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Intro to Sikhism
Monday, January 12, 2009

Initiation Rituals and Membership

Everyone is welcome. A commitment to the Sikh community comes through two initiatory steps. In a religious ceremony, primary initiation into membership involves vows to celibacy within marriage, a no-flesh religious diet (vegan encouraged), daily meditation/prayer, wearing of the five symbolic elements denoting a commitment to the faith, and financial support of the Sikh community. When one determines to make a total commitment of self to the Sikh way of life, the disciple participates in a secondary initiation, a baptism service called Amrit. A baptized Sikh is called Amritdhari Sikh.

The Sikh faith has 23 million members worldwide and 500,000 members in over 250 Gurdwaras or temples in the United States.

Rubin Singh Discusses Sikh Beliefs and Prayer Practices

Sikh from Jesuit Refugee Service | USA on Vimeo.


The Sikh religion is among the youngest of the major world religions. It is approximately 500 years old. The faith originated in the Punjab region of North India. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469. Guru Nanak spread a simple message of “Ek Ong Kar,” “We are all one,” created by the One Creator of Creation. This teaching occurred at a time when India was being torn apart by castes, sectarianism, religious factions, and fanaticism. He and each Guru to follow denounced oppression based on creed, class, color, or sex. Guru Nanak aligned himself with no religion and respected all religions. He expressed the belief that there is one God and many paths. The name of God is Truth, Sat Nam.

Guru Nanak’s followers were Sikhs, which means literally seekers of truth. He taught them how to bow only before God and to link themselves to the Guru, the Light of Truth, who lives always in the direct consciousness of God, experiencing no separation. Through words and example, the Guru demonstrated to followers how to experience God within themselves, bringing them from darkness into light. Guru Nanak was a humble bearer of the Light of Truth. He opposed superstition, injustice, and hypocrisy. He inspired his followers through singing songs thought to be divinely inspired. The songs were recorded and formed the beginning of the Sikh’s sacred writings. This sacred writing is known as the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Nanak taught his way of life to his followers. Three key elements were passed on:

1. Nam Japa – Get up each day before sunrise, clean the body, meditate on God’s Name, and recite the Guru’s hymns to cleanse the mind. Throughout the day continually remember God’s name with every breath.

2. Dharam di Kirat Karni – To work and earn by the sweat of the brow, to live in a family way of life, and practice truthfulness and honesty in all dealings.

3. Vand Ke Chakna – To share the fruits of one’s labors with others before considering oneself. Thus, to live as an inspiration and a support for the entire community.

The foundation of Sikh faith was laid down by Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak infused his own consciousness into a disciple, who then became a Guru, subsequently, passing on the light to the next Guru. The word Guru is derived from the word gu which means darkness or ignorance and ru which means light or knowledge. The Guru is the experience of Truth (God).

There were a total of ten Gurus in human form. The eleventh Guru is the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures which continue to teach truth to the Sikh adherents. As a result, no living Guru is needed any more. This Guru will last from 1708 until the end of time.

When the British Empire collapsed in India, the country was divided along religious lines. Pakistan became a newly formed country composed mainly of followers of Islam and the rest of the subcontinent became India where Hinduism was the dominant religion. Instead of separating into a third country, the Punjab region, which was primarily Sikh, remained part of India. This historical development led to many bloody battles between the Sikh minority and the Indian government.

The beginnings of Sikhism in America can be traced to the early 1900’s. However, its real growth as a religious movement in America started with the arrival of Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan in 1969.


Concept of God

The definition of God is given in the very opening sentence of the Guru Granth Sahib. This is called the Mul-Mantra or the Preamble of Japji, which is the Essence of the whole Guru Granth Sahib.

“There is but One God
He is the Eternal Truth
The Creator, All-Pervading Divine Spirit
Unfearful, without hate and enmity
Immortal Entity, Unborn, Self-Existent, and
He is realized by His Own Grace.”

The next verse is often called Sach (True) Mantra,

“Meditate upon
Who was True before the Creation
Who was True in the beginning of the Creation
Who is True now, and
O Nanak, Who shall be True for Ever.”

God is both impersonal and personal. God is impersonal, for example, formless and beyond human reach. When God reveals himself through his creation, he becomes related and personal. When God made himself manifest, he first formed himself into Nam (Divine Name) and then created nature. The word Nam is a mystic word used in practical religious life and in the discipline meditation of Prophets have given Divine Names of the nameless God which reflect his presence in the consciousness of people. It is Nam that sustains all beings and the universe. Nam is the cure of all suffering. Nothing is so perfect that it could or would exist apart from and independent of Nam.

In the Sikh scriptures, the concept of God is described as a trinity of sat, chit, and anand. God is omnipotent and omniscient. God is the initiator and the end. God is the Self-Creator and the Self-Propeller.

