Despite having more than 27 million followers and being the fifth largest religion in the world, Sikhism is remarkably poorly understood in the West. Sikhs after all are known to carry daggers, it was a Sikh who assassinated Indira Gandhi, and it was Sikhs involved in a famous shoot-out with the Indian Army at the Golden Temple. Perhaps this is why most Western countries have had incidents of prejudice and violence aimed at Sikhs. An additional problem is that the distinctive dress adopted by the Sikhs makes them an easy target. For example after publicity given to terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the London Tube bombings there were measurable increases in the number of recorded attacks on Sikhs despite a total lack of evidence that Sikhs even resembled the terrorists or that the Sikhs were ever responsible for the terrorist events.
In many cases the lack of understanding is a consequence of widespread ignorance of the main Sikh beliefs, coupled with a lack of awareness of the long history of attacks on the Sikh people. For example the Sikh reputation for being fierce fighters in the Army makes far more sense if we know how the religion developed in the face of violent opposition and how Sikh believers were forced to adapt to several centuries of persecution. While Sikhism has undergone some significant transformations, it is probably necessary to understand its main characteristics by considering some of the main features of the history of its followers.
Origins of Sikhism
Sikhism first surfaced about 1500 CE in what at the time was the Punjab area of South Asia. In terms of modern boundaries that area now straddles a section of the present day region of Northern India and Pakistan. The main religions of the area at that time were Hinduism and Islam. Some of those attracted to the new faith were unhappy with aspects of the practice of Hinduism (particularly the nature of the caste system) and the exclusivity of the practice of Islam especially at times when there was forced conversion.
The first Sikh leader, Guru Nanak began teaching a faith quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam, and which was initially much more moderate. The term Guru means enlightener.
Nine Gurus followed Nanak and help shape the Sikh faith and community over the next centuries.
The Response of Militarisation to attacks on the Sikhs
Sikhism grew rapidly and was well established by the time of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru.
Guru Arjan had oversight over the establishment of Amritsar as the centre of the Sikh world, and was also responsible for compiling the Adi Granth, the first authorised book of Sikh scripture.
The emerging organization of the Sikh faith during Arjan’s time was interpreted as a threat by the administration in that area and as a consequence Guru Arjan was executed in 1606.
By way of response, the sixth Guru, Hargobind, encouraged the community to defend their faith so that from that point they might resist any oppression. Under his direction the Sikhs fought a number of battles in defence of their faith.
The Sikhs then lived in relative peace with the political rulers until the time of the Moghal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who saw force as the best way to make his subjects accept Islam.
Aurangzeb had the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, arrested and executed in 1675.
The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, responded by organizing the Sikhs into a military group of men and women called the Khalsa in 1699, and proclaimed the intention that the Sikhs should from that time on be able to defend their faith.
Gobind Singh also established the Sikh rite of initiation (called khandey di pahul) and the 5 Ks which give intitiated Sikhs their unique appearance. Each of the five Ks are treated as articles of faith — kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan (religious article resembling a knife), and kachera (soldier-shorts). The significance of the Turban (which is perhaps the most impressive identifying feature) is that this headdress was previously considered in that part of the world to be the badge of rank for rulers. By having all males (and many females) wear the turban, the Sikhs are asserting each adult has the same equal status, and that none have the right to impose will over the others.
Gobind Singh was the last human Guru who passed the leadership to two joint entities — the Guru Granth Sahib (the scriptural canon) and the Guru Khalsa Panth (the community of initiated Sikhs). Sikhs now teach that these two are seen as occupying the throne of the Guru for eternity.
What the Westerners call the Golden Temple, and the Sikhs, the Darbar Sahib of Amritsar, has remained the Punjab center for the Sikh community since its founding more than four centuries ago. Sikh theologian Sirdar Kapur Singh calls Darbar Sahib “the theo-political capital of Sikhs.” This phrase is intended to present this site as both a spiritual center where the community gathers to worship as well as a centre of political governance where collective decisions have been made.
A common misconception is that Darbar Sahib is revered as “a sacred space” or as “Sikhism’s holiest site.” In fact Sikh theology teaches that divinity permeates the entire world equally and therefore does not recognize any particular space to be uniquely sacred or holy.
After the Gurus
The first military leader of the Sikhs to follow the Gurus was Banda Singh Bahadur. He led a successful campaign against the Moghals until he was captured and executed in 1716.
In the middle of the century the Sikhs rose up again, and over the next 50 years took over more and more territory.
In 1799 Ranjit Singh captured Lahore, and in 1801 established the Punjab as an independent state, with himself as Maharaja.
He proved an adept ruler of a state in which Sikhs were still in a minority.
Although a devout Sikh, he was respectful to other major faiths and took part in religious acts with Muslims and Hindus.
Defeated by the British
After Ranjit Singh died in 1839 the Sikh state crumbled, damaged by vicious internal battles for the leadership.
In 1845-6 troops of the British Empire defeated the Sikh armies, and took over much Sikh territory.
The Sikhs rebelled again in 1849, and were defeated by the British, this time conclusively.
The Sikhs and the British Raj
After this final battle, the Sikhs and the British discovered they had much in common and started to build a good relationship. Soon Sikhs developed a reputation for serving great distinction in the British Army.
