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Sikh truth in harmony;The big picture

(Photograph) - Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539) is seen here teaching a Hindu raja. In life, his closest companion was a Muslim musician. Yet he founded a religion which broke away from these faiths. Born in a Hindu family working for a Muslim landlord, he was already an important local religious leader when, in his twenties, he went for an early morning swim - and disappeared. After three days he reappeared but remained silent. He had had a vision of the one God, who constitutes the only reality: Ikk Oan Kar (One Being Is).

Nanak gave up his job and distributed his goods to the poor. When, finally, he spoke he said: "There is no Muslim, no Hindu." Sikhism, the world's fifth largest religion with more than 20 million followers, believes in the primacy of inner truth over outer observance. Sikhs try to act in harmony with their sense of universal unity.

Regardless of caste, class, gender or religious belief, anyone can enter a gurdwara (temple). Central are the values of seva (selfless service), langar (communal eating) and sangat (the congregation). Spiritual and ethical beliefs must be demonstrated in everyday existence, be it in fighting for a righteous cause (Sikhs are prominent in the Indian army), in creating beautiful works of art or craft, in doing charitable works or in successful business.

After Nanak died, the religion developed under succeeding gurus in the Punjab. The tenth guru, Gobind Singh (1675-1708), was the last. A great codifier and organiser, he assigned the role of religious leader to the Granth, the Sikh holy scripture. The Granth is the only object of veneration in Sikh gurdwaras.

Three hundred years ago, in 1699, Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, a holy community within Sikhism. The festival of Vaisakhi (or Baisakhi) on April 14 commemorates this event with 10 days of feasting, fireworks, processions and almsgiving. Not all Sikhs belong to the Khalsa, but all aspire to its ideals. United by the "Five Ks" (kakkar) the Khalsa wear uncut hair, kesh; comb, kangha; steel bracelet, kara; dagger, kirpan; and undershorts, kachha, symbolising respectively devotion, hygiene and discipline, loyalty, courage and purity. In addition, men are required to wear a turban, dastar, which as a sign of nobility stands for dignity and self-esteem.

This folio from an 18th century "Janam Sakhi" - a story of Guru Nanak's life - may be seen in the Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition at the Vamp;A in London until July 25. Tel 0171 938 8500.

Photograph by permission of British Library

Turn to page 26 for Ted Wragg'S teaching tips on the big picture

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