A Survey of Popular and Academic Literature for Stories on Origin and Development
By PUNEET SINGH LAMBA
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:
"kesh" (unshorn hair)
"kanga" (comb to maintain the unshorn hair)
"kirpan" (sword for self-defense and to protect the vulnerable)
"kachcha" (underwear or breeches for mobility and agility)
"kara" (iron and steel bracelet)
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). Finally, I will point the reader to Nikky-Guninder's rather artful (albeit somewhat fanciful) attempt to connect the origin of the 5Ks to the Guru Granth (Handbook, p. 616-618).
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.
Nishan. Although the "Nishan" (banner, flag, seal, stamp) and the "Khanda" took birth and evolved somewhat in parallel, the Nishan appears to be the older twin. However, since the Khanda is a part of the Nishan, I have listed the Khanda first and then the Nishan. Sort of like the need to describe what a transistor is first before you describe how an electronic circuit works.
Sectarianism and Sects.
Titles and Addressing.
Legacy of the Sikh Kingdom.
God and Philosophy.
Significance of Turban Colors.
Sikhism or Sikhi?
Babaji Da Kamra (A Room for the Guru Granth).
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 the miri-piri concept arose from Guru Hargobind wearing two swords, one on each side. 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.
Nikky-Guninder (Handbook, p. 420) even tries to tie the origin of the Khanda to Guru Nanak's use of the word (AG, p. 1028), but that seems a bit far fetched. However, she makes a valid observation that the Ikk-Onkar symbol that adorns the Guru Granth has been eclipsed by the more recent and symmetrical Khanda. 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.
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" (or xanthic) 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. However, it has also been suggested that "Kaur" came from "Kanwar", the Rajput word for "prince".)
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 procession (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). According to the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) published by the SGPC in 1950, the nishan can be of "xanthic or greyish blue colour" (p. 15).
Miri-Piri 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. As a somewhat supportive view, Shani suggests that the wearing of two swords was the sole prerogative of the Guru (Handbook, p. 272). 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.
Scripture. In a society wherein writing is under-valued and knowledge is hoarded and passed on within the family via oral tradition (Hindu and Buddhist scripture was not written down until many years after their origin), Sikh Gurus chose to write and publish their message for everyone to read and sing. Furthermore, they used language that the lay person could understand and a new Gurmukhi script that the Hindu Brahmin could not easily master and monopolize. These decisions likely played a major role in making Sikhism attractive to all, including the lower castes who were traditionally kept in the dark ("Sikh Studies", Juergensmeyer and Barrier, 1979). This highlights Guru Arjan's giving nature in that he gave not only his life for the cause via his martyrdom at the hands of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir but also made it his life's mission to document and organize the message of the Sikh Gurus.
The primary scripture of the Sikhs is known as the Adi Granth (or the first book), or reverentially the Guru Granth, since it is said to have been declared by tenth and final human Guru, Gobind Singh, to be the lifetime Guru of the Sikhs. The scripture of secondary importance to the Sikhs is the Dasam Granth (or the tenth book), so named because it is said to have been authored partly or mostly by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. Not all Sikhs revere this scripture, but hymns from this scripture form part of the prestigious orthodox Khalsa initiation ceremony. The scripture of tertiary importance, perhaps only to the Nihangs, is the Sarab Loh Granth (the all-steel/iron book), also said to have been written by Guru Gobind Singh.
Not many Sikhs today are fluent with the Gurmukhi script used in the Adi Granth. Consequently, most Sikhs use translations, but the Guru status seems reserved for the Gurmukhi version, specifically the official SGPC edition with 1,430 pages and a specific format and shape wherein the width (17 inches) is slightly more than the height (14 inches) and the printing uses a 40 point font. The core message of the Adi Granth is said to be fairly simple. Therefore, I have often wondered why it took 1,430 pages and ten Gurus to deliver it. The answer might lie in two places. One, that the mode of expression is poetry that is meant to be sung in congregations. Two, that whereas the core message is delivered via the introductory "Japji" by Guru Nanak, the remainder may be viewed as exegesis.
