In the wake of the recent shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, many folks in the West are probably just hearing about Sikhism for the first time. The following is an adapted excerpt from the brief section on Sikhism in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith. If there are any converts from Sikhism (or other Far Eastern religions) to Orthodoxy who happen upon this, we would love to hear your story and possibly even publish it here. See our submission guidelines for more.
Sikhism represents a kind of hybrid between Islam and Hinduism formed in sixteenth-century northern India, centered today in the Indian state of Punjab—geographically between Hindu India to the south and Muslim Pakistan to the northwest. Like Islam, Sikhism is strongly monotheistic. Like Islam, it also forbids the representation of God in images or bowing down before them. Another inheritance from Islam is an emphasis on the equality of all human beings. Sikhs reject the caste system of their neighboring Hindus.
Like Hinduism, however, Sikhs believe in reincarnation and define ultimate salvation in terms common to some Hindus and most Buddhists—escape from the cycle of rebirth. Salvation is only possible through rigorous discipline and devotion to God, although not through separation from the world as in monasticism or the hermits of the Hindu Yogin tradition. Salvation is understood as being attained through an internal struggle in the heart—outward rituals, pilgrimages, and so forth are regarded as ultimately irrelevant. Salvation finally consists in absorption into God.
Sikh religious authority rests with a series of ten gurus who lived and taught during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The “final guru” of Sikhism is the Guru Granth Sahib, also known as the Adi Granth, which is the Sikh scripture. Like Islam, Sikhism believes in the establishment of a theocratic state.
Orthodoxy shares with Sikhs the emphasis on the human heart as the locus of true spiritual work, but sees physical rituals as being part of the training of the heart. Further, salvation for the Orthodox is union and communion with God, not fusion with Him.
Sikhs are often recognizable by their long beards and hair. Their religion generally forbids cutting the hair, so the men bind it up in a turban to keep it out of the way, which makes them distinctively recognizable in the West. Many Sikh men and women have the same religious last name, Singh for men, meaning “lion” (or sometimes “tiger”), and Kaur for women, meaning “princess.” There are roughly 23 million Sikhs in the world (including about 500,000 in the United States), most of them living in Punjab in northern India. The word Sikh itself means “student.”