Sikhism

Introduction

 Presence in the UK

The Sikh diaspora is scattered throughout the world and the UK is no exception.  The last census in 2011 holds that there were 432,429 Sikhs in the UK where the first Gurdwara (place of worship) was established in a house in Putney. The small group of Sikhs which made up the congregation were mainly men who were academics, lawyers or business men.  Later this became the Central Gurdwara in Shepherd’s Bush.  By the 1930s small numbers of Bhattra Sikhs travelled the country as door to door salesmen.  The late 1940s saw a push/pull movement of Sikhs directly from India.  The push factor was in terms of the partition of India when many Jat (originally landowners and farmers) Sikhs lost their land in what became Pakistan and usually the most capable male family member came to the UK because of the pull factor that was the need for labour in a newly emerging post-war Britain.  In the late 1960s and early 70s a number of Sikhs, predominantly Ramgharia (craftsmen and engineers), came from East Africa where their forebears had been employed originally to build the railways and had often stayed there to maintain them.

The 1960s saw a period of consolidation when the myth of return had lessened.  Wives and families were brought over from the Panjab, more Gurdwaras were established and families settled down.  But there was a struggle both against racism and in favour of the maintenance of Sikh culture, through such issues as the right to wear a turban or appealing for planning permission to build Gurdwaras.  The Sikh work ethic is very strong and today Sikhs make a considerable contribution to the UK economy working in many fields both in terms of a skilled workforce and in the professions.  At the present time there are over 350 Gurdwaras throughout the UK mainly in London, the Midlands, and the North of England.

Sikhism’s origins and early history

Guru Nanak was the first of ten human Gurus.  Born in the Panjab in 1469 his was a protest against the religiosity of both Muslims and Hindus.  From an early age he was fascinated by religious belief and practice and felt himself to be called to proclaim a message of the need to follow the path of God – a term we shall borrow for brevity’s sake. Setting his hymns to the Divine to music he set out with two companions, one Muslim, the other Hindu, to proclaim his message of the need for devotion to the one God whose will one should follow and whose gracious nature would lead one to the attainment of liberation from the constant round of birth, death and rebirth. The stories of his peripatetic ministry are related in the Janam Sakhis which mainly relate his life until he made his way to Kartarpur in 1521.  There he founded a community in which a new phase in the development of the faith began.  Just less than three weeks before his death it is said he appointed his successor, not from his own family but a gentle soul called Lehna, whom he named Angad (b 1504, Guru 1539-1552) The name is a play on the word ang meaning a limb,  thus Guru Nanak proclaimed him ‘part of me’.

The second Guru was of the warrior (Kshatriya) caste, but noted for his humility, he was a man of deep spirituality who regularly served food in the langar (kitchen).  He wrote a number of hymns and is said to have devised the scripture’s Gurmukhi script used to this day.

The third Guru, Amar Das (b1479, Guru 1552-74), was a devoted follower of Guru Angad.  Whilst living in a village named Goindval, near Amritsar, Guru Amar Das had a water-tank dug intending it to be a place of pilgrimage. During his period as Guru the Emperor Akbar visited him and was persuaded by the Guru to eat in the langar.  Thus Akbar was the eating with the ordinary folk –  a practical example of the Sikh desire for equality.  To this day Sikhs gather together at the Spring and Autumn festivals of Baisakhi and Diwali, instigated by Guru Amar Das.

Guru Ram Das (b 1534, Guru 1574-81) founded what was to become the city of Amritsar and had a water-tank dug which was to become the ‘pool of nectar’ – the major pilgrimage site.  He established a distinctive community of Sikhs who now married with his now familiar marriage hymn (Lavan) echoing in their ears.  The practice of widow burning was forbidden.

One of the most significant of the Gurus was Guru Arjan, the first to have been born into a Sikh family (b 1563, Guru 1581-1606).  He was noted for enlarging the artificial lake and the building of the Harmandir  (known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar begun in 1589.  He collected the hymns of his predecessors to produce an authoritative collection including his own works known as the Adi Granth.  Now a distinctive faith Sikhism, and particularly the Guru, appeared to be a major threat to the less accommodating Jehangir, Akbar’s son.  A dissenting menace in the emperor’s eyes Guru Arjan became the faith’s first martyr, killed on a trumped –up charge of treason.

