Sikh Missionary Society
Sikh Missionary Society U.K. (Regd)
10, Featherstone Road. Southall, Middx, U.K. UB2 5AA
Tel: +44 020 8574 1902
Fax: +44 020 8574 1912
Reg Charity No: 262404
Understanding Sikhism (The Gospel of the Gurus)
Understanding Sikhism (The Gospel of the Gurus)

Sikh Missionary Society: Publications: Understanding Sikhism (The Gospel of the Gurus):

Who is a Sikh?

Who is a Sikh?

Sikhs today carry a variety of brand names. These are Khalsa Sikhs or amritdhari Sikhs, keshdhari Sikhs and sahajdhari Sikhs, Nirankari Sikhs, Sant Sikhs (who are quite separate and distinct from the former), Namdhari Sikhs, Radhasoamis and a very recent crop - the Blue-belt Brotherhood. They are the followers of the late Sant Harnam Singh.

My grandchildren used to bother me on and off with questions pertaining to these different types, whenever they came across these brand names in their readings. I found it difficult to explain orally the source and details of some of this uncommon sects or subdivisions of the Sikh faith. Some of them are in fact not Sikhs at all although they pass off as Sikhs, e.g. the Sant Nirankaris. I decided to raid my small library, compile all relevant material I could find and publish it to satisfy inquisitive young minds. This article is a result of that effort.

Khalsa Sikhs and amridhari Sikhs are interchangeable expressions and refer to those who have been initiated into the Order of the Khalsa, often referred to as the Brotherhood of the Pure, or the Khalsa Panth, established by Guru Gobind Singh, the last personal Sikh Guru, with the famous ceremony on Vaisakhi of 1699 which fell in that year on he 30th of March. It is because amrit(sacrament of the double edge sword) was administered in the initiation ceremony, those initiated came to be know as amritdharis.

The initiation symbolizes a spiritual rebirth which confers on the initiate freedom from prevailing restrictions on the choice of occupation (Krit Nash), or those arising from lineage (Kul Nash), earlier creeds (Dharam Nash), rituals (Karam Nash) and superstitions (Bharam Nash). Five emblems are prescribed for the Khalsa. They are to wear the hair and beard unshorn (kesh); they are to carry a comb (kangha) in their hair to keep it tidy; they are always to wear a knee-length of breeches; worn by soldiers of that time; they are to carry an iron bangle kara on their waist; they are to be ever armed with a sabre (Kirpan). In addition to these five emblems, the converts are to observe four rules of conduct (reht); not to cut any hair on any part of their body; not to smoke or chew tobacco, or consume alcoholic drinks or any other intoxicant; not to eat an animal which had/has been slaughtered by being bled to death, as was/is customary in some religions, but to eat only jhatka meat, where animal had /has been dispatched with one blow; and not to molest women.

There is a documentary evidence to corroborate all this. On the 23rd May, 1699 AD, soon after the founding of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh issued the following Hukamnama (Guru's proclamation) to the sangat (congregation) of Kabul, in which compliance with reht, especially the five emblems, is ordained.

"Through the grace of our Immortal True Lord
To the entire sangat at Kabul
The Guru will protect the sangat
I am pleased with you all
You should get initiated by the sword, from five beloveds
Keep your hair uncut, for this is the seal of the Guru
Accept the use of shorts and the sword
Always wear the iron kara on your wrist
Keep your hair clean and comb it twice a day
Do not eat halal(or kosher) meat
Do not use tobacco in any form
Have no connection to those who kill their daughters
Or permit the cutting of their children's hair
Do not associate with meenas, masands and Ram-Raiyas (anti-sikh cults)
Recite the Guru's hymns Meditate on `the name of the wonderful Lord'
Follow the Sikh code of discipline I give the entire sangat my blessing"
(Signature of 10th Guru)

What is set out in the Guru's Hukamnama is fairly well known and is practiced by amritdharis. What is not so well known is that the Khalsa is a sovereign person, fit to provide leadership and meaningful service to the society. He must be a man of deep religious faith and humility and must be in possesson of arms to maintain his own integrity and to function truly in relation to society : "All the virtues of the heart and the excellence of the mind : These are the natural qualities of the Khalsa This is to be a new and unique type of man Who bears arms and constantly lives in the presence of God Who strives and fights against evil with his gaze riveted to the stars. Such is the goal to be achieved which the Khalsa has been ordained And lo, it is a well-armed and well integrated Man" (Gurpartapsuraj Granth, Vol.1, p.36) Sikhism being a whole life system, it is the duty of the sovereign Khalsa to defend the weak and the oppressed, to challenge injustice and resist it, if ! necessary by force and not hesitate to lay down his life in defence of his faith.

