Language To Historical Invasion: 4 Reasons That Make Sikhism A Unique Religion

(Excerpted from Punjab, Punjabis & Punjabiyat: Reflections on a Land and its People by Khushwant Singh and published with the permission of Aleph Book Company. The pieces in the book celebrate the culture, determination and spirit of the people of Khushwant Singh’s native land, a place he identified deeply with.)

A Sikh has been defined by legislative enactment as one who believes in the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib. The Sikhs themselves believe that the spirit of the founder, Guru Nanak, passed into his successors ‘as one lamp lights another’ and is today embodied in their scripture, the Granth Sahib (or Adi Granth).

Sikhs only number 14 million out of India’s population of 700 million. Christians who number 20 million and Muslims who number over 70 million are in the reckoning of heads deserving of greater notice. Besides, Sikhs are usually considered a protestant and militant subsect of the Hindus and so denied the attention they deserve. It is no exaggeration to say that despite its small size, the Sikh community is today politically, economically, strategically and militarily more important than it’s under 2 per cent of the proportion of the population would warrant. It is not for nothing that a Sikh refers to himself as sava lakh—equal to a 125,000 or a fauj—an army.

sikh people

There are four good reasons which make Sikhism a unique religion and the Sikhs a special community. In the first place, of all the major religions of present-day India, Sikhism is the only one that is purely and entirely Indian by birth and development. Hinduism, though developed in India, very likely came along with the Sanskrit language. Islam likewise originated in Arabia and came to India with Muslim traders and conquerors. The same applies to Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Buddhism which was born in India was ousted from the land within a few centuries of its birth and few Buddhists remain in the country today. The resurgence of neo-Buddhism in recent years is as yet more a sociological than a religious phenomenon. Jainism, which was and is Indian, has so completely merged within the Hindu fold as to not be distinguishable from it. Fourteen million Sikhs represent the only major community of India who practices a faith that is purely and entirely of Indian origin.

The second reason is that Sikhism is perhaps the only religion in the world which could claim to be not only eclectic but also completely non-denominational. The sacred scripture of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth, contains not only the writings of the Sikh Gurus but also those of Hindu and Muslim saint-poets of all castes ranging from Brahmins to the untouchables from different parts of northern India. And the Adi Granth is to every Sikh the living embodiment of all his ten Gurus and the word of God spoken through them.

Third, the Sikh faith is a synthesis of the two major religions of India—Hinduism and Islam. Both these religions underwent considerable change because of their impact on each other. Movements towards a rapprochement were started from either end and the two blended in Sikhism which again, is the only living faith which could be described as both Muslim and Hindu. The Sikh Gurus did not leave the blending to chance but clothed it with a personality distinct from either of its two constituents. Sikhism is like the sangam where the two streams of Hinduism and Islam mingle to become a mighty river.

punjab punjabiyat

The fourth reason may appear more sociological than religious. The Sikhs are a unique example of a community that within a couple of centuries of its birth developed a faith, an outlook, a way of life and, according to some, even physical features so distinct from the two religions out of which they were born, so as to achieve the semblance of separate nationhood. And having become a nation, became the spearhead of a nationalist movement which gathered both parent communities within its fold, liberated its homeland from foreign oppression, turned the tide of invasion back into the homes of its traditional conquerors and extended Punjab’s frontiers to Tibet, Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Sindh. The movement reached its climax under the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh and, having run its course, collapsed within ten years of his death.

This aspect of the story of the Sikhs would, at first sight, seem purely political and not connected with their religion. That is not so. In the process of development, the last of the Sikh Gurus, Gobind Singh, invested his following with external symbols, chiefly unshorn hair and the beard which became an integral part of the Sikh way of life and the one factor distinguishing them from other communities, particularly the Hindus, from whom the vast majority were converted. Since the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849 the Sikh community has had to wage a relentless struggle for survival as a separate community. The tendency to abandon external forms—unshorn hair and beard—has grown amongst men of the younger generation resulting in the lapse of an ever-increasing number of Sikhs into the Hindu fold. If the pace of this lapsing into Hinduism continues, we may witness the remarkable, and to most Sikhs of my way of thinking, tragic phenomenon of a people losing their distinctiveness and of a living faith consigning itself to the cold catacombs of history.