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Religion Library: Sikhism


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Scholars who have studied Sikhism have often called it an offshoot of some pre-existing religious body, or a mélange of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. This is offensive to the tradition, which vies for its own uniqueness, for several reasons. For one, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was a fierce iconoclast, as his writings testify. There was little in any of the religious practices of his time that he found appealing, and much of his career was dedicated to laying the groundwork for a new way of life that broke with existing religious systems. Moreover, the Sikh way of life is rooted in a unique tradition of revelatory scriptures penned from Guru Nanak's own hand. No other tradition's scriptures are authoritative in Sikh life. That the Sikh Gurus included the compositions of non-Sikhs in their scriptures—the Guru Granth Sahib (GG)—Sikhs would argue, is a testament to the Gurus' tolerance of others.

Around 1500, when Guru Nanak lived, Punjab was a place of vibrant religious exchange. His place and time of living are important to understanding Sikh history's unfolding. Sultanpur Lodi, where he spent formative years working and raising a family, was on a trade route on which merchants and pilgrims of various religions travelled. To the west lay Mecca and Baghdad, to the north lay the mountains revered by yogis, and to the east lay the important towns of Hindu veneration—Haridwar and Benares (Kashi). Guru Nanak lived through, and wrote about, the transition between the Afghan Lodi Sultanate in Delhi and the Mughal Empire of the Turks. At Kartarpur, also located at an important crossroads, the early Sikh community looked inward for justice and equality and found it in nature, in the free kitchen (langar), and the equality of all their members. Community members also found a good deal of economic success in agriculture, artisanship, and trade.

The Guru participated in inter-religious dialogue, but was an independent thinker who responded critically to what he saw as the hypocrisy of religions around him. His compositions record the dialogue, discussions, and disagreements he had with his religious counterparts on the nature of divinity and how to live the good life. Moreover he showed his followers a new path in a community that he forged at Kartarpur. The most virulent of Guru Nanak's polemics were reserved for those at the top of the religious hierarchies: those Hindu Brahmins and Muslim law-givers whose moral authority he believed had been corrupted by their coalescence with the powers of the day. He wrote:

You can teach a million law books, and a million Brahmins can read holy stories
But so long as your honor is not in His accounts, none of these are any use!
(GG 413)