1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sikhism

SIKHISM, a religion of India, whose followers (Sikhs) are principally found in the Punjab, United Provinces, Sind, Jammu and Kashmir. Sikhism was founded by Nanak, a Khatri by caste, who was born at Talwandi near Lahore in A.D. 1469, and after travelling and preaching throughout a great part of southern Asia died at Kartarpur in Jullundur in 1539. He was succeeded by nine gurus, great teachers or head priests, whose dates are as follows:—

1.  Nanak 1469–1539
2.  Angad 1539–1552
3.  Amar Das 1552–1574
4.  Ram Das 1574–1581
5.  Arjan 1581–1606
6.  Har Govind 1606–1645
7.  Har Rai 1645–1661
8.  Har Krishan 1661–1664
9.  Teg Bahadur 1664–1675
10.  Govind Singh 1675–1708

Nanak, like Buddha, revolted against a religion overladen with ceremonial and social restrictions, and both rebelled against the tyranny of the priesthood. The tendency of each religion was to quietism, but their separate doctrines were largely influenced by the surroundings of their founders. Buddha lived in the centre of Hindu India and among the many gods of the Brahmans. These he rejected, he knew of nought else, and in his theological system there was found no place for divinity. Nanak was born in the province which then formed the borderland between Hinduism and Islam. He taught that there was one God; but that God was neither Allah nor Ram, but simply God; neither the special god of the Mahommedan, nor of the Hindu, but the God of the universe, of all mankind and of all religions. Starting from the unity of God, Nanak and his successors rejected the idols and incarnations of the Hindus, and on the ground of the equality of all men rejected also the system of caste. The doctrines of Sikhism as set forth in the Granth (q.v.) are that it prohibits idolatry, hypocrisy, class exclusiveness, the concremation of widows, the immurement of women, the use of wine and other intoxicants, tobacco-smoking, infanticide, slander and pilgrimages to the sacred rivers and tanks of the Hindus; and it inculcates loyalty, gratitude for all favours received, philanthropy, justice, impartiality, truth, honesty and all the moral and domestic virtues upheld by Christianity. Sikhism mainly differs from Christianity in that it inculcates the transmigration of the soul, and adopts a belief in predestination, which is universal in the East.

The Sikh religion did not reach this full development at once, nor was the first of the gurus even the first to feel dissatisfaction with the existing order of things. Ideas of revolt and reform of decadent systems are always in the air, it may be for centuries, until some one man bolder than the rest stands out to give them free expression;Precursors of the Gurus. and as John the Baptist preceded Jesus Christ, so Nanak was preceded by several reformers, whose writings are incorporated in the Granth itself. The chief of these reformers are Jaidev, Ramanand and Kabir. Jaidev is better known as the author of the Gitagobind, which was translated by Sir Edwin Arnold, than as a religious reformer; but in the Adi Granth are found two hymns of his in the Prakrit language of the time, in which he represents God as distinct from nature, yet everywhere present. He taught at the. end of the 12th century A.D. that the practice of yog, sacrifices and austerities was as nothing in comparison with the repetition of God's name, and he inculcated the worship of God alone, in thought, word and deed. What was worthy of worship, he said, he had worshipped; what was worthy of trust he had trusted; and he had become blended with God, as water blends with water.

Jaidev was succeeded by numerous Hindu saints, who perceived that the superstitions of the age only led to spiritual blindness. Of these saints Ramanand was one of the most distinguished. He lived at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries, and during a visit to Benares he renounced some of the social and caste observances of the Hindus, called his disciples the liberated, and freed them from all restrictions in eating and social intercourse. Kabir denounced idolatry and the ritualistic practices of the Hindus. He was born A.D. 1398, and according to the legend was the son of a virgin widow, as the result of a prayer offered for her by Ramanand in ignorance of her status. Thus it will be seen that the doctrines of these early reformers contained the germs of the later Sikh religion.

