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Religion Library: Sikhism

Missions and Expansion

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The earliest Gurus established Manjis ("seats" for administration of local affairs) around the Sikh center. These were positions held by leaders called Masands, responsible for missionizing, providing guidance to locals, and collecting tithes for the local congregation as well as the Guru's central treasury. The eventual and growing corruption of these offices by the late 1600s led to their dissolution by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), who declared the entire Sikh community to be "Khalsa," liberated from the control of these local leaders and answerable to the divine alone.

At least two important sources for early Sikh history testify to the ubiquity of Sikh congregations throughout northern India by the middle of the 1600s. Bhai Gurdas listed the cities and towns where Sikhs could be found and named local leaders. A Farsi text known as the Dabistan provides corroborating evidence, showing that Sikhs were well established throughout the Punjab and important cities outside of the Punjab, probably because of trade.

Darshan Tatla, an important scholar of the Sikh diaspora, distinguishes between colonial-era migrations and post-1947 migrations. Beginning in 1867, most Sikh migrants moved to East Asian states like Hong Kong and what is today Malaysia. These people participated in the British security forces and railways in those far eastern areas. Also at the end of the 19th century, a few thousand Sikhs immigrated to the Americas and eastern Africa. Many Sikhs in the 19th and 20th centuries were employed in the British military and saw the world as members of the British Empire.

After the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, many more Sikhs migrated to the United Kingdom than to Asia. These Sikhs came from India, but from the newly decolonized eastern African areas as well. The liberalization of North American immigration laws expanded Sikh immigration to Canada and the United States. According to Professor Tatla, over three-quarters (or one-and-a-half million) of today's Sikhs outside of India live in North America or the United Kingdom.

The only contemporary convert movement in global Sikh tradition began in the late 1960s in the American Southwest. This movement grew under the auspices of Harbhajan Singh Puri (1929-2004), known to his followers as "Yogi Bhajan," a Sikh and former Indian customs official from New Delhi. His charisma and interpretation of Sikh teachings spawned a small explosion of religious centers that taught Kundalini Yoga and Sikh ideas. Many of Yogi Bhajan's followers took Sikh religion very seriously, donned dastars (turbans) and dupattas (head-scarves worn by women), wore Punjabi dress (always in white), and travelled to the Sikh homeland. They participated in meditation, Sikh prayers, and kirtan alongside their yoga practices. A second conversion movement has not emerged and the tradition's only growth is through generational population growth.

Study Questions:
1.     How did Guru Nanak spread his message?
2.     What led to the early growth and spread of the Sikh community?
3.     How did Sikh beliefs and institutions help to make them an attractive community for converts?
4.     According to scholars, what were some of the major periods of migrations of Sikhs?