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Commentary On Sikhi & Sikhism: A Distinction Without A Difference


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sikhi & Sikhism: A Distinction Without a Difference

A similar version of this article can be found at http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/gener...d-sikhism-distinction-without-difference.html

I had recently published an essay in which I wrestled with the problem of classifying Sikhs - are they a nation, ethnic group, race, religion or what?

Then some readers pointed out that Sikhism is different from other religions in that it is less a movement with dogma, doctrine and hierarchy, and more a way of life.

In a different context, the noted historian Hew McLeod suggested that the term "Hinduism" was perhaps inaccurate and imprecise. He credited Wilfred Cantwell Smith with the notion that "Hinduism" doesn't exist as a defined religion. Why? Because Cantwell Smith and McLeod posit that there is nothing that can always and unquestionably be affirmed concerning the fundamental belief system of Hinduism - not even caste or the position of Brahmins.

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the celebrated Indian philosopher, reasons similarly and labels Hinduism "a way of life" rather than "a religion" because of the variegated traditions within its capacious umbrella. McLeod thus prefers to speak of "Hindu traditions." This is because, he contends, Hinduism is not a single tradition but allows a multiplicity of practices.

Certainly this is so and possibly explains why in Hinduism one can find so many apparently contradictory practices - from strict vegetarianism to ritual animal sacrifice; from vestal virgins in their temples where their illicit offspring are attributed to the acts of God (would that be an act of God under suspicious circumstances, I wonder!) to an unparalleled celebration and admiration of celibacy; from pantheism and innumerable gods and goddesses, in fact, more than the worshippers, to some very admirable strains of unitarianism and monotheism.

Would it be better to simplify matters and classify these varied traditions as sects and denominations? Most religions do develop such sects; Christianity, for example, has more than 250.

Indic religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, are resistant to the idea of sects; Buddhism is an exception.

Hinduism does present a very complex interwoven structure of primitive mythology along with some beautifully nuanced philosophical depth. McLeod also points out that the term "Hinduism" may be the invention (and curse or gift, if you wish) of the British, who wanted to box in and pigeonhole the religious-cultural diversity of the Hindu traditions.

I wouldn't credit or blame the British entirely for this; Hindu reformers such as Dayanand show a similar bent in their logic. To Dayanand, his own interpretation of Hindu practices was the one true path; all else was erroneous and alarming deviationism, not deserving of being labeled "Hindu".

I detect somewhat similar strains in Kapur Singh's writings on Sikhism. In fact, he seems to go further. Sometimes I think he interprets Hindus to be all the people of northern India. In his view, the Hindu cultural and mythological practices define the worldview of all north Indians, with these "Hindu" people following very defined and divergent religious paths, such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and so on.

Reasoning similarly, I have a Punjabi Hindu friend who claims, on a non-scholarly level, that the only religion of Punjab is Sikhism, and that Hinduism is the culture of Punjab, indeed of India. I can see the logic in Cantwell Smith, McLeod and Radhakrishnan on Hinduism and the diversity in Hindu traditions, but I doubt that most Hindus would accept the formulation and reasoning that Hinduism does not exist as a religion. Most scholars, whether Hindu or not, and certainly most lay Hindus, when writing or speaking about Hindus and their religion, label it "Hinduism," without any thought of sects or widely divergent practices.

I wonder if every movement doesn't start as practices and mores of ordinary living - a way of life - which then turn into rich traditions with time, and these traditions then establish themselves enough to become institutionalized. And then we have a religion. Let's think this through.

A coherent group of people, or a community, is no different from a family. What lends consistency to a people is a common set of values - their ethos that gives them common bonds, worldview and direction. As communities enlarge, the way of life of a people spawns institutions.

A code of conduct becomes necessary and evolves with widespread acceptance of a way of life. As communities spread far and wide, it becomes necessary to design ways to communicate the code of conduct, as well as the means to ensure compliance with it. What emerges, then, from such shared needs and common ethos are religions and nations, even those that are sometimes politically drawn lines in the sand.