His son, and succeeding Guru, Hargobind, (b 1595, Guru 1606-44) recognised that temporal strength must be added to spiritual leadership and that he was called to the struggle against any forms of injustice. He was followed by Guru Har Rai (b 1630, Guru 1644-61) and Guru Har Krishan (b 1656, Guru 1661-64) who died of smallpox at a very early age.

The ninth Guru’s name, Tegh Bahadur (b 1621, Guru 1664-75) aptly means ‘brave sword’ thanks to his courage in battle against the Mughals.  He struggled against the Islamisation process favoured by Aurangzeb through forced conversions.  Though his demand for freedom of religion was not on behalf of Sikhs alone, Hindus begged his help too and it is regarded that his support for their religious liberty, too, led to his martyrdom.

That led to the last of the human Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh (b 1666 – Guru 1673-1708).  He was regarded as both warrior and saint who fought valiantly against the chaos that was found in Aurangzeb’s Empire.  By this time, the number of Sikhs had increased considerably, and they were scattered across India.  On Baisakhi Day in April of 1699 the Guru summoned his Sikhs.  Loyalty was vital and he asked for five men to come forward to give their lives for Sikhism.  Many left, but eventually five men offered themselves, one at a time.  Five times the Guru took each individual behind a tent and returned with his sword dripping of blood.  Quite what happened no one knows, some say the men were beheaded, others that five goats were slaughtered.  It was at this point that the Guru returned with all five men.  They were initiated as Sikhs by giving them ‘nectar’ – amrit  – made from sugar crystals dissolved in water.  The Guru Insisted that he be initiated by them, followed by thousands of different caste and Dalits also.  Here was the basis of Sikhism as we know it today, each had to wear the 5 Ks – kesh, uncut hair, kangha, a comb, kara, a steel wrist-band, kirpan, a sword, and kachs , short breeches.  Men took the name Singh (lion) and women Kaur (princess) and all were to abide by a Code of Conduct drawn up by the Guru.

The Guru’s other lasting legacy was that he declared himself to be the last human Guru and established scripture, basically that edited by Guru Arjan but with additions from Guru Tegh Bahadur, as the Guru.  This was and is deemed to be more than a book, the Guru Granth Sahib (abbreviated in references to GGS) was to be the Word of God, a guidance for life, for the sangat, God’s people, the Sikhs.

So what do they believe?

God

At the heart of Sikh faith is the belief in One God.  The phrase ‘there is no other’ is to be found regularly in the Guru Granth Sahib, but such a simple statement hides a complexity which is beyond understanding.  The Deity is both transcendent and immanent, a creator and sustainer of the worlds, indeed the universe is regarded as a manifestation of divine power.  Many names are used of the divine, some taken from Hinduism and Islam but others deepening the understanding of Reality from a Sikh perspective.  God is beyond gender epithet and often referred to as Akal Purakh – the Timeless One, or the Being beyond time, who exists outside the constant round of birth, death and re-birth known as samsara. As Creator, Kartar Purukh, God is the one who brought all beings into existence.  God is ineffable, for how can finite human beings understand the nature of an infinite Being.  What we know of God is through the Divine Word, Shabad, and often is referred to as the Sat Guru, the True Guru, or Sat Nam, the True Name or sometimes just Naam, Name.  The name commonly used is Waheguru, Wonderful Lord.

The human condition.

Sikhs do not believe that human-beings are born in original sin.  They are, however, born into that cycle of birth, death and re-birth known as samsara.  For that matter the whole of creation is similarly subjected.  Yet it is the human-being alone which possesses discrimination, knowing right from wrong.  Our present condition, say the Sikhs, is caused by our behaviour in a previous existence.  Guru Nanak said that because of their haumai, self-centredness or self-reliance, human-beings do not place dependence for life on God and fail to recognise the need for liberation from samsara, or the means to such liberation, rather they attach themselves to worldly ties and fail to find unity with the Divine.