Those unwilling to take on these onerous duties, in addition to adhering to the strict discipline of an amritdhari, chose to remain mere Keshdharis, which is the second step towards becoming an amritdhari. The first step is to become a sahajdhari. It will be seen that a Khalsa is expected to lead a life of a sant-sipahi (saint-soldier). All Sikhs. in their heart, aspire to such a glorious life. Many attempt it or make a go at it, but few succeed. But that does not mean that we should not strive to reach the pinnacle of Sikhism by becoming and leading the life of Khalsa.

A Keshdhari Sikh is one who has the semblance of a Khalsa but for some reason has not opted to be initiated as an amritdhari. Most of them abstain from taking amrit out of fear of not being able to comply strictly with the Reht Maryada, the code of discipline laid down for an amritdhari. They comply with the other requirements of the Sikh faith such as Naam-simran and Nitnem. They accept the Guru Granth Sahib as their Living Guru and follow no other scripture. They attend the gurdwara regularly, join the sangat, and listen to kirtan. They take part in the preparation of the langar, support the gurdwara financially and render any other service required of them. If you meet a Sikh in the street, especially outside India, it is sometimes difficult to fathom whether he is a amritdhari or keshdhari. In India the amritdharis can sometimes be seen wearing the small kirpan on their person. Before the second world war it was quite common to see amritdharis in India wearing the long kirpan (3 feet). This is a rare sight these days and I have never seen any on recent visits to India.

Sahajdhari Sikhs are, as one of the meaning of sahaj signifies, `those who take time', the halfway house to the hirsute form of Khalsa Sikhism. The word sahaj also means `spiritual equipoise', which is an equally mandatory requirement for all Sikhs. According to one view "The sense of belonging to the Sikh community requires both the belief in the teaching of the Adi Granth and the observance of the Khalsa tradition initiated by Guru Gobind Singh, and there is no such thing as a clean-shaven Sikh, he is simply a Hindu believing in Sikhism (Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Vol. 2 p. 303). This is an extreme view and I do not think it is correct.

In my view a person is a sahajdhari Sikh if he accepts the Sikh Gurus, considers Guru Granth as his Guru, has no other scripture and does not worship any other God. There are thousands of such sahajdhari Sikhs and many are a credit to the Sikh faith. Although turbanless and clean-shaven, they can be recognized by the kara (iron bangle) they wear on their right wrist. Who knows, someday they may well take the amrit and become full-fledged Khalsas. After all, becoming a sahajdhari is the first step toward becoming a Khalsa.

On a recent golfing trip to Manila, I decided to visit the local gurdwara. The taxi-driver found it in Washington Avenue. A large double storeyed building, it was fully air-conditioned, which meant that at one time there must have been a fairly large Sikh community there. An Akhand Path was going on but the reader of the Granth was a turbanless. He had a hankerchief on his head and was reading the Gurbani competently. Later, on the ground floor, on making enquires from the keshdhari secretary, I was informed that the reader of the Granth was a committed sahajdhari Sikh and that there were not enough keshdhari Sikhs in Manila to make up a reading team entirely of keshdharis. In the circumstances I saw nothing wrong in what I saw. The lesson to be learnt from what I saw is that we must not look down on the sahajdharis just because we are amritdharis or keshdharis. They are also traveling along the same path and although they may be a step or two behind us, hopefully they may also catch up with us someday. We must not forget that even at the time of the Guru Gobind Singh, some of his disciples and close associates did not take the pahul and become amritdharis. They remained sahajdharis Sikhs and nevertheless the Guru had a high regard for them, although they did not become Khalsas.

Another important point to note is that participation of sahajdharis is provided for in the Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925, which vested control and management of the Golden Temple and all other historical Sikh shrines in Punjab in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a representative body of the Sikhs which is now elected on adult franchise.

