10 Things I Wish Everyone Know About Sikhism

Despite being one of the world’s largest world religions, Sikhism
remains one of the most unknown traditions in America. The lack of
understanding has led to serious consequences, including discriminatory
policies, bigoted stereotypes, traumatic school bullying and violent
hate crimes.
Here is a list of 10 things that the global community ought to know about its Sikh neighbors.

1. Sikhism is an independent religion.

A number of people mistakenly think Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism, an offshoot of Islam, or a blend of the two religions. While the category of religion is itself problematic, scholars and practitioners alike classify Sikhism as an independent religion.
The Sikh tradition carries the basic markers of organized religion, including its own founder-prophet (Guru Nanak), scripture (Guru Granth Sahib),
discipline and ceremonies (rahit), and community centers (gurdwara).
There are more than 27 million Sikhs worldwide, making it the fifth
largest world religion.

2. Rooted in oneness and love, Sikh theology encourages a life of spirituality and service.

Oneness and love serve as the foundations of Sikh theology — these
are both the objective and process. Sikhs aim to recognize the divinity
within everyone and everything they encounter, and this daily practice
helps the individual cultivate and embody the qualities of oneness and
Sikhs believe that the Creator permeates all of Creation and that
every individual is filled with the same divine potential. The Sikh
tradition emphasizes the collective familyhood of all humanity and
challenges all social inequalities, including those on the basis of
class, caste, gender, and profession.
Realizing oneness and love within one’s life also compels the
individual to seek unity with the world around them. The tradition urges
its followers to live as a sant-sipahi (warrior-saint), one
who strikes a balance of cultivating spirituality while also
contributing socially through community service.

3. The real meaning of “guru.”

The word “guru” literally means “enlightener,” and while it has come
to refer to an expert in any domain (e.g., basketball guru, real estate
guru), it carries a particular institutional meaning within the Sikh
tradition. In Sikhism, “guru” refers to the line of authority, beginning
with a set of 10 prophets who established and led the Sikh community.
The first of these, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 CE, and the tenth in
his line, Guru Gobind Singh, breathed his last in 1708 CE.
Before he passed, Guru Gobind Singh passed the leadership to joint
entities — the Guru Granth Sahib (the scriptural canon) and the Guru
Khalsa Panth (the community of initiated Sikhs). Sikhs revere these two
as occupying the throne of the Guru for eternity.

4. The Guru Granth Sahib is a unique scripture.

The authority accorded to the Guru Granth Sahib certainly sets it
apart from other scriptural texts of the major world religions. The Guru
Granth Sahib also defies common expectations of scripture in other
The Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by the Sikh Gurus themselves and
is primarily comprised of writings composed by the Gurus. This
collection also includes the devotional writings of other religious
figures, including Muslim Sufis and Hindu Bhaktas.
Unlike the prose narratives that make up a majority of western
scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib is made up entirely of devotional
poetry, most of which is set to music. These writings are primarily made
up of expressions of divine experiences and wisdom on religious
cultivation. These writings have played a central role in Sikh practice
since the time of Guru Nanak — Sikh worship consists of singing these
compositions in both private and congregational settings.

5. The Sikh Gurus presented a pluralistic worldview.

As evidenced by the inclusion of writings from other religious
figured within the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Gurus did not believe in
religious exclusivism. Rather, their pluralistic worldview posited that
one could reach the Realization from any religious tradition. Sikhism
teaches that diverse paths can lead to the divine, as long as the
individual traverses the path with love. Because of this pluralistic
outlook, Sikhism has no real history of missionizing or proselytizing.
While some misinterpret this pluralism as promoting cultural
relativism, it is important to note that the Gurus also emphasized the
importance of following an accomplished leader and maintaining religious
discipline. Sikhism does not encourage the increasingly popular models
of “a la carte religion” or “spiritual-but-not-religious,” though
admittedly Sikh jurisprudence is relatively less complex than most
religious traditions.