Liberation

So how is liberation accomplished?  The remedy is not in practising asceticism, visiting centres of pilgrimage or mastering the scriptures or philosophical systems.  Nor is it a matter of works, though the sign of a true Sikh is seva, service to humanity, done not because it may bring merit, but because it is the natural response of God’s people.  Good actions may lead to a better existence, we read in the Guru Granth, but liberation comes only from his grace. (GGS p. 2) Nor indeed can one understand God through cleverness. (GGS p. 221)  It is the blessing of God’s grace that is the sole means of liberation.  Further: Without the grace and guidance of the Guru (here meaning God) we cannot know the essence of the truth: the unfathomable God lives in everyone.  (GGS p. 1093)

Festivals

In February/March Hola Mohalla is the Sikh alternative to the Hindu Holi.  Originally the two day festival climaxed with a mock battle, but now archery and wrestling competitions take place, together with music and poetry competitions. Sikhs gather together at Baisakhi (13 April) to remember and celebrate the time when Guru Gobind Singh founded the khalsa – the Sikh community. Three anniversaries known as Gurpurbs celebrate the birthdays of Gurus Nanak and Gobind Singh and the martyrdom of Guru Arjan.

Meeting Sikhs

Hospitality is a byword within Sikhism and well experienced on visiting a Gurdwara.  However, the visitor would be expected to follow the etiquette practised there. Make sure you have no tobacco or alcohol in your pockets.  A head covering for both men and women is required. Often there will be suitable scarves available.  Shoes are left in the entrance lobby on shelves provided. It’s often best to watch Sikhs and follow much of their example.  After leaving your shoes rinse your fingers at a nearby washbasin, especially if you are to be offered food from the langar. On entering the sanctuary Sikhs prostrate themselves before the scripture.  Visitors should show respect, so some people stand with their palms together and others kneel following Sikh example.  There’s usually a large collection box in front of the scriptures where you can leave a donation.  Men and women usually sit separately on the floor. Do not sit with your feet pointing towards the scripture.  At the end of a service of worship karah Prasad is served.  It’s a very sweet, fudge-like substance, rather greasy. (Paper handkerchiefs are useful!)  Take it in the palm of your hand and then eat it, and recognise it would be rather rude to refuse. It has not been ‘offered to idols’.   On leaving it’s the normal practice to hold one’s hands together facing the scriptures.

Those Christians who have been involved in scripture studies with Sikhs, taking passages from both scriptures, have found tremendous value in the discussions, often leading to mutual deepening of faith.  They have often been challenged by the Sikh dictum:  Truth is highest, but higher still is truthful living.

Sikh critiques of Christianity

  1. A question posed by   Guru Nanak and re-iterated by Sikhs today is: How can any finite human-beings understand the nature of an infinite God?  They recognise that we are hampered by inadequate understanding of that being we call God and the inadequacy of language.  This is a reminder of the need for modesty in theological claims.
  2. Whereas Christianity seems to look for individual salvation, what is important from a Sikh perspective is to escape from self-centredness and self-preoccupation since the more self-centred you are, the less God-centred you are inclined to be.
  3. Whilst Jesus Christ is not a part of Sikh theology he is seen, nevertheless, a figure worthy of respect and honour, a man who gave his life for others, a great spiritual teacher who preached the need for selfless service – seva.  Thus we see two matters: the generous appreciation by Sikhs the work and words of Jesus, and the need for theological claims to be backed up by humble service.  As Sikhs would claim, a tree can only be judged by its fruit.
  4. Whilst the crucifixion is not seen as atoning, it is seen, nevertheless as the sign of a martyr, and is thus appreciated, but how does the implication of his death differ from, and according to Christian theology have ultimate significance in comparison to the Sikh martyrs, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur?
  5. Christians speak of their faith in one God, but traditional theology is dominated by the Trinity. How these two concepts can be reconciled puzzles Sikhs.
  6. Christians, say the Sikhs, do not have the monopoly of grace.  It is an essential part of Sikh understanding in whose scripture the term gur prasadi – by the grace of God  – is a regular occurrence .
  7. The Sikh Gurus rejected any thought of being a divine incarnation, and in the light of that they ask: Why do you Christians make claims about the divinity of Jesus Christ?  This has to be seen in the Sikh claim that we all have that of the divine within our being.
  8. In the early days of the Sikh faith a leading Sikh met Christian missionaries in the court of the Emperor Akbar.  He was disturbed by their arrogance and sense of superiority. Like him Sikhs continue to ask why do we Christians speak as if we had the monopoly of the understanding of God? Christian arrogance has undermined the presentation of our faith.

