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Sikh Symbols and Traditions

A Survey of Popular and Academic Literature for Stories on Origin and Development


The Sikh Times, Jul. 2, 2020

Photo: Mial Singh of the 45th Sikhs (aka Rattray's Sikhs) wearing a Khanda at the front of his turban. 1880.

Photo: Sikh child wearing a basanti color turban.

Photo: Indian flag with saffron on top.

Photo: Guru Gobind Singh with Nishan. Source?

Photo: Current Day Khanda

Photo: Khalsa Diwan carrying a Nishan with Khanda quite similar to the one we use today, British Columbia, Canada. 1918.

Photo: Iranian Flag. Adopted in 1980 after the Iranian Revolution to replace the "Lion and Sun" emblem.

Photo: A coin with a Khanda (Mughal period). Courtesy: Gurprit Singh Gujral/Dora.

Photo: Karah Parsad being offered as a sacrament.

Video: Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal.

Note: Most non-English words are in italics or "quotes" and are translated in round brackets the first time they are used.


The Sikh religion is not very well known despite being the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, with more adherents than Judaism. This article surveys both popular and academic literature regarding Sikh symbols and traditions along with the debates and controversies that surround them. As is the case in nearly every sphere of life, almost nothing in the Sikh religion is clear cut and without ambiguity, although strict followers like to believe otherwise.

An observant Sikh male is most easily recognized from his turban and unshorn facial hair. The most commonly known Sikh symbols are the 5K's: There's a school of thought according to which the 5Ks were originally 5 weapons (Malcolm, p. 182). However, the current 5Ks are extremely well known and I won't discuss them here except to note that all of them seem aimed at causing the Sikh to stand out from the Hindu (stand up and be counted, if you will). I had always wondered about the breeches, but perhaps they were proposed for ease of mobility and agility in opposition to "girding up the lions" as Hindus do with their "dhotis" (wraps worn around the pelvis) (Cunningham, p. 318). Likewise, there are many traditions associated with ceremonies (birth, baptism/initiation, marriage, death, akhand paath), which I do not touch upon here. However, beyond these there are several other key symbols and traditions of the Sikhs, which I wish to explore. There is significant mystery and debate around the origin and development of these symbols and traditions. This article discusses each of the following topics with references from popular and academic literature for those interested in delving deeper.

Overview Each of these symbols and traditions is explored in some detail below.

Khanda. The Khanda in its current form comprises a "chakkar" (quoit or circle) representing either the iron vessel in which the baptism nectar is prepared or the iron ring worn around the "pagri" (turban) to secure it in place and protect against the enemy sword. There's a "bhagauti" (double-edge sword) slashing vertically through the circle. This sword itself can also be referred to as a Khanda. Finally, there's a pair of criss-crossed swords framing the circle and the Khanda. According to current tradition, these twin swords represent the miri-piri duality of "miri" (politics or worldliness and pursuit of material values) and "piri" (spiritualism or the abandonment of or disregard for material wealth), both of which are needed in a balanced society, a concept some attribute to the Mughals (Cunningham, p. 312-313). As Guru Nanak had stated at the founding of Sikhism, he did not believe in spiritualism based on the abandonment of one's responsibilities to family and others. As is the case with most things Sikh, there are other viewpoints, one being that one sword was for avenging the martyrdom of his father Guru Arjan and the other sword was for wiping out Islam (Malcolm, p. 35).

The January 2005 edition of "The Sikh Review" contains an article titled "Origin of Nishan Sahib: The Sikh Banner" by Kulwant Singh Khokar. Khokar suggests that the Khanda could have represented a numerical "1" (one) to symbolize one God. Similarly, the circle could represent universality or eternity. He says that the weaponry that this symbol represents is what used to be displayed on the palanquins at the five "takhts" (seats of Sikh authority) and that the Guru Granth only recently took their place. Max Arthur Macauliffe, writing during the years prior to the publication of his book "The Sikh Religion" wherein he had toned down a bit, doesn't look kindly upon this practice and writes, "The arms of distinguished Sikhs are preserved in the Akal Bungaha and are actually worshiped by the ignorant followers of Baba Nanak" ("The Rise of Amritsar, and the Alterations of the Sikh Religion", The Calcutta Review, 1881, Volume 72, Number 143, p. 65). According to Khokar, it seems the Khanda as insignia had not developed even during Ranjit Singh's time and there are flags from his time at the British Museum in London where a peacock (the symbol of Kartik, god of war) is used as the insignia. He claims the symbol on the Iranian flag (which looks much like a Khanda) is the calligraphic representation of Allah.

It has also been suggested by Khokar and Cole (A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism, 2005) that the Nirmala sect was the first to use the Khanda as a symbol. Madra (Warrior Saints, 1999, p. 108) claims that the chakkar was worn on the pagri as far back as Guru Hargobind's time, but provides no source for this. Of course, the Khalsa was not institutionalized until 1699 (by Guru Gobind Singh), but pagris were commonplace going as far back as Guru Nanak and even much earlier than that.

Yet another claim is that between 1772 and 1833, Mughal coins were counter-marked with the Khanda by Banda Bahadur and later issued in Peshawar by Ranjit Singh's grandson Naunihal Singh ("Sikh Coinage: Symbol of Sikh Sovereignty", Surinder Singh, Manohar, 2010).

Interestingly, the Iranian Flag adopted in 1980 after the Iran Revolution toppled the Shah and established an Islamic State contains an emblem/insignia meaning "Allah" that looks very similar to the Khanda.

