Who Are ‘Sikhs’ and What Do They Believe? We Explain

Editor’s Note: This article will be part of a larger series about lesser-known religions called “Understanding Faith.” In light of recent events, this week’s subject is Sikhism.

Violence against Sikhs, especially in our post-September 11 world, is nothing new. Due to their customs and a lack of knowledge about their beliefs and standing, members of the monotheistic religion are regularly mistaken for Islamic adherents. For obvious reasons, this has created a multitude of problems for Sikhs. The violent attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Sunday is yet another reminder of the pain and suffering that this religious minority has endured.

While we don’t yet have all of the details surrounding the case, we know that the suspected gunman, Wade Michael Page, is said to have been a white supremacist. Some have wondered if the Army vet’s shooting rampage was rooted in a wrongful assumption — that those he was attacking were Muslims. Others have claimed that, regardless of alleged anti-Islamic sentiment, his attack on the temple was a hate crime.

A woman reacts outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis, after a shooting took place, Sunday, Aug 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

As the facts are being sorted through and the victims and their families being tended to, this tragic incident provides an opportunity to answer some important questions about the Sikh community — who comprises it, what do they believe and how do the faith’s tenets mesh with American values?

Part of the confusion surrounding adherents is rooted in their tradition of not cutting their hair or beards and of wearing turbins. As a result they are frequently mistaken for Muslims. TheBlaze originally reported in July 2011 that members of the Sikh community in America claim that more than 700 hate crimes have been waged against them since the 9/11 attacks in 2011. Here are some of the other past examples that have been reported:

In 2004, vandals scrawled the words “It’s not your country” in blue spray paint on the wall of a Sikh temple in Fresno. No one has been arrested in that case.

In 2010, a Sikh cabdriver was beaten by two men in Sacramento – located in a region with more Sikh residents than any in the nation. During the attack, one of the men called the cab driver “Osama bin Laden,” and the cab driver repeatedly told the assailants that he wasn’t Muslim, authorities said. In early June, Pedro Ramirez was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the attack a second man was sentenced to a year in jail.

On Memorial Day of [2011], four weeks after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a Sikh man who is a subway employee in New York said he was punched in the mouth by a man who called him “the brother of Osama.”

Clearly, Sikhs remain in the crosshairs. Aside from confusion between Muslims and Sikhs, there’s also a general issue in that many Americans lack an understanding about what, exactly, the population believes.

Sikhism is a religion that was founded 500 years ago in South Asia. With 27 million followers worldwide, it is the world’s fifth largest religion (behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism). According to current estimates presented by The Associated Press, there are approximately 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, with the majority residing in India (CNN claims that this number is 700,000).

The faith essentially ties together Bhakti Hinduism and Islamic Sufism, an interesting mix to say the least. Its founder, the first Sikh guru and a mystic named Nanak, lived from 1469 until 1539. Unlike other faith leaders, Nanak was opposed to an organized priesthood (there are no official priests, but there are scripture readers), a caste system and rituals, among other sentiments, Reference.com reports. By most accounts, he was a non-practicing Hindu who founded the religion in Punjab, an area in what is now India (read more about the history).

Indian Sikh devotees gather at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on August 6, 2012. Indian Sikhs, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, voiced shock and anger August 6 at the killing of worshippers at a Sikh temple in the US, with some suggesting American Muslims may have been the intended target. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

While Nanak was opposed to ritualistic design, the tenth Guri, Guru Gobind Singh, did put into place some requirements for a special group he created, the Khalsa brotherhood. Certainly, not all believers belong to this strict alliance, but many still abide by the rules and wear: uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist bangle, a sword and short underpants.

On Sunday evening, following the attack, CNN penned a fascinating overview of Sikhism, covering the values embraced by the faith, while attempting to better educate the public about its composition. According to Sikh leaders, the religion is based on equality and service to others. Corroborating this notion, these individuals claim that anyone is welcome to attend services at Sikh temples.

When it comes to days of worship, there is apparently not a specific timeframe set aside. However, due to the American work-week, it’s not uncommon for Sikhs, like Christians, to worship on Sundays. Members praise their lord in buildings called “gurdwara” — or “temples.” CNN has more about how these churches operate:

At a typical gurdwara, the doors open up at 6 a.m. for prayers. A formal service includes the singing of hymns and a team of leaders who have studied the faith reciting from the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s holy scriptures. That book, more than 1,400 pages long, includes writings from Sikhism’s 10 gurus as well as writers from other religions. […]

At the end of the service, congregants pray for the “well-being of the world” then head to the langar, the community kitchen that serves meals for anyone who wants one. […]

Gurdwaras around the world variously incorporate clinics, schools, guest quarters and community centers, which Sikhs say is a sign of the religion’s values of service and equality.

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Doing good is a hallmark of Sikhism. Importantly, those who embrace the faith believe that if one doesn’t live a life filled with goodwill toward others, he or she will end up being reincarnated and forced to cycle through life and death again. Beliefnet has more about this process and the way in which Sikhs embrace their higher power:

Sikhs believe that liberation from the karmic cycle of rebirths occurs in the merging of the human spirit with the all-embracing spirit of God. Their religious worship involves contemplation of the divine Name. The ultimate deity is known by several names: Sat (truth), Sat Guru (true Guru), AkalPurakh (timeless being), Kartar (creator) and Wahi-Guru (“praise to the Guru”). By concentrating on God’s Name (or many titles), one conquers the ego and unites with God.

In an interview with CNN, Raghunandan Johar, president of the Guru Nanak Mission of Atlanta, heralded his faith and claimed that Nanak taught peace and that all religions were good. Being “good,” he claims, is key. In addition to being a decent human being, he also said that the faith encourages hard work and for its adherents to “never beg.”

“If you are Hindu, he said be a good Hindu,” he says. “If you are Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you are Christian, be a good Christian.”