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Sikhism in a Nutshell

In which the author sums up the essence of the faith in a short essay

Sikhism is theologically syncretistic (meaning a fusion of faiths; compassion and fraternity) and monotheistic (believing in one Creator-Ik Onkar). It is the fifth largest and popular religion in the world. It was founded 500 years ago by Guru Nanak Dev Ji and it boasts some 30 million adherents worldwide, and the numbers are multiplying as others find peace by embracing the faith.

The faith was established in 1469 in present-day Northern India and Pakistan. Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of the faith called for devotion to One God, equality between all people and a commitment to service called sewa (selfless service to humanity); indeed, a heavy focus on service to humanity!!

“Like most major religions, Sikhism has a “star of the show” — a single person who found a new way to live and brought that message to his people through a traveling ministry. In this case the star was Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who (like Buddha) saw suffering and confusion in the world and set out to bring peace, compassion and truth.

Nanak’s message was fairly simple. There is one God — or “Waheguru” in Punjabi. Waheguru, whose literal translation is “Wonderful Teacher or the Wondrous One,” is believed to be a shapeless, timeless, genderless presence that constantly creates, sustains and destroys many worlds, including ours. Sikhs do not embrace the traditional concept of heaven or hell. What they seek is a “spiritual union” with Waheguru, which they attain through a balance of work, worship and charity. They also put great importance on avoiding the “Five Pitfalls” of ego, anger, greed, attachment and lust.”

Sikhism is the most inclusive religion. “Sikhs believe that no matter what race, sex, or religion one is, all are equal in God’s eyes,” reads a Wikipedia passage. “Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.

Guru Nanak has spread the message of the spirit of the faith. The concept of “Chardi kala” i.e. to remain positive and in high spirits under all circumstances is central to Sikh philosophy. He preached a practical message for everyday life that can be summed up in three simple principles: Vand Chako: Sharing with others, helping those who are in need; Kirat Karo: Earning/making a living honestly and Naam Japna: Chanting the Holy Name and thus remembering God at all times (ceaseless devotion to God) to achieve connection with God and shredding one’s ego.

Sikhs have one sacred text, called the Sri Guru Ganth Sahib Ji (The Eternal Living Guru); a sacred scripture that reads a bit like an extended poem; made of compilation of traditions, teachings and philosophies learned from Guru Nanak and his nine successors, all of whom were hand-picked by the previous Guru. The Granth has 1,430 pages filled with contributions from the Sikh Gurus and other saintly souls.

The Gurus in Sikhism are regarded as enlighteners and divine messengers (dispellers of darkness.) They were the messengers of the Timeless, who brought forth the eternal wisdom. They were universal men who freed our minds from bigotry and superstitions, dogmas and rituals, and emphasized the simplicity of the religion.

1. Guru Nanak Dev Ji - Guru for 70 years from 1469 to 1539

Guru Nanak. The first of the Gurus and the founder of the Sikh religion was Guru Nanak. He was born at Talwandi (now known as Nankana Sahib in Pakistan) on October 20, 1469. Guru Ji mastered Punjabi, Sanskrit and Persian at an early age and in childhood revolted against ritualism, caste, prejudices, hypocrisy and idolatry. He regarded Hindus and Muslims as equals and referred to himself as neither Hindu nor Muslim but as a brother to all those who believed in God and truth. He made four great journeys, travelling to all parts of India, and into Arabia and Persia; visiting Mecca and Baghdad. He spoke before Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, and Muslims. He spoke in the temples and mosques, and at various pilgrimage sites. Wherever he went, Guru Nanak spoke out against empty religious rituals, pilgrimages, the caste system, the sacrifice of widows, of depending on books to learn the true religion, and of all the other tenets that were to define his teachings. Never did he ask his listeners to follow him. He asked the Muslims to be true Muslims and the Hindus to be true Hindus.

2. Guru Angad Dev Ji - Guru for 13 years from 1539 to 1552

Guru Angad was born in 1504. He invented and introduced the Gurmukhi script (written form of Punjabi) and made it known to all Sikhs. The scripture of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji is written in Gurmukhi. This scripture is also the basis of the Punjabi language. Because it is simple and phonetic it became the script of the masses very soon. Guru Angad was a model of selfless service to his Sikhs and showed them the way to devotional prayers. He took great interest in the education of the children by opening many schools for their instruction and thus greatly increased literacy. He started the tradition of Mall Akhara for the youth, where physical as well as spiritual exercises were held. He collected the facts about Guru Nanak Sahib's life from Bhai Bala Ji and wrote the first biography of Guru Nanak Sahib. (The Bhai Bale Wali Janamsakhi currently available is not the same as that which Guru Angad Sahib compiled.) He also wrote 63 Saloks (stanzas) which were included in Guru Granth Sahib. He popularised and expanded the institution of 'Guru ka Langar' started by Guru Nanak Sahib earlier.

