Kirtan: Congregational Singing At the Heart of Worship
A General Introduction to Sikhism
What are the Five K's?
The Five Ks (Punjabi: (ਪੰਜ ਕਕਾਰ Pañj Kakār) are five Articles of Faith that Khalsa Sikhs wear at all times as commanded by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who so ordered it at the Waisakhi Amrit Sanskar in 1699. The Five Ks are: Kesh (uncut long hair), a Kangha (small wooden comb), a Kara (steel or iron bracelet), a Kacchera (piece of undergarment) and a Kirpan (short dagger). The Five Ks are not just symbols, but articles of faith that collectively form the external identity and the Khalsa devotee's commitment to the Sikh rehni "Sikh way of life".
Where can I go to learn more about Sikhism and other religions?
For reliable information on seventeen religions found in America, along with links and bibliographies, we recommend On Common Ground created by the Pluralism Project at Harvard. Visit www.pluralism.org/ocg or click here.
Relational Spirituality in Action: Langar as a communal meal Where everyone is welcome
Langar is the communal meal shared by Sikhs and all visitors to the gurdwara. Since the founding of the Sikh community, langar has come to be an important part of Sikh religious life. After the service, no Sikh will leave without partaking of langar. For Sikhs, eating together in this way is expressive of the equality and oneness of all humankind. At the same time, it strengthens the Sikh sense of community. Visitors and guests are readily and warmly included in the great hospitality of the Sikh tradition. In visiting a gurdwara one will always be offered the sweet prashad which is distributed in the sanctuary as the “grace” of the Guru. And in visiting at the time of a service, one will be offered the entire langar meal.
One of the most obvious signs of caste inequality in traditional Indian society is the taboo against eating with those outside one’s caste group, of a lower caste, or of a different religion. Rules for the sharing of food and water are many, especially among high caste Hindus. From the beginning, the Sikh Gurus explicitly rejected this inequality by asking that all Sikhs and all visitors to the Sikhgurdwaras partake of common food in the company of one another. In the langar hall, women and men, rich and poor, high and low sit together. The langar meal thus assails the inner core of inequality and symbolizes a Sikh’s personal rejection of prejudice.
Sikhism is a strong monotheistic religious tradition. It grew up in the full light of history, in response to the teachings of Guru Nanak, who lived in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in India. Guru Nanak is said to have received revelation directly from God and transmitted it in the hymns that have been cherished and sung by the Sikhs for nearly five hundred years. These hymns, composed in beautiful verse, pulsate with a mystical, yet practical message. They proclaim the Divine Name of God, the liberating power of devotion to the Name, the kinship of all people, and the equality of men and women.
A vibrant community of disciples called Sikhs gathered around Guru Nanak. Before his death, he designated a successor as guru. Thus began a lineage of Gurus that would extend ten generations. Sikhs call their tradition of belief and practice the Sikh Panth, meaning the “community of the disciples of the Guru.” It is a community shaped in tone and spirit by the very first words of the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib: Ek Onkar, God is One. It is a universal and inclusive affirmation. The one God can only be the God of all humanity, not the Sikhs alone. Sikhs do not divide the world into believers and non-believers, but rather find beauty and power in all religions, insofar as they seek to know God. The Guru Granth Sahib, thus includes not only the hymns of the gurus, but hymns of some of the Hindu and Muslim poets and saints as well.
The Sikh community has flourished for the past five hundred years. While their heartland is in the Punjab in northwest India, Sikhs have now settled throughout the world. Their gurdwaras, the places of worship called “the gateways of the Guru,” are centers for community gathering and community service—whether in India or in Kenya, in Southall, England or Fremont, California. Today, the United States is home to 500,000 of the world’s twenty-five million Sikhs.
Becoming a Sikh: First Steps Toward a Sikh Process Theology
If you are a Sikh, you are alwaysbecoming a Sikh. Sikhism is a verb not a noun: a way of living in which we try to grow into our better selves, as awakened by our gurus, our community, our rituals, our friends, our guides.