As an aside, miri-piri is often interpreted in different ways. However, one interpretation worth considering is from Gopal Singh Dardi ("A History of the Sikh People", p. 829). He points out that the reason the Akal Takht was built separate from the Harmandir Sahib was to keep religion and politics separate. He notes that Ranjit Singh never consulted the Akal Takht on state-related matters because he had built a secular state. He writes that the Akal Takht never issued "hukam-namas" (edicts) on state-related matters or declared anyone "tankhaiya" (fallen/outcaste) until the British corrupted the Akal Takht into honoring General Dyer after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919. A somewhat polar opposite view is that miri and piri are two sides of the same coin (Harpreet Singh, Handbook, p. 208). Further exploration of this topic is best left to another occasion.

Nishan. The Nishan (often with the suffix "sahib", as an expression of respect) is the Sikh flag. In its current form, the flag most commonly comprises a kesri (saffron) isosceles triangle with a Khanda at the center.

Among the many debates is the color of the flag. Before we start, here's a primer on the colors that feature in the debate. "Dhaval" is white, or perhaps dazzling white. "Kesri" or "Suhi" (or dyed with safflower) is saffron. "Basanti" is mustard yellow. "Bhagwa" or "Geruwa" is brick-red, the color of diluted blood, or ochre yellow. "Neela" is blue (this is a dark blue and on occasion, it has been argued that it is or can be black, especially when it serves as the color of the Khanda and not the background). The pictures above attempt to add more clarity.

Hawley (Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, p. 320) has suggested that the first reference to "Nishan" (banner) is by Guru Angad (Guru Granth, p. 150). But that is merely a reference to the concept of a flag, not to an actual physical flag. Hawley then makes reference to Guru Amardas's "dhaval dhuj" (white banner) (GG, p. 1393) and Guru Arjan's "banner of righteousness" (GG, p. 1404), again both conceptual. He claims though that Guru Amardas's flag was white with no insignia. Now he appears to be referencing a physical flag (no longer conceptual). But his source for this information is unclear because the lines in the Guru Granth do not suggest this in any way. Hawley also references Kavita Singh's "Allegories of Good Kingship: Wall Paintings in the Qila Mubarak at Patiala" which appears in "New Insights into Sikh Art" (2003) edited by Kavita Singh. But, once again, there is nothing in the essay that sheds light on the topic at hand. Hawley goes on to say that Guru Arjan also maintained a white banner that might have had "Ikk Onkar" inscribed on it.

Hawley claims that Guru Hargobind changed the color of the flag to saffron, a color Hawley suggests might have been borrowed (along with the "Singh" epithet that Sikhs use as a middle or last name) from the Rajputs to symbolize self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Macauliffe goes one step further and calls it flat out "imitation" (TCR). (Although "Kaur", the epithet for women, meaning "prince" not "princess", since women were to be equal to men, is uniquely Sikh. This is per Gopal Singh, p. 290.) Guru Hargobind's push to change the color does make sense in light of the militarization of the Sikhs after Guru Arjan's martyrdom at the hands of the Mughals (for refusing to convert to Islam). Finally, Hawley suggests that Guru Hargobind might have introduced two swords onto the flag in addition to the "Ikk Onkar". When one reads the history of flags in general, it becomes clear that flags were primarily used as "military standards, used as field signs" (Wikipedia). Therefore, it makes sense that the formalization of a Sikh flag might have started in 1606 with Guru Hargobind who was also responsible for taking the Sikhs into a militaristic direction (Harbans Singh, Encyclopaedia, p. 239-240).

Khokar (see above) suggests that upon Kharak Singh's recommendation, Nehru added saffron to the Indian flag to appease the Sikhs. Khokar suggests that at one point in history there might have been different insignia on either side of the flag. Interestingly, Khokar entertains the idea that a triangular flag is more aerodynamic in the face of strong winds as compared to a rectangular flag which tears easily at the free flapping end. Khokar adds that during the Battle of Anandpur in 1703 Guru Gobind Singh was using a blue flag. Red, Khokar points out, is the color of revolution as well as celebration.

Wikipedia claims that at one point in time the Nishan insignia consisted of the "kattar" (dagger), "dhal" (shield) and "kirpan" (sabre). See picture above. There is definite support for this claim. There's a picture of a woodcut print bought in Lahore by Rudyard Kipling's father in 1870 which depicts a "kirpan" (sabre/sword), "kattar" (dagger), and a circular drawing that has variably been interpreted as "dhal" (shield), "deg" (kettle/cooking vessel), or "gola" (canon ball) (McLeod, "Popular Sikh Art", figure 13 and McLeod, "Sikhs of the Rahit", p. 25).

A picture of the Khalsa Diwan (British Columbia, Canada, 1918) carrying a Nishan with Khanda quite similar to the one we use today represents a significant milestone in the Khanda's evolution (see picture above). There is a picture in Madra (p. 138) of the Second Shaheedi Jatha arriving in Jaito in 1924. The jatha (procession) is clearly carrying several Nishans at the front of the pack. But the insignia is not decipherable. Madra (p. 164) adds that Rattray's Sikhs (aka the 45th Sikhs) started wearing the Khanda on the front of their turbans in 1846. If true, that would coincide with the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-1846).

