Sikhs at a Glance
- 99 percent of people wearing turbans in the U.S. are Sikhs from South Asia
- Sikhs have been in the U.S. for over 100 years and currently there are approximately 700,000 Sikhs in the U.S.
- Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion with 25 million adherents worldwide
- Sikhs are involved in many aspects of American life working as teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers, and entrepreneurs
- Sikhs believe in one God, equality, freedom of religion, and community service
- Sikhs cover their uncut hair with a turban
- The Sikh turban represents a commitment to equality and justice
- Sikhism is a distinct religion, separate from Hinduism and Islam
The word “Sikh” means student. The almost 25 million Sikhs worldwide constitute the fifth largest religion in the world. Despite over a million Sikhs living in North America – USA and Canada, Sikhs are often confused as Arabs or Muslims.
Sikhs arrived in North America in 1897 and played a pivotal role in the opening of the West and construction of the Panama Canal in 1904. In 1912, Sikhs established their first gurdwara, or place of worship, in the United States. Almost a million Americans and Canadians are Sikh and nearly every major city has a Sikh place of worship and community center.
History and Beliefs
The Sikh faith is over five hundred years old. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, taught a message of love. He spoke of a universal God, common to all mankind, not limited to any religion, nation, race, creed, color, or gender.
The Sikh religion is strictly monotheistic, believing in one supreme Creator, free of gender, absolute, all-pervading, and eternal. Sikhism views life not as a fall from grace, but a unique opportunity to discover and develop the divinity in each of us.
Human rights and justice form a cornerstone of Sikh belief, and Sikh history features countless examples of Sikh Gurus and their followers making tremendous sacrifices for the cause of religious freedom and justice. More recently, Sikhs have been some of the most highly decorated soldiers of the British armed services during both World Wars. They played a significant role in the memorable battles of El Alamein in the Burma-China front and also in the allied assault in World War II. In India’s struggle for independence from the British, over two-thirds of all the Indians who were sentenced to life imprisonment or death were Sikh. This is in spite of the fact that Sikhs form less than two percent of India’s population.
The Sikh Identity
In 1699, the tenth and last living Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, summoned his followers to the town of Anandpur in Punjab; over 80,000 came.
According to history, Guru Gobind Singh appeared before his people yielding a sword and demanded a head. He repeated his call until five Sikhs were willing to sacrifice themselves to the Guru. To these devoted five, and subsequently to many others on that historic day, Guru Gobind Singh bestowed a new discipline to his Sikhs, and formally initiated them into the new order of the Khalsa. In a dramatic and humble gesture, Guru Gobind Singh asked the five to in turn initiate him. On that day, he gave the Sikhs their modern form, which includes five articles of faith:
- a small comb (kanga) for the hair,
- a steel bracelet (kara) which signifies a reality with no beginning and no end, and also symbolizes a Sikh’s commitment to the ideals of his faith, much as wedding ring might indicate fealty and identity,
- a sword (kirpan) indicative of resolve and commitment to justice, and
- knee-length breeches (keshera) in keeping with the disciplined life-style of a Sikh.
For the past 300 years, male Sikhs have been easily recognized by their turbans, which cover their uncut hair, and beards. Notably, in traditional Indian society only males of high caste or the elite, ruling class wore turbans. Since Sikhs believe all humanity is equal, all Sikhs are encouraged to wear turbans as a testament to their innate royality. Sikh women adhere to the same life style, symbols, rules and conduct as men, but generally few women wear turbans. Young Sikh boys, instead of wearing a turban, often cover their uncut hair, which is tied in a top-knot with a simple piece of fabric.
Along with the aforementioned physical identifiers, Guru Gobind Singh went further in distinguishing Sikhs. In Indian society, an individual’s name reveals one’s caste and social status. Guru Gobind Singh freed Sikhs from the rigid caste system by ordering all Sikh males to adopt the surname “Singh,” meaning lion, and women use the surname “Kaur,” meaning princess, so that they would be free from caste distinctions.
Each year, Sikhs worldwide commemorate and celebrate the historic events of Vaisakhi 1699 as a milestone in Sikh history when Guru Gobind Singh decreed the formation of the Khalsa and fashioned the nation of Sikhs.
