Global Viewpoint

Professor Pradeep Dhillon discusses the philosophies and cultural practices of Sikhism

8/24/2012  8:00 am

First Lady Michelle Obama met Aug. 23 with the families of victims killed in a shooting on Aug. 5 at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. The shooting – and other hate crimes aimed at Sikhs in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – suggest, many Westerners know little about the Sikh people and their beliefs, even though Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion with an estimated 30 million followers. Pradeep Dhillon is a scholar of global aesthetics and ethics, with a special interest in Kantian value theory, and holds appointments in the department of education policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education and the department of linguistics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Dhillon, who is a Sikh, recently spoke with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest about the philosophies of Sikhism and its cultural practices.

What are some common misconceptions about Sikhs?

In this country, one of them is that Sikhs are Muslim. We are not, although we have deep regard for the Islamic tradition, as well as all the other religious traditions of our society.

At the outset, let me say that it is not the recent violence against Sikhs as a case of mistaken identity that should be the focus of our interest in learning about the Sikhs. It is the world’s fifth largest organized religion and worthy of interest in itself. More importantly, our concern should lie with the use of violence against anyone in our society because they believe, and/or look different. I would also like to add, that while I am Sikh, I am not a scholar of Sikhism.

What are the founding principles of Sikhism?

Sikhism arose in the Punjab Province of Northern India in the 15th century. The first guru, or teacher, was Guru Nanak. The Adi Granth is its scriptural text. Sikhism is monotheistic and holds that the individual has a direct relationship with the divine universal principal. Hence, there is no priesthood and it was written in the vernacular language of Punjab. God, in this view, is not personified, but rather the principle that underlies the manifest world. Sikhs believe in reincarnation, and that, as humans, they are of nature, and yet apart from it – subject to natural law and yet given the freedom to make moral choices.

Sikhism is closely tied to, and arose out of Hinduism, just as did Buddhism and Jainism before it. It is an Indic religion. Philosophically, its universality seeks to break the down the many divisions and hierarchies that mark and divide the human community.

It is an inclusive religion, while it maintains a separate identity. Sikhs are not Hindus, though they arose from Hinduism and share many beliefs and traditions. Sikh scriptures are replete with references to the Vedas, the ancient sacred books of India that are the primary texts of Hinduism.

Sikhs also are not Muslim. However, Sufism in Islam, which holds to the universality of humanity and promotes love as the guiding principle for practice, plays an important role in Sikhism. The Sikh scriptures include, along with the writings of the gurus, verses of the Sufi saints, Kabir and Farid, for example, as well those of lower caste Hindu poets.

When Sikhs bow to the scriptures they are demonstrating their respect for the philosophical beliefs laid down by their gurus – their teachers – as well as other non-Sikh spiritual teachers. Most importantly, Sikhism – as early as in the writings of Guru Nanak – refuses discrimination on the basis of gender.
Sikh practice emphasizes reading and meditating on the teachings of the gurus, service to those around us, and sharing our blessings with others. One of the interesting practices with regards to the emphasis on social equality is that following a Sikh religious service a community meal is typically prepared by volunteers and then shared. Everyone, regardless of belief, social status, or gender, eats together. This is particularly significant within the Indian context where taboos around food play an important social role.

Were there any women among the 10 Sikh gurus that laid down the religion’s scriptures? And what places do the gurus hold in the religion today?

No, all the gurus were male. The gurus were not prophets. They sought to teach Sikhs, which is another word for ‘learning’ in Punjabi, how to orient themselves toward others in the world and the divine. The gurus were very clear about not being taken as deities and insisted they not be worshipped as such. Hence, there are no deities in the gurudwara or Sikh temple. When Sikhs bow before the Adi Granth – the Sikh scriptures – in the gurudwara they are submitting themselves to the philosophy and teachings of the gurus contained within.

What is the significance of the men wearing turbans and the women wearing headscarves?

There are various interpretations. Historically, the tradition came about in the 17th century, a time of great political and social turmoil in that part of the world particularly in response to the fraught relationship between the Mughal rulers and the Hindu population. The wearing of head coverings taken on by some followers of the Sikh gurus was intended to define an identity that displayed outward signs of one’s inner beliefs and values. Many Sikhs today, even though those historical conditions no longer hold, continue to do so for the same reasons.

Do all followers undergo the Ceremony of Initiation or rebirth? And do initiates receive a period of teaching or training prior to it?

Initiation is voluntary, and not all Sikhs are initiated. For those who do undergo the initiation ceremony, there is a period of study, and then after that there are certain regimes – the “rehat”  – they have to follow, such as the keeping of the hair, the turban, adopting the five k’s.

Do all Sikhs adopt or wear what are called the five k’s or articles of faith – kesh (uncut hair), kangha (a comb for keeping the hair), kara (a metal bracelet), kachera (a style of undergarment) and kirpan (a sword)?

No. This is controversial because if you were to adhere to a strict definition of Sikhism, then those who cut their hair, for example, would not be considered Sikh. But many who have cut their hair and do not follow the “rehat” strictly still consider themselves Sikhs and accept the teachings of the Adi Granth.

What is the significance of the surnames – Singh for males, and Kaur for females – that are adopted by followers?

That is a naming practice related to the Sikh commitment to equality. Surnames in India often reflect caste, religion and other forms of social membership. In light of the Sikh moral and spiritual commitment to equality, everyone’s surnames were done away with. Men’s surnames became Singh, which symbolizes courage in one’s belief. In a time when women, except perhaps for royalty, were held in low esteem, Sikh females bore the surname Kaur, which means princess. Every woman, regardless of her social position, was considered a princess and hence worthy of respect.

Once Sikhs entered into the Western tradition of naming, which required them to have a first, middle and last name, many Sikhs adapted by keeping the Singh and Kaur as their middle names and adding their family names as their last names.

Sikhism does not observe a particular day of the week for religious services?

Right. There is no day or time that is considered ritualistically more valuable than another. Sunday is often used as the day for services simply because it’s on the weekend and it’s convenient. But services can be, and are, held on any convenient day. Similarly, there is no place that’s more sacred than another, so pilgrimage is not a big part of Sikh practice even though Sikhs are encouraged to visit their historical gurudwaras, particularly the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Are there other customs or traditions that have changed as Sikhs have become westernized?

The biggest change has been the cutting of hair. Thus, it has become a matter of debate in the Sikh community as to whether it is acceptable to call yourself a Sikh even if you have cut your hair. This is particularly true of men and becoming increasingly true of women both here and in India.