Sikhs have an independent streak and do not generally embrace the idea of "borrowing" from another group. Therefore any color that could be suggestive of "borrowing" is likely to get rejected. Since all of the colors except "basanti" can be associated with other groups, most Sikhs seem to favor the storyline that "basanti" is the real color of the Sikh flag. "Neela" (blue) is also fine. So, either a blue Khanda on a mustard yellow background or a basanti Khanda on a blue background tend to be the two most acceptable variations. The Nishan is remembered with great humility (hands folded) during each ardas (Encyclopaedia, p. 239-240).

Vahiguru/Waheguru. According to the "janam-sakhis" (eye-witness accounts and biographies of the gurus), Vahiguru/Waheguru is said to have been uttered by the followers and the gurus starting with Guru Nanak (McLeod, Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism, p. 142). "Vah" in Persian is the equivalent of "wow". So, "Vahiguru" is essentially praise for the Guru. In recent times "Vahiguru" has become synonymous with and more popular that "Akal Purakh", which was the older Sikh word for "God". For example, the phrase "Vahiguru Ji Da Khalsa". Although the Gurus did not use the phrase in the Guru Granth, others did, e.g. the "Bhatts" (bards) (GG, p. 1402/1404).

Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal. Usually at the end of the "ardas" (request, special prayer). The person leading the ardas calls out the first part: "Jo Bole So Nihal" (Whoever utters the phrase to follow shall be blessed). The "sangat" (congregation) responds with "Sat Sri Akal" (God is true).

One of my fondest memories of visits to various gurdwaras is the one in Race Course, Dehradun, adjacent to my aunt's house. Sitting in the "angan" (courtyard), we could hear the "jaikara" (clarion call). And their tradition was to make the call not just once or twice, but several times and by different members/leaders of the sangat voicing the first part. Some of the participants would stretch the "Bole" part for as long as possible in order to create euphoria and elicit a huge response of "Sat Sri Akal" from the sangat. One cannot but experience great pride in the Sikh culture after hearing such passionate performances. See an example at the 1:10 mark in the video posted above.

The origins are unclear but traditionally attributed to Guru Gobind Singh upon the founding of the Khalsa at Anandpur in 1699. There is some debate about whether to include the "Jo". This is a pointless argument. See for example, "Jo Bole Hari Hari" (GG, p. 645) and "Gur Ka Sabad Jap Bhae Nihal" (GG, p. 282). It makes sense to add the "Jo" (meaning whoever). "Jo Bole So Nihal" means "Whoever utters the phrase that follows, shall be blessed". "Sat Sri Akal" (which is the phrase that follows) means "God is true". So the whole thing "Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal" means "WHOEVER utters the phrase that follows (i.e. God is true), shall be blessed". Without the "Jo (Whoever)" the phrase makes no sense. The "Encyclopaedia of Sikhism" Volume 1 (page 382) edited by Harbans Singh acknowledges both "Bole So Nihal" as well as "Jo Bole So Nihal". "Jo" is often skipped either out of expediency or out of ignorance, but the correct form is to include it.

As an aside, "Sat Sri Akal" has become the defacto greeting when two Sikhs meet, although Sikh orthodoxy prefers "Vahiguru Ji Da Khalsa, Vahiguru Ji Di Fateh" or "Gur Fateh". The "Encyclopaedia of Sikhism" (volume 1, p. 384) points out that the greeting "Pairi Pauna" (I bow at your feet) or "Pairi Pauna Ji, Razi Ho" (I bow at your feet, are you well?) had enjoyed acceptance for a very long time, starting with Guru Nanak and enjoys support from various sources including Bhai Gurdas (a contemporary of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind) and various janam-sakhis including "Adi Sakhian" (seventeenth century), "Puratan", and "Miharban". The "Bala" janam-sakhi, however, mentions "Kartar, Kartar!" (Creator, Creator!) and "Sat Kartar" (Creator is true!) as the greetings, for which there is supporting evidence in the "Miharban" janam-sakhi and also in the fact that Guru Nanak named the town he raised on the bank of the River Ravi as Kartarpur. Additionally, Zulfikar Ardistani (a contemporary of Guru Hargobind) writes in "Dabistan-i-Mazahib" that followers of Guru Nanak were known as Nanak-panthis or Kartaris. Guru Gobind Singh replaced "Charan Pahul" with "Khande Di Pahul" as the initiation and introduced "Vahiguru Ji Da Khalsa, Vahiguru Ji Di Fateh" as the greeting. This has support from Sarup Das Bhalla in "Mahima Prakash".

Another aside, worth exploring further on a different occasion, is that the word "Khalsa" was in use going as far back as Kabir and even after the founding of the Khalsa in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh continued to use the word to refer to the entire sangat, not just the "amrit-dhari" (initiated) Sikhs (Gopal Singh, p. 292).

A somewhat odd trivia is that "Sat Sri Akal" is meant to be said prior to killing an animal "jhatka"-style (sudden severing of the head). The Muslim "halal" (allowing the animal to slowly bleed to death) having been forbidden in Sikhism (Cole, "A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism", p. 90).

Another salutation briefly popularized by Banda Singh Bahadur when he took over after Guru Gobind Singh's death in 1707-1708 was "Deg Tegh Fateh" (Cunningham, p. 94). A related greeting in use in some sections today is "Gur Fateh".

