Frequently Asked Questions on Sikhism
WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A SIKH?
The most widely accepted definition of a Sikh comes from the Sikh code of conduct, the Rehat Maryada. Originally written in Punjabi, it is translated as:
“A Sikh is any woman or man whose faith consists of belief in:
The ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh,
The Guru Granth Sahib,
The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus,
Who has faith in and aspires to take Amrit, initiation ceremony into the Khalsa,
And who does not owe allegiance to any other religion.”
As with most religions, however, a devotee cannot be confined to a definition.
HOW MANY SIKHS LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES? WHEN DID SIKHS FIRST IMMIGRATE TO AMERICA?
There are over 500,000 Sikh Americans, and Sikhs have been in America for over 100 years.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT SIKHISM EVEN THOUGH IT IS THE 5TH LARGEST WORLD RELIGION?
There are several different reasons. First, Sikhism, compared to other world traditions, is relatively young. The faith first emerged in 1469. Second, since many people are not aware that Sikhism is the fifth largest world religion, it is not referenced when discussing the other world religions. For example, many school textbooks have incorrect or no information on the faith.
IS THERE AN OFFICIAL SIKH GREETING?
The tenth Sikh Guru instructed Sikhs to greet each other with “Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh” (“The Khalsa belongs to Waheguru (the Divine) and victory belongs to Waheguru”). Another common Sikh greeting is “Sat Sri Akal” (“Truth reigns eternal”).
IS THERE A SIKH EMBLEM OR SYMBOL? WHAT IS THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE KHANDA?
The Ik Onkar and the Khanda are some of the symbols of the Sikhs. According to the Sikh scholar Kapur Singh, the Khanda first appeared around the eighteenth century.
“The Khanda is the symbol of the Sikhs, as the Cross is to Christians or the Star of David is to Jews. It reflects some of the fundamental concepts of Sikhism. The symbol derives its name from the double-edged sword (also called a Khanda) which appears at the center of the logo. This double-edged sword is a metaphor of divine knowledge, its sharp edges cleaving truth from falsehood. The circle around the Khanda is the chakar. The chakar being a circle without a beginning or end symbolizes the perfection of God who is eternal. The chakar is surrounded by two curved swords called kirpans. These two swords symbolize the twin concepts of meeri and peeri – temporal and spiritual authority introduced by Guru Hargobind. They emphasize the equal emphasis that a Sikh must place on spiritual aspirations as well as obligations to society.” This information was obtained from http://www.sikhs.org/khanda.htm.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR ‘SIKH COLOR’? SAFFRON?
No, there is no particular color for Sikhs or Sikhism. The Sikh flag, which is seen at almost every Gurdwara, is a bright orange/saffron color or dark blue. These represent traditional colors for Sikhs.
WHY DO SO MANY SIKHS HAVE A COMMON NAME, SINGH OR KAUR?
The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created the unique identity of the Sikhs and also gave all Sikh men one last name – Singh and all Sikh women another – Kaur. The reason for doing so is strongly rooted in the culture of South Asia. In that time period’s caste-ridden society and even today, someone’s last/family name signifies their social status and caste. Guru Gobind Singh wanted to remove these barriers between people, and create an egalitarian society. The word Singh means Lion and the word Kaur denotes Princess.
DO SOME SIKHS KEEP THEIR LAST (CASTE) NAME? WHY?
Many Sikh families have kept their family name, but have maintained Singh and Kaur as middle names.
DO SIKHS HAVE ANY DIETARY RESTRICTIONS? CAN SIKHS EAT MEAT?
Sikh Gurus strongly forbade all rituals and superstitions. Sikhs are thus not allowed to eat any food prepared through a ritualistic process (e.g., Sikhs are not meant to eat Kosher or Halal). There is no mandate allowing or disallowing Sikhs to eat meat. Sikhs are also not supposed to drink alcohol or consume any other intoxicants.
IS THERE A SIKH CEREMONY OF INITIATION?
Yes. Initiated Sikhs are said to have joined the “Khalsa.” Joining the Khalsa is an important step in one’s life. You are pledging your commitment to this faith and agreeing to live your life as a Sikh. This means that you must wear the five articles of faith, and carry Singh or Kaur as your last name.
HOW OLD DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO BE INITIATED?
