An Introduction to Sikhism
Dr. Meredith Sprunger
The Religion of Syncretism
Sikhism is the youngest of the world religions. It was founded by Nanak in the sixteenth century and has approximately 6,000,000 adherents located chiefly in the Punjab region of India. In a sense Sikhism may be regarded as yet another reform movement in Hinduism. Nanak attempted to integrate the best in Hinduism and Islam into a new inclusive religion. Nanak stands in a tradition of reformers. An older contemporary, Kabir, is especially noted for his attempt to bring Hinduism and Islam together.
Nanak was born of common Hindu parents of the Khati (Kshatriya) caste in 1469. He was a precocious youth who loved poetry and religion but was a failure at a variety of occupations. He married at nineteen and was the father of two sons. Later he left his wife and sons and went to the city of Sultanpur where he was a little more successful in business pursuits.
Around the age of thirty Nanak had a vision of God while meditating in the forest. He was told he had been singled out as a prophet of the true religion. His message was to be, “There is no Muslim and there is no Hindu.” Following this visionary experience, he became an evangelist of the gospel of unity between these two religions.
Along with his constant companion, the minstrel Mardana, Nanak traveled widely throughout India preaching the essential unity of Islam and Hinduism. He wore a mixed costume made up of both Hindu and Muslim clothing. They even made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Wherever he went he tried to organize groups who accepted his teachings. Nanak is reported to have performed miracles. His followers were known as Sikhs (disciples). Toward the end of his life Nanak appointed his disciple, Angad, as his successor.
In October, 1538 Nanak was about to die. His Muslim converts wanted to bury him and his Hindu converts wished to cremate him after death. To settle the argument Nanak told each group to place flowers on either side of him and the group whose flowers were still fresh in the morning could have his body. He then drew the sheet over his head and became still. When the sheet was removed the next morning both bouquets of flowers were in bloom but the body of Nanak was gone. Thus, according to this legend, even in death the peaceful and loving Nanak sought to bring harmony between Muslims and Hindus.
Nanak, like Kabir and others, tried to synthesize the best elements of Islam and Hinduism. He taught a devotional monotheism, referring to God as “The True Name.” Nanak rejected ahimsa thus allowing Sikhs to kill and eat animals. He accepted the principle of reincarnation and the law of karma but eliminated ceremonialism and ritual. Nanak also accepted the Hindu doctrine of Maya or illusion. God created matter by drawing a veil of illusion over himself producing all of the diverse forms of creation: the finite gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; the heavens, the hells, the earth, men, animals, and plants. Salvation consists in becoming one with God. But salvation is not going to Paradise after the last judgment but absorption in Nirvana—individuality extinguished in absorption in God, the True Name.
The scripture of Sikhism is the Granth (book) which is an anthology of many poems somewhat like the Hebrew Psalms and wisdom literature. The Granth has many authors and the Sikhs ascribe absolute authority to it. The first two sentences of the Granth is prescribed as the first utterance for every Sikh each day, “There is but one God, whose name is True, Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent, great and bountiful. The True One is, was, and also shall be.” The main method of worship is meditation on God. The need for a teacher and the Pure Congregation of disciples are important in Sikhism. The good Sikh is pure in motive and action, serves others, honors those who can teach him, and craves the Guru’s word; loves his wife and renounces all other women; avoids quarrelsome topics, is not arrogant, does not trample on others and forsakes evil company.
The first four of the ten gurus of Sikhism followed the teachings of Nanak. The fifth guru, Arjan Des, turned from the pacificism of Nanak to a militant stance. Under the persecution of Islam rulers Sikhism grew more defensive. Gobin Singh, the tenth guru, introduced a ritual, the baptism of the sword, and prepared the Sikhs for self-defense and war. He developed an elite class of Sikhs known as Singhs (lions) who were distinguished from their fellows by wearing long hair, beards, a comb, short trousers, a steel bracelet, and a dagger. They were not allowed to use wine, tobacco, or any other stimulant. The Singhs were incredible warriors and later the British used them as soldiers and policemen throughout India and many other parts of the world.
Today there are three main branches of Sikhism and many minor groups. The first sect is called the Udasis which is basically an order of ascetics and holy men. They frequently shave their heads and beards and are often active as missionaries. The second sect is the Sahajdharis who reject militarism and prefer to be clean shaven. The third sect is the Singhs already described. In temples the central object of worship is a copy of the sacred Granth. Congregational worship involves prayer, hymns, a sermon, and a communional meal. Since there are no Sikh priests, group meetings may be led by any member of the community. All Sikhs give special attention to the Takht (throne) of Sikhism with its golden temple at Amritsar.
Index to the Full Series
I. Hinduism: The Religion of Divine Immanence and an Hereditary Graded Social Structure
II. Jainism: The Religion of Asceticism
III. Buddhism: The Religion of Peaceful, Ethical Self-culture
IV. Sikhism: The Religion of Syncretism
V. Taoism: The Religion of the Divine Way
VI. Confucianism: The Religion of Social Propriety
VII. Shinto: The Religion of Nature Worship, Emperor Worship and Purity
VIII. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Free Will Choice Between Good and Evil
IX. Judaism: The Religion of Ethical Monotheism
X. Christianity: The Religion of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man Mediated by Jesus Christ
XI. Islam: The Religion of Submission to God