Whereas strict believers are convinced that the Adi Granth represents revelations, analysis of several manuscripts has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that canon creation was an iterative process involving numerous versions and edits prior to finalization. For example, the Kartarpur "Bir" (manuscript) is said to open with "Ikk Om, Sat Nam" rather than the "Ikk Oankar" we see in the definitive edition today (Loehlin, "Sikh Studies", 1979, p. 114). Many other "pothis" (partial manuscripts) also exist, which are believed to be collections handed down from the first Guru Nanak to the second Guru Angad and so on as well as more complete versions prior to the Kartarpur version believed to be a recension that the current day Guru Granth is most closely based on apart from the Damdama Bir. Even if you're not a religious person, it is fascinating to study the development of the Punjabi language through the writings of the ten Gurus over a period of 200 odd years. For example, Nanak's "sachunamu" as recorded in the earliest manuscripts became "satinamu" in the Adi Granth we have today (Mann, p. 53).
One of the debates has been the question of whether the "Ragmala" section of the Adi Granth was added with the consent of the Gurus. The question arises because the section does not appear in earlier recensions. Another is the puberty rite of shaving Guru Hargobind's head as described by Guru Arjan in the "Ramkali" hymn, which is found in the Bhai Banno Bir but is missing from the Kartarpur Bir. Research on these matters continues but has been hampered by objections such as the one by the Nihangs that photographing pages of the Adi Granth manuscripts is equivalent to photographing the naked body of the Guru!
Sectarianism and Sects. Many Sikhs belong to sects that operate very differently with respect to many of the symbols and traditions. Examples of sects include the Nam-dharis (Kukas), the Nirankaris, the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, the Valmikis (Mazhabis), the Ravidassias (Dalits), the Radhasoamis, the 3HO, the Nanaksars, the Udasis, the Nirmalas, the Nihangs (or Akalis, a precursor to the Shiromani Akali Dal political party) and many more. That's a sect for every half a century of the existence of the Sikh tradition, not counting the countless "deras" (ashrams), "akharas" (wrestling stadiums evolved into places of teaching and preaching), and "taksals" (seminaries), each with their own independent leadership and peculiarities. As an example of varying traditions, the Nanaksar gurdwaras do not have Nishans or langar.
Because of how well the British succeeded with their "Divide and Rule" strategy, thereby encouraging a rigid Sikh identity and the consequent Singh Sabha movement, it is often forgotten that many of these sects have played a huge positive role in Sikh history. The Nam-dharis (or Kukas) were a big part of the movement to resist British rule. And when speaking of the resitance against British rule on the Indian subcontinent, we should also mention the Ghadar movement in North America who flew the flag for independent India at their headquarters in California before it flew atop any government building in India (Handbook, p. 387).
It was the pacifist and unorthodox Nirmalas that delivered on Deep Singh's legacy and provided the language education needed at Damdami Taksal in order to train the trainees/students/seminarians/monks on how to read and interpret the Guru Granth (Handbook, p. 374). It was the Nirmala and Udasi "mahants" (head priests) who were ousted from their hereditary claims to gurdwaras as a result of the Singh Sabha and Gurdwara Reform movements which culminated in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925. This gave mahants and the Udasi and Nirmala sects a bad name, but their contributions have been many. Gurbachan Singh's splinter from the Damdami Taksal at Bhinder Kalan took the new Damdami Taksal at Chowk Mehta into a separatist direction and gave birth to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Operation Blue Star. The martial tradition Sikhs credit Guru Gobind Singh for is also partly influenced by the "Akhara" (wrestling stadium) tradition of the Udasis and Nirmalas who gave us the Gatka martial arts.
Schisms are a fact of life for any movement. The older the movement, the more sects and branches it can be expected to have. Sect formation often occurs when someone feels dissatisfied about a succession plan or transfer of power. The earliest Sikh example was Guru Nanak's own son Chand, who started the Udasi sect when Guru Angad was chosen as the successor. But a tree does not and cannot deny its branches access to its roots. Similarly, the Sikh tree ought to embrace all of its branches rather than attempt to ostracize them.
Salutations | 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).
Salutations | 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.
There is a school of thought that suggests "Jo Jaikaaraa Bulavai, Nihal Ho Javey" as the original battle cry (Dilgeer, "Dictionary", p. 42).
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 tying together of "deg" (the cauldron for cooking langar), "tegh" (the sword for righteous warfare), and "fateh" (victory in battle). A related greeting in use in some sections today is "Gur Fateh".
Salutations | 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.
Salutations | Other. Other greetings popular during early days seem to have been "dhan nirankar" and "dhan guru" (Mann, "The Making of Sikh Scripture", p. 9).
Karah Parsad. "Parsad" has occasionally been translated as "grace" (Handbook, p. 318). 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 aroma 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 likely a development from the latter half of the Guru period and what gives it the prefix "Karah". Sometimes, "Karah Parsad" is shortened to "Karah". 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). Also, prevalent was the use of the term "degh parsad" (Hawley, Handbook, p. 318).
