Article by: Dr. Pritam Singh
Sikhism is one of the younger faiths of the world, as compared with religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is a monotheistic faith, preaching the existence of only one God, and teaching ideals that may be universally accepted today and in the future: honesty, compassion, humility, piety, social commitment, and most of all tolerance for other religions.
The word ‘Sikh’, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘shishya’, means a disciple, a learner, a seeker of truth. A Sikh believes in One God and the teachings of the Ten Gurus, embodied in the Sikh Holy Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib1. Additionally, he or she must take Amrit2, the Sikh Baptism.
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak Dev Ji at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The succeeding nine Gurus nurtured and developed his ideas and teachings. Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth Guru, brought to an end to the line of human Gurus and in 1708, installed Guru Granth Sahib, as the permanent Guru of the Sikhs.
The Sikh Gurus provided guidance for about 240 years. They taught the basic values of freedom, brotherhood, charity, obedience, understanding, sympathy, patience, humility, simplicity, and piety, and outlined the path to spirituality in life. The Gurus themselves said that they were human and were not to be worshipped as God . They considered themselves to be mere servants of God. Guru Gobind Singh said: “See me only as the slave of God. Let this be known beyond the shadow of doubt.”
The Mool Mantar (literally, the root verse; the first hymn composed by Guru Nanak) sums up the basic belief of the Sikhs. Guru Granth Sahib begins with the Mool Mantar. Every Sikh is expected to recite it daily. The English translation is given below:
Ik Onkaar There is only one God Sat Naam His Name is Truth Karta Purkh He is the Creator Nir Bhau He is without fear Nir Vair He is without hate Akaal Moorat He is beyond time (Immortal) Ajooni He is beyond birth and death Saibhang He is self-existent Gur Parsaad He is realised by the Guru’s grace
The “Guru” in Sikhism is an enlightener and messenger. The word ‘Guru’ does not always refer to a human being. The Guru’s word or hymn is also Guru. “The universe is the temple of God but without the Guru darkness reigns supreme.” The Gurus have raised the conscience of the Sikhs to such a level where they can be one with God. They are the light bearers for humanity. They are the messengers of the Timeless. They renew the eternal wisdom. They are universal men who free our minds from bigotry and superstitions, dogmas and rituals, and emphasise the simplicity of the religion. They appear outside in human form to those who crave for visible and physical guides. The enlighteners are the inner selves.
The first of the Gurus and the founder of the Sikh religion was Guru Nanak. He was born in Talwandi, now known as Nankana Sahib (near Lahore in Pakistan) in 1469 AD. Guru Nanak married and had two sons. This was the darkest period of India’s history when the people were absolutely divided and demoralised. Guru Nanak himself describes the scene in the following words:
“The age is a knife. Kings are butchers. They dispense justice when their palms are filled. Decency and laws have vanished, falsehood stalks abroad. Then came Babar to Hindustan (India). Death disguised as a Moghul made war on us. There was slaughter and lamentation. Did not Thou, O Lord, feel the pain?” In addition, the priests had reduced religion to a mockery. The public was blind in its faith, and governed by superstitions. Seeing all this, Guru Nanak started building a nation of self-respecting men and women, devoted to God and their leaders, filled with a sense of equality and brotherhood. He pronounced, for the benefit of all:
“To worship an image, to make pilgrimage to a shrine, to remain in a desert, and yet have an impure mind, is all in vain; to be saved worship only the TRUTH.” “Keeping no feeling of enmity for anyone. God is contained in every bosom.” “FORGIVENESS is love at its highest power.” “Where there is forgiveness there is God Himself.” “Do not wish evil for anyone.” “Do not speak harsh of anyone.” “Do not obstruct anyone’s work.” “If a man speaks ill of you, forgive him.” “Practice physical, mental and spiritual endurance.” “Help the suffering even at the cost of your own life.” Against social inequality Guru Nanak preached: “There is only One Father of us all, And we are all His children. Recognise all human race as one.” Giving women their proper place in society, He said, “Born of women, nourished by women, wedded to women, why do they revile women? How can women be called inferior when they give birth to kings and prophets?” Guru Nanak was a friend of the down-trodden. “There are low castes, lowliest of the low. I, Nanak, have my place with them; what have I to do with the high born? God’s grace is there where the down-trodden are taken care of.” He also preached the concept of “Honest-Productive-Labour”, kirat kamai. “Only such a person can realise the spiritual path who earns by the sweat of his brow and shares his earnings with the needy.” There was not a single aspect of earthly or spiritual life which was not enlightened by Guru Nanak. He passed away on 7 September 1539.
The second Guru, Siri Guru Angad Dev Ji, was born in 1504 and first met Guru Nanak in 1532. Guru Angad invented and introduced the Gurmukhi (written form of Punjabi) script and made it known to all Sikhs. The scripture of Guru Granth Sahib Ji is written in Gurmukhi. This scripture is also the basis of Punjabi language. Guru Angad was a model of self-less service to his Sikhs and showed them the way to devotional prayers.
