Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
We must have at least heard of some famous contemporary Sikh personalities; from the last Premier of India, Manamohan Singh, a renowned economist who became the thirteenth Prime Minister of India, to the famous Sikh film actor Waris Ahluwalia, who has played a number of roles in commercials and Hollywood films, including The Life Aquatic and The Inside Man, from Amrit and Rabindra Kaur, contemporary British artists of international standing, to Ravi Bhalla, who recently became the Mayor of Hoboken, NJ. But my question is, have we ever explored our Sikh neighbor’s faith?
Following a series of interfaith seminars, on July 18, 2018 Mission Theology Desk of Global Ministries of the UMC Atlanta invited Mr. Kuldip Singh of Sikh study circle and gurdwara of Stone Mountain, GA, to conduct a mission dialogue forum for the staff. Mr. Singh is the public relations liaison for the gurdwara in Stone Mountain.
A modern Religion
Mr. Kuldip Singh began his lecture by offering a basic introduction to the Sikh faith, which emerged on the Indian sub-continent. The Sikh religion is one of the most recent religions of the world, which originated during the late fifteenth century and finally formalized in the early eighteenth century.
The emergence of Sikhism took place in the Punjab region of South Asia, which now falls into the present-day nation states of India and Pakistan. The main religions of the area at the time were Hinduism and Islam.
The word “Sikh” means learner or disciple. This term is close to the Christian concept of discipleship.
The total population of Sikhs world-wide is estimated at around 29 million, or 0.4 per cent of the world population in mid-2000, with their presence in 34 countries. In India, Sikhs account for 1.9 per cent of the population, with more than seventy per cent living in Punjab, a province in North India.
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (born in 1469 AD). Guru Nanak was born about 40 miles from Lahore (now in Pakistan) in 1469. Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546) was a contemporary of Guru Nanak. Sikh tradition teaches that his birth and early years were marked with many events that demonstrated that God had marked him out for something special and was keeping an eye on him.
Sikhism as a faith began around 1500 CE, when Guru Nanak began preaching and teaching a faith that was quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam. Guru Nanak was followed by nine more Gurus.
In 1708 AD, the Guruship was ceremoniously bestowed by Guru Gobind Singh upon the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the Holy Scriptures of Sikh faith. Since then, the SGGS is revered as the living Guru in the form of scripture/word.
Among the many points what Mr. Singh taught on that day, I wish to summarize six main points.
1. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion; accordingly, there is only one God. God is without form, or gender. Everyone has direct access to God. It’s a virtue to keep God in one’s heart and mind always. Sikhs focus their lives around their relationship with God and being a part of the Sikh community. The Sikh ideal combines action and belief. To live a good life, a person should do good deeds as well as meditating on God.
2. Everyone is equal before God. Mr. Singh emphasized the gender equality in the Sikh faith in detail.
3. A good life is lived as part of a community, by living honestly and caring for others. The believers are called to be generous to the less fortunate. Social action is a very significant aspect of faith.
4. The Sikh scripture is the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs consider this scripture a living Guru.
5. The three duties that a Sikh person must carry out can be summed up in three words: Pray, Work, Give. Nam japna – Keeping God in mind at all times. Kirt Karna – Earning an honest living. Since God is truth, a Sikh seeks to live honestly. This doesn't just mean avoiding crime; Sikhs avoid gambling, begging, or working in the alcohol or tobacco industries. And Chhakna – Giving to charity and caring for others (literally, sharing one's earnings with others).
6. The meaning of the symbols – 5 Ks: The 5 Ks taken together symbolize that the Sikh who wears them has dedicated themselves to a life of devotion and submission to the Guru. The 5 Ks are 5 physical symbols worn by Sikhs who have been initiated into the Khalsa (some thing similar to Baptism in Christianity). The five Ks are:
Kesh (uncut hair): Throughout history hair (kesh) has been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength. One's hair is part of God's creation. Keeping hair uncut indicates that one is willing to accept God's gift as God intended it. Sikhs should wear a turban. In the western cultural settings this has caused and can cause many problems and misunderstandings. Educating people on Sikh identity and faith is crucial in developing cross-cultural understanding, Mr.Singh insisted.
Kara (a steel bracelet): A symbol to mean that a Sikh is linked to the Guru. It acts as a reminder that a Sikh should not do anything of which the Guru would not approve. It also symbolizes God has no beginning or end. This reminds the faithful of good deeds.
Kanga (a wooden comb): This symbolizes a clean mind and body; since it keeps the uncut hair neat and tidy.
Kaccha (cotton underwear): This is a pair of breeches that must not come below the knee. It's a symbol of chastity and self-discipline.
Kirpan (steel sword): This symbolizes the spirituality, defense of good, defense of the weak, and the struggle against injustice.
Mr. Singh also lamentingly highlighted some of the cross-cultural challenges that Sikhs are faced with such as micro-aggression, bullying, hate-crimes and physical harassments. These need to be addressed peacefully. Educating the community on world faiths and cultures from middle school to adult settings is the only way to overcome such situations, Mr. Singh resolved. However, given the above salient features of Sikhism there can be significant possibilities for interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Sikhism for global compassion, peace and development. That’s the hope!
Sikhs have lived in America for over 150 Years. They helped build the transcontinental railroad. They served valiantly in WWI and II. The first Sikh Gurdwara was established in 1912 in Stockton California. There are 0.6 Million Sikhs in the USA.
Obviously, India has taken a lead in the ministry of dialogue between Christianity and Sikhism. The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (C.I.S.R.S.) in Bengaluru has been a pioneer in this field. From the Sikhs side, Punjab University, Patiala, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, also have given leadership to a great extent. However, we have a long way to go, especially in western countries.
Stanley Samartha, a renowned scholar in interfaith relationships, writes “dialogue is one of the critical areas of relationship between Christians and people of other faiths today where sustained theological reflection must continue not in isolation of academic discussions but in the midst of our life together in the community where all pilgrims on the high roads of modern life.” (in an address to the WCC central committee, 1971, in Ecumenical Movement: Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, ed., Michael Kinnamon, WCC 2016.p 348).
Are Christians ready for this missiological challenge?