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Sikhs: Introduction To Sikhism


Sikhism was founded just over 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the first of 10 Sikh religious teachers. Guru Nanak taught that there is only One God and that all people are equal, rejecting the caste system which was prevalent in Indian society. He also criticized the corrupt nature of religious leaders of the time, both Hindu and Muslim.


Guru Nanak was born in Talvandi, India, in 1469 and became the first of ten Sikh Gurus who came to bring the path of enlightenment to their people through their simple teaching methods. He taught that God was One, transcendent and aloof and that all idolatry, superstition, ritual and aestheticism were a barrier to finding the True path to God. While on earth, all men ought to be truthful, gentle, kind and generous and work towards the common good. They must try to live a spiritual life in the real world and discover the godly in themselves by dedicating their life to doing good.

'Sikh' translates roughly as 'Student' or even 'Disciple', and refers to the idea that all Sikhs are trying to follow the lessons given to them by their teachers, the ten Gurus. After the death of Guru Nanak, he was succeeded by another Guru, who appointed a third before his own death, and so on. Each of the ten Gurus embodies a virtue that Sikhs strive towards.

The final teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, gathered together his followers and forged a spiritual brotherhood between them in 1699. He baptised those who accepted his ways with sugar water, and called the group the Khalsa Panth. He then gave them five signs that they must wear at all times, and by which they could always recognise each other. These signs are known as the 'five Ks' and are:

kesh – an uncut beard and uncut hair. This, the Gurus felt, was as God intended, and helps to sustain a Khalsa Sikh in a higher consciousness. To keep control of this long hair, an adult male Sikh will wear a turban – often called the crown of spirituality – which must be newly tied each day. Male children who have not yet been baptised wear their hair knotted on top of their head and covered with a special cloth. Young girls wear their hair long and unbound; adult women usually wear it plaited.

Kangha – a wooden comb that can be run through the long hair to untangle it. Hair must be combed twice a day to keep it clean and tidy, and for men it is then covered with a fresh turban. The kangha is a symbol of spiritual and physical cleanliness.

Kara – a steel bracelet that is worn around the right wrist. It symbolises the bondage of the Khalsa to truth and freedom from any other entanglement (such as the Hindu caste system). It also shows that they are a servant of the faith, and is a constant reminder of that fact to others as well as themselves.

kirpan – a sharp knife with a double-edged blade. This ceremonial knife is a symbol of the Sikh commitment to defending their faith at all times and their constant fight against evils.

Katchera (or kacch, kachh) – specially made long underpants that are worn by men and women as a constant reminder of their commitment to purity of both body and soul.

gurdwara and langar

The place where Sikhs gather to worship is called a gurdwara, which literally translates as 'Door to the Guru'. This relates to the fact that it is the home of a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs which has the status of being a 'living Guru' and is treated with great reverence. It can never be placed on the floor or near to someone's feet as this would be a grave insult to the Guru, and it is housed in the gurdwara in a special canopied and cushioned throne, covered with decorated cloths to keep it clean.

The gurdwara acts as a place of worship, a community centre, a teaching room for the young and also a kitchen. The kitchen is specifically called a langar, and the meals served there are also called langar. Sikhs donate a proportion of their income to the gurdwara every year, and this money is used to provide free meals to anyone who visits the gurdwara. Food is always vegetarian, so that no one should have any problem with eating it. People usually sit on the floor to eat, which symbolises that – to Sikhs – all humans are equal and deserving of kindness. Special seating is, however, always provided for disabled visitors.

The gurdwara is run and administered by a granthi, who is a servant to the community, and the one who reads the lessons from the Guru Granth. A granthi is not required to have any special training or academic qualifications, only knowledge of Punjabi.

Guru Granth Sahib

The Guru Granth Sahib is the 'living book' that holds the wisdom of the ten Gurus – and so by extension, the word of God. It is treated at all times with special reverence as it symbolises the eternal presence of God. All Sikhs carry a copy with them at all times, so that they can read it for comfort and advice when they need to. The copy held in the gurdwara is housed in a special canopied dais: it is literally 'put to bed' by covering it with special material embroidered with Sikh symbols.

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