What is Sikhism? - Definition, History & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson explores the history and details of Sikhism, the fifth-largest religion in the world. Within, you'll learn how the religion was founded, what followers believe, and some history of the faith through the leadership of their ten Gurus.

What is Sikhism?

Sikhism, founded 500 years ago, is the fifth-largest religion in the world with more than 20 million followers. Started in Western Punjab, India, the Sikh faith formed in constant contact with Hindus and Muslims. However, Sikhism respectfully adopts elements of both, such as the idea of one god and reincarnation. It also rejects other aspects, suhch as blind rituals and any form of inequality. Not only does this eliminate the caste system, a stratification of society in India with certain groups outranking others, but it guarantees equality between men and women. They follow the teachings of ten gurus, compiled into their Holy Book the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

A Young Sikh
Young Sikh

The Beginning

The founder of the Sikh religion is Guru Nanak from the village of Talwandi in Western Punjab, India. Raised in a Hindu Family, Guru Nanak grew up in an ethnically and religiously diverse community. He learned reading, writing, and mathematics at a Hindi school, followed by enrolling in a Muslim school to study Muslim literature and learn Persian and Arabic languages. Thus, Guru Nanak made friends from both religions.

At the age of 13, Guru Nanak was to participate in a ritual where he would gain the sacred thread from the Hindu priest and mark himself eternally as a Hindu and move into adulthood. When the time came to accept, however, he refused to take the sacred thread of cotton. Instead, he recited a poem requesting a thread made of mercy and contentment, knotted in truth to guide his life. Sikhs claim this was the first pronouncement founding their faith.

Guru Nanak
Guru Nanak

At the age of 30, Guru Nanak began to travel great distances to teach others of the one God and that all religions worship this god in different aspects. His journeys even took him to Baghdad where archaeologists discovered a plaque referring to his visit. Many years later, in 1532, Guru Nanak welcomed a new follower named Lehna who showed such devotion that he not only renamed him Angad, but Guru Nanak also made Angad heir to the gurus shortly before the his death in 1539.

Guru Amar Das

The third Guru, named Guru Amar Das, was appointed by Guru Angad shortly before his own death in 1552. Already an old man at 73 years old, Guru Amar Das' reign was short but significant. He began the practice of compiling and verifying the writings of previous gurus and adding his own, a project eventually culminating in the Sikh holy book at a much later date. He founded the ''langer,'' a free kitchen for the poor that still operates today. Finally, Guru Amar Das ordered the first steps in forming a township for Sikh followers called Ramdaspur. This later became the famous Amritsar where the Golden Temple of the Sikh still draws visitors from all faiths and nationalities.

Guru Arjan and The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple was built under by the fifth Guru named Guru Arjan who gained the position in 1581. Two sacred pools in Ramdaspur were built by prior gurus, but Guru Arjan felt the Sikh also needed a central place of worship, thus he laid the foundation for the Harmandir Sahib, also called The Golden Temple. He also expanded the town of Ramdaspur to hold more Sikhs and worked to compile an accurate collection of writing by the previous gurus.

The Golden Temple of Amritsar
Golden Temple

While his presence in Ramdaspur benefited the town and the building projects, his second motivation to move as an effort to avoid his jealous brother failed. Prithi Chand, his brother, hoped the childless Guru Arjan would appoint him or his son as the successor to the guruship. When Guru Arjan's wife had a son, Prithi Chand was forced to find another scheme. His first plan was to kill the guru's son, Hargobind, while he was still an infant. After every attempt failed, Prithi Chand changed tactics and attempted to have his brother executed by the newly enthroned Emperor Jahangir. Sadly, this scheme worked, and Guru Arjan was imprisoned and tortured. He died on May 30, 1606.

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