SIKH LIFE, SOCIETY AND CUSTOMS

SIKH SOCIETY AND LIFE

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offerings for marriage
As for domestic and life-cycle rituals, well into the twentieth century many Sikhs followed Hindu customs for birth, marriage, and death ceremonies, including readings from Hindu scriptures and the employment of Brahmans as officiants. Reform movements within the Sikh community have purged many of these customs, substituting instead readings from the Guru Granth Sahib as the focus for rituals and the employment of Sikh ritual specialists. At major public events--weddings, funerals, or opening a new business--patrons may fund a reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib by special reciters. [Source: Library of Congress]

Sikhs have a high literacy rate and emphasize education. Despite efforts to by the gurus to reject caste, the caste system continues to endure. A large portion of all Sikhs are Jars. There is an inferior caste of urban Sikhs called Khatri and Arora. The Balnikis and Ravidasis are the Sikh equivalent of Untouchables.

Most Sikhs are vegetarians. They typically eat a meal of curry, lentils, potatoes, pudding and rice. Specialties include rice with tandori chicken (for those that eat meat), saag (spinach), baigan (eggplant) and roti. Sikhs are not supposed to consume alcohol, tobacco or meat prepared using the halal method, a prohibition later extended to all non-vegetarian food.

Militant khadus (freedom fighters, religious police) threaten people who get drunk, even if it is at a wedding. Once, a Sikh owner of a wine shop was killed. According to Guru Granth Sahib, “By drinking wine one loses sanity and become mad, loses the power of discrimination and incurs the displeasure of God.”

Sikh Language and Names

Punjabi is the native language of nearly all Sikhs. . Sacred text are hymns written in Saint Bhasha, a language related to Hindi and Punjabi.

Sikh insults: "dirty dog," "I rape your mother," "I'll rape your sister." Jokes about sickles deep in their shorts that come out at dark, Sikh priests that tell girls to unbutton their trousers, girls "jumping like springs underneath." [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfirld, Anchor Books]

Nearly all Sikh have the same the last name of Singh because they are said to descendants of the great Singh families that founded the religion. Singh is an honorific name that means "lion." Sikhs baptized in Khalsa assume the name of Singh for men and Kaur (meaning “princess”) in the case of women Many Silks decode a baby’s name by in a ceremony at the temple in which the Guru Granth Sahib is opened randomly and the name is derived from the letter of the first word of hymn on the page selected.

Sikhs generally use their given name preceded by Singh if they are male and Kaur id they are female. Married Sikh women use their given name (first name) plus their husband’s given name. Singh is like title. Calling someone Mr. Singh is like calling them “Mr. Mr.”

Sikh Character and Customs

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Sikh women
Sikhs profess a faith in one God, human equality, universal love and honest work. They value respect for elders, kindness, generosity, compassion, modesty, community, family, strength, monogamy and a healthy lifestyle. Sikhs have a reputation for being hardworking, energetic, ambitious and fierce warriors. They take pride in being the "best farmers, fighters, entrepreneurs and sportsmen" and are ashamed of taking hand outs.

Sikhs consider themselves a “people of the book.” They shun alcohol and follow a strict moral code and rules that are similar to those of Islam. They are basically two kinds of Sikhs: ones have been initiated in the Khalsa Panth and ascribe to the “Five Ks” (See Sikh Religion) and sahajdhari, lay people who do not completely follow the code of conduct but are accepted as Sikhs if they respect the gurus, express devotion and participate in worship.

Sikhs greet one another with Sat Sri Akal ji! (“Are you hale and hearty, young man?”).

The Sikh playwright and critic, Kaur Bhatti wrote; “the fallibility of human nature means that simple Sikh principals of equality, compassion and modesty are sometimes discarded in favor of outward appearance, wealth and the quest for power.”

Sikhs are sometimes the butts of Polack type jokes told by other Indians.

Sikh Marriage and Wedding Customs

Sikh weddings unfold over several days. The groom’s family gives a thread with five knots to the parents of the bride. A knot is untied on each of the five days before the wedding so the wedding day is not forgotten in all the excitement of the parties and celebrations that go along with it. The custom dates to a time when there were no calendars. Marriages between Sikhs and Hindus have traditionally been within castes.

