A Sikh is a person who belongs to the religion of Sikhism. ‘Sikh’ is usually translated as ‘disciple’ or ‘student’, and has been defined as someone who faithfully believes in one immortal Being (God); the ten historical Gurus (from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh); the Guru Granth Sahib (the collected Sikh scripture); the utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus; the baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru; and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion. One may also use ‘Sikh’ to define one’s cultural or national identity and heritage. The Khanda is a well-known Sikh symbol. The double-edged sword at the centre represents the power of the Creator; the circle denotes the the Creator’s eternal perfection; the two outer swords stand for spiritual and political balance.
The founding figure of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE) was born in the Punjab (‘Land of Five Rivers’) a territory now shared between northern India and Pakistan. Highly revered in his own lifetime, Guru Nanak established a spiritual community transcending distinctions of race, class, gender, ethnicity, social background and economic status. His teachings recognise all people as equals, with the right to follow their own path to God. For nigh on two centuries, nine further Gurus carried this revolutionary spiritual and social message to the masses. The tenth, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) founded the Khalsa (‘Pure Ones’) and installed the Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal source of guidance. His decisive actions instituted the Sikh community in the form still recognisable today.
Sikhs believe in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, dictated by the law of karma – which requires that people are rewarded for their deeds, good and bad. Being born human gives one the opportunity to escape this otherwise endless cycle. These are beliefs that Sikhs hold in common to a certain extent with Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Sikhs differ from those religions by believing in the power of repentance, prayer and love to earn God’s grace and neutralise the effect of karma. Sikhs believe in one God, before whom everyone is equal, and to whom everyone has direct and personal access. Sikhs recognise that truth is also to be found in other religions, and believe that anyone who leads the right kind of life has the opportunity of attaining salvation.
The Guru Granth Sahib is not simply the holy book of the Sikhs: it is their eternal guru and guide, the paramount spiritual authority in their religion, their first and central point of reference. The Adi Granth was first compiled by the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, in 1604 in the city of Amritsar. The final version – the Guru Granth Sahib – was completed in 1705 by the last of the human gurus Guru Gobind Singh, who established it as the perpetual guide of the Sikhs shortly thereafter. The Guru Granth Sahib is a poetic anthology, containing devotional and mystical poems in praise of God, written to the musical measures of the Indian classical system of ragas. It contains not only hymns of the Sikh Gurus, but also compositions of several Muslim and Hindu mystics.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Practising Sikhs have a rich devotional life, both as individuals and communally in the gurdwara (the Sikh place of worship). While Sikhs see God as being beyond human comprehension or description, still they pray to God as their Lord, teacher, father and protector, who cares for them personally. They regard prayer and meditation as ways of sharing in God’s presence. Sikhs are encouraged to rise before dawn, bathe, then pray, using the words of Guru Nanak. Verses are recited from the Guru Granth Sahib and its hymns sung from early morning till late evening in the gurdwara. Sikhs will normally gather for communal worship there every day, and especially on Sundays in this part of the world (because it fits with the typical working week in the West).
Sikhs do not believe there is any need to renounce everyday life in order to come closer to God. Sikhism is a practical and down-to-earth religion that encourages its followers to use their daily lives as a way of progressing on the spiritual path. Sikhs are encouraged to serve God by serving other people. In so doing, they find frequent opportunites to rid themselves of ego, pride and self-centredness. Sikhs have three obligations in their daily lives: to keep God in mind; to earn an honest living; to be generous to those in need. This allows personal freedom in deciding how they should act in the world. At the same time, they should try their best to avoid five vices: lust, covetousness, attachment to the things of this world, anger and pride.
Sikh teachings prohibit the use of alcohol, non-prescribed drugs and tobacco. Many Sikhs are vegetarian. Those Sikhs who do eat meat will not eat any which has been prepared by kosher or halal methods. Personal cleanliness is very important to Sikhs. The turban, which keeps long hair clean and tidy, is a well-known sign of a Sikh. Uncut hair and beard, a steel bangle on the right wrist, a wooden comb to groom the hair, specially made cotton shorts and a small ornamental dagger make up the ‘five ks’. Initiation is required to join the Khalsa, membership of which demands a deeper level of prayer, meditation, charity and selflessness from the individual. Initiated males adopt the last name Singh (‘Lion’); women take the name Kaur (‘Princess’).
There are no individual positions of authority within the Sikh community, as a protection against egoism and corruption. The only role of note is that of the Granthi, who reads from the Guru Granth Sahib in the gurdwara and officiates at ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The gurdwara is the focus of Sikh community life. One of the most significant things that happens there is the langar or ‘Guru’s kitchen’, where vegetarian food is served free of charge to everyone, sitting as equals – including anyone in attendance who does not happen to be Sikh. This is one practical way in which Sikhs demonstrate their belief in equality, generosity and charity without paying heed to differences of religion, caste, wealth, age, gender or social standing.
Sikhs use their festivals as occasions on which to rededicate their faith. One such is Bandi Chhorh Divas (which coincides with Diwali, a traditional Indian celebration also observed, in different ways, by Hindus and Jains). This marks the anniversary of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) rescuing 52 Hindu kings from imprisonment in a celebrated act of courage. Gurpurbs are feast days honouring the birth, martyrdom or life events of the Gurus (e.g. the birthday of Guru Nanak, traditionally celebrated in November), as well as the installation of the Guru Granth Sahib. Vaisakhi (or Baisakhi) is the Sikh new year, celebrated on the date of a long-established harvest festival in the Punjab. It is of particular significance for commemorating the founding of the Khalsa in 1699.
Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion, with more than 26 million followers worldwide. By far the majority of these live in the Punjab region. Most Sikhs, wherever they live can speak Punjabi. The Punjab is also the site of Harmandir Sahib (the ‘House of God’)– the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This is the most important site in the Sikh world, with a long and fascinating spiritual, political and military history, stretching as far back as the time of the Buddha. Gurdwaras throughout the globe fly the Nishan Sahib outside their building. This flag shows the Khanda in the middle of an orange background. It is a visual reminder of the unity of the Sikh community all over the world. There are large Sikh populations in Canada, the US, UK, Malaysia and Singapore.
Sikhs in Britain
The first recorded Sikh settler here was Dalip Singh, a young prince who came to England in exile in 1849 and settled in Thetford, Norfolk. The Prince of Wales unveiled a statue in his honour there, 150 years later. The first gurdwara was established in 1911, at Putney. There are now more than 200 around the country. Sikh migration to Britain began in earnest in the 1930s, men from the Punjab filling British industry’s need for unskilled labour. Sikhs who had fought for the British army in the First World War came here from the Punjab after India became independent in 1948, followed later by thousands of Sikhs from East Africa. At the time of the 2001 Census, there were 336,179 Sikhs in Britain – just over half of 1% of the population.
Sikhs in Leicester
The 2001 Census records 11,796 Sikhs in Leicester, just over 4% of the city’s population. The percentage of Sikhs among Leicester’s population has been virtually constant since 1983. In 2002, the Queen made her first official visit to a gurdwara on British soil; this historic event took place at Guru Nanak Gurdwara, in Holy Bones. A Sikh Heritage Museum was established there ten years before, the first of its kind in Europe. The celebration of Vaisakhi (Sikh New Year) is a major public event, with colourful parades along the city’s streets, between some of the seven gurdwaras in Leicester. In 2008, New Walk Museum hosted a major multi-media exhibition on Sikhism, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa – which established the Sikh faith in the form it is still known today.