Vahiguru Ji Ka/Da Khalsa. Vahiguru Ji Ki/Di Fateh. See #4 above. "Da/Di" is Punjabi and is the form recommended by some (Dilgeer). However, the more prevalent use is the Hindi "Ka/Ki". Cunningham (p. 80) quoting Malcolm (Sketch of the Sikhs) also uses "Ki". "Ki" is indeed how Guru Gobind Singh intended it to be since that is what appears in the Dasam Granth chapter openings (Cunningham, p. 316). It may be the result of Guru Gobind Singh having lived most of his life outside of Punjab. Most of the language in the "Dasam Granth", said to have been authored at least in part by Guru Gobind Singh, is much closer to Hindi (and Persian for the concluding portion) than to Punjabi, even though the script is Gurmukhi (Cunningham, p. 325).

As Michael Shapiro has pointed out, "Ka/Ki/Ke" is actually more prevalent in the Adi Granth than "Da/Di/De", which is now the default in Punjabi (Handbook, p. 214). Today's Punjabi is significantly deviated from Hindi. "Phonetically, the most prominent distinctive feature of standard Punjabi is the realization of historical voiced aspiration as tones", for example korha/ghoda (horse), tai/dhai (2 and a half), and dud/doodh (milk). "There is a significant degree of mutual intelligibility with Hindi and Urdu, although the three languages are sharply differentiated by their scripts, and Punjabi is historically distinguished by its retention of Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) doubled consonants following a short vowel", e.g. akkh/aankh (eye).

The Guru Granth was composed by the Gurus and others over a period of some two hundred years during which the region was under the influence of a number of cultures and languages were in the midst of transitioning from the Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) to the New Indo-Aryan (NIA) structures we know today. As a result, the Guru Granth contains instances of both MIA and NIA as well as a high degree of homophony, thereby making it that much harder to interpret correctly. To add to the already difficult challenge, there are frequent printing inconsistencies where seemingly minor elements such as the bindi (dot above certain letters to indicate a nasal sound) are omitted and the result significantly changes the interpretation of the word.

Karah Parsad. The preparation involves equal parts by weight/volume of flour, ghee, and sugar. The flour is roasted with continuous stirring until it reaches a brown hue and the smell indicates it is cooked. Then ghee, sugar, and water equal to the combined weight/volume are added to finish the product. The tradition of cooking it in an iron vessel called a "karahi" is what gives it the prefix "Karah". Sometimes, it is referred to as "Karah" itself. Writing at the time of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind, Bhai Gurdas referred to it as "Maha Parsad" in his "Vaars" (McLeod, "Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit", p. 24). McLeod states that the practice of distributing Parsad has unclear origin and is likely a carryover from Hinduism ("Sikhism", p. 142), but likely goes back to at least the time of Guru Arjan (see above).

As an aside, it seems that "The Calcutta Review" might have served at the inspiration for "The Sikh Review" which was also launched from Calcutta in 1953.

Speaking of vegetarianism, even though many Sikhs eat meat at home rare is the gurdwara that will serve meat. Most likely in order to not offend the vegetarians. I recall that Khushwant Singh wrote many years ago about gurdwaras in Australia where the sangat sat on chairs and were served beer and meat. Speaking of langars (free kitchens in gurdwaras), most Sikhs treat the gurdwaras as social opportunities rather than vehicles for service. Most of our gurdwaras are located in the suburbs, far away from the people who could actually benefit from the free food distributed by gurdwara langars. Most folks go to the gurdwaras only to appease their conscience. They arrive a few minutes prior to bhog (conclusion) to eat Karah Parsad and langar and then make their escape while convincing themselves that they've done their duty and earned their imaginary weekly credits (and can answer "yes" when asked by elders or family members and friends if they went to the gurdwara this week). Very few try to figure out how they can help in the kitchen or get the food to those who really need it.

Titles. From "Singh Sahib" and "Singh Ji" during Ranjit Singh's time (Cunningham, p. 65) to "Sardar Sahib" and "Sardar Ji" in current times, how Sikhs are addressed has also experienced a certain amount of change and evolution. Ranjit Singh's own seal read "Akal Sahai Ranjit Singh" (God's helper Ranjit Singh) as he did everything in the name of the Khalsa (Cunningham, p. 152). A perplexing one is "Bhai" (brother). It seems to have no consistent rhyme or reason. Anyone with some sort of respect in the community can claim the title and there is no logical way to dispute it. "Gyani" or "Giani" (knowledgeable) is a title used for preachers or those who generally lead the ardas at gurdwaras.

Vegetarianism. I view this debate as a direct consequence of the intersection between Hinduism and Islam. Hinduism/India has traditionally had a much higher rate of vegetarianism than perhaps any other religion/culture/country (not the same as arguing whether vegetarians form a majority in India or any particular state in India). As a result, converts to Sikhism bring their own biases to the dinner table, so to speak. Accordingly, whereas Guru Nanak is said to have been a vegetarian, Guru Hargobind is said to have taken to hunting and eating flesh (except cow, Macauliffe, TCR, 1881), not a surprising result of increasing exposure to Mughal influences (Cunningham, p. 50). Cunningham quotes Guru Nanak from the Guru Granth (Raag Majh) as follows: "An animal slain without cause cannot be proper food" (Cunningham, p. 362). However, these lines are apparently nowhere to be found in the current version of the Guru Granth (Max Arthur Macauliffe, "The Diwali at Amritsar: The Religion of the Sikhs", in The Calcutta Review, Volume 71, Issue 142, p. 257-272, 1880.). Consequently, Macauliffe disagrees that the Guru Granth is against a non-vegetarian diet. Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana discussed this topic in great detail and is well worth checking out. To further complicate things, one version of tradition says Guru Nanak forbade hog's flesh (Malcolm, p. 36). Tradition is often a function of environmental forces. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sikhs would tend to avoid both cow (held sacred by Hindus) and pig (forbidden by Islam).

