History

  A Portrait
  by Dr. Rajwant Singh and Ms. Georgia Rangel
Dr. R. Singh is Secretary, The Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, Maryland, and a member of the Board of Directors of North American Interfaith Network; Georgia Rangel is a member of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation

  Introduction
  Founded only 500 years ago by Guru Nanak (1439-1539), Sikhism is one of the youngest world religions. After a revelatory experience at the age of about 38, Nanak began to teach that true religion consisted of being ever-mindful of God, meditating on God's Name, and reflecting it in all activities of daily life. He condemned superstition and discouraged ritual. He traveled throughout India, Ceylon, Tibet, and parts of the Arab world with followers of both Hindu and Muslim origin, discussing his revelation with those he met. His followers became known as Sikhs (from the Sanskrit word shishya -- disciple). Nanak and his nine successors are known as gurus, which is a very common term in all Indian traditions for a spiritual guide or teacher. In Sikhism, Guru means the voice of God speaking through someone. Sikh gurus were careful to prevent worship being offered to them. The last living guru, Gobind Singh, who died in 1708, pronounced the end of the line of succession and declared that henceforth the function of the guru as teacher and final authority for faith and conduct was vested in the community and the Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. It occupies the same place in Sikh veneration that was given to the living gurus.

  Basic Beliefs
  The seminal belief in Sikhism is found in the "Mool Mantra" with which the Guru Granth Sahib begins:

   There is One God. He
Is the Supreme Truth
Is without fear
Is not vindictive
Is Timeless, Eternal
Is not born, so
He does not die to be reborn.
Self-illumined,
By Guru's grace
He is revealed to the human soul.
Truth was in the beginning,
and throughout the ages.
Truth is now and ever will be.
       

  

  In Sikhism, time is cyclical, not linear, so Sikhism has no eschatological beliefs. Rather, just as time is seen as repeated sequences of creation and destruction, individual existence is believed to be a repeated sequence of birth, death, and rebirth as the soul seeks spiritual enlightenment.
Sikhs believe that greed, lust, pride, anger, and attachment to the passing values of earthly existence constitute haumai (self-centeredness). This is the source of all evil. It is a person's inclination to evil that produces the karma that leads to endless rebirth. Haumai separates human beings from God.
God is All-Pervading and is the Source of all life. Sikhism believes that human life is the opportunity for spiritual union with the Supreme Being — to merge with the Ultimate Reality as a drop of water merges with the ocean and becomes one with it. Thus is one released from the cycle of death and rebirth. By God's Grace, not by one's own merits, is achieved the level of spiritual self-knowledge necessary to reach this stage of enlightenment. Any person, of whatever intellectual or economic level, may become enlightened through a life of single-minded devotion to God. Enlightenment, not redemption, is the Sikh concept of salvation.
Life cycle events are recognized in Sikhism by naming of the newborn in the gurdwar, the marriage ceremony, and the funeral, following which the body is cremated. Any kind of funeral monument is forbidden.
Sikhism rejects asceticism and encourages full participation in family and workday life and responsibility as the framework within which to seek God. Sikhism is founded on the principle of equality of all persons. It rejects the caste system, and inculcates in its adherents an egalitarian attitude and practice toward men and women of all races, religions, and social classes.

  Worship
  Formal Sikh worship consists mainly of singing of passages of the Guru Granth Sahib to the accompaniment of music. A passage of the Guru Granth Sahib is read aloud and expounded upon by the granthi at the conclusion of the religious service. The central prayer of Sikhs, Ardas, which simply means prayer, is recited by the granthi and the assembled congregation. This prayer gives a synopsis of Sikh history as well as being a supplication to God. Any Sikh with sufficient religious knowledge is permitted to conduct gurdwara worship in the absence of a granthi. All are welcome to religious services and to participate in the langar served after.

  Culture
  There are no denominations in Sikhism, but in the United States, in particular, there is grouping along language and cultural lines. The majority of Sikhs in the U.S. are immigrants of Indian origin, speak Punjabi, and have distinct customs and dress that originate in Punjab, India. Since the 1960s, however, there has existed a group, generally called American Sikhs, whose leader is Yogi Harbhajan Singh. American Sikhs are easily distinguished from others by their all white attire and by the fact that turbans are worn by both men and women. This group now numbers about 5,000. The majority of American Sikhs, who refer to their group as 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization), know only limited Punjabi. Indian Sikhs and American Sikhs are mutually accepting and visit one another's gurdwaras. Sikhs of Indian origin number approximately a half million in North America and approximately 21 million throughout the world.
In modern times, the lesson of equality that is taught by the langar, the meal eaten together by Sikh congregations, extends beyond caste-obliteration to the acceptance and toleration of people of all races, creeds, and nationalities. Sikhs do not disparage other faiths, nor claim sole possession of the truth. Sikhs do not attempt to convert adherents of other faiths.
In North America, Sikh congregations belong to local interfaith associations and participate fully in efforts such as environmental protection campaigns, issues affecting children, AIDS, food and other help for the homeless and displaced. In India, particularly, there are many free clinics operated by Sikhs which accept persons of all religions and castes as patients. In some North American cities, Sikhs have continued that tradition.
Since the intrinsic spirit of Sikhism is pluralistic, it has much to contribute towards interfaith and inter-community accommodation. It is a willing partner in the emergence of a pluralistic world community that preserves the rights of human dignity and freedom for all human beings. In witness of this attitude, the Ardas recited at the end of a Sikh religious service ends with the words "May the whole world be blessed by your grace."

  Adapted from the Sourcebook for the Earth's Community of Religions. Contents copyright © 2000 by Joel Beversluis, all rights reserved.

  


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