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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 10

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Sikhism is one of the least known living religions of the world, and yet one of the most interesting from the viewpoint of comparative history. Although practically confined to a single province of the Indian Republic, the Punjab region in the north-western part of the country, the Sikhs have made more than a proportionate contribution to the religious culture of their times. They are sometimes lightly dismissed as a hybrid of two old religions, Islam and Hinduism, made intone, as though it were really possible to fuse two such completely different concepts of life. Or again they are described as Hindus who have simply grafted Moslem monotheism on to the trunk of the ancient Vedas; that most of their other doctrines are taken directly from Hinduism, with little if any change. Sikhism, therefore, is an example of conscious syncretism and one of the few that has ever been successful.

While these estimates are correct enough descriptively, they do not take into account the radical differences which separate the followers of Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, from all their contemporaries; differences that are rooted in a wholly distinctive philosophy of man’s relations with God.

Origins and Development

To understand the nature of Sikhism, it is important to know the state of affairs in northern India before the birth of Nanak. The chaotic condition of the country was occasioned by the decadent state of Hinduism and by the remorseless pressure of the Moslems who invaded India and by the eleventh century practically dominated most of its northern regions.

Early in the twelfth century a Hindu reformer, Jaidev, used a phrase that was later to become a key-word of Sikhism: he taught that all religious ceremonial and austerity were as nothing compared with the devout repetition of God’s name. This inroad of Islam was strengthened by the Moslem teacher Kabir (died 1398), who accepted the Hindu theory of retributive justice---Karma and reincarnation---but as a Moslem insisted on the fact that God is a single particular personality who should be worshiped and invoked. Upon this basis of ethical monotheism, the founder of Sikhism established his new religion.

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was the son of a petty official living some thirty miles from Lahore. He began studying Hinduism and Islam almost from boyhood and after marrying and rearing a family decided to become an ascetic. He prayed, fasted and meditated a great deal, until finally he felt qualified to convey his message to the people. His early preaching was very simple, which he summarized in the statement, “There is no Hindu, there is no Mussulman.”

Unlike other ascetics, however, Nanak decided to combine his mission with the domestic obligations of a husband and father, and to this end advocated a way of life that allowed for the fulfillment of family and civic duties along with the spiritual. When he died, Moslems and Hindus vied with one another for the possession of his body, and to this day his name is a symbol of harmony between the two religions. A popular couplet speaks of him, “Guru Nanak, the King of Fakirs, to the Hindu a Guru, to the Mussulman a Pir,” in the terms guru (counselor), fakir (ascetic), and pir (religious mentor) are indiscriminately applied to him by both parties.

Nanak was followed by nine other Gurus, who succeeded him on the basis of their knowledge of the master’s teaching and devotion to his cause. For two centuries this succession provided Sikhism with the stability it needed to become consolidated as a religion, and gradually into a political state. A testament of the fifth Guru, Arjun (1563-1606), illustrates how completely the Sikhs had liberated themselves of Moslems and Hindus within a century of their founder’s death.

I do not keep the Hindu fast, nor the Muslim Ramadan.
I serve Him alone who is my refuge.
I serve the one Master, who is also Allah.
I have broken with the Hindu and the Muslim.
I will not worship with the Hindu, nor like the Muslim go to Mecca.
I shall serve Him and no other.
I will not pray to idols nor say the Muslim prayer.
I shall put my heart at the feet of the one Supreme Being.
For we are neither Hindus nor Mussulmans.

After the death of Arjun, Sikhism underwent a major transformation. Conscious of the need to protect themselves by armed force against persecution from Moslems and Hindus, the Sikhs began to train in the art of self-defense and to this day are characterized by their skill in the use of arms.

Under the leadership of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the Sikhs were further developed into a military group with an inner fraternity which adopted certain customs that have become typical of their religion and (where practiced) still distinguish them externally from Hindus and Mohammedans. They were to wear the five K’s: the kes or long hair on head and chin, the kungha or comb, the kuchha or short drawers, the kara or steel bracelet, and the kirpan or steel dagger. They were to abstain from smoking and alcoholic beverages, refrain from entering marriage with Moslems, and eat meat, if they had not done so already. After a “baptismal” ceremony, which consisted of drinking sweetened water out of a common bowl (as a mark of casteless brotherhood), they adopted the common prefix Singh (lion) added to their family name. Actually the Singhs originally came out of the main body of Sikhs and have since stood out in dramatic contrast to the more pacifist group which they now outnumber. The latter, called the Nanakpanthis (followers of Nanak) have a variety of sects and have been all but absorbed into the mainstream of Hinduism.