The third Guru, Siri Guru Amardas Ji, was born in 1479. He met Guru Angad in 1541 who transmitted the same Light to Guru Amardas in 1552. Guru Amardas took up cudgels of spirituality to fight against caste restrictions, caste prejudices and the curse of untouchability. He strengthened the tradition of the free kitchen, Guru Ka Langar (started by Guru Nanak), and made his disciples, whether rich or poor, whether high born or low born (according to the Hindu caste system), have their meals together sitting in one place. He thus established social equality amongst the people. Guru Amardas introduced the Anand Karaj marriage ceremony for the Sikhs, replacing the Hindu form. He also completely abolished amongst the Sikhs, the custom of Sati, in which a married women was forced to burn herself and die with the funeral of her husband. The custom of Paradah, in which a woman covered her face with a veil was also done away with.
The fourth Guru, Siri Guru Ramdas Ji, was born in 1534. He became the Guru in 1574. He started the construction of the famous Golden Temple at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. The temple remains open on all sides and at all times to every one. This indicates that the Sikhs believe in One God who has no partiality for any particular place, direction or time.
The fifth Guru, Siri Guru Arjan Dev Ji, was bestowed upon with the “Divine Light” by Guru Ramdas Ji in 1581. He was born in 1563. Guru Arjan was a saint and scholar of the highest quality and repute. He compiled the hymns and compositions of Guru Nanak and his other predecessors, selected the sacred scriptures of some Hindu and Muslim saints, composed his own hymns and thus compiled the Adi Granth4. He proved that holy beings of whatever caste or creed are equally worthy of respect and reverence. The achievements and the works of Guru Arjan upset the reigning Emperor, Jahangir who implicated him and tortured him in most inhumane way. The Guru suffered quietly and bravely and set to the whole world an unequaled example of self-sacrifice and peaceful sufferings. Despite being made to sit in boiling water, and on a red hot iron plate while burning sand was poured over his body, he chanted cheerfully and softly “Sweet is Thy Will, My Lord; Thy grace alone I Beseech”. He breathed his last in 1606.
The sixth Guru, Siri Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji, was born in 1595. He became Guru in 1606. He built many religious shrines and felt the necessity of imparting the spirit of soldiership to the Sikhs and urged them to be well versed in the art of using sword and other arms for self-defence and self-preservation. He himself wore two swords, Miri, representing political sovereignty and Piri, signifying spiritual sovereignty; a balance of material and spiritual life in the world.
The seventh Guru, Siri Har Rai Ji, born in 1630, spent most of his life in devotional meditation and preaching the Gospel of Guru Nanak. He also continued the grand task of nation-building initiated by Guru Hargobind.
The eighth Guru, Siri Har Krishan Ji, was born in 1656. The “Divine Light” was bestowed upon him in 1661. To the Sikhs he proved to be the symbols of service, purity and truth. The Guru gave his life while serving and healing the epidemic-stricken people in Delhi. Anyone who invokes Him with a pure heart has no difficulties whatsoever in their life.
The ninth Guru, Siri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, was born in 1621 in Amritsar. He became Guru in 1664. He established the town of Anandpur. The Guru laid down his life for the protection of Hindus, their Tilak (devotional mark painted on the forehead) and their sacred thread. He was a firm believer in the right of people to the freedom of worship. It was for this cause that he faced martyrdom for the defence of the down-trodden Hindus. So pathetic was the torture of Guru Tegh Bahadur that his body had to be cremated clandestinely at Delhi while his head was taken four hundred kilometers away to Anandpur Sahib for cremation.
The tenth Guru, Siri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, was born in 1666 and became Guru after the martyrdom of his father Guru Tegh Bahadur. He created the Khalsa (The Pure Ones) in 1699, changing the Sikhs into a saint-soldier order with special symbols and sacraments for protecting themselves. He fought many wars against oppression. His four sons also gave their lives in defence of their faith. He died in 1708.
Thus the tree whose seed was planted by Guru Nanak, came to fruition when Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa, and on 3 October 1708, appointed Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru. He commanded: “Let all bow before my successor, Guru Granth. The Word is the Guru now.”
Guru Granth Sahib5 is the scriptures of the Sikhs. No Sikh ceremony is regarded as complete unless it is performed in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. The Granth was written in Gurmukhi script and it contains the actual words and verses as uttered by the Sikh Gurus. Initially known as the Adi Granth, it was compiled by the fifth Guru Arjan and installed in 1604, in the Harimander Sahib (known as Golden Temple), Amritsar. The tenth Guru Gobind Singh added to the Adi Granth the composition of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur. It is believed that four copies of the Granth Sahib were prepared; the first one was sent to the Harimander Sahib at Amritsar, the second to Anandpur, the third to Patna and the fourth was kept by him at Nander. Guru Gobind Singh did not include his own verses in the Granth due to his modesty and humility.
When Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of living Sikh Gurus by raising the Adi Granth to the status of a permanent Guru and renamed it Guru Granth Sahib. He then commanded the Sikhs that it was to be revered as the body and spirit of the Ten Gurus.