The Sikh Scripture
Guru Gobind Singh also decreed an end to the line of Gurus in human form. The writings of the earlier Gurus were collated along with those of Hindu and Muslim spiritual figures whose teachings strongly resonated with Sikh beliefs. This collection of writings is known as Guru Granth Sahib, a uniquely ecumenical and eclectic collection of spiritual writing. For Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib is the repository of all spiritual knowledge and authority. In temporal matters all authority rests with the Sikh community worldwide acting democratically and in mindful prayer with an awareness of the spiritual heritage embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs revere the ten Gurus, Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, because they delivered the divine word of the one, timeless God. The word “Guru” acquires, therefore, a very special meaning for Sikhs. It is reserved only for the ten Gurus who gave us the divine message codified in the Guru Granth Sahib.
The Sikh congregational place of worship, or gurdwara, is more than a place of worship. It has historically served as a refuge for the homeless and the destitute. Gurdwaras usually display the Nishan Sahib, a saffron-colored triangular flag bearing the khanda, the symbol of the Sikh faith.
Visitors, irrespective of their religion, are offered shelter, comfort and food. The prerequisites for entering a gurdwara are removing one’s shoes and covering one’s head with a handkerchief, scarf, or other cloth.
Sikh gurdwaras all over the world usually run free community kitchens, which provide free meals to all. These kitchens are run and funded by volunteers. In traditional Indian society, people of high and low caste were rigidly segregated. To combat this social problem, the Sikh community kitchen, or langar, requires everyone to sit side by side and eat together, thereby teaching the concept of equality by shattering all barriers of caste and class.
In a gurdwara, no special place or seat may be reserved or set aside for any dignitary, as all are considered equals. The service consists of singing of the liturgy, as well as the exposition of Sikh history, tradition, and theology. Non-Sikhs are always welcome. Every major city in the United States and Canada has Sikh gurdwaras and they are open to all.
Sikhism is a practical religion and Sikhs are a pragmatic people. The emphasis is on a leading a worldly, successful life as a householder and a contributing member of society, but with the mind attuned to an awareness of God. Sikhism rejects all distinctions based on caste, creed, gender, color, race, or national origin. For Sikhs, God is not found in isolation or by renouncing the world, but is attained as an active family member and member of one’s community.
The core values of Sikhism are derived from three equally important tenets: an honest living and an honest day’s work, sharing with others what God and life have given, and living life fully with an awareness of the divine within each of us.
Sikhism enunciates a philosophical concept termed Miri-Piri, which means living a life with an active, strong sense of commitment to the world and humanity, governed and directed by a strong foundation and underpinning of spirituality. Thus, the Sikh ideal is to strike a perfect balance and integration of these two states of existence.
In matters that affect the Sikh community, Sikhs have throughout history followed a simple but effective mechanism whereby individual voices are heard and decisions reflect the current state of knowledge, information, and technology. In all such matters, and in honor of the first five Sikhs who heeded the call of Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, the voice of the community is channeled through five Sikhs selected and authorized to resolve issues and speak as the voice of the community. Sikhs believe that God and Guru pervade the congregation when five Sikhs act in mindful prayer. Decision making, thus, becomes a collective process. Sikhs do not have a priestly hierarchy with its associated ecclesiastical authority.
As a religion in which the Word is Guru, Sikhism values education, yet recognizes that the ultimate reality is such that our senses cannot perceive it and our intellect cannot fathom it, but our souls can commune with it.
The Sikh faith is committed to the equality of women, and necessarily so, as it defines God as gender neutral, perhaps one of the few major world religions to do so. There is no activity in a gurdwara or within the community that is permitted to a man but not to a woman. There is no religious function from which women are barred at any time of their lives.
Sikhs have no food taboos except those that stem from one simple injunction – a life of moderation in which all that harms the body or the mind is avoided. Animal sacrifice is forbidden and so is the consumption of animals killed in such manner, such as halal meat. Some Sikhs choose a vegetarian lifestyle. This also means that all intoxicants – tobacco, alcohol or any mind altering “recreational” drugs – are forbidden.
Sikhism recognizes the universal truths that underlie all human endeavors, religions, and belief systems, though people differ in how they institutionalize those beliefs into a code of conduct and a way of life. Much as Sikhs love their religion, Sikhism is equally respectful and accepting of other ways of life and beliefs. Sikhism asks a non-Sikh to discover and live the essential message and meaning of his or her own religion so that a Christian can become a better Christian, Jew a better Jew, Hindu a better Hindu, while a Sikh becomes a better Sikh.
Next time you see a Sikh at work or on the street greet him with “Sat Sri Akal,” which means “Truth is Eternal.”
Contributed by Dr. IJ Singh
Dr. I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy at New York University.
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