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Who are Sikhs? What is Sikhism?

August 16, 2023

Sikhs, like other Americans, have struggled with grief and fear after 9/11.  They fear more than just outside attacks.  Appearance has led to several hate crimes against Sikhs.  Mistaken identification killed Sikh American Balbir Singh Sodhi on Sept. 15.  Only Sikhs wear turbans in America.  Sikhs are neither Hindus nor Muslims from Punjab.

The Sikh community asks everyone to work toward mutual understanding and tolerance.

Although Sikhism advocates self-defense, it urges onlookers to be devoid of hatred and not seek revenge. 

Canadian Sikhs celebrating Sikh new year in Toronto

Sikhs Briefly

99 percent of U.S. turban-wearers are Sikhs from India.

Sikhs have lived in America for over 100 years.

The U.S. has approximately 700,000 Sikhs, and Sikhism is the fifth largest religion globally with 25 million followers.

One God, equality, religious freedom, and communal duty are Sikh beliefs.

Sikhs turban their uncut hair.

The Sikh turban symbolizes justice and equality.

Sikhism is unique from Hinduism and Islam.

Sikh (pronounced “sickh”) means ‘disciple’ or ‘learner.’ Sikhs are separate from Islam and Hinduism and were created in Northern India by Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the 15th century.  Monotheistic Sikhism emphasizes gender equality.  Sikhs believe in praying, working honestly, and sharing one’s wealth.  Sikhism promotes human service and rejects caste and class. 

We use turbans to hide our long hair and honor God.  Recognize Sikh turbans. Sikhs have beards, mustaches, and unshorn hair.  This wonderful democracy is based on the humanitarian principles of freedom, equality, and fairness taught by the Sikh faith.  About 25 million Sikhs live worldwide.  Sikhs have lived in America for over 100 years.  Sikhism acknowledges the underlying principles that underpin all human efforts, religions, and beliefs.  The Sikh way of life inspires individuals of all religions and cultures to work together for world peace and harmony. 

History and Beliefs

The fifth-largest faith is Sikh, with almost 25 million followers.  Despite roughly a million Sikhs in North America (USA and Canada), they are commonly mistaken for Arabs or Muslims. Sikhs arrived in North America in 1897 and helped open the West and build the Panama Canal in 1904. Sikhs founded their first US gurdwara in 1906. 700,000 Americans and Canadians are Sikh, and most major cities have Sikh temples and communities.

Five hundred years old, Sikhs. Guru Nanak, Sikhism’s founder, preached love. He preached a universal God, unaffected by religion, nation, race, faith, color, or gender. Monotheistic Sikhs believe in one genderless, absolute, all-pervading, eternal Creator. Sikhism sees life as a chance to uncover and enhance our divinity. Sikh history is full of examples of Gurus and followers sacrificing for religious freedom and justice. Recently, Sikh warriors were among the most distinguished British soldiers during both World Wars. They were crucial in the Burma-China fight of El Alamein and the Allied- invasion of Italy. Over two-thirds of Indians convicted to life or execution seeking independence from the British were Sikh. This is despite Sikhs making up less than 2% of India’s population.

The Sikh Identity

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and final Sikh Guru, gathered nearly 80,000 followers in Anandpur in Punjab in 1699. History says Guru Gobind Singh appeared before his people, brandished a naked sword, and demanded a head. He called again till five Sikhs volunteered. These five people were from diverse castes and regions of India. On that historic day, Guru Gobind Singh gave his Sikhs a new discipline and ideology. The Guru initiated these five in the new Khalsa order, and they initiated him in a dramatic and momentous gesture. He gave the Sikhs a unique identity with five articles of faith that day:

The Sikh faith includes unshorn hair as a symbol of God and Guru, a little comb for hair, and a steel band that symbolizes a Sikh’s dedication to his faith, similar to a wedding ring.

A Sikh sword symbolizes resolve and commitment to justice, while knee-length pants reflect a disciplined lifestyle.

Male Sikhs have been identified by their long, unshorn hair and turbans for 300 years. Traditionally, only high-caste or ruling-class men wore turbans. Guru Gobind Singh envisioned all Sikhs as honorable by requiring turbans. Sikh women follow the same lifestyle, symbols, norms, and conduct, but few wear turbans. Instead of a turban, young Sikh boys cover their top-knotted hair with a simple fabric.

