A new religion in India: 16th century AD
Centuries of Muslim rule in north India prompt a reform movement within Hinduism. Nanak, son of a Hindu tax collector in the Punjab, leaves his family in about 1500 to take up the life of a wandering teacher. In doing so, he is part of a long-established tradition. He follows in the footsteps, two millennia previously, of the founders of Jainism and Buddhism.
Nanak’s message is one of compromise between Hinduism and Islam. He retains the central theme of all Indian religions (that the highest achievement is to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth) but he rejects two specific characteristics of Hinduism – the Caste system, and the worship of a profusion of colourful idols.
Nanak takes from Islam the concept of monotheism. He teaches that there is only one god, an unknowable being who is manifest in all creation. The name of this being is nam. The way of achieving eventual release from this world, in keeping with Indian traditions, is through meditation and the repetition of nam, the divine monosyllable.
In formulating these ideas Nanak is influenced by mystical and anti-doctrinaire traditions within both Hinduism and Islam. The mystical strand of Hindu devotion is known as the bhakti movement. The equivalent within Islam is Sufism.
The poet Kabir, a Muslim contemporary of Nanak’s, is another strong influence. Kabir, himself strongly influenced by Hindu asceticism, preaches a religion of love in which all men are equal before God.
From all these sources Nanak makes his own synthesis. His teaching brings him followers called sikh (‘disciple), for whom he is guru(‘weighty’). Nanak is the first of the ten gurus now considered the founding prophets of Sikhism. Before his death, in 1539, he selects his own successor – a custom which continues until the fourth guru, Ramdas. The remaining six gurus follow by descent within one family.
The religion becomes a power in the Punjab under the fifth guru, Arjan. Between 1581 and 1606 he builds many Sikh temples (gurdwaras) and compiles the holy book of the religion (the Granth, consisting of the writings of the gurus themselves together with related Hindu and Muslim texts).
More conspicuously, Arjan builds Amritsar as a holy city of pilgrimage for all Sikhs. The strength of his sect is now sufficient to alarm the Moghul emperor, Jahangir. Arjan is arrested for disrespect to Islam. He dies, in 1606, after torture. His martyrdom transforms a contemplative sect into one of passionate militancy.
Militant Sikhs: AD 1606-1699
The murder of the Sikh guru Arjan in a Moghul gaol in 1606 causes his son Hargobind, the sixth guru, to begin training his followers as soldiers. The 17th century brings constant friction in the Punjab between the Moghul administration and the Sikhs.
In 1675 the ninth guru, Teg Bahadur, is executed in Delhi by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb. His son, the tenth and last guru, Gobind Rai, takes the step which finally gives the Sikh community the characteristics for which it is known today.
At the Hindu new year in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh initiates five of his followers into a fraternity which he names Khalsa (‘pure’). Each of them is given a new name, to be followed by Singh (‘lion’) – a last name shared by Sikhs ever since.
Gobind Rai makes the K of Khalsa a ritual theme for the new group. Each of the five founding members swears to keep five Ks: he will wear his hair long and uncut (kesh), with a comb in it (kangha); he will wear shorts suitable for fighting in (kachha), will have a steel ring around his right wrist (kara), and will carry a sabre (kirpan).
In the next few days thousands of Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa fraternity. The five Ks, and the accompanying commitment to fight physically for the faith, become the symbols of orthodox Sikhism.
Gobind Rai’s four sons all die before him. With no direct heir, he proclaims in 1704 that he is the last of the ten human gurus. He is to be succeeded by an immortal guru – the holy book of the Sikhs, the Granth. Readings from the Granth become the central ritual of the religion. Influenced from the start by Islam, with its respect for ‘people of the book’, Sikhism develops into the religion with the most sacred book of all.