The Gurus

The word guru is a Sanskrit word meaning teacher, honored person, religious person, or saint. In the Sikh tradition, the word guru took on a very specific meaning. Guru meant the descent of divine guidance to humanity provided through ten special, enlightened masters. Only ten men in the Sikh religion were called Guru, beginning with Guru Nanak in 1496 and ending with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. The divine spirit was passed from one Guru to the next. The Adi Granth (as the sacred Scriptures are sometimes called) states, “The light of a lamp which lights another does not abate. Similarly a spiritual leader and his disciple become equal Nanak says the truth.” The Guru is a perfect prophet or Messenger of God in whom the light of God shines fully, visibly, and completely. The Guru is in union with the Divine. Through him the Glory of the Lord is transmitted to humanity. The Gurus lead the devotees into a spiritual birth on account of the divine prerogatives; the Guru is human in form but divine in spirit.

Guru Granth Sahib

The Guru Granth Sahib was first compiled by the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjan Dev, in 1604 in the city of Amritsar. The second and last version was compiled by the tenth and last human Guru, Guru Gobind Singh and was completed in 1705. The Guru Granth Sahib contains 3,394 hymns. When the Guru Granth Sahib was translated into other languages, a standardized format was agreed upon. Regardless of the language, the length of the sacred scriptures is 1430 pages and is divided into 33 sections. Each page contains the same information.

Perhaps unique to the Guru Granth Sahib are the songs, hymns and sayings of a wide variety of saints and sages. Included are compositions of Hindu bhaktas, Muslims, Sufi poets, and people of other faith traditions. The idea of Guru Arjan was to affirm the fundamental unity of all religions, and the unitary character of all mystic experience. Contributors to the Guru Granth Sahib came from all of the castes prevalent in India between the 12th and 17th centuries. This became highly symbolical of the egalitarianism which is the essence of the creed of the Sikh.

Guru Gobind Singh stated upon completion of the Guru Granth Sahib that no human Guru was needed any longer. Thus the Guru Granth Sahib is viewed as the eleventh Guru which will guide humanity until the end of times. A translation of Guru Granth Sahib is the last Guru forever. The Guru Granth Sahib contains the Gurbani, or the Divine Word. There is no place in the Sikh tradition for a living Guru today; Sikhs have the Guru Granth Sahib as the authoritative guide for life.

The Sikh tradition has given a very high place to its scriptures. In the Gurdwara, and also in homes of individual Sikhs, if they can afford it, a room is set aside where the sacred book is kept. In the Gurdwara, the book is provided with a bed, a light, and a fan.

The Sikh philosophy as described in the Guru Granth Sahib is mainly a philosophy of action, deed and consequence. The emphasis in Sikh life is on shared communal experience, and on purposive and idealistic involvement.

Moral Life

For a Sikh, moral life is not a matter of a few commandments, a code, or a ritual, but the fruit of a life directed towards spiritual quest involving much discipline. The Guru Granth Sahib states, “Greater than Truth is Truthful Living.” In direct contrast to the religious practices of Hinduism, asceticism, fasting, pilgrimages, and yoga are rejected. Although spirituality is to be developed, it is expected to be developed in society. Normal family life is encouraged and in order to achieve salvation one need not be separated from the world or be celibate. Each Sikh is expected to live in the world, yet, be pure in mind, and be a soldier, scholar, and saint.

The five cardinal vices are: Kam (lust), Krodh (anger), Lobh (greed), Moh (worldly attachment), and Ahankar (pride). These cardinal vices keep an individual apart from God. The purpose of life in the Sikh tradition is to seek God and be united with Him. To the degree that one is able to be free from the influence of the cardinal vices is the degree a believer is closer to being in union with God. Human life is an opportunity to attain that goal. If it is missed, a person falls back into the cycle of birth and rebirth. Sikhs believe in reincarnation.


Guru Gobind Singh, the last human Guru, created the Khalsa, a spiritual community of men and women devoted to purity of thought and action. He gave the Khalsa a distinctive external form to remind followers of their commitment, and to help them maintain an elevated state of consciousness. Every Sikh baptized as Khalsa vows to wear the Five Ks.

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. Kacchera – Specially made cotton underwear as a reminder of a commitment to purity.

4. Kara – A steel circle, worn on the wrist, which signifies bondage to Truth and freedom from every other entanglement.

5. Kirpan – The sword, with which the Khalsa is committed to righteously defend the fine line of truth.

Khalsa also vow to refrain from any sexual relationships outside of marriage, and refrain from taking meat, tobacco, alcohol, and all other intoxicants. Finally, Guru Gobind Singh infused his own being into the Khalsa, declaring that the Khalsa was now the Guru in all temporal matters.

Bha Nand Lal, a contemporary of Guru Gobind Singh, wrote the following description of the Khalsa:

“Khalsa is one who fights in the front ranks;
Khalsa is one who conquers the five evils (Lust, anger, pride, greed, ego);
Khalsa is one who destroys doubt;
Khalsa is one who gives up ego;
Khalsa is one who does not stray from his spouse;
Khalsa is one who looks upon all as his own;
Khalsa is one who attunes himself with God.”

