The word “Sikh” evolved from the Sanskrit term Shishe, which means “disciple”. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that was founded by Guru Nanak in Punjab, India. Guru Nanak was born on April 15, 1469 in the village of Talwandi, located in what is now western Pakistan. Guru Nanak was a religious pioneer in that he revolted against the caste system and rituals held at the time, declaring that all people should be as one, irrespective of their colour, creed, or religion. He was never afraid to raise his voice against cruelty and injustice and lived among the people, sharing their sorrows and joys, and teaching them the way of honesty and truth.
After Guru Nanak’s passing in 1539, his message was carried forward by each of his nine successors. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, ordained that subsequent to his passing, the sacred scriptures of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, would be the final and everlasting teachings of the religion. The scripture is written in Punjabi and contains teachings in the form of poetic verses. The fact that the Guru Granth Sahib includes teachings from other faiths demonstrates the respect that Sikhs have for the views of all people. The Guru Granth Sahib is kept in the Sikh place of worship, known as a Gurdwara. The scriptures contained in the Guru Granth Sahib are recited in ragas (musical measures) and placed on a dais with a canopy above it. As it contains the cumulative teachings of all of the Sikh Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib is treated with utmost respect and reverence.
The Gurdwara is where Sikh people gather to pray and celebrate, including marriages, births, funerals, and holy days. Visitors are always welcome in the Gurdwara, as long as certain basic rules are observed. Visitors must keep their heads covered in the Gurdwara and remove their shoes upon entry as a sign of respect. In the prayer hall, it is common for men to sit cross legged on one side of the room, and women on the other.
Another fundamental aspect of the Sikh way of life is the concept of Langar(kitchen). In Sikhism, langar means “blessed food”. Every person who attends a Gurudwara is provided with langar, which is always vegetarian. This practice is a demonstration that Sikhs do not differentiate people on the basis of skin colour, religion, or status. Everyone is considered equal, a practice reflected by the fact that all people who are served langar must sit on the floor and eat together.
One of the holiest days of the year for Sikhs is the birth of the Khalsa, or Vaisakhi, held on April 13th of each year. This marks the New Year and holds historical and religious significance because on this day in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh gave Sikhs their new name (Singh, meaning “Lion”) and their new national identity.
The most noticeable thing about Sikhs is their distinctive appearance. Baptized Sikhs are identified by what is known as the five K’s. These are articles of faith, which include: Kesh (hair), Kanga (comb), Karra (steel bracelet), Kachha (long underwear), and Kirpaan (small sword). These articles of faith are essential to the baptized Sikh. Each item carries with it symbolic meaning and reminds Sikhs of their duty to respond to the call to defend the rights of the weak and oppressed.
All Sikhs are encouraged to perform sewa (selfless service). Acts of selfless service can include activities such as washing dishes, cleaning floors, and serving food. Sewa is routinely performed in Gurudwaras but is not limited to them. As an active member of my community, my acts of sewa have included serving as a mentor for Sikh children by teaching them to write and speak Punjabi and teaching them about basic religious practices at the Gurdwara. I also serve my community by sharing information on important social and health-related topics, including suicide prevention and the health risks of high blood pressure. I am proud to be a Sikh woman and hope that with greater knowledge of who we are, people of other faiths and religious beliefs will gain a deeper level of appreciation for the ideals we stand for.
Polly Pashu is a Winnipeg Sikh and a Cardiology Technologist