Titles and Addressing. 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. Although the title is meant to be conferred by the SGPC, I doubt they issue a certificate and therefore 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).
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.
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). Orthodox Sikhs generally think of the Gurus as all-knowing. Yet, Nikky-Guninder writes, "the Gurus might not have known the empowering potential of their maternal symbol [per their verses in the Guru Granth]" (Handbook, p. 610).
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. The SGPC Rahit available online doesn't seem to allow for searching inside the document, but looking through the index does not reveal that it has anything to say about "abortion" or "LGBTQ".
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.
In "Sikhan di Bhagatmala", Mani Singh writes that the Adi Granth is for "bhagti" (spirituality) and the Dasam Granth is for "shakti" (warfare) (Handbook, p. 464). 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". Chaupa Singh, who is credited with the earliest analysis of the making of the Sikh scripture, wrote that Guru Gobind Singh viewed what we now call the Dasam Granth as "khel" (play) and declined to merge it with the Adi Granth (Mann, p. 21).
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 (and the Singh Sabha helping hand) in shaping the strict orthodoxy we know today. When the SAD or the SGPC talk of banding together with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in order to secure the Hindu electorate, how do they know they're not referring to unorthodox Sikhs? The insecurities of the Sikhs might well be resulting in a self-fulfilling prophesy.
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. Kes-dharis are also colloquially also referred to as "Gursikhs" (Guru's Sikhs) or "Sabat-Soorat" (fully intact). Similarly, "Sahaj-dharis" are sometimes referred to as "Mona Sikhs" (shaven Sikhs).
To me, the inauguration of the Khalsa was not unlike raising an army. Every nation reveres their military veterans, and for good reason. However, no nation (except perhaps Israel) stipulates that you cannot be a citizen unless you serve in the military. Joining the Khalsa was meant to be voluntary or optional. That's exactly how military service is structured in most countries. Not every Sikh need be covered in the "blood red mud of army barracks" (Tagore, quoted in The Statesman, Jan. 14. 2015). Let's not follow the model implemented by theocracies like Israel. A nation requires many other professions in order to be viable. Civilians don't need to wear a uniform. And let's follow Dardi's interpretation of miri-piri with separation of church and state, not the fusing of the two. Sikhs would do well to embrace both orthodoxy and diversity. Remember that a lot of good can come from welcoming new ideas. For instance, the Anand Marriage Act of 1909 was inspired by the rites used by the Nirankari sect (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 SGPC and SAD were formed and that culminated in the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925 as a major milestone establishing "autonomous Sikh spaces" as symbols of Sikh sovereignty (Handbook, p. 79). However, the SGPC functions to a significant degree on the whims and mercy of the central government of India. 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 post-Westphalian "de-territorialized sovereignty" and "a nation living within other nations" (Handbook, p. 8) whose "center of gravity is now outside Punjab" (Handbook, p. 385). However, as Mahmood points out, ever since the beginning "Khalistan" has remained "an opaque slogan rather than an articulated plan", although she points out that's par for the course for revolutions everywhere (Handbook, p. 571). To those who might point to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR) of 1973 (revisited in 1978) as that plan, I must point out that while the ASR is a comprehensive list of grievances and solutions, it is not plan on how to govern or a statement of the proposed nation's aspirations and legal framework.
Although the SGPC is often referred to as the "Sikh parliament", it is far from that. The body is neither representative (since is excluded many Sikhs) nor autonomous. Unorthodox Sikhs have always been on the periphery, both in terms of voting and in terms of being able to hold office. Also, the body tends to answer not to the voters but to the political bosses pulling the strings.
There has always been a "forced choice" (Handbook, p. 271) and conflation imposed on the Sikhs between identity and non-secularism, between self-determination and separatism. The desire for the former has often been interpreted as an implied goal of the latter and fails to account for a Sikh sovereignty that is not territorially bound.
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 (sic) 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). Quite likely, British influence and the Christian concept of trinity is to be credited.
Gurdwara. The Sikh place of worship, meant to be established wherever there are five or more Sikh homes in habitation (Handbook, p. 321). 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" and the term "gurdwara" was reserved for dharam-salas where the human Guru was present. After the Guru Granth was declared as the final Guru by Guru Gobind Singh, the term gurdwara has become standard (Hawley, Handbook, p. 318). The priest used to be referred to as "dharam-salia" but nowadays "granthi" is more common.
