Despite being one of the world’s largest world religions, Sikhism remains one of the most unknown traditions in America. The lack of understanding has had serious consequences, including discriminatory policies, bigoted stereotypes, traumatic school bullying and violent hate crimes.
Here is a list of 10 things that the global community ought to know about its Sikh neighbors.
1. Sikhism is an independent religion.
A number of people mistakenly think Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism, an offshoot of Islam, or a blend of the two religions.While the category of religion is itself problematic, scholars and practitioners alike classify Sikhism as an independent religion.
The Sikh tradition carries the basic markers of organized religion, including its own founder-prophet (Guru Nanak), scripture (Guru Granth Sahib), discipline and ceremonies (rahit), and community centers (gurdwara). There are more than 27 million Sikhs worldwide, making it the fifth largest world religion.
2. Rooted in oneness and love, Sikh theology encourages a life of spirituality and service.
Oneness and love serve as the foundations of Sikh theology — these are both the objective and process. Sikhs aim to recognize the divinity within everyone and everything they encounter, and this daily practice helps the individual cultivate and embody the qualities of oneness and love.
Sikhs believe that the Creator permeates all of Creation and that every individual is filled with the same divine potential. The Sikh tradition emphasizes the collective familyhood of all humanity and challenges all social inequalities, including those on the basis of class, caste, gender, and profession.
Realizing oneness and love within one’s life also compels the individual to seek unity with the world around them. The tradition urges its followers to live as a sant-sipahi (warrior-saint), one who strikes a balance of cultivating spirituality while also contributing socially through community service.
3. The real meaning of “guru.”
The word “guru” literally means “enlightener,” and while it has come to refer to an expert in any domain (e.g., basketball guru, real estate guru), it carries a particular institutional meaning within the Sikh tradition. In Sikhism, “guru” refers to the line of authority, beginning with a set of 10 prophets who established and led the Sikh community. The first of these, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 CE, and the tenth in his line, Guru Gobind Singh, breathed his last in 1708 CE.
Before he passed, Guru Gobind Singh passed the leadership to joint entities — the Guru Granth Sahib (the scriptural canon) and the Guru Khalsa Panth (the community of initiated Sikhs). Sikhs revere these two as occupying the throne of the Guru for eternity.
4. The Guru Granth Sahib is a unique scripture.
The authority accorded to the Guru Granth Sahib certainly sets it apart from other scriptural texts of the major world religions. The Guru Granth Sahib also defies common expectations of scripture in other ways.
The Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by the Sikh Gurus themselves and is primarily comprised of writings composed by the Gurus. This collection also includes the devotional writings of other religious figures, including Muslim Sufis and Hindu Bhaktas.
Unlike the prose narratives that make up a majority of western scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib is made up entirely of devotional poetry, most of which is set to music. These writings are primarily made up of expressions of divine experiences and wisdom on religious cultivation. These writings have played a central role in Sikh practice since the time of Guru Nanak — Sikh worship consists of singing these compositions in both private and congregational settings.
5. The Sikh Gurus presented a pluralistic worldview.
As evidenced by the inclusion of writings from other religious figured within the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Gurus did not believe in religious exclusivism. Rather, their pluralistic worldview posited that one could reach the Realization from any religious tradition. Sikhism teaches that diverse paths can lead to the divine, as long as the individual traverses the path with love. Because of this pluralistic outlook, Sikhism has no real history of missionizing or proselytizing.
While some misinterpret this pluralism as promoting cultural relativism, it is important to note that the Gurus also emphasized the importance of following an accomplished leader and maintaining religious discipline. Sikhism does not encourage the increasingly popular models of “a la carte religion” or “spiritual-but-not-religious,” though admittedly Sikh jurisprudence is relatively less complex than most religious traditions.
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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.