Sikhism comes from the word Sikh which means a disciple. A Sikh is a person who believes in One God and the teachings of the Ten Gurus, enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.

While both Buddhism and Jainism were inspired by religious and social ideas that emerged from an exclusively Hindu (or, technically speaking, pre-Hindu) background, Sikhism, a more recent development, has similar links to Islamic ideals.

Sikhism shares beliefs with both Islam (e.g. monotheism) and Hinduism (e.g. Bhakti). Sikhism should not, however, be regarded simply as two older religions blended into one, but rather as a genuinely new religion. Its followers believe it to have been authenticated by a new divine revelation.

Guru Nanak (1469-1538), the founder of Sikhism, was born in the village of Talwandi, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore in present-day Pakistan. His parents were of Hindu background and he belonged to the mercantile caste. Even as a boy, Nanak was fascinated by religion, and his desire to explore the mysteries of life eventually led him to leave home. He wandered all over India in the manner of Hindu saints. It was during this period that Nanak met Kabir (1441-1518), a saint revered by both Hindus and Muslims.

After several years of wandering, Nanak had a call to teach. He preached before Jain and Hindu temples and Muslim mosques and, in the process, attracted a number of sikhs or disciples. Religion, he thought, was a bond to unite men, but in practice he found that it set men against one another. He particularly regretted the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims. He wanted to go beyond what was being practiced by either religion and hence a well-known saying of Nanak is, "There is no Hindu and no Muslim."

Nanak was opposed to the caste system. His followers referred to him as the guru (teacher). Before his death he designated a new Guru to be his successor and to lead his community. The tenth and the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708 A.D.) initiated the Sikh Baptism ceremony in 1699 AD ; and thus gave a distinctive identity to the Sikhs. The five baptised Sikhs were named Panj Pyare (Five Beloved Ones), who in turn baptised the Guru at his request. This is a uniquely empowering and democratizing phenomenon not seen in any of the other major religions, i.e. a leader acknowledging the primacy of the Sikh community, the Khalsa.

Shortly before passing away the Guru ordered that Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture would be the ultimate spiritual authority for the Sikhs and temporal authority would vest in the Khalsa Panth - The Sikh Commonwealth. The Sikh Holy Scripture was compiled and edited by the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjun in 1604 A.D. This is the only scripture in the world which has been compiled by the founders of a faith during their own life time. The Sikh Holy Scripture is written in Punjabi with parts in Bhojpuri and Urdu.

Nanak's doctrinal position is fairly simple, despite the appearance that it is a blend of insights originating from two very different faiths. Sikhism's coherence is attributable to its single central concept - the sovereignty of the One God, the Creator. Nanak called his god the "True Name " because he wanted to avoid any limiting term for God. He taught that the true Name, although manifest in manifold ways and in manifold places and known by manifold names, is eternally One, the Sovereign and omnipotent God, at once transcendent and immanent, creator and destroyer.

To argue which components of his beliefs are Hindu, which are muslim, is arguing like fools on which one religion in the world owns the intellectual right to profess the sole ownership of universal thoughts, ideas and movements such as kindness, giving, honesty, remembering the name of god, and respecting others.

Nanak also subscribed to the belief in maya (illusion). Even though he regarded material objects as realities and as expressions of the creator's eternal truth, they tend to erect "a wall of falsehood" around those who live totally in the mundane world of material desires. This prevents them from seeing the truly real God who created matter as a veil around God, so that only spiritual minds, free of desire, can penetrate it.

The world is immediately real in the sense that it is made manifest to the senses by maya, but is ultimately unreal in the sense that God alone is ultimately real. Retaining the Hindu doctrine of the transmigration of souls, together with its corollary, the law of karma, Nanak warned his followers not to prolong their round of reincarnation by living apart from God - that is, by choosing, through egoism and sensuous delights, to live in a worldly manner, abandoning God.

To do this is to accumulate karma. One should do nothing but think of God and endlessly repeat God's name (Nama Japam) and so have union with God. Salvation, he said, does not mean entering paradise after a last judgment, but a union and absorption into God, the true name.