Male Sikhs who have taken the Amrit vow take as one of their names, Singh (lion) and women take the name, Kaur (princess).

The Khalsa was to be a saint, a soldier, and a scholar, with high morals and excellent character. He or she would be strong, learned, and wise. The Guru challenged the Khalsa with the five virtues: sacrifice, cleanliness, honesty, charity and courage, and prescribed the code of discipline or conduct.

The Khalsa’s Code of Conduct is the following. The Sikh will worship only God. They will not set up any idols, gods, goddesses, or statues for worship nor shall they worship any human being. The Sikh will believe in no other religious book other than the Guru Granth Sahib, although they can study other religious books for acquiring knowledge and for comparative study. The Sikh will not believe in castes, untouchability, magic, omens, amulets, astrology, appeasement rituals, ceremonial hair cutting, fasts, frontal masks, sacred threads, graves, and traditional death rites. The Khalsa will remain distinct by wearing the five Ks but shall not injure the feelings of others professing different religions. The Khalsa will pray to God before starting any work. This will be over and above his usual prayers. Although a Sikh may learn as many languages as he likes, he must learn Punjabi and teach his children to learn to read it. Every male should add Singh after his name and every female Khalsa should add Kaur after her name. They must never remove hair from any part of their bodies. The use of drugs, smoking, and alcohol are strictly forbidden for Sikhs. Khalsa men and women will not make holes in their ears or nose and shall have no connection whatsoever with those who kill their daughters. Sikh women will not wear a veil. A Sikh must live on honest labor and give generously to the poor and the needy thinking all the time that whatever he gives is given to the Guru. A Sikh must never steal or gamble.

Role of Women

At first glance, the Sikh religion can be viewed as primarily male oriented and dominated. The religious literature is mostly the work of men and many institutions have been almost exclusively staffed by men. In addition, the most visible characteristics, i.e. the beard, turban and attire, are mostly male. In many ways this is an inaccurate description of Sikh tradition. In contrast with society at that time, Sikh tradition was socially very egalitarian. The Guru Granth Sahib, in a hymn by Guru Nanak says this of women:

“Of woman we are born, of woman conceived,
To woman engaged, to woman married.
Women we befriend, by woman do civilizations continue.
When a woman dies, a woman is sought for.
It is through woman that order is maintained.
Then why call her inferior from whom all great ones are born?
Woman is born of woman;
None is born but of woman.
The One, who is Eternal, alone is unborn.” (473)

Married family life, not asceticism or celibacy, is extolled as the ideal for human social fulfillment. Although no late 20th century meaning may be read into these words, the role of women was certainly much more exalted than experienced by women elsewhere in society. This provided a sense of equality, both social and religious, which was unique in India.


Marriage is obligatory for a Sikh. Renunciation of the world is rejected by the Sikhs because they are expected to live the life of a householder. Marriage is sacramental; it is not merely a contract between two people. Sikh marriages are not arranged, but parents, family and friends help their children in finding marriage partners. No one is forced into a marriage, but because of the sacramental nature of marriage, marriage is for life.  There is no legal means of dissolution of a marriage and cannot be annulled by a decree of any court. Once married, a husband and wife are one spirit in two bodies.

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple, known as Harmandir Sahib, at Amritsar in Punjab, is the most revered religious center in Sikhism. The temple was built by the fourth Guru, Guru Arjan. The temple stands in the center of a rectangular pool of water, called Anrit Sarovar, which means tank of nectar. In 1802, the roof was gilded with gold. From that time, the temple came to be known as the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple has an entrance on each side, symbolizing that all people are able to enter into the temple, unlike the practice in those days where only the upper caste of the four existing castes in India were able to enter into temples. The Golden Temple is also built with a lower elevation than the surrounding buildings, symbolizing the humility of the Sikh faith towards God and humanity. Located inside the temple is the Guru Granth Sahib. Pilgrims do cleanse themselves in the pool, but this cleansing is seen only as a symbolic cleansing of the soul rather than an actual bathing of the body.

The Khanda

The Khanda is the Sikh insignia or symbol. It has four components: a double-edged straight sword, a ring and a sword on either side of the ring. The name, however, is derived from the central symbol, the Khanda, a special type of double edged sword which confirms the Sikhs’ belief in one God and symbolizes the creative power of God which controls the destiny of all of creation.

The inner circle is called the Chakra. This circle, without a beginning or end, symbolizes the perfection of God who is eternal. The Chakra is surrounded by two curved swords called Kirpans. These two swords represent the spiritual and temporal authority. The right edge symbolizes freedom and authority governed by moral and spiritual values, called Piri. The left edge symbolizes divine justice used to punish wicked oppressors, called Miri.