Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak in Punjab (Panjab), India, in the late fifteenth century. An adherent of the faith is called a Sikh, which means “follower” in Sanskrit. There are roughly 19 million Sikhs, the majority in Punjab in the northwestern part of India. About 2 million have emigrated to live and work in the United States, Europe, or in parts of what used to be the British colonies.

Sikhism is a young religion; it is also a monotheistic one. Sikhs believe in one God called Waheguru (great teacher). Scholars think Sikhism evolved as a Hindu reform movement or as a mixture of Hinduism and Islam. The Sikhs reject that theory and claim their religion grew out of the divine inspiration of Guru Nanak and the nine gurus who came after him.

Nevertheless, Nanak was born a Hindu in Punjab in 1469. Just as many predicted that Siddhartha Gautama would become a Buddha, so did people predict that Nanak would praise God and teach many others to do the same. As a youth, he worked for a local Muslim politician, and it’s recorded that he impressed everyone with his wisdom and learning. He was part of a group that would sit by the side of a river to pray and discuss religion. He meditated frequently and discussed religious notions with Hindus and Muslims. In time, he formed a group of friends, united by their spiritual concerns, who would gather along a river to pray and worship together.

There are stories told about Nanak’s childhood and his amazing abilities. At school, he was taught the classical lessons in addition to Persian and Arabic languages and Muslim literature. His teacher realized he had reached the point where there wasn’t any more he could teach him; he was learning from Nanak.

At one point he was absent from this routine for three days. When he came back, he didn’t speak for a day. When he did, he said, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Muslim and the path I follow is God’s.” There are other reports on what Nanak might have said, but the essence of having received enlightenment seems to be reliable.

After his revelation in his late twenties, he left his wife and two sons to travel in search of truth and wisdom. After about twenty years, he acquired farmland and settled in central Punjab, where he founded the town of Kartarpur and became Guru Nanak. The Sikh religion was born and Nanak was its first guru.

Central Beliefs

To understand how the Sikhs developed it helps to get to know The Ten Gurus. The word “guru” normally means “teacher,” but when the Sikhs speak of the Guru, they mean God, the Great Teacher.

Pieces of Sikhhistory can be related to a particular guru; each one of them had an influence on the beliefs of the religion, and some of them had political influence. The period from the first to the last guru was likely the mid-1500s to the late 1600s. Each guru appointed his successor.

The Ten Gurus in historical order are:

Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was founder of the Sikh religion.

Guru Angad (1504–1552) was a Hindu before turning to Sikhism. Born Bhai Lehna, he made pilgrimages every year and became a close disciple of Guru Nanak, who eventually anointed him. He devised a script used for writing the Sikh scriptures. His work is found in the Guru Granth Sahib — the Holy Book.

Guru Amar Das (1479–1574) collected the hymns of Guru Nanak and added his own. He developed the custom of the langar, the communal meal, which was devised as a social kitchen to remove caste distinctions and establish social harmony among his followers.

Guru Ram Das (1534–1581) was the son-in-law of Guru Amar Das. He founded the city of Ramdaspur, now known as Amritsar, which became the Sikh holy city to which he initiated pilgrimages. The construction of the Golden Temple began during his time. He also contributed to the Guru Granth Sahib. In particular, he wrote the Sikh wedding hymn.

Guru Arjan (1563–1606) was the youngest son of Guru Ram Das. He compiled the Adi Granth, the most important segment of the Guru Granth Sahib, and completed the building of the Golden Temple. He made the Sikhs very popular and such a presence that the Muslim Mughals came to see the Sikhs as a growing menace. The emperor had him tortured and killed.

Guru Hargobind (1595–1644), the son of Guru Arjan, instilled a sense of Sikh militancy and tried to organize the Sikhs and the Hindus against the Mughals and was imprisoned for a short time. He perfected the dress code introduced by his father and started the tradition of wearing two swords, one signifying his political authority, the other his religious authority.

Guru Har Rai (1630–1661), grandson of Guru Hargobind, supported the elder brother of Emperor Aurangzab in a conflict and as a reprisal the Mughals held his son hostage. He had a reputation for medicine and opened hospitals where treatment was provided free.

Guru Har Krishan (1656–1664), known as “the boy guru,” was the second son of Guru Har Rai and succeeded his father at the age of five when his brother was still being held hostage by the Mughals. The emperor summoned the boy guru to Delhi and kept him under house arrest. He contracted smallpox and died.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621–1675) was the second son of Guru Hargobind. Tegh Bahadur (“brave sword”) was not his original name, it was given to him by his subjects because of his resistance to Emperor Aurangzab. He gained a reputation for feeding the hungry, and he wrote many hymns that are now in the Guru Granth Sahib. He predicted the coming of the Western powers to the Indian subcontinent and the downfall of the Mughals. He was beheaded after refusing to accept Islam.

Guru Gobind Singh (1675–1708), the tenth and last guru, was the most famous after Guru Nanak. He organized the Sikhs to oppose the tyranny of the Mughals and established a military defense group known as the Khalsa (the brotherhood of the pure), which still remains. The Khalsa are considered a chosen race of soldier-saints willing to give up their lives to uphold their faith and defend the weak. Guru Gobind Singh gave all Sikhs the name singh (“lion”) for men and kaur (“princess”) for women, to do away with all traces of the caste system.

Sikhs developed a warrior attitude because of the violence against them by the Mughals. This attitude was reinforced when the Khalsa was founded and the five tenets known as Ks were instituted — kesh (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel bracelet), and kachch (short pants for use in battle). As a result, Sikhs wear long uncut hair with a comb in it and a steel bracelet on the right wrist. The sword and short pants are reserved for battle.

He also decreed that the writings of the Guru Granth Sahib would be the authority from which the Sikhs would be governed. The book is treated as if it were a living thing; wherever it is moved, it is attended by five Sikhs who represent the Khalsa. In his efforts to oppose the Mughals, he lost his two sons and was finally assassinated. He has been called “the most glorious hero of our race.”

Sikhism is based on the discipline of purification and the overcoming of the five vices: greed, anger, false pride, lust, and attachments to material goods. At the end of a person’s life, the good and the bad conduct are balanced out and the result determines the family, race, and character of the person when reborn. There is no direct belief in heaven or hell as places, but those who have been selfish or cruel in the current life will suffer in their next existence. Those who acted with compassion and honesty will be better off in their next incarnation. The soul develops as it passes through the many incarnations until it becomes united with the infinite one.

Sikhs are opposed to the idea of austere asceticism; rather, they emphasize the ideal of achieving saintliness as active members of society. Sikhism prohibits idolatry, the caste system, and the use of wine or tobacco. Stress is placed on the importance of leading a good moral life that includes loyalty, gratitude for all favors received, philanthropy, justice, truth, and honesty.


Rituals and Customs