Q: What is the difference between Hinduism and Sikhism?
A: Sikhism and Hinduism have a lot of traits in common, not the least of which is the fact that Sikhism, like Hinduism, is a religion firmly at home in an Indian cultural setting. Sikhism arose in the Punjab region of India, and it is there where it is most dominantly present today. So, just from sheer superficial appearances, a Westerner may initially see quite a few resemblances. Added to any such possible confusion is the well-known fact that there is no standard form of Hinduism, not to mention that some recent adaptations of Hinduism to Western forms have adopted a simple worship practice, e.g., congregational chanting, that seem quite compatible with Sikh practices.
Furthermore, Sikhism has strong historical ties to Hinduism. Its most prominent forebear, the poet Kabir, and its founder, Guru Nanak, were associated with a form of Hinduism called Sant, which by itself is already a very uncomplicated and conciliatory form of Hinduism. Thus, it would be wrong to think in terms of a sharp break between Hinduism and the new religion of Sikhism that arose under Nanak’s teaching in the sixteenth century A.D. As we shall see below, Sikhism maintained a number of beliefs typically associated with Hinduism.
Nonetheless, initial appearances notwithstanding, there are also some important differences between Hinduism and Sikhism. We should never lose sight of the fact that Hinduism is as much a social system as a set of religious beliefs and practices, and Sikhism broke with that system by denying its most fundamental tenet, the caste system. One of the most important practices of Sikhism is the common table, at which all comers regardless of social standing eat together; in Hinduism such a meal, which would have Shudras eat next to Brahmins, would be unthinkable.
Let me be a little more specific now about Sikh beliefs and practices. It is commonly held by non-Sikhs that Sikhism is a religion that combines elements of Hinduism and Islam, though unsurprisingly Sikhs, who see their religion as uniquely revealed divine truth, would be unhappy with that notion. Still, there can be no question that Nanak, the founder, attempted to reach out to both Hindus and Muslims, that he observed practices associated with both religions, and that he proclaimed that “there is no Muslim, and there is no Hindu.”
Nanak maintained from Hinduism the ideas of reincarnation and karma, but he echoed Islam with an idea of God as simply one as well as with a relatively plain form of worship compared to Hinduism. He referred to God simply as “the True Name,” or sat nam, indicating thereby that God is truly beyond any human name or conceptualization. Another common name for God among Sikhs is Ekankar, which literally means ”One and only One.” Surely one cannot hear this name without thinking of the Muslim declaration that there is “no god but God” (or, “no allah but Allah”). In Sikhism the Hindu pantheon is superseded by this very purified view of God.
Consequently, a Sikh temple is also simplified, in fact resembling a mosque at first glance. It is an open hall with carpet on the floor. Persons of both sexes entering it need to wash their hands and feet and have their heads covered. Men will sit on the right side of the hall and women on the left, separated only by an aisle rather than partitions, let alone being consigned to separate rooms. Worship services are not complicated rituals or offerings, but essentially times of congregational chanting, followed, as mentioned above, by the communal meal.
However, there is also an important distinction to Islamic worship or the set-up of a mosque, because front and center of a Sikh temple is an object of worship, the holy book called the Adi Granth. The Sikh view of the unity of God does not stand in the way of the belief that God has manifested himself in particular ways, first through Guru Nanak, then through Nanak’s nine successors culminating with Guru Gobind Singh, and then finally for all future times through the holy book. The Adi Granth is the compilation of writings by Kabir, Nanak, some of Nanak’s first three successors and the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev, the compiler himself. It contains poetry and hymns, which are chanted by the congregation in the worship services. But the Granth’s significance goes far beyond its content because, as mentioned above, it is thought to embody the presence of God in a special way.
So, the focal point of a Sikh temple is the altar on which the Adi Granth is displayed on beautiful fabrics underneath a canopy. During the worship service a leading member of the congregation (there are no priests per se) will sit behind the book and wave away impurities (and flies). Furthermore, every Sikh temple contains in a totally literal sense a bed, enclosed with decorative hangings, in which the book spends its nights. A part of the temple observances is that each night the book is put to bed with a special ceremony and then awakened and brought back out to the altar each morning. So, Sikhism is not completely devoid of rituals that resemble some of the practices associated with Hindu deities, who are also retired each night and awakened each morning.
To summarize, Sikhism has maintained its Hindu heritage by retaining the concepts of reincarnation and karma. It contrasts itself to Hinduism by not observing the caste system and by practicing a fairly uncomplicated form of worship. Whereas Hindu temples are highly ornate and filled with deities, Sikh temples are essentially plain, open halls. Nevertheless, Sikhism does also have a material object of worship, namely the Adi Granth.
In Indian society today Sikhism occupies an ambiguous position. During the British Raj, Sikhs made a name for themselves as soldiers and bodyguards, and they continue to contribute to that part of society. But they constitute a minority group compared to Muslims and Hindus and have frequently suffered persecution, at times getting caught between the pincers of these two groups. The laws of the Indian state of Punjab make special provisions for Sikh leadership, but a number of Sikhs today are working towards the establishment of an independent Sikh nation, which they would call Khalistan. Some of these advocates of independence have formed armed organizations.
Christian outreach to Sikhs may pursue some different methods than missions to Hindus. For one thing, since Sikhism does not have the caste system and consequently no Shudras or untouchables, there is not the dire need among Sikhs for extreme works of mercy. Also, because of Sikhism’s status as a minority religion and its emphasis on social cohesiveness, Sikhs are even less likely to be isolated from their own community than Hindus. Sikhs in North America today, similar to Hindu immigrants, tend to gravitate towards educated and professional sectors of society. Given that total picture, Christians who are called by God to deliver the good news of salvation to Sikhs, need to be willing to form long-term relationships and practice a great amount of patience in order to gain a hearing.