Quick Introduction to Sikhism

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Religion
Second Edition
by Lindsay Jones (Editor)

The word Sikh means disciple or student (from Sanskrit sisya, Pali sikha). Sikhism is traced to the person and ideology of Guru Nanak, who was born in the Punjab in 1469. The religion developed through Nanak’s nine successor Gurus within the historical and geographical parameters of Hinduism and Islam. In the early twenty-first century there are twenty million Sikhs. The vast majority lives in the fertile plains of the Punjab, with agriculture as a major occupation. But with their spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship skills, many have migrated to other parts of India and around the globe. Sikhs follow the teachings of their ten Gurus—from Nanak to Gobind Singh. They believe in the oneness of reality. They revere their sacred text, the Guru Granth. They conduct public worship in a gurdwara, with the Guru Granth as the center of all their rites and ceremonies. Both Sikh men and women keep their hair unshorn and identify themselves in the code given by their tenth Guru.


Sikhism began with the religious experience of Nanak. When he was twenty-nine years old, he had a divine revelation. Thereafter Nanak traveled extensively, spreading his message of the singularity of the ultimate reality and the consequent unity of humanity. Poetry was his medium of expression. At the end of his travels, he settled on the banks of the river Ravi, where a community of Sikhs gathered. Several institutions that are vital to Sikh spirituality and morality in the twenty-first century had their genesis in this first community established by Nanak.

Seva, voluntary service, was for Nanak an essential condition of moral discipline. Through service to their community, Sikh believers cultivate humility, overcome egotism, and purify their body and mind. Seva may take the form of attending to the holy book, sweeping and dusting Sikh shrines, or preparing and serving food. It also includes helping the larger community by building schools, hospitals, orphanages, and charity homes.

Langar is both the community meal and the kitchen in which it is prepared. In Guru Nanak’s time, the idea of different castes eating together was revolutionary. It has evolved into a central practice of Sikhism. Eating together in a gurdwara complex means a lot to Sikhs, especially in diasporic communities. So long as they cover their heads, non-Sikhs are welcomed too. Langar testifies to the social equality and familyhood of all people.

Sangat is a sacred gathering of Sikhs. Guru Nanak welcomed everyone who wished to follow his teachings. It is an egalitarian community without priests or ordained ministers. Members of a Sikh congregation sit on the floor as they sing hymns, listen to scriptural readings, and pray together without restrictions of gender, race, creed, or caste. According to Sikh scripture, sangat has transformative powers: “Just as iron rubbed against the philosopher’s stone turns into gold, so does dark ignorance transform into brilliant light in company of the good” (Guru Granth 303).

A Guru, for Nanak, is someone who reveals the divine. The role of the Guru is to apply the eyeliner of knowledge (gyan anjan) to enhance vision so one can see the transcendent One (Guru Granth 610). Before Guru Nanak passed away, he appointed Angad as his successor, bequeathing him his inspired utterances. The second Guru continued the tradition of sacred poetry, which he felt was important for the knowledge it brought to human life. The transference of guruship from Nanak to Angad was repeated successively until the installation of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. The ten Gurus are:

Guru Nanak (1469–1539)
Guru Angad (1504–1552)
Guru Amar Das (1479–1574)
Guru Ram Das (1534–1581)
Guru Arjan (1563–1606)
Guru Hargobind (1595–1644)
Guru Har Rai (1630–1661)
Guru Har Kishen (1656–1664)
Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621–1675)
Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708)

For the Sikhs the same light is reflected in these ten different bodies, and the same voice speaks through all ten. Before his death in 1708, the tenth Guru ended the line of personal Gurus by investing the Granth with guruship. From that time on, Sikhs have revered the Granth as their ever present Guru and derived their guidance and inspiration from this sacred book. There is no other Guru. Thus the message and the mission begun by Guru Nanak continued through nine more Gurus and culminated in the Guru Granth. Sikhs celebrate the identity between their Gurus and their poetic utterances: “Bani [voice] is the Guru, the Guru is Bani, within Bani lie all elixirs” (Guru Granth 982).


Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru, was the son of Bibi Bhani (daughter of Guru Amar Das, the third Guru) and Guru Ram Das (the fourth Guru). During his guruship, Sikhism acquired strong scriptural, doctrinal, and organizational foundations. Guru Arjan gave Sikhism its scripture, the Guru Granth, and its sacred space, the Golden Temple (Hari Mandir). He encouraged agriculture and trade and organized a system of financial support for the Sikh religion. During this period Sikhs traded in Afghanistan, Persia, and Turkey. Guru Arjan articulated a distinct Sikh identity that was clearly different from Hinduism and Islam: “I do not make the hajj nor any Hindu pilgrimage, I serve the One and no other. I neither perform Hindu worship nor do I offer Muslim prayers, I have taken the formless One into my heart. I am neither Hindu nor Muslim” (Guru Granth 1136).

Arjan’s compilation of the Granth and his building of the Hari Mandir were both vital phenomena for the construction of Sikh psyche and Sikh identity.

The Guru Granth. With Bhai Gurdas as his scribe, Arjan compiled the Guru Granth in 1604. He gathered together the passionate expressions of the Sikh Gurus, Hindu bhaktas, and Muslim saints. The Sikh Guru’s editorial lens did not demarcate boundaries between Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim: the spiritual language was common to them all. Whatever resonated philosophically and artistically with the verse of the founding Guru, he included it in the Granth. But Arjan did not model the Sikh text on either Muslim or Hindu scriptures, nor did he include passages from either of their revered scriptures. Against a divisive backdrop in which God was either Ram or Rahim, the worship was either namaz or puja, the place of worship mandir or masjid, and the language of scripture either Sanskrit or Arabic, the Sikh Guru brought together voices that expressed a common spiritual quest. What governed Guru Arjan’s choice was not a syncretism or synthesis of concepts and doctrines from prevailing religious traditions but rather his penetrating insight into the divine. Like his predecessors, Guru Arjan believed that knowledge of the transcendent is attained neither through servitude to a god of the Hindu pantheon (sevai gosain) nor through worship to Allah (sevai allah). It is received through an active recognition of, and participation in, the divine will (hukam): Some address Ram, some Khuda, Some worship Gosain, some Allah . . . . Says Nanak, those who recognize the divine will It is they who know the secret of the transcendent One. (Guru Granth 885)

Arjan was a prolific poet and reiterated Nanak’s metaphysical formulation, “Ik Oankar” (literally, “1 Being Is”) in vivid imagery and from a variety of perspectives. The Granth contains 2,218 hymns by him, including his popular hymn Sukhmani (The pearl of peace). Once the Granth was complete, Guru Arjan set most of its hymns to thirty-one classical Indian ragas. In this way he harmonized the verses with the natural rhythm of the day, season, region, and inner moods and emotions. But he did not limit the musical measures to the classical raga system; he also utilized folk musical patterns with elemental beats as well as regional bhakti and kafi forms with their own primal rhythms and other musical styles extending from Afghanistan to the south of the Indian Peninsula. Rather than construct theological treatises or list ethical injunctions, he gave the Sikhs a body of literature, which he wanted them to eat (khavai) and savor (bhunchai). In his epilogue to the Granth, Arjan offers the Granth as a platter: “they who eat this, they who relish it / they are liberated.”

The Guru Granth is a thal (large metal dish) on which lies truth (sat), contentment (santokh), and contemplation (vicaru). The epistemological value of these dishes is savored and absorbed by the body. The fifth Guru made Nanak’s aesthetic experience the quintessential practice for the growing Sikh community.

The Hari Mandir. On August 16, 1604, Guru Arjan ceremoniously put the Granth in the inner sanctuary of the Hari Mandir in Amritsar. He had built the gurdwara in the center of a pool his father had begun. The Guru-architect’s structural plans and designs concretized the philosophical message and the literary patterns of the sacred verse. Later patrons, including Maharaja Ranjit Singh, employed Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh craftspeople to build upon and embellish the unique Sikh ideals cherished by Guru Arjan. Emerging from the shimmering waters, Guru Arjan’s structure appears to stand without any solid borders or boundaries. The innumerable abstract patterns on its walls set the imagination in motion. The panoramic view of the building merging at once with transparent waters and radiant sunlight sweeps the visitor into a sensory swirl. Here the Sikhs visually encounter Guru Nanak’s perception of the infinite One.

