Rituals and Worship

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

Because it contains the contents of divine revelation and knowledge of how to attain liberation, the Guru Granth Sahib (GG) is the center of Sikh religious life from birth to death. When a child is born, his or her name is based on the first letter from the first full hymn on the page to which the holy book is opened. The child's first visit to Gurdwara, which would be the first occasion to pay reverence to the holy scripture, is celebrated. Prayers and verses from the Granth are whispered in the child's ear.

Although the Sikhs have no fixed "confirmation" rites, or initiation ceremonies at the advancement from youth to adulthood, Sikhs can choose to undertake ritual initiation with the baptism of the straight-sword (Khande Di Pahul). The straight-sword baptism is a simple rite performed in a collective setting. A group of previously baptized Sikhs, usually five in number, lead the ceremony. They read prayers while stirring an iron dish full of water with a khanda (straight-sword), slowly sweetening the mixture with sugar wafers. Initiates listen to, reflect on, and participate in the prayers as well. At the culmination of the ceremony, all initiates take turns drinking the churned amrit ("nectar of nondeath") from the edge of the dish, symbolizing their renunciation of social difference in the new fraternity of equals they have joined.

Whereas in Guru Gobind Singh's (1666-1708) day, the men who undertook this baptism were conferred with the title of Singhs ("lions"), today the baptism is available to men and women, and most Sikhs refer to the initiates as Amrit-dhari ("Bearer of the Nectar"). Initiates are expected to follow the religious codes of the Khalsa with greater attention, and wear all five of the markers of faith (long hair, breeches, sword, comb, and steel bracelet). Serious breaches of the Khalsa's code of conduct are to be addressed to a body of five respected, baptized Sikhs, who then decide on a penance for the offender to perform.

The Sikh wedding ceremony, or Anand Karaj ("rites of bliss"), is similarly centered around the Guru Granth Sahib. Bride and groom meet at the Gurdwara with their wedding parties, and respected members of the community conduct the ceremony. The bride, groom, and their parents stand in supplication in front of the Guru Granth Sahib and ask for divine blessings for the solemnification of marriage. A special set of prayers, in four parts, is read from the text of the Guru Granth. After each reading, the bride and groom circumambulate the throne on which the Guru Granth Sahib sits, symbolizing the centrality of its teachings in their new life. After the four rounds, the congregation stands in prayer and blessing for the couple. Members of the community may be asked to perform exegesis from Sikh teachings in instruction for the couple. Distribution of sweet karah parshad marks the closing of all ceremonies with the sweetness of the Guru's gifts and congregational communion.

At death, Sikhs favor cremation, prayer, and the simple pouring of remains into flowing water. The Sikh belief is that once the spirit has left the body, the remains are to be returned to nature. A person's actions in life, and divine grace, determine what will happen to the soul, not the rites that loved ones perform after death.

Since Sikhs have no belief in the resurrection of the body at end times—Guru Nanak envisioned the afterlife as a presence in Kartar's mysterious court—burial has never been a part of Sikh rites. Whereas Hindus would pour cremated remains into their holy River Ganga, Sikhs are content with any one of the rivers or tributaries in Punjab, or wherever the family of the deceased resides. Kiratpur, a town associated with Guru Hargobind, where he is said to have been cremated, is a commonly utilized site; mourners pour remains into the nearby flowing Satluj River. The liturgical evening-time prayer that Sikhs often read at funerals is called Sohila, and contains compositions from Guru Nanak, Guru Ramdas, and Guru Arjan. Guru Arjan's long composition called Sukhmani ("Pearl of Peace") is often read after funerals to provide consolation to the grieving loved ones.

Study Questions:
1.     What is at the center of Sikh life and why?
2.     How do Sikhs treat the dead?
3.     What is the Khande Di Pahul ceremony?

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