By Randy Pickup
Sikhism (pronounced “seek-ism”) is one of five major religions to be linked to the greatly populated country of India. Islam (the Muslim or Mohammedan faith) has the second largest number of followers in India, while Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, like Silkhism, all originated in the country. According to the most recent account I could find, it is estimated that there are 15 million Sikhs in India, which is roughly two per cent of the country’s 800-million population.(1) While there are adherents to the religion in other parts of the world, Sikhism is not a religion of universal appeal as are Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Sikhism and its followers are mostly confined to one state in India called the Punjab.
As you study Sikhism and come to understand its close identity to the people of the Punjab, you soon realize the social, political and even militaristic connections with the religion. Though this article is to deal specifically with the “religion” of Sikhism, I think it necessary to consider, at least briefly, the internationally newsworthy events of nationalism and even terrorism associated with the Sikh faith. These things, I believe, just cannot be overlooked.
Especially in recent years, militant Sikhs have engaged in terrorist killings and other violent campaigns “to back their demand for the creation of an independent country – which they call Khalistan – in Punjab.”(2) In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered troops to attack these radical Sikhs at the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. The siege resulted in an estimated 1500 deaths, sparked protests and riots around the world with many more killings, and four months later led to the assassination of Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.(3)
Of course many devout Sikhs denounce the terrorism of their extremist “brethren,” but this has, in many cases at least, only “fueled the fire” of fear and extreme tension in India – Punjab in particular. Because these “terrorists have killed scores of moderates who dared to speak out, and those who survived have been pushed aside” from Sikh politics in favor of the radicals, few Sikh leaders are willing to publicly criticize them.(4) Also, because other Sikhs have “backed” (in political rallies, etc.) these violent actions in the name of their religion, Sikh terrorism has grown at such an alarming rate that it is being considered as among the most devastating in history.(5) But now, with these facts in mind, let us turn our attention to the “religious” history and aspects of Sikhism, showing not only the reasons behind some of the aforementioned religious and social/political, etc. ties, but also its interesting similarities and of course differences with the true religion of Jesus Christ.
The word sikh means “disciple,” and connotes specificaII3 the followers of ten religious leaders – called “gurus” who flourished from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century in the Punjab. The basic teachings of these gurus are found in the “Granth Sahib,” the bible of Sikhism.(6)
A Punjab native named Nanak (1469 to 1539 A.D.) was the first of these ten gurus and is unquestionably aknowledged as the founder of the Sikh faith and its most revered historical character. Nanak was considered an especially gifted child, and grew up in the Punjab under both Hindu and Muslim influences. Eventually however, Nanak’s independent personality and deep religious study and devotion led him to conclusions that were, in a very real sense, both a combination of, and yet at the same time distinct from Hindu and Islamic beliefs.
While still at a relatively young age (some say 29), and supposedly because of a mystical or miraculous “experience” with God, Nanak began preaching the simple but bold message – “There is no Hindu and no Muslim” meaning that both, and all people, were to be united under the One True God. As a result Nanak began extensive voyages throughout India (and beyond some say), visiting many religious shrines, preaching this new “gospel” and converting many. Because these journeys were so successful in impressing many religious and political leaders and making great numbers of faithful disciples, the Sikh religion began to thrive.(7)
While the tenet “there is no Hindu and no Muslim” was certainly the distinctive feature of Nanak’s message, becoming its “hallmark” as a new faith for mankind, it was of course only the foundation of other things he taught. As has already been implied, the doctrines of Nanak manifested both Hindu and Islamic influences, thus causing many to suggest that Sikhism was only a combination of the most attractive features (to Nanak) of India’s two main religions. Keep in mind however that Nanak constantly and publicly would denounce what he believed to be errors of both religions, always boldly proclaiming the will of his newly found true God, who he believed had directly called him to be his special servant and messenger.
The principal feature of Islam is that there is one eternal God who “has no companion or son (and) needs no helper in his rulership.”(8) In the Hindu faith there are many gods, some lesser, some greater. The Muslim name for God is Allah, while in Hinduism the name of the chief deity is Brahma. In Sikhism however, the one God who is possessed of all virtues is nameless; therefore it is improper “to think of Brahma . . . or of Allah . . . as adequate names for god. . . In this manner the deity of Sikhism is intended to supplant the gods of all other religions. The . . . god of Sikhism is absolute.”(9)
While the Sikh concept of God comes from Islamic beliefs, the new faith also accepted several key elements from Hinduism. First of all, Sikhs accepted a form of “maya” or illusion. This involves the belief that God is real, beyond all realities, but the creation or world as we know it is unreal. Actually, it seems Nanak might have only meant by maya that the world was “delusion” – i.e., not that it didn’t really exist, but that it is impermanent and full of evils, lusts and affections that were opposed to Truth, and would “delude” man, causing his separation from God.(10) (Shades of I Jn. 2, Col. 3, etc.!)