Every copy of Guru Granth Sahib consists of 1430 pages. It contains the Banis (the sacred compositions) of the first five Gurus and the ninth Guru as well as a number of passages of verses written by several saints from Muslims, Hindus and even so called “untouchable”. This was done to demonstrate the Sikh respect for other saints and tolerance for all faiths. Altogether, Guru Granth Sahib includes 5894 Shabads (hymns or holy verses) which are arranged in 31 Ragas (musical measures). The first verse is Mool Mantar (or Mantra), the Root Verse, followed by daily prayer or Nitnem namely, Japji, Sodar and Kirtan Sohila. The remaining verses have been arranged according to their individual musical patterns or Ragas which began with Siri Raga and end with Jai-jiwanti.
Guru Granth Sahib is an anthology of prayers and hymns. Most of the hymns are addressed to God and often describe the devotee’s condition: his aspirations and yearning, his agony in separation and his longing to be with Lord. The subject of Guru Granth Sahib is truth: how to live a truthful living, that is, an ultimate for an ideal person. As Guru Nanak states in the Mool Mantra, God is the Ultimate Truth and one has to cultivate those qualities which are associated with him, in order to like Him. The basic concept behind the hymns is that sacred music, when sung or listened to with devotion and undivided attention, can link the individual’s consciousness with God. A mind may become stable and enjoy the peace of His divine Presence, as listening to the hymns can exert a powerful influence on the mind and help to establish its communion with God.
In Guru Granth Sahib, revelation and Raga go hand in hand. The Gurus were emphatic about the religious value of sacred music or Kirtan and stressed its continuous use, as source of divine joy and bliss. Sacred music is fine art wedded closely to the spiritual theme. It is devotional music in praise of the Glory of God conveyed by melody and rhythm. The goal or objective of Kirtan is to put the individual soul in tune with God.
Guru Granth Sahib is a book of Revelation. It conveys the Word of the Master through His messengers on earth. It is universal in its scope. The greatness of Guru Granth Sahib lies not only in its being the holy scripture of the Sikhs but also in it being a general scripture available to mankind, intended for everybody, everywhere.
The Granth also explains what Guru Nanak meant by a “perfect individual” or a Gurmukh. It is a remarkable storehouse of spiritual knowledge and teachings. It does not preach any rites or rituals but stresses meditation on the Name of God. Through its teachings, it can enable men and women to lead a purposeful and rewarding life while being productive members of a society. It seeks universal peace and the good of all mankind. Guru Granth Sahib also stresses the democratic way of life and the equality of all people. It teaches that we are Karm Yogis, that is, we reap what we sow. The emphasis is on moral actions, noble living and working for the welfare of all people. Respect and veneration for Guru Granth Sahib does not imply idol worship, but rather respect for a divine message, the ideas and ideals contained in the Sikh scripture. Meditation on the True Word, Satnam or the Wonderful Enlightener, Waheguru, or on any line of a verse in Guru Granth Sahib, may bring the true devotee or disciple to be in tune with God.
Guru Gobind Singh invited his followers from all over India to a special congregation at Anandpur on Baisakhi Day, 30 March 1699. He asked, with a naked sword in his hand, “Is there any one among you who is prepared to die for the Sikh Faith?” When people heard his call, they were taken aback. Some of the wavering followers left the congregation, while other began to look at one another in amazement. After a few minutes, a Sikh from Lahore named Daya Ram stood up and offered his head to the Guru. The Guru took him to a tent pitched close by, and after some time, came out with a blood dripping sword. The Sikhs thought Daya Ram had been slain. The Guru repeated his demand calling for another Sikh who was prepared to die at his command. The second Sikh who offered himself was Dharam Das. Thereafter, three more, Mohkam Chand, Sahib Chand and Himmat Rai, offered their lives to the Guru.
Later, these five Sikhs were given new robes and presented to the congregation. They constituted the Panj Pyare: the Five Beloved Ones, who were baptised as the Khalsa or the Pure Ones with the administration of Amrit. The Guru declared:
Since Guru Nanak, it is the Charanamrit (water used for washing the Guru’s feet) which has been administered to the devotees. But from now on, I shall baptise them with water stirred with a double-edged sword – Khanda. Upon administering amrit to the Five Beloved Ones, the Guru asked them to baptise him in the same manner, thus emphasising equality between the Guru and his disciples.
Guru Gobind Singh named the new ceremony, Khanday-da-Amrit, namely the baptism of the double-edged sword. He stirred water in an iron bowl with the sword, reciting five major compositions, Japji, Jaap, Anand Sahib, Ten Sawaiyas and Chaupi, while the five Sikhs stood facing him. The Guru’s wife put some sugar-puffs into the water. The nectar thus obtained was called Khanday-da-Amrit. This implied that the new Khalsa brotherhood would not only be full of courage and heroism, but also filled with humility.
Briefly, the Khalsa concept has been captured by G.C. Narang in Transformation of Sikhism:
Abolition of prejudice, equality of privilege amongst one another and with the Guru, common worship, common place of pilgrimage, common baptism for all classes and lastly, common external appearance – these were the means besides common leadership and the community of aspiration which Gobind Singh employed to bring unity among his followers and by which he bound them together into a compact mass6. The creation of Khalsa marked the culmination of about 240 years of training given by the ten Gurus to their Sikhs. The Guru wanted to create ideal people who should be perfect in all respects, that is a combination of devotion (Bhakti) and strength (Shakti). He combined charity (Deg) with the sword (Tegh) in the image of his Sikh.