Gender Equality. Guru Gobind Singh is said to have written against female infanticide in his rahit-nama (Cunningham, p. 335). On the flip side, there are no hymns from females in the Guru Granth and where one was considered for inclusion, she was only counted as half a person (Malcolm, p. 31.). You will rarely see female granthis (priests) or raagis (musician/singer leading prayers at a gurdwara), especially at "Darbar Sahib" (Golden Temple) the premier gurdwara of the Sikhs. For a "feminist perspective" on how "herstory" has been neglected in too many ways, see
Relocating Gender in Sikh History by Doris Jakobsh. Jakobsh points out that during the "Sikh reform movement" of the 1920s many of the best-educated women were "adherents of the various 'un-Sikh' sects (e.g. Kukas/Nam-dharis) maligned by the Singh Sabha" (p. 240) for their heterogeneity and "the opening of ritual and leadership activity to women" (p. 116).

Returning to female infanticide, Jakobsh concedes that Guru Nanak's attitude towards women was somewhat more enlightened that Kabir's, but chastises him on his failure to write against female infanticide (pp. 25-26). Macauliffe seems in agreement as he writes, "This very elementary principle of morality had apparently never occurred to the Sikh predecessors of Gobind." As Guru Gobind Singh's change of heart, he writes, "A considerable portion of Gobind's precepts and practices seems to have been derived from the Quran and Musalman traditions" ("The Rise of Amritsar, and the Alterations of the Sikh Religion", The Calcutta Review, 1881, Volume 72, Number 143, p. 73). Pashaura Singh says it best when he says that the doctrine renders gender equality but Sikhs have a long way to go to make the equality real in practice (Schneider).

As an example of how gender lurks in the most unexpected places, even though "Akal Purakh" (the most common Sikh word for God) is described as "beyond all categorization" and both male and female genders are used to describe God in the Guru Granth, the epithet "Sahib" (a masculine honorific title) when used to refer to the "Guru Granth Sahib" almost inconspicuously brings gender back into the equation (Jakobsh, Handbook, p. 598).

LGBTQ. There are varying interpretations on this topic. The Guru Granth is silent on the matter. In 2018, Dan Schneider conducted an interview with two leading scholars Pashaura Singh and Louis Fenech. Louis Fenech opined that Sikhism had no firm position on LGBTQ. Perhaps he was speaking from a scriptural perspective. Pashaura Singh clarified that LGBTQ marriages are in fact "officially not acceptable" in Sikh gurdwaras. Unprompted, Singh proceeds to clarify that abortion is also frowned upon. Singh did not offer a source (such as the SGPC's "Sikh Rahit Maryada" or Code of Conduct) but he has clearly moved to the right-of-center since he was excommunicated for the contents of his doctorate thesis supervised by Hew McLeod.

Dasam Granth. Ever since Guru Nanak's son Sri Chand responded to not being chosen as the successor by starting a separate sect called the Udasis and Guru Amardas chose his son-in-law as his successor and fourth guru, a sense of hereditary entitlement has played a huge part in the evolution of the Sikh religion. Macauliffe relates the story that when Guru Gobind asked for the Adi Granth compiled by Guru Arjan to be sent to him, Guru Arjan's progeny holding on to the Adi Granth "flatly refused" and told Guru Gobind Singh that if he wanted a Granth he must write one himself (TCR). Hence we have the Dasam Granth (compiled per Macauliffe twenty-six years after Guru Gobind Singh's demise, so in 1734; TSR, Volume V, p. 223), which Macauliffe goes on to describe as "a Granth equal, at any rate, in material weight and dimensions to the more orthodox volume of his predecessors."

The debate about this work is whether to regard it as scripture. That is because the compilation includes both theology and some general material such as tales about illicit sexual relationships, possibly intended as entertainment and moral education for the troops. What most commentators seem to miss is that Guru Gobind Singh was entitled to write or collaborate on all of the individual chapters, some intended as theology others not. He might not have intended to compile all of the chapters together (theology along with general material) into the single work that is now known as the Dasam Granth. We do not know who was responsible for the actual compilation into the single 1428-page volume we know today as the Dasam Granth, but some attribute it to Mani Singh around 1728. Possibly an over-zealous follower looking to compete with the Adi Granth, at least in terms of size. (The Adi Granth is 1430 pages.)

The contents of this "anthology" are diverse indeed. "Bachitra Natak" (Wondrous Drama) is one of the oddest chapters, with the author claiming Ram as an ancestor of Guru Nanak. In "Chandi di Var" (Ballad of Durga), the opening line "First I remember Bhagauti," which forms a part of the Sikh daily prayer called "ardas" (petition), can be interpreted as "Bhagauti" meaning either Durga (the female Hindu goddess of war) or a sword. Many sections/chapters of the Dasam Granth have been deemed by experts as being incomplete, not surprising given Guru Gobind Singh's sudden demise in 1708. Verses in "Chaubis Avatars" (Twenty-four Avatars) state that the author does not worship any of the Hindu gods, thereby suggesting that the chapters praising Hindu gods were not to be viewed as sympathetic but rather as re-statement of the current state. "Zafar-nama" (Victory Letter) is a scolding of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for going back on his word.