 Speaking of Our Faith to Members of the Sikh Religion

  1. How can finite human beings understand the nature of an infinite God?

St Paul wrote in terms of ‘seeing through a glass darkly’, so at the outset must be a word about the nature of the language we use in speaking of the Christian faith.  So much of our language has been understood literally when it may have been intended metaphorically.  Metaphor is used because human language has never been adequate to describe our experience of that which is beyond human understanding.  We are hampered by our inadequate understanding and the limitation of language.   When we Christians speak as though we had intimate knowledge of the nature of God we undermine our credibility in the minds of Sikhs.  We may speak of the immanence of the divine, as would Sikhs, but experience of such immanence is not the same as knowledge of God’s nature.  Modesty in claims for theological understanding is vital.

A comment must be added with regard to our use of the term ‘God’.  Whereas we may think this a given term, almost neutral and default in nature Sikh friends have indicated that for them this English word essentially carries with it an essentially Christian connotation.  Sometimes they’ll use the term Naam, meaning Name, quite simply a neutral noun that seemingly has no theological baggage and in contrast to the many names given to Reality in Hinduism, the context in which Sikhism developed.

  1. Christianity seems to look for individual salvation, what is important is to get away from self-centredness and self-preoccupation.

A point of significant contact in conversation with Sikhs is that of the matter of the self.  Sikhs are adamant that one of the greatest obstacles to being God-centred is our own self-centredness.  Known as haumai in Panjabi it is something that has to be eliminated.  Jesus, too, spoke in terms of the need to take up the cross daily and by so doing whoever would lose his or her life would gain it, and conversely whoever tried to gain his or her life would lose it.  The Greek word here, psuche, means life, human individual or self.  Christians may want to point out that no better an example of this, and a pattern for humanity, is seen in the cross of Christ.  This is more meaningful if in witnessing to our faith we are seen to give our lives in the service of others.

3. Whilst Jesus Christ is not a part of Sikh theology he is seen, nevertheless, as a figure                       worthy of respect and honour, a man who gave his life for others, a great spiritual teacher             who preached the need for selfless service – seva.

Although the figure of Jesus Christ plays no part in Sikh theology he is regarded as a respected spiritual teacher and since Sikhs believe that all faiths contribute to our understanding of God he is someone to whom they would pay attention. His parables and the nature of his life are often quoted by Sikhs as examples of positive spirituality.  The very nature of being a Sikh means that giving one’s life of behalf of others is appreciated and respected.  The Cross, therefore, has meaning, but must not be presented as a passive event, but part of the struggle that must be waged against the forces of evil.

For many Sikhs theological discussion does not have priority over the practice of faith.  Living the faith is most important, thus one will hear the phrase: Truth is highest, but higher still is truthful living.  Thus seva, service, is the most persuasive issue in terms of the value of Christianity.  The hospitals and educational establishments founded by Christians speak volumes to people of a faith which is reflected in service to the community.  Alongside this is a rejection of ritual by the Gurus.  Says Bhai Gurdas: ‘Recitations, penances … fasts, rituals, pilgrimages, are done for personal ends, many persons live and die for rituals, good deeds, fears and superstitions, only the Guru (God) centred get eternal happiness and are ferried across the terrible world ocean in the Guru’s boat.’ (Var 38.12)

  1. Whilst the crucifixion is not seen as atoning, it is seen, nevertheless as the sign of a martyr, akin to that of Gurus Arjan and Tegh Bahadur and is thus appreciated, but how does the implication of his death  differ from the Sikh martyrs, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur?

Both were the subjects of malicious accusations and both died under the auspices of the state.  Some Christians may wish to speak in terms of the cosmic battle between good and evil whilst others may speak of the continuing struggle that is a responsibility in which all people of faith must participate.  Arguments put forward in terms of theories of the atonement do not cut ice with Sikhs.  The Sikhs ask: How can the death of Jesus, albeit a remarkable figure, two thousand years ago, impact on present day human-beings?  Our stance is one of faith, but this is only evident from a Sikh perspective in terms of our own cross-carrying life-styles. Spiritual truths have to be backed by truthful living.  Empty piety is its own reward.

  1. Christians speak of their faith in one God, but their theology is dominated by the Trinity, how can these two concepts be reconciled?

