Contrasting Sikhism

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) at night..

It occurred to me recently that I am embarrassingly ignorant of Sikhism – the world’s 5th largest religion. So I’ve been doing some homework to remedy this. Although I’ve never discussed religion with them, I’ve found the few Sikhs I’ve met to be modest, friendly and helpful. Reading their underlying values, this fits with the ideal view of Sikh philosophy.

Apart from my admitted laziness, my lack of knowledge may be because Sikhs are not evangelistic. This contrasts with other religions, most of which find some form of coercion or persuasion tactics necessary to keep their numbers up. In fact Sikhism seems to contrast with its theological cousins in a variety of ways. As it was established in India between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Sikh religion may be viewed partly as a reaction to its religious neighbours. According to Ninian Smart’s book of The World’s Religions, Sikhism’s first Guru, Nanak was a bit of a smarty-pants when it came to other religions:

On Nanak’s journey to Mecca he is reported to have fallen asleep in error with his feet pointing toward Mecca, and so showing disrespect to the Muslim faith. A mullah had woken him angrily, but Nanak’s comment was devastating: “Then turn my feet in a direction where God is not.

Sikhism and other religions

Contrasting with Hinduism, Sikhs believe in a single omnipotent god. However, this differs from Christianity, as the Sikh impression of god is impersonal, seemingly pantheistic.

In contrast with some aspects of Budhism, Sikhism advocates family life, working for a living and being part of the world rather than living as a hermit.

sikh_temple_manning_drive_300Unlike Christianity, Sikhs believe to some extent in the idea of Karma – actions having consequences – both now and in later lives. Sikhism says that belief alone is not what affects a person’s destiny.

Contrasting with Judaism, Sikhs do not believe they are a chosen people of god. Anyone, they say, can reach salvation. In fact they’re quite adamant that all people, male and female, are equal, which contrasts with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and no doubt many others.

Unlike almost every modern religion and religious sect, Sikhism doesn’t have priests, mullahs, rabbis or any equivalent. Enlightenment and salvation are available to any individual with or without an authority to guide them.

Contrasting with Islam, Christianity and most others, Sihkism does not claim to be the only path to salvation. It does however claim to be the simplest. Here’s a line from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib the like of which you won’t find in many other religions,

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false.”

So I guess they’re all for comparative religion classes? Sounds good, but you can’t simultaneously believe the claims of contradictory holy books to be true. Interesting, worth reading, maybe. But they can’t actually all be true. Surely that is beyond the abilities of even the most devoutly religious mental gymnast? I’m wondering how they manage to mesh Karma and reincarnation with a pantheistic deity.

A (very) brief history of Sikhism

Sikhism began around the year 1500 in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. The beliefs evolved over the next 200 years as ten sucessive gurus guided the faithful, after which the holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, was declared the enduring guru. Sikhs suffered at the hands of both the Islamic Mughal Empire and later the British Empire. However, Sikhism is still going strong, with the main populations of Sikhs located in India, Britain and Canada.

Sikhs are expected to meditate on God, be generally decent human beings and adhere to a fairly strict dress code:

The 5 items are: kēs (uncut hair), kaṅghā (small comb), kaṛā (circular iron bracelet), kirpān (ceremonial short sword), and kacchā (special undergarment). (from Wikipedia)

In modern times the five Ks as they are called have caused several disagreements. One issue has been over the difficulty in wearing a motorcycle helmet and a turban simultaneously. There was also concern that a turban could unravel at high speeds, presumably leading to some gory Isadora Duncan-type incident. One dedicated Sikh biker proved this to be wrong by racing around a track on a motorbike with his turban firmly in place.

Asking Questions

sikhguard300Much of my research has been at, which provides extensive FAQs with some interesting ideas and quotes, all phrased in a refreshingly un-authoritative tone. It may not be completely representative of modern Sikh thinking, but it makes for interesting reading. I particularly liked how they begin their answer to the question, “If Sikhism, is the true religion. How come it was created/revealed 300 years ago, and not at the beginning of time?“:

Which religion was created at the beginning of time? ….

However, the answers to the tougher questions get disappointingly woolly. Further reading shows some typical misconceptions about atheism and a rather weak answer to the problem of evil which amounts to little more than “Evil does not exist, only the absence of good. In any case, we don’t know what’s good for us, while God does.” (I paraphrase).