Nanak seems to have been produced by the same cyclic wave of reformation as fourteen years later gave Martin Luther to Europe. He taught, “There is but one God, the Creator, whose name is true, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn and self-existent, great and bountiful.”Guru Nanak. He held that the wearing of religious garb, praying and practising penance to be seen of men, only produced hypocrisy, and that those who went on pilgrimages to sacred streams, though they might cleanse their bodies, only increased their mental impurity. He pointed out that God “before all temples prefers the upright heart and pure,” and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth, and not with the idolatrous accessories of incense, sandal-wood and burnt-offerings. He abrogated caste distinctions, and taught in opposition to ancient writings that every man had the eternal right of searching for divine know-ledge and worshipping his Creator. This doctrine of philosophic quietism was common to his successors, until in the time of the sixth guru, Har Govind, it was found necessary to support the separate existence of Sikhism by force of arms, and this led to the militant and political development of the tenth and most power-ful of the gurus, Govind Singh. The Sikhs of to-day, though they all derive primarily from Nanak, are only recognized as Singhs or real Sikhs when they accept the doctrines and practices of Guru Govind Singh.

Nanak's successor, Angad, was born in A.D. 1504 and died in 1552. He also was a Khatri, and was chosen by Guru Nanak in preference to his own sons. The legend of his choice is that Nanak with his followers was going on a journey, when they saw the dead body of a man lying by the wayside.Guru Angad. Nanak said, “Ye who trust in me eat of this food.” All hesitated save Angad (or own body), who knelt and uncovered the dead, but, behold, the corpse had disappeared, and a dish of sacred food was found in its place. The guru embraced his faith-ful follower, saying that he was as himself, and that his spirit should dwell within him. Thenceforward the Sikhs believe the spirit of Nanak to have been incarnate in each succeeding guru. Little is known of the ministry of Angad except that he committed to writing much of what he had heard about Guru Nanak as well as some devotional observations of his own, which were afterwards incorporated in the Granth.

Angad, like his predecessor, postponed the claims of his own sons to the guruship to those of Amar Das, who had been his faithful servant. Amar Das preached the doctrine of forgiveness and endurance, upheld Guru Nanak's abrogation of caste distinctions, and his precepts were implicitly followed by his successors.Guru Amar Das. He used to place all his Sikhs and visitors in rows and cause them to eat together, not separately, as is the practice of the Hindus. He said: “Let no one be proud of his caste, for this pride of caste resulteth in many sins. He is a Brahman who knoweth Brahma (God). Every one prateth of four castes. All are sprung from the seed of Brahm. The whole world is formed out of one clay, but the Potter hath fashioned it in various forms.” It was a maxim of the Sikhs of his time: “If any one treat you ill, bear it. If you bear it three times God himself will fight for you and humble your enemies.” Guru Amar Das also discountenanced the practice of suttee, saying: “They are not satis who burn themselves with the dead. The true sati is she who dieth from the shock of separation from her husband. They also ought to be considered satis who abide in charity and contentment, who serve and, when rising, ever remember their lord.” Amar Das was born in A.D. 1509 and died in 1574 after a ministry of twenty-two and a half years.

The fourth guru, originally called Jetha, was attracted to the third guru by his reputation for sanctity. He became the servant of Amar Das, helped in the public kitchen, shampooed his master, drew water, brought firewood from the forest, and helped in the excavation of a well which Amar Das was constructing at Goindwal.Guru Ram Das. Jetha was of such a mild temper that, even if any one spoke harshly to him, he would endure it and never retaliate. He became known as Ram Das, which means God's slave; and on account of his piety and devotion Amar Das gave him his daughter in marriage and made him his successor. Ram Das is amongst the most revered of gurus, but no particular innovation is ascribed to him. He founded, however, the golden temple of Amritsar in A.D. 1577, which has remained ever since the centre of the Sikh religious worship. From this time onward the office of guru became hereditary, but the practice of primogeniture was not followed, each guru selecting the relative who seemed most fitted to succeed him.

