Factsheet: The Sikh tradition

Image credit: Jeevan Singla pixabay

By Jasjit Singh

The Sikh tradition was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, a Punjabi spiritual leader, and now claims about 25 million adherents, making it the fifth-largest religion in the world

Key facts

Sikhs tend to use the term Sikhi to describe their tradition as opposed to Sikhism. There are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world, making Sikhi the fifth-largest religion in the world.

It is a monotheistic religion that teaches the importance of faith in the one creator, the equality of humanity, selfless service of others, personal integrity and purity, and standing against injustice.

According to the 2011 census, the Sikh population in Britain numbers 423,158 and is relatively young.

How did the Sikh tradition begin?

Sikhi was founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak, who was born a Hindu in the Punjab region, which today spans some of modern-day Pakistan and northwest India.  Guru Nanak challenged inequality and injustice throughout his life, speaking out against gender inequality and the caste system.

Living in a community that included both Hindus and Muslims, Guru Nanak decreed that neither faith was correct and began teaching a different way and gradually built up a group of followers. When he died he passed on the mantle of guru to one of his followers, setting up an eventual chain of eight further human gurus.

As the movement grew, with converts from Hinduism and Islam, it began establishing customs and structures but also came into conflict with the Islamic Mughal emperors who ruled the region at the time. Several gurus were executed by the authorities for refusing to convert to Islam, which prompted the creation, by Hargobind, the the sixth Guru, of the military tradition within Sikhism and transformation of the faith into a political force as well as a religious movement.

The 10th guru, Gobind Singh, was instrumental in shaping the faith as it persists to this day. In 1699 he founded the Khalsa, a new community of warrior Sikhs committed to protecting the innocent against religious persecution. He also introduced the 5 Ks — core articles of faith worn by Sikhs at all times. Finally, he codified and finalised the Sikh holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, and named the book as his successor as guru.

What do Sikhs believe?

Sikhi is a broadly monotheistic faith which believes in one, timeless and invisible God, who does not take the form of a man, woman or object. All humans are equal before God and have direct access to him.

It also teaches reincarnation, the cycle of souls being born, dying and then reborn again in new bodies. Much like Hinduism and Buddhism, in Sikhi the goal is to be freed from this cycle of reincarnation and instead achieve liberation into oneness with God, known as mukti.

However, unlike in many Hindu traditions, Sikhs believe only God can liberate a soul from the cycle in an act of unmerited grace and it cannot be earned by good deeds on earth or the correct religious practices. Although there is significant overlap in practices, beliefs and even texts with Hinduism, Sikhs reject many of that faith’s associated rituals as meaningless superstitions and instead believe moral living and contemplation and meditation on God is more important.

How do Sikhs practise their faith?

Sikhs revere the Guru Granth Sahib (which is in the form of a book) as a “living Guru”, receiving daily guidance by open the Guru at random and treating the first composition read, as the “guidance for the day”. Unlike many holy books, the Guru Granth Sahib does not contain a history of the lives of the Gurus, rather it is a collection of poetic compositions about the human condition, including the writings of non-Sikhs.

The most identifiable Sikh markers are the unshorn hair and the turban. Sikhs who desire to solidify their commitment to the Guru would also undergo an initiation ceremony after which they become “Amritdhari” Sikhs. Amritdhari Sikhs wear the 5 Ks to symbolise their commitment, these being:

  1. Kesh — Unshorn hair symbolising the importance of living in harmony with nature
  2. Kangha — A comb to manage this hair and to symbolise the importance of controlling one’s thoughts
  3. Kara — An iron/steel bangle to act as a reminder to do good deeds
  4. Kaccha — Underwear to maintain modesty in all situations
  5. Kirpan — A sword acting as a reminder to fight injustice

It is important to note that although becoming an Amritdhari is often described as “Sikh baptism”, this is not something that Sikhs would undergo at birth, rather this is a choice that Sikhs make themselves once they feel compelled to do so.

Sikhs also seek to avoid five vices, often known as the Five Thieves: lust, anger, greed, attachment to things of this world, and pride.

