The Punjabi word ‘Sikh’ means ‘disciple’. Those who identify themselves as Sikhs are the followers of Akal Purakh (Timeless Being). India’s youngest expanding Indigenous tradition, almost 25 million people worldwide, emerged more than five hundred years ago.
The fascinating fact about Sikhism is that even though they are nearly 2 percent of the nation, their political-economical and cultural influence are more consequential than any other tradition. To understand the genealogical development of Sikhism, it is crucial to see the beliefs of Guru Nanak and the principal environmental factors together.
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Guru Nanak believed in spiritual liberation through meditation on the Divine name, living an ethical life, and the pure presence of Akal Purath in the heart with the environmental factors of the rural base of Punjabi society and the historical time engendered the foundational truss for Sikhism. By the eleventh century, Islam had become established in the Punjab area, and by the fifteenth century, Buddhism had almost disappeared, although some of the Jaina ascetics were still there. There were three communities devoted to Shiva, Vishnu, and Goddess with a tantric yogic sect Nath tradition were there as a religious space. To understand the space of Sikhism, it is central to examine this diverse religious universe.
When the Mughul Babur (1483–1530) became the emperor, Nanak had already established a community of Followers. Much of Guru Nanak’s reference comes from the orally circulated hagiography of Janam-Sakhis(Birth narratives). The story goes that one morning Guru Nanak was bathing in the Vein River, and suddenly he disappeared. Three days later, he came out of the water and asserted, “There is no Muslim, there is no Hindu.” The statement’s meaning was evident in the context of religious division, and Guru Nanak accentuated the principle of humanity that lies behind the separations.
One of his own hymns describes his experience:
I was a minstrel out of work; the Lord assigned me the task of singing the Divine Word day and night. He summoned me to his Court and bestowed on me the robe of honor for singing his praises. On me, he bestowed the Divine Nectar (amrit) in a cup, the nectar of his true and holy Name (M1, Var Majh 27, Adi Granth / AG 150).1
History tells us that the Sikhs who were at Guru Tegh Bahadur’s execution covered their identity for fear of seeing a similar fate. Thus, the tenth Guru Gobind Singh created an outward form that makes them recognizable. On Baisakhi Day 1699, Guru Gobind Singh began the Khalsa (“pure”), a sign of loyal bound by a shared discipline (rahit) and identity. Three significant aspects of Khalsa were the Amrit ceremony; they were reborn as the children of Guru Gobind Singh and his wife, Sahib Kaur, and attained the name Singh (lion) for men and Kaur (princess) for women. Then, the dual-edged sword from the hands of the Precious Five. By doing he has given spiritual authority to them. Lastly, the order’s Rahit (Code of Conduct).
To ensure they never seek to conceal their identity, Guru Gobind Singh made Five signs mandatory, known as Five Ks.
- Kes: unshorn hair, representing spirituality and piousness.
- Kangha: a wooden comb symbolizing order and discipline.
- Kirpan: a miniature sword signifies divine elegance, pride, and fearlessness.
- Kara: a steel “wrist-ring,” designating obligation and adherence to the Guru.
- Kachh: a pair of short breeches embodying ethical self-restraint.
The five Ks (Panj Kakke) symbols of divinity imply a correlation between Bani (Divine utterance) and Bana (Khalsa dress). By wearing these Five Ks while reciting prayers, their mind gets purified, and their bodies are prepared to go for everyday temptations of the world. The Sikh community has been redefined and reinvented its role throughout history. Each generation of Sikhs has had to respond to questions from its unique historical experience.
New challenges and questions require new responses, especially in the postmodern world; when everyone is reasking the questions of self, identity, and agency, the process of being ‘Sikh’ is a fascinating phenomenon. And how Guru Nanak’s ideas, the Five Ks, and the conception of Khalsa would become the conceptual substructures for answering those new questions is an exciting topic for any historical and religious person.
You can also read about avatars of Brahma as mentioned in Guru Granth Sahib. Also, take your time to read about Khat avatar on Scientific Monk. Read other articles by the author from the profile page.
- Grewal, J.S. 1991. The New Cambridge History of India: The Sikhs of the Punjab. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- McLeod, W.H. 1984. Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur. 2011. Sikhism: An Introduction. London and New York.
- Hussain, Amir, et al. A Concise Introduction to World Religions. Oxford University Press, 2020.