There are theological issues which need to be explored.  If we consider the being of God Sikhs, like us, make strong affirmations about the oneness of God.  It is at the heart of the Sikh faith, so speaking of the Trinity may, at first hearing, be strange to Sikh ears. As one speaks, what will not be strange will be the affirmation of the one God who creates and sustains, who is apparent and present amongst God’s people and whose very nature resides amongst humanity and as one who hears and responds to our prayers. Such is the being in whom Sikhs lay their trust.  Here are parallels to be explored, the very essence of God and God’s dealings with humanity gives us a clue about the nature of a loving, gracious God.

  1. Christians do not have the monopoly of grace. It is an essential part of Sikh understanding.

Both faiths recognise the grace of God as being vital to the empowerment of human life – enabling life in its fullness, a condition that Jesus said he came to bring.  This understanding of grace by the Sikh may be explored alongside the Sikh recognition of the jivan mukhat – the person who is liberated whilst in this life, who is so God-conscious that they cannot help but live to the glory of God. God’s grace alone enables this to happen.

Being God-conscious, or gurmukh, as Sikhs may call it, is to be contrasted with being manmukh – driven by human urges and foibles.  Sikhs, like Christians, recognise human imperfection, but reject the concept of original sin.  A Christian analysis of the human condition which goes along the lines of all human being are born in sin, thus alienated from God and in need of salvation is not one which Sikhs would hold.  That humanity has an ability to go off the rails is accepted as is the idea that trusting in the grace of God one may find one’s liberation into union with the divine.  Here are areas for discussion and mutual exploration.

  1. Why do you Christians make claims about the divinity of Jesus Christ? We all have that of the divine within our being.

It is the humanity of Jesus that attracts the Sikh.  The idea of incarnation in a single individual is anathema.  Yes, God incarnates ‘God’s-self’, but through ‘his’ people in community.  Thus, the concept of the ‘body of Christ’ makes sense to the Sikh mind.  It parallels the khalsa, the Sikh community through whom God is to be found. A further point of contact would be that of Christ as the ‘light’.  Much as in the same way Christ is portrayed as ‘the light of the world’ so Sikhs speak of Nanak, the founding Guru, through whose appearance ‘darkness disappeared into light’.  Here is a powerful metaphor which would enable mutual understanding.  However, claims of exclusivity by Christians – the hymn: Christ is the world’s true light, he and no other – would be vehemently rejected.

Almost paradoxically, Sikhs would acknowledge the divine within Christ, but not Christ as divine, the second member of the Trinity.  But then, all of us human-beings have within us that of God.  Much like Hindus Sikhs would align themselves with the idea of the Brahman-atman synthesis, the micro-cosmic soul of the individual being of the same nature and substance as the divine ‘soul’.  It may be that we are able to affirm Jesus Christ as a forerunner of such a relationship.

  1. Why do you Christians speak as if you had the monopoly of the understanding of God? Christian arrogance has undermined the presentation of your faith.

Whilst we may have touched on areas of common interest for debate with Sikhs, a word with regard to how Christians present themselves may be worthwhile.  Sikhism as the newest of the world’s great faiths evolved from the late 15th to the early 17th century.  Sikhs met Christian missionaries and we Christians must be aware of the comment made about Christians who were present in the court of the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605).  Bhai Gurdas, (1546–1637), an early follower of Guru Nanak, wrote: Isai,Musai, haumaim, hairane – Christians and Jews are self-centred and confused – what a sad spectacle.  You will see how the Bhai’s dislike of self-centredness arose out of his theology.  What made him comment from his perspective was what he saw as their confusion and their arrogant insistence on a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God – in distinct contrast to the stark ‘simplicity’ of the Sikh affirmation of ‘One Being’.

With that simplicity comes the need for modesty of presentation and nature.  It does no harm to acknowledge disagreement, but condemning another faith does not play a part in our dialogue. It behoves us to speak of our understanding as plainly and clearly as we are able, yet always recognising that ‘the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word’.

Further reading:

Owen Cole, W and Singh Sambi, P. Sikhism and Christianity: A Comparative Study Pulgrave Macmillan pub. 1993

Parry, J M. The Word of God is Not Bound: The Encounter of Sikhs and Christians in India and the United Kingdom Centre for Contemporary Christianity pub.2009