NOTES FOR A TALK ON SIKHISM (File: revsikh.rtf and htm)

1. Numbers

2. Locations

3. History

4. Contemporary

5. Beliefs

6. Cultural Aspects

7. Relations w Muslims

8. Truth

(Shortly before giving the talk I decided to prefix it with a brief account of the 'fieldwork' I did in preparation, including a detailed description of my visit to a gurdwara and of the people I met and their hospitality. Feedback suggested this was very helpful. As for what follows, what I lacked in in-depth knowlege I made up for by my clarity. (i.e. my training officer experience)

1. Numbers and 2. Locations

22M world wide 20M in India mainly in Punjab

500K in UK, 250K in Canada, 100K in USA.

In UK 80% are religiously active.

In UK more Sikhs than Jews.


3. History

Sikhs are very conscious of their history. (Maybe because it's short!)

Their founder Guru Nanak b 1469 died 1539

Since then 9 other Gurus, the last died in 1708.

All good Sikhs know the main features of each Guru.

Guru Nanak was a moody child. Hindu parents.
A Muslim was first to recognise he was God inspired.
He travelled widely, doing the pilgrimage to Mecca. He spent long periods in meditation.
He proclaimed his teaching, much of it in the form of a collection of poetic hymns.

the 3rd Guru, Guru Amar Des, taught that the caste system was bad.

4th was Guru Ram Des who founded what was to become the Golden Temple at Amristsar.

The 5th compiled the holy scriptures, the Adi Granth.
He was martyred by the Muslims. Boiled in a large Chappati pan.

The 6th taught Sikhs to defend their faith, i.e. with force if necessary.

The 8th was a child Guru. His powers baffled scholars. He died aged 8.

The 9th defended Brahmins, and freedom of conscience, and was beheaded by the Mogul Emperor.

The 10th and last was Guru Gobind Singh.
He was a Guru at age 9, a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit.
He revitalised Sikhism.He founded the Khalsa Order.

There is a sect of Sikhism called the Namdharis (qv below) who believe in additional later Gurus up to the present day. But most Sikhs hold Guru Gobind Singh to be the last. Like the Muslims they believe there will never be another.

1849 Brits annexed Punjab, destroyed the temple

C19 and early C20 influx of Christian missionaries - one effect was to cause Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to clarify and reinforce their beliefs, which led to differentiation and reform movements. Even now (qv below) there is argument between those who want to differentiate and draw away from others and those who care not so much about a separate identity and wish to live and work in peace with those of other religions. But end result is that now Sikhs define themselves not as Hindus.

1922. British upheld corrupt Hindu guardians over Sikh historic shrines. Dispute over use of trees for firewood at a Gurdwara. Sikhs protested non violently. British very violent. Witnessed by Gandhi's friend Rev C F Andrews who wrote eloquently of the Sikhs' bravery and non violence.

1940. In response to the call by the Muslim League for an independent state (Pakistan) some Sikhs called for their own state, Khalistan.

1948. Partition. Punjab was split between Pak and India.

1966 Punjab divided into three, but the Punjabi speaking area was not given sufficient autonomy to satisfy the separatists.

1977. Some Sikhs called for the Indian constitution to be amended to give states more independence. not successful.

1984. Militant Sikhs took over the Golden Temple. Indian PM Indira Gandhi had the army storm the temple, hundreds killed, much damage to relics, etc. Much Sikh anger. Later that year her Sikh guards assassinated her.

C20 Sikhs emigrate e.g. to UK. Pedlars (I remember seeing them)

After WW2 many ex servicemen. The early settlers didn't remain single - the point is that the Sikhs who came in the years between the two world wars and up to the 1950s and 1960s did so as single males. They would then work in order to earn money for their families eg to fund a brother's education or a sister's marriage. (The situation was the same for Punjabi Hindu immigrants too) After a few years their wife would join them in the UK or they would return to Punjab to marry and their wife would come here.

