The World’s Fifth Largest religion: Sikhism is one of the youngest of the major religions and the world’s fifth largest religion as well as the world’s ninth-largest overall religion, with about 25 million Sikhs as of the early 21st century. 75% of Sikhs live in the Punjab state in northwest India where the religion began. Adherents of Sikhism are known as Sikhs, meaning ‘students’ or ‘disciples’ of the Guru.

The religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who showed early signs of brilliance in philosophy as a child. Guru Nanak taught that living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above the metaphysical truth, and that the ideal man is one who “establishes union with God, knows His Will, and carries out that Will.“ Sikhism rejects claims that any particular religious tradition has a monopoly on Absolute Truth. The religion developed and evolved in times of religious persecution, gaining converts from both Hinduism and Islam.

At 30 years of age Guru Nanak proclaimed his mission to teach the new religion. As was his habit, he went to bathe in a nearby stream, when he suddenly disappeared in the water and was presumed drowned for three days and nights, when he suddenly reappeared and said he had been in the presence of God who charged him with a mission to bring people back to holy ways of living.

Basic Concepts: Sikhism therefore believes in:

  • One God/Creator;
  • that all people are created equal; human life is a precious blessing and opportunity to learn to come back to God;
  • that we should live a life of service to the Creator and our fellow humans;
  • that Sikhs are warriors of Truth;
  • Salvation is possible in this life;

His teachings were complete in the lives of ten Gurus who succeeded Guru Nanak till 1708 and continues in the holy book of Sikh teaching, the Granth Sahib, which is the eleventh and final Guru.

The Mul Mantra: Sikh philosophy is best summed up in the words of the Mul (or ‘Root’) Mantra:

Ikk ōankār sat(i)-nām(u) kartā purakh(u) nirpà’u nirver(u) akāl mūrat(i) ajūnī sepàŋ gur-prasād(i)॥

Translated: There is one supreme being, the eternal reality (true name), the creator, without fear, devoid of enmity, immortal, never incarnated, self-existent, (known by) the grace of the Guru.

This is the Mūl Mantar (‘Moola’ or ‘Root Mantram’), the opening words of the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. It consists of twelve words in the Punjabi language, written in Gurmukhi script, and are the most widely known among the Sikhs. They summarize the essential teaching of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The Mul Mantar is a succinct doctrinal statement of Sikhism.

The Influence of Hinduism and Islam: The word ‘Sikh’ means, ‘Learner or Student’. ‘Sikhism’ is a Western term referring to those who follow the Sikh religion. To Sikhs it is not a religion as such but more a way of life.

The Indian state ofPunjab where Sikhism evolved, is at the crossroads of what is now Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India. It is not surprising therefore that Sikhism combines the teachings of devotional Hinduism (Bhakti Marga) and mystical Islam (Sufi) teachings.

A Monotheistic Religion: Devotion/surrender to the One God, ‘Ik Onkar’ (‘One with Everything’), and ‘Wahe Guru’ (‘Wonderful Teacher’).

All powerful, non-understandable God. Rejection of idol worship and the caste system of Hinduism.

Devotion is prized over intellectual understanding.

Unlike other monotheistic religions, Sikhism does not seek to actively convert others to their faith.

It stresses living their beliefs: Sewa: service to humanity; Simran: remembrance of God by repetition or recital of His Name or Naam.

In Sikhism, the concept of “God” is Waheguru (‘Wondrous Lord’) considered to be Nirankar (‘Shapeless’), Akal (‘Timeless’), Karta Purakh (‘The Creator’), and Agam Agochar (‘Incomprehensible and Invisible’). The Sikh scripture begins with Ik Onkar (ੴ), which refers to the “Formless One”, understood in the Sikh tradition as monotheistic unity of God.

Sikh ethics emphasize the congruence between spiritual development and everyday moral conduct. Its founder Guru Nanak summarized this perspective: Truth is the highest virtue, but higher still is truthful living.

Monotheism: Religions can be categorized broadly into different types:

  • Monotheistic.
  • Polytheistic.
  • Henotheistic.
  • Pantheistic.
  • Folk Religions.
  • Animist Religions.

Monotheism has been defined as the belief in the existence of only one god that created the world, is all-powerful, and intervenes in the world. A broader definition of monotheism is the belief in one god. A distinction may be made between exclusive monotheism, and both inclusive monotheism and pluriform (panentheistic) monotheism which, while recognising various distinct gods, postulate some underlying unity.

Monotheism is distinguished from henotheism, a religious system in which the believer worships one god without denying that others may worship different gods with equal validity, and monolatrism, the recognition of the existence of many gods but with the consistent worship of only one deity.

The broader definition of monotheism characterizes the traditions of Sikhism, Bábism, the Bahá’í Faith, Balinese Hinduism, Cao Dai (Caodaiism), Cheondoism (Cheondogyo), Christianity, Deism, Eckankar, Hindu sects such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Islam, Judaism, Mandaeism, Rastafari, Seicho no Ie, Tengrism (Tangrism), Tenrikyo (Tenriism), Yazidism, and Zoroastrianism.

Elements of pre-monotheistic thought are found in early religions such as Atenism (Ancient Egypt), Ancient Chinese religion, and Yahwism (Israel).

Guru and Liberation: Guru: the keystone of Sikhism is devotion to a teacher, or Guru. Without a Guru as a guide you cannot reach Moksha (release from the cycle of reincarnations). But the Guru himself/herself is not to be worshipped.