The entry into the Golden Temple complex requires a downward motion. The physical descent ensures that the precincts are entered with a sense of humility. Guru Nanak had said, “Getting rid of ego, we receive the word” (Guru Granth 228). In order to absorb the divine, the selfish, egotistical “I” must be emptied. Guru Arjan reiterated the pathogenic effects of egocentricity: “By getting rid of arrogance we become devoid of hatred” (Guru Granth 183). The poison of arrogance and egocentricity fills arteries with hostility toward the human family and the mind with inertia and ignorance.

The four doors of the Hari Mandir were Arjan’s architectural translation of his ethical injunction: “kshatriya, brahman, sudra, and vaisya, all four classes have the same mandate” (Guru Granth 747). Rejecting societal distinctions, the Granth declares that religion succeeds “when the entire earth becomes one color” (Guru Granth 663). “Color” (varna) is the standard Indian word for the four classes, so by calling for the world to be of “one color,” it is demanding an end to class discrimination. The four doors opened up to welcome people from all castes and complexions. Walking through the doors, Sikhs could understand what Nanak meant: “accept all humans as your equals, and let them be your only sect” (Japu 28).


The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa (Community of the Pure) in 1699 and translated Nanak’s metaphysical ideal of the singular divine into an effective social reality. Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Guru and father of Guru Gobind Singh) gave up his life for religious freedom. The tenth Guru was barely nine at that time. His mother, Mata Gujari, brought him up courageously. Sikhs pay homage at the two shrines dedicated to her near the town of Sirhind: Gurdwara Mata Gujari, where she spent the last four days of her life and, just a mile away, Gurdwara Joti Sarup, where she was cremated.

The Khalsa was born when Guru Gobind Singh invited the first five initiates to sip amrit, the sacred nectar, from the same bowl. By sipping from the same bowl, these five people from different castes boldly denounced the divisions of caste, class, and hereditary profession. Guru Gobind Singh had prepared the drink by stirring water in a steel bowl with his double-edged sword while sacred hymns were recited. His wife, Mata Jitoji, added sugar puffs, intermingling the strength of steel with the sweetness of sugar. The drink nourished the initiates physically and psychologically to fight against oppressive and unjust leaders and uphold the values of liberty and equality.

The amrit initiation is open to both Sikh men and women, and both are equally enjoined to wear the emblems of the Khalsa, popularly known as the “five K’s”:
1. kesha, uncut hair,
2. kangha, a comb tucked in the hair to keep it tidy,
3. kara, a steel bracelet worn around the right wrist,
4. kacha, long underwear,
5. kirpan, a sword.

These five K’s have become an essential part of their individual and communal identity. Furthermore all Sikh men have the surname Singh, meaning “lion,” and all women have the surname Kaur, meaning “princess.” Thus Sikh men and women abandon their former castes, hereditary occupations, belief systems, and rituals and join the new family. Women are liberated from tracing their lineage to their father or adopting a husband’s name after marriage.

Guru Gobind Singh was also a superb poet. He composed heroic and martial poetry to inspire bravery and infuse the hearts of men and women with self-confidence and love for the divine. His verses are included in the collection known as the Dasam Granth (Tenth book).


By the middle of the eighteenth century Sikhs had become a major political force, and at the end of the century they established a state of their own. In 1799 Ranjit Singh, the nineteen-year-old leader of a Khalsa band, seized power peacefully in the city of Lahore. Guided by Sada Kaur (1762–1832), his mother-in-law, Ranjit Singh integrated twelve warring Sikh bands into a sovereign state. In 1801 the Sikhs crowned him Maharaja of the Punjab. Known as the “Lion of the Punjab,” Ranjit Singh ruled for forty years. He created a formidable army and added Multan, Kashmir, and Peshawar to his kingdom. His court represented unparalleled pageantry and brilliance. He wore the world’s largest diamond (the Kohinoor) on his right arm.

