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The Sant Tradition

Sikhism has often been called a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic beliefs, because it has adopted tenets and doctrines from each. However, the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, took many of his ideas for the religion from the ancient Sant tradition of northern India.

The development of Sikhism is most often described in three phases. The first phase took place in the first half of the 16th century, when Guru Nanak founded the religion and attracted followers from both the Hindu and Muslim religions. The second phase of development took place in the mid-1500s with the sixth guru who instituted the now-common belief among Sikhs that it is right and just to resort to arms to defend the faith. The third phase was ushered in by the tenth guru who became disheartened by his followers' weakness in resisting the military forces of Muslim overlords. He founded the Khalsa Brotherhood, or order or society with religion as its foundation and a strong military discipline. By the end of the 16th century, the Sikh community would no longer be vulnerable to religious and political tyranny in India.

Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak was born in Pakistan in 1469, and was different from most children from a very early age. Even as a young child, he was intensely interested in spiritual matters and at the age of five began to express his deep thoughts and ideas, which seemed profound and mysterious even to learned men. After one day of school, Nanak went home and sat quietly for many days, refusing to return. His family was upset by his strange behavior and decided that he should be married, hoping that this event would bring him back to normal. At the age of twelve, a marriage was arranged and performed. Still, he would not take part in household life and did not speak to anyone.

According to legend, an older and still quiet Nanak went into the river to bathe, but did not emerge for three days. His servants searched for him but could not find him. On the third day, Nanak came up out of the stream and declared, "There is neither Hindu nor Muslim." This day marked the beginning of his journey as a religious leader. He traveled around for many years, preaching his beliefs and ideas and gathering quite a following throughout Asia and the Middle East. By the time he died at the age of 70, Sikhism had taken hold among the land, and would only grow stronger.

The Teachings of Guru Nanak

The ultimate goal of Sikhism is union with God, who is infinite and never-ending and transcends mortal description. Unlike the Hindu religion, Sikhs do not believe in incarnations of God, because there is no describing this being. The most basic expression of the religion is loving devotion to God. Love and devotion can be expressed by singing hymns, praying, meditating, and the use of mala beads (similar to a rosary). Taming one's passions and lusts and doing good is important to Sikhs. Karma and cycles of reincarnation are forceful doctrines in this religion; in this respect it is similar to Hinduism. According to Guru Nanak, a man full of ego is caught up in maya, or an attachment to the material and impermanent things of the world. For Sikhs, existence is important, but one must use their time wisely and realize its value, or it can be wasted.

The Khalsa

One cannot fully understand Sikhism without being aware of the all-important Khalsa Brotherhood, which changed Sikhism forever. Because early Sikhs rejected the teachings and practices of Hinduism and Islam, they were plagued with humiliation and oppression. It is no wonder, then, that God, according to the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, came to be worshipped through steel and strength.

In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh introduced the Khalsa Brotherhood in a dramatic episode at a spring festival. He called for five Sikhs to enter a tent and lay down their lives. They entered, the crowd outside heard several thuds, and the guru emerged from the tent, holding up a bloodied knife. He then drew back the curtains of the tent and revealed the five men, with beheaded goats laying beside them. In this moment of the crowd's shock and relief, he declared that these five would constitute the core of a new brotherhood, the Khalsa, or "Purified Ones." He invited the crowd to join, saying that all who would join must let go of the status of caste, renounce old scriptures and places of pilgrimage, and reject worship of lesser gods, goddesses and Hindu incarnations. He then baptized the five who had become the extreme example of sacrifice, and others who wished to join. The ritual he instituted was a direct defiance of Hindu ritual, and his statement that they no longer would adhere to the old practices.

Since that time, entry into the Khalsa Brotherhood has symbolized an acceptance of a code of moral and spiritual behavior for all Sikhs. Once baptized, all men take the name of Singh (meaning "lion"), and all women become "Kaurs." This is to express their rejection of the caste system, since most caste distinctions are evident in the family name.

When five Sikhs are gathered together, there is the Khalsa, which is the physical expression of their deep faith. All members of the Khalsa believe in the One True God and wear "the five K's," a symbol of their love and devotion. The five K's are a steel bracelet (kara), hair that is never to be cut (kesh), a small sharp knife (kirpan), a comb (kangha), and a particular style of undershorts (kachh).

Sikhs must always be ready for war. It is considered a holy honor to die courageously in battle, and is a sure way to get to heaven. The desire for wealth is not unrighteous among Sikhs, but must be a result of a hard day's work. One-tenth of their earnings go to the poor, or to a holy cause. They also believe in the sanctity of marriage, and strive to live a loving and devoted life among friends and family.