3. Guru Amar Das Sahib Ji - Guru for 22 years from 1552 to 1574

Guru Amar Das was born in 1479. Guru Amardas took up cudgels of spirituality to fight against caste restrictions, caste prejudices and the curse of untouchability. He strengthened the tradition of the free kitchen, Guru Ka Langar (started by Guru Nanak) and made his disciples, whether rich or poor, whether high born or low born (according to the Hindu caste system) sit together side by side to have their meals together. He thus established social equality amongst the people. Guru Amar Das introduced the Anand Karaj marriage ceremony for the Sikhs, replacing the Hindu form. He also completely abolished amongst the Sikhs, the custom of Sati, in which a married woman was forced to burn herself to death in the funeral pyre of her husband. The custom of Paradah (Purda), in which a woman was required to cover her face with a veil, was also done away with.

4. Guru Ram Das Sahib Ji - Guru for seven years from 1574 to 1581

Guru Ram Das was born in 1534. He founded the city of Amritsar and started the construction of the famous Golden Temple (Harimandir Sahib) at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. He requested the Muslim Sufi, Mian Mir, to lay the cornerstone of the Harimandir Sahib. The temple remains open on all sides and at all times to everyone.

The standard Sikh marriage ceremony known as the Anand Karaj is centred around the Lawan, a four stanza hymn composed by Guru Ram Das Ji for his own marriage. The marriage couple circumambulate the Guru Granth Sahib Ji as each stanza is read. The first round is the Divine consent for commencing the householder’s life through marriage. The second round states that the union of the couple has been brought about by God. In the third round the couple is described as the most fortunate as they have sung the praises of the Lord in the company of saints. In the fourth round the feeling of the couple that they have obtained their hearts desire and are being congratulated is described.

5. Guru Arjan Dev Ji - Guru for 25 years from 1581 to 1606

Guru Arjan Dev was born in 1563. He was the third son of Guru Ram Das Ji. Guru Arjan was a saint and scholar of the highest quality and repute. He compiled the Adi Granth, the scriptures of the Sikhs, and wrote the Sukhmani Sahib. To make it a universal teaching, Guru Ji included in it hymns of Muslim saints as well those of low-caste pariah saints who were never permitted to enter various temples. Guru Arjan Dev completed construction of the Golden Temple (also known as Sri Darbar Sahib) in Amritsar. Sri Darbar Sahib welcomes all without discrimination, which is symbolised by the four doors that are open in four directions. Guru Ji became the first great martyr in Sikh history when Emperor Jahangir ordered his execution.

6. Guru Har Gobind Sahib Ji - Guru for 38 years from 1606 to 1644

Guru Hargobind was born in 1595. He was the son of Guru Arjan Dev and was known as a “saint-soldier” (sant-sipahi). Guru Hargobind Ji organised a small army, explaining that passive non-violence and pacifism would only encourage evil and so the principles of Miri-Piri were established.

Guru Ji taught that after all other means have failed it may be necessary to take up the sword to protect the weak and the oppressed. Guru Ji was first of the Gurus to take up arms to defend the rights of all. At that time it was only emperors who were allowed to sit on a raised platform, called a takhat or throne.

At the age of 13, Guru Hargobind erected Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, ten feet above the ground and adorned it with two swords, Miri and Piri, representing temporal and spiritual power.

7. Guru Har Rai Sahib Ji - Guru for 17 years from 1644 to 1661

Guru Har Rai was born in 1630. He spent most of his life in devotional meditation and spreading the teachings of Guru Nanak. Although Guru Har Rai Ji was a man of peace, he never disbanded the armed Sikh Warriors (Saint Soldiers), who earlier were maintained by his grandfather, Guru Hargobind. He always boosted the military spirit of the Sikhs, but he never himself indulged in any direct political and armed controversy with the Mughal Empire. Guru Ji cautiously avoided conflict with Emperor Aurangzeb and devoted his efforts to spreading the teachings. He also continued the grand task of nation building initiated by Guru Hargobind.