The Maharaja remained a devout Sikh who built and renovated many shrines. Even his foreign employees had to live by the Sikh code: they had to wear their beards long and refrain from eating beef and from smoking tobacco. A decade after his death, Sikhs lost their enormous and splendid kingdom to the British in 1849. Ranjit Singh’s wife, Maharani Jindan (1817–1863), was famous for her sharp intelligence, and the British referred to her as the only courageous “man” in the area. The Sikh Maharaja’s Kohinoor diamond was cut down to fit Queen Victoria’s crown, and his young son Dalip (1838–1893) was converted to Christianity and exiled to England. Generations of heroic Sikhs began to serve the British army, valorously fighting in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Sikhs formed a major part of the imperial army in World War I.


Maharaja Ranjit Singh loved pomp and ceremony, and at his court he reintroduced many of the Brahmanic rites that had been discarded by the Sikh Gurus. Later, under colonial rule, Christian missionaries started to make conversions among the Sikhs. In response to this loss of Sikh identity, the Singh Sabha movement was founded in Amritsar in 1873. Its goal was to reform and renew Sikh philosophy and culture. Similar movements were founded by Hindus and Muslims to counteract Christian missionary activity. The Singh Sabha promoted the building of Sikh schools and colleges; one of its greatest achievements was the founding of the Khalsa College at Amritsar in 1892.

The Singh Sabha also encouraged the production of books and newspapers to help bring Sikhs back to the teachings of their ten Gurus. Bhai Vir Singh, the most prolific and inspiring Singh Sabha author, created vivid female characters like Sundari, Rani Raj Kaur, and Subhag Kaur as paradigms for Sikh morality.

The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, established in 1920, continues to be the highest Sikh executive committee. With its headquarters in Amritsar, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee sets up rules and regulations for Sikhs to follow throughout the world.

In an attempt to formalize the message of the Gurus, the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh code of conduct) was published in 1950. This thirty-seven-page document was produced after years of deliberation and consultation amongst eminent Sikhs both in India and abroad. It is used as the standard guide by Sikhs in their performance of personal (shakhsi) and organizational (panthak) duties. The Sikh Rahit Maryada forbids both men and women to cut or trim their hair. It also forbids them to eat meat from an animal that has been slowly bled to death in the halal method (Sikhs may only eat jhatka meat—from an animal killed in one stroke). It prohibits adultery and the use of tobacco and narcotics. This important Sikh manual also tries to combat female oppression. Sikh women should not veil their faces; female infanticide is forbidden; and widows are free to remarry. It also abolishes the old Punjabi custom whereby a widow was shamefully wrapped in a sheet and carried away to the brother of her dead husband.


Reading their sacred verse, hearing it, singing it, or sitting in its presence constitute the core of Sikh ritual. To have a room in their homes enshrining the Guru Granth is the aspiration of most Sikhs. Both at home and in public places of worship, the Guru Granth is treated with the highest respect and veneration. It is draped in cloth (called rumala), placed on quilted mats, and supported by cushions. A canopy hangs over it for protection, and a whisk is waved over it as a sign of respect. Sikhs everywhere bow before the Guru Granth and seat themselves on the floor. They remove their shoes and cover their heads in the presence of their holy book. The Guru Granth is opened at dawn. This act of opening the holy book is called prakash, “making the light manifest.” Vak, or “the order of the day,” is obtained by opening the book at random and reading the passage on the top of the left-hand page. After dusk, the Guru Granth is closed. The closing ritual is called sukhasan, which means “to place at rest.” The Guru Granth is read for all rites of passage, for any family celebration (e.g., a new house, a new job, an engagement), and for all times of uncertainty and difficulty (e.g., sickness or death). The reading at these events may be saptah, a seven-day reading, or it may be akhand, a forty-eight hour, nonstop reading of its 1,430 portfolio pages, during which several readers take turns. Any Sikh, male or female, who can read Gurmukhi script may read the Guru Granth. Kirtan is the singing of the scriptural verses. Harmonium and tabla (a set of drums) are the most common musical accompaniments.

