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What is Sikhism? | World Religion Activities

Sikhism is practiced by about 26 million people and is the fifth largest religion in the world. It is also one of the world's youngest religions as it was founded around 1500 CE in the Punjab region in northern India and Pakistan by religious teacher Guru Nanak. The word Sikh in Punjabi means disciple of God. A follower of Sikhism worships one God and aspires to live a peaceful life of honesty, charity, equality, and faith.

Student Activities for Sikhism

Essential Questions for Sikhism

  1. When and where did Sikhism originate?
  2. What are some important beliefs and holidays in Sikhism?
  3. What objects or symbols are important or sacred in Sikhism?
  4. Where are its followers today and how many people practice Sikhism throughout the world?
  5. How do Sikh people worship and who are their spiritual leaders?

What is Sikhism?

Sikhism is a religion that was founded about 500 years ago in 1500 CE by a man named Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak lived in the Punjab region of Northern India and Pakistan. A person who practices Sikhism is called a Sikh. In the Punjabi language, Sikh means disciple or follower. Sikhism is monotheistic, meaning Sikhs believe in and worship one God, Waheguru, which means "Wondrous Lord". Sikhs believe that God/Waheguru created the world and is also part of creation. Everyone is part of God's creation and therefore everyone is equal in God's eyes. Guru in Punjabi means teacher or enlightener. They are one who brings you from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge and understanding. Sikhs follow the teachings of Guru Nanak along with his nine successors and the Holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Today, there are about 26 million Sikhs worldwide which is 0.3% of the population. Sikhs make up about 2% of India's population as it is predominantly Hindu. However, in the Punjab region, Sikhs make up 60% of the population. Sikhs have also migrated across the globe with roughly 850,000 in the United Kingdom, 470,000 in Canada, 700,000 in the United States, 100,000 in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, 125,000 in Australia, and 100,000 in Malaysia. Other words for Sikhism are Sikhi, Gursikhi, and Gurmat.

Five large rivers run through the region of Punjab, making it a rich and fertile land that supported various civilizations for millennia. It was home to the Indus Valley Civilization which is one of the oldest civilizations in history and the region is a crossroads that has been invaded by the Persians, Greeks, Central Asians, Mughals, and the British. Some of the world's largest religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Jainism, have all thrived in the Punjab region throughout history, creating the rich and diverse culture seen there today.

Guru Nanak

The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was born April 15, 1469 in a village called Talwandi in the Punjab region of Pakistan. Today it is known as Nankana Sahib. The site of Guru Nanak’s birth is one of the most important religious sites for Sikhs today. Guru Nanak is said to have been a remarkable and wise person since childhood. At the time, the dominant religions of the region were Hinduism and Islam. Guru Nanak was born to a Hindu family but soon became keenly interested in the study of both religions. He was lauded as a great scholar, poet, and philosopher and was respected by both Muslims and Hindus alike.

One day, Guru Nanak was bathing in the river Bain and disappeared. Everyone thought that he had drowned. However, three days later, he reappeared and it is said that during those three days he had communion with God, learning the truth of God and the universe. Upon his return, Guru Nanak said, “God is neither Hindu nor Muslim”, meaning that God was for all. Guru Nanak believed that God is everywhere and believed that though everyone may have a different path to God through various religions, it is all the same God. Guru Nanak said, “There is but one God. His name is Truth ... He is without hate... He is beyond the cycle of births and deaths. He is Self illuminated.” Guru Nanak spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and traveling to spread God’s word.

Guru Nanak spoke out against the misogyny and cruelty toward women that was commonplace for the time period. He preached that all people were equal regardless of caste or class, gender, religion, or race. He is said to have started the langar, which is the communal kitchen offering free meals to everyone regardless of background. Throughout his life, Guru Nanak set out on four different journeys called ‘Udasi’ to spread his messages and teachings about God. He traveled to many places across India, Afghanistan, Persia, and the Arabian peninsula along with his followers, some of whom were Bhai (brother) Mardana, Bhai Lahana, Bhai Bala, and Bhai Ramdas. Throughout his journeys he spread the message that God exists and that His divine spark is present in all living things. He said, “Even kings and emperors with heaps of wealth and vast dominion cannot compare with one ant filled with the love of God.” He believed that by showing love and helping others, one would become unified with God. Sikhism teaches that truth, compassion, contentment, humility, and love are the highest virtues. Guru Nanak preached three main principles:

  1. Naam Japna: Focusing on God through meditation.
  2. Kirat Karni; To earn an honest living to benefit oneself, one's family, and society
  3. Vand Chakna: Selflessly serving others and sharing one's income and resources to benefit humanity.

