Recently the American public was once again shocked (though it seems to be a common occurrence these days) by the senseless shooting of a group of worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Now as I sit writing this article, I have no knowledge of what the shooter’s motives were or why he targeted people in that religious group, but I do see one possible explanation. It may be that the gunman made the same mistake that many other Americans make: they think Sikhs are the same as Muslims.
People see Asian Indian men wearing a turban and a full beard and often assume that they must be Muslims. The truth is, most Muslims don’t wear turbans and usually don’t have full beards. However, Sikh men, as a tenet of their faith, are not allowed to cut their hair or shave their beards. They will usually pull their hair up on their head and cover it with a turban.
So, people ask, “Well, if Sikhs are not Muslims, then what are they? And, do we need to fear them as terrorists like we do some radical Muslims?”
In this article we will examine the history and beliefs of Sikhism so we may understand what it is, how it differs from Christianity (and Islam), and how we can share Christ with with its adherents. There are an estimated 26 million Sikhs, which make up only 0.4% of the world’s population. Approximately 75% of Sikhs live in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India surrounded by hundreds of millions of Hindus and Muslims in those countries.
Sikhism is, in many ways, a hybrid belief system combining Theism with Far Eastern Thought. The movement was founded by a man named Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) in the 15th century A.D. in the Punjab area of India. Nanak tried to assimilate aspects of Hinduism and Islam into what he believed could be a way of ending the often violent conflicts between the two on the Indian subcontinent.
Nanak taught that devotion, brotherhood, charity, obedience, patience, humility, and piety were the essence of true religion. One of his most essential sayings was “Realization of Truth is higher than all else. Higher still is truthful living.” His followers became known as Sikhs, simply meaning disciples. Nanak was followed as leader of the movement by nine other gurus until 1708. The other gurus included Guru Angad Dev (1504 – 1552), Guru Amar Das (1479 – 1574), Guru Ram Das (1534 – 1581), Guru Arjan Dev (1563 – 1606), Guru Hargobind (1599 – 1644), Guru Har Rai (1630 – 1661), Guru Har Krishan (1556 – 1564), Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621 – 1675), and Guru Gobind Singh (1666 – 1708). Its primary holy book is called the Adi Granth written by various gurus between 1469 and 1708.
Though modern Sikhs maintain that they are a peaceful people, their history is replete with violent episodes. Throughout the centuries, Sikhs endured wars and conflicts with Hindus and Muslims in India. During the British occupation of the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Sikhs fought to preserve their identity. Many Sikhs later served in the British army during World Wars I and II, winning accolades as fierce and courageous warriors.
In the 1970s and 80s, many Sikhs in India demanded greater autonomy for Sikh dominated areas. Demonstrations broke out that resulted in harsh reactions from the Indian government. The conflict reached a peak in June of 1984 when the Indian army attacked and occupied what Sikhs regard as their most holy place, the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, Punjab. For revenge, on October 31, 1984, two of the personal body guards of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917 – 1984), both Sikhs, shot her to death in New Delhi. The Indian government retaliated by killing hundreds of Sikhs in what some observers alleged was an attempt at genocide. Ironically, the current Indian Prime Minister is Manmohan Singh (b. 1932), a Sikh and the first non-Hindu to hold that office.
Sikhs have lived on the North America continent for more than a century. Hundreds of Sikhs from India arrived and settled in western Canada in 1897 where they served as British soldiers. In 1908, several thousand Sikhs from India immigrated to California. In 1969, Sikhs built the largest Sikh temple in the world in Yuba City, California. The chief American Sikh organization is the Sikh Council of North America. About 500,000 Sikhs are estimated to live in North America. The largest numbers reside in British Columbia and California. They are often identified with the surname of Singh.
Beliefs and Practices
Sikh practices revolve around several key principles established by Guru Nanak and his successors. They include the following:
Māyā is the illusion or “unreality” of the values of the world including ego, anger, greed, attachment, and lust—known as the Five Evils.
Nśabad (the divine Word) is the totality of the divine revelation. Gurus (teachers) are the voice of God for knowledge and salvation.
Nām is repetition of the name of God with inward, personal devotion.
Kirat karō is a balance of work, worship, and charity, and defending the rights of all people.
Cha dī kalā is maintaining an optimistic view of life.
Va chakkō is the concept of sharing of material goods with those in need.
In the Sikh religion, all people of all races are equal in God’s eyes. Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.
Sikhs have a number of strict prohibitions:
1. Cutting hair: Sikhs are forbidden to cut their beards or hair.
2. Intoxication: Consumption of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and other intoxicants is not allowed.
3. Adultery: Spouses must be physically and mentally faithful to one another.
4. Blind spirituality: Superstitions and rituals should not be observed or followed, including pilgrimages, fasting and ritual purification, or circumcision.
5. Material obsession: Obsession with material wealth is not encouraged.
6. Sacrifice of creatures: The Hindu practice of widows throwing themselves on the funeral fires of their husbands, any ritual animal sacrifice, etc. are forbidden.
7. Non-family-oriented living: A Sikh is encouraged NOT to live as a recluse, beggar, yogi, monastic (monk/nun) or celibate. Sikhs are to live as saint-soldiers.
8. Worthless talk: Bragging, lying, slander, “back-stabbing,” etc. are not permitted
9. Priestly class: Sikhism does not have priests.
10. Eating meat killed in a ritualistic manner is prohibited.
11. Premarital or extramarital sexual relations are forbidden.
As is taught in Islam, Sikhs believe God is one and is the eternal, sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing, Creator. God both transcends and indwells the universe. He is the abstract principle of truth and has never known an incarnation. Neither can He be defined. However, God is personal in that He can be loved and honored. Nanak called God the “true name” (Sat Nam) because he wanted to avoid any term implying God could be limited. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is rejected.
Humans are separated from God because of self-centeredness and willful ignorance of God. Consequently, as is taught in Hinduism, people are bound up in the process known as transmigration of the soul or reincarnation. This involves the continual birth, death, and rebirth (reincarnation) of human beings. The next life is dependent on the law of karma, a notion that one’s thoughts, words, and deeds have a direct impact on future reincarnations. The goal of Sikhism is to break this cycle.
The endless cycles of reincarnation are caused by selfish desire and ignorance. The ultimate goals are liberation from continual birth and rebirth and union with God. Salvation is achieved by obedience to the above principles and devotion to God who reveals himself and allows humans to meditate on His name and nature.
As we have seen, it is incorrect to identify Sikhs with Muslims. They are both strictly monotheistic, but the similarities end there. Christians and other Americans need to carefully distinguish the two faiths and the people in them. We do not want to be guilty of accusing Sikhs of the terrorism unfortunately practiced increasingly by Muslims around the world.
That being said, we also do not want to be guilty of ignoring our Sikh friends in telling them about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sikhs need to know how Jesus alone can fulfill the needs that they seek to fill by following the teachings of their gurus. They need to hear about the grace of God and how he can forgive them of their sins because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. No, Sikhs are not Muslims, but they are not Christ followers either.
© 2012 Tal Davis