With the death of Gobind Singh ended the line of the Gurus. On orders from Gobind before he died, the Sikhs were henceforth to rely solely on their sacred writings (Granth) for spiritual guidance and solidarity. True to this injunction, they have had secular rulers only, while the Granth is literally worshiped at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Through the eighteenth century, the political history of the Sikhs had been a succession of wars, first of confederacy to organize the various factions against their surrounding enemies, and then of self-defense against the British. In 1849 the last Sikh ruler, Dalip Singh, surrendered to the English and as a token of submission and pledge of loyalty gave to Queen Victoria the famous Koh-i-nur diamond. When the Moslems and Hindus rebelled in 1857, the Sikhs supported the British and helped save India for the English crown. This and similar evidence of their fidelity and military prowess gave the Sikhs an ascendancy in India and elsewhere in the East out of all proportion to their numbers. They become the favorite constabulary of the British colonial authorities.

With the partition of India in 1947, the Sikhs fell upon bad times. Their home territory was divided between India and Pakistan. When Sikh landholders were driven from the Canal Colonies, this was countered with violence. Within a few days hundreds of thousands of Sikhs, and with them terrified Hindus, were on the march from Pakistan to India. By this time anti-Moslem riots had spread all over East Punjab and the refugee movement became a two-way traffic. Atrocities were committed on both sides, and by the time the transfer of population was finished, about ten million people had changed homes, and perhaps a hundred thousand fell victims to marauding bands, floods and disease.

A dark side of Sikh activities prior to the division of the country was their participation in Marxist agitation for the violent overthrow of British rule in India. During the Second World War, the Communist Party of the Punjab was the most active provincial group in India. It was almost entirely Sikh, with only a handful of Moslems and Hindus connected with publicity and trade union efforts.

Faith and Worship

Sikhs have been described as people “who believe in the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib,” namely the traditions of the early religious leaders and the doctrines of their sacred writings. This is true in an inclusive sense, although there are Sikhs who challenge the absolute authority of both doctrinal sources and want to include extraneous elements from other religious beliefs.

The concept of God is unmistakably monotheistic. In the preamble to the morning prayer Jupji, recited at the beginning of all ceremonial exercises and known as the Mool Mantra, the Sikhs declare their faith.

There is One God.
He is the supreme truth.
He, the Creator,
Is without fear and without hate.
He, the Omnipresent,
Pervades the universe.
He is not born,
Nor does He die to be born again.
By His grace shalt thou worship Him.
Before time itself
There was truth.
When time began to run its course
He was the truth
Even now, He is the truth,
And evermore shall truth prevail.

In their attitude toward God, the Sikhs emphasize the divine unity and truth; other attributes like omnipresence, omniscience, timelessness, and the power to destroy evil were complementary and given stress according to religious mood.

Nanak went out of his way to accentuate human activity as a means to salvation, in order to distinguish his teaching from the predestination of Islam and the relative passiveness of Hinduism. He explained the cooperative effort by using rural similes. We are driven by the ploughman, our teacher, as a team of oxen. By the furrows made are thus written our actions on the paper of this earth. The beads of sweat falling from our brows are like seeds that the ploughman sows. When harvest comes, we reap according to our measure, “some for ourselves to keep, some to others give.” Again, if a man wishes to cultivate the fruits of salvation, let the love of the Lord germinate in his heart. “Let thy body be as the fallow land where in thy heart the Farmer sows his seeds of righteous action and good deeds, then with the name of God irritgate.” [3]

Since God is expressly believed to be one and formless, the Sikh religion forbids anything like the worship of idols or emblems. “They who worship strange gods, cursed shall be their lives, cursed their habitations. Poison shall be their food---each morsel, poisoned, too, shall be their garments. In life for them is misery, in life hereafter, hell.” [4]

The compilation of the Sikh scriptures, the Granth Sahib, was mainly the wok of the fifth Guru Arjun and his disciple, Gurdas. This bible is known as the Adi Granth (first scripture) to distinguish it from the Dasam Granth (tenth scripture), which was compiled after the death of the last Guru.

In contents, the Sikh scriptures are a collection of the writings and sayings of the Gurus, of Hindu and Moslem ascetics (notably the Moslem Kabir), and of various bards who accompanied the Gurus on their journeys of preaching. At least five languages are used, including Punjabi, Persian, Sanskrit and certain dialects of northern India. The entire work is set to measure of classic Indian music.

