Rituals and Worship

Sacred Space

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

In the grand scheme of things, Sikhs believe the entire universe to be sacred, as it is considered Kartar's created realm. Kartar is both in the world, like the water in a clay pot, and removed from it as its Creator, like a potter to the pot. Nature is the sacred expression of the divine will. Human beings inherit the earth as a domain and must be humble and grateful for the bounty they have received. Many of Guru Nanak's compositions write of the author's enthrallment with natural processes and the Creator's care that they reveal. Nature, thus, is the domain to understand, appreciate, and contemplate the greatness of the Supreme Giver's bounty.

On a more particular level, though, certain sites offer the community a closer connection to Kartar. Gurdwara literally means "house of the Guru," and the term is rooted in the memory of Guru Nanak's own house, where members of the early community would have gathered to hear his teachings, sing his compositions, and share a meal together. Bhai Gurdas also writes of dharamsals, another name for Sikh places of worship, and reports that they had sprung up all over Northern India by the time he was writing in the early 1600s.

Gurdwaras are today the centers of Sikh worship across the globe. Here, Sikhs gather regularly around the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib (the sacred scripture), and participate in kirtan ("congregational singing"). Copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are printed at an official printing center in the city of Amritsar and flown to different parts of the world for the sake of particular communities.

Gurdwaras across the world are also important centers for the proliferation of Sikh teachings, act as community centers, and serve as educational locations where traditions are passed on between generations of Sikhs. Sikhs see their attendance at communal worship in Gurdwara in terms of showing up at a court (darbar or divan) to have audience with the divine emperor.

Langar, the sharing of a communal meal sanctified by the presence of the word and community, is another important institution associated with Gurdwaras. In congregations with the size and resources to sustain it, Langar might be a daily activity and open to all (including non-Sikhs). In smaller congregations, Langar might take place less frequently, perhaps after a weekly kirtan program.

Along with Gurdwaras that serve needs of local congregations around the world, another tier of Gurdwaras is important to the memory of the global community's history, and thus Sikh identity. These are the historical Gurdwaras associated with events in Sikh sacred history. Two criteria make these places special: the space on which they sit is either related to one of the Gurus' lives, or the site was a location where martyrs' gave their lives for the community.

The most important of the historical Gurdwaras is the Darbar Sahib ("The Revered Court") in Amritsar, the center of the global Sikh community since the late 1500s. Although the final Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), was never able to visit this place during his lifetime, he underscored its importance for the Sikh past and future by sending his representative, Bhai Mani Singh, to oversee the complex after the passing of the sectarian rival who had claimed it. Sikhs fought several battles in its vicinity as they carved out their homeland from the Mughals and Afghans in the 1700s. Within its perimeter sits the temporal throne of the Sikh community—the Akal Takht. The Darbar Sahib sits in the middle of a pool of water, in which pilgrims bathe as an important sacred practice.

As the site of the unfolding of the bulk of Sikh history, the Punjab is considered the Sikh homeland. Five historical Gurdwaras, known as Takhts ("thrones") dot the Indian map. Each of these places has deep historical significance for Sikhs. The first and most important of these, located in the precincts of the Darbar Sahib itself, is linked with Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru (1595-1644). The life of his grandson, the tenth and final Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, provides the sacred story for the other four Takhts (two in Punjab, and two outside). Takht Kesgarh Sahib commemorates Guru Gobind Singh's elevation of the community to the Khalsa, and Takht Hazur Sahib in the Indian Deccan signifies the place where the Guru breathed his last and officially passed the office of the Guru on to the scripture and community (referred to as the Granth and Panth).

For Sikhs, the historical sites associated with the Gurus' lives in South Asia carry special sacred significance. Most of these sites are located in the Indian Punjab. Other sites, like the place of Guru Gobind Singh's birth (Patna) and death (Nander) are located to the east and south of Punjab. Still others, like the site of Guru Nanak's birth, are located in contemporary Pakistan. In their daily prayer, or ardas, Sikhs pray to Kartar for the continued ability to worship in these places and remember their history through travel there.

Although Sikh yearning for homeland is linked to Punjab, Sikh history also took place outside of that region and Sikhs continue to travel and spread beyond their historical homeland. The lack of a sovereign Sikh nation-state is a problem for some Sikhs, and was certainly felt most acutely in the half century after South Asia's 1947 partition. The future of the world, however, appears to be a transnational and global one. Sikh ideas of sovereignty will have to be balanced between the transnational reality of the community and the locus of Sikh sacred memory in and around Punjab.

Study Questions:
1.     What is a "Gurdwara"?
2.     What are the two types of Gurdwaras?
3.     How is Kartar related to the world?

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