Sikhism Explained: What to Know About This Often-Misunderstood Religion

By: Dave Roos  | 

Sikhs light candles, India
Sikh devotees light candles on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Guru Angad Dev Ji, the second guru of Sikhs, at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in India on May 12, 2021. NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images

There are more than 25 million Sikhs on the planet, making Sikhism the fifth-largest religion in the world, yet many westerners are painfully ignorant of this monotheistic, centuries-old faith with roots in South Asia. Chances are that if you've seen a man or woman in the United States wearing a turban, they are Sikh — not Muslim or Hindu — and part of the proud community of roughly 500,000 Sikh Americans.

The word Sikh (pronounced with a short "i" like "sick") means "learner," and Sikhs refer to their religion as Sikhi or the "path of learning." This path, as taught by a succession of 10 enlightened gurus and written in the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture), focuses on cultivating selfless love toward all of God's creatures through service and prayer.

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God, Gurus and Equality

Sikhi is not a combination or offshoot of any other religion. It is a distinct religious faith founded in 1469 by a man named Guru Nanak, who taught that there was one God, that all living beings contained a divine spark of this infinite being, and that all people were therefore equal and equally deserving of love. Guru Nanak was born in the Punjab region of South Asia, now split between modern-day India and Pakistan, and his message of total equality was in part a radical rejection of the caste system, which viewed entire classes of people as "untouchable."

To a Sikh, the guru is a "spiritual teacher." Guru Nanak was the first of 10 living gurus or enlightened teachers who were inspired by God to reveal the path of Sikhi to the world. Before the passing of the 10th guru in 1708, the eternal and perpetual guruship was bestowed to the Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of writings from the 10 gurus plus teachers from other faiths, and to the Guru Khalsa Panth, the community of initiated Sikhs. Sikhs now regard the Guru Granth Sahib and the Guru Khalsa Panth together as the "living and eternal Guru."

"The Guru Granth Sahib is an embodiment of the Guru's teachings and therefore an embodiment of the Guru," says Pritpal Kaur, education director for the Sikh Coalition, a Sikh advocacy and outreach organization. "That's why it's treated with the reverence and respect of a living guru."

Sikh parade, Denver
More than 1,000 Sikhs march in Denver's first-ever Sikh parade in 2016. The event was held to celebrate the culture of the growing Sikh population in the area.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

If a Sikh family has the Guru Granth Sahib in their home, for example, it's given its own room. And at Sikh places of worship, known as gurdwaras, the Guru Granth Sahib is placed on a throne and devotees bow to the scripture out of respect, says Kaur.

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Seva, the Sikh Practice of Selfless Service

While the gurus and Sikh scripture discuss reincarnation and the "afterlife," Sikhs are primarily focused on the here and now — what they can do in their daily lives to love and serve others, and to be spiritual warriors for social justice and equality, says Kaur. The Sikh practice of selfless service, called seva, is central to the faith.

For example, one of the oldest and most cherished traditions in Sikhi is called langar, preparing and serving free meals for the public. In India, most Sikh gurdwaras are open 24/7 and serve vegetarian meals to a continuous stream of people from all walks of life. The food is prepared by volunteers and, true to Sikh principles of equality, everyone is welcome — and seated together on the floor to erase class distinctions. Gurdwaras in the U.S. also practice langar, but may serve food during specific hours, says Kaur.

Simran Jeet Singh, a writer and scholar named by Time magazine as one of 16 people fighting for a more equal America, says that service is a great way to look beyond oneself and feel that connection with God and fellow beings.

"Seva lines up really beautifully with one of the core Sikh teachings, which is that we suffer in this life because we are disconnected from our own divinity," says Singh. "The disconnection occurs because of our egos. Seva can become a daily practice that helps erase the ego, and in that way really start feeling the selfless love that is our ultimate goal."

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Turbans and Other Articles of Faith

The turban is one of the most visible outward articles of faith of Sikhism. For those who have formally joined the community of Sikh initiates, called the khalsa, it becomes a mandatory religious requirement as an article of faith. In a ceremony called Amrit Sanchar, individual Sikhs formally commit to living by the guru's teachings, including spiritual practice, discipline and social justice. (Women may wear turbans too, but more often they wear a long scarf called a chunni.)

Female Sikh worshippers
Members of the Sikh community gather at the Sikh Satsang of Indianapolis on April 18, 2021. A former FedEx employee fatally shot eight people, including four Sikhs, at the delivery company's facility in Indianapolis. Male and female Sikh worshippers often sit separately although they participate equally.
JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images

"It's like a spiritual marriage to God," says Kaur. "And along with the commitment comes a type of uniform as well."

Along with the turban, initiated Sikhs show their commitment to God by maintaining five additional "articles of faith," that they will wear including:

  • kes (uncut hair): Sikhs promise to never shave or cut any hair on their bodies. Uncut hair affirms an acceptance of God's will as creator and cherishing a God-given gift.
  • kirpan: This resembles a small knife and is worn in a strap called a gatra. This symbolizes a commitment to justice and defending the weak.
  • kanga: This is a small comb for the hair; in addition to practicality in keeping hair tidy, it encourages people to remove tangles from their lives and pursue clarity and order.
  • kara: This steel bracelet symbolizes a commitment to the Guru and the community.
  • kashera: This is a special type of undergarment that is changed every day. It represents a commitment to sexual restraint if unmarried, fidelity to a spouse if married, and respect for others.

Taken together these items are known as the Five Ks.

"It's up to the individual and their personal journey [as to when to be initiated]," says Kaur. "Some Sikhs wish to make a commitment as early as 7 or 8 years old, and others do it in their 70s or 80s. Some never end up making a formal commitment, but they're still part of the Sikh community and aren't judged."

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Being a Turbaned Sikh in America After 9/11

The first Sikhs immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century and settled in California and other west coast communities. While turbaned Sikhs have been frequent targets for xenophobic and racist attacks in America, the situation got far worse after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the turbaned Sikh identity came to be conflated with the stereotype of a "Muslim terrorist." On Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, became the first American killed in a post-9/11 hate crime. In 2012, a white supremacist killed six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. And four Sikhs were among the eight killed at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in April 2021.

Singh, the writer, grew up as one of the only turbaned Sikhs in his Texas community and was in high school when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. He and his family experienced backlash from racists during this time. He knows that even today wearing the turban makes him a potential target for hate, but it only strengthens his resolve to live out his Sikh values, which include fighting for justice for all faiths, including his Muslim brothers and sisters.

"As I wrap my turban every day, I think about what it means to me: our principles, our history, and especially my commitment to justice and integrity," says Singh. "I see my turban as a public statement: 'Here's who I am. You know what I'm about, and feel free to hold me accountable to that.'"

Rather than being something to fear, turbans should be seen as an outward sign of love and service, adds Kaur. "If you need help and you see somebody in a turban, you should run toward them, not away from them," she says.

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