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Religion Library: Sikhism

Sacred Narratives

Written by:

Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636), a scribe, poet, and historian, recounts a fuller version of the Sikh sacred history. Bhai Gurdas begins with the world's creation by Kartar's command, through all ages of human history, to Guru Nanak's mission and beyond. According to Bhai Gurdas, human society had deteriorated in the period before Guru Nanak; Hindus and Muslims were engaged in practices that fueled hatred of each other, moral corruption, and social disorder. Guru Nanak was sent by Kartar to redeem the world in this "Dark Age."

Self-sacrifice is a central theme of the Sikh sacred story and the Sikh nation's self-conception. The community remembers the deaths of the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan, in 1606, and of Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru, in 1675 as martyrdoms; both Gurus were executed while being held as political prisoners of the Mughal Empire.

One of the central stories in the Sikh community concerns the sacred commemoration of the Khalsa ("the sovereign body") and the establishment of the Singh warrior identity. Here too the idea of self-sacrifice is key.

This event took place at a famed Vaisakhi (spring harvest) festival in the 1690s. According to the community's sacred memory of this historical event, the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), gathered the community and, while holding a sword, called for someone who would be willing to offer his head to the Guru as a sacrifice. One after another, five Sikh men volunteered themselves, each of them being taken individually into a tent where, it was presumed, they were beheaded. The Guru's bloody sword seemed to confirm this. After the five offered themselves, the Guru returned to the community, followed by the five men clothed in new robes and turbans. These five are remembered in the Sikh community as the five beloved ones (panj piare); they are the first Singh warriors and the beginning of what is known as the Khalsa.

The Khalsa is the entire sovereign Sikh community. Those Sikhs who undergo a carefully prescribed initiation ceremony, called the Khande Di Pahul, and enter into a fuller spiritual evolution are known as Amrit-dharis ("bearers of nectar"). All Sikhs are invited to pursue this level of spiritual development.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the Sikh explanation for the creation of the universe?
2.     What are the Janam Sakhis?
3.     How does the tradition justify martyrdom?