What are some of the ways in which a religion could be considered to be unique? Their beliefs about the supernatural? Their moral and ethical code? Their sacred rituals or texts?
Those are effective ways of identifying and defining a particular religion, but perhaps there is one more that we don’t often think about. For some religions, the outward appearance of their followers is an intentionally defining characteristic. Sikhism is such a religion. Before we explore the visual elements of Sikhism, however, let’s first look at its history.
Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, and it is also one of the newest, relatively speaking. Originating in northern India during the sixteenth century, Sikhism developed out of Muslim and Hindu beliefs, with the latter being the more influential of the two. In part, the monotheism of Islam merged with Hindu ideas such as karma and reincarnation, and the syncretistic religion of Sikhism was born. The founder of Sikhism was Guru Nanak, and his followers were called “Sikhs”, meaning “disciples”.
The major focus of Sikh belief and practice is devotion to the one transcendent God, whom Sikhs believe is worshipped by many different names in various religions. The first morning prayer, from the Adi Granth (sacred scripture) summarizes the core belief of Sikhism: “There is one God whose name is True, the Creator, without fear, without hate, eternal being, beyond birth and death, self-existent, realized by the Guru’s grace.”
In an effort to live in harmony with other religions, Sikhs will often refer to God simply as “The Name” so as to not offend others by saying one particular name or another (such as Allah, Shiva, etc).
In Sikhism, the primary human problem is that people are essentially self-focused, rather than God-focused. Instead of employing rituals and ceremonies, Sikhs show devotion to God by repeating The Name and by living morally (human equality, social service, etc).
While there is a strong element of syncretism in Sikh history and belief, in contrast, the outward appearance of a Sikh can be quite distinct. The five symbols of the Khalsa (the “pure”) represent the pledge to worship the one God, revere the one holy book (Adi Granth), to honour the ten Gurus, and to meditate and pray. The symbols are:
- Kes – hair on the head and face is left uncut, and is wrapped in a turban.
- Kangha – a comb is an essential tool for grooming uncut hair.
- Kirpan – a ceremonial sword.
- Karha – a steel bracelet, usually on the right wrist.
- Kachha – long shorts originally designed for military action.
Unfortunately in the West, there is sometimes confusion as to what Sikhism is, and what Sikhs believe. Given the historical development of Sikhism that is somewhat understandable, but as we have seen in this introductory posting, Sikhism is a distinct religious way of life.