It is extremely rare for a S Asian person to remain unmarried.

The Sikhs who came between the wars were mainly pedlars from the Bhatra caste, and they still live mainly in seaports such as Cardiff, Southampton and Glasgow plus London, Edinburgh, Bham and Nottingham.

Those who came to meet the post ww2 need for cheap labour ie mainly from the early 1950s were mostly from the Jat community (peasant landowners).

What changed in the late 60s, early 70s was that whole families arrived together, from East Africa, because of the Africanisation policies of Kenya etc - and especially Idi Amin... These Sikhs were almost all from the Ramgarhia community ie the castes traditionally skilled as masons, carpenters, smiths etc.

1973: East African Asians, many of them Sikhs. UK Govt introduced many new harsh policies (earlier Asian and W Indian immigration had become politically unpopular) including arms length policies, camps in remote places (e.g. Little Rissington), and compulsory dispersal. Later studies suggest all these were counter productive to the Govt's aims. E African Asian settled quickly and far more successfully (economically) than previous groups. (Robinson, V, 1986)

4. Contemporary issues.

Main one is a dispute over the calendar and dates of festivals. Traditional lunar calendar results in festivals being on different dates each year. A revised calendar has been proposed by a Canadian Sikh and has had wide acceptance by radical Sikhs who like it as it further differentiates Sikhs from Hindus, and by secular Sikhs . But traditionalist Sikhs support retention of the old calendar. It came to a head early this year and the traditionalists seem to have prevailed.

In the UK the main concern is over young Sikhs not learning Punjabi. All services are conducted in it. should the services be anglicised?


5. Beliefs

The BBC online "The World's Religions" gives 8 characteristic beliefs:

1. Equality - sex, race, caste, age, etc.

2. God accessible w/out priests. No clergy. (

3. Accept other Faiths. No one religion has monopoly. Sikhism not the only way to God.

4. Live in the world. No withdrawal. No asceticism.

5. No ritual for its own sake.

6. Devotion can be in the form of action as well as in prayer and meditation.

(Note that all the above are also characteristic of Quakers.)

Nam simran = prayer, meditation on God.

Sewa = community service.

7. Social justice. Defending the poor and oppressed. Use of force (but only as a last resort).

8. Death is not the end, it is a transition to a life in the joyful presence of God.

Same source says Sikh concept of God is that God:

- created the universe

- exists always

- needs nothing

- has no shape or gender

- has and will never take human form

- is without hatred or fear

- reaches out to us via the Gurus and shabads (hymns)

- The essence of God is Truth

A Sikh - any human can become a Sikh if they have belief in an Immortal Being; and in the 10 Gurus, and the Guru Granth Sahib, and the baptism bequeathed by the 10th Guru, and if they do not owe allegiance to any other religion.

Much used prayer, the Mul Mantra:

Ek onkar satnam karta purukh, nirbhau, nirvair, akal murak, ajuni, saibham, Gurprasad.

One true and universal creator
All powerful, without fear or hatred,
God is eternal and infinite,
Self existent and known only by grace.

Some believe this cannot be truly translated and others would disagree with this translation. e.g. some translations include reference to God as Destroyer.

Sikhs believe their holy scripture the Guru Granth Sahib embodies all the 10 Gurus. They treat it with great respect as if it were a living guru. No-one stands or sits on a bench or chair in its presence. When not in use it is wrapped in silk, and when in use it is canopied and continually cared for.

Sikhs believe in service. One should serve with love. Should serve all people without regard to religion, caste, or race. Food must be offered to all. The gurdwara is seen as a place for teaching the practice of service for which the real field is the world abroad. So everyone helps with sweeping, cleaning, fetching. The most important is the Guru's free kitchen, Guru ka langar, which was started by Guru Nanak for the dual purpose of teaching service and spreading equality.

Baptism is important to Sikhs, especially re-baptism for those who have erred seriously and been temporarily ex-communicated.


