What is Sikhism?

Question: "What is Sikhism?"

Sikhism arose, historically, as an attempt to harmonize Islam and Hinduism. But such harmonization, while historically accurate, does not capture the theological and cultural uniqueness of Sikhism. To call Sikhism a compromise between the two would be taken as an insult akin to calling a Christian a heretical Jew. Sikhism is not a cult or a hybrid but a distinct religious entity.

The recognized founder of Sikhism, Nanak (1469-1538) was born of a Hindu father and a Muslim mother in India. He received a direct call from God establishing him as a guru. He soon became known in the Punjab region of Northeast India for his devotion and piety and his bold assertion, "There is no Muslim, and there is no Hindu." He accumulated a considerable number of disciples (sikhs). He taught that God is one and he designated God as the Sat Nam (true name) or Ekankar, combining the syllables ek (one), aum (mystical sound expressing God), kar (Lord). This monotheism does not include personality nor should it be blurred with any kind of pantheism (God is all), the latter being a characteristically Eastern tendency. However, Nanak retained the doctrines of reincarnation and karma which are notably Eastern, such as with Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and others. Opposed to legalistic ritualism, Nanak taught that one can escape the reincarnation cycle (samsara) only through mystical union with God, namely through devotion and chanting. Nanak was followed by an unbroken line of nine appointed guru successors maintaining the line of leadership into the 18th century (1708).

While Sikhism was originally pacifist, it could not stay that way for long. Its rejection of the supremacy and completion of Mohammad the prophet was taken as blasphemy and inspired much opposition from the historically warlike faith of Islam. By the time of the tenth guru, Gobind Rai, also known as Gobind Singh ("lion"), had organized the Khalsa, a world-renowned class of warriors, conspicuous and brave, zealous and deadly. They stood out because of their characteristic "five K's:" kesh (long hair), kangha (steel comb in the hair), kach (short pants), kara (steel bracelet), and kirpan (sword or dagger worn at the side). The British, who had a colonizing presence in India at that time, made great use of the Khalsa as warriors and body guards. Gobind Singh was eventually assassinated by Muslims. He was the last human guru. Who was his successor? The Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth took his place as indicated by its alternate name, Guru Granth. The Adi Granth, while not worshipped, is ascribed divine status.

Despite pacifist roots Sikhism has come to be known as militant, which is unfortunate because such militancy stems largely from geographical issues outside of Sikh control. The hotly contested border of India and Pakistan partitioned in 1947 cuts directed across the Punjab region where the Sikhs had had a high degree of autonomy. Efforts to retain their political and social identity have often failed, shot down in the crossfire of Muslim and Hindu border quarrels. Extreme measures have been taken by terrorists to establish a Sikh state, Khalistan, but the majority of Sikhs are peace-loving, gentle people.

It is important to understand that Sikhs do not understand their religion to be a mere hybrid. Nor does the militaristic label apply fairly to Sikhism proper. Sikhism is more than the Khalsa, and much of its bloody history was provoked or was in self-defense. The Christian and the Sikh can identify with each other insofar as both religious traditions have undergone much persecution and both worship only one God. The Christian and the Sikh, as persons, can have peace and mutual respect, and much can be found worth celebrating in the rich Sikh faith, even for the Christian.

But, Sikhism and Christianity cannot be fused. It is naïve to think these two can mesh theologically. Their belief systems have some points of agreement, but ultimately have a different view of God, a different view of Jesus, a different view of Scripture, and a different view of salvation.

First, Sikhism's concept of God as abstract and impersonal is directly contradictory to the loving, caring “Abba, Father” God revealed in the Bible (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Our God is intimately involved with His children, knowing when we sit down and rise up and understanding our very thoughts (Psalm 139:2). He loves us with an everlasting love and draws us to Himself in patience and faithfulness (Jeremiah 31:3). He also makes it clear that He cannot be reconciled with any other so-called god of another religion: "Before Me there was no god formed, and there will be none after Me" (Isaiah 43:10) and "I am the Lord and there is no other; besides Me there is no god" (Isaiah 45:5).

Second, Sikhism denies the unique status of Jesus Christ. Christian Scripture asserts that salvation can come only through Him, "I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me" (John 14:6). "And there is salvation in no other One; for there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Whatever status the Sikhs may afford to Christ, it is not the status He deserves, nor is it that which the Bible affords to Him—Son of God and Savior of the world.

Third, the Sikh and the Christian each claim that theirs is the uniquely-inspired Scripture. The source books for Christianity and Sikhism cannot both be "the only word of God." To be specific, the Christian claims that the Bible is the very Word of God. It is God-breathed, written for all who seek to know and understand, "and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfected, thoroughly furnished to every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is given to all of us by our Heavenly Father that we might know and love Him and that we might "come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4), and that we might come to Him for eternal life.

Fourth and finally, the Sikh view of salvation does not have the elaborate view of substitutionary and sacrificial atonement that sets Christianity apart from its peers. Sikhism has the doctrine of karma together with a devotional orientation towards God. Karma is an inadequate explanation of sin since it reduces it to a "scales of justice" scenario, yet no amount of good works can compensate for even one sin against an infinitely holy God. We incur the infinite and righteous anger of God when we sin. Perfect holiness cannot bear to do anything less than to hate evil with a white hot wrath. God cannot simply forgive sin without repayment of that debt since that would be a fault on his justice. God cannot let people into the bliss of heaven unchanged since that would be a fault on his goodness. But in Christ, the God-man, we have a sacrifice of infinite worth to pay our debt. Our forgiveness was expensive beyond measure, so expensive we humans cannot afford it. But we can receive it as a gift. And such is the doctrine of grace in Christianity. Christ paid the debt that we couldn't afford to pay. He sacrificed his life, in substitution for us, so we could live with Him. We need only put our faith in Him, turning to Him and thereby turning away from everything opposed to Him. Sikhism, on the other hand, fails to adequately address the infinite consequence of sin, the complex interplay of God's goodness and justice, and man's total depravity.

In conclusion we may say that Sikhism has historical and theological traces of both Hinduism and Islam but cannot be properly understood as a mere hybrid of these two. It has evolved into a distinct religious entity. The Christian can find common ground at some points with the Sikh but ultimately the two faiths of Christianity and Sikhism cannot be reconciled.

Recommended Resource: Neighboring Faiths by Winfried Corduan.

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What is Sikhism?