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p. 11. Introductionfree

  • Eleanor Nesbitt


Sikhism is sometimes described as the newest of the world’s religions. Its media image is mainly male and Sikhism conjures up images of swords and turbans. The Introduction sets out the aims of this VSI and outlines the history of the term ‘Sikhism’. Sikhs have a strong sense of community with a history of struggle. A Sikh is a learner or disciple, and is the disciple of the Guru. There are around twenty-four million Sikhs worldwide, the majority living in the Punjab region of India, but there are now Sikh communities in many other countries as well, the two largest being in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Sikhism is one of the newest and smallest of the world’s religions. Its media image is predominantly male, and reports often suggest that it is a religion preoccupied with swords and turbans. Personal contact with Sikhs usually impresses the outsider with energetic hospitality, while the scriptures bring the reader to a poetic vision of ordered harmony and unity, and a spiritual discipline.

This book’s aim is to provide a rounded account of Sikhism in its many aspects. Sikhs have a strong sense of being a community with a history of struggle, and so the sequence of this Very Short Introduction will, in the main, be chronological. Each chapter sets historical developments in a wider context, which includes the overarching question: what does being a ‘religion’, let alone a ‘world religion’, mean?

Sikhism is often portrayed as a neat package consisting of a founder (Guru Nanak), a scripture (the Guru Granth Sahib), places of worship known as gurdwaras, and the requirement to show one’s allegiance physically (by not cutting one’s hair, for example). In what follows, at every stage of the Sikh story, the not so neat processes involved in emerging as a distinct religion will be evident. These include Sikhs’ continually evolving sense of identity, often in relation to their Hindu neighbours. These processes are still underway and spark passionate debate.

p. 2The word ‘Sikhism’ suggests that the book’s emphasis will be on a religious system—on the theological and ethical principles of Sikhs. But that would be to misrepresent the teachings and values that have arisen from and impacted upon a particular people. It would also pander to a discredited understanding of religion as an abstract, defined entity, rather than as a fluid tradition, pulsing with life and difficult to pin down.

Like ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, and ‘Jainism’, ‘Sikhism’ is a Western word, coined not by Sikhs but by outsiders from a Christian, northern European background. Like these terms, ‘Sikhism’ became current during the period of British domination of India. The term ‘Sikhism’ is nowadays readily used by its ‘followers’, but is not totally satisfactory.

‘Sikhism’ is an extension of the word ‘Sikh’. From the outset it should be pointed out that Westerners are accustomed to hearing this word pronounced in the same way as the English verb ‘seek’, as if it had what linguists call a long ‘i’, but in the original Punjabi the ‘i’ is short. ‘Sikh’ is correctly pronounced like ‘sick’, though with a final consonant more reminiscent of ‘ch’ in the Scottish word ‘loch’ than ‘ck’ in ‘luck’. ‘Sikh’ means simply a learner or disciple, as the Punjabi verb sikhna means ‘to learn’. Sikhs are disciples of the Guru.

People who identify themselves as Sikhs answer the question ‘Who is a Sikh?’ in different ways. One authoritative definition (from Sikh Rahit Maryada, chapter 1) is:

any human being who faithfully believes in:

One immortal Being

Ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh

The Guru Granth Sahib

The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and

The baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru

and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion.

p. 3Sikhs refer to their religious path as ‘Sikhi’ and ‘Gursikhi’ as well as ‘Gurmat’ (the Gurus’ doctrine). They refer to the Sikh community as a whole as the Panth.

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Sikhs worldwide number about 24,000,000. Approximately 92 per cent live in Asia, the great majority in India. According to India’s 2011 census, the 20,800,000 Sikhs constitute 1.7 per cent of the population, a decrease of nearly 0.2 per cent since 2001. More than 75 per cent of India’s Sikhs live in Punjab, and this is the only state in which they form a majority (less than 58 per cent). India’s other Sikhs are mainly concentrated in six northern states and union territories including Haryana, Chandigarh, and Delhi.

There are now Sikh communities in many other countries as well, the largest being in Canada (about 455,000) and the United Kingdom (432,429 according to the 2011 census), followed by the USA (approaching 300,000). A further 72,296 live in Australia, where Sikhism is the fastest growing religion. Sikhs tend to be locally concentrated: for instance, over 200,000 of Canada’s Sikhs live in British Columbia. Europe’s second largest Sikh population (approximately 70,000) is in Italy, mainly in the north.