Sikhism shares some commonalities with Islam (belief in one God) and Hinduism (belief in reincarnation). However, it is its own distinct and unique religion and is not to be mistaken as a branch or offshoot of either. It has its own founder, Guru Nanak, its own scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, its own ceremonies and houses of worship called gurdwara. On September 22, 1539, Guru Nanak passed away. Before his death, he declared that his disciple Lahana would be his successor. Lahana became Guru Angad Dev.

The Ten Gurus

Sikhism follows the teachings of Guru Nanak and his ten successors. The Ten Gurus are:

  1. Guru Nanak (1469-1539)
  2. Guru Angad (1504-1552)
  3. Guru Amar Das (1479-1574)
  4. Guru Ram Das (1534-1581)
  5. Guru Arjan (1563-1606)
  6. Guru Hargobind (1595-1644)
  7. Guru Har Rai (1630-1661)
  8. Guru Har Krishna (1656-1664)
  9. Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675)
  10. Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) (The last human Guru)

When Guru Nanak died in 1539, the Mughals had taken control of most of Northern India and tensions grew between Muslim rulers and local Hindus and Sikhs. This would impact events surrounding the successive gurus. The 4th guru, Guru Ram Das, established the city that is sacred to Sikhs called Ramdaspur, today called Amritsar in Punjab, India. The 5th guru, Guru Arjan, compiled the teachings, writings, and hymns of the gurus including Guru Nanak into the Adi Granth, the first Sikh holy book. In Ramdaspur, Guru Arjan also built the Harmandir Sahib (also called Hari Mandir), known today as the Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites in Sikhism. Guru Arjan is also the first Sikh martyr. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir, threatened by Guru Arjun’s growing political power, imprisoned Guru Arjun and tortured him to try to get him to renounce his faith. When he refused, Guru Arjun was tortured for many days until he died, making him a martyr to his faith.

After the death of Guru Arjun, his son Guru Hargobind became the 6th guru. In part due to the violent death of his father, Guru Hargobind believed that Sikhs needed to adopt military tactics to protect themselves from religious persecution. Guru Hargobind is revered as a warrior saint. He wore two swords (one for the spiritual realm and one for the temporal realm) which are seen in the Sikh symbol, the Khanda, today. Guru Hargobind ruled until his death in 1644. His grandson, Guru Har Rai succeeded him as the 7th guru. After Guru Har Rai’s death, his son Guru Har Krishan became the 8th Sikh leader until his untimely death from smallpox. At this point, Guru Hargobind’s youngest son, Guru Tegh Bahadur became the 9th guru and ruled until 1675. His name means "brave wielder of the sword", as Guru Tegh Bahadur was known for being a great warrior. At this time the Mughal empire was ruled by Shah Jahan and later Aurangzeb, both emperors who were known for religious oppression. Guru Tegh Bahadur saw himself as a defender against religious persecution not just for the Sikhs but for all religions. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had Guru Tegh Bahadur captured and tortured in an effort to get him to convert to Islam. Guru Tegh Bahadur refused and was killed. He is known as the second Sikh guru to be martyred for his faith. Guru Tegh Bahadur was then succeeded by the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Guru Gobind Singh introduced the concept of the Khalsa. Khalsa were to be of pure heart and mind and be willing to fight oppression wherever it may be found. Men who are baptized as Khalsa adopt the title Singh, which means lion, while women adopt the name of Kaur, which means princess. Guru Gobind Singh also created the 5Ks which are the physical examples of Khalsa initiation and devotion to the Guru and to God:

  1. Kesh (uncut hair as a symbol of devotion to God)
  2. Kara (a steel bracelet that symbolizes unity with God and the Khalsa)
  3. Kanga (a comb that is a sign of cleanliness)
  4. Kirpan (a sword that is a symbol of defense against religious persecution)
  5. Kachera (cotton underpants that are a symbol of self-respect and self-control)

The Guru Granth Sahib

Guru Gobind Singh also created the final compilation of the holy book of Sikhism. He added 115 hymns from the martyred Guru Tegh Bahadur to the Adi Granth, along with scriptures from gurus and saints from the Hindu and Muslim faiths. This final Sikh holy book is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh declared that the Guru Granth Sahib was to be the 11th and final guru, the Eternal Guru. The holy book is in fact a living guru and it is honored and revered as such. The Guru Granth Sahib is kept under a canopy on a raised platform in every gurdwara. Sikhs take their shoes off in its presence and never turn their back on it. The reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib is common at every major Sikh festival, which takes about 48 hours! Anywhere that the Guru Granth Sahib is kept becomes a Sikh place of worship. Therefore, it could be a room in someone’s house or a separate building or temple.