Ram Das himself, finding his eldest son Prithi Chand worldly and disobedient, and his second unfitted by his too retiring disposition for the duties of guru, appointed his third son, Arjan, to succeed him.Guru Arjan. When Prithi Chand represented that he ought to have received the turban bound on Guru Arjan's head in token of succession to his father, Arjan meekly handed it to him, without, however, bestowing on him the guruship. The Sikhs themselves soon revolted against the exactions of Prithi Chand, and prayed Arjan to assert himself else the seed of the True Name would perish. It was Guru Arjan who compiled the Granth or Sikh Bible, out of his own and his predecessors' compositions. On this account he was accused of deposing the deities of his country and substituting for them a new divinity, but he was acquitted by the tolerant Akbar. When Akbar, however, was succeeded by Jahangir the guru aided the latter's son Khusru to escape with a gift of money. On this account his property was confiscated to the state, and he was thrown into rigorous imprisonment and tortured to death. Arjan saw clearly that it was impossible to preserve his sect without force of arms, and one of his last injunctions to his son Har Govind was to sit fully armed on his throne and maintain an army to the best of his ability. This was the turning-point in the history of the Sikhs. Hitherto they had been merely an insignificant religious sect; now, stimulated by persecution, they became a militant and political power, inimical to the Mahommedan rulers of the country.

When Har Govind was installed as guru, Bhai Budha, the aged Sikh who performed the ceremony, presented him with a turban and a necklace, and charged him to wear and preserve them as the founder of his religion had done.Guru Har Govind. Guru Har Govind promptly ordered that the articles should be relegated to his treasury, the museum of the period. He said: “My necklace shall be my sword-belt, and my turban shall be adorned with a royal aigrette.” He then sent for his bow, quiver, arrows, shield and sword, and arrayed himself in martial style, so that, as the Sikh chronicler states, his splendour shone like the sun.

The first four gurus led simple ascetic lives and were regardless of wordly affairs. Guru Arjan, who was in charge of the great Sikh temple at Amritsar, received copious offerings and became a man of wealth and influence, while the sixth guru became a military leader, and was frequently at warfare with the Mogul authorities. Several warriors and wrestlers, hearing of Guru Har Govind's fame, came to him for service. He enrolled as his body-guard fifty-two heroes who burned for the fray. This formed the nucleus of his future army. Five hundred youths then came to him for enlistment from the Manjha, Doab and Malwa districts. These men told him that they had no offering to make to him except their lives; for pay they only required instruction in his religion; and they professed themselves ready to die in his service. The guru gave them each a horse and five weapons of war, and gladly enlisted them in his army. In a short time, besides men who required regular pay, hordes gathered round the guru who were satisfied with two meals a day and a suit of clothes every six months. The fighting spirit of the people was roused and satisfied by the spiritual and military leader. Har Govind was a hunter and eater of flesh, and encouraged his followers to eat meat as giving them strength and daring. It is largely to this practice that the Sikhs owe the superiority of their physique over their surrounding Hindu neighbours. The regal state that the guru adopted and the army that he maintained were duly reported to the emperor Jahangir.

In the Autobiography of Jahangir it is stated that the guru was imprisoned in the fortress of Gwalior, with a view to the realization of the fine imposed on his father Guru Arjan, but the Sikhs believe that the guru became a voluntary inmate of the fortress with the object of obtaining seclusion there to pray for the emperor who had been advised to that effect by his Hindu astrologers. After a time Jahangir died and was succeeded by Shah Jahan, with whom the guru was constantly at war. On three separate occasions after desperate fighting he defeated the royal troops sent against him. Many legends are told of his military prowess, for which there is no space in this summary. The guru before his death at Kiratpur, on the margin of the Sutlej, instructed his grandson and successor, Guru Har Rai, to retain two thousand two hundred mounted soldiers ever with him as a precautionary measure.

Har Rai was charged with friendship for Dara Shikoh, the son of Shah Jahan, and also with preaching a religion distinct from Islam. He was, therefore, summoned to Delhi, but instead of going himself he sent his son Ram Rai and shortly afterwards died.Guru Har Rai. His ministry was mild but won him general respect.

