Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism in Punjab in the early part of the sixteenth century, based his new doctrine on simple living, piety, monotheism, opposition to idolatry and magic, and equality of all believers—men and women—before the transcendent god. He was succeeded by nine more gurus, the last of whom was Govind Singh, who founded the Sikh Khalsa (community of the elect) in 1708.

The objectives of the Khalsa were to respond militarily to the capricious Muslim and Hindu rulers of the north, to propagate the values and ideals of Sikhism, and to make way for a distinctive sociopolitical order among the Sikhs. The five external symbols of the Sikh men are (1) uncut hair, (2) the comb, (3) the dagger, (4) the steel bangle, and (5) a pair of shorts. The possession of these symbols denoted not only the steadfastness of the Sikhs but also their readiness to fight for the cause of Khalsa.

The sacred text of the Sikhs is Adi Granth , which has a composite character; it has drawn from the literary compositions of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh saints. Devotion was the common factor among these saints. Sufi Islam has left an indelible imprint not only on the Hindus of north India but also on the Sikhs.

In spite of the founding of Khalsa in 1708, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, most Sikhs lived in peaceful coexistence with the non-Sikhs of Punjab. They often participated in the religious functions of Hindus and Muslims. Many also believed in the worship of deceased ancestors, spirits, sorcery, astrology, and so on. It was then that elitist Sikhs made a determined effort to eliminate non-Sikh liturgical elements not only in the domestic circles but also in the places of worship (Gurdwaras) . In free India, a number of Sikhs have been drawn to a separatist ideology that is centered on the establishment of a Khalsa state in Punjab. This has resulted in clashes with Indian governmental authorities, civil strife, and, particularly, the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Although the Hindu and Sikh religious identities are separate, most Sikhs at the folk level follow heterogenous rituals in performing life-crisis ceremonies (e.g., birth, marriage, death); these rites are often drawn from non-Sikh sources. Their social life varies according to local, regional, or specific historical circumstances. They also retain some notions of caste hierarchy and belief in karma (rebirth)

C. N. Venugopal


H. Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994)

J. P. S. Oberoi, "Five Symbols of Sikh Identity," in Religion in India , ed. T. N. Madan (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991): 320-333

T. K. Oommen, "Religious Nationalism and Democratic Polity," Sociology of Religion 55(1994):455-479.


J. N. Lapsley and J. H. Simpson, "Speaking in Tongues," Pastoral Psychology 15(1964):48-55

J. H. Simpson, "Sovereign Groups, Subsistence Activities, and the Presence of a High God in Primitive Societies," in The Religious Dimension , ed. R. Wuthnow (New York: Academic Press, 1979): 299-310

J. H. Simpson, "Moral Issues and Status Politics," in The New Christian Right , ed. R. C. Liebman and R. Wuthnow (New York: Aldine, 1983): 188-205

J. H. Simpson, "Toward a Theory of America," in Secularization and Fundamentalism Reconsidered , ed. J. K. Hadden and A. Shupe (New York: Paragon, 1989): 78-90

J. H. Simpson, "Globalization and Religion," Religion and Global Order , ed. R. Robertson and W. R. Garrett (New York: Paragon, 1991): 1-18

J. H. Simpson, "The Body in Late Capitalism," in Abortion Politics in the United States and Canada , ed. T. G. Jelen and M. A. Chandler (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994): 1-13.

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