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The meaning of ‘Guru’

Sikh faith and teaching can only be understood in terms of the role of the Guru. The Sikh is the learner, the Guru is the teacher. Sikhs sometimes attribute to the word ‘Guru’ the meaning ‘remover of darkness’. The word ‘guru’ (lower case), traditionally used in India to refer to a respected teacher, and particularly a spiritual teacher, has by extension entered current usage in English for any expert. For Sikhs, however, the Guru (always with a capital letter in the Roman alphabet) refers to each of a succession of ten spiritual guides, the founding fathers of the Sikh faith.

p. 4The concept of Guru embraces more than the ten human Gurus. The gurbani (‘utterance of the Guru’) is embodied in the scriptures. Since the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, these have been consulted and venerated as a living guide, known as Guru Granth Sahib. The Sikh word ‘Vahiguru’ for God, as well as God’s title, Satguru (the ‘True Guru’), are reminders that God, as the divine preceptor, was Guru to the first human Guru, Guru Nanak.

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A separate faith?

Now an important question: does this community of mainly Punjabi followers of the Guru (human, divine, and embodied in scripture) constitute a faith in its own right? If so, what are its markers? Five views, variously voiced by scholars, preachers, and activists, by Hindus, Sikhs, and outside observers, need to be taken into account:


Sikhism is a Hindu sampradaya (that is, movement led by a succession of gurus).


Sikhism is a ‘derived’ religion, drawn from the Hindu tradition.


Sikhism is a blend of the earlier religions of Hinduism and Islam.


Sikhism is a distinct revelation.


Sikhs are a ‘separate nation’.

A sixth response forms the basis of the present book:


Sikhism has evolved into a separate religion in terms of Sikhs’ self-definition, and because Sikhism has all the markers of a religion. These include a separate scripture and calendar, separate life-cycle rites, places of worship, and a sense of shared history. At the same time, in common with other faiths, Sikhism cannot be fully understood in isolation from its religious, social, and historical context.

This context has, for most of its history, been principally the geographical region known as Punjab, together with the religious traditions of Hinduism and Islam.p. 5

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Hindu and Muslim context

The word ‘Hindu’ arose as a primarily geographical, rather than doctrinal, term. Persians and Greeks were the first to use this word for people living east of the Indus river. (Etymologically, ‘Hindu’, ‘India’, and ‘Indus’ are related.) Unsurprisingly, then, Hindu—or Indic—religious tradition is inclusive, and this tradition stretches back through the millennia BCE with no agreed starting point or ‘founder’. As well as its strong connection with India, Hinduism’s unity lies in Hindus’ respect for ancient texts—notably the Vedas—and in the acceptance of certain key concepts, such as the cosmic law of cause and effect, karma.

The Hindu community consists of devotees of countless gurus. From time to time a new scripture is written and becomes the central teaching of a particular movement (a sampradaya, the name used in Indian languages for a succession of gurus and their followers). Many sampradayas have a particular regional base, so that, for example, it would be as unlikely to find a Punjabi follower of the Swaminarayan branch of the Hindu tradition as to find a Gujarati Sikh. The gurus of a particular sampradaya teach their followers about ultimate reality, often concentrating on a personal God and the ways in which devotees may best express their relationship with God. The Sikh Gurus are clear candidates. But is ‘Sikhism’ a Hindu sampradaya?

The advocates of this view are, for the most part, Hindus, who point out that: the Gurus’ names and families were all unmistakably Hindu, rather than Muslim; the teaching of the Guru Granth Sahib is continuous with (as well as critical of) earlier Hindu teaching; some central Hindu concepts, including karma and reincarnation, are taken for granted in Sikhism; and in the gurdwara preachers sometimes refer to stories from Hindu tradition during their homilies.

p. 6Most social convention is common to Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. Some Hindu families, mainly those living in urban areas, unproblematically include Sikhs and vice versa. Sikhs celebrate on Divali, the Hindu festival of lights, although they increasingly call the day Bandi Chhor Divas (see Chapter 8), and many observe the annual bonding of brothers and sisters on the day of Rakhi (Raksha Bandhan). Not surprisingly, at the partition of India in 1947 into Pakistan and India, Sikhs from west of the new border fled with Hindus to India.

