This religion from South Asia is increasingly common in Canada.
Most Canadians know a bit about major world religions, but generally we know the least about Sikhism. If that changes, it will be courtesy of our increasing acquaintance with Jagmeet Singh, the federal politician who leads the NDP (as of 2017) and was recently elected MP for Burnaby South. Singh is now the public face of Sikhism in the country.
Singh has been on the radar of the worldwide Sikh community since 2012 when he became the first turbaned MPP in Ontario. The New York Times called him "Canada’s Newest Political Star." The Times of India wrote, "Trudeau’s new political rival is a Canadian Sikh with swag," alluding to Singh’s sharp suits and high fashion.
Here’s a quick overview about Sikhism.
It is a distinct religion founded by a mystic named Guru Nanak (1469–1539). He was raised in a Hindu-Muslim context in what is now part of Pakistan. While he retained elements of Islam (belief in one God, for example) and Hinduism (affirming belief in reincarnation), Guru Nanak rejected key elements of both. He banned image worship of Hindu deities (like Shiva) and railed against the caste system of Hinduism. Guru Nanak did not require Sikhs to follow Muslim law (shariah) and replaced the Muslim focus on the Qur’an with absolute commitment to the Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture.
Q+A on Sikhism
Who are the most important academic writers on Sikhism?
W. H. Hew McLeod (d. 2009) and Pashaura Singh
What is the most famous verse in the Adi Granth?
The beginning verse which reads, "One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image of the Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent. By Guru’s Grace."
How bad is cutting someone’s hair?
It is one of four cardinal sins in Sikhism.
What is a great website for understanding Sikhism?
What documentary is helpful on Sikhism?
Revealed: The Golden Temple (Rajendra Kondapalli, 2011)
Who manages the worldwide Sikh community?
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, an elected body based at the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, India.
Known for his chanting and trances, Guru Nanak gathered a devoted following over many decades, including some Muslim and Hindu holy men. He is said to have gone on several long journeys (c. 1500–1525) before settling in Kartapur for his final years. Details of the guru’s life are found in the janamsakhis, reports that include both historical and legendary elements.
Guru Nanak was followed by nine other human gurus, from Guru Angad (d. 1552) to Guru Gobind Singh (d. 1708). Six of the ten gurus, including Guru Nanak, contributed to the Sikh scripture, a holy book known as the final and living guru, the crowing jewel of Sikhism. The Adi Granth is a bit shorter than the Christian Bible (511,874 words versus more than 750,000). It is treated with incredible respect and elaborate rules surround its handling.
The gurus of Sikhism advance a view of God as eternal Spirit, the Creator, all-loving, omnipotent and omniscient. Sikhs share the major moral values of humanity such as truthfulness, humility and generosity. On the latter, Sikhs are famous for offering a free community kitchen (langar) to anyone, regardless of gender, religion or social status.
Sikhism offers some ethical distinctives including obedience on the five Ks, namely kesh (uncut hair), having a kanga (wooden comb), wearing a kara (steel bracelet), wearing kachhera (undergarments), and, most controversially, carrying a kirpan (a small sword).
These distinctives raise two separate lines of criticism, one generic and one Christian. First, the kirpan is sometimes used as proof of the militancy of Sikhs. While there have been extremist Sikhs engaged in terrorism (the 1985 downing of Air India flight 182 is one example), Sikhs have generally held to "just war" principles throughout history. Panic over the kirpan is needless.
Christian doctrine, of course, offers no support to these five customs being necessary for salvation. As the epistles to the Romans and Galatians explain, salvation is not by works or by obedience to outward appearances.
That said, Christians should defend the freedom of Jagmeet Singh and other Sikhs to wear a head covering or other symbols of their faith and culture.
I find much to admire in Sikh teaching and history. Some of the sayings of the gurus are profound, particularly on the majesty of God. However, when I did a word search for the name Jesus, the result was jarring and sad. He is missing on every page of Sikh scripture, and also absent in Sikh liturgy and theology. Therefore, this means the Christian response to Sikhism must centre not on what is missing, but who.
James Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary. He is old enough to remember past prophecy frenzies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Henry Kissinger, Y2K and more. Read more of his columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ReligionWatch.