There is another category of Sikhs which defies classification. These are the Sikhs who went abroad, soon after the second world war, to America, Canada, UK and other parts of Europe. They were mostly amritdharis or keshdharis but soon after their arrival in these distant lands, their attachment to tradition declined and the rate of apostasy rose for a variety of reasons. Some of the early arrivals could not get jobs, as there was prejudice against their appearance and they reluctantly gave up the semblance of the Khalsa to earn a living. Others became clean-shaven merely to ape the white man. And their descendants, the second and now third generation, are mostly clean-shaven. But what is noteworthy about them is that they wear the kara(iron bangle) on their right wrist, attend gurdwaras, accept Guru Granth Sahib as their Guru, have no other scripture, worship God only and marry according to Sikh rites by undergoing the Anand Karaj ceremony. They are the ones who sing Raj ! Karega Khalsa most vociferously during the service at the gurdwara and are the greatest supporters of Khalistan. They support the gurdwara financially and in some places in Canada and America they have built huge gurdwaras.

So what do we classify them as? In Sikh parlance, according to Reht Maryada, they are patits (renegades - those who have fallen by the wayside). There is little chance of their ever-taking amrit. There is no getting away from the fact that in the West, the practice of taking the pahul and wearing the hair and beard unshorn is on the decline. This is admitted by most Sikh leaders and will be apparent to any shrewd observer. The danger is these clean shaven men who claim to be sahajdhari Sikhs and form the bulk of the sangat(congregation) in gurdwaras in the West may slowly slide into Hinduism. This danger is very real because they have no knowledge of Gurbani, speak mostly English and have only a smattering of Punjabi. Some do not even know the names of our ten Gurus or the Punjabi names of weekdays. Can they be classified as sahajdharis when there is little chance of their ever being keshdharis, leave alone amritdharis. And yet in the eyes of the law they are Sikhs ! because that is what their passports states.

And what is the position today of the Sindhis? At one time, before the independence of India, when they were living in their home province, they were more Sikh than Hindu. "Today, dispersed over the Indian Subcontinent, most of them have gone back to Hinduism. Even where they form compact communities as in Bombay, the altars of their temples display Hindu gods alongside the Granth, and Hindu ritual is fast displacing the Sikh. There are strong indications that with passing of the present generation, Sikhism will also pass out of the people of Sindh". (Khushwant Singh, Vol. 2, p. 303). Sindhis are now spread all over the world. Their regular attendance at gurdwaras does not make them Sikhs. Nor do they claim to be Sikhs. They are followers of Guru Nanak whom they worship as their Guru but do not accept the Khalsa tradition. There are of course exceptions. Take the case of the Late Dr Gobind Singh Mansukhani, one of the greatest scholars of Sikhism. He was an amritdhari and! spent his whole life in promoting Sikhism.

What is fundamental is that you cannot claim to be a Sikh if you do not heed all the ten Gurus of the Sikh faith, nor if you have a living Guru. You cannot claim allegiance to one or a few of the Ten Masters and claim to be a Sikh. On this score, Nirankaris, the Sant Nirankaris, the Radhasoamis and the Namdharis, fail to qualify as Sikhs.

As a result, only the amritdharis, the keshdharis and the sahajdharis form the mainstream of the Sikh faith. They are merely the various steps up the ladder of Sikhism, for there are no high souls or hierarchy in Sikhism. To become an amritdhari is to reach the pinnacle. What is even more important is to remain at the pinnacle all your life by living a truthful life in accordance with the Reht Maryada of the Khalsa.

Punjab is noted for producing sants (holymen). Every district and practically every village has a sant. There is no objection to having a sant as a spiritual adviser or consultant. It is also appropriate that sants, indeed all holy men, should be treated and regarded with respect. However if you claim allegiance to a sant, consider him as your guru, prostrate before him and figuratively put him on the same pedestal as the Ten Masters of the Sikh faith, then, in my opinion, you are disqualifying yourself from being considered a Sikh. Because any one who has a living Guru, other than Granth Sahib, is not a Sikh. That I believe, is the litmus test of Sikhism.

Return to the top of the page.

Dr Choor Singh Sidhu studied law at London University and was called to the English Bar from Gray's Inn. Although admitted as Advocate and Solicitor of the Supreme Court, both in Singapore and Malaysia, he spent most of his working life in the Judicial Department of the Republic of Singapore. After service as a Megistrate, District Judge, Deputy Public Prosecutor, Senior State Counsel and Senior District Judge, he served as a Judge of the Supreme Court of Singapore for 17 years and retired in 1980.

He spends his retirement in writing articles on Sikhs religion. This book has been compiled for the benefit of Sikh children born in Singapore who have a very limited knowledge of their faith. It will also be found useful by non-Sikhs wanting enlightenment on the Sikh Religion.

Previous Chapter - The Sikh Identity
Table of Contents
Return to the top of the page.

Copyright (©)2004 by Sikh Missionary Society (U.K.)
All Rights Reserved.