The Khalsa was to be a saint, a soldier and a scholar, with high moral and excellent character. He or she would be strong, courageous, learned and wise. In order to mould his personality the Guru inculcated in him the five virtues – sacrifice, cleanliness, honesty, charity and courage, and prescribed a Rehat – the Sikh code of discipline. His character would be strengthened by the spirit of God revealed in the Guru’s hymns. For this purpose he was asked to recite the five sacred composition or Banis daily.
The combination of virtue and courage is the strength of the Khalsa. This is an assurance against the ruthless exploitation of masses by their masters, and a device for overcoming hurdles that lied in the practice of holiness and spiritualism in daily life. Guru Gobind Singh commanded the Khalsa to use the sword only in times of emergency, that is, when peaceful methods failed and only for self-defence and the protection of the oppressed. His spirit will continue to inspire them for the preservation of peace, order and dignity of mankind for all time to come.
The five sacred Sikh symbols prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh are commonly known as Panj Kakars or the ‘Five Ks’ because they start with letter K representing Kakka in the Punjabi language. They are:
Kes or unshorn hair, regarded as a symbol of saintliness. Guru Nanak started the practice of keeping the hair unshorn. The keeping of hair in its natural state is regarded as living in harmony with the will of God, and is a symbol of the Khalsa brotherhood and the Sikh faith. Hair is an integral part of the human body created by God and Sikhism call for its preservation. The shaving or cutting of hair is one of the four taboos or Kurehats. Kangha or the comb is necessary to keep the hair clean and tidy. A Sikh must comb his hair twice a day and tie his turban neatly. The Gurus wore turbans and commanded the Sikhs to wear turbans for the protection of the hair, and promotion of social identity and cohesion. It has thus become an essential part of the Sikh dress. Kara or the steel bracelet symbolises restrain from evil deeds. It is worn on the right wrist and reminds the Sikh of the vows taken by him, that is, he is a servant of the Guru and should not do anything which may bring shame or disgrace. When he looks at the Kara, he is made to think twice before doing anything evil with his hands. Kachh or the soldiers shorts must be worn at all times. It reminds the Sikh of the need for self-restrain over passions and desires. Apart from its moral significance, it ensures briskness during action and freedom of movement at all times. It is a smart dress as compared to the loose dhoti which most Indian wore at that time. Kirpan or the sword is the emblem of courage and self-defence. It symbolises dignity and self-reliance, the capacity and readiness to always defend the weak and the oppressed. It helps sustain one’s martial spirit and the determination to sacrifice oneself in order to defend truth, oppression and Sikh moral values.
The Five K’s, along with the turban, constitute the Khalsa uniform, which distinguishes a Sikh from any other person in the world, and is essential for preserving the life of the community and fostering the Khalsa brotherhood.
The Five K’s are not supposed to foster exclusiveness or superiority. They are meant to keep the Sikhs united in the pursuit of the aims and ideals of the Gurus. They enable them to keep their vows made at the time of baptism. The Sikhs have been known to face torture and death rather than cut their hair or remove any of the sacred symbols.
The Khalsa cannot be anonymous. His religion is known to all. He stands out among people, and any unseemly behaviour or action on his part would be noted as unbecoming of a follower of the Gurus. People would easily blame him if he deviated from the disciplinary code of Guru Gobind Singh.
Along with the maintenance of the Five K’s, the Khalsa is required to refrain from committing the four taboos or Kurehats. These are:
Trimming, shaving or removing hair from the body. Using tobacco or intoxicants in any form. Eating of kosher or halal meat. Committing adultery.
A Sikh guilty of committing any of these serious breaches is regarded as the fallen one (Patit or Tankhahiya). Guru Gobind Singh declared that as long as the Khalsa followed the Five K’s and Sikh code of discipline, he would win glory, but if he showed indifference, his progress would be hampered
The Khanda constitutes three symbols in one. However, the name is derived from the central symbol, Khanda, a special type of double-edged sword which confirms the Sikhs’ belief in One God.
The double-edged sword is the creative power of God which controls the destiny of the whole creation. It is sovereign power over life and death. The right edge of the double-edged sword symbolises freedom and authority governed by moral and spiritual values. The left edge of the double-edged sword symbolises divine justice which chastises and punishes the wicked oppressors. On the left side is the sword of spiritual sovereignty, Piri; on the right side is the sword of political sovereignty, Miri.
There must always be a balance between the two and this balance is emphasised by a inside circle. The circle is what is called the Chakra. This is a symbol of all-embracing divine mani-festation including everything and wanting nothing, without beginning or end, neither first or last, timeless, and absolute. It is the symbol of oneness, unity, justice, humanity and morality. The Chakra was also used by the Sikhs as one of the war weapons against injustice and oppression. Almost all Sikh warriors used to wear it in the eighteenth century.
The Sikh flag is a saffron-coloured triangular-shaped cloth, usually reinforced in the middle with Sikh insignia in blue. It is usually mounted on a long steel pole (which is also covered with saffron-coloured cloth) headed with a Khanda. The Sikh flag is often seen near the entrance to the Gurdwara, standing firmly on the platform, overlooking the whole building. Sikhs show great respect to their flag as it is, indeed, the symbol of the freedom of the Khalsa.