The many extant recension copies of the Dasam Granth are inconsistent in terms of their contents, e.g. the "Shabad Hazare" (Thousand Verses) and "Charitro-pakhian" (Tales of Romance). As you can see, the terrain is confusing and far from unambiguous. For further details, see Rinehart in "Handbook".

Orthodoxy. Today, the Khalsa are considered the orthodoxy. This was shaped in significant part by the "martial race" strategy for army recruitment in British India subsequent to the annexation of Punjab in 1849 (Handbook, p. 72). All recruits were expected to undergo Khalsa initiation, thereby rendering the Khalsa "roop" (look) synonymous with success in employment as well as life in general. Further reinforcement by the Singh Sabha movement made it so that Sikh diversity was further alienated and today only the Khalsa may hold elevated positions in gurdwaras and vote for and hold office in the SGPC (also known as the Sikh parliament that oversees all of the gurdwaras).

Despite what the "Rahit" (Code of Conduct put out by the SGPC) says today, Guru Gobind Singh in his hukam-namas (executive orders) actually addressed both Singhs and non-Singhs as "Khalsa" (Handbook, p. 241). The earliest account of the Khalsa, "Sri Gur-sobha" (1701) is actually written by Guru Gobind Singh's close confidant Chandra Sain Sainapati who wasn't himself an initiated Sikh at the time. We must, therefore, acknowledge the very significant British hand in shaping the strict orthodoxy we know today.

It is interesting to note that whether by error or by fact, the Khalsa was once considered to be "non-conformists" who believed in the Adi Granth/Guru Granth but not in Guru Gobind Singh's institutions. Guru Gobind Singh's followers were known as "Singhs" (Malcolm, p. 91). This introduction of orthodoxy (the idea of initiation and conversion) into what was until then a more relaxed environment has been most controversial, serving to both unite as well as divide. A 1783 letter by George Forster suggests that the term used for "Sahaj-dharis" (slow adopters) at the time was the Persian word "Khualasah" (Handbook, p. 27). Today Sikh orthodoxy falls into three broad categories: "Sahaj-dharis" are those who believe in Sikh teachings but do not observe the outer form, "Kes-dharis" are those who observe the outer form (unshorn hair, etc.) but are not initiated, and finally "Amrit-dharis" are the initiated/baptized Sikhs who are also known as the Khalsa.

Sikhs would do well to embrace both orthodoxy and diversity. For example, the rites used by the Nirankari sect formed the basis of the Anand Marriage Act of 1909 (Handbook, p. 75).

Legacy of the Sikh Kingdom. To claim that Ranjit Singh established a kingdom for half a century that extended from Kabul in the west to Delhi in the east and Tibet in the north to the Thar desert in the south is not a huge exaggeration. And this fact is at the heart of an often expressed sentiment. The Sikhs were cheated out of self-determination when the British departed. The Sikhs had contributed heavily to wearing down the Mughals, fighting alongside the British in both World Wars, and making huge sacrifices during non-violent actions of non-cooperation against the British. The right wing of this thwarted Sikh aspiration wants a separate "nation" (Malcolm) called Khalistan. If Ranjit Singh is the model, we can expect a "secular" nation, yet run in the name of the "Khalsa" (Cunningham). A benign "theocracy" (Malcolm, p. 114). Perhaps even an "oligarchy" with its heart in the right place (Cunningham). And, if left unchecked, it could deform into an "extortionist" regime (Malcolm, p. 118).

If Sikhs follow the Ranjit Singh model, the structure would be highly federated with each province enjoying a great deal of freedom. Since "natural cohesion" between provinces is likely to be low (Malcolm, p. 143), a system would need to be devised and maintained for coaxing that unity from the disparate provinces via institutions not unlike the "Guru-mata" (national convention of chiefs) but without the Akali element of "extortion". Whether Ranjit Singh's rule would pass the test of Sikh doctrine is unclear given that Sikhs were to "never wage war for power" (Handbook, p. 238).

Self-determination. A by-product of Guru Hargobind's militarization of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh's creation of a uniformed Khalsa force, and Ranjit Singh's half-century kingdom is the unshakable Sikh belief in self-determination. Subsequent to the British annexation of the Sikh Kingdom in 1849, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925 was a major milestone establishing "autonomous Sikh spaces" as symbols of Sikh sovereignty (Handbook, p. 79). British departure and the Partition of India in 1947 resulted in a split of Punjab and the loss of Lahore. Complexities around the creation of states with linguistic boundaries led to further splits resulting in the creation of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, and a much diminished Punjab with a shared capital of Chandigarh. The idea of an independent Sikh nation called Khalistan had been floated at least as early as 1940 and the movement of the 1980s and 1990s served notice that the Sikh aspiration continues to fester as a "deterritorialized sovereignty" and "a nation living within other nations" (Handbook, p. 8).

Military Legacy. The Sikhs form the backbone of the Indian army, for the following reasons. Gurkhas (from Nepal), though at least equally valuable as infantry, are by no means so plentiful, and are an independent race. Pathans are apt to become homesick, and dislike to be stationed at any great distance from their native land. Difficulty is experienced in enlisting pure Rajputs in any number. But the Sikh is always ready to enlist and to undertake duty across the "Black Water," even should that duty be to fight an epidemic in Hong Kong, or to chase Arab slave dealers in Central Africa, if only he be well paid (for the Sikh has several Scottish qualities). He is equally good as (sic) horse or foot, at defence or attack; he appreciates the value of discipline and is devoted to his duty (Frederick P. Gibbon quoting Lepel Griffin in "The Record of the Sikhs", The Gentleman's Magazine, July to December 1898, Volume 285, p. 234).

