The Sikhs - Their Religion & Tradition

Gurmukh Singh OBE

The Sikhs - Their Religion & Tradition

Gurmukh Singh OBE
Gurmukh Singh OBE

Guru Nanak Sahib (1469 - 1539) was the founder of Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion today. He introduced a whole-life system outside the caste system and contemporary religious systems. Guru Nanak resolved to combat superstition and ritualism, and oppression in every sphere of social life at every level. He preached the path of truthful conduct in the robust language of the ordinary working people.

Guru Nanak was a revolutionary who systematically laid the foundation of a new theo-political order. He taught that there is One Supreme Source of all creation (called by whatever name) and no other. Unique amongst world religions, he described the God Being's qualities as: The One Reality Whose Name is ever True; the Creator; Fearless; without enmity; of Eternal Form, Un-incarnate; Self-Existent and Self-illuminating; The Enlightener (The Guru), the Bountiful (and realised through Guru's Own Grace). These are also the qualities towards which a Sikh, the devoted seeker after the Ultimate Reality, aspires. From the interpretation of this founding mystique formula were developed all the institutions of the Order of Khalsa, based on human equality and dignity.

Guru Nanak's mission poses a challenge to the priests and the rulers alike. The Guru's challenge to his Sikh is:

If you wish to play the game of love place your head on the palm of your hand and come my way.

For the Sikh relationship between the human soul and the Creator Being, the Universal Soul, is a loving one with complete trust in the Universal Will (Hukam Razaee) and not one based on fear. A person who takes up this challenge, sets his or her foot on the path of truthful conduct leading to a harmonious relationship with the Lord of every human soul, the Creator Being. Guru Nanak taught that basic humanity and sense of service is more important than religious boundaries; that there must be no discrimination based on gender, race or religion, as all are equal before the One Creator; that all have the God-given right to live with honour, dignity and freedom. He travelled thousands of miles over many years, spreading the divine message throughout the Indian subcontinent and many other Countries.

To ensure continuity and implementation of his vision of an ideal social order, Guru Nanak appointed his successor in his own image. This was repeated from one Guru personality to another. So the nine human Guru personalities following him are also referred to as Nanaks one to ten to stress that the succeeding Guru personalities carried the same light (message) of Guru Nanak. Through selection of worthy successors, the Sikh institutions started by Guru Nanak were developed and consolidated over a period of two hundred years.  Nanak X, Guru Gobind Gobind Singh (Guruship 1675 - 1708), made final preparations for the formal introduction of the Khalsa assertive identity and fraternity for organisational strength, common direction and purpose.

Vaisakhi 1699 was the high point of the Sikh tradition.  On the Vaisakhi (harvest festival) day  in 1699, at Anandpur in Punjab, the Guru initiated the first five Sikhs into the Khalsa Panth (Khalsa means 'the pure directly linked to the Guru' and Panth means 'path' or 'religious order'). These were the Five Beloved Ones (Panj Pyare) who had qualified for admission to the ideal society of Guru Nanak. Thousands then followed to join Khalsa Panth. Vaisakhi 1699 was the climax of all that had gone before and the inspiration of all that was to follow. The Guru introduced an ideal social order based on the precepts of the first Guru personality, Guru Nanak. As a corollary to fearless and truthful conduct expected of the Khalsa, the Guru prescribed a visible distinct identity for the Sikhs. Every Sikh was to keep unshorn hair (kesh) as a living part of the complete human body and symbolising a saintly disposition and physical and spiritual harmony (hair to be covered by a Sikh dastar i.e. Sikh turban); wooden comb (kangha) to keep the hair tidy; a steel bangle (kara) symbolising discipline and allegiance to the Guru; a sword (kirpan) reminding a Sikh of his duty to defend the weak and his/her own honour; and a pair of shorts prepared in a special way (Kachhehra aslo referred to as Kachh or Kachha), to allow agile mobility of the body and symbolising chastity.  Thus, kesh (and turban), kangha, kara, kacchehra and kirpan are the Five K s (kakars), gifts of Guru Gobind Singh to the Khalsa. These are not 'symbols' but articles of Sikh faith. Gifts from a loving Guru who sacrificed his parents, his four sons, his own life and all that he possessed for his beloved Khalsa. The Guru's final message to his Sikhs was: Cherish Sikh spiritual and physical discpline, and keep your distinct identity and I shall endow you with my power.