Political pressure from surrounding Muslim nations forced the Sikhs to defend themselves and by the mid-nineteenth century, the Punjab area straddling modern-day India and Pakistan was ruled by them. The Sikh khalsa (army) was a match even for the invading British army.

Today, Sikhs can be found all over India and also elsewhere in the world. The observant men can be identified by their practice of always wearing a turban to cover their long hair. The turban is quite different from the ones worn by the muslim clergy. (in some countries, laws requiring motorcyclists to wear crash helmets had to be modified to accommodate them) and their almost universal use of the surname Singh1 (meaning lion).

Of course, not all people named Singh are necessarily Sikhs! Sikh men are also supposed to have the following items on them at all times: a comb, short breeches, a steel arm bracelet and a sword or dagger. In modern society, of course, one cannot really carry a sword or even a large dagger, but even a good penknife or a miniature dagger is sufficient to express the symbolic meaning.

By carrying a weapon, the Sikh is reminded of the persecution his religion has experienced and the need to defend the weak against the mighty. The breeches are a symbol of chastity and monogamy. The steel bracelet, the Kara, indicates bondage to God. A corollary being that a Sikh does not bow before anyone except his master i.e God. A sikh is supposed to never cut his hair, both to indicate a lifelong search for spirituality and aceptance for God's gifts to man. A comb is to keep the hair tidy, a symbol of not just accepting what God has given, but also an injunction to maintain it.

Sikh women would generally wear typically North Indian dress. Ideally they should use the surname Kaur (traditionally believed to mean "princess", but actually means "lioness" to match the singhs as lions), rather than the name Singh that is actually meant only for the men, but few countries allow this.

In the late 1970s and 1980s a separatist movement began to create a separate Sikh state, called Khalistan, in the Punjab area of India and Pakistan.

Currently, there are about 23 million Sikhs in the world, making it the 5th largest world religion. Approximately 19 million Sikhs live in India with the majority living in Punjab. Large populations of Sikhs can be found in the United Kingdom, Canada, and USA.

Persecution of Sikhs

In India, Sikhs faced persecution following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. This assassination was an act of revenge by her Sikh body guards for the Golden Temple Massacre of 1984, when a group of Sikh separatists (some say terrorists) following Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale took refuge or occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy site.

After attempts at negotiation failed, Gandhi ordered the temple cleared by troops. Refusal to depart peacefully resulted in a firefight, with 83 army personnel killed and 493 Sikh occupiers killed, as well as many more wounded. Many Sikhs considered the use of force in their holy place to be an unforgivable insult, and her assassination was claimed to be a response.

In the aftermath of the assassination, many Sikh communities were attacked by Gandhi's Congress Party, then under the control of her son Rajiv Gandhi, who would go on to become Prime Minister. Thousands of Sikhs died as a result of this persecution.

Following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack some Americans turned on Sikhs. They mistook symbols of religious belief, such as turbans and beards, for the garb of those who carried out the terrorist attacks. Some vigilantes in the United States threatened and hurt individuals within the Sikh community. In the months after 9-11, the Sikh community received nearly 300 reported incidents of threats, assaults, violence, and even death.

The U.S. senate issued a resolution which condemns bigotry against Sikh-Americans. The texts of Senate Concurrent Resolution 74 and the introductory statement by Senator Richard Durbin from the October 2 Congressional Record are available here:

U.S. Senate condemns bigotry against Sikhs

Note 1. Singh, which is often thought to be the surname, outside of India is actually the middle name for Sikh men. A lot of reasons cause this being used or perceived as a last name e.g.

  1. "Coming from a low caste family which is often easily identifiable by surnames. People drop the last name and use Singh as last name.".... is a common misconception. Since surnames are usually associated with casts, many sikhs prefer to drop their surname in favour of Singh.
  2. Errors on identity papers like passports etc.
  3. To make it easier to identify oneself as a Sikh i.e. by propagating the falsehood of Singh being a last name as it is such a common false notion now.
  4. Singh was supposed to be the common surnames of all Sikhs as a symbol of shattering all caste distinctions.