But the readiness of Hindus to argue in this way may simply demonstrate Hindus’ inclusive attitude to religious faiths, above all those that have developed in India. Sikh writers point to the way in which, centuries earlier in India, the Buddha’s teaching was absorbed into Hinduism, and they periodically rally Sikhs to withstand the danger of disappearing into Hindu society. In any discussion of the relationship of ‘Sikhism’ and ‘Hinduism’ as two religions, caution is necessary, especially as no firm line can be drawn between Hindu religion and Indic culture.

Nor is the relationship of Sikhism to Hinduism a straightforward parallel to Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, as a ‘daughter’ faith. The facts that the Sikh faith has not proselytized on the scale of Christianity, and that relatively few marriages have occurred outside the Punjabi community, have ensured a culturally closer linkage between Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus than that between Christians and Jews. The different dynamic in part results from the very different numerical relationship between ‘parent’ and ‘daughter’ in the two cases. In the first case, Hindus massively outnumber Sikhs, the adherents to their tradition’s younger offspring. In the second case, the situation is reversed, with Jews being far outnumbered by Christians. In terms of sacred texts, while the Hebrew Bible is honoured in the Christian tradition as its ‘Old Testament’, the most ancient Hindu sacred texts have no such place in the Sikh canon.

p. 7In North India, Muslims as well as Hindus have often been inspired by charismatic teachers. Many Muslims were attracted to Sufi saints who emphasized spiritual practices. Unlike the Hindu tradition, Islam originated outside India, with the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century CE. Muslim teaching stresses that Allah (God) is one and denounces the practice of making images of God and worshipping in front of them. In this and many other ways, Islam runs contrary to India’s indigenous devotional practices. At the time of the Sikh Gurus political power in much of North India was in the hands of Muslims, following invasions by Muslim armies under a succession of dynasties. One result of Muslim domination was that many local families had converted to Islam.

The suggestion that Sikhism is a derivative in part from Islam is misleading. Certainly, Guru Nanak used Muslim as well as Hindu titles for God. Some commentators have detected Islamic influence in Guru Nanak’s emphasis on ‘monotheism’, and others have suggested that the degree of honour shown to the holy book echoes the position of the Qur’an in Islam. However, resonances between faiths are not reliable evidence of a historical or causal relationship. With Christianity, too, a faith that the Sikh Gurus did not encounter, there are deep affinities, one being in the Sikh and Christian emphasis upon divine grace (in Punjabi karam, prasad, and kirpa).

To sum Sikhism up as a ‘blend’ of the two senior traditions of Hinduism and Islam is analogous to writing off English as a creole of Anglo Saxon and Norman French, rather than approaching it as a language in its own right. At the same time, treating it as a distinct language, rather than as a creole, is by no means to dispute the linguistic continuities. Neither the Gurus nor their Sikhs set about making a deliberate mix, any more than the speaker of what came to be called English mixed careful measures of words rooted in Latin and Germanic languages and then calculatingly coined new words.

p. 8The claims that Sikhism is a distinct revelation and that Sikhs are a separate nation are addressed in Chapter 8.

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Being Punjabi

Sikhs’ sense of community is not just a matter of interacting with, and feeling distinct from, the other major religious constituencies of North India. It also has strong regional roots. The family origins of almost all Sikhs, wherever in the world they now live, are in Punjab. Exceptions include the relatively small numbers of Western converts to Sikhism, most of whom live in the United States of America, and include Sikhs with Afghan and Sindhi ancestry. (Sindh is the southernmost state of Pakistan.)

Punjab is the region to which the families of each of the ten Gurus also belonged, although their lives were not confined to Punjab: Guru Nanak’s travels are believed to have taken him northwards into the Himalayas, as far west as Baghdad and Mecca, as far east as Assam, and as far south as Sri Lanka; and both the eighth and ninth Gurus’ lives ended in Delhi; moreover, Guru Gobind Singh was born in Patna in the present Indian state of Bihar. Nevertheless, any exposition of ‘Sikhism’ that omits the significance of Punjab for Sikhs is incomplete, especially as Punjab has come to be regarded as the spiritual homeland for Sikhs everywhere.

To give an example from fieldwork in Coventry, UK: young Sikhs, almost all of whom were far more articulate in English than in Punjabi, and most of whom had never lived in Punjab, equated being Sikh with being Punjabi. They used the two terms interchangeably when naming their ‘religion’. Most had little or no understanding that a Punjabi could be Muslim, Hindu, or Christian, Jain, or Buddhist. However little Punjabi language they could understand, let alone read or write, they knew that Punjabi was their language.

p. 9Punjab (or Panjab, as it is often written, especially by scholars) is the land of five (panj) waters (ab)—in fact the tributaries of the Indus. These are, from west to east, the rivers Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Satluj (or Sutlej), and the Satluj’s tributary, the river Beas.

