Demystifying Forms and Symbols in Sikhism – courtesy Khushwant Singh

An excerpt from Khushwant Singh’s book

THE SIKHS

(HarperCollins Publishers)

” The reason which prompted Gobing Singh to introduce forms and symbols has never been adequately explained. Neither he nor any of his contemporaries throw any light on the subject. Some of the symbolism is, however, intelligible in its historical background.

The ceremony of baptism at which these vows were taken consisted of drinking sweetened water out of a common bowl. This was obviously intended to break the orthodox Hindu practise of regarding anything touched by a person of lower caste as polluted. Sikhs were recruited from all castes and dranks the baptismal water as nectar (amrit). The use of  ‘Singh’ as a name was  a step in the same direction. Since an individual’s caste can be ascertained by his family name, with its abolition ‘Singhs’ became one family. Besides being casteless, the name Singh had psychological value of a militant community.

Rules regarding abstinence from alcohol and tobacco are matters of personal ethics known to other religious codes. Sikhs have become more particular about tobacco, as abstinence from smoking together with the wearing of long hair and beards have in fact become the only thing which distinguishes them from Hindus. The provision against eating kosher meat (halal), where the animal is killed by being slowly bled to death, was both a protest against the cruelty to animals and refusal to eat meat slaughtered by muslim butchers over which a passage of Koran had been read.

The carrying of the Kirpan and wearing of Kachha were rules of discipline for soldiers. The kachha was in all probability the Punjabi fighters uniform, unlike the loose and cumbersome dhoti of the peasant. Prohibition of carnal intercourse with Muslims was introduced to safeguard the person of women from molestation when Sikh bands raided Muslim towns and villages.

Several theories have been advanced to explain the innovation of growing hair and the beard. It has been suggested that this was not an innovation at all and that Guru Gobind Singh’s predecessors had all confirmed to the tradition of  Indian ascetics, who never cut their hair or beards. By making it obligatory for his followers, The Guru intended to emphasize the ideal of ascetic saintliness which he enjoyed upon his followers. He wanted them to be saint-soldiers. Another version is that, prior to launching on this venture, Gobind had spent a long time invoking the blessings of Durga, the Hindu goddess of destruction. Since she was always potrayed with long unshorn tresses, the Guru believed that in deferance to his patron goddess he and his followers should also leave their hair unshorn.

A simpler and more plausible explanation is that in preparing his men for action against the Muslims, Guru Gobind Singh had to take account of the somewhat awesome aspect of the hirsute tribesmen from th North-west Frontier, who kept their long hair loose on their shoulders and let their beards grow. He made it a rule for his followers to do likewise so that appearance would no longer terrify. It is also likely that by having his followers wear emblems which made them easily recognizable, the Guru wanted to raise a body of men who would not be able to deny their faith when questioned, but whose external appearance would invite persecution and breed courage to resist it.

The carring of the comb (kungha) in the hair is  complementary t growing the hair long. It usually consists of a small two-square-inch comb under the turban. The steel bangle (kara) is said to be symbolic of restraint and is worn on the right hand like a ‘moral handcuff’. Historically the kara can be traced to the practise of tying chains on the wrists of soldiers before they went to battle.

Gobind Singh completed the religious facet of Sikhism. He turned the innocuous band of pacifists into armed crusaders. Those who did not accept his innovations of forms and symbols remained just Sikhs, usually described as Sahajdharis or ‘those who take time’ ; those who did, became the Khalsa. “

*Khushwant Singh asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

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One thought on “Demystifying Forms and Symbols in Sikhism – courtesy Khushwant Singh

  1. mahlaqa October 30, 2011 / 3:17 pm

    i dont think baba ji Guru Nanak was a fighter or ever wanted to take action against any other creed. 🙂
    although i m sure watever u have written here has some reference to the context as well which i dont know 🙂

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