The Khalsa concept emerged as a complete system in 1699: in the form of Khalsa Panth, a nation of saint-soldiers, vested with temporal authority, directed to look at their sacred literature, the Guru Granth Sahib for guidance, and provided with ideals and identity to build   their national character. The Khalsa doctrine of double sovereignty (called Miri-Piri) signifies primary allegiance to truth (spiritual aspect); therefore, to oppose any authoritarian regime and to ensure that state must always accept own limitation of power. Sikhs will not tolerate inequality or injustice wherever they live. They must not hide; indeed they cannot hide due to their Guru given distinct identity, and are required to face injustice head on without fear.

Main features of Sikhism are: God-loving monotheism; no brokerage between God and human beings; direct access to the scriptures written in the popular language of the people; freedom from fear; spiritual and temporal balance through the saint-soldier disposition; rejection of monasticism; stress on family life and community obligations; demolition of every traditional excuse used to perpetuate gender bias; rejection of all types of discrimination.

The three pillars of the Sikh way of life Sikhi  are

  1. meditation on the One True Being,
  2. honest work,
  3. and charity.

A Sikh is required to cultivate the art of eternal optimism (chardhi kalla) in the knowledge that all that happens is in the Will of the Creator. The Guru created a productive, fearless and honest nation out of powerless people at the fringes of society. He created leaders out of ordinary men and then subjected himself to the will of his followers. Thus Sikhism is a 'religion' (whole-life theo-political system) of the people, by the people, for the people.

Some unique events and features of Sikhism are: The Sikh Scriptures, Guru Ganth Sahib, is a unique compilation by Fifth Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev in 1604, of the inspired compositions of  Sikh Gurus and  other saintly beings from different religious backgrounds from as early as the 12th Century. Therefore it contains the essence of over 500 years of The Ultimate Reality as revealed to the human mind at one with Creator. It is the only original  Scriptures personally authenticated by the founder of a major world religion. Quite uniquely, Guru Granth Sahib is regarded as the Living Guru of the Sikhs, being bestowed Guruship by the Guru Gobind Singh in 1708.

The traditional belief is that the foundation stone of Harmandar Sahib (Golden Temple), the most sacred Sikh shrine, was laid by a Muslim saint popularly known as Mian Mir. The Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadhur gave his life in defence of another religion and generally for the freedom of all religions. Uniquely in the history of world religions, Guru Gobind Singh was initiated into the Order of the Khalsa, by his own disciples. Most unique features of the Sikh ideology and institutions stress the acceptance of the human race as one. All people are welcome to the Gurdwara (centre of Sikh community life) irrespective of their religion, colour, or creed. Gurdwaras have a community kitchen called 'Langar' in which food is served without distinction. Anyone can become a Sikh, and millions of people have become Sikhs from many different backgrounds in and countries.

Today there are well over 25 million Sikhs in Panjab, the rest of the Indian subcontinent and many countries around the world. In addition, there are millions of 'vanjara Sikhs' - traders and craftsmen -  throughout India, who believe in Guru Nanak's teaching. Through their hard work and law-abiding nature, Sikhs have become one of the most prosperous communities. They are respected for their skills as professionals, administrators and soldiers. Clearly, the Guru's formula for living: worship, work and charity (i.e. to meditate on One absolute Truth, to earn by your own effort and to share your earnings with others) has worked well for the Khalsa Panth of the Guru.