8. Guru Har Krishan Sahib Ji - Guru for three years from 1661 to 1664

Guru Har Krishan was born in 1656. Guru Har Krishan was the youngest of the Gurus. He was installed as Guru at the age of five. Guru Ji astonished the Brahmin Pundits with his knowledge and spiritual powers.

To the Sikhs he proved to be the very symbol of service, purity and truth. The Guru gave his life while serving and healing the epidemic-stricken people in Delhi. The young Guru began to attend the sufferers irrespective of cast and creed. Particularly, the local Muslim population was much impressed with the purely humanitarian deeds of the Guru Sahib and nicknamed him Bala Pir (child prophet.)

Sensing the sensitivity of the situation, even the emperor Aurangzeb did not try to disturb Guru Harkrishan Sahib. Anyone who invokes Guru Har Krishan with a pure heart has no difficulties whatsoever in their life.

9. Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib Ji - Guru for 10 years from 1665 to 1675

Guru Tegh Bahadur was born in 1621 in Amritsar. He established the town of Anandpur (City of Bliss.) The Guru laid down his life for the protection of the Hindu religion, their Tilak (devotional forehead markings) and their sacred thread (janeau.) He was a firm believer in the right of people to the freedom of worship.

It was for this cause that he faced martyrdom for the defence of the down-trodden Hindus. So intense was the torture of Guru Tegh Bahadur by the emperor Aurangzeb that his body had to be cremated clandestinely at Delhi (a follower burned down his own home in order to cremate the Guru's body) while his severed head was secretly taken four hundred kilometres away to Anandpur Sahib for cremation. Because of his own refusal to convert to Islam a threatened forced conversion of the Hindus of Kashmir was thwarted.

10. Guru Gobind Singh Sahib Ji – Guru for 33 years from 1675 to 1708

Guru Gobind Singh was born at Patna in 1666 and became Guru at the age of nine after the martyrdom of his father Guru Tegh Bahadur. He created the Khalsa Panth (The Pure Ones) in 1699, transforming the Sikhs into a saint-soldier order with special symbols and sacraments for protecting themselves. After the Guru had administered Amrit (baptism) to his Five Beloved Ones (Panj Piyarees), he stood up in supplication and with folded hands, begged them to initiate him in exactly the same way as he had initiated them. He himself became their disciple (Wonderful is Guru Gobind Singh, himself the Master and himself the disciple). The Five Beloved Ones were astonished at such a proposal, and represented their own unworthiness and the greatness of the Guru, whom they deemed God's representative upon earth. He gave the Sikhs the name Singh (lion) or Kaur (princess).

He fought many battles against the armies of Aurangzeb and his allies. After he had lost his father, his mother and his four sons to Mughal tyranny, he wrote his famous letter (the Zafarnama) to Aurangzeb, in which he indicted the Grand Mughal for his treachery and lack of godliness, after which the attacks against the Guru and his Sikhs were called off. Aurangzeb died soon after reading the letter. Soon, the rightful heir to the Mughal throne sought the Guru's assistance in winning his kingdom. It was the envy and fear of the growing friendship between the new Emperor and the Guru which lead to the sneak attack of the Pathan assassins of Wasir Khan who inflicted the wound which later caused the Guru's death.

Thus the tree whose seed was planted by Guru Nanak, came to fruition when Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa, and on 3 October 1708, appointed the Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru. He commanded: "Let all bow before my successor, Guru Granth. The Word is the Guru now."

11. Guru Granth Sahib Ji - Guru from 1708 to eternity

Sri Guru Granth Sahib (originally known as the Adi Granth) is the scripture of the Sikhs. No Sikh ceremony is regarded as complete unless it is performed in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib.
The Granth was written in Gurmukhi script and it contains the actual words and verses as uttered by the Sikh Gurus.

It is considered the Supreme Spiritual Authority and Head of the Sikh religion, rather than any living person. It is also the only scripture of its kind which not only contains the works of its own religious founders but also the writings of people of other faiths. The living Guru of the Sikhs, it is held in great reverence by Sikhs and treated with the utmost respect. Guru Granth Sahib speaks directly to the soul. It conveys a universal message for all humankind.The greatness of the Guru Granth Sahib lies not only in its being the Holy Scripture of the Sikhs but also in it being a general scripture available to mankind, intended for everybody, everywhere.

