Monday, August 21, 2006

On Sikhism

Sikhism is an organized religion predominant in the state of Punjab in India. It is an offshoot of radical Hinduism and mystic Sufi traditions pravelent during the fifteenth century onwards.

Sikhism is thought to have started from the teachings of an Indian mystic, Nanak Bedi (circa 1469). Many saints in that period taught against the institutionalization of the Hindu religion and against the hegemony of the priestly classes which divided people based on caste, profession, etc. In orthodox Hinduism, the role and the place in the social ladder of a person is strictly determined by his profession and his caste (which in many cases is also based on race). Orthodox Hindus of that period also had an elaborate priestly class (membership to whcih was obviously restricted by race, caste or lineage) which wanted to maintain its power and control over people.

Spiritual and mystic saints of that period, who had no agenda to divide people, rebelled against these aspects of society. They saw the corruption that institutionalized religions lead to and propagated a message of equality, of personal effort and devotion, of the importance of individual experience, and of the authority of an experienced teacher rather than of books, idols, pilgrimages or rituals.

Most saints of that period were born in orthodox Hindu and Muslim families. Many of them, after having mystical experiences, rejected the lies being perpeterated by the religious and political rulers of that time. They formed a close group of disciples which carried on their traditions. Due to their egalitarian outlook, many people from the working classes converted to their teachings.

One of these mystics, Nanak Bedi (who is reverentially called Guru Nanak Dev) daringly rebelled against the prevailing rituals and exhorted his disciples to chant the God's name to have a mystical experience instead of following any rituals or priests. There were many contemporaries of Nanak who gave the same message but in his case, a lineage started. From his close disciples, Nanak appointed a successor to carry on his message.

The second teacher, Lehna (known after his appointment as Guru Angad Dev) carried on Nanak's message and stressed on divinity within a household existence (instead of the prevailing custom of leaving home and family for the life of a hermit).

Lehna appointed the paternal uncle of his son-in-law, Amar Das Bhalla as the third guru. Amar Das was again born in a Hindu family and regularly went for pilgrimages to Haridwar and Jwalamukhi. He was however, radical in his outlook and gave a message of social and gender equality and the abolition of cruel customs like Sati.

Amar Das nominated his son-in-law, Ram Das Sodhi, as the fourth Guru.

Ram Das, at the end of his life, nominated his youngest son, Arjun Sodhi (reverentially called Guru Arjun Dev) as the fifth Guru. Arjun Sodhi compiled the writings of many mystics including the first four Gurus and his own, into a combined text called the "Adi Granth". Apart from establishing a scriptural text, he put in place many other ritual and institutional measures amongst his disciples: Establishing a holy shrine in Amritsar (now known as the Golden Temple), authoring of prayers to be recited regularly at certain times of the day, founding of the towns of Tarn Taran, Kartarpur and Hargobindpur (the last named after his son), establishing an organizational structure of masands (authorized teachers), etc.

These measures, and some other political acts (such as helping the King's detractors) were justifiably seen as the formation of another political power center and the Guru was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Mughal King Jehangir.

Before he died, Arjun Dev, nominated his son Hargobind (aged only eleven) as the sixth Guru and exhorted him to start forming an army against the regime. Hargobind Sodhi established the Sikh seat of power, the Akal Takht. He also started behaving like a regular king with a court, royal regalia, etc. Due to his miltiary overtures and some petty squabbles with the Mughal King, he was imprisoned many times and fought many battles.

Hargobind Sodhi formed the distinct identity of Sikhs as a warrior class. He had four sons. The eldest of them, Gurditta Sodhi, died when he was 24. As was common in patriarchy at that time, the eldest son used to be the successor of a King. If he is dead, then either the next eldest son or one of the grandsons from the eldest sons are the next candidates. Hargobind called the eldest son of Gurditta, Dhir Mal, to receive the succession but Dhir Mal did not come. The throne thus passed to the second son of Gurditta, Har Rai Sodhi (who was fourteen then).