To my mind, the story of any of humankind's religions is not much different. I believe Christianity, for instance, was not, at its inception and for several centuries later, a distinct institutionalized movement. Its traditions grew around its teachings and then later became an institution with worldwide presence and impact. In its early years, Christianity was perhaps no more than an informally observed "way of life." The Judaic Ten Commandments, at their best, define a way of life.

Sikhism, too, was perhaps only a way of life when Guru Nanak founded a new community of his followers at Kartarpur; people attracted to his teachings came from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. Many of the followers, at least for a while, retained dual identities - of their native religion and of the path of Nanak. This is the lesson of the saakhi that at the end of Nanak's life, his Hindu and Muslim followers quarrelled, for each wanted to administer to him the last rites of its own religion. This tells me that in this early Sikh community, contradictory and conflicting practices must have coexisted, while the teachings of Guru Nanak provided the common uniting element.

I have no doubt that Guru Nanak intended to start a new religion right from the start; I have dealt with this elsewhere. By the time of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, the clear message of Sikhism had been enunciated and conflicting practices clearly rejected. But doctrinal purity, which started with Guru Nanak and progressed continuously to Guru Gobind Singh, does not automatically translate into a similar single-minded purity of practice.

New converts to the cause often brought lifelong habits from their original belief system and somewhat uncertainly grafted Sikh teachings onto them. Certainly during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, many new converts flocked to the Sikh faith, not necessarily out of conviction but perhaps from political expediency; their faith might have been only skin deep.

The resulting contradictions in Sikh practices were most noticeable at the time of the Singh Sabha almost a century ago. Many practices in Sikhism at that time had come to us from our Hindu antecedents.

Harjot Oberoi of British Columbia has produced an excellent and instructive compendium of mixed practices and rites among the Sikhs of a certain era in history.

I could make a similar case for any other religion. Christianity, for instance, now has over 250 denominations. The teachings of all Christian sects flow from the life and work of Jesus and the interpretations by the apostles, yet their interpretations show major divergence and difference. The most visible schism is on the matter of the papacy, but lesser, yet critical, issues divide them on matters of faith, morals and practices. Doctrinal and practical differences remain.

The whole direction and purpose of the Singh Sabha Movement a hundred years ago was to explore the Sikh tradition, discover the common threads of continuity in that tradition and thus arrive at a single unified vision of the teachings and practices of Sikhism.

Yet some variability still remains. Perhaps time exacts such a price from all religions. So now I see a predominantly unified Sikh view, and in that sense it is a single Sikh tradition. However, some evidence indicates a plurality of practices as well, even if to us they appear heretical and a corruption or misreading of the original intent of the founder-Gurus of the faith.

I point, for example, to the Naamdharis, who revere Guru Granth as holy scripture but also follow a living Guru.

The Hindu way of life has retained, more than other religions, this plurality of practice and belief that I pointed out earlier; in that sense it is correct to speak not of a Hindu religion or Hinduism but of the multiplicity of Hindu traditions. Hindu traditions have remained diverse, even contradictory, and resisted the tendency to become a monolithic ideology perhaps longer and more successfully than the others. However, that is not to say that there is not a commonality that runs through all these competing Hindu traditions; I am pointing particularly to the preeminent centrality of the Brahmin, the inviolability of the caste system with the code of Manu, and cow worship.

Would this core of common values not justify our labeling it "Hinduism"? It seems to me that it is around this enduring core that the contradictory Hindu traditions and practices exist and flourish. A growing and powerful movement in India takes its life from deriving and promoting the concept of Hindutva as the core structure of Hindu belief and practice.

There is little doubt that the majority of the almost one billion Hindus think of Hinduism as a major world religion with viable traditions. And that, I think, is a very valid concept that even non-Hindus would have to accept.

