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The Sikhs, 1500 to 1707

Cultural diffusion stimulated spiritual ideas in India as it had on the Arabian peninsula more than nine hundred years before. In northern India the ancient Bhakti movement had spread with the coming of Islam, and by the year 1500, a man named Kabir (1440-1518), who was influenced by the Bhakti movement, gained millions of followers in his call to a simple love of God that transcended both the Islamic and Hindu religions. It has been claimed that Kabir's movement had some influence on a new movement that began in the Punjab in the early 1500s, led by a man named Nanak, said to have been born into a Hindu family but exposed to Islamic doctrines.

Nanak's view of God was similar to that of the Muslims: he was monotheistic. And he was opposed to caste, declaring that all had a right to search for God. Nanak acquired the title of Divine Teacher (Guru). He is looked upon by Sikhs as the first of ten Gurus who established Sikhism – the latest of the world's great religions.

Guru Nanak died in 1533 and the movement's position of Guru passed to a man who took the name Angad. Guru Angad wrote the Sikh's Granth Sahib (Holy Book), which included his report on Guru Nanak's teachings and his own observations.

Guru Angad died in 1552, and Sikh leadership passed to Guru Amar Das – the third of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism. He followed Guru Nanak's opposition to caste and pursued a greater integration. Among many other contributions to Sikhism, he raised the status of women, prohibiting a wife's suicide on her husband's funeral pyre and the obligatory wearing of the veil.

Before his death in 1574, Guru Amar Das made his servant and son-in-law his heir, who took the name Ram Das. One of the 688 hymns attributed to Guru Ram Das can be found on page 305 of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The hymn's words:

One who calls himself a Sikh of the True Guru shall get up early morning and meditate on the Lord's Name. Make effort regularly to cleanse, bathe and dip in the ambrosial pool. Upon Guru's instructions, chant Har, Har singing which, all misdeeds, sins and pains shall go away.

Guru Ram Das started construction of the Harmandir Sahib (known also as the Golden Temple) at Amritsar. Permission for the temple was granted him by the religiously tolerant Mughal ruler, Akbar – who was attempting unity among India's various faiths.

With the death of Guru Ram Das in 1571, his son became Guru Arjun Dev. In 1601, during his reign, the Golden Temple was completed. Unlike Hindu temples, which usually have only one gate, the Harmandir Sahib had gates on all the four sides, easily accessible without distinction of caste, creed, sex or faith.

Following the death of Guru Arjun Dev in 1606, his son became the sixth of the Ten Gurus: Guru Har Govind. The religiously tolerant Akbar had died the year before. With the Sikh's having suffered abuse by the Mughals, the new Guru became a military leader. He is described as wearing two swords, one symbolizing his secular authority and the other his spiritual authority.

Guru Har Govind was succeeded by his grandson, Guru Har Rai, in 1644, followed by Guru Har Krishan. He became Guru number eight at the age of five, in 1661, and died of smallpox three years later. A succession crisis followed. Looking back at the crisis, Sikhs describe the various others who tried but failed to establish themselves as the next Guru as pretenders. The man said to be the revealed successor and ninth Guru was Tegh Bahadur, the Eighth Guru's uncle.

Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed in 1675, on the orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, reportedly for refusing to convert to Islam. Guru Tegh Bahadur's son and successor, Guru Gobind Singh, succeeded his father at a young age of nine. He is described as seeing clearly that God had given him a mission of interest in the well-being of all of humankind. His goal was to help the oppressed and to emancipate the downtrodden.

He was a warrior-leader described today as chivalrous, skilled in horsemanship and armed combat and of a generous character with his followers. His surname, Singh, means lion, a name he gave to his closest followers. They vowed not to cut their hair or beards, to carry a saber, to wear a steel bracelet on their right wrists and wear knee-length soldier's shorts. Singh became the common surname for Sikhs.

Guru Gobind Singh was the last of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism and is described as having finalized the many elements of Sikhism and compiling the writings of his predecessors.

The Sikhs have maintained their identity as Sikhs without a formal hierarchy. They have no caliph or bishops. Sikhs believe that any two Sikhs make up a congregation, and where as many as five gather, the Divine is present.


Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.