The Gurdwara

A Sikh temple is called a gurdwara which means "gateway to the guru". Worship services are usually held on Sundays. When entering a temple, Sikhs take off their shoes, cover their heads, and often wash their hands and feet. They bow in front of the Holy Book or Guru Granth Sahib. There are no chairs and everyone sits on the floor as equals. A granthi is a person responsible for reading the Sikh holy book during public worship in the gurdwara. A granthi is not a priest, as Sikhism does not have hierarchy or priesthood. A granthi can be a man or a woman. During worship, kirtan or chants, prayers, and hymns are sung and "karah prasad", a food offering made of sugar, butter, and flour, is shared. The service ends with the langar, the free community meal that is prepared and served entirely by volunteers. There are four doors in a gurdwara called the doors of peace, livelihood, learning, and grace. They face the four cardinal directions symbolizing that people from all over the world are welcome. People are welcome in a gurdwara regardless of background, race, religion, caste, or gender, as the basis of the Sikh faith is openness and equality for all. The gurdwara also has a lamp lit at all times to symbolize that the light of the Guru is always open and accessible to everyone. The main Sikh temple is the Hari Mandir, or Golden Temple, in Amritsar, Punjab, India. It was designed by the 5th guru, Guru Arjan. Hari Mandir means "House of God" in the Punjabi language. The Hari Mandir has the largest free kitchen in the world with a langar that feeds 100,000 people every day! It has been named the most visited site in the world.

Symbols and Greetings

The universal symbol of Sikhism is the Khanda. It has a central sword for the belief in one God, the Chakkar (circle) for the unity and continuity of God, and the two crossed kirpans (swords) representing both spiritual and societal obligations. Another outward symbol of Sikhism is the turban. Sikh men wear turbans to cover their long hair and to show unity with other Sikhs worldwide. Younger boys wear their uncut hair in a topknot, covered with a piece of fabric called a patka. Sikh women also often cover their hair with a long scarf called a dupatta, or they may also wear turbans. Common greetings in Sikhism are "Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh", which means "The Khalsa belongs to God, Victory belongs to God", and "Sat Sri Akal", which means "Immortal God is Truth".

Rites of Passage and Holidays

Sikhs have a special naming ceremony for after a baby is born called a Nam Karan. The name is chosen by having a granthi open the Guru Granth Sahib holy book to any page and read the hymn on that page. The first letter of the first word of the hymn then becomes the first letter of the child's name. When the name is chosen that starts with that letter, it is announced to the congregation with joy.

Sikhs are officially initiated into the Khalsa during a ceremony called the Amrit Sanchar. While anyone at any age is allowed to partake in the ceremony, it is usually done after the onset of adolescence around age 13. It is when the person believes they are ready to undertake the responsibilities of Sikhism, demonstrate their devotion to God, and agree to wear the Five Ks. The candidates kneel on one knee and are given amrit (holy water) to drink. It is also sprinkled in their eyes and on their hair.

Sikh marriage ceremonies are called the Anand Karaj. During the ceremony, scripture is read from the Guru Granth Sahib and the bride and groom also walk around the Guru Granth Sahib four times to demonstrate their devotion. In addition, prayers are recited and hymns are sung.

Sikhs believe that the body is a vessel for the soul and that death is a natural process that is an opportunity for the soul to be reincarnated or reunited with God. After death, the body is cremated and the ashes are either buried or scattered ceremonially across flowing water such as a river or ocean. A Sikh funeral is called the Antam Sanskaar and is focused on celebrating the person's life.

There are many Sikh festivals and holidays throughout the year. The calendar used in Sikhism is called the Nanakshahi calendar, which is a solar calendar. It is based on the changes in nature seen during the twelve-month cycle of the year. Because of this, holidays fall on different days but around the same time every year. Some major holidays are:

  • Guru Nanak's Birthday, celebrated in late Autumn
  • Guru Gobind Singh's Birthday, celebrated in late December
  • Hola Mohalla, held in February/March, is a festival with contests in athleticism, horsemanship, and martial arts
  • Vaisakhi or Baisakhi, held in March/April, is the New Year's celebration
  • Bandi Chhor Divas, held in October/November, is a festival that coincides with the Hindu festival of Diwali. It celebrates Hargobind, the sixth Guru.

Sikhism teaches that everyone is equal regardless of gender, race, religion, or caste. Sikhs believe that through devotion to God, living honestly, and serving others, one can lead a good life and after death be reunited with the divine.

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