Among the five symbols of the Sikh faith, which set male Sikhs apart from all other men, none has generated as much controversy in recent times as the kirpan, which in English is translated as knife, dagger, or sword. In certain school districts of northern California, for instance, Sikh children have been forbidden from carrying kirpans to school, and this has been the subject of public discussion as well as litigation. To take another example, one demand that Sikhs have had in India is that they ought to be permitted to carry kirpans on board aircraft. The kirpan, alongside the unshorn hair of the believing Sikh, is certain the most visible symbol of Sikh masculinity, and the very potency of the kirpan appears to signify to an outsider the martial qualities of the Sikh.

The scholar Jit Singh Uberoi has persuasively argued that the kirpan should be viewed as being constrained by the kara or steel bangle, and it follows, as he says, that the kirpan is “a sword ritually constrained and thus made into the mark of every citizen’s honour, not only of the soldier’s vocation.”[1] A sword that is “ritually constrained” is a sword that is bound to do only the work of justice, to be drawn on behalf of the oppressed and the weak, to be offered only in defense. The sword can be employed only when all other avenues have been explored and exhausted, and indeed failure to do so at that time would be tantamount to complicity in acts of evil and oppression. Though the sword was the natural adornment of the soldier, Guru Gobind, in designating the kirpan as one of the five distinctive symbols of the Khalsa, was clearly intending to convey that the men of the Khalsa would be much like soldiers in displaying bravery and fearlessness, but as their sword was to be the sword of baptism, they were also to exercise restraint. It is with the sword that the Guru baptised the first five men initiated into the Khalsa [see Panj Pyare].

Let us recall that Guru Gobind Singh’s father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, had been martyred, and fear of persecution had led other Sikhs to lead lives of anonymity. While Guru Gobind was unwilling to let his people be martyred by Muslim rulers, he did not think that they were to evade persecution by merging into the crowd. Thus the sword, becoming a characteristic mark of the Sikhs, was to render them intrepid. The Khalsa Sikh male was to become the exemplar of a believer who would no longer lead a life of anonymity, fearful of persecution, and so he would be on the path of self-recognition and self-reliance. As an eighteenth-century writer, Ratan Singh Bhangu, was to claim,

the Guru reasoned and from thought he proceeded to action.

His followers were to emerge as splendid warriors, their uncut

hair bound in turbans; and as warriors all were to bear the name

‘Singh’. This, the Guru knew, would be effective. He devised

a form of baptism administered with the sword, one which

would create a Khalsa staunch and unyielding. His followers

would destroy the empire, each Sikh horseman believing

himself to be a king. All weakness would be beaten out of them

and each, having taken the baptism of the sword, would there-

after be firmly attached to the sword.[2]

The attachment to the sword, or the kirpan, must be perceived as an attachment to an ‘object’ that becomes an inalienable part of oneself, constitutive of a life of affirmation, honor, and self-respect; and to forgo the kirpan, at least on the orthodox view, is to relinquish one’s identity as a Sikh observant of the faith.[3]


[1] See Jit Singh Uberoi, “The Five Symbols of Sikhism”, “, in Fauja Singh et al, Sikhism (Patiala, Punjab: Punjabi University, 1969), p. 132. Surinder Singh Johar states, in his Handbook on Sikhism (Delhi: Vivek Publishing Co., 1977), that the adoption of the kirpan was a “declaration of sovereignty over oneself which non-acceptance of restriction on wearing of arms implies.” He adds: “The deeper spiritual meaning of the Kirpan is that it is symbolic of the triumph of transcendental knowledge over ignorance and darkness. The sword, in the mind, cuts at the root of ignorance, evil and worldly attachment and destroys them utterly” (pp. 95-96). This is not an unlikely interpretation, except that Johar leaves it unsubstantiated, besides which it has too much of the tone of an advaitist outlook. The teachings attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, founder of the Khalsa, are really more reminiscent of the teachings of Guru Nanak.

[2] Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakas, ed. Vir Singh (4th ed., Amritsar, 1962), 16:32-6, cited by McLeod, Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 27.

[3] A militant in the Sikh secessionist movement of recent years tells an interesting story of the consequences he had to suffer upon being inadvertently parted from his sword. One hot summer day, while he was sleeping in his underwear, the sword that slung from a swordband on his left arm slipped off without his being stirred from his deep sleep. Soon thereafter some of his comrades arrived at his home, and were guided by his mother to where he lay asleep; they went back to her, and said: “Look at this boy, he has been baptized and he has taken a vow to keep the five articles of faith and now he has parted himself from his sword.” Thereupon she replied, “OK, I’ll bring a stick. You beat him with this and teach him that he should be loyal to his faith.” For “this unconscious conduct” the militant was produced before “five Sikhs, a sort of court in [the Sikh] tradition”, and given “religious punishment.” See Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 45.

Further Reading:

Vinay Lal, “Sikh Kirpans in California Schools: The Social Construction of Symbols, the Cultural Politics of Identity, and the Limits of Multiculturalism”, in David K. Yoo, ed., New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), pp. 87-133. Earlier version published as “Sikh Kirpans in California Schools: The Social Construction of Symbols, Legal Pluralism, and the Politics of Diversity”, Amerasia Journal 22, no. 1 (Spring 1996):57-89.