Guru Nanak’s teachings are founded not on a final destination of heaven or hell but on a spiritual union with the Akal (Formless) which results in Salvation or Jivanmukti’ (Enlightenment/Liberation within one’s lifetime’), a concept also found in Hinduism. Guru Gobind Singh makes it clear that human birth is obtained with great fortune, therefore one needs to be able to make the most of this life.

Sikhs believe in Reincarnation and Karma concepts found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. However, in Sikhism, both karma and liberation “is modified by the concept of God’s Grace” (nadar, mehar, kirpa, karam, etc.). Guru Nanak states that “the body takes birth because of Karma, but salvation is attained through Grace.” To get closer to God, Sikhs: avoid the evils of maya; keep the everlasting truth in mind; practice Shabad Kirtan (musical recitation of hymns); Meditate on the Naam (God’s Name); and serve humanity. Sikhs believe that being in the company of the Satsang (association with Sat, ‘true’, people) or Sadh – Sangat is one of the key ways to achieve liberation from the cycles of reincarnation.

Maya: Illusion: People live in a state of illusion or the Hindu concept of ‘Maya’, remote from their true God-like qualities due to the operation of the ‘Five Thieves’: Ego, Anger, Greed, Attachment, and Lust. These qualities divorce us from God. We are in love with the Five Thieves and have forgotten God. We must disconnect from Maya and reconnect with God.

We need to look inward to find what we already know in the better part of ourselves – ‘Akal’ – the purpose of life – to reconnect with the Oneness of Truth.

There is no Heaven or Hell. Release from this life of dedication to worldliness through reconnection with the Oneness.

Sikhs believe in Reincarnation (that we are all subject to repeated rebirth), Karma (the law of action and reaction); that we should avoid the illusion of worldly values and behaviour (Maya); and in service to other humans, and in social justice.

Devotion and Music: Sikhism has a huge emphasis on remembrance and chanting of the Divine Name. Music is very important as all Sikh hymns are mixed with music.

Sikhs should pray at least two hours per day morning and night.

In all these things they follow the Hindu tradition of Devotional Yoga or ‘Bhakti Marga’ especially the Hindu practice of chanting mantras (sacred words and phrases) in a group setting called ‘Kirtan’.

Service: to the community in action is what kills out Ego.

Three types of service:

Tan: Physical Service;

Man: Mental Service;

Dan: Material Service.

Sikhism has a huge emphasis on social justice and helping people to live better lives.

Family Life: Sikhism believes in the equality of men and women. Sikhism rejects asceticism and expects all Sikhs to marry and family life is central to Sikh culture: ‘Be in the world but not of it’.

Khalsa and the Five ‘Ks’: refers to both a special group of initiated Sikhs, as well as a community that considers Sikhism as its faith.

All Sikhs initiated into the Sikh way of life have the surname – ‘Singh’ (Lion) if a boy, and ‘Kaur’ (Princess) if a girl.

Initiated Sikhs must follow the Five ‘K’s’:

Kesh: Don’t cut your hair;

Kara: wear a metal bracelet;

Kanga: wear a wooden comb;

Kirpan: carry a sword or dagger;

Kacclera: wear a special undergarment/shorts.

Holy Book: The Guru Granth Sahib: a collection of hymns and prayers of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, and the other nine Gurus. This book is considered to be the 11th Guru.

The book has a place of honour in every Sikh place of worship (Godwara). Readings take place every week (Sunday) and in its completeness once per year.

The city of Amritsar in the Punjab: the main spiritual centre of Sikhism. The Golden Temple with a huge kitchen (Langar) providing up to 100,000 meals per day free of any charge. Food is served here to all visitors who want it, regardless of faith, gender or economic background. Vegetarian food is served and all people eat together as equals. Everyone sits on the floor in rows, which is called pangat. The meal is served by volunteers as part of their kar seva ethos.

The Golden Temple is built around a man-made pool (sarovar) that was completed by the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Dasin 1577.The Gurdwara was repeatedly rebuilt by the Sikhs after it became a target of persecution and was destroyed several times by the Mughal and invading Afghan armies. Maharaja Ranjit Singh after founding the Sikh Empire, rebuilt it in marble and copper in 1809, overlaid the sanctum with gold foil in 1830. This has led to the name the Golden Temple.

In front of the sanctum and the causeway is the Akal Takht building. It is the chief Takht, a center of authority in Sikhism. It is also the headquarters of the main political party of the Indian state of Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal (Supreme Akali Party).The Akal Takht issues edicts or writs (hukam) on matters related to Sikhism and the solidarity of the Sikh community. Its name Akal Takht means “throne of the Timeless (God)”.

Pilgrimages and Priests: Sikhism does not believe in pilgrimages to holy places or the use of priests to recite prayers or perform rituals for others.

Every Sikh should be his or her own priest although there are those who perform priestly duties (the ‘Mahant’ belonging to the ‘Udasi’ sect).

Sects and Orders: There are severalreligious orders of Sikhs based on disputes over the succession of the gurus or points of ritual and tradition:

  • ‘Nirmala’: a strict sect,
  • ‘Nihangi’: a militant order,
  • ‘Namdhari: an ascetic sect,
  • ‘Nirankari’: includes persons of all religions without the requirement of conversion to Sikhism.

Current Issues: The most important issue, besides various political disputes with the Indian government, is the rejection of Khalsa tradition by the younger generation of Sikhs – cutting of long-hair and shaving beards and gradually relapsing into Hinduism. The many attempts to revive the Khalsa tradition have met with limited success.