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Sikhism

Category: Mystic groups and systems

Amritsar

Sikhism is both a living working religion and a mystic movement, although the mystic element is not separated from the religion, the two are integrated. 

It is a religion based on friendship, companionship, community and family.

Marriage and children are extremely important to Sikhs and infidelity is forbidden. 

It is the youngest of all world religions with its roots in Hinduism, but its values and ethics are its own.  It began about 500 years ago in the Punjab region of India and was founded by Guru Nanak.  The word Sikh comes from the word Sishyas a Sanskrit word meaning a ‘disciple’ – a follower of Nanak.

A British Sikh policeman

Most of its 12 million or so followers – about 10 million of them – still live in the Punjab, where it began; the rest can be found in England, where there is a sizable [and much respected and liked] community, the United States, Canada, East Africa, the Arab Emirates, Iran, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

The respect they command is due both to the immense contribution they make to the countries in which they live, and to their strong ethical beliefs, founded on an almost Puritanical work ethic and values based around care for the family, the young and the old. When one mentions the Sikh community in the UK, one knows one is actually talking about a true community.

 

The four pillars of wisdom

Sikhs are, interestingly enough, organised around mystic lines.  The four pillars of wisdom are built into their organisation:

Warriors and ‘knights’

 

There is a group whose role it is to defend the faith and the community.  Early in their history the Sikhs were forced by religious persecution and by the execution of two of their gurus by Muslim rulers, to arm themselves for protection.  In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh organised an elite fighting force, the Khalsa or Pure Ones.  The Khalsa swear faith in the One Reality, consider all human beings equal and help the poor, as well as defend the faith.  The Sikh fighting force have a long and proud history of military discipline and courage in battle and remained undefeated until the mid-1800s when India came under the rule of the British empire.  Under British rule, peace followed and Sikhs were able to acquire land.  Sikhs became legendary within the Indian army when it was under colonial rule, for their courageousness and loyalty. Sikhs fought with the British in both World Wars with honour.  Interestingly they share some of the attributes of the far eastern martial arts warriors and are as a consequence extremely fit.  Sikhs are known to be fine athletes and many have represented India in Olympic teams

‘Hierophants’ 

 

A ‘hierophant’ is a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy.

He or she  is an interpreter of sacred mysteries and a guide and helper to their discovery. 

In effect, in conventional religion this person is the priest  whose job it is to teach the religion, its ethics and values to the community – young and old.   In Sikh tradition anyone can take this role, there are no 'priests' with hierarchies and separate organisations.  If the person is knowledgeable enough anyone can act as a 'hierophant'.

Sages 

 

Along with the more general teachers of ethics and religious values, Sikhism also recognise the role of the ‘hermit sage' or philosopher – philo [seeker] after Sophia [wisdom].  Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism was the first sage and Nanak was followed by nine other gurus all of whom are revered as great spiritual leaders.  The words of these gurus is preserved in Sikh scripture – the Guru Granth – the wisdom of the gurus.  In  1708, the tenth guru Gobind Singh decreed that from then on there would be no more gurus.  The Granth would be the only guru.  Since then the focus of Sikh teaching and prayer has been the Guru Granth.

Community leaders

The leaders are chosen and emerge from community ranks.  They are chosen for their wisdom, not their ability to play politics or seize power.

The community – all of whom are treated equally and have an equal say – women and men, old and young is in a sense the fifth pillar – the co-creators.  Sikhs treat women well and have done for some time.  Sikhs are found in just about every profession bar the oldest one of all!  There are Sikh doctors, airline pilots, university lecturers, teachers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, mechanics and nurses – men and women, recognisable, as we have said by the fact they work very hard.

History

the word empire seems a little incongruous, however, this map
despite the fact it has a website address plastered across it, is
not a bad indicator of the extent of the Sikh religion at that time.

Guru Nanak was born on April 15th 1469 in Talwandi, a small Indian village in what is now Pakistan.  At the time of Nanak’s birth, India was ruled by Muslims.  Hinduism had originated in India itself, whereas Islam had come to India from Saudi Arabia in the 7th century AD. 

Nanak was a Hindu belonging to a high caste family, his father was an accountant for the Muslim landlord, but he received a mixed education from a Hindu and a Muslim priest. 

Nanak was born at a time when all the world’s religions were being questioned.  Religion in general at the time, had travelled a long way away from its spiritual roots and had sunk into politics, dogma, ritual and meaningless ceremony.  Furthermore, mystical movements and mystics were being persecuted cruelly.   In Germany, Martin Luther had started the Reformation which eventually led to Protestantism.  In some ways, Guru Nanak was mirroring this reformatory movement.

Witnessing the effects of the caste system – which he deplored – the cruelty of the animal sacrifices and the meaningless of the rituals, Nanak started to form his own and separate ideas.