Har Rai Sodhi continued to wield temporal power over the disciples and subjects. When time came to name his successor, his eldest son, Ram Rai Sodhi, disappointed him and he nominated his younger son (or the younger son was implicitly nominated after his fathers' death), Harkishan Sodhi (then only five years old) to be the next King. However, Harkishan died of smallpox when he was only eight years old.

Various stories abound as to how the ninth Guru was chosen but the fact that Teg Bahadur was a son of the sixth Guru, Hargobind had an obvious bearing on the matter. He was appointed the ninth Guru amidst much squabbling.

Aurangzeb, the last Mughal King, wanted the Kashmiri Pandits to convert to the Muslim faith. Teg Bahadur helped the Pandits keep their faith (he challenged Aurangzeb to convert him first) and infuriated Aurangzeb. He was tortured and killed by Aurangzeb. He had nominated his son Gobind Rai Sodhi to be the tenth Guru and King.

Gobind Rai was only nine years old when he became the Guru. He was a poet as well as a warrior and fought many guerrila battles with Aurangzeb's army. He had three wives, Jeeto, Sundri and Sahib Kaur (the third one is debated). He had four sons, all of whom died in his conflicts with Aurangzeb. (Polygamy was common amongst the powerful at that time. Guru Hargobind had three wives, Guru Har Rai had seven.)

Guru Gobind Rai instituted the baptising ceremony of Sikhs, gave them a distinct identity of being turbaned with long hair and beards, and instituted many other rules and rituals (giving every Sikh man and woman the last name of Singh and Kaur, respectively).

It is not clear what happened after his death, but since there found to be no worthy successors (or maybe there were too many fights going on for the title), the holy book compiled by the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev, was made (by whom? we don't know) the perpetual Guru for the Sikh community. Sikhs consider it to be their only teacher and it is accorded the status of a living person (e.g. it is covered with blankets and quilts on a winter night, is protected from dust and flies and is always kept under cover and on a mattress).


Well, Sikhs had come full circle. From rebelling against priests, power centers, shrines and holy books, they had all these of their own now.

The drive for mystical salvation had become a social, political and military movement. The focus shifted completely from salvation to social justice, which if required, had to be achieved by violence and torture. Banda Bahadur, one of the commanders of Gobind Singh, was a cruel marauder who burnt down Muslim villages and had his army rape and pillage the Muslims.

Today Sikhism is just another organized religion, with its own scriptures, rituals, temples, places of pilgrimage, code of conduct, division between Sikhs and non-Sikhs, a distinct identity, a corrupt priest class, huge donations at the altars for worldly gains, and so on.

Sikhs used to be easily identifiable by their turbans and full flowing beards, but as more and more youngsters are giving up the custom of keeping long hair and the tying of turbans, they are becoming more homogenized in the world (which is a good thing: separate group identities do nothing but promote hatred and bloodshed).

Most so-called true Sikhs protest this seeming devolution of Sikhism (which has been happening right from the time of the Gurus, but is thought to have started when the control of the Sikh temples went to the Akali Dal in the 1970s. Akali Dal is a political party in Punjab which claims to be the representative of the Sikhs.) and want the corrupt priests to be ousted and non-political people to, ironically, occupy the seats of power (forgetting that the fight for power is the exact definition of politics).

There are endless debates about the works of the tenth Guru (called the Dasam Granth) and whether Dasam Granth should be accorded the same status as that of the Adi Granth, whether sick people should be allowed to sit on chairs in Sikh temples, whether one should recite the whole book non-stop oneself or get it recited by paying somebody and reaping the blessings of the Gurus, whether the five rules established by the tenth Guru for having a "fully baptised Sikh" are to be considered still valid or not, and so on...

