Sikhism originated in late 15 th century Talwadi(present day Punjab in Pakistan) with the birth of Nanak Dev. Raised Hindu, he was influenced by its teachings as well as those of Islam. He first began to question his religion at age thirteen. According to traditional accounts, when he was in his early thirties he went into a river to bathe and did not resurface. Three days later, he reappeared, now an enlightened man. During the three days he was missing, he reports that God revealed himself and granted him enlightenment. Guru Nanak then immediately abandoned his belongings and began his religious mission. His new philosophy, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim,” asserted that the only reality is the individual and God. All humans are equal and there is only one true God. He denounced the caste system and the belief in polytheism. He subsequently traveled around India teaching his new knowledge. In 1559 when Guru Nanak was on his death bed he asked for Hindu’s to stand at his right and Muslims to stand at his left. He said that those whose flowers were still alive in the morning would be the ones to prevail in India. After his death, he was covered with a sheet. The following morning when the sheet was raised, the body of Guru Nanak was gone and the flowers of the Hindus and Muslims were in its place- all still in bloom.

Guru Nanak was followed by nine successor gurus: Angard Dev, Amar Das Ram Das, Arjan Dav, Hargobind, Har Rai, Harkrishan, Tegh Bahadur, and Gobind Singh. Arjan Dav was the first to have started writing the book which would contain all of the teachings of Sikhism later to be called the Guru Granth Sahib. He was also the first martyr of Sikhism. Attempting to give the religion an organized structure, he caught the attention of the Mughal Dynasty and was put to death in the city of Lahore. Guru Tegh Bahadur was also put to death by beheading. The Mughal Dynasty had invaded and the emperor had named himself emperor of India in 1657. He began the Islaminization of India, especially of the Brahmins.The Brahmins approached Tegh Bahadur and asked for help. He then went to Dehli, where the resistance was most concentrated, and was imprisoned. He was beheaded and his body left outside in the open as further humiliation. Fearing for their lives, no one would come and claim his body. Tegh Bahadur’s son, Gobind Sing, decided that his people should not be afraid to be proud of their faith. He decreed that Sikhs would from now on be a warrior people. They would not cut their hair so they would have a physical attribute to distinguish them from other religions. They would also all change their last name to Singh, which means Tiger. Gobind Sing was also the one to finish writing the Guru Granth Sahib, and to declare that there would be no other Guru’s after him. Henceforth, the book would be the only teacher.

In 1699 Gobind Singh raised an army and tested the faith of his followers. He asked an assembled crowd of men for five volunteers who would sacrifice their heads for the cause and the impending battle. One at a time five men stepped forward. Gobind Singh walked each into a tent and emerged with a bloody sward. After the men had stepped into the tent, Gobind Singh emerged a sixth time, this time with the five men who had “sacrificed” themselves. He baptized them as the Panth Khalsa - the order of the Pure Ones. The birth of the Khalsa is celebrated in the springtime- called Baisakhi. The five symbols of Khalsa are Keshas (uncut hair wrapped in a Pug to remind one to do no harm to the body), Kirpan (a small knife to protect the weak and helpless), Kachehra (simple shorts to be worn so one can move easily into battle), and Kanga (a steel bracelet to symbolize Sikh unity, to commit from to keep from wrongdoing).

Individuals may become Sikh through the baptism ritual (Amrit Chhakna). The ceremony can be performed place in any holy place (preferably a Gurdwara) so long as there is a Guru Granth Sahib present. Five baptized Sikhs (Khalsa) must perform the ceremony. There are 3 steps to the ceremony. First, the book is opened and a formal prayer is offered by a selected Khalsa with a reading from the book. Second,, the novitiates sit cross-legged and join in the prayer. After the prayer they stand and request admission into Khalsa brotherhood. Third, one Khalsa gives the novitiates six instructions: believe in the teachings of the 10 Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib, recite five hymns (Banis) every day, wear five Khalsas, live upon one’s own honest and sincere earnings, treat all humans as equals, and spread the name of God.

Sikhism in America:

In the 1940s there were roughly 1,500 South Asians in America, many being Sikh agricultural workers in California. In the post-World War II era, India won independence from British rule and barriers to immigration were gradually lowered. Faced with limited career opportunities in India, highly educated Indians, particularly engineers and scientists, began immigrating to the United States. The majority of Sikh immigrants to America from India came between the 1960s and 1980s. A major influx of immigrants occurred following a land redistribution program in predominantly Sikh Punjab and the subsequent assassination of Indira Ghandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. During this period over 10,000 Sikhs were killed. Fearing for their lives, thousands of Sikhs fled to America, regardless of what the future might hold for them.

Since most Sikh immigrants are of relatively recent origin, they are still closely tied to their language and sense of homeland in Punjab. During the first years, life was hard for Sikhs. Men were unable to marry Punjabi women, and if they were to marry an American she could potentially lose her citizenship. Sikhs also faced limited career opportunities initially as their Pugs and facial hair clearly identified them as ethnic minorities. Discrimination problems have gradually moderated as Sikhs have become more numerous and their culture more accepted.

Profiled by Stephanie Warren
November, 2006