Explaining Sikhism

Here is a brief introduction to the SIKH RELIGION, as per the request of our First Camera Assistant Don Presley. This is the introduction I prepared in April 2005 for the Harvard Divinity School community, where I study ethics as a graduate student. With the help of local gurdwaras and the noon service steering committee, we organized the first Sikh service in the history of Harvard Divinity to celebrate Vaisakhi, a special Sikh holiday.

The service began with this introduction, which I read to the gathering (pictured):

SIKHISM is the youngest of the major world religions. It is the fifth largest organized world religion. There are half a million Sikhs in the US and 23 million Sikhs worldwide. This means that there are twice as many Sikhs than there are our Jewish brothers and sisters, and yet very little social knowledge about Sikhs and Sikhism, even at a place like Harvard Divinity. As a first-year Sikh student here at the Divinity School, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the experience of a Sikh service.

“We have transformed this space so to bring the gurdwara, the Sikh house of worship, to you. In the gurdwara, we remove our shoes and cover our heads in respect. We place our foreheads to the ground before the Sikh scripture, which comprises the sacred hymns and poetry of our gurus, or teachers, and saints of other religions. The most revered gurdwara is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab in India (pictured).

“The Sikh scripture is installed majestically in a darbār or a “royal court” (pictured) as a reminder that God’s revelation is sovereign. Our act of genuflection in front of the scripture indicates our willingness to accept the divine message that is contained within.

“We are joined today by community members and children from local Boston gurdwaras in Milford and Millis, MA.

In our program today, we begin with meditating on the name of the divine, Nam Simran, followed by Kirtan, singing the praise of the divine from our holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. In-between, we offer a story about a Sikh American childhood. We end with Ardas, a community prayer, and Hukam, the sacred message for the day. After the service, we will share prashad and langar. I would now like to offer an introduction to the history of Sikhism the religion.

Sikhism was born in the region of Punjab in South Asia, which is now India and Pakistan, in the 15th century when its founder, Guru Nanak Dev Ji (pictured), witnessed the divisions and oppressions that grew within the two dominant religions in Medieval India, Hinduism and Islam. Turning away from the caste system, sectarianism, forced conversion, and empty ritual, Nanak disappeared by the river for three days and emerged with these words on his lips: There is no Hindu, There is no Muslim. He then began teaching tenets for what became a new revealed religion:

(1) One God, Ikh Onkar, a religious pluralism that treated every religion as a path that led to the same divine truth, whose name one must meditate upon, Sat Nam, for the Name of God is Truth.

(2) Equality of all, including women and men, people of different castes, classes, races, genders, backgrounds.

(3) Social Justice and Seva, that one realizes the self and the divine through loving and serving others in and outside the community.

“Guru Nanak’s followers were named Sikhs, or seekers of truth. He inspired seekers by singing in praise of the divine, the fundamental unknowingness and mystery and wonder, vismad, of the self and world, which were recorded and formed the beginnings of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture (pictured). Nine
gurus followed. Over the years, Sikhs were forced to develop a martial culture as they had to defend their growing community from the Mughal empire and the upper-caste Hindu hill chiefs who felt that their position was threatened by egalitarianism introduced by Sikhism. Sikh history is fraught with battles and martyrdom and sacrifice.

“The tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji (pictured), exemplified the ideal of the Saint-Soldier and on Vaisakhi day, which is tomorrow on the Sikh calendar, he made the Sikhs into the Khalsa, a spiritual sisterhood and brotherhood. He gave the Sikhs the five articles to externalize their inner commitment, THE FIVE K’s: kara (steel bracelet), kangee (comb), kirpan (ceremonial dagger), kach (undergarment), and kesh (long uncut hair).

“Most men and some women cover their long hair in a turban. Nearly every person you see in a turban in the US is a Sikh (pictured). It is a long different history how the turban has been used to mark Sikh in religious communalism in India and later in post-9/11 hate crimes in the US. Because the last name signified a person’s caste, Guru Gobind Singh sought to abolish caste; he gave all Sikh men the last name Singh and all Sikh women the last name Kaur as an embodiment of equality. And he gave the Guru Granth Sahib as the last and final living Guru, a source of spiritual instruction and guidance.”

Introduction to Sikhism
Harvard Divinity School
Noon Service—April 12, 2005
Valarie Kaur