Handbook of Today's Religions


Sikhism is a religion all but unknown to western civilization. Its adherents are to be found for the most part in the Punjab province of India. A fairly recent religion, Sikhism is an attempt to harmonize two of the world's greater religions, Hinduism and Islam. Sikhism is the third major branch of Hinduism and was founded by a man named Nanak. It also owes much to Islam.

History of Sikhism

Nanak: the Founder

Nanak was born in the Indian village of Talwandi, some 30 miles southwest of Lahore, capital of Punjab. The date of his birth is given as 1469 A.D. His parents were common people who embraced the Hindu religion. There are folk stories of Nanak's youth which depict him charging a Hindu teacher to know the true name of God.

At an early age, Nanak supposedly gave religious instruction to certain Brahman priests concerning the material sacrament. Whether these stories are true or not, his life was devoted more to meditation and religion than to work. The occupations chosen for him by his parents were not satisfying and caused him to be somewhat of a black sheep within his family. He eventually took a government position which was offered him by his brother-in-law in another town. However, Nanak remained unhappy and continued his constant search for religious truth.

At the age of 33 he was said to have received his divine call.

One day after bathing, Nanak disappeared into the forest and was taken in a vision to God's presence. He was offered a cup of nectar, which he gratefully accepted. God said to him: " I am with thee. I have made thee happy, and also those who shall take thy name. Go, and repeat Mine, and cause others to do likewise. Abide uncontaminated by the world. Practice the repetition of my Name, charity, ablutions, worship, and meditation... My Name is God, the primal Brahma. And thou are the divine Guru" (M. A. McAuliffe, Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors, London: Oxford University Press, 1909, pp. 33-35).

Three days later Nanak returned from the forest and after remaining silent for one day, he pronounced, "There is no Hindu and no Musalman" (Ibid., p. 37). In India, Muslims are known as "Musalmans".

Nanak along with his minstrel friend Mardana, proceeded to proclaim his new-found message with relatively little success until they returned to Punjab. Disciples were now gathered around him and the newly found faith continued to grow throughout his life. Around age 70 Nanak died, but not without first appointing a successor to continue his mission. The choice was his trusted disciple Angad. According to tradition, even in death, Nanak appeased both Hindu and Muslim.

The Musalmans, who had received God's name from the Guru, said they would bury him after his death. His Hindu followers, on the contrary, said they would cremate him. When the Gum was invited to decide the discussion, he said: "Let the Hindus place flowers on my right, and the Musalmans on my left. They whose flowers are found fresh in the morning, may have the disposal of my body." Guru Nanak then ordered the crowd to sing: "0 my friends, pray for me that I may meet my Lord!' The Guru drew a sheet over him, made obeisance to God, and blended his light with Guru Angad's [his successor].... When the sheet was removed the next morning, there was nothing found beneath it. The flowers on both sides were in bloom. All the Sikhs reverently saluted the spot on which the Guru had lain... at Kartepur in the Punjab. The Sikhs erected a shrine, and the Muhammadans a tomb in his honour on the margin of the Ravi. Both have since been washed away by the river (Ibid., pp. 190, 191).

Development of Sikhism

Prior to his death, Nanak appointed a rope-maker named Lahina as his successor. It was Lahina who thereafter changed his name to Angad (bodyguard), and who introduced the doctrine of Nanak's equality with God. A series of different gurus followed Angad, one of whom was Guru Arjan, who compiled the Granth Sahib during his leadership.

After the tenth guru in the line of succession died in 1708, the loyalty of the Sikhs was transferred from the personal authority of the guru to the sacred book, the Granth Sahib, and so it remains today.

The Teachings of Sikhism

The teachings of Sikhism are a syncretism of the doctrines of Islam and Hinduism. Rather than borrowing from the Hindu and Islamic scriptures, the Sikhs wrote their own scripture based upon their interpretation of certain ideas taught in Hinduism and Islam. Sikhism actually rejects some of the teachings of Hinduism and Islam. The result is an interesting combination of both Hindu and Moslem theology.


The sacred scriptures of Sikhism are known as the Granth Sahib or "Lord's Book" This work was composed by several dozen authors, some living prior to Nanak and having only a distant relationship to Sikhism. It contains a collection of poems of various lengths and totals some 29,480 rhymed verses. The contents center on extolling the name of God and exhortations on daily living.