The eighth guru was the second son of Har Rai, but he died when a child and too young to leave any mark on history. His elder brother Ram Rai was passed over in his favourGuru Har Krishan. and also in favour of the next guru for having altered a line of the Granth to please the emperor Aurangzeb.

As the direct line of succession died out with Har Krishan, the guruship harked back at this point to Teg Bahadur, the second son of Har Govind and uncle of Har Rai. Teg Bahadur was put to death for refusal to embrace Islam by Aurangzeb in A.D. 1675.Guru Teg Bahadur. It is of him that the legend is told that during his imprisonment in Delhi he was accused by the emperor of looking towards the west in the direction of the imperial zenana. The guru replied, “Emperor Aurangzeb, I was on the top storey of my prison, but I was not looking at thy private apartments or at thy queen's. I was looking in the direction of the Europeans who are coming from beyond the seas to tear down thy purdahs and destroy thine empire.” This prophecy became the battle-cry of the Sikhs in the assault on Delhi in 1857.

Teg Bahadur was succeeded by the tenth and most powerful guru, his son Govind Singh; and it was under him that what had sprung into existence as a quietist sect of a purely religious nature, and had become a military society for self-protection,Guru Govind Singh. developed into a national movement which was to rule the whole of north-western India and to furnish to the British arms their stoutest and most worthy opponents. For some years after his father's execution Govind Singh, then known as Gobind Rai, lived in retirement, brooding over the wrongs of his people and the persecutions of the fanatical Aurangzeb. He felt the necessity for a larger following and a stronger organization, and following the example of his Mahommedan enemies used his religion as the basis of political power. Emerging from his retirement he preached the Khalsa, the “pure,” and it is by this name his followers are now known. He, like his predecessors, openly attacked all distinctions of caste, and taught the equality of all men who would join him, and he instituted a ceremony of initiation with baptismal holy water by which all might enter the Sikh fraternity.

The higher castes murmured, and many of them left him, for he taught that the Brahmanical threads must be broken; but the lower orders rejoiced and flocked in numbers to his standard. These he inspired with military ardour in the hope of social freedom and of national independence. He gave them outward signs of their faith in the five K's—which will subsequently be explained—he signified the military nature of their calling by the title of “singh” or “lion” and by the wearing of steel, and he strictly prohibited the use of tobacco. The following are the main points of his teaching: Sikhs must have one form of initiation, sprinkling of water by five of the faithful; they should worship the one invisible God and honour the memory of Guru Nanak and his successors; their watchword should be, “Sri wah guru ji ka khalsa, sri wah guru ji ki fatah” (Khalsa of God, victory to God!), but they should revere and bow to nought visible save the Granth Sahib, the book of their belief; they should occasionally bathe in the sacred tank of Amritsar; their locks should remain unshorn; and they should name themselves singhs or lions. Arms should dignify their person; they should ever practise their use; and great would be the merit of those who fought in the van, who slew the enemies of their faith, and who despaired not although overpowered by superior numbers.

The religious creed of Guru Govind Singh was the same as that of Guru Nanak: the God, the guru and the Granth remained unchanged. But while Nanak had substituted holiness of life for vain ceremonial, Guru Govind Singh demanded in addition brave deeds and zealous devotion to the Sikh cause as proof of faith; and while he retained his predecessors' attitude towards the Hindu gods and worship he preached undying hatred to the persecutors of his religion.

During the spiritual reign of Guru Govind Singh the religious was partially eclipsed by the military spirit. The Mahommedans promptly responded to the challenge, for the danger was too serious to be neglected; the Sikh army was dispersed and two of Guru Govind Singh's sons were murdered at Sirhind by the governor of that fortress, and his mother died of grief at the cruel death of her grandchildren. The death of the emperor Aurangzeb brought a temporary lull: the guru assisted Aurangzeb's successor, Bahadur Shah, and was himself not long after assassinated at Nander in the Deccan. As all the guru's sons predeceased him, and as he was disappointed in his envoy Banda, he left no human successor, but vested the guruship in the Granth Sahib and his sect. No formal alteration has been made in the Sikh religion since Guru Govind Singh gave it his military organization, but certain modifications have taken place as the result of time and contact with Hinduism. After the guru's death the gradual rise of the Sikhs into the ruling power of northern India until they came in collision with the British arms belongs to the secular history of the Punjab (q.v.).

