Sikhism: A crash course

Winter 2010

How much do you know about Canada’s most ‘visible’ minority? Law student Jagtaran Singh gives a crash course.

Law student Jagtaran Singh.

Law student Jagtaran Singh.

The characteristic turban, beard and Kirpan (Sikh dagger) often have spurred discussion about the “accommodation” of minority cultural practices within Canada. But Sikhs also have been central to Canadian economic and political life for decades – especially in British Columbia and Ontario. Last November, the Prime Minister himself even took time out from a busy India trip to visit the Sikh Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar – Sikhism’s holiest site. Yet few Canadians outside of the Sikh community know much about the world’s fifth largest organized religion.

So who are the Sikhs, where do they come from, and what are their values?

Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469 in Talwandi (now called Nankana Sahib), which is in modern-day Pakistan. This was at a time when the inequalities imposed by the Hindu caste system, as well as fights between the two major religious groups, had reached extreme levels. Brahmins would take special baths to cleanse themselves if the shadow of a lower caste Untouchable fell on them. Muslims ruled the land, which resulted in great conflicts between them and the majority Hindu population. Women were seen as the property of men – and hideous brutality awaited those females who stepped outside their subservient roles.

Guru Nanak condemned all of this. When it came to religious conflict, he declared that everyone was fighting over different names for what is in reality the same thing – God. From the beginning, Sikhs respected other faiths – exhibiting a sense of religious pluralism that Canadians came to enshrine in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms a few hundred years later.

Sikhism has 10 Gurus. The word literally means “one who enlightens” – a teacher, in other words. Nine Gurus followed Guru Nanak, each furthering the teachings set out by him. The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created the Order of the Khalsa, into which one was inducted after affirming one’s commitment to the universal ideals of Sikhism.

A Khalsa, an individual who has affirmed their commitment, is traditionally given five articles of faith: Kara, an iron bracelet to symbolize one’s commitment to God; Kesh, unshorn hair, because Sikhs believe in keeping with the natural order; Kanga, a wooden comb for maintaining one’s hair; Kashera, boxer shorts to maintain hygiene (underwear was not common in the days of the founding Gurus) and chastity; and, finally the Kirpan, a dagger. This is the article of faith that get the most attention by the public. But it’s important to understand that the Kirpan serves as an instrument of self-defence in a time of need. It also serves as a very real reminder of the history of the Sikhs as defenders of their values, as well as the rights of those around them, regardless of caste, creed, religion or gender.

In fact, Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru, actually died for the right of Hindus to practice their own faith, and not be forced into conversion into Islam by the emperor of India, Aurengzeb. Before and since then, Sikhs have faced constant persecution for practising their faith, suffering three genocides.

One would be mistaken to think that Sikhs are a violent or martial people simply because of the Kirpan. Sikhs were instructed to be saint soldiers. A Sikh works to embody the spiritualism and radiance of a saint, while maintaining the discipline and bravery of a soldier. Peace, service and meditation are the cornerstone of Sikhism. But a Sikh cannot ever sit and watch while injustices take place.

Along with receiving the five articles of faith, the Khalsa was also given the last name “Singh” for men and “Kaur” for women – Singh, meaning Lion and Kaur meaning Princess.

These were names that previously had been reserved for royalty or high classes. Once the universal names were adopted, no one could discern one’s caste by his or her last name in an attempt to place them on a social scale. Turbans, an erstwhile symbol of royalty, had likewise been reserved by the ruling elite for their own use. The Guru said that all Sikhs should wear a turban, as everyone was to be a sovereign unto themselves. To this day, Sikhs are commonly called Sardar Ji or “Chief.”

Before passing away, Guru Gobind Singh declared that the Sikh Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, would lead the Sikhs as Guru. The scriptures contain the writings of not only Sikh Gurus, but people from all walks of life who had found God – Hindus, Muslims, cobblers, weavers, kings, poets and more. In this way, the concept of interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism were built right into the Sikh psyche. The Guru Granth Sahib contains no laws, dogmas or even stories. Rather, it is full of sublime poetry in praise of the Divine.

Are there converts into Sikhism? Yes. In fact, there has been a large movement of “American Sikhs” or everyday Westerners who have decided that Sikhism fits their understanding of life. But this isn’t thanks to Sikhs spreading the word – if they were good at that, I wouldn’t feel the need to write this article.

Sikhs don’t preach their faith outside their faith group. And they sometimes forget how different they look when they jump right into the wider community, leaving some folks wondering why there is a man with a turban asking for the right to serve his country (be it in the RCMP, armed forces or otherwise) while maintaining his faith.

It’s a communication problem, some might say. And I assure you – we’re working on it. But the more Canadians know about our faith, the easier that communication will become.

Jagtaran Singh is a law student at McGill University and can be reached at jagtaran.singh@mail.mcgill.ca. This article originally appeared in the National Post. Republished with permission.
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