There is no prescribed age at which a Sikh should be initiated and can choose to do so whenever he or she is ready. According to the Rehat Maryada, only those who understand the significance of the ceremony and carry its discipline with sincerity should be initiated. It is important that once you are initiated you are committed to that lifestyle.
WHY DON’T SIKHS CUT OR SHAVE THEIR HAIR?
The founders of the Sikh faith started the practice of keeping hair unshorn. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, gave the Sikhs 5 articles of faith (including unshorn hair), which as a whole comprise the daily uniform of a Sikh. In other words, keeping your hair (kesh) and wearing a turban form an external identity for a Sikh.
HOW ABOUT PEOPLE WITH CUT HAIR WHO IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS SIKH?
All Sikhs are supposed to have uncut/untrimmed hair. But like in every religion, there are people who closely follow the religion and others who may not. Some people may cut their hair, but that does not exclude them from the Sikh community.
DO WOMEN SHAVE?
Sikhs are not supposed to cut hair from any part of their body. All Sikhs are thus supposed to have unshorn hair, and Sikh women are to maintain a separate identity and not shave.
CAN I TOUCH SOMEONE’S TURBAN OR HAIR?
Do not touch someone’s turban or hair without asking, as it may make him/her uncomfortable.
WHAT IS UNDER YOUR TURBAN?
Hair. Sikhs keep their hair unshorn and tie it in a bun or top knot on top of his/her head.
WHAT DOES THE COLOR OF THE TURBAN MEAN? DO ALL SIKHS WEAR THE SAME COLOR? WHY OR WHY NOT?
Sikhs can wear any color or style of turban, and there are no significant colors. Some Sikhs wear very few colors and others have a broad color palette.
HOW CAN I TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SIKH TURBANS AND OTHER TURBANS?
Ever Sikh ties his or her turban slightly differently. Remember that in America, 99% of the people you see wearing a turban will be Sikh. If you see someone wearing a turban and you are not sure if they are Sikh or not, ask them!
The Sikh turban is thus an article of faith. People of many other cultures and religions wear turbans, but none are required to do so by their religion.
Sikhs tie their turbans anew each day. Sikh turbans become a part of a Sikh’s body and are usually removed only in the privacy of the house.
DO WOMEN WEAR TURBANS?
Just like Sikh men, Sikh women are not supposed to cut their hair. In the Rehat Maryada, it is explicitly written that Sikh men wear a turban. There is nothing explicitly written about women, except that the turban is optional. Traditionally, women have always covered their head, but we’ve seen in the last 50 years, that women have deviated from this. There are many reasons for this change: globalization, cultural trends, and a lack of clarity in the Rehat Maryada. For Sikh women who tie a turban, the turban is just as much a part of their body and identity as it is for Sikh men!
WHY DO SIKHS WEAR A KIRPAN? WHAT SIZE KIRPAN DOES A SIKH CARRY?
A kirpan does not have a prescribed length. In most cases it is about 3-9 inches long. The kirpan serves as a reminder to fight against injustice and oppression. A Sikh understands that carrying a kirpan is a great responsibility. It is only intended to protect themselves or others.
DO KIDS IN SCHOOL CARRY A KIRPAN?
Some Sikhs that are younger have made the choice to become initiated, and as such, do wear a kirpan. Oftentimes, school personnel are aware that the Sikh student wears a kirpan, and both parties have come to an understanding as to how the student may wear his/her kirpan.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A SIKH GOES ON AN AIRPLANE? DO YOU HAVE TO TAKE THE KIRPAN OFF?
At the present time, Sikhs put their kirpans into check-in luggage and do not carry it with them on an airplane.
CAN I VISIT A GURDWARA?
Everyone is welcome at a Gurdwara regardless of their race, religion, color or class. If you are interested in visiting a Gurdwara, feel free to reach out to Sikhs you know or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for additional suggestions and ideas.
DO YOU HAVE TO BE A SIKH TO READ THE GURU GRANTH SAHIB?
Anyone who wishes to can read the Guru Granth Sahib.
DO SIKHS HAVE A CLERGY? WHAT ABOUT GRANTHIS/GIANIS?
No. Sikh gurus were very clear about each Sikh making her or his own journey and not depending on a clergy to show them the way. Sikhs do have Granthis/Gianis. These are people who have studied the Sikh scriptures extensively, and are available in the Gurdwaras as teachers. They often lead a congregation, but any members from the congregations – both men and women – can also perform the same ceremonies.
