The early 16th century was a time of bitter conflict in North India. A series of invasions which culminated in 1526 established Muslim supremacy. The Punjab area was one of the most hotly contested regions, and it was here that Nanak (1469-1539) was born. One day while bathing in a river, he had a vision of God's presence in which he was told to go into the world and teach the repetition of the Name of God, the practice of charity, meditation and worship, and the keeping of ritual purity through absolution.
According to tradition, after a full day of silence, he uttered the pronouncement, "There is no Hindu (the native faith of India) and no Musselman (Muslim)." He adopted a unique garb which combined both Hindu and Muslim features, and developed an eclectic faith which took elements from many religions, principally Hindus and Muslims. From Islam he taught of One Creator God, called the True Name to avoid such designations as Allah or Vishnu. From Hinduism he taught the ideas of karma, reincarnation and the ultimate unreality of the world. Nanak also emphasized the unique role of the guru (teacher) as necessary to lead people to God. After Nanak's death, nine gurus followed him in succession.
The fourth guru, Ram Dass, began the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the present headquarters of the world Sikh community. The fifth guru, Arjan, completed the Temple and installed the Sin Guru Ganth Sahib, or Adi Granth, the collected writings of Nanak, within it.
The tenth guru Gobind Singh (1666-1718) had the most significant role in molding the Sikh community other than Nanak. He completed the Abi Granth in its present form and militarized the Sikhs by forming the Khalsa, the Community of the Pure. Members were initiated by baptism in which they drank and were sprinkled with sweetened water stirred with a sword. They changed their name to Singh (Lion) and adopted the five Ks: (1) Kesh, or long hair, a sign of saintliness; (2) Kangh, a comb for keeping the hair neat; (3) Kach, short pants for quick movement in battle; (4) Kara, a steel bracelet signifying sternness and restraint; (5) Kirpan, a sword of defense.
After Gobind Singh's death, the Adi Granth became the guru and no further human guru's were allowed. The military emphasis continued, however, and the Sikhs served with distinction in British army units.
In the United States, Sikhism has two distinct foci. Beginning in the fist decade of this century, Sikhs began to migrate to the United States. That first wave of migration was shut off in l917, but began anew in 1965 when new immigration laws were passed. Sikhs of Indian extraction have a number of centers around the United States which have formed a network in the Sikh Council of North America. In 1969 Yogi Bhajan began a mission to non Asian Americans which, while recognized by the Sikh authorities in Amritsar, has remained separate from the larger American Sikh community organizationally.
In the 19th century, a new spiritual current emerged in the Punjab, that part of India in which Sikhism enjoyed its greatest strength. Param Guru Shri Shiv Dayal Singh Sahib began to gather followers, and in 1861 formed the Radhasoami Satsang. It drew upon the Sikh tradition of repeating the name of God, and practiced a spiritual discipline called surat shabd yoga. It differed most radically from Sikhism in that it was led by a "living" guru. Two important Sant Mat groups were transplanted to America, the Radhasoami Satsang early in the twentieth century and the Ruhani Satsang after 1965. Both have found a following, but the Sant Mat tradition has found its greatest success in several Westernized versions, ECKANKAR and the Church for the Movement of Spiritual Awareness. Also, one Sant Mat group which had separated itself from the tradition in India enjoyed great success in the West in the 1970s as the Divine Light Mission under the then-youthful Guru Maharaj Ji. That groups has recently assumed a very low profile and changed its name to Elan Vital
Last updated: 30 May 2000 / E-Mail: CH(MAJ) Conway
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