Sunday, August 05, 2012



In light of the mass killing at a Sikh temple earlier today (08/05/2012), I am posting this article with hope that it may provide readers with basic information about a religion which is not well known in the United States. With more than twenty-seven million adherents worldwide, Sikhism is the fifth largest religious group. Recent estimates place the U.S. population of Sikhs at somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000, with approximately 20% of the total living in California.  (Population figures are difficult to obtain because the U.S. census does not disaggregate Sikhs as a separate religious or ethnic group.)

Sikhism is a relative newcomer to world religious practice, having been founded by Guru Nanak Dev in the latter part of the fifteenth century.  Born into a Hindu family in 1469, Guru Nanak early exhibited a deep interest in and gift for the spiritual life.  As a young man tending his family’s herd of cattle, he engaged both Hindu and Muslim holy men of the area in deep spiritual discussion.  After his marriage at the age of 16 and the birth of his two sons, he was employed as an accountant but spent many hours of the evenings and early mornings in meditation and hymn singing.  In the latter he was accompanied by a childhood Muslim friend who played the rahab, a stringed instrument.

Following an intense experience of spiritual enlightenment, Guru Nanak devoted the remainder of his long life to travel throughout the Punjab region of India and beyond, singing his hymns and preaching a reformed religious practice which, while sharing some aspects with both Islam and Hinduism, became recognized as a new religion separate from either belief.  Near the end of his life he designated one of his most faithful disciples as his successor.  The succession of leadership continued through ten gurus until Guru Gobind Singh became the last in human form.  This Tenth Master established the Sikh Holy Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, as his successor.  Thereafter there has not been one individual serving as the head of the Sikhs.  Instead they look to the enlightenment and teaching found in their scriptures as the source of leadership.

Like Muslims and Jews, Sikhs believe in a strict monotheism.  Their philosophy states that there is One God, who is creator, sustainer, and destroyer.  With Hindus and Buddhists they share a belief in reincarnation.  For Sikhs the goal of human life is to break the cycle of death and rebirth and to merge with God.

Sikhs acknowledge the inseparability of all being and divinity in the faith statement, “All is God.”  For Sikhs God is gender-neutral, a belief which makes them nearly unique among the world’s major religions.

Other tenets of the Sikh faith include insistence on equality among humans with no regard to race, class, caste, or gender, and a commitment to justice for and service to less privileged members of society.  Most organized gurdwaras, where Sikhs gather for worship, support a kitchen dedicated to serving free meals to all who come, with no limits based on race or religion.

Sikhs practice a rigorous discipline of daily prayer and scripture reading, but with a generous spirit toward those who because of circumstance are unable to follow the daily schedule.  They specifically decline to practice what they refer to as blind ritual, which includes fasting, making of pilgrimage, and any form of idol worship.  While many Sikhs practice vegetarianism as a spiritual and ethical discipline of moderation, the religion includes no food taboos apart from teaching its adherents to shun that which harms the mind and body.  Because living in harmony with other beings is an essential part of the Sikh way of life, adopting a vegetarian diet is often the logical outcome of their ethical reflections.

The Tenth Guru established the Khalsa, a spiritual sister and brotherhood into which Sikhs can be initiated, or baptized, devoting themselves to purity of thought and action.  Members of the Khalsa wear what are referred to as the Five K’s as marks of their devotion.  These are (1) Kesh - uncut hair and beard, as given by God, to sustain him or her in higher consciousness; and a turban, the crown of spirituality; (2) Kangha - a wooden comb to properly groom the hair as a symbol of cleanliness; (3) Katchera - specially made cotton underwear as a reminder of the commitment to purity; (4) Kara - a steel circle, worn on the wrist, signifying bondage to Truth and freedom from every other entanglement; and (5) Kirpan - the sword, with which the Khalsa is committed to righteously defend the fine line of the Truth.  (Definitions taken from 

Because of these distinctive marks of their religion, Sikhs who have immigrated to the US and other western countries have frequently encountered harassment and discrimination.  Immediately after 9/11 there were a number of incidences of Sikh men being attacked because they were mistakenly believed to be Muslims.  The EEOC reports that complaints by Sikhs regarding workplace discrimination sharply increased in 2002 and have continued at a high level.  Twenty-five percent of the complaints by Sikhs to the EEOC have been found to be meritorious, a higher percentage than that for all complaints filed with the agency.

The kirpan carried by modern-day Sikhs is a small dagger with a two-inch dull curved blade.  Security forces which do not understand or respect its religious significance frequently bar observant Sikhs from public spaces.  In April US Sikhs were compelled by the US Secret Service to choose between attending an interfaith meeting with Pope Benedict XVI without their kirpans and violating one of the basic requirements of their belief. 

Sikh representatives chose faithfulness.  In a press release issued at the time, Anahat Kaur, secretary general of the WSC-AR, stated, “We have to respect the sanctity of the kirpan, especially at such inter-religious gatherings. We cannot undermine the rights and freedoms of religion in the name of security.”  The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that initiated Sikhs wearing kirpans must be accommodated as a matter of religious freedom.  In a 1996 ruling by the Ohio First District Court of Appeals, the conviction of a Sikh doctor for wearing the kirpan in a court appearance was overturned.  Judge J. Painter wrote in his opinion, “To be a Sikh is to wear a Kirpan - it is that simple.”

As citizens of the United States we enjoy a wide range of religious freedoms.  For members of the major religions it is easy to takes those freedoms for granted.  Members of less well known religious groups, such as the Sikhs, frequently must devote substantial resources to defending what should be theirs by right.  We all need to remain vigilant, for oppression of one group diminishes us all.

1 comment:

  1. I am humbled by those who see God as universal, the supreme being who does not reserve the right of passage into his realm for any privileged group of people, and the Sikhs act on that premise. Thanks for your article.