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Religion Library: Sikhism

Exploration and Conquest

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Remnants of the Mughal Empire, Afghan invaders, and Sikh chiefs wrestled for control of the Punjab in the half-century or so after the tenth Guru's death. By 1765, Sikh rulers laid claim to the very important Mughal town of Lahore, raised the Sikh flag there, and struck coins in the names of Gurus. During the first half of the 19th century, Sikh polity was dominated by a charismatic political leader named Ranjit Singh. Unifying disparate factions, Ranjit Singh was able to conquer lands all around the Punjab from Kabul to Kashmir and took the title Maharajah ("great emperor").

Ranjit Singh's period of a unified Sikh state in the first half of the 19th century was followed by a century of British colonialism, until the independence of South Asia from colonial rule in 1947. Interestingly, Sikhs never mixed proselytizing and conquest. The people living under Sikh rule practiced whatever religion they wanted, and this ideal can be traced back to Guru Nanak's original message that left intact the sanctity of the others' religion while only criticizing the wrongful practice of it. Therefore, when the British began to put democratic and population-based quotas into place, the Sikhs were shocked to realize that they were in such a minority position (about 10 percent of the Punjab's population) after having ruled the area for forty years.

Study Questions:
1.     Describe two of the religious values that drove Sikh polity in the pre-modern period.
2.     What was Guru Gobind Singh doing when he was assassinated in 1708?
3.     How did Sikhs organize themselves after the death of Guru Gobind Singh?
4.     Why did Sikhs not proselytize in the period during their periods of conquest?