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Religion Library: Sikhism

Sacred Space

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In the grand scheme of things, Sikhs believe the entire universe to be sacred, as it is considered Kartar's created realm. Kartar is both in the world, like the water in a clay pot, and removed from it as its Creator, like a potter to the pot. Nature is the sacred expression of the divine will. Human beings inherit the earth as a domain and must be humble and grateful for the bounty they have received. Many of Guru Nanak's compositions write of the author's enthrallment with natural processes and the Creator's care that they reveal. Nature, thus, is the domain to understand, appreciate, and contemplate the greatness of the Supreme Giver's bounty.

On a more particular level, though, certain sites offer the community a closer connection to Kartar. Gurdwara literally means "house of the Guru," and the term is rooted in the memory of Guru Nanak's own house, where members of the early community would have gathered to hear his teachings, sing his compositions, and share a meal together. Bhai Gurdas also writes of dharamsals, another name for Sikh places of worship, and reports that they had sprung up all over Northern India by the time he was writing in the early 1600s.

Gurdwaras are today the centers of Sikh worship across the globe. Here, Sikhs gather regularly around the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib (the sacred scripture), and participate in kirtan ("congregational singing"). Copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are printed at an official printing center in the city of Amritsar and flown to different parts of the world for the sake of particular communities.

Gurdwaras across the world are also important centers for the proliferation of Sikh teachings, act as community centers, and serve as educational locations where traditions are passed on between generations of Sikhs. Sikhs see their attendance at communal worship in Gurdwara in terms of showing up at a court (darbar or divan) to have audience with the divine emperor.

Langar, the sharing of a communal meal sanctified by the presence of the word and community, is another important institution associated with Gurdwaras. In congregations with the size and resources to sustain it, Langar might be a daily activity and open to all (including non-Sikhs). In smaller congregations, Langar might take place less frequently, perhaps after a weekly kirtan program.

Along with Gurdwaras that serve needs of local congregations around the world, another tier of Gurdwaras is important to the memory of the global community's history, and thus Sikh identity. These are the historical Gurdwaras associated with events in Sikh sacred history. Two criteria make these places special: the space on which they sit is either related to one of the Gurus' lives, or the site was a location where martyrs' gave their lives for the community.