The first overseas/diaspora gurdwara was inaugurated by railway workers in Kilindini, Kenya in 1892. The one in Hong Kong followed soon after in 1910, the first instance with many to come of Sikhs being hired by the British as mercenaries (Tatla, Handbook, p. 502). Next came Vancouver in 1907 and London in 1911.
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). According to Owen Cole (Handbook, p. 256), Guru Nanak had expressed views against transmigration (AG, p. 729) when discussing a verse by Sheikh Farid (AG, p. 794). According to Mandair, the Adi Granth references to re-incarnation are just "metaphors" (Handbook, p. 306).
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. Covering the head and face is a practice with a very long history. The Jews wear a kippah, the Catholic Pope wears a yarmulke, women wore (and often still wear) veils, and there are many styles of turbans worn over the world. A very interesting video I ran into recently, makes a significant addition by exploring the dumalla style turban that was worn by Moghul emperors like Akbar, Hindu kings like Shivaji, and Sikh Gurus like Gobind Singh (at least in art from the post-Guru period, even if not in real life).
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 Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (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 and gender. Although marriages continued to follow caste allegiances and none except male 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.
It is not very broadly understood that the single word "caste" fails to capture the complexity of India's system of "varna/varan/baran" (class), jati (endogamous categories), gotr (exogamous last names), kul (lineage), etc. Furthermore, caste in Sikhism is very different from the standard "char varna" of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra referenced in Hinduism as well as the Adi Granth. Arguably, there's a fifth varan, i.e. outcastes, consisting of those who don't belong to either of the four varans. How do the Sikh castes of Jat, Khatri, Ramgharia, and Dalit fit into this scheme? The answer is not very well, and a full explanation will require a whole other essay. A good beginning of such an exercise can be found in Hew McLeod's essay in the collection titled "Textures of the Sikh Past".
However, instead of building on the egalitarian 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 dalits, 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).
Sikhs often point to the inclusion of hymns by non-Sikh (Hindu and Muslim) saints in the Adi Granth, and rightly so. However, unfortunately Sikh history is also riddled with attempts to remove (Teja Singh Bhasor/Bhasaur, MS 1245), justify (Sevadas, Vir Singh), and downgrade (Mani Singh) the hymns of the non-Sikh bhagats and bards (Mann, p. 120).
Finally, it is perhaps necessary to point to a concerning section in the "Sikh Rahit Maryada" published by the SGPC which states that when the "panj pyare" (five beloved ones) assemble to administer "amrit" (nectar) for initiation/baptism into the Khalsa order, whereas these "panj pyare" may include women they should not include a person who is disabled or suffering from a chronic illness. This sort of discrimination against a blind or lame or sick person is tough to explain or justify. It is not clear to me to what extent this ordinance is actually followed to the letter in real practice, but the presence of such an ordinance does point to a form of discrimination that is not admirable.
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.
In spoken language, Sikhi has likely been popular for much longer in circles such as taksals where proper diction and terminology is valued. I heard a speech from Bhindranwale from around 1984 where he uses the term. As far as the published word in English goes, 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.
What is often forgotten in light of the "martial race" label attached to the Sikhs is that the Gurdwara Reform Movement (also known as the Akali Movement) of the 1920s that resulted the formation of the SGPC and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the passing of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925 was delivered via a series of non-violent "jathas" (processions) and "morchas" (protests) during which thousands lost their lives and a much larger number were persecuted and jailed. Mohandas Gandhi famously referred to the movement's victory in the "Keys' Affair" as the "first decisive battle for India's freedom" (Handbook, p. 331).
Sikh Calendar. There is some debate regarding whether to follow a solar calendar or a lunar calendar. A solar calendar allows the dates of events to be fixed so that they do not vary from year to year. A lunar calendar is one where (assuming no intercalation adjustments are made) the dates of events vary from year to year relative to the Gregorian solar calendar that we all know as the official or default calendar of the world (blessed by Pope Gregor, hence Gregorian).
Most "old world" calendars are lunar calendars, or lunisolar calendars where intercalation adjustments are made to bring the lunar calendar to align with the "new world" solar calendar. The corresponding Sikh calendars are the Sammat or Bikrami lunar calendar (which is essentially the Indian Hindu calendar) and the Nanakshahi solar (lunisolar) calendar. In 2003 the SGPC moved away from the Bikrami calendar and approved the Nanakshahi calendar devised by Pal Singh Purewal and originally approved in 1998 and then scrapped. The debate about which calendar to use persists to this day.
