ETHNONYM: Sardarji (address)

The approximately 18,000,000 Sikhs who reside in the Punjab and in scattered communities across the world share a reverence for "the ten gurus" (from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh) and the teachings of their scripture, the Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib. Worship is central for all devotees of Sikhism, India's youngest monotheistic religion, either in the form of daily observances at home or in corporate worship at the gurdwara, a building designated for congregational ceremonies and social events such as communal kitchens ( langar ) providing free food. Many Sikhs also observe a code of conduct and discipline that includes males wearing recognizable marks of orthodoxy (unshorn hair, a comb, a dagger, a steel bangle, and a pair of breeches), a ban on tobacco, and the use of common titles for male and female converts (Singh, "lion," and Kaur, "princess," respectively). This Orthodox group, which has gradually grown to dominate the public life of the community, consists of amritdhari Sikhs (those who have undergone baptism). Other Sikhs in the community do not participate fully in the code of conduct but are accepted as Sikhs because of their devotion, participation in worship, and respect for the gurus.

The Punjab was and remains the homeland for Sikhs. There Sikhism evolved, incorporating various tribes and castes including a preponderance of Jats, rural agriculturalists, who along with others have shown great courage in times of persecution and political turmoil. The first guru and founder of the faith was Guru Nanak ( A . D . 1469-1539). By early in the seventeenth century the following had grown to such an extent in the Punjab area that it was seen as a threat to the Mogul rulers. Within a century the last of the ten gurus had died (by 1708), and open rebellion had broken out. By the middle of the eighteenth century bands of Sikh guerrillas were hastening the collapse of the Mogul administration in their area, while keeping Afghan invaders at bay (1747-1769). These military struggles continued, but by the end of that century Ranjit Singh had emerged as leader of the Sikhs and maharaja of the Punjab, a position he retained until his death in 1839. This continuing military activity had greatly encouraged a tradition of constant military readiness in the community, and it largely explains the role of Sikh men in the modern armies of India, Pakistan, and Great Britain.

The numerous shrines and holy spots associated with major events in Sikh history, most notably the Golden Temple at Amritsar, are primarily found in districts now in Pakistan or the Indian Punjab. In the tate nineteenth century, Sikhs began migrating to Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, and nowadays large and often very affluent and highly educated Sikh communities can be found in those areas. A new group of Western Sikh converts, the gora or "white" Sikhs led by Harbajan Singh, are associated with many gurdwaras (houses of worship) in North America and also have their own organizations. Although the centrality of the Punjabi language and culture within the daily lives of Sikhs sometimes divides those with roots in the Punjab from these new converts, common worship, beliefs, and a shared code of discipline tend to overcome the divisions aroused by ethnicity.

Sikh identity and institutions have been strengthened and at times modified by experiences over the last century. Organizing themselves into Singh Sabhas in the late 1800s, Sikhs have emphasized their separateness from Hindus in areas such as theology, ritual, social practice, and politics. These efforts culminated in the dramatic, nonviolent campaign (1920-1925) to wrest Sikh gurdwaras from the hands of British-supported managers, often Hindu, and to place responsibility for all shrines in the hands of the community. Since 1925, the Sikh Gurdwara Protection Committee (a central management committee) has supervised the shrines and also played an important role in Sikh politics. The frustrations of their minority status, coupled with economic problems, helped foster growing Sikh militancy in the 1970s, culminating in the demands for a separate Sikh nation, "Khalistan." The resulting government attack on armed Militants in the Golden Temple (1984) led to a period of continuing political chaos in the Punjab, sparked dramatic episodes such as the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the resulting massacres of many Sikhs, and fostered debate among Sikhs about ideology and strategy. Despite this turbulence, Sikhs still maintain a positive outlook and continue to provide leadership in public institutions and professions wherever they reside.

See also Jat ; Punjabi


Barrier, N. Gerald (1970). The Sikhs and Their Literature. New Delhi: Manohar.

Barrier, N. Gerald, and Van Dusenbery, eds. (1990). The Sikh Diaspora. New Delhi: Chanakya.

McLeod, W. H. (1990). The Sikhs. New York: Columbia University Press.

McLeod, W. H. (1990). Who Is a Sikh. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O'Connell, Joseph, et al., eds. (1988). Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century. South Asia Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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