Similarly, in Sikhism, the central core is Guru Granth and the lessons of our history; practices around this core have varied throughout the years. The Singh Sabha movement, about a hundred years ago, laboured to define Sikh core practices and bring some order to the chaos. Certainly, mixed loyalties and practices can still be seen in many Sikhs, just as they can be seen in Christians and Jews - witness the Jews for Jesus movement that has existed for two thousand years.

I think the practices of a way of life become, with time, traditions that define a people. These habits of the heart become institutionalized into religions. A way of life becomes a religion much as a people bring forth a nation - with clearly defined, yet porous, fences between neighbours. It is these chinks in the fences that make for the confusing array of mixed practices and traditions. As long as the traditions stay connected to the lives of the people, they remain living history; otherwise, they become fossilized.

It seems to me that any religion is first and foremost a way of life and vice versa. This makes Hinduism a way of life and a religion, though more amorphously defined than many others.

Similarly, Sikhism is a way of life. I could extend this logic to claim that communism, a discredited way of life, also was no less a religion of sorts. A belief in God is not essential to my definition of a religion, as Buddhism indicates by its very ambivalent position on the issue.

So Sikhism is, then, both a religion and a way of life; the two cannot exist separately. I know that some scholars choose to think of the word "religion" as a Western concept with no equivalent or parallel idea in the Indic religions.

They often point to the word dharma in Indic languages, which is used to delineate Hindu, Sikh and Jain or Buddhist ways of life. And dharma literally means "duty" or "a way of life." They further argue that dharma is not religion, and the word for "religion" in Indic languages is mazhab. But I think the word mazhab came to us from the Semitic traditions just as the word dharma came from Hindu traditions.

Both words pertain to a way of life, which, in time, may become an established denomination or an entirely new religion.

Some prefer to use the Punjabi word Sikhi to refer to all that comprises Sikh belief and practice. It may be a better descriptive term because the word encompasses both concepts - Sikhism, the religion with its doctrine, dogma and institutional structure, as well as a way of life.

In our introspective trek, keep in mind the core beliefs - doctrine, dogma, history and practice - of what constitutes Sikhi, yet remain tolerant of the different beat of the distant drummer to which many choose to march.


[Reproduced from: The World According to Sikhi, by I.J. Singh, The Centennial Foundation, Canada, 2006. Pages 29-34.]

January 30, 2009


Conversation about this article
(identities other than that of IJ Singh have been removed by spnadmin)


It is an interesting read. The principal problem with the term "Hindu" is its ambiguous use and I was hoping to read about that in this article. Hindu in its definition means Indian, India, Indic but it is ambiguously also used to denote a religion. Your assertion that Hinduism is a system of core preservation of a racial (Varna) caste order is correct but I disagree with your description of Sikhi as Indic, as it adds ambiguity to Sikhi itself. Your description of Sikhi as a way of life is right but it falls short, when it seems to define "this way of life" as part of an "Indic way of life". This increases the ambiguity. Although Sikhi calls for people to give-up racial/ ancestral/ national/ geographical principles of identity, the argument that tries to define Sikhi within the Hindu proposition of ambiguity seems contrary to Sikhi itself.


There is currently a debate going on in the Punjab High Court about the definition of the term "Sikh". sehajdharis contend that they are no lesser Sikhs and they follow all other aspects of Sikhism except Kesh. The puritans contend that if the term is confirmed by the Constition Bench of the court, then legally sehajdharis could run elections of SGPC and a day may come when we could have a non-keshdhari Sikh as Akal Takht Jathedar, SGPC head and Granthi of the Golden Temple. Final Date of hearing in fixed as Feb. 20. I do not know how are we going to tackle this. [Editor: The question would be an easy one to deal with if we the country wasn't plagued by Hindu fundamentalists pushing their 'hindutva' message and bent on causing mischief.]

3: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), January 31, 2009, 7:59 PM.

