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  Sikhism is a faith espoused by some 15 million people worldwide. Nearly all Sikhs are of Punjabi ancestry and, following the Partition of India in 1947, 80% of them live in the present Indian state of Punjab. The most widely accepted definition of Sikhism came in 1945 from the Sikhs\' most authoritative elected committee, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, in the opening statement of the Rahit Maryada (A Guide to the Sikh Way of Life): ‘A Sikh is any woman or man whose faith consists of belief in one Akal Purakh (immortal God), in the ten Gurus, and in the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh Scriptures) and of the ten Gurus, and who has faith in the amrit (initiation by water) of the tenth Guru and who professes no other religion.’ One of the grievances behind the current unrest in Punjab is the refusal to grant Sikhism recognition as a separate religion under the Constitution of India. Most Sikhs reject the assertion that they are a Hindu sect.

Sikh teaching about God is monotheistic. It was encapsulated by Guru Nanak (1469 - 1539) in the words ek onkar. This is written as the Punjabi digit for one (since the word, consisting of more than one stroke, would not convey oneness so emphatically), followed by a syllable which has long been used in the Indian spiritual tradition as a representation of the ultimate reality. Ek onkar is used to open the first composition in the Guru Granth Sahib, where God is defined as Satnam (‘whose name is truth’), karta purakh (‘the immanent creator’), nirbhau (‘without fear’), nirvair (‘without emnity’), akal murat (‘immortal in form’), ajuni (‘never taking birth’), saibham (‘self-existent’) and gurprasad (‘known by the Guru\'s grace’). This definition, repeated daily by Sikhs, avoids gendered language and denies the concept of incarnation. God is transcendent and can be experienced, but is beyond full human comprehension. Sikhs believe that revelation is a continuing process to which the Gurus made a unique contribution. Fundamental to the Gurus\' teaching about God is the concept of hukam (‘will’, ‘order’). Everything in creation exists by God\'s hukam. To obtain truth, one should submit to this divine order.

In the Sikh tradition, a Guru is more than a teacher, but rather one who reveals knowledge of the divine, a dispeller of the darkness of spiritual ignorance. The supreme Guru, God, is often referred to as Satguru (‘true Guru’) and Vahiguru (‘wonderful Guru’). According to Sikh doctrine, there have only been 10 human Gurus. Their lives spanned the years from 1469 (birth of Guru Nanak) to 1708 (death of Guru Gobind Singh). They are believed to be one in spirit; a favourite analogy being the lighting of wicks from a single flame. Any apparent inconsistencies in teaching, such as Guru Nanak\'s eirenic approach and the sixth and the tenth Gurus\' call to take up arms, is attributed to the demands of a changing context, not to a fundamental difference of message.

The last Guru, Gobind Singh, did not appoint a successor, but indicated that the Scriptures, henceforth to be referred to as Guru Granth Sahib, were to be regarded as taking his place. Sikhism is, in a unique sense, a ‘religion of the book’, since the Scriptures are upheld as the Gurus\' body made manifest. This belief entails having the Guru Granth Sahib present and consulting it at all ceremonies, and having it installed with appropriate symbols of authority: a canopy, a special stand and a fan made of white yak hair.

Guru Gobind Singh also passed authority on to the panth (the Sikh community). In 1699 he dramatically actualized the concept of khalsa, which means both ‘pure’ and ‘owing allegiance to no intermediaries’ and therefore refers to those Sikhs who observe the Sikh dharma more strictly. He called for volunteers who would be ready to lay down their lives. His five followers who accepted the challenge became the nucleus of the khalsa, a community of men and women formally initiated with amrit (sweetened water stirred with a two-edged sword). They eschew caste divisions, observe a strict diet (often vegetarian), and maintain the five signs of their commitment at all times. These are uncut hair, a comb and cotton shorts to signify cleanliness and restraint, and a steel wristband and sword. They also commit themselves to keep four cardinal rules of conduct: not to cut hair anywhere on the body, to refrain from tobacco and other intoxicants, not to eat meat or commit adultery.

Essential to the understanding of khalsa is the concept of sant-sipahi, the ‘saint-soldier’. The Sikh is to protect the defenceless and, if necessary, fight for right to prevail. Yet it is right to draw the sword only when all efforts to restore peace prove useless.

Guru Nanak taught that ‘highest is truth but higher still is truthful action’. Human life must demonstrate the quality of truth in action. The Gurus took for granted the Hindu concepts of karma and successive rebirths (see Dharmic religion) as well as liberation from this system (see moksha). One barrier to this freedom is believed to be maya, ignorance of one\'s true nature and a false, materialistic view of the world. Through the Guru\'s grace one can perceive the truth and live accordingly.

Nam japan or nam simran are sometimes translated as meditation. Nam refers to the total reality of God, encapsulated in the divine name. If one is constantly centred upon nam, in the midst of one\'s duties, spiritual progress takes place. Daily worship, after rising early and bathing thoroughly, consists of reciting set prayers morning and evening. Voluntary service (seva) to the community is a key principle. In particular Sikhs are exhorted to serve in the gurdwara, the place of worship which doubles as a community centre. Here the principle of equality is demonstrated by the community meal, provided free, with no distinction on the basis of caste or social status. Community discipline is also meted out here, one penalty being to clean members\' shoes.

Sikhism acknowledges no priestly caste, and women, like men, can and do carry out the tasks required in the gurdwara, reading the Scriptures, singing, distributing the sweet mixture called karah prashad and preparing and serving the corporate meal, the Guru-ka-langar. In practice fewer women than men serve on gurdwara management committees and women cook more often than men. Women never act as panj piare, the five Sikhs respected for their strict adherence to khalsa discipline, who initiate candidates at the amrit initiation ceremony. EN

Further reading Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion: its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors.



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