Unlike any other religion of the East, Sikhism makes its scriptures the central object of worship and ritual. In all temples, copies of the Granth are placed under a canopy, with the book itself draped in cloth. When a person appears before it, he bares his head and takes off his shoes, makes obeisance by rubbing his forehead to the ground in front of the book and offers money or food on the cloth placed near the scriptures.

On important feast days, a ceremony of non-stop reading of the Granth is performed by relays of worshipers, known as the Akhand Path. It takes about two days and nights to complete. A more simple ceremony, which may be done privately at home, is to read through the Granth in seven days; this Saptah Path allows for interruptions at night and during the day.

Children born into Sikh families are given names which begin with the first letter appearing on the page at which the Granth happens to be opened. Sikh youths are baptized (taking sweetened water) with recitation of prayers in front of the Granth. Couples are married to the singing of hymns from the same book, while they walk around it four times. At death other hymns from the Granth are read aloud in the dying person’s ears; and on cremation they are chanted as the flames consume the body.

Reacting against the caste system, Nanak spoke in severe language against those who discriminate among various classes. “There are ignoble among the noblest,” he taught, “and pure among the despised.” In recent years, however, quasi-caste discrimination has plagued the Sikhs with the growing division between the agriculturists (Jats) and all other (non-Jats). At one time the division threatened to divide the community into two sects, almost like the Moslem divisions of Shia and Sunni. But with the partition of the country in 1947 and the legal abolition of caste privileges, the Jat-non-Jat differences are likely to disappear.

Though the Sikhs have no priesthood and all adults, of whatever status or sex, may perform religious ceremonies, there is a class of professional readers (granthis) and musicians (ragis) who operate in the larger cities where the religion is established on a more institutional basis.

Sikh tradition reacts strongly against positive injunctions on ascetical practices like the renunciation of society, celibacy and penance. In a famous passage attributed to Nanak, he says religion does not consist in a patched coat, or in a Yogi’s staff, or in ashes smeared on the body; it does not consist in earrings worn, or a shaven head, or in the blowing of horns; it does not consist in wanderings to tombs or places of cremation, or sitting in Hindu attitudes of contemplation; it does not consist in going to foreign countries, or bathing at places of pilgrimage.

Above all else, prayer makes religion. The Sikh scriptures are filled with exhortations to repeat “the true name” of God and chant his praises, as purification from sin and impious thoughts, which alone stand between the soul and its destiny. Prayer and action, therefore, are the means of salvation.

As hands or feet besmirched with slime,
Water washes white;
As garments dark with grime,
Rinsed with soap are made light;
So when sin soils the soul
Prayer alone shall make it white.
Words do not the saint or sinner make.
Action alone is written in the book of fate,
What we sow that alone we take;
O Nanak, be saved or forever transmigrate.

There is a clear moral code which the Sikhs are expected to follow, that goes beyond the abolition of caste, or prayer, and certainly beyond what they consider the artificial norms of cleanliness familiar to other religions. Nanak was merciless in his criticism of those who say, “This is pure, this unclean.” See, he said, that in all things there is life unseen. “There are worms in wood and cow dung cakes. There is life in the corn ground into bread. There is life in the water which makes it green.” How, he asks, can a person be clean when impurity is in everything he touches?

Real purity, according to Nanak, is within, and uncleanness in the will. “Impurity of the heart is greed, on tongue, untruth. Impurity of the eyes is coveting another’s wealth, his wife, her comeliness. Impurity of the ears is listening to calumny.” Sikhs are constantly reminded of this ideal. They are told to learn to love, “be merciful and forbear, be mild, be patient, have no lust, nor wrath, greed nor obstinacy.” And the penalty for sins is pain.

One of the paradoxes of the Sikh religion is its pacifism in theory and militarism in practice, which can be explained only by a reference to history. Their resort to arms to protect what they considered sacred interests is epitomized in a Persian couplet which they invoke. “When all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword.” Actually the principle is partly Islamic, since the Koran is explicit about using the sword against the enemies of Allah; it is also partly anti-Islamic because the military aspect of Sikhism arose at a time when new Moslem invasions from the north threatened to destroy any people or institution which resisted their progress. However, the Sikhs themselves are concerned to return to the original teaching of their founder, who preached love and humility, and to sheathe the sword in the interests of peace.

Chapter 10 - Sikhism


[1] Khushwant Singh, The Sikhs, London, 1953, p. 27.

[2] Ibid., p. 188.

[3] Ibid., p. 36.

[4] Ibid., p. 37 (“Amar Das,” III Guru).

[5] Ibid., p. 42.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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