Sikhism comes into being in northern India in a time when the Mughals are coming into power.
What we see in this blue area is what the first Mughal emperor, Babur, is able to put under his control, which includes the region of Punjab, which is where Sikhism begins and thrives to this day.
We see later emperors like Akbar continuing to expand the domain of the Mughal emperor with Aurangzeb, the least tolerant of the Mughals, expanding well into South India.
It all starts in the 15th century with the birth of who will eventually be known as Guru Nanak.
He’s born into a merchant class Hindu family, and he is known to be precocious from a very young age, especially when it comes to matters of spirituality.
He is constantly questioning. He goes and learns about various religions. Remember, North India is under the control of the Muslims, but it’s a Hindu-majority population, and you also have populations of Christians and Jains.
And this is also a time, where the Bhakti movement is on the rise, this notion of devotional love to God within Hinduism, and it’s in this context that Guru Nanak becomes a significant, some would say, Bhakti guru.
To get a sense of some of his teachings:
“There is but one God”.
“His name is Truth”.
“He is without hate”.
“He is beyond the cycle of births and deaths”.
“He is Self illuminated.”
So just in this excerpt of some of his sayings, you see elements of the core of Hinduism and elements of Islam.
There is but one God, a central tenet of Islam. But then, these ideas that really come from a Vedic tradition. God is beyond the cycle of births and deaths, samsara.
He is self illuminated. There’s a lot of mention of your inner self, your true self, is one with this God.
“Even kings and emperors with heaps of wealth and vast dominion cannot compare with an ant filled with the love of God.”
So here, you see this Bhakti influence, and you can see why he’s considered a major Bhakti guru or Bhakti saint.
He’s emphasizing this devotional love of God.
“The world is a drama staged in a dream.”
So here, you have the Hindu, the Vedic notions of Maya. The world is an illusion.
His followers will eventually be known as Sikhs, and the word Sikh comes from the Sanskrit word for to learn or learning, and it’s related to the word for student.
And even in modern Sanskrit-derived languages like Hindi, you have words like sikhna, which means to learn.
Guru Nanak dies in the early 16th century. You can see by this point, the Mughals have taken control of northern India. And before his death, he names Guru Angad, who is not his son, as his successor.
After Guru Angad, you have Guru Amar Das, and then you have Guru Ram Das, who establishes the city now sacred to Sikhs known as Amritsar, originally known as Ramdaspur.
Guru Dam Das is succeeded on his death by Guru Arjan. And Guru Arjan is significant for many reasons.
He creates the compilation known as the Adi Granth, which are the sayings and the hymns of the previous gurus, including his own.
The Adi Granth, as we will see, will eventually evolve into the Guru Granth Sahib, which is considered not only the Sikh holy book but also the last and final of the gurus.
In Ramdaspur, later to be known as Amritsar, Guru Arjan builds the Harmandir Sahib, which is intended to be a place of worship for people of all religions.
They have a tradition of langar, where they feed anyone who comes from any faith, and today the Harmandir Sahib would later be known as the Golden Temple where later Raja would plate it with gold, is the largest free kitchen in the world.
Guru Arjan is also known as the first martyr in the Sikh faith. As we’ve told about, the early Mughals were relatively tolerant.
Akbar in particular was extremely tolerant. But upon his death, his son Jahangir takes power, and early in Jahangir’s reign, he is insecure about his hold on power.
And remember, the Mughals are ruling from the same region where the Sikhs are having an increasingly growing following, not just from Hindus but also from Muslims.
Threatened by this growing following, Jahangir imprisons Guru Arjan and tortures Guru Arjan trying to get him to renounce the faith to convert to Islam.
Guru Arjan refuses despite many days of excruciating torture being boiled alive. Eventually, he dies and there’s slightly varying accounts of how it happens.
After his death, his son, who will be known as Guru Hargobind comes to power, and Guru Hargobind, as legend has it on direction from his father before he would die, tells him that the Sikhs need to protect themselves.
They need to adopt a military tradition to protect themselves from the oppression especially the oppression from the Mughals.
So, Guru Hargobind, he is famous for establishing the military tradition of Sikhism. He is the first guru to be what you could call a warrior saint.
He’s famous for wearing two swords. One to represent his authority in the spiritual realm and another to represent his authority in the temporal realm.
He also has the longest tenure as guru. At Guru Hargobind’s death, his grandson, Guru Har Rai becomes guru. At his death, his very young son, Guru Har Krishan becomes guru but dies of smallpox.
Afterwhich, Guru Hargobind’s youngest son becomes guru. He is named eventually Guru Tegh Bahadur which means brave sword or brave wielder of the sword because as his father, Guru Hargobind, fought the Mughals, he was known as being unusually brave and an unusually competent warrior.
He continued this tradition of being a warrior saint and especially under the rule of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb as the Mughals became more and more intolerant and started force conversions, he viewed himself as a protector of the oppressed, not just of the Sikhs but the oppressed of any faiths including Hindus who are being forced to convert by Aurangzeb.
Eventually, Aurangzeb tortures and kills him for refusing to convert to Islam and he is considered the second guru who is martyred.
At his death, we have the tenth and last human guru of the Sikh tradition, Guru Gobind Singh, who continues, again, this tradition of a warrior saint and actually formalizes it in this notion of Khalsa.
There’s a famous story of him gathering the Sikh community and asking for volunteers. And the first volunteer he takes into a tent and then he emerges from that tent without the volunteer with a bloody sword giving people the impression that he might have killed that individual.
Then, he asked for more volunteers and more people coming. Every time, he comes out of the tent without the volunteers but with a bloody sword.
But after five volunteers have come, they all emerged from the tent. He makes it clear that this was an exercise as a test of faith to see who was willing to risk their life to follow the cause.
And he says, “These are the Khalsa, these are these are the pure. Together, we are going to be
a group to fight oppression wherever it might be.”
And he formalizes what it means to be one of these warrior saints.
Famously, with the Five K’s of Khalsa that anyone who goes into the Khalsa indoctrination who becomes a Khalsa sikh, they should not cut their
hair, this is known as Kesh, they should wear a metal bracelet known as Kada, they should have a wooden comb known as Kanga, and they should carry a short dagger or sword known a Kirpan and there is Kaccherra which is often an undergarment worn and has a symbolic meaning.
A man who goes through the Khalsa ceremony, the Khalsa baptism, adopts the title of Singh which means lion, and a woman who does adopts the title, Kaur or princess, and it’s essentially, they are promising to fight oppression wherever it might be.
Guru Gobind Singh is also famous for the final compilation of what would be known as the Guru Granth Sahib.
Taking the Adi Granth which was compiled by Guru Arjan and adding the 115 hymns of Guru Tegh Bahadur who was martyred, and making this collection of hymns not just from the gurus but from saints and gurus in the Hindu and Muslim tradition as well and declaring that this is the 11th and final guru and sikhs today view the Guru Granth Sahib as their guru.
If you were to visit a gurdwara which is their temple, it means door to the gurus, dwara, same root in Sanskrit as door, you will see it houses a Guru Granth Sahib which the Sikhs will venerate and view as their guru.