Special social functions and rites of passage are marked by the bhog ceremony. The word bhog literally means “pleasure.” In Sikhism it signifies the gratification attained by having concluded a reading of the scriptures. It has similar connotations to the Greek word eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” and refers specifically the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. Bhog involves reading the concluding pages of the Guru Granth, saying ardas (the Sikh counterpart of the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity), and partaking of the Sikh sacrament of karahprashad, which concludes every religious ceremony. Karahprashad is a sweet sacrament consisting of equal portions of butter, flour, sugar, and water. During its preparation, Sikh men and women keep their heads covered and their feet bare and recite the verses of the Gurus. When the karahprashad is ready, it is put in a large flat dish and placed on the right side of the Guru Granth. After scriptural readings, the warm and aromatic sacrament is distributed to the entire congregation.

GURDWARA. In public, Sikh worship is conducted in a gurdwara; literally, the doorway (dwara) to the Guru. The shrines serve as a central point for the local Sikh community: they are its source of information, assistance, food, shelter, and fellowship. The gurdwaras are designed on the open and inclusive architectural patterns of the Hari Mandir. There is no central chamber from which any male or female is excluded, for the Guru Granth is the focal point to which everyone has equal access.

Besides the Hari Mandir, there are five places that are particularly important for the Sikhs. They are called the five takhts, the five seats of temporal authority. The Akal Takht in Amritsar faces the Golden Temple and is regarded as the supreme seat of religious and temporal authority. The other four are associated with the tenth Guru: Patna Sahib in Bihar, where he was born; Keshgarh, in Anandpur, where he created the Khalsa; Hazur Sahib in Nander, where he died; and Damdama, near Bhatinda, which later developed into a center of Sikh learning.

CELEBRATIONS. True living for Sikhs involves remembering the one reality as often and as intimately as possible. The daily spiritual routine (nit nem) consists of recitations of hymns from the various Gurus, including Guru Nanak’s Japu, which is read, recited, or heard on tape in the morning.

Annually Sikhs celebrate gurpurabs (the days of the Guru). These days commemorate the birthdays of their Gurus, important historical events, and the martyrdom of their heroes. All over the world Sikhs joyously celebrate the birth of Guru Nanak, the installation of the Guru Granth in the Hari Mandir, and the birth of the Khalsa. Baisakhi, which is also the first day of the Sikh calendar and commemorates Guru Gobind Singh’s creation of the Khalsa. During gurpurabs, uninterrupted readings of scripture take place, in-tellectual symposiums are held, and musical performances are organized. Gurpurab celebrations also include huge Sikh processions with colorful floats carrying the Guru Granth and depicting different aspects of Sikh life. Throughout the gurpurab, Sikhs will stop fast-moving cars and buses on the road and offer langar (food and snacks) to the travelers.

The Punjabi folk dances, gidda and bhangra, are popular performances during Sikh celebrations. Gidda is choreographed by women in gentle and lithesome movement. Together they celebrate nature and its bountiful gifts through the seasons of spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. Amid sparkling agrarian scenes, gidda captures simple activities: how they milk cows, cook mustard seeds, do needlework, fan in the summer, buy glass bangles, churn milk in the morning, carry water in earthenware pitchers sturdily balanced on their heads, and help with plowing and harvesting. Bhangra is traditionally performed by a group of men. It dates back to the fourteenth century, originating in West Punjab (now a part of Pakistan). But in modern times bhangra has become extremely popular with both Sikh men and women. Dressed in bright colors, the group dances in an elemental rhythm to the beat of a large drum, and everybody joins in songs celebrating Punjabi village life. With the migration of Sikh communities to the West, this Punjabi folk dance has become popular with young music lovers in Britain, Europe, and North America. The modern form of bhangra combines North Indian folk music with a kaleidoscope of contemporary styles, including reggae and Western pop.

RITES OF PASSAGE. In Sikhism there are four rites of passage: name giving, amrit initiation, marriage, and death.

