It’s said that different roads lead to God. For over 24 million people in the world (of which 500,000 live in the UK) Sikhism is the road they have chosen. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) who started the religion in 1499 in Punjab, India.
There is a childhood story that Sikhs tell about their founder. Guru Nanak’s father, a businessman, gave his young son some money to set up a business. Nanak took the money and during his journey to spend it, he encountered a large group of starving people. Without hesitation he spent his money on feeding them. On returning home, his father asked what he bought with the money. Nanak told him he had conducted ‘true business’. But instead of being pleased his father admonished him for being foolish. This was until local elders noticed Nanak’s extraordinary kindness and selflessness and concluded that these special gifts that God had bestowed upon him.
The rationale behind Guru Nanak founding Sikhism was an effort to combine Hinduism and Islam into one religion, to seek reconciliation and the worship of one God, and to put a stop to the worshipping of false idols. His overall intention was to encompass the compassion of Hinduism and the brotherhood of Islam. However, it bore little resemblance to either religion (except the shared belief of reincarnation and the cycle of death and rebirth). While it shares Islam’s belief in one God, it does not share in any of its other teachings and bypasses the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad.
During his travels to spread the word of God, Guru Nanak once found himself in Baghdad in Iraq where he met up with its king (a Muslim). The king poured him a cup of milk right up to its top and then asked, “What can you add to this without it spilling over?” Without hesitation, Guru Nanak placed a rose petal on top of the milk. In essence, Sikhs recount this story as a symbol of how much they cherish their religion and its founder, and as a sign of their commitment to recognising everybody as equals in the eyes of God.
Sikhs have their own religious text called the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’. It is written in Gurumukhi, – the script used by Sikhs for writing Punjabi – and consists of 1,430 pages which contains 3,384 hymns and text from Guru Nanak and his successors. Sikhism has a total of 10 Gurus with Sikhs, believing that each was sent with a special message from God to humankind. Each Guru chose their most trusted follower as their successor which meant an unbroken line of revelations; all which are contained in the Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs hold the Guru Granth Sahib in high esteem. It is custom for it to be placed above everybody who sits, and if it must be moved everyone must stand. It is fanned during services and carried to a side room afterwards where it is laid to rest. In many ways the holy book is treated like a living guru. When not being read, it is covered in a colourful embroidered cloth. Sikhs consult the holy text for advice and believe it contains every particle of wisdom necessary for living a good life, including knowledge on science and philosophy. The birth of a child is considered a great blessing from God. The child is taken to the Gurdwara (temple) where an elder opens the Guru Granth Sahib at random and the child’s name must begin with the first letter of that hymn. Turbans are viewed as being associated with Sikhism but it is also a requirement for every male and female visitor, irrespective of their faith, to cover their heads before entering a temple as a sign of respect. There are no priests or ministers in Sikhism, only specially trained leaders who can read the scriptures in the original Gurmukhi text.
Sikhs are considered orthodox after undergoing a special initiation ceremony called the ‘Amrit’, where a person drinks a special drink of sugar and water in equal proportions ((known as ‘Amrit’) mixed in an iron bowl. This ceremony inducts them to the special group of Sikhs known as the ‘Khalsa’, as devised by the tenth Guru. Men become known as ‘Singh’ (Lion) and women as ‘Kaur’ (Princess). After undertaking the Amrit, (which Sikhs can do at any age) they become devoted followers thereafter, showing greater commitment and obedience to Sikhism and its customs. Being part of the Khalsa is often referred to as the five ‘Ks’ because its five main rulings all begin with the letter ‘k’, namely:
1. Kesh – this forbids Sikhs from cutting their hair and requires it to be kept clean and covered with a turban as a sign of devotion to God.
2. Kanga – a comb in the hair to keep it tidy and tied up.
3. Kara – a steel bracelet around the right wrist symbolising belief in one God.
4. Kacha – loose shorts worn as an undergarment to enable ease when running or fighting.
5. Kirpan – a short sword, carried as a reminder of the person’s duty in self-defence and as a symbol to protect the weak.
Sikhism has strived for complete equality between genders and to put an end to the caste system in India, something which still prevails today. Heavy emphasis is placed on equal rights for women, indeed, Guru Nanak once remarked how women gave birth to kings and therefore could not be beneath men. Women were encouraged not to wear veils or hide their faces, instead be seen in all their glory. Men are known to wear turbans which are cultural and have been worn for centuries in the footsteps of their founder. Orthodox Sikhs never cut their hair which is seen as a symbol of God’s creation.Men are not circumcised – male Sikhs believe God created them that way and that is how they must remain. Tolerance is another strong feature of Sikhism. They have no strong opposing views towards homosexuality as it is not mentioned in the Holy Text.
Sikhs are part of a close-knit community with emphasis on charity and sharing. Vegetarian meals are prepared in the Gurdwara on a rota system, so no matter whether somebody is rich or poor, they are given a chance to cook for their fellow Sikhs as a sign of humility. There is no hierarchy – prince and pauper eat the same food. Sikhs believe they must share their food with anyone who is hungry. If somebody has no shoes, they must be given a pair, because ultimately everything belongs to God – hence the belief to share. Sikhs give up to 10% of their income to charity, and one million pounds is donated every day in the UK through
Khalsa Aid, an international charity, which provides humanitarian aid to disaster areas and civil conflict zones worldwide based upon the Sikh principle of recognising the whole human race as one as well as considering everyone children of God.
Article previously published in an Ireland’s Eye Magazine