A contemporary map (see Figure 1) shows the India/Pakistan border cutting through the land drained by these rivers, so that only the Beas now runs entirely on the Indian side of the border. The present Indian state of Punjab is a fraction of Punjab before 1947. This was the year when India gained independence from British imperial rule and was divided into India and Pakistan. Then, in 1966, India’s already smaller portion of Punjab was further divided, this time according to the declared mother tongues of the population, into the majority Hindi-speaking states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, and the present-day Indian state of Punjab with a majority of Punjabi speakers, and so of Sikhs. This division was the result of concerted agitation by Sikhs (see Chapter 5).

1. Map of Punjab, showing the undivided Punjab before 1947, its division between India and the new state of Pakistan, and the subdivision of India’s post-Partition state of Punjab in 1966.

The Punjabi language, like the other tongues of North India, is described as Indo-European, and is a distant cousin of most modern European languages. The word panj itself, like the other numbers from one to ten, is an example. For philologists it is cognate with the Greek pente and German fünf, while ab is a distant relative of the Latin aqua. Nor is it a coincidence that nam, a key Sikh term for the divine reality, is so like the English word ‘name’, or that Panth closely resembles the English word ‘path’. Another important Sikh word is amrit, the water used in initiation ceremonies: a-mrit (literally ‘not-death’), is cognate, via Greek and Latin, with both ‘ambrosia’ and ‘immortal’.

Like European languages, too, Punjabi bears traces of successive invasions and migrations, including the arrival of Greeks in the 4th century BCE. Words of Arabic and Persian origin testify to the centuries of penetration and domination by Muslim rulers and by p. 10armies from further west. The Gurus’ words for ‘God’ include, as already noted, Islamic as well as Hindu designations—‘Allah’ and ‘Khuda’ as well as ‘Paramatma’ and ‘Ram’.

The word that Punjabis use for being Punjabi (that is, for Punjabiness) is panjabiat, a blend of language and humour and tastes in dress, cuisine, lifestyle, and the arts. Despite several generations of migration from the villages of Punjab, many Sikhs still identify themselves as a rural, unsophisticated, farming people, in contrast to the more urban Hindu community.

Being Punjabi involves distinctive traditions in dress, cuisine, music, and dance, as well as an enthusiasm for harrowing ‘Romeo and Juliet’-like love stories. Most famous of these is the tragic tale of p. 11Hir and Ranjha, as told by the 18th-century poet Waris Shah. Bhangra, the rousing drumming, melody, and acrobatic dance of Punjabi celebrations, has moved and mutated a long way from rural festivities. Yet, despite fusing with contemporary styles and tempos in Western popular music, bhangra is still inextricably Punjabi.

Key Punjabi values quickly become apparent to the outsider. Hospitality is one, honouring the guest with plentiful food and drink. Another value is izzat, which is often translated into English as ‘honour’ or as ‘family pride’. Failure to show generous hospitality would be a cause for shame to the hosts and would be insulting to the guest. Above all, over the centuries, izzat has been tied up with the way in which female family members behave, or are perceived to behave. Gossip about a young woman’s supposed misdemeanours, especially by associating with a man from the wrong family, brings shame on her relations, and can result in violence.

The fact that many Punjabi families continue to observe strong preferences, sanctioned by cultural tradition, in their selection or approval of sons- and daughters-in-law, might suggest a rigidly structured or compartmentalized society. In terms of popular devotion, however, there is widespread fluidity. Shrines where healings are reputed to happen, or where supplications are likely to be heeded, draw pilgrims from a social mix in terms of both caste and religious allegiance. The devotees, and in some cases the holy places themselves, are by no means exclusively Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim.

It is within this dynamic context of a Punjabi culture, richly textured by its social history, that we need to set the term ‘Sikhism’ and to explore its content, connotations, and limitations. This book will explore the ways in which Sikhism (in the sense of the Gurus’ teachings) converges with Punjabi cultural norms, which are caught up in processes of unprecedentedly rapid change, and the occasions when the Gurus’ priorities pull in a different direction.