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Religion Library: Sikhism

Early Development

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Sikhism arose in a time of social change. In the 1500s, northern India was in transition between Muslim empires, the political system was corrupt, the Hindu caste hierarchy was deeply unjust, and the religious leaders of the time were perceived to be culprits in the inequities. The earliest Sikhs turned to Guru Nanak (1469-1539), his teachings, and those of his followers, rejecting the religious formalism that had seemingly gripped some of the practitioners of other religious persuasions.

Guru Nanak instructed them in daily meditations and reflections on the divine, on the hard work necessary to maintain the community's basic needs, and in the singing of his compositions. Early Sikh life in Kartarpur (the center of the Sikh community) under Guru Nanak's aegis developed the most fundamental of the Sikh institutions. Sikhs read from the Guru's compositions in the morning, the most fundamental of which is the Jap Ji, a long poem about Guru Nanak's thoughts on Kartar (the divine Creator) and how to live the good life. After the workday, they recited the So Dar, another of Guru Nanak's poems, and they went to sleep after chanting the Sohila (a night prayer) and contemplating Kartar's care for the world. All of the Gurus' compositions are works of poetry, which Sikhs consider to be divinely revealed.

Gathering in congregations, or sangats, Sikhs sang the Guru's compositions together, a practice known as kirtan. The singing was accompanied by string instruments, and set to the beat of leather drums. The Guru's compositions were set to musical measures from the Hindustani system of musical theory and included Iranian musical elements as well. In the sangat, early Sikhs would also have heard katha, or discourses from respected community members interpreting the Guru's compositions.

Another very important part of the Sikh development was the sharing of meals in the communal kitchen, or langar. The raw materials for these meals came from what the community reaped from its own farming lands, as well as from the generous contributions of visitors. Community members cooked and served the meals, and cleaned the dining hall. This aspect of early Sikh life was very important as it provided an opportunity for people from all walks of life to break bread together, and serve each other in the name of the divine. All of this work was done in the context of a family setting, with people of all ages and both genders contributing to the work.

The century or so after Guru Nanak's lifetime represented a period of great growth and expansion for the Sikhs. By the middle of the 17th century, a traveling Parsi cataloguer of manners and religions reported that pockets of small Sikh communities were ubiquitous along the trade routes from Kabul to Kashmir to Bengal, and throughout the Punjab region. For Sikhs in the formative 17th century, religious life revolved around the divine word enshrined in the Sikh Gurus' compositions. It was of central importance in Sikh life, and adherence to its principles marked membership in the community.