From a Sikh perspective, the purpose of becoming our better selves is not for personal happiness alone; it is for the sake of other people, animals, and the earth. We have rituals that help us remember and realize this purpose.
One of them, as evidenced in the video from Aston University above, is the community meal. For us this meal reveals the social purpose of the Sikh journey. That purpose is to help create communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and egalitarian, with no one left behind. These communities can and should be multi-faith. We do not seek to convert the world to our religion; we Sikhs understand ourselves as one among many paths in the journey of life, and we celebrate the wisdom found in other paths just as we celebrate our own. We think the light of the divine is in all of them; wherever there is truth, goodness, and beauty it is of God and from God, thus named or not.
What is the end of the journey? As we see things, the end of the journey is a state of oneness with the formless One in whom we live and move and have our being. This formless one is living Truth. We are all on a continuing journey toward this ultimate end, and we have many lifetimes in which to reach the end. Reincarnation is as real as the One by whose wisdom we are drawn. We are rivers on our way to a holy Ocean. God is the Ocean.
It is in the context of this larger journey that we find responses to questions often asked of us. We know that many people find us different and we think differences are good. In today's world it is important to say Yes to similarities and to differences, and the differences make the whole of life richer. The differences are part of the glory of the divine; the formlessness of the divine -- itself a formlessness of love -- is filled with the forms of the world. The formlessness of God forms an open space for the manyness of the world, including its many cultures and religions.
As Sikhs we want to take our place in the larger family of religions, and we now dwell in many parts of the world, seeking to claim and live from our unique identities, while celebrating the uniqueness of others. Here are questions we are often asked:
Here are some of them:
1. What is the spiritual significance of the turban? It is a traditional headdress we wear in order to symbolize that we seek to grow into what some playfully call fat souls, or wide minds. A wide mind is someone who can embrace people and other living beings in a spirit of loving-kindness, who can accept the complexities of the world without running away, who can deal creatively with enriching tensions, and who can do so with a spirit of strength and humility. The humility is as important as the strength. The turban symbolizes the fact that we are all royalty – all queens and kings – but we learn from our gurus that true royalty is service to others.
True royalty requires a dropping away of the ego and this dropping away is an act of becoming. It takes time and makes time for the dropping away to occur. The turban is a symbol, not only for who we are, but for who we are trying to become. We seek to become royal friends to other people, animals, and the earth. We are always on the way toward royalty, each with our own dignity. Caste and class, gender and even religion, make no difference. The grace of the Ocean is available to people of all faiths, not Sikhs alone.
2. What is a guru? A guru is a person whose mind and heart are filled with the living wisdom of the divine reality. This wisdom includes but is also more than abstract ideas. The wisdom dwells in the subjective forms (moods and emotions) and subjective aims (felt purposes) of the guru: that is, in the mind of the guru. The purpose of devotion to the guru is to participate in and receive these qualities. There is a pipeline from the guru to us and, fortunately, there can be a transmission from mind to mind, from heart to heart, if our own hearts are open. We can feel the feelings of the guru. This is the grace of the guru. The guru does not simply teach ideas; the guru shares feelings. Indeed, the guru is feelings.
3. What does it mean to say that a book -- the Guru Granth Sahib -- is a guru? It means that the Guru Granth Sahib is more than simply words on a page. The Guru Granth Sahib is akin to a living poem which, as alive in congregational singing, is a channel for the energies of the subjective forms and aims of the One in whom we are enfolded and for whom we yearn. This is why kirtan (congregational singing) is so important. In the singing we can feel the feelings of the holy One. We become immersed in the feelings and they become, in the moment at hand, our own minds and hearts. We become one with the One through the song.
4. Why wear a dagger? Mostly men wear a dagger, but women can wear them, too. Always the dagger is hidden in order not to frighten people. The dagger is one of the five k’s, and it is called a kirpan. The word kirpan is derived from the word ‘kirpa’ and ‘aan.’ Kirpa means an act of compassion, and ‘aan’ mean honor. Thus the kirpan is a bringer of mercy and an affirmation of the honor deserved by every living being.
