FAQ

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A SIKH?

The most widely accepted definition of a Sikh comes from the Sikh code of conduct, the Rehat Maryada. Originally written in Punjabi, it is translated as:

“A Sikh is any woman or man whose faith consists of belief in:

  • One God,
  • The ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh,
  • The Guru Granth Sahib,
  • The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus,
  • Who has faith in and aspires to take Amrit, initiation ceremony into the Khalsa,
  • And who does not owe allegiance to any other religion.”

As with most religions, however, a devotee cannot be confined to a definition.

HOW MANY SIKHS LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES? WHEN DID SIKHS FIRST IMMIGRATE TO AMERICA?

There are over 500,000 Sikh Americans, and Sikhs have been in America for over 125 years.

WHY DON’T PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT SIKHISM EVEN THOUGH IT IS THE 5TH LARGEST WORLD RELIGION?

There are several different reasons. First, Sikhism, compared to other world traditions, is relatively young. The faith first emerged in 1469. Second, since many people are not aware that Sikhism is the fifth largest world religion, it is not referenced when discussing the other world religions. For example, many school textbooks have incorrect or no information on the faith.

IS THERE AN OFFICIAL SIKH GREETING?

The tenth Sikh Guru instructed Sikhs to greet each other with “Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh” (“The Khalsa belongs to Waheguru (the Divine) and victory belongs to Waheguru”). Another common Sikh greeting is “Sat Sri Akal” (“Truth reigns eternal”).

IS THERE A SIKH EMBLEM OR SYMBOL? WHAT IS THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE KHANDA?

The Ik Oankar and the Khanda are some of the emblems of the Sikhs.

Ik Oankar is the opening of the Guru Granth Sahib, which affirms the existence of one God, the Creator.

According to the Sikh scholar Kapur Singh, the Khanda first appeared around the eighteenth century.

“The Khanda is the symbol of the Sikhs, as the Cross is to Christians or the Star of David is to Jews. It reflects some of the fundamental concepts of Sikhism. The symbol derives its name from the double-edged sword (also called a Khanda) which appears at the center of the logo. This double-edged sword is a metaphor of divine knowledge, its sharp edges cleaving truth from falsehood. The circle around the Khanda is the chakar. The chakar being a circle without a beginning or end symbolizes the perfection of God who is eternal. The chakar is surrounded by two curved swords called kirpans. These two swords symbolize the twin concepts of meeri and peeri – temporal and spiritual authority introduced by Guru Hargobind. They emphasize the equal emphasis that a Sikh must place on spiritual aspirations as well as obligations to society.” This information was obtained from http://www.sikhs.org/khanda.htm.

IS THERE A PARTICULAR ‘SIKH COLOR’? SAFFRON?

No, there is no particular color for Sikhs or Sikhism. The Sikh flag (Nishaan Sahib), which is seen outside almost every Gurdwara, is a bright orange/saffron color or dark blue. These represent traditional colors for Sikhs.

WHY DO SO MANY SIKHS HAVE A COMMON NAME, SINGH OR KAUR?

The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, created the unique identity of the Sikhs and also gave all Sikh men one last name – Singh and all Sikh women another – Kaur. The reason for doing so is strongly rooted in the culture of South Asia. In that time period’s caste-ridden society and even today, someone’s last/family name signifies their social status and caste. Guru Gobind Singh wanted to remove these barriers between people, and create an egalitarian society. The word Singh means Lion and the word Kaur denotes royalty – a sovereign princess.

WHY DO SOME SIKHS NOT USE THE LAST NAME SINGH OR KAUR?

As in every religion, there are people at different levels of observance and commitment to their faith. Some Sikhs choose to their family or caste name for personal reasons or to distinguish themselves for official written records. Often, but not always, these individuals have maintained Singh and Kaur as middle names.

DO SIKHS HAVE ANY DIETARY RESTRICTIONS? CAN SIKHS EAT MEAT?

Sikh Gurus strongly forbade all rituals and superstitions. Sikhs are thus not allowed to eat any food prepared through a ritualistic process (e.g., Sikhs are not meant to eat Kosher or Halal). There is no mandate allowing or disallowing Sikhs to eat meat – it is a personal choice. Some Sikhs, through their interpretation of Sikh teachings, may choose to be vegetarians. Sikhs are also not supposed to drink alcohol or consume any other intoxicants.

IS THERE A SIKH CEREMONY OF INITIATION?

Yes. Initiated Sikhs are said to have joined the “Khalsa,” or community of initiated Sikhs. Joining the Khalsa is an important step in a Sikh’s life. They are pledging their commitment to the Sikh faith and agreeing to live their life as a Sikh. This means that they must wear the five articles of faith and use Singh or Kaur as their last name.