Key events in Sikh history:

1469-1708: Ten Gurus, from Nanak Sahib to Gobind Singh established Sikhism.
1708-1716: Banda Singh Bahadur, Sikh general appointed by Guru Gibind Singh, establishes the first Khalsa kingdom in Panjab, paving the way for the eventual establishment of Khalsa Raj in Panjab.
1716 to 1762: Massive persecution of Sikhs in Panjab by the authoritarian local Mughal and Hindu rulers. Sikhs survived through own courage, huge sacrifices and popular support.
1762: The Great Holocaust: Ahmed Shah Abdali comes from Afghanistan and
attacks the Sikhs with their families killing over 30,000 Sikh men, women and children.
1766: Ahmad Shah totally routed by the Sikhs near Lahore.
1765 and 1783: The Khalsa took over Delhi 15 times during this period.
1783: Khalsa flag hoisted at Red Fort Delhi on 11th March 1783 and Sardar Baghel Singh led his Khalsa troops into the Fort to be received by a submissive Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II
1799: Ranjit Singh merges individual Sikh areas North of River Sutlej. Together with the Sikh states south of River Sutlej, the Khalsa established a democratic Khalsa administration from Delhi to Peshawar and from the plains of Sindh to Karakoram mountains in the North.
1809: Bilateral treaties between Anglo-Sikh Nations.
1845-1849 Anglo-Sikh wars 1845-1849 resulting in the annexation of Panjab
by the British in 1849 following bitter battles between the Khalsa and the combined forces of the British and Indian states (Muslim poet described these battles as Jang Hind-Panjab i.e. battle between India and Panjab.).
1846: First British Sikhs regiments raised in 1846, and many more after the collapse of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The Sikhs helped the British to crush the Indian Mutiny uprising to prevent return to the cruel Mughal regime aided by Hindu ministers and minor Hindu princedoms. Also, the Sikhs had not forgotten the traitorous assault on Khalsa Raj by the Indians in league with the British in 1849.
1897 Battle of Saragarhi on 12 September, 1897, accepted by UN as one of the most heroic in military history, in which a detachment of 22 Sikhs of 36th Sikhs fought an action against impossible odds. Their heroism was acclaimed by the British Parliament.
1854: Maharaja Duleep Singh brought to the UK in 1854 (probably the first reluctant Sikh immigrant to the UK!). After being dispossessed of his kingdom in 1849, he was also deprived of the world famous Koh-I-Nur, the unique diamond, on arrival in England.
1914:The Sikhs enlist in large numbers during the First World War.
1919 to 1947: Sikhs spearhead the movement for the freedom of the Indian subcontinent from British rule by making over 70 % of the sacrifices according to published figures.
1939:During the Second World War, Sikhs made a massive contribution to the
war effort. During both World Wars, some 1.5 million Sikhs fought for the freedom of humankind and helped to liberate European, African, and Asian countries. 83,000 Sikhs gave their lives, whilst 110,000 were wounded. Many gallant Sikhs were awarded Victoria Crosses for their bravery.
1947 Sikhs in the Indian independence negotiations. Sikhs were promised special concessions by the Indian Union for giving up part of their homeland. Partition of the subcontinent cost the lives of estimated 500,000 Sikhs.
1950s: Sikh migration to the UK from early Nineteen-fifties.
1973: A resolution of self-determination is passed to get the Sikh Nation its rights and what had been promised to the Sikhs during the independence struggle.
1983: A landmark legal decision by the House of Lords in the Mandla case: The Sikh ethnic minority status confirmed: House of Lords (Mandla v Lee (1983) 1 Aller 1062).
1984:The Indian Union Army ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to attack historical Sikh Gurdwaras including Harmandar Sahib at Amritsar (Golden Temple complex). Foreign media journalists ordered out of Panjab in readiness for unlawful killings in Panjab by the Indian army.
1992:Amnesty International produces a damning report - India - Torture, Rape & Deaths in Custody.
2002:Campaign for Sikh ethnic monitoring category reaches the Houses of Parliament. Support by the main political parties for the Sikhs to be monitored as an Ethnic Minority to accord with the legal ruling by the House of Lords in Mandla Case (1983). This would ensure that Sikhs enjoy equal opportunities in all spheres of British life.

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