Guru Gobind Singh opened up to the downtrodden lower castes a proud life in the military and a hope for self-determination with heads held high. Those who had for centuries been denied self-expression due to their accident of birth by the rigid caste system of the Hindus could now aspire to full citizenship and lives of heroic valor. Whether inspired by Islam or not, martyrdom and courage with disregard for the consequences became for Guru Gobind Singh and his Khalsa the highest virtue of all.

God and Philosophy. We've discussed many Sikh names for God. "Vahiguru". "Akal Purakh". "Kartar". The Sikh philosophy is that of one, timeless, immortal, formless, unknowable God. It is a God that can satisfy even atheists and scientists who cannot deny the mystery of the timeless, unknowable Universe. This God is described primarily in Guru Nanak's Mul Mantra in the opening pages of the Guru Granth. Mul Mantra and Guru Nanak's Japji are the essence of the Sikh message. The names of God are many, but the definition is the same. The Sikh philosophy has diverted significantly from Hinduism and Islam so as to be "irreconcilable" with either one (Malcolm, p. 151). Above all, Guru Nanak sought to deliver a universal message of a universal God and a world no longer divided into sects, each worshiping its own idol or God. But Guru Nanak did not recommend the use of force in spreading this unifying message.

Since these doctrines are interpreted rather than stated, there are many views on this (see Pashaura Singh's recap of the Guru Period in "Oxford Handbook", as highlighted in this book review). They always seem to go in threes. For example, Guru, Granth, and Gurdwara (Handbook, p. 75).

Gurdwara. The Sikh place of worship. More importantly, perhaps, the Sikh place of congregation where the sangat enjoys and often joins in with the "kirtan" (prayer led by musicians). Everyone sits on the floor as equals, although women sit to the left of the Guru Granth and men to the right. Langar (the free community kitchen) is open to all at any time. The initial nomenclature was "dharam-sala".

Reincarnation. On this topic there are conflicting viewpoints. The Guru Granth frequently makes reference to "chaurasi lakh joon" (84 lakh or 8.4 million species of life) and the idea that life is reborn in all these forms (Guru Arjan, GG, p. 1020). Unless, that is, if one can find "liberation from the cycle of existence" (Handbook, p. 40). That liberation is, of course, only possible through the grace of God. And that, in turn, is only possible to achieve during life in the human form, which is viewed as the best of the 8.4 million forms (Bhai Gurdas, Vaars). Why life is considered so wretched and worth seeking liberation from has never been clear to me. I suppose the idea might appeal to those leading miserable lives. Suicide comes to mind as another option, but let's set that aside for now. Some have suggested that Kabir has expressed views against the idea of reincarnation, but the verse isn't that straightforward to interpret (GG, p. 1103).

Worth mentioning in this connection is the related concept of "Jiwan Mukti" (being liberated while alive). "Jiwan" (life) may also be written as "Jeewan", "Jivan", or "Jeevan". See SS Kohli's "Encyclopaedia" (p. 205) and AG pp. 1426-1428. "Mukti" or "Moksha" (or "Nirvana" in Buddhist vocabulary) are similar to the Western concept of liberation or emancipation or deliverance, but not salvation, since the idea of redemption along with the removal of sin and guilt is absent from the idea of Mukti (Harbans Singh, Encyclopaedia). Harbans Singh also cautions against viewing Mukti as escapism. To him, the Sikh concept of Mukti is in fact that of Jiwan Mukti representing the attainment of freedom from ego, greed, and attachment while living. I view this idea as a lot more palatable and meaningful, and quite opposed to the traditional Hindu concept of reincarnation and the pointlessness of liberation from the cycle of life and death. It should be acknowledged here that the Jiwan Mukti concept is not a Sikh invention, but has been reinterpreted. For example, "Jeevan mukatu so aakheeai jisu vichahu houmai jaai" (Jiwan Mukti is attained by the absence of ego, AG, 1009).

Turban Swapping. The origin of "Pag Vatauni" (Exchange of Turbans) is unclear, but is signifies the creation of a firm bond of friendship and respect between the two persons who take part in the exchange. It is common to see this tradition in action during Sikh marriages with the bride's relatives exchanging turbans with the groom's relatives. It's not clear how far back the tradition goes, but it appears to have been active at least as far back as the Guru Period (Handbook, p. 179) as well as Ranjit Singh's time (Handbook, p. 63).

Significance of Turban Colors. In "Knights of Falsehood", KPS Gill writes that during the Akali Movement in the 1920s, the SGPC asked Sikhs to wear black turbans as a mark of protest, and many Sikhs were arrested by the British for doing so (p. 56). I frequently wore a black turban during my first year of university in Canada because I didn't want to stand out any more than I already did. Also, I wasn't rich and didn't have a huge wardrobe of clothes. Black matches with every outfit and doesn't have to be washed frequently. There are some other colors that also have traditional meanings. Nam-dhari Sikhs and 3HO (white) Sikhs usually wear white. Akali and Nihang Sikhs usually wear dark or royal blue (when not protesting). A yellow (basanti) or saffron turban usually signifies protest in more current times, e.g. during the Khalistan movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. A red or pink turban is often worn for celebrations, like weddings.