All the Sikh ceremonies like birth, baptism, marriage and death, are simple, inexpensive and have a religious tone. They are held in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib and include Kirtan, the singing of appropriate hymns for the occasion, saying of Ardas – formal prayer, and the distribution of Karah Parshad7, sacred food, to the congregation. The baptism ceremony called Amrit described earlier, is the most important of all Sikh ceremonies.
The Sikh naming or christening ceremony is well established and it takes place in a Gurdwara8 in the presence of relatives and friends. The family offers donations, Karah Parshad and a Rumala which is a covering for Guru Granth Sahib, made of high quality silk, cotton or embroidered cloth. Prayers are offered asking for a special blessing of good health, long life and the Sikh way of life, Gursikhi for the child.
After reciting Ardas, Guru Granth Sahib is opened at random. The first letter of the first word of the hymn on the page is selected as the first letter of the child’s name. The given name is common for either sex. The word Kaur meaning ‘princess’ is added after a girl’s name, and the name Singh meaning ‘lion’ after a boy’s. For example, if the first letter is “P”, the male child may be given a name like Partap Singh, Pritam Singh or Puran Singh or any other such name beginning with the letter “P”. If the newly-born is a girl the name would like wise be, Partap Kaur, Pritam Kaur or Puran Kaur.
When the name is selected by the family, the congregation gives approval by a holy cheer or Jaikara: ‘Bolay So Nihal! Sat Siri Akal!’ The ceremony ends with the distribution of Karah Prasad, and the placing of the Rumala over Guru Granth Sahib. Sometimes, sweets or Langar, free food from the Guru’s kitchen, is served but this is not a part of the ceremony.
The Sikh Marriage
Sikh marriages are usually arranged. However, the word ‘arranged’ is not always properly interpreted by people in Western societies. An arranged marriage does not mean forcing a boy or a girl into a wedlock of parents’ choice only. It is agreeing to marriage proposed by mutual discussion between the boy or the girl on one side and his or her parents and relatives on the other. This is in fact selecting the right partner from a number of choices or proposals.
Several criteria are usually adopted before making a marriage proposal. Most important are the boy and girl themselves who show their willingness only after taking into account, personality, family background, educational standing and physical appearance of the proposed partner. Generally, relatives or close family friends suggest a suitable match to the family. The boy and girl then get to know each other to convey their consent to their parents.
The Sikh marriage is monogamous. In the case of broken marriage, divorce is not possible according to the Sikh religious tradition. The couple can, however, obtain a divorce under the Civil law of the land. Marriage, in Sikhism, is regarded as a sacred bond in attaining worldly and spiritual joy. About the ideal marriage, the Guru says: “They are not husband and wife who only have physical contact; rather they are wife and husband who have one spirit in two bodies.”
The Sikh marriage ceremony is called Anand Karaj meaning ‘ceremony of bliss’. The fourth Guru, Guru Ramdas, originally composed Lavan, the wedding song, to celebrate a holy union between the human soul (Atma) and God (Parmatma). The Guru wishes that our married life should also be moulded on the ideal laid down for our union with the Parmatma. The 4 verses of Lavan explain the four stages of love and married life. The first verse emphasises the performance of duty to the family and the community. The second verse refers to the stage of yearning and love for each other. The third verse refers to the stage of detachment or Virag. The fourth verse refers to the final stage of harmony and union in married life during which human love blends into the love for God.
Lavan is a Sanskrit word literally meaning ‘break away’, i.e. the bride breaking away from her parents’ home. Based on a concept depicted in Lavan, the Sikh marriage is not merely a physical and legal contract but is a sacrament, a holy union between two souls, where physically they appear as two individual bodies but in fact are united as one. The bride’s past and present becomes the bridegroom’s past and present. Her present becomes his and his hers. They feel and think alike and both are completely identified with each other, i.e., they become ‘Ek Jot Doe Murti’ meaning one spirit in two bodies.
Sometimes before the wedding day another important ceremony called Kurmayaee or Shagan takes place usually at the bridegroom’s house or the Gurdwara. It is a formal engagement ceremony involving a promise to marry and an exchange of rings and other presents. But the word Kurmayaee literally means the coming or the meeting of the parents of both the boy and the girl, and this shows the importance attached to the union of the two families. As soon as the bridegroom, and the two families are assembled the Milnee is performed, a meeting of parents and close relatives of the bride and groom and exchange of presents. The bride herself does not normally participate.
The marriage ceremony is conducted in a Gurdwara or at the bride’s home or any other suitable place where Guru Granth Sahib is duly installed. A priest or any Sikh (man or woman) may conduct the ceremony, and usually, a respected and learned person is chosen.
First Asa di Var (morning hymns) and then hymns appropriate for the occasion are sung while, family, friends, guests and groom arrives. The groom is first seated before Guru Granth Sahib and when the bride comes she take her place on his left. The couple and their parents are asked to stand while the rest of congregation remains seated. A prayer is then said, invoking His blessings for the proposed marriage and asking His Grace on the union of the couple. This connotes the consent of the bride and the bridegroom and their parents. The parties then resume their seats and a short hymn is sung.
