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What is Sikhism?

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Sikhism arose as an attempt to harmonize Islam and Hinduism. But viewing Sikhism as a harmonization of the two religions does not capture the theological and cultural uniqueness of Sikhism. To call Sikhism a compromise between Islam and Hinduism would be taken as an insult akin to calling a Christian a heretical Jew. Sikhism is not a cult nor a hybrid but a distinct religious movement.

The recognized founder of Sikhism, Nanak (1469–1538), was born to Hindu parents in India. Nanak is said to have 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 (a mystical sound expressing God), and kar (“Lord”). This monotheism does not include personality nor should it be blurred with any kind of Eastern pantheism (God is all). However, Nanak retained the doctrines of reincarnation and karma, which are notable tenets of Eastern religions such as with Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Nanak taught that one can escape the reincarnation cycle (samsara) only through mystical union with God through devotion and chanting. Nanak was followed by an unbroken line of nine appointed gurus that maintained the leadership into the 18th century (1708).

Sikhism was originally pacifist, but it could not stay that way for long. Its rejection of the supremacy 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”), the Khalsa, a world-renowned class of Sikh warriors, had organized. The Khalsa were characterized by their “five K’s”: kesh (long hair), kangha (a steel comb in the hair), kach (short pants), kara (a steel bracelet), and kirpan (a sword or dagger worn at the side). The British, who had a colonizing presence in India at that time, made use of the Khalsa as warriors and bodyguards. 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 worshiped, is ascribed divine status.

Despite its 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 directly 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. Terrorists have taken extreme measures to establish a Sikh state, Khalistan, but the majority of Sikhs are peace-loving people.

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. But Sikhism and Christianity cannot be fused. 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 directly contradicts 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 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 Christ, it is not the status He deserves, nor is it that which the Bible affords Him—Son of God and Savior of the world.

Third, Sikhs and Christians 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 by our Heavenly Father that we might know and love Him, 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 rejects the sacrificial atonement of Christ. Sikhism teaches the doctrine of karma together with devotion to God. Karma is an inadequate explanation of sin, and no amount of good works can compensate for even one sin against an infinitely holy God. Perfect holiness cannot bear to do anything less than to hate evil. Since He is just, God cannot simply forgive sin without repayment of the debt that sin incurred. Since He is good, God cannot let sinful people into the bliss of heaven unchanged. 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. This is what the Bible means by “grace.” 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. Sikhism, on the other hand, fails to address the infinite consequence of sin, the roles 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 system. A Christian can find common ground with the Sikh at some points, but ultimately Christianity and Sikhism cannot be reconciled.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022