Name Giving. Sikh children are named in consultation with the holy book. While the spine of the book rests on the cushions, a reader (a family member if the rite is held at the home, an official reader if it is at the gurdwara) holds the Guru Granth closed with both hands and then gently lets it open at random. The child is given a name that begins with the first letter appearing at the top of the left-hand page where the Guru Granth opens. Sikhs do not have different names for boys and girls. The addition of the name Kaur or Singh indicates the gender of the child. The child also receives his or her first kara or steel bracelet. The recitation of kirtan (hymns of praise) readings from the Guru Granth, the recitation of ardas (the daily prayer), and the partaking of langar are the central activities, just as they are for all Sikh rites of passage.

Amrit initiation. No particular age is prescribed for amrit initiation. It may be as soon as a boy or a girl is old enough to be able to read the scripture and comprehend the articles of the Sikh faith. The initiation is open to all. According to the Rahit Maryada, “Any man or woman of whatever nationality, race, or social standing, who is prepared to accept the rules governing the Sikh community, has the right to receive amrit initiation.” It follows the pattern established by Guru Gobind Singh on Baiskahi 1699. Sikhs firmly believe that during Baisakhi (the first day of the Indian New Year) festivities in Anand pur that year, the guru and his wife prepared amrit and five men from different castes sipped it from the same bowl. The drink purified them of all mental constraints, ending centuries of hereditary oppressions of caste, class, and profession. Zealous proselytization is alien to Sikhs.

Weddings. Anand Karaj (from anand, “bliss,” and karaj, “event”) is the Sikh rite of marriage. No words or gestures are directly exchanged between the bride and groom, nor are any legal formalities performed between their families. The wedding takes place either in a gurdwara or in the home of the bride, with everyone seated on the floor in front of the Guru Granth. Anand Karaj begins with the father of the bride handing one end of a scarf (about two and a quarter yards in length) to the groom and the other to his daughter. Through the auspiciously colored scarf (pink, saffron, or red), the couple is bonded together. Each holding one end of the scarf, the groom and the bride then walk around the holy book four times. The four circumambulations by the couple correspond to the four lavan (circle) passages read by the official reader of the Guru Granth. After each circling of the book, the bride and the groom touch their foreheads to the ground and rejoin the congregation by seating themselves on the floor in front. Bowing together to the Guru Granth marks their acceptance of each other. They are solely—and equally—bound to the sacred word rather than to any legal or social authority. The rite concludes with Guru Amar Das’s rapturous hymn Anand, the name of the wedding ceremony itself. This popular scriptural hymn by the third Guru is liturgically recited at the conclusion of all Sikh congregational services and joyful ceremonies. But with its focus on the bliss that results from the union of the individual with the divine, Anand is particularly appropriate for the wedding ceremony.

Death. Life and death are regarded as natural processes, and just as each day that dawns must set, so must all people depart. The dead body is carried on a stretcher by the closest male relatives and friends of the family to the funeral grounds, where it is cremated. As customary from ancient times, the pyre is lighted by the oldest son. The body returns to the elements it is made up of: the fire of the person merges with the crematory flames, his or her breath merges with the air, his or her body merges with the body of the earth, and his or her ashes and bones (phul; literally, “flowers”) are immersed in the flowing waters of a river or stream. Death in the family is marked by a reading of the Guru Granth. A bhog ceremony takes place on the tenth day, with the final prayers recited for peace to the deceased. At the death anniversary, the family will supply langar to the community.

POPULAR MORALITY. Sikhism validates normal activities: “While laughing, playing, dressing up, and eating we attain liberation” (Guru Granth 522). Its strong work ethic is summed up in a popular maxim: “Work hard [kirat karni], remember the divine [na¯m japna], and share your enjoyment with others [vand chhakna].” Sikhs bring the divine into the daily rhythms of their lives, and they even exalt the divine in their everyday greetings: whenever they want to say hello or goodbye, they join their hands and say “sat sri akal” (truth is timeless). Their frequent exclamation—waheguru—surges with a sense of wonder and echoes Guru Nanak’s awe (wah) when he first experienced the transcendent One.


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