HOW OLD DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO BE INITIATED?

There is no prescribed age at which a Sikh should be initiated; they can choose to do so whenever they are ready. According to the Rehat Maryada, only those who understand the significance of the ceremony and carry its discipline with sincerity should be initiated. It is important to note that once a Sikh is initiated, they are committed to this lifestyle and as outlined in Rehat Maryada.

WHY DON’T SIKHS CUT OR SHAVE THEIR HAIR?

The founders of the Sikh faith started the practice of maintaining hair unshorn. Many Sikhs interpret the keeping of kesh as a sign of commitment and acceptance of God’s Will. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, gave the Sikhs 5 articles of faith (including unshorn hair) and the dastaar (turban), which, as a whole, comprise the daily uniform of a Sikh. In other words, keeping hair (kesh) and wearing a dastaar (turban) form an external identity for a Sikh.

HOW ABOUT PEOPLE WITH CUT HAIR WHO IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS SIKH?

All initiated Sikhs are required to maintain uncut/untrimmed hair. But, as in every religion, there are people at different levels of observance and commitment to their faith. Everyone is on their own personal journey. Some Sikhs may cut their hair, but that does not exclude them from the Sikh community.

DO WOMEN SHAVE?

Initiated Sikhs are not supposed to cut hair from any part of their body. All Sikhs, men and women are thus supposed to have unshorn hair and remain unshaved.

CAN I TOUCH SOMEONE’S TURBAN OR HAIR?

Do not touch someone’s turban or hair without asking for their permission, as it may make them uncomfortable.

WHAT IS UNDER YOUR TURBAN?

Hair. Sikhs keep their hair unshorn and tie it in a bun or top knot on top of his/her/their head.

WHAT DOES THE COLOR OF THE TURBAN MEAN? DO ALL SIKHS WEAR THE SAME COLOR? WHY OR WHY NOT?

Sikhs can wear any color or style of turban, and there are no significant colors. Some Sikhs wear very few colors and others have a broad color palette.

HOW CAN I TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SIKH TURBANS AND OTHER TURBANS?

Every Sikh ties his/her/their turban slightly differently. Remember that in America, 99% of the people you see wearing a turban will be Sikh. If you see someone wearing a turban and you are not sure if they are Sikh or not, ask them!

The Sikh turban is a mandatory article of faith. People of many other cultures and religions wear turbans, but none are required to do so by their religion.

Sikhs tie their turbans anew each day. Sikh turbans become a part of a Sikh’s body and are usually removed only in the privacy of the house.

DO WOMEN WEAR TURBANS?

Just like observant Sikh men, observant Sikh women are not supposed to cut their hair. In the Rehat Maryada, it is explicitly written that Sikh men wear a turban. There is nothing explicitly written about women, except that the turban is optional. Traditionally, women have always covered their head, but we’ve seen in the last 50 years, that women have deviated from this. There are many reasons for this change: globalization, cultural trends, and a lack of clarity in the Rehat Maryada. For Sikh women who choose to tie a turban, the turban is just as much a part of their body and identity as it is for Sikh men!

WHY DO SIKHS WEAR A KIRPAN? WHAT SIZE KIRPAN DOES A SIKH CARRY?

A kirpan does not have a prescribed length. In most cases it is about 3-9 inches long. The kirpan serves as a reminder to fight against injustice and oppression. A Sikh understands that carrying a kirpan is a great responsibility. It is only intended to protect themselves or others.

DO KIDS IN SCHOOL CARRY A KIRPAN?

Some school aged children have made the commitment to become an initiated Sikh, and as such do wear a kirpan. Generally, school personnel are aware that the Sikh student wears a kirpan, and both parties have come to an understanding about the religious significance and purpose of the kirpan.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A SIKH GOES ON AN AIRPLANE? DO YOU HAVE TO TAKE THE KIRPAN OFF?

At the present time, Sikhs put their kirpans into checked-in luggage and do not carry it with them on an airplane.

CAN I VISIT A GURDWARA?

Everyone is welcome at a Gurdwara regardless of their race, religion, color, or class. If you are interested in visiting a Gurdwara, feel free to reach out to Sikhs you know or contact community@sikhcoalition.org for additional suggestions and ideas.

DO YOU HAVE TO BE A SIKH TO READ THE GURU GRANTH SAHIB?

Anyone who wishes to can read the Guru Granth Sahib.

DO SIKHS HAVE A CLERGY? WHAT ABOUT GRANTHIS/GIANIS?

