The fascinating history of the Sikhs

“The Sikhs” by Khushwant Singh

This is a story of a religious evolution in the Indian sub-continent, where the growing Sufi Islam influence of Shaikh Ibrahim Farid merged with a Hindu school of thought by Bhakta Kabir in the form of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhsm.

As the author, Khushwant Singh, remarks, “[t]he Sikhs were the most outstanding example of Hindu renaissance produced by Islam – an edifice built as it were with Hindu bricks and Muslim mortar.”

Naturally, due to Hindu polytheist influences the religion seemingly have an abstract quality about its monotheism, but there is actually nothing vague about their believe in the unity of God and equate God with truth, thanks to the influences from monotheist Islam.

Also unlike Hinduism, Sikhism do not have a caste system. But they do not entirely reject Hinduism’s beliefs, as they accept the Hindu theory of karma and life hereafter.

In fact, they are increasingly pivoting towards Hinduism, where Singh remarks, “Within a hundred years of Guru Gobind Singh’s [the tenth and last Guru] death, rituals in Sikh gurdwaras were almost like that in Hindu temples, and more often than not were presided over by priests who were usually Hindu rather than Sikh. Sikhs began to wear caste marks; Sikh weddings and funerals followed Hindu patterns; ashes of the dead were carried to the Ganga and offerings were made to ancestors.”

Moreover, the Sikhs do not believe in the worshiping of human beings as incarnations of God. The gurus themselves also insisted that they were ordinary humans like others and were on no account to be worshipped. And instead, “the form of prayer is usually the repetition of the name of God and chanting hymns of praise. This was popularized by the Bhakti cult and Sikhism is its chief exponent today.”

However, while praying is central to the lives of the Sikhs, they uniquely do not have priests, as they believe that all adults (both men and women) are competent to perform religious ceremonial. And they also do not have a pilgrimage destination, although the Golden Temple in Amritsar is as good as any pilgrimage sites.

Furthermore, alongside the main features about Sikhism above, the book leaves no other details untouched either. It is complete with the biography of each of the important ten Gurus, the backstory behind the iconic turban and beard, the meaning behind the steel bangle, the origin story of the Khalsa, and the reasoning behind the name “Singh” as a surname.

It even covered the corruption cases within the community, the story of the infiltration of communism during the Cold War, their involvement in Indian politics, their emigration away from India (predominantly to Burma, the Malay states, China, Canada and the US), and the transformation of the religion from a pacifist to buffing themselves up with self defense and war expertise due to their oppressed circumstances by the Mughal rulers.

Indeed, the community has had some challenging days throughout history, such as the partition holocaust, or when a brutal attack towards the Sikhs (including the assassination of its then leader) forced them to respond with a political uprising that saw chaos in the Punjab region (where the Sikhs mainly resides), which at one point resulted in the building of the kingdom of the Sikhs (and the eventual demise of it).

But perhaps the most challenging them all is the infighting within the Sikh community. While a definition of a Sikh is “one who believes in the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib [their Holy Book]”, there are those who, as Singh remarks, “do not believe in all the ten Gurus, e.g., followers of unsuccessful claimants to the title like Adasis, Minas and Ram Raiy as noted in the family tree of the ten Gurus. There are others who believe that the line of Gurus continued after the tenth and follow the precepts of a living Guru, e.g., Nirankaris and Namdharis. Similarly, some Sikhs challenge the authenticity of certain passages of the Granth Sahib, while others insist on including extraneous writings in it. Besides these, there are numerous subsects distinguished by allegiance to one or other Guru or claiming that the real Guru had been overlooked in deciding the succession.”

But nevertheless, despite these discrepancies the belief in the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib remains the basic factor of the Sikh community, which covers the vast majority of them.

Today there are around 26 million Sikhs worldwide (0.3% of world population), 24 million of whom live inside India. They are largely little-known and often misunderstood (although not in a bad way), apart from their distinguishable attributes. But thanks to this book the many aspects of this fascinating religion just got a lot more clearer.