This is followed by a brief speech addressed particularly to the couple, explaining the significance and obligation of the marriage. The couple are then asked to honour their vows by bowing together before Guru Granth Sahib. Then the bride’s father places one end of pink or saffron-coloured scarf in the grooms hand, passing it over the shoulder and placing the other end in the bride’s hand. Thus joined, the two will take the vows.
This is followed by a short hymn. Guru Granth Sahib is now opened and the first verse of Lavan is read from it. The same verse is then sung by the musicians while the couple slowly encircle Guru Granth Sahib. The groom leads in a clock-wise direction and the bride, holding the scarf, follows as nearly as possible in step. When the couple reaches the front of Guru Granth Sahib, they both bow together and take their respective seats. The same protocol is repeated for the remainder three verses. The ceremony is concluded with the customary singing of the six stanzas of the Anand Sahib, Song of Bliss, followed by Ardas, prayer, and Vak, a random reading of a verse from Guru Granth Sahib. The ceremony, which takes about an hour, ends with the serving of Karah Parshad to the congregation. Relatives and friends then exchange greetings and congratulations. A few hour after the marriage the bridal party or Doli leaves and the bride departs from her parental home with her husband.
The Death Ceremony
To a Sikh, birth and death are closely associated, because they are both part of the cycle of human life, Ava Guvan, which is seen as transient stage towards Nirvana, complete unity with God. Sikhs thus believe in reincarnation. Mourning is therefore discouraged, especially in the case of those who have lived a long and full life. The death ceremony may be split into two parts; Saskar, the cremation and the Antim Ardas, the final prayer at the end of the Bhog ceremony.
At a Sikh’s death-bed, relatives and friends read Sukhmani Sahib, the Psalm of Peace, composed by the fifth Guru Arjan Dev Ji, to console themselves and the dying person. When a death occurs, they exclaim ‘Waheguru’, the Wonderful Lord. Wailing or lamentation is dis-couraged. For cremation, the body is first washed and dressed with clean clothes complete with the Five K’s (in case of baptised Sikhs). If the death occurs in a hospital, the body is taken home for viewing before the funeral. In Punjab, body will be burnt on the funeral pyre, but in Western countries crematorium is used. A prayer is said before the start of the funeral to seek salvation for the departed soul. On arrival at the crematorium, a brief speech about the deceased is generally given, the Sohila, bed-time prayer is recited and the Ardas, formal prayer is offered. The cremation is generally done by the eldest son or a close relative. Where cremation is not possible, disposal of the dead body by placing it in the sea or river is permitted. At the end of the cremation the member of the funeral party return to their homes.
The ashes are collected after the cremation and later disposed of by immersion in the nearest river or sea. Some families, living outside India, prefer to take the ashes to Punjab. Sikhs do not erect monuments over the remains of the dead.
The second part is called Antim Ardas, the final prayer during the Bhog ceremony which includes a complete reading of Guru Granth Sahib either at home or in a Gurdwara. This is called a Sahaj Path, and is usually completed within ten days. If the family can read, they must take part in the reading; if they cannot, they must sit and listen to it. The reading is meant to provide spiritual support and consolation to the bereaved family and friends. During Ardas, the blessing of God for the departed soul is sought. The Gurus emphasised the remembrance of God’s Name as the best means of consolation for the bereaved family. Sikhs are always exhorted to submit to and have complete faith in the will of God, called Bhana Mun-na.
Generally, all the relatives and friends of the family gather together for the Bhog ceremony on the completion of the reading of Guru Granth Sahib. Musicians sing appropriate hymns, Salokas of the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur are read, and Ramkali Saad, the Call of God, is recited. After the final prayer, a random reading or Hukam is taken, and Karah Parshad is distributed to the congregation.
If the deceased person is elderly, food from Guru’s kitchen, Langar, is served. Presents are distributed to grandchildren. Donations are often announced for charities and religious organ-izations. Sometimes, at the end of the Bhog, eldest member is presented with a turban and declared the new head of the family.
A Sikh festival or holy day is called a Gurpurb, meaning Guru’s remembrance day. The celebration is generally similar for all Gurpurabs; only the hymns and history of a particular occasion is different. The ceremony for Guru Nanak’s birthday is described in detail.
The birthday of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, usually comes in the month of November, but the date varies from year to year, based on the traditional dates of the Indian Calendar. The birthday celebration usually lasts three days. Generally two days before the birthday, Akhand Path (forty-eight-hour non-stop reading of Guru Granth Sahib) is held in the Gurdwara. One day before the birthday, a procession is organised which is led by the Panj Pyaras (Five Beloved Ones) and the Palki (Palanquin) of Siri Guru Granth Sahib and followed by teams of singers singing hymns, brass bands playing different tunes, ‘Gatka’ teams (Martial art) show their swordmanship, and devotees singing the chorus. The procession passes through the main roads and streets of the town which are covered with buntings and decorated gates and the leaders inform the people of the message of Guru Nanak. On the birth anniversary day, the programme begins early in the morning at about 4 or 5 am with the singing of Asa-di-Var (morning hymns) and hymns from the Sikh scriptures followed by Katha (exposition of the scripture) and lectures and recitation of poems in the praise of the Guru. The celebration goes on until about 1 to 2 pm.