Guru Gobind Singh distinguished Sikhs beyond physical traits. In India, names indicate caste and social rank. Guru Gobind Singh abolished the caste system by ordering all Sikh males to take the surname “Singh,” meaning lion and women to take the surname “Kaur,” meaning princess. Every year, Sikhs worldwide celebrate Vaisakhi 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa and the Sikh nation.

The Sikh Bible

Guru Gobind Singh (shown right) also ended the human Guru line. The older Gurus’ writings and those of Hindu and Muslim spiritual luminaries whose teachings aligned with Sikh beliefs were collected. Guru Granth Sahib is a remarkable ecumenical and eclectic spiritual anthology. Guru Granth Sahib contains all spiritual knowledge and authority for Sikhs. The global Sikh community, acting democratically and in thoughtful prayer with an awareness of the Guru Granth’s spiritual legacy, has temporal authority. Sikhs worship the ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, for delivering God’s eternal truth. Therefore, Sikhs have a particular relationship with the “Guru”. Only the ten Gurus who gave us the holy message and the Guru Granth Sahib have it.

The Gurdwara

The Sikh Gurdwara is more than a place of prayer. It has historically housed the poor and homeless. Gurdwaras fly the Nishan Sahib, a saffron triangle flag with the Sikh khanda. Visitors, regardless of religion, receive refuge, comfort, and nourishment. Removing shoes and covering one’s head with a handkerchief, scarf, or other fabric are Gurdwara entry requirements.

Since all Gurdwaras are equal, no dignitary may be given a particular seat. The ceremony includes liturgy singing and Sikh history, custom, and theology. Non-Sikhs are welcome always. Sikh gurdwaras worldwide have free communal kitchens that serve meals. The kitchens are run and funded by volunteers. Traditional India divided high and low castes. To address this social issue, the Sikh community kitchen, or langar, requires everyone to sit and eat together, breaking down caste and class boundaries and promoting equality. Sikh gurdwaras are open to anyone in every major US and Canadian city.

The Sikh Lifestyle

Sikhs are pragmatic and Sikhism is practical. The emphasis is on living a worldly, prosperous life as a householder and contributing member of society with a God-aware mentality. Sikhism denies caste, creed, gender, color, race, and nationality. Sikhs find God by being involved in their families and communities, not by forsaking the world. “Sikh” means pupil. Thus, a Sikh studies life’s meaning. The three main ideals of Sikhism are an honest life and day’s work, sharing what God and life have given, and living completely with a knowledge of the divinity within us. Miri-Piri, a Sikhism idea, signifies leading a life of active, strong dedication to the world and mankind, guided by spirituality. Thus, Sikhs seek perfect balance and integration of these two states of life.

Sikhs have always followed a simple but effective procedure to ensure that individual voices are heard and choices reflect current knowledge, information, and technology. In all such problems, especially in remembrance of the first five Sikhs who answered Guru Gobind Singh’s appeal in 1699, five initiated Sikhs are picked and empowered to resolve disputes and speak for the community. Five Sikhs praying mindfully are believed to bring God and Guru into the crowd. This makes decision-making collaborative. Sikhs have no priestly hierarchy or ecclesiastical authority.

Briefly, Women

The Sikh faith embraces gender equality because it identifies God as gender-neutral, one of the few major world religions to do so. There is no gurdwara or communal activity that only men can do. No religious function bars women at any time.

Dietary Limits

Sikhs have no food taboos except those based on one simple injunction: moderation and avoiding harm to the body and mind. Sacrifice and consumption of such animals are illegal. Tobacco, alcohol, and mind-altering “recreational” narcotics are also banned.

Other Religions

Sikhism embraces the underlying principles that underpin all human pursuits, faiths, and belief systems, albeit individuals institutionalize them into a code of conduct and way of life. Sikhs respect and embrace other religions and lifestyles as much as they adore theirs. Sikhism encourages non-Sikhs to understand and embody their religion’s core message and meaning, so Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs can improve.

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