The issue raised by .... see post atove ...has many complex strands that deserve exploration. I could argue that at a personal level anyone who claims to be a Sikh is one, and should be treated as such. That would be at a personal level. On the other hand, the corporate identity has to emerge from the rules (code of conduct) of the institution of Sikhi; it is not determined by personal practice, failure or bias. Sikhism also seems to be in the uniquely uncomfortable (to me unacceptable) position where its definitional terms, including the structure and viability of irs representative body, depends on law derived from the larger population of the representatives of Indian and Punjab legislative institutions, comprised largely of non-Sikhs. I can't think of any other religion being in such an untenable position. I know when such laws were enacted, we were dealing with different realities, but things are different now, and we need to rethink these matters. But, more of these matters, including our institutions, at another time.


I.J. Singh is right. Sikhi has a very unique situation. We have the Guru Granth and then we have our history, especially the one that took place on Vaiskahi Day, 1699. Sometimes the two run parallel, sometimes theyy overlap, and at other times the latter supercedes the former. I took Khandei di pahul on Vaisakhi in 1988 and considered myself a blessed to be able to do so. However, as we are all instructed to follow the Guru Granth, there is no mention of the adherence of the 5 kakaars or keeping our hair uinshorn. The reason could be because Guru Granth is not about 'cans' and 'can-nots', but it instills 'wills' and 'will-nots'. I see Sikhi in this way. Mool Mantar is the blueprint and Japji is the foundation and the rest of the Gurbani is the design to map our own buildings. Now it depends on our inner quest what kind of building the individual wants to erect while having the two basic and vital components. Our Kakaars are daily reminders of our duties as Sikhs and the goal is to etch their values on our character by breeding goodness which will in turn result in good deeds. To know Ik OanKaar, The Infinite, is to measure one's actions and deeds when no one is looking. These are the building blocks that Gurbani teaches us to build our character on. Once the Kakaars become dogmas of cans and can-nots, decided by a few, then we embark on a slippery slope. Having said that, the most essential ingredient in this recipe of the survival of Sikhi as an institution should be that we all follow the discipline of the faith - such as keeping our hair unshorn - as a prerequiste and the stepping stone for the person to eventually take Khadei de Pahul. But in order for that to happen, we need educated people holding and leading the Sikhi flag who can guide the rest of us to the next step, not some ego-filled, uneducated honchos at the Takhts, burdened with pot-bellies. They forget that when the Guru Granth says, "Tunn bhi teraa, munn bhi teraa", it means that mental health is tied to physical fitness. Once again, education is a must to walk this tight-rope of Sikhi, as we read in Anand Sahib daily that Sikhi is not a mere event of walking on a tight rope, but a way of life.


Most impressed by the author's description of the evolution of, what are described as world "religions" today. Indeed, the label "Sikhi" captures both, a way of life and a "religion". I agree with H. Singh that to describe Sikhi as Indic, "adds ambiguity to Sikhi itself". I also do not understand how the author came to the conclusion that "Indic religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, are resistant to the idea of sects; Buddhism is an exception." Being a keen student of Sardar Kapur Singh, I find ambiguity in the conclusion that, "In his view, the Hindu cultural and mythological practices define the worldview of all north Indians, with these "Hindu" people following very defined and divergent religious paths, such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and so on." Memorable passages for me, "What emerges, then, from such shared needs and common ethos are religions and nations, even those that are sometimes politically drawn lines in the sand." And, "A way of life becomes a religion much as a people bring forth a nation - with clearly defined, yet porous, fences between neighbours."