As an aside we should remember that the highest proportion of VCs per head of any division of the British army has been for the Sikhs who incidentally go into battle wearing Turbans rather than protective helmets.
The British won favour with the Sikhs when they took control of the Sikh religious establishment by putting those chosen by the Sikhs in control of the Gurdwaras.
Good relations between Sikhs and British came to an end in 1919 with the Amritsar massacre.
More Recent history
1919 – the Amritsar massacre
This event has become an embarrassing memory of the British in the history of India.
In April 1919 British troops led by General E H Dyer opened fire without warning on 10,000 people holding a protest meeting. The troops killed about 400 people and wounded approximately 1,000.
Dyer later explained that he had been obliged to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.
Realising the damage that had been done, the British retired Dyer, but because they promoted him first, the message that they disapproved of his actions would have been lost on the Sikh community.
Some historians regard the Amritsar Massacre as the event that began the decline of the British Raj, and one which encouraged the movement towards Indian independence.
The British were slow to acknowledge their wrongdoing at Amritsar and it wasn’t until October 1997 that Queen Elizabeth II symbolically acknowledged the need to restore relationships by laying a wreath at the site of the massacre.
Background to Amritsar – the partition of India
When British India gained its independence in 1947; it was split into India and the Islamic state of Pakistan. The Sikhs felt badly treated and only reluctantly chose to join India.
The Sikhs were unable to demand their own state, because there were too few of them to resist Pakistan’s claim to the Punjab.
Although by siding with India were they were able to keep part of the Punjab, an unfortunate cost of the process of establishing a degree of autonomy was enduring a further series of massacres.
In the course of this move to self-determination the Sikhs also lost many of their privileges, much of their land, and were understandably discontented.
The Sikh ambition for a state of they could call their own went beyond what India would concede. For the Indian government their image of a secular state would be threatened.
However, in 1966, after years of Sikh demands, India divided the Punjab into three, recreating Punjab as a state with a Sikh majority.
This was not enough to stop Sikh anger at what they saw as continuing oppression and the unfair way in which they thought India had set the boundaries of the new state. They continued to demand various concessions from the Indian government.
The invasion of the Golden Temple
As Sikh discontent grew, the conflict gradually changed from a purely political argument into a confrontation between Hindus and Sikhs; and from then to real violence.
A Sikh preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became the leader of the most disaffected of the Sikhs. He was often portrayed by his opponents as representing all Sikhs, although, in practice he did not. In 1983 Bhindranwale and his closest followers took refuge in the Golden Temple Complex at Amritsar, the most revered place in the Sikh world.
In June 1984 Indian troops launched ‘Operation Blue Star’. They attacked the Golden Temple Complex, killing many of those inside, and seriously damaging the buildings.
The assassination of Indira Gandhi
This invasion of the holiest place of the Sikhs infuriated many Sikhs, even the non-militant. They saw the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the invasion, as a deliberate persecutor of the Sikh faith and community.
In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
Four days of anti-Sikh rioting followed in India. The government said more than 2,700 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed, while newspapers and human-rights groups put the death toll between 10,000 and 17,000.
Before the Westerner can understand what motivates the Sikh it may be helpful to remember that the dual foci of oneness and love serve as the foundations of Sikh theology — serving as both objective and process. The interfaith scholar Karen Armstrong notes that these foci are also key to the other great religions. The Sikhs however seem more tolerant in practice claiming to recognize the divinity within everyone and everything they encounter, maintain this daily practice helps the individual cultivate and embody the qualities of oneness and love.
The Standard Emphases of Sikhism
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 proselytizing.
Sikhs teach that the Creator permeates all of Creation and view each individual as filled with the same divine potential. The Sikh tradition emphasizes the collective family-hood 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 and accepting any call to armed service in support of defense needs.
The Guru Granth Sahib is a unique scripture.
The authority accorded to the Guru Granth Sahib probably sets it apart from other scriptural texts of the major world religions. The Guru Granth Sahib also defies common expectations of scripture in other ways.
The Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by the earlier Sikh Gurus themselves and is primarily comprised of writings composed by the Gurus. Although primary focusing on the philosophy of of 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.
The Sikh community has drawn inspiration and guidance from those who have focused on justice over the years, and it has demonstrated a commitment to justice in various ways. Sikhs are taught to defend the defenceless and have historically led responses to political oppression. This makes them unpopular with many and typically Sikhs have been regularly targeted by the political elite, a cycle that continues to play out in present-day India.
Sikhism stresses the need for equality (a move often resisted by those in positions of privilege )
Sikhism sees itself as founded on the concept of oneness and justice, and the Gurus typically rejected all social inequalities. While many modern South Asian societies continue to subjugate women, the Sikh Gurus typically rebuke discriminatory practices that marginalized women (e.g., sati, purdah) and openly place 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. This has carried through to the practice of 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.
Darbar Sahib of Amritstar is still 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 continues to 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.
No doubt we can always find reasons for identifying actions by Sikhs that seem out of step with their claimed ideals. Yet before using this as an excuse to disparage their faith we might first think back over our own history to remind us that we too must seem to have flaws which seem at odds with our religious ideals.
A NOTE TO THE READER
Since I am new to the study of the Sikh faith, if the reader notes important omissions or necessary corrections, please use the comment box below to draw the shortcomings to my attention. If you find the article helpful please draw it to the attention of others.