Nanak also taught the Hindu idea of “karma,” where supposedly every thought and action of this life leaves a definite impression upon the soul which affects one’s life beyond the present. This of course is directly connected with the Hindu notion of the “transmigration of the soul,” where the “individual is not obliterated at his physical death but proceeds from one bodily form to another.” Nanak accepted this doctrine, but taught “that . . . the believer is able to break through the bondage of karma and the transmigration of souls and attain a blissful existence . . . not like the worldly paradise of the Muslim . . . (but) rather . . . like the ‘nirvana’ of Hinduism by which the liberated soul is absorbed in god himself.”(11) (And you thought Shirley McClain started all this stuff!)
Tied to the above, one other Hindu related tradition that no doubt influenced Nanak and became part of the Sikh faith is the 11bhakti” – or devotion. The Bhakti involved some of the things already mentioned about the nature of God, etc., but it also contains the main elements to salvation and the worship of God. Basically, these elements are the need of having a spiritual guide, a guru, to help in the finding of God’s will, and that the best way of approaching God and having salvation is by meditation and repetition of His “Nam” (Name). As already noted, to Nanak and his followers, God was nameless, in the sense of a personal name like “Allah” (or “Jehovah”), but according to Sikhism, “The Name is the total expression of all that God is, and this is Truth. Meditate on this and you shall be saved. “(12)
As we mentioned before, Nanak also publicly criticized many Hindu and Muslim beliefs and practices. He opposed the various rituals of both faiths, and was strongly critical of Hindu pilgrimages, idolatry and the Indian caste system (social classes). Because Nanak believed these caste divisions were foolish contradictions to God’s will that all people are equal, to this day “Sikh women have . . . enjoyed rights similar to men through centuries, in direct contrast to” Hindu and Muslim practices.(13)
Considering some of the above facts, it should not be surprising that the religious services of the Sikhs are fairly simple. Osually the repetition (or meditation) of the name of God, the reciting or singing the scripture hymns, and the reading from the Adi Granth, the most sacred scriptures, are the main activities of worship. Similarly, the lives of the orthodox, devout Sikh are characterized by simple, honest virtues like hard work (farming is the main industry of the Sikhs in the Punjab) and sharing with and protecting the poor and oppressed. In fact these virtues are considered by the normal, anti-terrorist Sikh as fundamental and inseparable to his religion.(14)
But now this brings us back to the social, political and militaristic aspects of Sikhism discussed at the beginning of this article. Although Nanak’s teachings stressed individual virtues and piety related to one’s relationship to the True God, the religion after Nanak grew more and more nationalistic with an emphasis on military might.
The fifth guru Arjan challenged the validity of the then reigning Mogul Empire, and before dying a martyr’s death it is said he told his son, “Sit fully armed on the throne and maintain an army to the best of your ability.” Arj an’s son Hargobind did continue this military path, formal uniting the religion and politics of Sikhism when he assumed the title “Miri Piri Da Malik” – Lord of the Secular and the Spiritual. The tenth and last guru, Govind Singh (1675-1708), reaffirmed the political aspects of Sikhism and extended Sikh military power, proclaiming “the sword was God and God was the Sword!”(15)
When comparing Sikhism with the teaching of Christ in the Bible, it is hard not to focus on the differences manifested in the last references to the militarism associated with the Sikh faith. Clearly the terrorism of recent years is extreme, to say the least, but just as clearly, it has arisen (and is justified) from the teachings of these militant Sikh gurus. And yet even more clear is this fact: this “teaching” and these “practices” are against Christ, the true ruler in heaven and earth. (Matt. 28:18)
However, there are, of course, in spite of the obvious similarities, other differences. Nanak taught one true God, but that God is not the gocl of Sikhism, but the Uod of the Bible, not only of the Jews, but of “all nations of men . ~ . For in him we (all) live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:22-31). This one true and living God is not nameless; he is Jehovah, God Almighty, the great “I Am” (Exod. 6:3; Gen. 28:3; Exod. 3:14). The Lord God does not speak through gurus who are needed to guide men to finding him; he speaks to all men today through the word of his Son which is understandable, perfect and final (Heb. 1:1,2; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Jude 3; Eph. 3:1-6). Salvation from God is not found in the constant repetitious meditation of his “name,” but in the name of Jesus Christ, through faith and obedience to his will (Acts 4:10-12; Jn. 14:6; Rom. 1:16; Jas. 2:24; Mk. 16:15,16; etc.). The saving grace of the Lord is not some abstract, subjective “idea” that will release man from the “bondage of karma,” but is objective Truth that frees us from sin and eternal death (Tit. 2:11, 12; Jn. 8:31, 32; 1 Jn. 2:3; 2 Pet. 1:3-11; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; Heb. 9:27).
There is much more we could mention (perhaps it is good to let you do some of your own thinking here), but one final thought that goes back to the “military” aspects that are, whether some Sikhs like it or not, intertwined in Sikhism: Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if (it) were of this world, then would my servants fight . . . but now is my kingdom not from hence” (Jn. 18:36). What a wonderful and joyous privilege to be in the spiritual kingdom of God’s Son, the only “kingdom which cannot be moved” (Col. 1:13; Heb. 12:28). God forbid that “we at any time should let these things slip” (Heb. 2:1).
Other Sources Used or Consulted
U.S. News and World Report.
Bulletin of the Christian Institute of Sikh Studies.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 303-305
May 17, 1990