Five Untruths About Sikhism

Earlier this month, a Sikh-American man named Deep Rai was shot in the Seattle suburb of Kent by a masked assailant, who told Rai to “go back to your own country” before firing a bullet that barely missed his heart.[1] Sadly, as of writing, the gunman remains at large[2] and Mr. Rai is still recovering from his injuries,[3] but the incident serves as a harrowing reminder that Sikhs are also leading targets of racist, xenophobic violence in this country.[4]

Jasjit Singh, Assistant Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund attributes anti-Sikh sentiments to people simply “not knowing who we are.”[5] As a religious minority that is inherently on display yet attracts little public interest into their beliefs and traditions beyond the highly visible turban, there many widespread, harmful misconceptions about Sikhs. Below I have highlighted just a few of the most basic myths affecting the Sikh community.

 

Myth 1: Sikhs are Muslims.

Sikhs are not Muslims. However, in this country, they are often misidentified as Muslims.[6] According to a 2013 report by the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab (SPIL), 49% of respondents believed that “Sikh” was a sect of Islam, 48% said that they most associate a turban and beard with Muslim men, specifically Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini.[7]

Sikhs have been the unintended victims of many anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States, perhaps the most famous instance of which being the tragic shooting of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was killed while planting flowers[8] outside of his gas station four days after the September 11th attacks.[9] In the days leading up to the killing, the perpetrator and self described “patriot,”[10] Frank Roque, reportedly stated that he wanted to “go out and shoot some towel heads,” and “rag heads” in retaliation for 9/11.[11] Roque was later convicted of first degree murder and was originally sentenced to death; his sentence has since been commuted to life in prison[12] and he has expressed remorse about the killing.[13]

The truth is that Sikhism (Gurmat in Punjabi, meaning “the way of the Guru”)[14] is a major world religion—the fifth largest by some counts[15],[16] (others place it ninth)[17]—and is completely distinct from Islam.[18] Most estimates put the Sikh population in the US at around 500,000,[19] and the global population somewhere between 23 and 30 million,[20] the majority of which live in India.[21]

Sikhism (Sikh meaning “learner”)[22] is a monotheistic religion that was founded in the Punjab region of India during the 15th century,[23] and is characterized by its ten founding prophets-teachers, or Gurus, who successively refined Sikh tradition up until the early 18th century.[24] Sikh places of worship are called gurdwaras, meaning “doorway to the Guru,”[25] and the Sikh sacred scripture that reflects the recorded teachings of the Gurus is called the Guru Granth Sahib, also known as the Adi Granth.[26] In Sikhism, outward signs of devotion are an important symbol of personal faith. Most Sikhs wear the Five Ks: Kesh (uncut hair incl. beards), Kangha (a wooden hairbrush), Kara (a metal bracelet), Kachera (a type of undergarment), and Kirpan (a short defensive dagger).[27]

Followers of Islam and Sikhism both worship a single god, however beyond this parallel, the central practices and principles of the two faiths are far from similar.[28],[29] A few notable differences include halal dietary restrictions,[30] the Abrahamic origins of Islam, the Sikh belief in reincarnation, and the importance of pilgrimages to holy sites.[31]

Myth 2: Sikhism is the only religion in which adherents wear a turban.

Sikhs are not the only religious group to don the turban. Most notably, many Muslim communities also wear the turban for religious reasons,[32] undoubtedly contributing to the widespread confusion regarding the differences between the two faith traditions, and leading to many Sikhs to be mistaken for followers of Islam, which, as the world’s second-largest religion,[33] is more familiar to the average American.

The authors of the 2013 SPIL report point to enduring cultural stereotypes and negative or one-dimensional media portrayals of both Sikhs and Muslims as the cause of what they term an “anti-turban bias” in the United States. The report’s findings claim,

“Bias is unconscious, charged by emotion, and reinforced by images. The literature on bias suggests that the turban may be a particularly challenging cultural and religious symbol in post-9/11 America.”

The truth is that turbans (dastar or pagri)[34] are worn by many Sikh men and women as a protection for the Kesh and Dasam Duaar (the 10th spiritual Gate on the top of the forehead).[35] However, as an ethno-religious custom, the turban is also common among many contemporary Muslim communities,[36] some Southeast Asian Buddhist traditionalists,[37] and at least one African Christian denomination,[38] and was popular with ancient Jews[39],[40], among others groups in antiquity. In the modern era[41] and throughout history,[42] the turban has been worn by a variety of ethnic groups throughout Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa as a cultural custom without any added religious significance.[43],[44]

Sikhism is unique in that it is the only faith tradition to allegedly mandate that all adult male adherents wear the dastar.[45] For certain Muslim communities, the turban, or ‘imama in Arabic, is traditionally worn by men as an honorable emulation of the Prophet Muhammad and, similar to Sikhs, as an outward sign of their devotion.[46],[47]

Myth 3: Sikhs are Hindus.