All in all Sikh beliefs make for interesting reading, with an impressive moral system and a dizzyingly eclectic collection of ideas. However, I’ve yet to see any great arguments for the truth of the supernatural claims. There are plenty of claims of the importance of truth,

“Realization of Truth is higher than all else.
Higher still is Truthful Living.” (Guru Nanak, Sri Rag)

What is missing is a reliable way of determining whether Sikh beliefs are true.

Going bonkers over a bangle

Readers from the UK may have heard about a recent discrimination case in which 14 year old Sarika Watkins-Singh won the right to wear her plain steel kara to school.

The school she attends had excluded her due to her insistence on wearing the kara which contravened its rule disallowing all jewellery. There have been quite a few similar cases over the years. Predictably, any concession to non-Christian religions in these matters yields cries of “Political correctness gone mad!” as can be seen from about half the comments on the BBC News Have your say page.

My first thoughts were in support of Sarika. I don’t see the harm in her wearing her kara, except perhaps for sport or metalwork classes for which she is apparently happy to take it off. In fact I’m all for freedom of belief, up until the point it infringes on other people’s rights. For example if people were carrying real daggers, I think this presents a danger (as much to the wearer as anyone else) and directly contravenes the law regarding offensive weapons. I don’t think bangles like this are hurting anyone. In fact I don’t see the problem with any kind of jewellery in schools.

That is, in fact, my point. It’s certainly not fair if only religious jewellery is allowed. I don’t see anything special about a religious belief over any other kind of belief. If someone wanted to wear their grandmother’s necklace simply because of the sentimental value it had for them, that should be considered equally important as religious jewellery and treated with the same respect. Not to do so is in itself a form of discrimination on the grounds of belief (or lack of belief).

I understand that the school wishes to “create a community ethos” (according to a quote in the Guardian) by enforcing uniform rules. Perhaps the worry is that if jewellery is allowed in schools it will encourage expensive bling and a separation of the haves from the have-nots. I don’t work in a school, so I’m not sure how much of a problem this might be, but I don’t see the harm in letting pupils express their individuality. There are plenty of other things they can do to foster a sense of community, such as inter-school competition, sports, debating, etc. Expressing their individuality is a good thing. It’s what people in real communities do. I don’t see how pretending or insisting that everyone is the same is at all helpful. Children should leave school with at least the inkling that different people believe different things.

So I support Sarika in wearing her kara, just as long as the same rules are applied to everyone regardless of whether their symbols and beliefs are religious or not.

Enigmatic Hinduism

Very Short Introduction to HinduismI’ve recently got around to reading the excerpt from the “Very Short Introduction” on Hinduism that came with the Independent a while ago. The headline is that I don’t feel any the wiser.

I can only speculate as to why Hinduism is so diverse and eclectic, it could be its long history or the plethora of religious texts relevant to Hinduism. In any case, it seems quite difficult to sum up what Hindus believe. To show what I mean, here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia:

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.

Which seems to cover most things.

Prominent themes in (but not restricted to) Hindu beliefs include Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).

Which is the good-sounding stuff that seems to crop up in most religions. Unfortunately, the Dharma bit  leads some of its followers to insist that the caste system is an essential part of ethics and duties.

There have also been a number of purported miracles within the Hindu world. The VSI book describes the miraculous consumption of milk by statues of Ganesh in September 1995. Ganesh is usually depicted as half-elephant and presumably drank the milk through the trunk. As an aside, I mentioned this to a friend who suggested hooking up a Ganesh statue to one of the Virgin Mary which was crying milk. The two could be locked in a milky embrace. I like that image!

Figs on a treeHinduism seems to be tightly bound up with Indian tradition, so much so that it is hard to tell one from the other. The religious traditions identify both Hindus and Indian people equally. Like most religions Hinduism has its fair share of stories, some more insightful than others. One of the more interesting examples from the VSI involves a young man “Shvetaketu”, being taught by his father about how the same essence is in everything. He takes the example of a fig, whose essence exists in the fig, the fig tree and the seed. In one sense this is insightful as the genetic code of the fig is indeed in all three things, however as often happens the insight is extrapolated in some less helpful directions:

“And that’s how you are, Shvetaketu!”… It expresses the idea that the truth which underlies everything and is its essence is also identical with Shvetaketu’s own self…

This doesn’t make any sense to me. All of which reminds me how much complexity there is in all religious traditions – something that’s easy to forget when thinking about the more familiar religions.

Perhaps this Very Short Introduction was not as well written or thought-out as the others, or maybe Hinduism is just very complex and ill-defined, but I still don’t feel I understand Hinduism properly.