The term Sikh is derived from sishya, which means disciple. It refers to a community numbering more than 19 million in India according to the 2001 Census, whose religion and way of life flow from the teachings of Nanak and nine successor Gurus (see Glossary). The Punjab is the homeland of the Sikhs, because the religion originated there, because almost all its adherents before 1947 lived in undivided Punjab, and because Sikhs form a majority in the present state of Punjab in the Indian Union. Sikhs are also found in all parts of India and are prominent in the worldwide Indian Diaspora, especially in Britain, Canada, and the United States, where they have struggled with some success to have their religious symbols- including beard and turban- recognized as compatible with membership in state services.
The first Sikh Guru, Nanak, was both mystic and householder, in the traditions of Hindu Sant as well as Islamic Sufi. Nanak was a key figure of the Bhakti movement. His faith in the One, formless, creator God, his rejection of formal ritual and caste hierarchy, his equation of Hindu and Muslim, and his establishment of a community of believers using the same body of devotional hymns molded the Sikh faith at foundation. As successor, Nanak chose not his son but a disciple, Angad (born 1504, Guru 1539-1552), who consolidated the community and commenced compiling the hymns used by it. His successor, Amar Das (born 1479, Guru 1552-1574), organized the community under 22 manji (bedstead) or local leaders, appointed some women as preachers, and institutionalized the egalitarian tradition of langar, or meal, from the Guru’s kitchen, shared by all without distinction of rank. Ram Das (born in 1534, Guru 1574-1581) founded the city of Amritsar on land gifted by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and continued to institute social reforms alleviating the status of women. He composed the wedding hymn used by Sikhs even today, enjoined monogamy, encouraged remarriage of widows, and explicitly forbade the practices of sati and veiling of women. His son became the fifth Guru Arjun (born 1563, Guru 1581-1606), who attracted large numbers of Jat peasants and landowners to the faith. He collected regular taxes from the faithful to build water reservoirs, as well as the famous Harmandir or Golden Temple at Amritsar with its distinctive architecture embodying openness to all four castes, and produced through Bhai Gurdas the authoritative collection of devotional texts used or composed by the first five Gurus. This massive compilation, known as the Adi Granth, was installed in the Harmandir in 1604 and named the perennial Guru of the Sikhs by the tenth and last human Guru, Gobind Singh.
The imprisonment, torture, and execution of Guru Arjun as a political dissident on the orders of Emperor Jehangir gave a new complexion to the Sikhs who had prospered peaceably within the Mughal Empire. The community acquired a coherent identity under the joined spiritual and temporal authority of the Guru symbolized in the two swords miri and piri worn by the sixth Guru, Hargobind (born 1595, Guru 1606-1644). He used a kettledrum, provided a flag for his troops, and engaged in military skirmishes during succession politics of the Mughal dynasty. In the process he lost all his sons except the youngest in battle. He also established sanctuaries for travelers and restored leprosariums. Hargobind was succeeded by his grandson Har Rai (born 1630, Guru 1644-1661), whose young son became the short-lived eight Guru Har Krishan (born 1656, Guru 1661-1664).
By this time the community and the Guruship itself became subject to internal rivalries and harassment from the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb spreading Islam. The ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur (born 1621, Guru 1664-1675), was the surviving son of Hargobind who had lived as a contemplative in Patna before his installation but subsequently traveled far and frequently to rally the faithful. He opposed the Islamization drive of Aurangzeb and protected the brahmans of Kashmir from forced conversion. He was arrested and beheaded by order of the emperor and became a martyr to the faith. His young son Gobind Singh led a growing community to whom he gave a distinctive identity symbolized in the five Ks of outward appearance and named the Khalsa or pure.
The Sikhs suffered religious persecution and many martyrdoms during the first half of the 18th century, and the Punjab as a whole witnessed much political and military turbulence as Mughal control weakened in that as other provinces. Roving bands of Sikhs preserved their religious identity and gained ascendancy under a loose organization of twelve misls (see Glossary) assembling twice a year at Amritsar. By the end of the century Ranjit Singh had unified the misls and established an empire in the northwest of the subcontinent that lasted until the British annexation of the Punjab in 1849.
The latter half of the 19th century saw some reversion to Hindu customs and ritual among Sikhs as well as some reform movements additionally stimulated by Christian missionary activity and the assertive thrust of the Arya Samaj. The British categorized Sikhs as a “martial race,” and recruited large numbers to the army. Sikh cultivators moved into the newly irrigated lands of central Punjab and prospered. Sikhs led by the Akali Dal in the early 20th century struggled to regain control of their Gurdwaras and reassert their distinctive identity. The Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925 placed all Gurdwaras of the Punjab under a central management committee known a s the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which continues to exercise considerable financial and political power today and seeks jurisdiction over Gurdwaras outside the Punjab as well. Because of their relatively small numbers and lack of political strength, Sikhs fared badly in the British-Indian transfer of power negotiations of the mid-1940s. Their demand for a separate homeland was ignored, the line of Partition ran through the Punjab districts inhabited by them, and they suffered a heavy toll of life and property in 1947. Nevertheless, Sikh refugees rehabilitated themselves in various parts of India quite rapidly and made sterling contributions to the Green Revolution and Punjab prosperity. Some Sikh families migrated abroad, as they have done earlier.
A variety of circumstances having less to do with religion than with rivalries between political parties, disputes on water sharing and economic policies, strained center-state relations, and external interference produced a phenomenon known as the Khalistan movement demanding a separate Sikh state. The notion of secession did not enjoy support among Sikhs resident in India, and the demand came to be associated with non-resident Sikhs, terrorism supported by Pakistan, illegal trade in drugs and arms, and a prolonged crisis in state authority and inter-communal relations. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered army operation Blue Star on June 6, 1984, against Sikh militants led by Bhindranwale who had fortified themselves in the Golden Temple. This action exacerbated alienation among Sikhs and led directly to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination on October 31. After a decade of turbulence, normalcy appeared to have been restored in the Punjab by the 1993 and has not been disrupted since.
Used with permission, courtesy of Surjit Mansingh