Amritsar (The Lake by the Golden Temple) Charles W. Bartlett, 1920

Nanak had his first revelatory vision when he was 28 years old.  At the time he was married to a woman called Sulakhni and he was the father of two boys – Sri Chand and Lakhmi Chand.  Although he never abandoned his family, the call to spread the word was very strong and he spent the next 25 years travelling and preaching.  Nanak was accompanied on his travels only by Mardana, a Muslim family servant and musician who put many of his poems to music and thus created the hymns of Nanak.

By 1500, when Nanak began teaching, he had drawn from all that was best of the mystic movements around at the time.  The Muslim Sufis, as well as the Hindu Bakti poets and saints, were espousing very similar teachings and Nanak used their ideas to define the society and community he wished to found.  Kabir is a greatly revered poet in the Sikh community – a poet who drew together aspects of the Hindu Bhakti movement and Islamic Sufism, and his work forms part of the Sikh sacred texts.

 

Whilst mystics aim always to unite, politicised religions aim to separate for power reasons, and Nanak based all his teachings on the concept of unity – an entirely mystical approach.  Thus today Kabbalists, Sufis, Mystic Buddhists, Taoists and so on, find only common ground in the Sikh beliefs.  Another member of the mystic family of man [and woman].

Sikhs suffered badly under Muslim rule, but when the British Empire took over, peace for some time reigned.  It was not without its incidents, probably best now forgotten.  After World War II when India gained its independence, a new country – Pakistan – was carved out of the Punjab.  Over 2,500,000  Sikhs found themselves in a Muslim country that did not want them.  Many were forced to leave their homes.  At this point the Sikhs became political and demanded a separate Sikh state.  Sikh separatists resorted to violence and by the early 1980s tensions had reached a high level.  In 1984, a large band of Sikh separatists took refuge in the Golden Temple, one of the Sikh Holy places.  The Indian army attacked them there killing several hundred Sikhs and seriously damaging the temple compound.  The violation of the Golden Temple remains a painful memory for many Sikhs in the Punjab, even though the problem is clearly political and not religious.

Clothes and symbolism

Hair  - is symbolic of connection to the spiritual world and all Sikhs, men and women have long hair.  The women simply have long hair, but the men tuck it into a turban to keep it out of the way. The turban is probably the most notable feature of Sikh men’s clothing and is made from a long length of coloured cloth wrapped around the head. It is in some senses an extension of the hair symbolism as rolls of cloth also have a symbolic meaning. 

It may be worth adding that Britain passed a special law so that Sikhs could be exempted from wearing a helmet on a motor cycle, then a statutory safety  requirement for everyone else.  I think our parliament decided turbans were just as effective – if not better!

the wind will blow your top knot off......

Hair is or should never be cut.  Symbolically to cut one’s hair is to cut your ties to heaven, as such hair is kept long.  Little ones have a ‘top knot’ – equally symbolic.   The beard also has symbolic meaning.

Every Sikh man’s surname is Singh, meaning lion or lion hearted, again the symbolism derives from that of the lion but also the courageousness of Sikh men.  Every Sikh woman’s surname is Kaur, meaning princess – again a deeply meaningful title – a searcher on the spiritual path. 

Both men and women wear a steel [iron] bracelet around the right wrist as an insignia of their faith – both are symbolic.  The bracelet is an O to symbolically represent both the Egg and the One.  As Nanak said

“Through sangat one obtains the treasure of the Divine Name .. Just as iron rubbed against the philosopher’s stone turns into gold, so does dark ignorance transform into brilliant light in the company of good”.

Men’s trousers tend to be loose and wide.  The symbolism here derives from the concept of the thighs and is not dissimilar to the same symbolism used in Elizabethan England at the time.

 

Men also have a sword.  The sword was clearly practical at one time given the Sikhs' persecution, but this kirpan also has a symbolic meaning.  As a symbol it is incorporated into the overall Sikh symbol which has two swords and the ring of unity [the Egg].  Through the centre is the double edged sword – the khanda which in shape is remarkably like an hourglass!

The Sikh symbols are known as the 5Ks – Kirpan [sword], Kesha [hair], kaccha [trousers], kara [bracelet or armlet] and the fifth is the kangha, which actually means comb.  These days it is believed to be simply a symbol of neatness, but here I wonder if some symbolism has been lost as combs in the hair are a symbol of enlightenment.

Practises

Langar

Sikhism is not a religion based on great pomp and ceremony.  Sikhs in general prefer to live their beliefs on a day to day basis, rather than hold services every Saturday or Sunday to talk about them and then head off and ignore the beliefs for the rest of the week!   Most ceremonies are celebratory, or festivals intended to bring the community together for enjoyment and support.  A time is put aside for prayer, usually at dawn or dusk, and prayers are also said in the ‘gurudwara’, the Sikh meeting place and house of prayer and worship.

If prayers are said in the meeting house, anyone may read them, there is no single person who ‘leads’ a service, instead a member of the community may read an extract from the scriptures, another may say a prayer and so on.