The chief ceremony initiated by Guru Govind Singh was the Khanda ka Pahul or baptism by the sword. This baptism may not be conferred until the candidate has reached an age of discrimination and capacity to remember obligations, seven years being fixed as the earliest age, but it is generally deferred until manhood.Sikh ceremonies. Five of the initiated must be present, all of whom should be learned in the faith. An Indian sweetmeat is stirred up in water with a two-edged sword and the novice repeats after the officiant the articles of his faith. Some of the water is sprinkled on him five times, and he drinks of it five times from the palms of his hands; he then pronounces the Sikh watchword given above and promises adherence to the new obligations he has contracted. He must from that date wear the five K's and add the word singh to his original name. The five K's are (1) the kes or uncut hair of the whole body, (2) the kachh or short drawers ending above the knee, (3) the kara or iron bangle, (4) the khanda or small steel dagger, (5) the khanga or comb. The five K's and the other esoteric observances of the Sikhs mostly had a utilitarian purpose. When fighting was a part of the Sikh's duty, long hair and iron rings concealed in it protected his head from sword cuts. The kachh or drawers fastened by a waist-band was more convenient and suitable for warriors than the insecurely tied dhoti of the Hindus or the tamba of the Mahommedans. So also the Sikh's physical strength was increased by the use of meat and avoidance of tobacco. Another Sikh ceremony is the kara parshad or communion made of butter, flour and sugar, and consecrated with certain ceremonies. The communicants sit round, and the kara parshad is then distributed equally to all the faithful present, no matter to what caste they belong. The object of this ceremony is to abolish caste distinctions.

There may be said to be three degrees of strictness in the observances of the Sikhs. There may first be mentioned the zealots such as the Akalis, who, though generally quite illiterate, aim at observing the injunctions of Guru Govind Singh;The Sikhs of to-day. secondly, the true Sikhs or Singhs who observe his ordinances, such as the prohibitions of cutting the hair and the use of tobacco; and, thirdly, those Sikhs who while professing devotion to the tenets of the gurus are almost indistinguishable from ordinary Hindus. These are largely Nanakpanti Sikhs, or followers only of Guru Nanak. The Nanakpanti Sikhs do not wear the hair long, nor use any of the outward signs of the Sikhs, though they reverence the Granth Sahib and above all the memory of their guru. They are distinguished from the Hindus by no outward sign except a slight laxity in the matter of caste observances.

Sikhism attained its zenith under the military genius of Ranjit Singh. After the British conquest of the Punjab the military spirit of the Sikhs remained for some time in abeyance. Then came the mutiny, and Sikhs once more were recruited in numbers and saved India for the British crown. Peace returned, and during the next twenty or twenty-five years Sikhism reached its lowest ebb; but since then the demand for Sikhs in the regiments of the Indian army and farther afield has largely revived the faith. The establishment of Singh Sabhas, of Sikh newspapers, and the spread of education have largely tended in the same direction, but the strict ethical code of Sikhism and the number of its obligatory divine services have caused many to fall away from the faith: nor does the austere Sikh ritual appeal to women, who generally prefer Hinduism with its picturesque material worship and the brightness of its innumerable festivals. At the present day the stronghold of Sikhism still remains the great Phulkian states of Patiala, Nabha and Jind and the surrounding districts of Ludhiana, Lahore, Amritsar, Jullundur and Gujranwala. In these states and districts are recruited the soldiers who form one of the main bulwarks of the British empire in India.

For authorities see Cunningham, History of the Sikhs; Sir Lepel Griffin, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (“Rulers of India” series, 1892); Falcon, Handbook on Sikhs; and specially M. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (6 vols., 1909), and two lectures before the United Service Institution of India on “The Sikh Religion and its Advantages to the State” and “How the Sikhs became a Militant Race.”  (M.M.)