6. Cultural Aspects.

It is important to understand that Sikhs are Punjabis, or quite recent emigrants from the Punjab. They do not prosletise nor evangelise so there are few converts to Sikhism. Thus many characteristics attributed to Sikhism are better understood as due to regional culture. For instance they have distinctive social characteristics which are usually not recognised, such as izzat which can be translated 'family honour'. (Interesting to cf with British Christians, whose religion tells them to 'turn the other cheek', seldom done, and does not tell them to 'keep up with the Jones's which is widespread.)

The Gurus deplored caste and taught all Sikhs to treat everyone as equals, but did not command intermarriage. In practice Sikhs exhibit social differentiation so strong as to be very close to a caste system. For instance in Britain the earlier immigrants were former pedlars, while the later were artisans and professionals. They tend to remain separate, with separate gurdwaras.

In some ways Sikhs foreshadowed Gandhi. e.g. in the C19 the Kudas (aka the Namdaris) organised peaceful boycotts, for instance of the postal service.

The Namdharis (aka Kukas ("criers") for the shrieks they make when in ecstatic meditation - cf Subud!) are a sect of Sikhism known in Bitain for their interfaith activity, vegetarianism, peace, and humanitarian action, but are rejected by most Sikhs due to their belief in currently living Gurus.

Currently many Sikhs devoted to humanitarian aid. e.g. Puran Singh (autobigraphy: "The Garland Around My Neck" - a reference to the crippled man he carried) founded Pingalwara - a home for cripples in Amritsar, supported by many Sikhs inc many in UK.

also e.g. late 90s young British Sikhs set up KhalsaAid to do Red Cross like work abroad e.g. in Bosnia.

7. Relations w Muslims

My surprise at ferocity of anti-Muslim attitudes (had thought Sikhism was a bridge)

First Sikh I spoke to related history of the 10 Gurus almost all as cases of Muslim atrocities, mainly forced conversions under threat of beheading.

However, distaste for Muslims is NOT in line with Guru Nanak's teaching. His constant companion was a Muslim musician, Maranda (whose descendants still specialise in singing the Guru's hymns, i.e. in the Guru Granth Sahib) In these hymns often refer to God by Muslim and Hindu names e.g. Allah, Hari.

Guru Nanak rebuked Hindus and Muslims for religious intolerance and never set one above the other. He said "There is no Hindu or Muslim whose path I shall follow; I shall follow God's".

This is very similar to Gandhi's pleas for peace between Muslims and others.

A Sikh tradition has it that the foundation stone of the Golden Temple was laid by Mian Mir, a Muslim saint.

Despite this the history of Sikhism is one of persecution by the Muslims, particularly the Mogul Emperors. Two Gurus were martyred, another was killed, and the sons of the tenth Guru were walled up. A local Sikh with whom I talked said that sometimes Sikhs and Muslims become friends, but intermarriage was out of the question. A researcher told me that one of the Sikhs she had interviewed was later kicked to death by Muslims, almost certainly because he had objected to his sister meeting a Muslim. Sikhs feel aggrieved because any intermarriage is between Muslim men and Sikh women. This flies in the teeth of the Sikhs' concept of izzat - family honour.


8. Truth. The Sikh concept of Truth is similar to Gandhi's understanding of satya. For both, one aspect of Truth is the unity behind the illusion of diversity. Whereas Hindus express it philosophically (adviata or non-dualism) Sikhs use mystical poetry. It's a truth found in spiritual vision, not logical argument. As far as we humans are concerned, we must avoid the delusion of ego which makes us prey to the five failings: anger, lust, desire, covetness and pride.

So Guru Nanak emphasises it as truth in practice; it is people living lives of integrity, compassion, honesty and service to others.

Guru Nanak said: "Highest is Truth, but higher still is truthful living."


See also my essay "What is Truth" and my report on the Gandhi Foundation summer School at which this talk was given.

Your comments: Email me

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Written/last revised: 2003-07-25.