6. Sikhs have a long history of standing for justice.

Guru Nanak modeled social engagement by critiquing social
inequalities, building institutions that serve and empower the
disenfranchised, and publicly critiquing political oppression. The
subsequent Gurus preserved and built upon the foundations laid by Guru
Nanak. For example, the ninth among them, Guru Tegh Bahadur, observed
Mughal state authorities forcefully converting its Hindu constituents.
Although this oppression targeted a religious community to which he did
not belong and whose beliefs he did not share, Guru Tegh Bahadur stood
up firmly for their right to practice religion freely — and the state
responded by publicly executing Guru Tegh Bahadur.
The Sikh community has drawn inspiration and guidance from such
examples over the years, and it has demonstrated a commitment to justice
in various ways. Sikhs are taught to defend the defenseless and have
historically led responses to political oppression. Sikhs have therefore
been regularly targeted by the political elite, a cycle that continues
to play out in present-day India.

7. Sikhs maintain a unique identity.

Since the formative moments of the tradition, Sikhs have maintained a
physical identity that makes them stand out in public, even in the
context of South Asia. This identity includes five articles of faith —
kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan
(religious article resembling a knife), and kachera (soldier-shorts) —
and distinguishes someone who has formally committed to the values of
the faith by accepting initiation.
While many have attempted to ascribe functionalist rationales for
each of these articles, these understandings do not capture the
connections that Sikhs have with these articles. Perhaps the best
analogy (though admittedly an imperfect one) is that of a wedding ring:
one cannot reduce the significance of a wedding ring to its instrumental
value; rather, one cherishes the wedding ring because it is a gift of
love from one’s partner. Similarly, Sikhs cherish their articles of
faith primarily because they see them as a gift from their beloved Guru.
Trying to understand these articles on the basis of their function is
missing the point.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Sikh identity is the turban,
which can be worn by men and women alike. The turban was historically
worn by royalty in South Asia, and the Gurus adopted this practice as a
way of asserting the sovereignty and equality of all people. For a Sikh,
wearing a turban asserts a public commitment to maintaining the values
and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion, and honesty.

8. Sikhism believes in absolute equality.

Sikhism was founded on the concept of oneness and justice, and the
Gurus adamantly rejected all social inequalities. While women continue
to be subjugated in modern South Asia, the Sikh Gurus rebuked
discriminatory practices that marginalized women (e.g., sati, purdah) and openly placed women in leadership positions.
Along these lines, the Gurus established new practices to challenge
social norms, such as India’s caste system, that perpetuated social
inequalities. For instance, the tenth Guru asked all Sikhs to abandon
their last names — which identified one’s caste — and asked them all to
take on a collective last name reserved for royal families to signify
the inherent equality and nobility of every individual: Kaur for women
and Singh for men. Similarly, the Gurus established the institution of langar,
a free meal provided at the gurdwara that is open to one and all.
During this meal, everyone sits together on the ground, regardless of
caste, social status, gender, or religious background.

9. Darbar Sahib of Amritstar is the epicenter of the Sikh psyche.

Known to westerners as the Golden Temple, Darbar Sahib of Amritsar,
Punjab has served as the center for the Sikh community since its
founding more than four centuries ago. Sikh theologian Sirdar Kapur
Singh referred to Darbar Sahib as “the theo-political capital of Sikhs.”
This phrase captures the role of this site as both a spiritual center
where the community gathers to worship as well as a political throne
where collective decisions have been made.
It is inaccurate to refer to Darbar Sahib as “a sacred space” or as
“Sikhism’s holiest site.” Sikh theology recognizes that divinity
permeates the entire world equally and therefore does not recognize any
particular space to be uniquely sacred or holy. At the same time, Darbar
Sahib does occupy a special place in the collective Sikh psyche. The
site has witnessed a number of significant historical events, from the
return of the sixth Guru after a stint in prison and the first public
enthronement of the Sikh scripture during the 17th century to massacres
of thousands of civilians and the burning of historical artifacts and
relics by the Indian Army in 1984.

10. Sikhs have made immense contributions to American society.

From the time of their arrival in the late 1800s, Sikh men and women
have been making notable contributions to American society. Early
immigrants settled in the western frontier, where they played a major
role in building America’s railroads. Sikh Americans like Bhagat Singh
Thind served in the U.S. military during the World Wars, and the first
Asian American Congressman was a Sikh American elected to office in
1957. The inventor of fiber optics is a Sikh American, as is the
country’s largest peach grower, the mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia,
and Morgan Freeman’s personal physician. Sikh American women continue to
make diverse contributions, such as Grammy-winning artist Snatam Kaur,
commercial airline pilot Arpinder Kaur, and Columbia University
professor Supreet Kaur.
Image courtesy of OlegD / Shutterstock.com.
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