by Sonny Singh (guest writer)
As a brown man with a beard and turban, I am usually perceived as Muslim. Unfortunately, more often than not, that perception comes with a whole lot of Islamophobic bigotry, but that’s a post for another time. If someone (politely) asks me if I’m Muslim and I say no, the follow up question is usually, “What are you, Hindu?”
I, along with the vast majority of turban-wearers in this country, am a Sikh (properly pronounced “Sick(h)”). Many readers would likely recognize me as a Sikh if you saw me walking down the street, but even many of those who know that man + turban = Sikh (gotta love Goodness Gracious Me) nevertheless have been misinformed (or just not informed) about Sikhism.
The most common misconception I hear from other South Asians about Sikhi is that it is a sect of Hinduism. Perhaps a warrior caste even (ironic, given that Sikhi from its inception was an anti-caste revolution). Another more understandable misconception, or oversimplification, is that Sikhism is a blend of Hinduism and Islam. The reality is that Sikhism is an independent faith with almost 30 million followers, making it the fifth largest religion in the world.
But first, let’s back up. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, a mystic poet, saint, and revolutionary who was born (to Hindu parents) in Punjab in 1469. Around the age of 30, after emerging from having disappeared for three days while bathing in a river, Guru Nanak stated, “Na koi Hindu, Na Koi Mussalman” (there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim).
This provocative statement wasn’t intended to be a diss to Hinduism and Islam. As Sikh scholar Nikki Guninder Kaur states, “Guru Nanak was not making a value judgment about, nor refuting, the religious life of the Hindus and Muslims of his day. He was pointing to the oneness of the Trascendent that translates into the oneness and equality of humanity… He was not asking people to abandon their faith and adopt another, but stressing the fundamental, common truth underlying the diverse faiths and systems of belief.”
Like his contemporary Kabir and other saints associated with the radical bhakti movement, Guru Nanak saw religious divisions and rigidity as obstacles to the Divine. South Asia at the time was under the rule of the Mughal Empire, which was often at odds with Hindus. He saw a society brimming with hypocrisy, intolerance, caste oppression and sexism, all in the name of God. Guru Nanak traveled around Asia and the Middle East engaging the people he met about questions of God, religion, injustice, and love, while singing his devotional poetry, accompanied by a Muslim musician, Bhai Mardana.
Almost two hundred years later, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and final living Guru of the Sikhs continued to emphasize unity:
…Hindus and Muslims are one.
The same Reality is the Creator and Preserver of all;
Know no distinctions between them.
The monastery and the mosque are the same;
So are the Hindu worship and the Muslim prayer.
Humans are all one!
Of course, contemporary Sikh institutions have not been immune to the powerful ideologies (and pathologies) of arrogance, sectarianism, and patriarchy (I write about some of these contentious issues in our community at The Langar Hall). Perhaps if Guru Nanak were alive today he might say, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, there is no Sikh.”
Despite the problems inherent in most religious institutions, we Sikhs in the end rely on the poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib to inspire us. The Guru Granth Sahib is a 1430 page collection of devotional poetry written by six of the Sikh Gurus and nineteen Hindu and Muslim saints from the Radical Bhakti and Sufi traditions (including Kabir, Sheikh Farid, Namdev, and Ravidas). Indeed, you don’t have to look any further than the Sikh scriptures to see Hindu-Muslim (and Sikh) unity embodied.
Sahas tav nain, nan nain hah tohe kau, sahas murat nanaa ek tohi.
Sahas pad bimal, nan ek pad, gandh bin, sahas tav gandh, iv chatal mohi.
Sabh maih jot jot hai soe.
Tis de chaanan sabh mai chaanan hoe.
You have a thousand eyes yet without eye are You,
You have a thousand faces yet without face are You,
You have a thousand feet yet without foot are You,
You have a thousand noses yet without nose are You,
I am enchanted by Your wonders.
There is a Light in all, and the Light is You,
By that Light we are all illuminated.