Excellent article, Dr. I.J. Singh ji. A thorough analysis of the traditions as they grow and end up in starting a new religion. You made a convincing case of how Sikhism started with Guru Nanak and how it finally acquired the present shape with work and efforts of Singh Sabha leaders. The Sikh religion originated in India and it is an Indic religion in the sense that Semitic religions are those that grew in Middle-East. To understand, the practices prevalent during the times of the early Gurus, one should read eye- witness accounts recorded in the 'Bhatt Vahis'. S. Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, known for his radical views on Sikhism, dedicated his new 5-volume set on Sikh history, "Sikh Twarikh" (2008) to the Bhatts, Narbud Singh and others. Celebrated historian Arnold Toynbee, in a foreword to "The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs", a UNESCO publication consisting of Gurbani translations by Trilochan Singh, Jodh Singh, Kapur Singh, Bawa Harkishan Singh and Khushwant Singh, observes: "Perhaps Guru Nanak himself would have modestly disclaimed the title of 'founder'. He might have preferred to say that he was merely bringing to light, and gathering together, the cardinal religious truths and percepts that had been scattered, in explicit form or implicitly, through the religious legacies of a number of forerunners of his ..." And, in a similar vein Dr. Radhakrishan, Hindu scholar/philosopher and former President of India, in his Introduction to the same book, says, "He (Nanak) did not found a new faith or organized a new community. That was done by his successors, notably the fifth Guru ... The Gurus are the light-bearers to mankind. They are the messengers of the timeless. They do not claim to teach a new doctrine but only to renew the eternal wisdom. Nanak elaborated the views of Vaisnava Saints ..." I do not agree with all that Radhkrishan has written, but one wonders how the translators accepted his views or let them go without protest or challenge. Neither did any Sikh institution. Sikhism is an indic religion in the sense that it originated in India, not that it is a branch of Hinduism.


Sikhism is not like some of the old religions of the world. To enumerate some key differences: 1) Each religion is preoccupied with the welfare of its own people. This is in sharp contrast to Sikhs who focus on "Universak Good". 2) All religions have do's and don'ts; Sikhs need none in the practice of Sikhi. 3) Most other religions have a common object of hate, whereas none such exists amongst the Sikhs. 4) Sikhi, unlike the others, acknowledges and respects other religious paths to God.


Impressed by the views presented by ... Lions are not not always seen in herds, like sheep, yet they have their own identity. Each Singh is created as a pillar through Amrit. So we will always have different shapes, sizes, colours and practices. Just like God. It sure gives a challenge to describe Sikhi but isn't that true for God's description too? See ... Jaap Sahib.


I believe in Sikhi. I think dogma is the opposite of Sikhi. I believe religion prescribes dogma, and therefore Sikhi cannot be a religion.

Maybe ... has a point but I see I.J. Singh's description of Sikhi as Indic (taken in context) having an Indic characteristic to it. In the words of the author, "Indic religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, are resistant to the idea of sects; Buddhism is an exception". Therefore, to get it straight, the author ideologically implies resemblance of Sikhi with Hinduism. I believe this is basic problem of Sikh authors and most Sikhs also, I would say, to see an ideological resemblance of Sikhi with Hinduism NOT because of any vested interest but because of a principle weakness to see Sikhi as part of Hinduism. Let's explore it. The principle weakness lies in the failure to see Sikhi as non-Indic which in many ways is Anti-Indic especially as it challenges the very core of Indian society, i.e. Hindu-Caste Imperialism. Defining Sikhi within these geographical standards will not let us understand Sikhi itself, especially when those standards resemble a historical paradigm. Indic is also a Hindu paradigm. Defining in this paradigm would add Ambiguity. This is also why Sikhs have failed to understand the historical relationship of Sikhi with Hindus. In fact, the author points out that Sikhs are most untenable people whose own religion has to be defined by the ruling Hindus. The author seems to be aware of this objective of the Hindu-Caste Imperialism - to absorb cultures and ways of life by resemblance, as long as the racial stature of the brahmins and the upper-caste remain intact; but yet, he defines Sikhi in conforming to these imperialistic Hindu standards. Why would any Sikh author define Sikhi in terms that are equivocated for deception and Acculturation of Sikhi? Part of the reason Sikh authors lean towards defining Sikhi as Indic is because the relationship of Sikhs with Hindus in past 500 years is hog-washed and warped by the national Hindu Propaganda for the purposes of acculturation and also for using Sikhs in purposeful vitriol against the "foreign" Muslims. It serves both purposes. Therefore, the overall result of Sikh authors to see Sikhi as part of Indic lies in the principle weakness to see Sikhi from the Hindu ideological paradigm.