The Sikh Gurus were very clear about each Sikh making their own spiritual journey directly and not depending on an intermediary or clergy. Sikhs do have Granthis/Gianis. These are people who have studied the Sikh scriptures extensively, and are available in the Gurdwaras as teachers. They often lead a congregation, but any members from the congregation – regardless of gender – can also perform the same ceremonies.

CAN WOMEN EXECUTE DUTIES IN A GURDWARA OR CONGREGATION?

Yes. Sikhism does not delineate/define certain tasks to a specific gender. A woman can lead or take part in any service or ceremony just as a man would.

WHY ARE MEN AND WOMEN DIVIDED INTO SEPARATE SECTIONS WHILE SITTING IN THE GURDWARA?

Sikh Gurus always taught equality between men and women. For instance, the Gurus decried the cultural climate that denied women access to religion and advocated strongly for women to have equal rights as men in all spheres.

In some Sikh congregations, men and women sit side-by-side as equals – women on one side of the Guru Granth Sahib, and men on the other. It is important to note that men and women are still in equal proximity of the Guru Granth Sahib. There are both practical and cultural reasons for this practice. Since everyone sits on the floor, often unintentionally touching the person next to them when there is a large congregation can occur. Having such interactions with the members of the opposite gender can make an individual uncomfortable. However, in some Gurdwaras, men and women may be seen sitting mixed in the congregation.

WHAT IS LANGAR?

The Sikh Gurus instituted the unique practice of Langar. Langar is food that is cooked by the members of the community and served to all people at the Gurdwara. All Gurdwaras have a community kitchen, where Langar is cooked by volunteers and open to all without discrimination. Langar is communal cooking, serving, eating, and sharing. Langar is eaten while sitting on the ground (for those who are able). The idea is to put into practice treating all people equally, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, race, or sex. When Sikhism was sprouting in the South Asian subcontinent, the caste system stratified society. Higher castes would sit on stools and chairs and eat, while the lowest caste were not allowed to eat even in the same room, and usually on the floor, away from sight. The Gurus wanted Sikhs to always practice egalitarianism and communal responsibility. Langar represents one of the institutions the Gurus founded to break down caste barriers.

WHAT IS THE SIKH WEDDING CEREMONY?

The Sikh marriage ceremony is called Anand Karaj. It is performed in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, the eternal Guru and Sikh sacred scripture. In a Sikh marriage ceremony, select verses are read from the Guru Granth Sahib, and after each verse, the couple walks around the Guru Granth Sahib, showing their commitment to the teachings being read. This is done four times. Following this, a communal prayer is said for the couple and religious hymns are sung. The ceremony may be performed by any initiated member of the Sikh faith. The prayers being read indicate that the couple pledge allegiance to each other as well as the Sikh way of life and make a commitment to working together to help each other realize the Divine Presence.

DO YOU BELIEVE IN AN AFTERLIFE? DO YOU BELIEVE IN HEAVEN/HELL, SALVATION?

Sikhs are taught to focus on their actions and deeds in this lifetime to attain union with the Divine, as opposed to focussing on notions of heaven and hell. The Guru Granth Sahib asks Sikhs to make the best of their time on this earth, for this is one’s opportunity to accomplish her or his best and to make a connection with Waheguru – the One God. Sikhs believe in the doctrine of karma, which takes into account a person’s good and bad actions during his or her lifetime. The person is then rewarded or must endure consequences based on their deeds; the Guru’s grace also plays an important factor in determining this. The Sikh scripture supports the idea of reincarnation.

FUNERALS – WHERE, WHAT, HOW?

According to the Sikh Rehat Maryada, Sikhs may dispose of the body of the deceased in any way they like, althoughSikhs generally cremate the deceased body because it is clean, simple and environmentally-friendly. The body is bathed and clothed in fresh clothes by family members, and community members say collective prayers. The ashes are usually gathered afterwards and put afloat in a flowing body of water – returning the person’s last physical remains to nature.

WHAT DOES SIKHISM TEACH ABOUT OTHER RELIGIONS?

The Sikh scripture and eternal Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib, is the only major religious text which contains writings by teachers of other faiths. This is because the Sikh Gurus taught that there are many different ways of achieving a connection with God. The Sikh way is one of these ways. If you are following the Sikh way, you must follow it to the best of your abilities, with absolute devotion.

DOES SIKHISM TRY TO CONVERT OTHERS?

No. Sikhism forbids proselytization or forced conversions. Sikhism believes that there are many paths to achieving union with the Divine. However, Sikhism welcomes those interested in learning about the religion. Thus, people might learn about Sikh faith and then even be initiated as Sikhs. Individuals from any background can choose to adopt the faith. Once someone is initiated as a Sikh, they must follow the Sikh path to the best of their ability.

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