After Ardas and distribution of Karah Parshad, the Langar is served. Some Gurdwara also hold night session. This begins around sun set when Rehras (evening prayer) is recited. This is followed by Kirtan till late in the night. Sometimes a Kavi-darbar (poetic symposium) is also held to enable the poets to pay their tributes to the Guru in their own verses. At about 1:20 am, the actual time of the birth, the congregation sings praises of the Guru and recites the Holy Word. The function ends about 2 am.
The Sikhs who cannot join the celebrations for some reasons, or in places where there are no Sikh temple, hold the ceremony in their own homes by performing Kirtan, Path, Ardas, Karah Parshad and Langar.
Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru’s birthday generally falls in December or in January. The celebrations are similar to those of Guru Nanak’s birthday, namely Akhand Path, procession and Kirtan, Katha, and Langar.
The martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru, falls in May or June, the hottest months in India. He was tortured to death under the orders of Moghul Emperor, Jahangir, at Lahore on 25 May 1606. Celebrations consist of Kirtan, Katha, lectures, Karah Parshad and Langar in the Gurdwara. Because of summer, chilled sweetened drink made from milk, sugar, essence and water is freely distributed in Gurdwaras and in neighbourhoods to everybody irrespective of their religious belief.
Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru, was arrested under orders of Moghul Emperor, Aurangzeb. As he refused to change his religion and accept Islam, he was beheaded on 11 November 1675 at Chandi Chowk, Delhi. Usually one-day celebrations of his martyrdom are held in the Gurdwaras.
Three days before his passing away, Guru Gobind Singh conferred on 3 October 1708, the perpetual Gurudom on Siri Guru Granth Sahib. On this day, a special one-day celebration is held with Kirtan, Katha, lectures, Ardas, Karah Parshad and Langar. Sikhs rededicate themselves to follow the teachings of the Gurus contained in the scriptures.
Baisakhi, also called Vaisakhi, is the birthday of the Khalsa (the Pure Ones). Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa brotherhood with the ‘baptism of steel’ on 30 March 1699. On this day, a one-day celebration is held in Gurdwaras with Kirtan, Katha, lectures, Karah Parshad and Langar. In addition, the Amrit ceremony is held and is given to those who offer themselves for Sikh initiation. The Sikhs after taking Amrit are called Khalsa. The Amrit ceremony can be held at any other time as well. Baisakhi is generally celebrated on the 13 April every year.
The Sikhs celebrate Diwali to express the joy at the return of the sixth Guru to Amritsar in 1620, after his release from Gwalior Jail. (Emperor Jahangir had imprisoned him because he was afraid of the Guru’s growing power and popularity with masses. The Sikhs on this day, which generally falls in November, hold a one-day celebration in the Gurdwara. Diwali means festival of lights. So in the evening, illuminations are done with Diwas (oil lamps made of clay) or candles and fire works held both in the Gurdwaras and in homes and businesses of the Sikhs.
In Indian society, women were usually subject to various caste-rules and severe restrictions. They remained illiterate and were ill-treated. Female infanticide was often practiced.
Guru Nanak challenged the idea of inferiority and evil associated with women and freed her from slavery and taboos of the society. In one of his hymns, he said:
“We are conceived in woman, We are born to woman. It is to woman we get engaged, And then get married. Woman is our lifelong companion, And supporter of our survival. It is through woman That we establish social relationships. Why should we denounce her When even kings and great men are born from her?” Guru Nanak and his successors gave woman a status equal to that of man. They regarded woman as man’s companion in every walk of life. The Gurus thought this equality worked to their mutual benefits. For example, woman is the first teacher of man as his mother. Her function is to mould children and discipline them. She has to be educated so that her children may develop their potential to the fullest. She was allowed to join holy congregations, participate and conduct them. They were appointed missionaries. They were called ‘the conscience of man’. The practice of Sati, (the custom of burning a woman with the dead husband on the funeral pyre), was prohibited and widow-remarriage was encouraged. Women soldiers fought side by side with male soldiers in one of the battles which the tenth Guru fought.
In the Sikh way of life, women have equal rights with men. There is absolutely no discrimination against women. Women are entitled to the Khalsa baptism. They have equal rights to participate in social, political and religious activities. Women are allowed to lead religious congregations, to take part in recitation of the holy scriptures, to fight as soldiers in the war, to elect representatives to the Gurdwara committees and Indian Parliament and Provincial Assembly.
Sikh women have played a glorious part in the history, and examples of their moral dignity, service and upholding of Sikh values are a great source of inspiration. Sikh women never flinched from their duty, never allowed their faith and ardour to be dampened, and have always upheld the honour and glory of the Khalsa. (One famous example is that of Mai Bhago who bravely fought war for Guru Gobind Singh, when some Sikh soldiers deserted him and returned home.)
Gurdwara (the door or the gateway to the Guru) is the name given to the Sikh’s place of worship, commonly addressed as Sikh temple in the western world. The Sikh scriptures are recited or sung and sermons are delivered. Guru Granth Sahib is placed on high palanquin under a canopy in the middle of one end of the hall. As well as sermons and the singing of the scriptures, the congregation is expected to participate in the ceremonies of birth, baptism, marriage, death and celebration of festivals.
