Origins of Sikhism

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This is the first in a series of posts on Sikhism, written by Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Senior Lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Sikhism is the youngest of the major world faiths and was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, the first ‘Guru’ of Sikhism who, following a divine revelation set out to preach the oneness of God, creation and humanity – rejecting notions of inequality between races, castes and sexes, and most importantly the importance of truthful living.

Guru Nanak was succeeded by nine further Gurus, and each were accorded equal status.  In fact, the subsequent Gurus are considered to be the spirit of Nanak assuming ten different forms. Therefore, Nanak and subsequent Gurus are referred to as Nanak I, Nanak II, and so on in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the SIkhs.  Each Guru advanced the faith, and as the number of Sikhs grew, institutions and structures were put in place to consolidate this growth.  The tenth and final human Guru, Guru Gobind, set up the Khalsa, which cemented a militaristic tradition within Sikhism, partially in response to the threat posed to Sikhism’s survival by the rulers of India, the Mughals.  The Khalsa gave Sikhs an internal identity, but also an external identity which required Sikhs being initiated and adopting the 5Ks.  As well as establishing identity, Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of human Guruship and passed the Guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the Eternal Living Guru for the Sikhs today. The Guru Granth Sahib is invested with ultimate authority, spiritual and doctrinal, because the word of the Gurus is considered the word of God, and therefore carries complete authority for Sikhs.

Sikhism has a rich and distinctive history, during which it has forged a unique identity while interacting with the other major religions of India – Hinduism and Islam – as well as impacting in a major way on the culture of the colonial power that was 18th and 19th century Britain. For example, after the fall of the Mughals, Sikhs, under the rule of Ranjit Singh, established a large empire in Northern India but this was only to be short lived (1799-1849), and was subsequently annexed by the British.  The British exploited the military prowess of the Sikhs and many Sikhs were recruited to serve in the army and police, both in India and abroad.  Sikh soldiers fought in large numbers in  World I and World War II.

This relationship with the British coupled with economic need resulted in many Sikhs migrating to the UK upon invitation by the UK government in the 1950s and 1960s. The majority of Sikhs were from rural Punjab and had traditionally practised agriculture and petty trading.  After British immigration laws were tightened in the 1960s, the male Sikhs were joined by their wives, children, parents and other relatives.  The presence of the Sikh family in Britain encouraged the purchase of homes, and eventually resulted in the demise of the ‘myth of return’.

It is estimated that there are now over 430,000 Sikhs in the UK and as a community they are well established professionally and economically.  From the Sikh warriors in Peter Dickinson’s 1970s ‘The Changes’, a BBC trilogy; to the Sikh family portrayed in ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ and the BBC Four documentary on The Sikhs of Smethwick, Sikhs are now a fundamental part of pluralist British identity.   Integration has not led to the loss of religious beliefs and values. Instead, British Sikhs have begun to re-interpret their scripture and teachings through the lens of their experiences of living in the West and have found a natural fit between Sikh teachings and western liberal values of respect, tolerance, equality and justice for all.  The natural fit has also allowed Sikhs to maintain, but also change some aspects of their identities and practices.  Sikhs today are not a monolithic group, but comprise of a heterogeneous population who hold diverse and often conflicting opinions about religious practice and issues facing the community.  This diversity in opinion reflects an independent and free spirited community.

In the next post I will explain the notion of religious authority in the Sikh community and discuss the growth of Sikh groups that purport to represent the whole of the Sikh community.

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal

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