Thatha. A piece of cloth, usually white, used to tie the beard to help it set after the application of a light glue like product. It is usually removed about 30 minutes later once the beard is set. The alternative is to leave the beard open and flowing. The set beard is preferred by some Sikh men when in formal settings or while operating machinery as a safety precaution. A net is also used by some for the same purpose, but in that case it must be left tied for the entire duration. It is said that Ranjit Singh's son Sher Singh was the first Sikh pictured with his beard tied (in a portraiture by August Schoefft, Handbook, p. 425).
Golden Temple. More accurately known as the Harmandir (the building that houses the Guru Granth) or the Darbar Sahib (the surrounding complex), the Golden Temple (as the British called it) is the Vatican of the Sikhs. Its importance is evident from the fact that starting from Guru Hargobind's death in 1644 the Minas and Miharvan/Miharban (rivals of the Sikh Gurus), Mughals, Afghans, and the British all tried to control the religious institution for almost 300 years until the Sikhs, after making immense sacrifices, finally took back control with the passing of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925. The premises have been destroyed and desecrated many times and rebuilt (Handbook, p. 432-433).
Langar. One of the most cherished and well-known of Sikh traditions is that of offering free meals to one and all who visit the gurdwaras. More recently several Sikh groups also go to areas impacted by disasters such as hurricanes or COVID-19 and distribute necessities. The tradition is said to be as old as Sikhism itself and there is a clear scriptural reference to "langar" (free/open kitchen) at the time of the second Guru Angad (AG, p. 967). As for the gurdwara langars, however, often they only feed the already well-fed suburbia, at least in Western countries.
About a year ago, I took my son to the local gurdwara a few times to expose him to the concept of "sewa" (volunteering) in the gurdwara "langar" (kitchen). As we were leaving, the gurdwara staff suggested we have langar prior to leaving. However, we were unable to stay. Therefore, they suggested we take some along. But we didn't have containers so we just grabbed a small snack and said our goodbyes, "changa ji" (all good then), "Sat Sri Akal", etc. The moral of the story is that some smaller gurdwaras in the diaspora might allow takeout, depending on your relationship with the staff. But delivery is not yet a concept I've observed, although I would hope that if there are leftovers after the weekly service (usually on Sundays) they would be delivered to the local soup kitchen rather than commandeered by the staff or allowed to go to waste.
Head-coverings. The Sikh tradition requires both men and women to have their heads covered when entering a demarcated area where the Guru Granth is present. The area could be as large as the Golden Temple Complex or as small as a designated room in a house. The importance of head-coverings in Sikhism is clearly a carryover from the Abrahamic line of traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The history of head-coverings is convoluted indeed. The history of veiling in the context of women is even more complicated. In the supposed words of Apostle Paul, "For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head." (The Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16). The earliest known reference is Assyrian law (thirteenth century BCE), which required elite or free women to cover their heads in public. Prostitutes and slave women were prohibited from veiling.
Pothis. Before the Guru Granth became canonized, the writings of the Gurus were referred to as pothis. It happened often that a successor Guru could not get access to the copy of the pothi that was in the previous Guru's possession. That's because the previous Guru's family viewed it as a family asset rather than a community asset and refused to pass it on to the successor Guru. In these cases, the successor Guru had to write his own "version" of the pothi from memory. As you might imagine, the various pothi "versions" disagree with each other. That's because memory isn't perfect and even if you remember the word, you might not remember the spelling. Additionally, when copies of a pothi were made for disseminating the message to Sikhs living far away from the Guru, there were errors introduced during the copying process (again a very understandable outcome since the process of manually copying is prone to errors). Therefore, there are many such pothi "versions" and there are many disagreements between these "versions". In each case, it is not a trivial matter to determine which "version" should be considered authoritative. This is notwithstanding that there is a canonized version that is nevertheless assumed to be authoritative, even when historically it may not be.
Babaji Da Kamra (A Room for the Guru Granth). In his final days, when Guru Gobind Singh is said to have declared "Guru Maneyo Granth!" (henceforth let the Granth be your Guru), as recorded by the Bhatt bards and repeated in the "ardas" (daily prayer), he did not mean it literally. He meant that the teachings enshrined in the Guru Granth were to provide the guidance that a living Guru would have provided had Guru Gobind Singh not brought an end to that lineage. However, Sikh orthodoxy has interpreted that commandment entirely literally so that Sikhs are discouraged from keeping the Guru Granth at home unless they can show that they can provide for it, so to speak.