Sikhs don’t trim their hair or beards because they wish to remain as close to their natural state — the way God made them — as possible. They wear turbans to show their devotion to their religion and, for more practical reasons, to keep their long hair neat and clean along with their facial hair.

Sikh pray in houses of worship called Gurdwaras (Door to the Guru), where they gather together to recite and sing the sacred scriptures, poetry in praise of God. Like other religious people, many of them wear articles of faith, including long uncut hair, which men and some women wrap in a turban. The turbans represent the community’s long-standing commitment to stand up and serve people, fighting injustice in all forms.

Sikhs are a resilient race and have overcome a history of discrimination to become farmers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, academics, and leaders in their communities. Sikhs possess a sense of community. The Gurus spoke frequently spoke of the Sangat (congregational group,) the fellowships of believers which is essential for spiritual and moral development. Guru Ram Das Ji said: “Just as the castor oil plant imbibes the scent of nearby sandal wood, so wrong doers become emancipated through the company of the faithful.”

Most significantly uttering your mantra with deep breaths and allowing it to soak into every pore of your body and cranny of your mind. This mantra is listened to and/or chanted to answer all prayers from us, known and unknown. This mantra is a miracle that is complete when reciting it, listening to it, or even receiving the energy of it from someone else.

Normally there is no power in the human but the power of prayer. And to do prayer, you have to put your mind and body together and then pray from the soul. It is all about meditating in the name of Waheguru‬ to achieve inner success of bliss and happiness.‬

Here is a summary of what Sikhs believe and of Sikh culture.

  • Sikhs believe that everyone, man, woman and child, has equal status before God, who created the universe and all faiths. Human beings are encouraged to develop their moral character through generosity, humility and self-reliance.
  • Sikh means “seeker of knowledge” in Punjabi, the language of India’s Punjab region and of Sikhism’s hymns. Sikh means a humble student and a disciple of truth.
  • Sikhism was divinely revealed to its first Guru, or prophet, Guru Nanak, who died in 1539. Nine Gurus followed him, the last of which, Guru Gobind Singh, died in 1708.
  • Sikhs keep their hair uncut, in its natural state, as a sign of living in harmony with God. Men — and some women — cover their hair with turbans as a mark of their faith. Boys start wearing a patka over their hair when it is long enough to tie into a topknot.
  • The kara is a steel bracelet (sarbhloh) worn by Sikhs to remind them of the unity of God. The kirpan is a ceremonial dagger (though not a weapon) that is meant to remind Sikhs of the duty to fight injustice.
  • The Sikh place of worship is known as a Gurdwara, and it is where the Sikh Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib, is kept, though copies are also found in Sikh homes. In a Gurdwara, all remove their shoes, and all cover their heads.
  • The central Sikh shrine is the Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar, India, which is also known as the Golden Temple.
  • After services, Sikhs partake in the langar, a communal vegetarian meal, typically of Punjabi food, cooked and served by volunteers.
  • Sikh is properly pronounced “sik” but you will likely not be corrected for saying “seek.” The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit “sikhna” meaning to learn.

In a nutshell, Sikhism is not so much a religion as a unique way of life whereby one lives truthfully and compassionately, living and remembering God always. Most Sikhs are God-loving people who have made an impact in each and every community in which they have settled. Sikhs are hard- working and have served in the two world wars. They are brave soldiers. To others, they are hard- working farmers, retailers and professionals serving the community. Sikhs have become prominent members of the world religious landscape, not merely because of their unique identity, but because they have held close and lived by the teachings of the Gurus, whose divinely revealed teachings and technologies are kept alive today within the Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Sikhs are gracious in their success, humble in their aspirations and both resilient and positive in times of failure.


  1. The Sikh Coalition, Sikhism at a Glance; the Sikh Studies Unit from the Kaur Foundation; Singh Mann, Gurinder, et al. 
  2. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  3. Valarie Kaur is a seasoned activist, civil rights lawyer, award-winning filmmaker, media commentator, educator, entrepreneur, and Sikh interfaith leader. Her new venture, the Revolutionary Love Project at the University of Southern California, champions the ethic of love in an era of rage. Latest at @valariekaur.
  4. SikhiWiki The Ten Sikh Gurus
  5. Khalsa Jatha British Isles. The Central Gurdwara (Khalsa Jatha) London; An introduction to Sikhism by Amarpal Singh Sidhu
  6. Sikhism by Owen Cole
  7. The Sikh Coalition, "About Sikhs"

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