What is a gurdwara?

The main place of worship for Sikhs is the gurdwara (literally meaning the “house of the guru”). There are about 250 gurdwaras in Britain of varying sizes. As gurdwaras are usually established by communities, there are few organisational links between various gurdwaras, with many operating as independent organisations. Gurdwaras are open to all to visit and regularly provide free meals to the poor and needy.

The majority of gurdwaras in Britain are managed by committee where individuals are elected to roles to manage the gurdwara for a period of time. Other management structures include the managing of gurdwaras by charismatic leaders known as Sants, who select who is to manage the gurdwara.

Are there different denominations of Sikhs?

A non-Sikh would note few visible ideological differences within the Sikh tradition, as the practices that take place in most gurdwaras are very similar. The main differences are based around jathabandi (group) affiliation and migratory background as described below.

Historically Bhatras, Jats and Ramgharias have established their own gurdwaras although this simply means that it is mostly members of these various communities who attend.

Jathabandi differences are based on different opinions about Sikh codes of conduct but mainly apply to Amritdhari Sikhs. In addition, Sikhs from different jathabandis do attend one another’s gurdwaras.

What is the history of Sikhs in Britain?

Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was exiled from his kingdom by the British, arrived in Britain in 1854, the first Sikh to do so. The first Sikh settlers included soldiers who had fought for the British Indian army in the First World War and Sikh peddlers known as bhatras who mainly settled in port cities in Britain including Liverpool, Southampton and Cardiff.

The first Sikh gurdwara was established in Shepherd’s Bush in London in 1911 and attracted Sikhs from all over the UK.

The Sikh population in Britain grew substantially following the Second World War as post-war labour shortages combined with displacement after the Indian partition led many Sikhs mainly from agricultural backgrounds (known as Jats) to gain employment, many in the industrial foundries of the West Midlands and the wool mills of northern England.

The next wave of Sikh migration wasin the 1970s, as Sikhs (known as Ramgharias) who had been taken to East Africa by the British to work on the railways arrived in the UK following the independence movements in Uganda and Kenya. Recent years have seen a number of Sikhs arriving from Afghanistan as refugees, having been subject to persecution by the Taliban. In 2014, 35 Sikhs from Afghanistan were found in a container in Tilbury Docks.

The British Sikh population, according to the 2011 census, is mainly British-born (56.6 per cent) and relatively young with 25 per cent of the 423,158 Sikhs now living in England and Wales being between the ages of 15 and 29. The main areas of Sikh settlement are the West Midlands and the south of England, in particular west London.

What are the contemporary stories and issues involving Sikhs?

Much of the news around the Sikh tradition concerns sporadic conflict between the community in India with the Hindu majority and government. There have been widespread protests in the UK recently about the detention of the Scottish Sikh Jagtar Singh Johal, who was arrested in India in 2017 accused of involvement in the murder of a prominent Hindu nationalist leader.

There is also the ongoing impact of the events of 1984. The storming of the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the ‘Golden Temple’, in Amritsar during Operation Bluestar in June 1984, continues to emotionally impact many Sikhs, as does the anti-Sikh violence which took place across India following the assassination of India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards in November 1984.

Finally, in recent years there have been several incidents of Sikhs being victims of hate crimes. In 2020, Government figures showed that anti-Sikh hate crimes reported across Britain had risen by 70 per cent in the previous two years. Several incidents have occurred in schools, where patka wearing Sikh boys have often been targets of bullying and violence.

Dr Jasjit Singh is an associate professor in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at Leeds University

Further reading

House of the Guru? Young British Sikhs’ Engagement with Gurdwaras, Journal of Punjab Studies, Volume 21, pp. 41-54

From the temple to the street: how Sikh kitchens are becoming the new food banks, The Conversation

The idea, context, framing and realities of “Sikh radicalisation” in Britain

Useful contacts

Jasjit Singh, Leeds University

Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, senior lecturer in Sikh studies at Birmingham University

City Sikhs, an association of Sikhs professionals, [email protected]


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