Sikhism is often branded an offshoot or variant of Hinduism, but there are many unmistakable differences between the two traditions. The confusion is likely due to the two faiths’ geographic origins in India, but others also point to less ambiguous connections from Sikhism’s younger years. Specifically, the first Guru, Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE), who is credited with founding Sikhism, was raised in a Hindu family and at some point belonged to the Sant Bhatki movement,[48] a Hindu revolutionary/reform campaign that swept through northern India.[49]

Modern Sikhs maintain that their tradition has always been separate from Hinduism, however some Western scholars argue that in its earliest days, Sikhism grew out of this the Hindu Bhatki movement, pointing to what they identify as evident Sant parallels with early Sikhism.[50] Whether this argument holds any historical weight, the fundamental disparities that would later develop over the course of the successive nine Gurus are irreconcilable,[51] and the two traditions in their current forms are now almost universally considered to be separate religions.

The truth is that Sikhs are not Hindus. Although the two traditions do indeed share many similarities (e.g., belief in karma, concept of the guru, belief in reincarnation and a cyclical view of time),[52],[53] their contrasting tenets are numerous. The most obvious point of disparity to the western mind would be their number of deities; in this simplistic paradigm, Hinduism is a “polytheistic” faith and Sikhism is “monotheistic,” believing in only one god instead of many.[54] Additionally, Sikhism has rejected the caste system and opposes the use of idols or statues of the Gurus,[55] whereas Hindus commonly employ such visual symbols for religious devotional rituals and prayer.[56]

Instead, Sikh communal worship in the gurdwara typically involves signing hymns and recitations from their sacred scripture.[57] Independent worship generally includes meditation, daily prayer, and community service[58]. Unlike Hinduism, Sikh scripture and tradition is said to forbid ritualistic yoga.[59]

Myth 4: Sikhs worship their Gurus as gods.

Some erroneously assume that Sikhism conceives of its ten Gurus as divine incarnations that are worshipped by their followers as gods. Admittedly, even through a first hand look at the Granth Sahib, the guru concept can be quite puzzling. Take the following segments of the sacred text’s pages, or angs, as an example.

“Guru Nanak Dayv is the Embodiment of the Lord of the Universe.” (Ang 1192, 13)

“Let no one think that God and Guru are separate. The True Guru is the Immaculate Lord. Do not believe that He is a mere human being; He gives honor to the dishonored.” (Ang 895, 5-6)

“The Embodiment of Light, the Lord Himself is called Guru Nanak. From Him, came Guru Angad; His essence was absorbed into the essence.” (Ang 1408, 10)

On the surface, these passages seem to convey that the ten Gurus are divine in nature. However, centuries of Sikh tradition are clear; the Gurus are the “teachers” to their “learners” (Sikhs), more similar to the concept of a prophet— one with unique knowledge and familiarity with the divine, but still human. The sole divine creator in Sikhism is called by many different names (e.g., Vahiguru, Satguru, Akaal Purakh, Satnaam, Raam), all of which refer to a single supreme deity.[60]

The truth is that Sikhs do not regard their Gurus as supernatural deities. The terms Vahiguru (“Wonderful Guru”)[61] and Satguru (“True Guru”) are both Punjabi names for God, who is the original teacher of the ten human Gurus, or the Gurus’ Guru.[62] The application of the term “Guru” for both human and supernatural beings, albeit confusing, signifies this chain of knowledge transmission that is central to Sikhism.

Sikhs believe that the ten Gurus of the Nanak line had a special connection with God, one that allowed them understand and disseminate the fundamental tenets of their religion. Following the death of the last human teacher, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708 CE), tradition states that the Guruship was transmitted indefinitely to the Guru Granth Sahib, which is now considered the eternal living Guru.[63]

Myth 5: Sikhism is a ‘New Religious Movement.’

Because of its relatively young history (compared to other major religions), Sikhism is sometimes derided as a “cult.” The preferred term today would be “New Religious Movement” (NRM). However, despite attempts to replace the derogatory term, “cult,” with something more scientific, NRM still connotes some amount of illegitimacy. The qualifications for New Religious Movements are ambiguous,[64] making this last Sikh myth a bit difficult to dispel outright.

Like the term “religion,” the definition of a “New Religion” is widely disputed—even more the point at which a “New Religion” stops being new.[65] Nonetheless, NRMs are usually characterized as faiths that have no stated connection to “established” or “mainstream” religions and are localized to a small geographic region, have few followers, are countercultural or socially revolutionary, and/or have been established within the last few centuries.[66],[67],[68]

The truth is that Sikhism probably doesn’t fit into the NRM paradigm. It is not mentioned in any of the scholarly encyclopedias of New Religious Movements,[69],[70],[71] and no longer fits the usual criteria listed above. After almost six centuries, Sikhism has spread across the world.[72] The faith now enjoys a richly diverse culture and tradition, including its own collection of sects and offshoots from orthodoxy.[73]

 

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