Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was not only the Sikh founder, but the tradition's first missionary as well. He spread his message by singing his own compositions and engaging in dialogue with seekers along his vast travels. According to Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak travelled as far west as Baghdad and Mecca, and as far South as Sri Lanka. When he settled in Punjab, the town he established (Kartarpur), became a center of spiritual activity where seekers would travel to have audience with the Guru. The earliest traditions of welcoming newcomers into the Sikh fold were started here.
The early growth and spread of the Sikh community was due in part to a principle of hospitality that not only welcomed newcomers, but underscored the Sikh belief that all people were equal in the eyes of the Guru and Kartar (the divine Creator). Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636), who wrote at the zenith of Sikh communal expansion, emphasized Sikh egalitarianism. He wrote that the various caste and ancestral identities to which Sikhs belonged co-mingled and merged in the Sikh community to the point of indistinguishability, like tributaries merging in one river. The idea of renouncing ancestral identities for membership in a broader community would have been a radical one, and a difficult one for Sikhs to enact because those identities had been so ingrained in Indian society. Bhai Gurdas described the diverse segments of society that made up the Sikh community as various ingredients of a fine dessert, all functioning to sweeten the pot.
This sense of community and equality was buttressed by Sikh congregational practice, where music and communal singing of the Gurus' hymns served as recruitment tools as well as consolidators of a distinct identity. Sikhs would have sang hymns like the following one from Guru Ramdas (1534-1581), the fourth Sikh Guru, pointing out the necessity of a holy congregation of like-minded seekers:
How can I sing His songs? How can I count His virtues? How can I speak of Him, mother?
Meeting with my friends, the pious Sikhs (Gurmukh), we sing the Lord's praises together
Like diamonds cutting diamonds! The holy Name is deep within me! (Guru Granth Sahib [GG], 40)
Bhai Gurdas also celebrated the Sikh communal life in his poems. He described their music, their mutual support, and their habit of cooking together in communal kitchens and eating meals together (langar), with no attention given to social distinctions. Such co-mingling would have sent a powerful message of community in a time of religious and social upheaval.
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.