The Gurdwara is a place for acquiring a spiritual knowledge and wisdom. It is open to every one regardless of age, sex, caste, or creed. Here all men, women and children are treated as equal. It offers shelter and food to any one in need. It provides care for the sick, elderly and handicapped. It is also a centre for promoting culture and health. Moral education as well as knowledge of the religion and history is often taught to children in the Sikh temple. The Gurdwara is also a place for discussing problems facing the Sikh community. Infringement of the Sikh code of discipline may also be considered and suitable punishment decided. The Gurdwara plays a socio-economic role in the Sikh community. It is expected to be free from any sectional interests or party politics.
The pattern of congregational worship can be divided into two categories: Katha, the reading of the holy hymns followed by their explanation, and Kirtan, the singing of the hymns. Attached to every Gurdwara is a free kitchen where the food, Langar, is prepared and served.
The community attempts to establish better relations and understanding between the Sikhs and other communities through occasional visits by them to a Gurdwara. Such visits are necessary not only to satisfy the curiosity of others but also to help them understand better the Sikh religion, customs and culture.
A Gurdwara can be identified from a distance by observing the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag. The four doors of a Sikh temple represent the Door of Peace, the Door of Livelihood, the Door of Learning and the Door of Grace. These doors must always remain open to all. The Sikh temple is a place for training the devotees in the company of pious people. The Gurus wanted to build a model human society through an ideal and benevolent world organization.
If one wishes to visit a Gurdwara some protocol must be observed. Consumption of tobacco, liquor or narcotics is strictly forbidden to Sikhs and definitely not allowed on the Gurdwara premises. Before entering the hall, people take off their shoes, wash their hands, covers their head and think of the Guru. Non-Sikhs too must cover their head with a handkerchief or scarf. Upon entering the hall, where Guru Granth Sahib is kept, they walk slowly, bow humbly and touch their forehead to the ground, out of respect and love for the Guru. As people bow, and place their offering respectfully before the Guru, it may be money, flowers, or words of thanks. Any sincere expression of gratitude is equally acceptable to the Guru. After bowing and offering, one should sit down in the Sangat (congregation) quietly without disturbing others. Usually men sit on one side and women on the other, in a cross-legged position. Talking or whispering is not allowed.
The usual service in the Gurdwara consists of Kirtan, the singing of the holy hymns; Katha, the reading of the hymns followed by their explanation; singing of 6 verses of Anand Sahib, Ardas, prayer, and Vak or Hukam, random reading of one hymn from Guru Granth Sahib. This is the Guru’s message or ‘Order’ of the day to the Sangat. Upon completion of the Hukam, Karah Parshad is distributed. Then Langar, food from the Guru’s kitchen, is served.
Sikhism is a practical religion – a faith of hope and optimism. It’s ideals form a large part of the more progressive elements in humanity today. It shows mankind how to lead a worthy and useful life in the world, which elevates it into the status of Universal World Faith.
Sikhs practice Simran (meditation), Seva (service) and Sangat (congregation) and lead a happy, healthy, holy, honest and humble life, leading ultimately to the spiritual union of their Atma (soul) and Parmatma (God).
Sikhism teaches respect for individuals and love for one’s neighbours. It tells how to be useful in society, to care for the interests and concerns of others and cherish the values taught by the Gurus. Social commitment and goodwill among Sikhs have inspired them to finance and undertake projects of social benefit because of their belief that human beings all over the world form just one family, the family of the human race, namely Manas-ki-jaat. This concept is reflected in Ardas, the daily prayer, which ends:
‘Nanak Nam Chardi Kala Tere Bhane Sarbat Ka Bhalla’ O Almighty God, kindly shower your blessings on the entire humanity.
Cole, W.S. and Sambhi, P.S., The Sikhs, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978.
McLeod, W.H., Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
McLeod, W.H., Punjabis in New Zealand, Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University Press, 1986.
Sacha, G.S., Sikhs and Their Way of Life, South Hall, Middlesex: The Sikh Missionary Society U.K.,1987.
Sikh Studies, Parts I and II, Singapore: Sikh Advisory Board 1985-1986.
Singh, Khushwant, History of the Sikhs, 2 Vols., Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1966.
Dr. Pritam Singh,
23 Deval Drive,
Titirangi, Auckland 7,
Phone: (694) 817-6490
Dr. Pritam Singh, originally from Punjab, India, is now a New Zealand citizen. He arrived in New Zealand in 1970 to work as a scientist with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and he is now a world authority in his research field, Dr. Singh has given lectures on Sikhism to various organisations including churches and schools. He has organised three summer Youth Camps where he taught Sikhism to New Zealand born Sikhs. He is a Member of the New Zealand Sikh Society.
This composition is regarded as the National Anthem of the Sikhs. The verses were composed by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.
Grant me this boon
O God, from Thy Greatness
May I never refrain
From righteous acts;
May I fight without fear
All foes in life’s battle,
With confident courage
Claiming the victory!
May Thy Glory be
Grained in my mind,
And my highest ambition be
Singing Thy praises;
When this mortal life
Reaches its limits,
May I die fighting
With limitless courage!