Nobody looks at the history of the Sikh Gurus, sees the obvious change from a spiritual sect based on the mystical experiences to that of a crass political movement in which the throne was kept within the family, even at the expense of making a five-year old a King, at the non-radical nature of the Gurus' *spiritual teachings* (everybody praises the radical socio-economic doctrine of equality and fraternity but nobody pays attention to what the Gurus said as far as spiritual guidance is concerned).

The basic tenets of Sikh spirituality are as orthodox as that of any other Indian religion: A timeless, formless, eternal God. Rebirth, reincarnation, sins and pieties, singing of hymns and asking for blessings and forgiveness, chanting and reading the holy book as the principle spiritual practices, protesting pedantry and pretensions, having a moral code of conduct, hagiography and miracle tails about the Gurus, intolerance of any criticism, the concepts of baptising, blasphemy, of being an apostate and a fallen Sikh, of holy water and holy baths, ...

And like every other religion, Sikhs claim to have the best religion around.


bhupinder said...

Good post. I have had similar opinions myself. Wonder if you have read McLeod's works on Sikhism.

Anonymous said...

Correction: Sikhism has its own identity and is not radical hinduism - in fact we have never had anything common with Hindus right now birth to death

1) We are born we have turban tying ceremony - they have shavign ceremony
2) They shave everyday we dont ever shave
3) They worship idols - for us its a sin
4) we have the timeless formless God - they are still confused what they agree to as God
5) we get married around the shabad (word Guru) - they get married around fire
5) we have 4 lavan - they have 7 pheras
The list can go on

harmanjit said...

The differences that Sikhism has cultivated over the centuries are superficial compared to the similarities in the basic theology and spiritual discipline.

1. Not all Sikhs have turban ceremony at birth. Not all Hindus have shaving ceremony.

2. Many Sikhs shave and trim their beards. Many Hindus keep long hair and beards.

3. Sikhs also worship the book as an idol. In Hindus, idol-worship is prohibited in many communities, especially followers of vedantic Gurus.

4. If God is formless and timeless, then why talk about Ram and Shiv and Krishna in Guru Granth?

5 and 6. Superficial differences.

Anonymous said...

Harmanjit Singh,

Are you Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim?

It's simple question with a simple answer.

Anonymous said...


You didn't answer the question about your religious values. Why not?

harmanjit said...

I don't subscribe to any organized religion.

Anonymous said...

Harmanjit Singh ji,

You are a very interesting fellow. You should change your name to reflect your religious viewpoint. Drop the 'Singh' since it identifies you as a Sikh and adopt another surname that identifies you as a 'non subscriber'.

Anonymous said...

Your opinion probably sounds great to you inside your head but someone who wants to be taken seriously would provide some references. Or are you just so enlightened that you avoid the minutiae and leave that for others to worry about.

Anonymous said...


Here is a surname for you "apostasy".

Harmanjit Apostasy

Has a nice ring to it ;)

Anonymous said...


Have you taken a vow of silence? hehehehe

Anonymous said...

feel free to check out

Anonymous said...

wow, how inaccurate can some1 get?? lol this pathetic attempt to diminish Sikhi is just that..pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am a born Hindu brahmnin. I read Gurbani and go to Gurdwara. I feel more peace there. I am proud of my heritage and all ten GuruJis of what they achieved. I count myself as Sikh, do not have a turban or beard. It is a choice people make and I respect that and bow to it when I see it on the head of a 'True Sikh, true Khalsa' not one who just happens to be born in a Sikh family and goes ritually with 5 Ks par se.

Would I grow beard and grow hair? I would if it ever became my calling and I was fortunate enough to see it.

harmanjit said...

Most of the assertions in this article can be verified by visiting the Britannica article:

Anonymous said...

Caste/class system existed all across the globe. People rather sheeple have amnesia and forget that they were under the iron rule of kings till very recent times. Democrazy is a new experiment. Korea, China, Saudi are still there with that iron rule. People didn't look into the face of Japanese emperor even during world war times. Kings ruled like gods. It was actually considered crazy for one to have ideas of equality ha ha.