The wedding is often held at the bride’s house. On the day before the wedding friends of the bride stay at the bride’s house and paint hand prints on the walls to bring good luck. The bride’s relatives draw a circle and place a piece of wood from a fruit tree in the middle so that the marriage will be fruitful. Leaves are packed above the door of the house to signal a wedding is going to take place. Hymns are sung and oil and herbal powder are placed in the bride’s hair to make her beautiful. Sweet pancakes are served to the guests. Women dance to folk songs. Hennas designs are made on the bride’s hands and feet.

On the wedding day, relatives and guests go the bride’s’s house and bring gifts of coconuts, sugar and money . The festivities begin in earnest when the groom arrives on a white horse along with procession made up of friends and relatives accompanied by musicians. They are greeted by the men of the bride’s family. As they enter the house the groom is teased by the bride’s sisters and friends.

Sikh Wedding Ceremony

The Sikh wedding ceremony is called the Aanand Karaj (“ceremony of bliss”). It often held before dawn and is presided over by a pious man or woman who is respected in the community. The bride usually wears a red garment decorated with gold designs. She wear wedding jewelry and has a decorative shawl pulled over her face. The groom carries a long ceremonial sword, wears a bejeweled dark red turban and covers his face with a mask called a klagri. Both share a long scarf when they take their wedding vows.

During the ceremony hymns are sung and the couple sits in front of a copy of the Granth. The respected person tells the coup and the parents to stand up and invokes a blessing to God and tells them the obligation of married life: 1) being faithful to one another; 2) being good to one in hard times; 3) celebrating each other joys; and 4) being respectful to each other’ families. Passages of the Granath are read while singers repeat the words. The couple’s say their vows and accept the duties of marriage.

Garlands are placed around necks of the bride and groom by the bride’s father, who also places one end of a scarf in the hands of the groom, who in turn gives the other end to the bride, who doesn't look at the groom . Holding the scarf, the couple walks clockwise around Granth four times, afterwards they are declared and wife. More hymns are sung. During the final lap around the holy book flower pedals are tossed by guests on the couple.

After the ceremony music is played and friends make speeches about the bride and groom. All sign a register. Food made from flour and sugar are eaten. Sometimes the men attend a banquet hosted by the bride’s family, often with music and dancing. When the bride’s’ father returns he says a final goodby to his daughter. The bride leaves with the groom and his family.

Sikh Men and Women

Women are educated and regarded as equals to men in the Sikh religion. Women can become priests. Still boys have traditionally been more desired than girls. The use of ultrasound in abortion of girl fetuses is very high in the Punjab, where many Sikhs live. The Sikh clergy has threatened to excommunicate anyone involved in female infanticide.

Honor killings are practiced by Sikhs. In a celebrated case in 2000, the mother of Sikh girl ordered hired killers to slit her daughter’s throat in a Punjabi village. The girl—a Canadian citizen who lived in Vancouver— was a member of a powerful Jat Sikh family. Here crime was marrying a poor rickshaw driver from her mother’s village

Since so many Sikh men don’t cut their hair or beards very often, the Sikh caste of barbers often seek work in other fields such as fortunetelling and wedding arrangements. Their wives often work as midwives. The transvestites that work the red light district in Bombay reportedly cater mostly to Sikhs.

Sikh Clothes and Daggers

Sikhs and Hasidic Jews are among the world's most recognizable people. Sikh men usually wear a turban and sport a beard. Their turbans cover up their long, uncut hair. Sikhs have traditionally not cut their beards either. Their turbans can be pink, yellow, red, saffron or green. Saffron symbolizes persecution or martyrdom. These days you can find an increasing number of Sikhs who are clean shaven and don’t wear turbans.

The traditional Sikh outfit is a knee-length, button-down jacket known as a shirwani and tight, white trousers or breeches known as churidar. Men also wear shalawars (tunics) and kurtas (lomg-sleeved shirts). Devout Sikhs wear white tunics and breeches which symbolizes a purified soul. Sikh women have traditionally worn saris and covered their heads with scarves. Young Sikhs or Sikhs playing sports wear a patka, a scarf that looks like a little turban. It covers a top knot shaped like a little old lady bun. Some Sikh males wear steel arm bracelets on their right wrists.

