RELIGION LIBRARY

Sikhism

Rituals and Worship

Symbolism

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

Sikhs are most distinctive among the world's traditions for the turbans that male members of the community wear. In pre-modern India, the turban was a sign of royal and sacred power. Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) invited his male Sikhs to don turbans because, as Khalsa, they were their own sovereigns, did not bow to any authority other than Kartar, and enacted a mission to establish divine justice in the world.

More important than the turban that covers the head of male Sikhs is the hair (kesh) required of all Sikhs, male and female, to remain unshorn. Hair, in many religions, has been a symbol of spirituality. From a Sikh perspective, growing one's hair unshorn embodies one aspect of a connection with the natural state of Kartar's creation of us. The turban (keski or dastar) is required of men to keep their hair covered and neat. Sikh women are encouraged to wear a flowing scarf (dupatta) to serve the same purpose, especially when entering sacred space.

Although hair is the key Sikh symbol, at least four others have been an important part of the Singh identity in the Khalsa, going back to the late 1600s. In the late 1800s Sikhs formalized the "five k's," or five articles of faith beginning with the letter "k" that Sikhs were encouraged to wear at all times as markers of their religious identity. Along with hair (kesh, symbolizing the pristine condition of the human body) were the kanga (a comb to keep the hair neat), kachha (long breeches for sexual restraint), kirpan (a sword commemorating the Sikh martial heritage), and kara (a metal band around the wrist also rooted in martial culture).

These five elements are the core symbols that Sikhs who choose to fulfill their religious duties have had to fight to be able to wear in westernized societies. Partly because they are discouraged by western norms, many Sikhs today do not choose to wear all of these all of the time. Though today the turban is the most distinctive feature, many Sikh men choose not to retain hair as an essential marker of identity. Whether hair and turbans are essential to Sikh identity is a question that is being played out in the community today. At least two groups of Sikhs saw turbans as normative for women as well: the Akhand Kirtani Jatha of Bhai Randhir Singh and the Sikh Dharma movement stemming from Yogi Bhajan's teachings.

The numeral one and the first letter of the Punjabi syllabary (urha) are the first phrase adorning the first page of the Guru Granth Sahib. The numeral one reflects unity of the Creator, and the letter urha (standing for the divine epithet Oankar) is written with an embellished arch to signify divine infinity. The unity and infinity of the divine are thus the first principles of Sikh scripture; all Sikh ideas are said to emerge and return to these seminal concepts of unity and infinity. In the Sikh scripture, several compositions begin with this symbol.

Some Sikhs know the first few words in the Guru Granth Sahib as the mul mantar ("root formula"), and others prefer to call it mukh updesh ("pre-eminent discourse"). When quoted in part or as a whole, these words act as a kind of invocation of the divine. Thus one sees this written at the beginning of letters or to bless a space like the threshold of a house. Sikhs believe in the sanctifying power of the Guru's words, similar to the way Muslims treat the opening verses of the Quran (bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim).

The Sikh symbol first known as the Nishan (and then known as the Khanda), meaning "royal standard," probably appeared in the early 1700s. It symbolizes Deg-Teg-Fateh—"Victory of cauldron and sword," two important symbols of Kartar's grace, both made of iron to feed the poor and to provide justice. At the center of the symbol is the straight-sword, khanda, and this is also at the center of the Singh's initiation ceremony.

The royal metaphor of the Sikh standard is an extension of several other ways that the Sikhs see their religiosity in royal terms. The Granth, or book of scripture, is placed in front of a congregation on a "throne." In this way, Sikhs utilize aniconic icons to both undermine the image-heavy system of the Hindu concept of darshan ("seeing" the divine through images) and yet to provide the community with central embodiments of core ideas around which to convene.

Study Questions:
1.     Why do Sikh men wear turbans?
2.     What are the five k's?
3.     What are the first symbols in the holy scripture?
4.     What does the Nishan symbolize?

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