I must start this post by saying that I admire I.J Singh's insight and have been learning about myself and Sikh values eversince I came to know him through his writings, emails and phone chats after 9-11-2001 when I felt a bit lost. I.J. Singh's books were the beginning of mapping my life back towards true Sikhi. However, I beg to differ with his statement that "In the final analysis every religion is a way of life". In my opinion, dogmas are based on subjective truths like Hell, Heaven, reincarnation, evil, etc., etc. which are essentially based on fear tactics. It shows that the 'god' of these dogmatic religions is only known to a few and those few become the brokers - dalaals - between Man and God and claim to have the exclusive password to login to God. Yes, it is sold as a way of life by the holders of these positions who claim to have the ear of "God". But in fact it is a manufactured way of life. It is an external imposition, not a internal manfestation which Sikhi is. Sikhi is totally different. It is based on objective/relative truth. The first pauri of Japji shows us that. It shows us that there is no absolute Truth but Truth is absolute. The proof is in the many planets being formed and destroyed. All the continents were once together and not any more. It is also worth mentioning why Sikhi is the only way of life because it is idea based not personality, like dogmatic religions such as Hinduism and the three semitic ones. Sikhi is the only one that truly evolved over two centuries while under the direct nurture of its preceptors; hence Sikhi has evolved through time, unlike other faiths which are personality-based wherre it took one life span of a person to formulate the 'rules'. So, all Gurus had vital roles and, with the passage of time, they were able to advance the idea of Sikhi to a populace ready to learn and imbibe. Hinduism is more of a mythology, so its time span does not come into play. The other thing I would like to add is that gurbani is written in a poetic-musical form. One should not ignore this fact. Music is the most powerful medium to make us come out of our self created cocoons. It breaks our self-constructed inner walls and liberates us from our own shackles. It makes us honest about ourselves. It makes us constantly check our inner nakedness without any shame. Yes, it is very metaphorical, which is one more dimension of gurbani. Metaphors are the kaledioscopes of our lives. They eventually become the prisms with multiple angles and, depending on our spiritual quest, with time we discover more angles about ourselves through gurbani. Furthermore, the absence of a religious heirachy also makes Sikhi a way of life. If heirachy had been part of Sikhi, then Siri Chand would have been our second Guru rather than Guru Angad. Prithvi Chand would have been our fifth Guru rather than Guru Arjan. We have no priesthood, unlike all other religions, which also shows that it is the journey of the individual and each of us carries his/her own spiritual torch. We know that in Hinduism, a Harijan cannot become a Pundit whereas a Sikh of any caste, creed or background can become whatever he/she desires to be, which again proves that in Hinduism, it is a way of life only for a Pundit, not for anyone else. [Editor's note to all readers, generally: Please keep your comments short and concise, and please keep your focus on the subject and point covered by the article in question. Thanks.]

12: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), February 06, 2009, 3:26 PM.

A couple of interesting questions have emerged that deserve closer scrutiny. Sikhism is, in my view, both universal and unique, and I have touched upon that issue in several essays and columns, including this. Why then in "Indic religions" did I include Sikhism along with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism? Because Sikhism arose in Indic society and culture; therefore the teachings of Sikhism are often couched in the language and context of the prevailing mythology, which was Hindu. Sikhism clearly rejects this mythology and the teachings that flow from it, yet in teaching a people of that society the cultural context and its language were vital. Indic in origin, yes, but not limited to Indic people, their culture or a certain time period. The second question pertains to the perceived dichotomy between a "religion" and a "way of life." I believe that, in the final analysis, every religion is a way of life. Religions direct us how to view our common humanity, how we treat others, the ultimate reality that binds us all, how to treat the world with its fragile ecosystem and limited resources, in effect how to evolve ethical societies for our mutual benefit and the greater good. What else is a way of life?


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