspora, about three hundred thousand in the United Kingdom.

The founding of Sikhism began in the context of the Muslim-Hindu confrontation in northern India, when some, such as the Kabir, were seeking to reconcile the truth. This was a time of great devotion (bhakti) to God, all of which, especially the Vaisnavites, was influential on Guru Nanak, who had personally undergone a profound experience with God. While others left no organized religious movement perpetuating its vision of God, Guru Nanak did, not the least because of his decision to appoint a succeeding guru.

He made no attempt to merge Hinduism and Islam, but simply insisted upon the worship of the True Name (Nam), God who can be found within and does not require the rituals and doctrinal controversies of existing religions: «There is no Hindu or Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow the path of God.»

Guru Nanak empathized the absolute and sovereignty of God, creator of all that is: everything is dependent upon his will (hukam). He does not become present within the world, a belief which is in contrast with the Hindu conceptions of avatars, but makes known his will and way. In discerning this, meditation (nam simaran) on sabda, «sound,» is of paramount importance, especially through repetition of the Name, or on the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib. Karma
and samsara are accepted: the way to release or liberation is to move one’s life against one’s willful and disordered inclination (haumai) into alignment with the will (hukam) of God.

This is only possible because of the help of God, the equivalent of grace, described by various words such as kirpa, nadar, prasad. «Karma determines the nature of our birth, but the door of salvation is found only through grace.» (Adi Granth, p. 2) A Sikh moves from being a wayward wrong doer(manmukh) to being one who is devoted to and absorbed in the Guru (gurmukh), The manmukh gives way to the five evil passions and is lost in mara (understood by the Sikhs as the error which attributes higher value to the material world than to the spiritual).

Those who move from manmukh to gurmukh pass through stages (khand)» dharm khand, living appropriately, or according to the dharma; gian khand, deep knowledge; saram khand, effort or joy; karam khand, effort or joy; sach khand, bliss beyond words and beyond rebirth, merging with the divine as a drop in the ocean or a spark in the flame. The attainment of sach khand does not depend on ascetic renunciation of this world, but on finding and following the will of God in everyday life. Therefore, Sikhs can remain grihash, householders, in contrast to the four asramas of the Hindus, for whom grhastra is just one stage, to be followed by progressive renunciation.

Guru Nanak never believed other religions to be untrue or worthless, but he thought their attention to details of ritual and outward observance could be an impediment. «Humans are led astray by reading of words; performers of ritual are vain and proud. How can it help to bathe in a place of pilgrimage, if the uncleanness of pride is in the heart?» No conflicts with other major religions occurred under the first four Gurus, and marks of Sikhism were developed.

The major marks were the Sikh days in the religious calendar; under Ram Das the acquirement of the «tank of nectar»; and the building of Amritsar leading to the Harimandir (Golden Temple), which became the center of the Sikh identity. While always having friendly relations with the Hindus, the Sikhs experienced increasing tensions with the Muslim and Mughal emperors, which led to forming the khalsa under the tenth Guru Gobind Singh.

The khalsa is a community of Sikhs who have received khande-di-pahul, and are distinguished by the Five Ks. Being driven into increasing co-operation with the Hindus against the continual invasions for conquest led by Muslims, the Sikhs began reverting to customs abhorred by the first Gurus, such as the caste, the sacred cow (go), and sati.

Various reformed movements emerged, notably that of Dyal Das (1783-1855), whose Nirankris (the formless) resisted the use of images, even those of the Gurus; Sain Sahib (d. 1862) whose Narmdharis attacked all reversion to Hinduism and held that a continuing Guru is necessary; and Sant Nirankari Mandal (the Universal Brotherhood not to be confused with Nirankaris), which has modified traditional practices and was banned and boycotted by the Akal Thakht, in 1978. In response to Christian missionaries, Singh Sabha was formed.

The British (after conquering the last Sikh empire following the Sikh Wars), recognized with some gratitude the Sikh assurance during the Mutiny, and reinforced their spiritual independence. Partly from this encouragement, the Akali movement emerged, which secured the return of gurdwaras to Sikh control and remains committed to Sikh autonomy in the Punjab (Khalistan).

The communal nature of the Sikh religion is greatly emphasized by its institutions, with seva, community service, being highly valued. Guru Nanak had established the dharmsala as a place of assembly, in distinction from Hindu temples, notably by including the langar as the basis for communal meals. The dharmsala led to the gurdwara (though Namdharis retained the older named).

The Sikhs are expected to rise early, bathe, and recite the Japi, which begins with the Mul Mantra. The share some festivals, which are adapted in the Sikh direction, with the Hindus and hold others led by their own celebrating Gurus. Sikh worship is simple compared to Hindu ritual; and kitran if prominent. A.G.H.


Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 899-900