What is Sikhism?

Numbers: 18 million

Founder: Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.) was the first of Sikhism's 10 Gurus, a lineage of holy teachers that continued until the end of the 17th century. The Gurus are understood to be the mediators of divine grace.

Main Tenets: The term Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word for "disciple" or "learner." Sikhs are those who are disciples to the Guru. Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of northwest India, where it drew on elements from Bhakti Hinduism and Islamic Sufism to develop into a distinctive religious tradition in its own right. Sikhs believe that liberation from the karmic cycle of rebirths occurs in the merging of the human spirit with the all-embracing spirit of God. Their religious worship involves contemplation of the divine Name. The ultimate deity is known by several names: Sat (truth), Sat Guru (true Guru), Akal Purakh (timeless being), Kartar (creator), and Wahi-Guru ("praise to the Guru"). By concentrating on God's Name (or many titles), one conquers the ego and unites with God.

Known as the "religion of the householder," Sikhism emphasizes the family and advocates living in the world without being worldly. Moral purity is considered the chief basis of religion. There is no priesthood per se, but there are official readers of scripture.

The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, instituted the Khalsa brotherhood, in which initiates are required to wear five distinctive symbols: uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist bangle, a sword, and short underpants. Not all Sikhs belong to this disciplined fellowship, but many do obey the principle rules of Khalsa. Guru Gobind Singh also required all male Sikhs to take the name Singh (meaning "lion") and all female Sikhs to take the name Kaur ("princess"). These measures give Sikhs a strong sense of communal identity, symbolized by the characteristic turbans and beards worn by Sikh men.

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Top Sikhism Features

The Art of a Seeker
Explore the meditative paintings of artist Sohan Qadri, born into a Sikh family. Interview by Vibhuti Patel

Outsourcing Prayers
Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs in the West are saving money and trouble by sending their worship needs abroad. By Hema Nair

Living Faith in India
A photographic journey through the everyday lives and sacred experiences of the people of India.


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