During the early years of Sikh migration to the US (late nineteenth century and early twentieth century), white and yellow turbans were often described as soiled and dirty because dirt shows up more easily on light colors ("Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West", Nayan Shah, 2012).

The color of the turban is independent of the color of the optional under-turban, also known as "safa" or "patka". The under-turban may also be replaced by the sort of cloth headband known as a "fifty". The word "fifty" apparently originated in the Biritsh Sikh army because the under-turbans used about 50 percent of the cloth that a full turban required.

Egalitarianism. Sikhism was founded on equality for all, regardless of caste. Although marriages continued to follow caste allegiances and none except Khatris ever became Gurus, significant progress was made, for example, via the langar institution wherein everyone sat on the ground at the same level and next to each other without distinction. However, instead of building on that foundation, in recent times Sikhism has been either hemorrhaging or failing to attract low-caste Sikhs (Handbook, p. 78). Babasaheb Ambedkar, the leader of India's vast population of lower castes, also known as untouchables or scheduled castes and tribes, had in 1936 (Ambedkar-Moonje Pact) seriously considered asking his followers to embrace Sikhism. However, the idea was opposed or diluted by various forces, including Mohandas Gandhi (another leader of the untouchables) and ultimately fizzled out with most of the mantle going to Buddhism ("Life and Mission" by Dhananjay Keer, 2016 and "Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System" By Christophe Jaffrelot, 2005).

Sikhism or Sikhi? A somewhat recent trend in popular Sikh culture is to push back against the Western nomenclature of "Sikhism" and propagate use of the term "Sikhi" instead. This shift may also be viewed in light of the tension that has existed between traditionalists (who have embraced the term "Sikhi") and academicians (who continue to use the term "Sikhism"). Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair's "Sikhism: A Guide for the Perplexed" (2013) goes into some detail in trying to justify the switch from Sikhism to Sikhi. However, he does not illuminate on the origin of the term and the trend in the first place.

I've been able to trace it at least as far back as IJ Singh's 2006 book "The World According to Sikhi". The same IJ Singh published "Sikhs and Sikhism" in 1998 with no reference to Sikhi whatsoever. Michael Hawley has suggested that "both terms are constructed," i.e. did not develop naturally ("Sikh Diaspora: Theory, Agency, and Experience", 2013, p. 51). Handbook (Pashaura Singh and Louis Fenech) embraces the term Sikhi in the introduction but then goes on to use Sikhism almost exclusively through the book. The earliest reference I have been able to find is the poem "Sikhi Da Buta" (the plant/sapling of Sikhi) by Mohan Singh (1905-1978).

The r/Sikh forum on Reddit with almost 12,000 members is downright militant in its obsession with the use of Sikhi and has threatened to ban me even when I've accidentally used the term "Sikhism" as part of a link I've posted, such as my "Sikhism Timeline," which has been live since around 1999. I am unwilling to rename the link to use Sikhi (instead of Sikhism), because that would break any existing references to the link. And yet, I would like to be able to post the link on various Sikh forums to support discussion or invite comment. But I've had no such luck on r/Sikh.

Pacifism. It is often said that Guru Gobind Singh reversed Guru Nanak's pacifist doctrine when he founded the military Sikh order of the Khalsa in 1699. Others challenge "the problematic assumption that Guru Nanak was a pacifist" (Handbook, p. 203). This "pacifist" branding often accompanies the argument that Guru Nanak emerged from the "Sant" tradition that emphasized individual liberty and freedom from organized religion. Gurinder Singh Mann, Harpreet Singh and others counter this school of thought by pointing to various examples of institution building undertaken by Guru Nanak, including the conception of "hukam" (divine order), the beginnings of the new Gurmukhi script for writing the Punjabi language, the founding of the town of Kartarpur, the appointment of a successor (Guru Angad), the textualization of doctrine (i.e. Guru Nanak's leather-bound "pothis" or written down sermons), and perhaps even the tradition of "langar". They similarly point out that Guru Nanak sanctioned the use of violent force between equals but did not condone the killing of civilians.

The trouble with crediting Guru Nanak for all of these initiatives is that it doesn't leave much with which to assign credit to the later Gurus. Indeed an evolving tradition seems a lot more realistic than one that was manufactured overnight by one all-knowing founder.

Closing Remarks. Whereas Guru Nanak was all about bringing an end to ritualism, it seems in some ways the Sikhs have come full circle an established a new set of rituals of their own. The gatra (strap used to hold the kirpan) has replaced the janeu (the sacred thread worn by Hindu Brahmans). This invention of new rituals by the Singh Sabha was aimed at reasserting 'social control' (Jakobsh, p. 109). This imposition of artificial homogeneity by the Tat Khalsa was tantamount to what I have termed the 'Talibanization' of Sikhism. Although Guru Gobind Singh may be "most revered" (Malcolm, p. 196) of all the gurus and gave the Sikhs their outward identity that likely has sustained them for 550 years, the Sikhs also became intolerant and vindictive ("It is right to slay a Muslim", Malcolm, p. 187), gave up on Nanak's message of reconciliation, and started defining themselves in opposition to the other (e.g. heretical and schismatic sects).

There's More. There are many other practices worth exploring. Such as the waving of the "chaur" (whisk made of white yak's hair) by a person standing next to the Guru Granth. Perhaps the "royal" practice is an influence of the Indo-Timurid courtly protocol (Fenech, Handbook, p. 42). These will have to wait for another occasion.