The Sikh faith originates with Guru Nanak (1469-1539), an itinerant teacher who preached a simple monotheistic faith shorn of idolatry, predicated on the equality of all men, critical of caste distinctions, and respectful of the dignity of human labor. Nanak was succeeded by Guru Angad (1504-52), who developed the Gurmukhi script and collected the writings of Nanak; the fourth Guru, Ram Das (1534-81), founded the holy city of Amritsar, where his successor Arjan (1563-1606) built a gurdwara (literally, doorway to the Guru) or Sikh temple. Guru Arjan also engaged in the construction of numerous other gurdwaras, and gave definite shape to the compilation of Nanak’s writings, which along with the hymns of Hindu and Muslim saints and the writings of the other Gurus were constituted into the Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. The Sikhs thereby became, in the words of one scholar, a “textual community”.

Guru Arjan’s efforts to put his faith on a firm basis and secure for it an organizational structure attracted the attention of India’s Mughal dynasty, and he was consequently put to death in the city of Lahore. This was, on the conventional account, also the fate of Tegh Bahadur (1621-75), the ninth Guru, who refused conversion to Islam. His son, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), having assumed the leadership of his people at the age of ten, conceived of a plan in his later years to save the Sikh community from possible extinction and safeguard the interests of the community. He initiated five of his followers, known as the Panj Pyaras, or the Five Beloved, into a new brotherhood which he called the Khalsa, or the Pure. They were given, as would have any monks joining a Hindu order, new names to each of which was attached the suffix ‘Singh’ or lion. (Sikh Khalsa women receive the name ‘Kaur’.) They were also enjoined to wear, as a mark of their devotion to the faith and as an indication of their membership in the Khalsa, panj kakke or what are known as the five symbols of the Sikh faith: kes (uncut hair), kangha (a comb), kara (a steel bangle), kirpan (a sword or knife) and kachcha (special breeches or undergarments). Having further commanded them to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, and halal meat (that is, meat slaughtered in the ritualistic Muslim manner), Gobind Singh then baptised the five men, and was in turn baptised by them. Thus was formed the Khalsa.

Despite continued persecution under the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the Sikh community managed to flourish, and by the middle part of the eighteenth century, Sikh rule was regularized by the imposition of a revenue demand from the Punjab peasantry equal to one-fifth of the harvest in return for the protection of the khalsa. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Ranjit Singh came to preside over the formidable Sikh kingdom, which was not subdued by the British until the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s. During the 1857-58 rebellion, otherwise known as the Sepoy Mutiny, the British were able to enlist the Sikhs to their cause in suppressing the rebellion, and thereafter the Sikhs, considered one of the primary “martial races”, were inducted into the Indian army in numbers much larger than their share of the population. The partition of India in 1947 was deeply wounding to the Sikh community, and from time to time, there have been demands for a separate Sikh state. The first exponent in recent times of the idea of a Sikh homeland was Master Tara Singh, but since the early 1980s, the most vivid expression of the idea of a distinct Sikh community is to be found in the views of militant and sometimes secessionist Sikhs who authored the idea of “Khalistan”.

There is scarcely any doubt that Sikhism is a distinct Indian religion. Nonetheless, as the Constitution of India itself suggests, there is a tendency to think of Sikhs (as well as Buddhists and Jains) as none other than Hindus, and not everyone is persuaded that Sikhism and Hinduism are all that different. The boundaries between Sikhism and Hinduism were never sharply drawn until very recent times, and in the Punjab it was not uncommon at all, until the violent secessionist movement of the 1980s began to alter the landscape, for a Hindu family to raise one of its children as a Sikh. Sikhs who have abandoned the most overt marks of their faith, such as unshorn hair, can scarcely be distinguished from Hindus, and it is not in the least incorrect to suggest that the wrath of orthodox Sikhs is directed at least as much at moderate Sikhs as at Hindus. There are other considerations, as well, which suggest the vastly altered circumstances under which one must contemplate the future of Sikhism. At one time the Sikhs were entirely confined entirely to India, and it is in the nineteenth century that some began to go overseas, such as those who were taken as a laboring force to build railroads in Uganda. The first taste of the world outside for many Sikh males came when they were recruited to fight in the two world wars, and in the aftermath of World War II, as the worn-torn economies of Europe struggled to stand on their feet, the Sikhs were enticed to Britain, Germany, and Holland with the promise of citizenship in return for their labor. Today, nearly 15% of Sikhs live outside India, and the Sikhs have become one of the world’s great diasporic communities. How will the religious and cultural practices of Sikhs outside India alter Sikhism and the nature of the Sikh community within India? This is scarcely an idle question, when one considers that the demand for Khalistan is now greater among Canadian, British, and American Sikhs than it is among the Sikhs in India itself.


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McLeod, W. H. 1968. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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