Sikhs do not use tobacco products, drugs, alcohol or any other ‘intoxicants’ believing they damage the mind.  They are not vegetarians, most Sikhs eat meat – humanely killed.

 

There is a belief in the ‘dignity of labour’.  Everyone should earn their living by honest work which hurts no one.  Sikhs look down on no form of work as long as it is honest and does no harm.  Laziness and living off others is regarded as unacceptable.

The concept of charity is also expressed practically.  Sikhs give practical help to the poor or the disadvantaged in their own or other communities.  Thus charity is given in its original sense, a giving of oneself to others, [as opposed to the practise some people call charity which is giving their spare change into a collection box].  Sikhs freely extend hospitality and help to both friends and strangers.

 

One of the most joyous ways in which this charity is exhibited is in the enormous community meals that are prepared and cooked every so often.  The Sikh community meal is called a Langar and everyone helps – men, women, young and old.  [The Langar is technically both the community meal and the kitchen in which it is prepared].  It is a testimony to both the equality of everyone but also the strong sense of family in the community.  The food is prepared by everyone and everyone eats together.  Because Sikhs also invite guests, the food is normally vegetarian so that no one is offended.  It might be added that in Nanak’s time the idea of eating together regardless of caste was revolutionary.

Seva is voluntary manual labour in the service of the community and is intended to be an act of love and selfless service.  The objective is to cultivate humility and overcome ego – key to progress spiritually.  “Serving others with a cheerful attitude is deeply cherished”.  It is worth adding that seva may include quite large acts of generosity – helping to build schools and hospitals.

Sangat is the practise of gathering together as a community for shared discussion or prayer, music, hymns, listening to poems, and listening to readings.

Beliefs

 

Sikhs refer to the ultimate creative and destructive power of the universe as the Ultimate Reality, also called the Divine One and the Supreme Ultimate reality.  The fundamental principle of Sikhs is ‘There is only One Reality and Truth is its name’ – in Punjabi Ikk oan kar sat nam.

As a consequence of this statement, Sikhism is classified as a monotheistic religion.  But this simplifies things far too much, because the Sikhs do not have this picture of a ‘God’ who is a single entity – like a human being – with creative power.  There is no being sitting on a throne in heaven.

The Sikh concept is closest to that of the Ultimate Intelligence.

 

Although they know the concept is a difficult one to grasp, they keep to the principle allowing no divergence into Intelligence hierarchies or gods.  The aim is to keep it simple and ‘correct’.

There is recognition that the moment one starts to discuss the Intelligence hierarchy one both complicates things considerably and one is also in danger of creating a ‘my god is better than your god’  argument creating  splits and factions in the community.  Under the One, the community is One.

The Ultimate Intelligence is spirit, or as they say ‘without physical form’.  It cannot be seen or represented visually by a picture or statue and it transcends space, time and gender, race or creed, religion or cultural background.

 

Sikhs believe there is a touch of divinity in everyone – the Higher spirit.  As everyone has this divinity within, it follows that everyone is equal both in the eyes of the One Ultimate Reality, but also in life. 

Sikhs reject all distinctions of social class, race or creed.  Men and women have an equal voice and everyone is welcome to participate in the life of the Sikh community, no one is excluded.

The concept of the spiritual path is also recognised for those who wish to follow it.  The Sikhs have a concept they call sahaj or tranquillity, a state which is cultivated to help achieve union with the transcendent reality – the One.  In effect the last stages of the spiritual path.  “the search for sahaj is part of the quest for peace and the Ultimate"

Moksha and nirvana.

Guru Granth and Janamsakhi

 

Janamsakhi

The Janamsakhi describes the life and legends about Guru Nanak. 

It covers his birth, education and various stories about the miracles surrounding his life. 

A whole mythology has evolved around Guru Nanak, so although Sikhs may claim that their ‘bible’ is the Guru Granth with the teachings of all the gurus, Guru Nanak is very clearly the spiritual head of all ten gurus. 

The Janamsakhi is suited for children as the stories are often written in the form of a parable, with simple narratives that help to illustrate both religious and ethical teaching.  In many Sikh households, the stories are used as bedtime reading for young children.  The book also incorporates his poems and songs. 

 

The Guru Granth

  - is the holy book of the Sikhs.

Granth simply means a book or volume, thus Guru Granth means the book of the Gurus. 

A detailed description can be found by following this LINK, however all extracts from the book are provided here.

Japu (Punjabi: :ਜਪੁ), commonly known as Japji Sahib, is a Sikh hymn about God composed by Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the faith. It is headed by Mool Mantra and followed by 38 hymns and completed with a final Salok at the end of this composition. It appears at the beginning in Guru Granth Sahib, the Guru as well as Holy Book of the Sikhs.   It is regarded amongst the most important Bani or 'set of verses' by the Sikhs.  It describes a hierarchy of five spiritual levels culminating in Sach Khand.

see also the entries for

 

 

 

Observations

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