A unique feature of this work is the number of languages utilized in its composition. The Granth Sahib is written in six different languages and several dialects. It is therefore nearly impossible for even the learned Sikh to study these scriptures in their entirety, much less so for the unlearned.

Undoubtedly, there are only a handful of people in the entire world capable of reading the volume in its totality. There has never been any extensive system of scriptural study made by the Sikhs. The average Sikh devotee knows very little about the Granth Sahib, and it is for this reason non-essential to Sikh religious training. Although most Sikhs do not know the contents of their sacred book, they do treat it with reverence, almost to the point of idolatry.


According to Sikh belief there is one God who is absolute and sovereign over all things. Nanak's first statement after receiving his call became the opening sentences of the Granth Sahib:

There is but one God, whose name is true, creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent, great and bountiful. The True One was in the beginning (Ibid., p. 35).

The usual name given to the Sikh deity is "sat nam "which means "true name;'although god may be called many different names since He takes on various manifestations. The Granth Sahib records:
Thou, O Lord, art One. But many are thy manifestations (Ibid, p. 310).
Although God is basically a unity, according to Sikh doctrine, He is not considered personal but rather is equated with truth and reality. K. Singh observes:

In equating God with the abstract principle of truth or reality, Nanak avoided the difficulty encountered by religious teacher who describe God only as the Creator of the Father... but Nanak's system has its own problems. If God is truth, what is truth? Nanak's answer was that in situations when you cannot decide for yourself, let the guru be your guide (K. Singh in Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, Keith Grim, general editor, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981, p. 691).


Robert E. Hume comments upon the Sikh idea of salvation:

The Sikh religion teaches that salvation consists in knowing God, or in obtaining God, or being absorbed into God. The general method of salvation is fairly consistent with the supremacy of an inscrutable God, and with the accompanying doctrines of the worthlessness of the world and the helplessness of man... This method of obtaining salvation by a pantheistic merging of the individual self with the mystical world soul is identical with the method of salvation which had been taught in the Hindu Upanishads" (Robert E. Hume, The World's Living Religions, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, rev. ed., 1959, pp. 102, 103).

Hume lists the points of agreement and disagreement between Sikhism and the Hinduism and Islamic doctrines:


(1) Points of Agreement

Theoretically, belief in a mystical Supreme Unity.
Practically, great variety of designations for deity.
A certain theistic application of pantheism, even as in some of the Hindu Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Salvation by faith in the grace of God.
The doctrine of Karma.
Transmigration of souls.

(2) Points of Disagreement

Hindu polytheism repudiated, in favor of a monistic pantheism.
Hindu pilgrimages, ritualism, and hermit asceticism repudiated, in favor of pure worship of the Pure One.
Hindu scriptures repudiated, in favor of the Sikh scriptures.
Hindu degradation of women repudiated, in favor of a higher regard for women.
Hindu infanticide repudiated, in favor of a more vigorous populating.
Hindu vegetarianism repudiated, in favor of a more vigorous meat-eating.


(1) Points of Agreement

Unity of the Supreme Personal Being.
Sovereignty of the Supreme Absolute Ruler.
A certain mercifulness attributed to the inscrutable deity, along with an uncomplainable arbitrariness.
Salvation through submission to God.
Worship through repetition of the name of the deity.
Great importance in repeating prescribed prayers.
Devotion to the founder as God's prophet.
Extreme reverence for sacred scripture.

The first section in the sacred scripture, a kind of Lord's Prayer, composed by the founder at a crisis in his early life when seeking for God, and subsequently prescribed for daily repetition by all his followers.

A series of subsequent leaders after the original founder.
A long, powerful, militaristic church state.
Unity among believers, despite subsequent sects.
A very important central shrine-Mecca and Amritsar.
Vehement denunciation of idolatry.

(2) Points of Disagreement

Sikhism’s founder not so ruthless or violent as Islam’s.
Sikhism’s deity not so ruthless or violent as Islam's.
Sikhism’s sacred scriptures ascribed to many teachers, at least thirty-seven; not to one, as in Islam.

Sikhism Bibliography

Hume, Robert E., The World's Living Religions, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, rev. ed., 1959.
McAuliffe, M. A., Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors, London: Oxford University Press, 1909.
Singh, K. in the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, Keith Grim, general editor, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981.

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