At best this honor is naturally recognized and appreciated; at best we live in societies that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and equitable, with no one left behind. The societies are filled with justice. These are the kinds of societies Sikhs seek, in cooperation with people of other faiths and of no faith. But sometimes this honor must be struggled for and defended. It might be nice if life was always free of struggle, but it is not. The truth is that we grow into wide minds, turbaned souls, with effort and with struggle. This is our human condition. The kirpan symbolizes our willingness to defend the vulnerable, to fight for what is good and right, to stand up and be counted. We are soldiers.
The ultimate enemy against whom we fight is not outside us, but rather inside us. They are what we call the five evils: lust, greed, anger, excessive attachment to material possessions, and pride. We might call them ego. The kirpa symbolizes our desire to cut off, to relinquish, the destructive energies of the ego, all of our lives, so that we can help bring about goodness in the world.
5. What about the role of women in Sikhism? At a theoretical level, women are equal to men in every respect. But at a practical level, Sikihism, like all world religions, has been guided and governed by men, not women. This has given it part of its militaristic ethos, and it is a problem also today. We younger Sikhs are working with women and men of many other religions to help develop a post-patriarchal Sikhism that builds upon the better aspects of our past, critiques the worst aspects of our past, and moves into a new and different future, beckoned by the formless One in whom we live and move and have our being. This means that, for us, the community of Sikhs are in process, too. We are a multi-generational people who want to honor our elders and gurus, and also honor the lives and experiences of generations yet to be born. We believe that there can be progress, even in religion. We hope to be part of that progress.
6. What role can Sikhism play in a troubled world? Our world is indeed troubled in so many ways: global climate change, the ever-present threat of nuclear war, violence based on ethnic hatreds and ancient tensions, terrible gaps between rich and poor. As Sikhs our hope is that our faith, as lived by us in local settings, can help bring about a better world in service to all, through socially-conscious businesses, non-governmental organizations, and government work, through family life and the examples we lead as individuals in our relations with friends and families. We know that our numbers are somewhat small compared to the bigger religions: Christianity and Islam, for example. But they are not that small; we are the fifth most populous religion on the planet. And size doesn't really matter that much. It all begins with individual responsibility.
Our approach is to take the spirit of sharing that is part of our communal meal and make that an "offering" to the world, practically and spiritually. We will do our best to offer such meals in many local settings, letting the meals symbolize the deeper hope of our planet, that we can live together in peace and justice, free from greed and free for compassion. We know that it is in practices -- shared meals, for example -- that people really come together. Debates about beliefs are not so important. It is in the sharing that God is present.
Adherents of Sikhism are known as Sikhs, (students or disciplines). According to Devinder Singh Chahal, "The word 'Sikhi' (commonly known as Gurmat) gave rise to the modern anglicized word 'Sikhism' for the modern world."Gurmat means literally 'wisdom of the Guru' in contrast to Manmat, or self-willed impulses.
According to Sewa Singh Kalsi, "The central teaching in Sikhism is the belief in the concept of the oneness of God."Sikhism considers spiritual life and secular life to be intertwined. Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru established the system of the Landar, or communal kitchen, in order to demonstrate the need to share and have equality between all people. Sikhs also believe that "all religious traditions are equally valid and capable of enlightening their followers". In addition to sharing with others Guru Nanak inspired people to earn an honest living without exploitation and also the need for remembrance of the divine name (God). Guru Nanak described living an "active, creative, and practical life" of "truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity" as being higher than a purely contemplative life. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, established the political/temporal (Miri) and spiritual (Piri) realms to be mutually coexistent.
According to the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadhur, the ideal Sikh should have both Shakti (power that resides in the temporal), and Bhakti (spiritual meditative qualities). Finally the concept of the baptized Saint Soldier of the Khalsa was formed by the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh in 1699 at Anandpur Sahib. Sikhs are expected to embody the qualities of a "Sant-Sipāhī"—a saint-soldier. Sikhs are expected to have control over the so-called "Five Thieves", dispelling these by means of the so-called "Five Virtues".