CAN WOMEN EXECUTE DUTIES IN A GURDWARA OR CONGREGATION?
Yes. Sikhism does not delineate/define certain tasks to only men or only women. A woman can lead or take part in any service or ceremony just as a man would.
WHY ARE MEN AND WOMEN DIVIDED INTO SEPARATE SECTIONS WHILE SITTING IN THE GURDWARA?
Sikh Gurus always taught equality between men and women. For instance, the Gurus decried the cultural climate that denied women access to religion and gave women equal rights as men in all spheres.
In Sikh congregations, men and women are asked to sit side by side – women on one side of the Guru Granth Sahib, and men on the other. There are both practical and cultural reasons for this practice. Since everyone sits on the floor, often unintentionally touching the person next to them when there is a large congregation, having such interaction with the member of the opposite gender is frequently inappropriate in the cultural context in which Sikhism arose.
However, in some smaller Gurdwaras, men and women may be seen sitting mixed in the congregation.
WHAT IS LANGAR?
The Sikh Gurus instituted the unique practice of Langar. Langar is food that is cooked by the members of the community and served by members of the community, to all people at the Gurdwara. All Gurdwaras have a common kitchen, where Langar is cooked by volunteers and open to all. Langar is communal cooking, eating and sharing. Langar is eaten while sitting on the ground. The idea is to demonstrate equality of all people, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, race or sex. When Sikhism was sprouting in the South Asian subcontinent, the caste system stratified society. Higher castes would sit on stools and chairs and eat, while the lowest caste were not allowed to eat even in the same room, and usually on the floor, away from sight. The Gurus wanted Sikhs to always practice egalitarianism and communal responsibility. Langar represents one of the institutions the Gurus founded to break down caste barriers.
WHAT IS THE SIKH WEDDING CEREMONY?
The Sikh marriage ceremony is called Anand Karaj. It is performed in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture. In a Sikh wedding, scripture is read from the Guru Granth Sahib, and after each section the couple walks around the Guru Granth Sahib, showing their commitment to the teachings being read. This is done four times. Following this, a communal prayer is said for the couple and religious hymns are sung. The ceremony may be performed by any initiated member of the Sikh faith. The prayers being read indicate that the couple pledge allegiance to each other as well as the Sikh way of life and make a commitment to working together to help each other realize the Divine Presence.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN AN AFTERLIFE? DO YOU BELIEVE IN HEAVEN/HELL, SALVATION?
Sikh focus is on this lifetime. The Sikh Scripture ask Sikhs to make the best of their time on this earth, for this is one’s opportunity to accomplish her or his best and to make a connection with Waheguru – the One, Omnipotent Power. Sikhs are asked not to partake in rituals and superstitions and not to concentrate on what occurred before birth or after death. Sikh scripture repudiates a belief in a physical place called Heaven or Hell. Similarly, Sikhism rejects the notion of a Judgment Day. Sikhs believe in the doctrine of karma, which is a cosmic law that takes into account a person’s good and bad actions during his or her lifetime. The person then is rewarded or must endure suffering based on his deeds. The Sikh scripture supports the idea of reincarnation.
FUNERALS – WHERE, WHAT, HOW?
According to the Sikh Rehat, Sikhs may dispose the body of the dead in any way they like. Sikhs generally cremate their dead because it is clean, simple and environmentally friendly. The body is bathed and clothed in fresh clothes by family members, and community members say collective prayers. The ashes are usually gathered afterwards, and put afloat in a flowing body of water – returning the person’s last physical remains to nature.
WHAT DOES SIKHISM TEACH ABOUT OTHER RELIGIONS?
The Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, is the only major religious text which contains writings by teachers of other faiths. This is because Sikh gurus taught that there are many different ways of achieving a connection with the God. The Sikh way is one of these ways. If you are following the Sikh way, you must follow it to the best of your abilities, and with absolute devotion.
DOES SIKHISM TRY TO CONVERT OTHERS?
No. Sikhism forbids proselytization or forced conversions. Sikhism believes that there are many paths to achieving attunement with the Divine. However, Sikhism welcomes those interested in learning about the religion. Thus, people might learn about Sikh faith and then even be initiated as Sikhs. There are Chinese Sikhs, African Sikhs etc. However, once someone is initiated as a Sikh, she or he must follow the Sikh path to the best of her or his ability.