You can't order the canonical 1430-page version (aka "bir") from Amazon, for example. It is only available from major "gurdwaras" (Sikh temples). When you order a "bir" from a gurdwara, they will generally visit your home and verify that you have a room, "palki" (palanquin), "rumalas" (decorative handkerchiefs) and what not to house the Guru Granth with the required "respect." Therefore, a poor Sikh living in a one-room dwelling will not be allowed to keep a "bir" at home. This achieves the exact opposite result from the democratization of religion that the Gurus intended by eliminating the concept of a needed intermediary between man and God. Even those who do have a "bir" at home treat it more as an object of worship than a source of knowledge and inspiration. The process for opening it for a reading is so packed with ritual that there is effectively a high bar that discourages regular reading. Personally, I wish the Guru Granth was available in portable form like the Bibles you see in hotel rooms.
Along similar lines, I'd like to call out the silliness of the "it should be referred to as ang, not as page" argument made by some Sikhs. Ang is the Punjabi word for body-part. The idea is that the Guru Granth is to be treated as a person, not as a book. To me this is bordering on worship rather than understanding. The word "sikh" means learner, not worshiper. We're supposed to read the Guru Granth, not worship it. Then, the same folks who insist on using "ang" instead of "page" then start referring to "pangti", which is the Punjabi word for "line". But, of course, body-parts don't have lines, they have cells. And this further highlights the pointlessness of trying to treat the Guru Granth as a person. When Guru Gobind Singh (tenth and last guru) anointed the Adi Granth as Guru ("Guru Maneyo Granth"), he didn't mean it literally. He meant that all of the guidance that a Guru would have provided is henceforth to come from the Guru Granth. How? By Sikhs READING the Guru Granth, not by worshiping it and making nonsense arguments about not calling it a book or a page or a line. When Guru Nanak (first guru) started writing down his "shabads" (words/hymns), he used to carry them around as what was known as a "pothi" (the Punjabi word for book). The collection of hymns wasn't any less revered then than the Guru Granth is now. All these rules about what to call things, how to pray, how to eat, are aimed at establishing a fake moral and spiritual superiority that takes us away from the real core values we need to be talking about, e.g. helping others, being truthful, being humble, etc.
Miracles. There are many "janam-sakhis" (birth stories/biographies/hagiographies) about the Gurus. Most of them were crafted long after the Guru period and under great societal pressure to conform to what is expected of a god or a messenger of god starting from Horus in 3000 BC Egypt (see the movie Zeitgeist: The Movie, 2007). Not surprisingly, these birth stories made claims of the Gurus performing miracles such as when Guru Nanak was attacked with a boulder rolled downhill toward him, he stopped it with his bare hands. The Punja Sahib Gurdwara (five fingers gurdwara), now in Pakistan, puts on display the boulder with a hand impression and the claim that it is the very same boulder that Guru Nanak exhibited his miracle on. Even if Guru Nanak did stop a boulder, it is hard to believe that he left a hand impression.
Closing Remarks. Whereas Guru Nanak was all about bringing an end to ritualism, it seems in some ways the Sikhs have come full circle and 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). The Guru Granth has become the new idol, that Sikhs dress in lavish clothing, bow to, treat as royalty (e.g. "manji" or cot/throne and "chauri" or fly-whisk), put to bed, pray to (e.g. "ardas" or supplication), use for naming children, cremate, and have others read (e.g. "akhand path", or continuous reading) rather than read themselves. Granthis have become the new priests, laying down rigid rules about who can get married and how ceremonies should be carried out. This invention of new rituals, further institutionalized by the Singh Sabha, was aimed at reasserting 'social control' (Jakobsh, p. 109). The 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" or "chauri" (whisk or fly-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). According to Hawley, the practice among Sikhs goes at least as far back as Guru Arjan, who use to sit on a raised platform at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar under a canopy with an attendant waving a chauri (Handbook, p. 319). Note that today the Guru Granth is treated in much the same way. Use of the chauri in India is part of a "longstanding tradition in religious and royal ceremonial" (Mariam Rosser-Owen, "Metalwork and Material Culture in the Islamic World", 2012) and can be traced at least as far back as Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta (Hannah Falcke, Journal of the Society for Arts, Volume 51, Number 2629, April 10, 1903). The caves are said to date from the 2nd century BCE. These will have to wait for another occasion.