Devout Sikh men are given a kirpan (dagger, symbolizing the fight against injustice) when they are five or so and not supposed to take it off even when they sleep. The kirpan symbolizes the sovereignty of man and serves as a reminder to help others in times of distress. A 12-year-old Sikh boy who moved from a Punjab village to Montreal, Canada caused a big stir when he was told by his school that he couldn’t wear the knife. He chose to leave school, setting off a debate over which has precedence religion freedom and the school’s zero tolerance policy towards weapons. A court ruled the boy could bring is kirpan to school as along it was secured in its sheath and tucked inside his shirt.

See Sikh Customs, Above

Sikh Culture

The Sikh sacred text are hymns written in Saint Bhasha, a language related to Hindi and Punjabi. Most of the Sikh gurus were excellent musicians, who composed songs that conveyed their message to the masses in the saints' own language, which combined variants of Punjabi with Hindi and Braj and also contained Arabic and Persian vocabulary. Written in Gurmukhi script, these songs are one of the main sources of early Punjabi language and literature, which also includes tales of veiled women and Hindu legends.

There are 5,894 hymns in all, arranged according to the musical measure in which they are sung. An interesting feature of this literature is that 937 songs and poems are by well-known bhakti saints who were not members of the lineage of Sikh gurus, including the North Indian saint Kabir and five Muslim devotees. In the Guru Granth Sahib , God is called by all the Hindu names and by Allah as well. From its beginnings, then, Sikhism was an inclusive faith that attempted to encompass and enrich other Indian religious traditions. [Source: Library of Congress]

Sikhs like to dance to Punjabi Bhangra music. Famous Sikhs include Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India; Khushwant Singh, the scandalous intellectual; and Daler Mehndi, a popular singer. Sikhs have distinguished themselves in the Indian and British military. Of the 40 Victorian Crosses (the highest medals for battlefield valor given by the British) given to Indians, 21 were given to Sikhs. During festivals, Sikh soldiers like to put marigolds on the end of their swords.

Sikh Economics and Agriculture

Many Sikhs have a tradition of self employment because there turbans and clothing requirements turned employers off. They have traditionally formed martial class in the Indian military. Sikh venture capitalists have been active in Silicon Valley.

Most Sikhs are farmers. Many Sikhs believe that farming is the only non-military profession respectable for a man. Many Sikhs are policeman, soldiers, body guards, tempo drivers, shop owners, truck drivers, political activists, taxi drivers and sportsmen. Some Sikhs make their living as sidewalk dentists. The can install false teeth, pull aching teeth and wire new bridges right next to the street.

The Punjab, where many Sikhs live, is very fertile, and has brought prosperity to many Sikhs. Sikh farmers helped push the Green Revolution, which had its base in the Punjab. Sikh farmers in the Punjab benefitting from the Green Revolution saw their incomes rise from $2,000 a year in 1970 to $20,000 in 1997. The Punjab has also been the site of disputes over the distribution of water. The Sikhs have traditionally been the backbone of the canal colonies in the Punjab.

Sikhs Abroad

There are several million Sikhs living abroad. They are found in Britain, East Africa, the United States, Canada, Malaysia, Australia and the Caribbean. The have a reputation for being highly educated and financially well off . Sikhs began migrating from India in large numbers in the 19th century. Many left India to escape caste restrictions. A old saying goes: "Sikhs and potatoes are found all over the world." There is also joke that after Neil Armstrong took his 'first step" on the moon he ran into a Sikh family that said, "We came right after partition."

Sikhs have found success in the United States. They have launched successful businesses and established themselves in professions like medicine and engineering. Sikhs in the United States have special camps for their children so they can keep in touch with the Sikh roots. Boys learn how to make a proper turban. A group of Western Sikh converts are known as gora or white Sikhs. Led by Harbajan Singh, the have set up many temples in North America and have their own organizations. Many of them are chiropractors. Many Sikhs in New York and London work as taxi drivers. In New York City, there are lots of Sikhs around Liberty Avenue in the Richmond Hills area of Queens.

There is a large Sikh community in Vancouver. The Sikh temple there is the largest in North America, with 37,000 members. Sikhs there have a dark side. A number of them have been killed in gang-style killings. In one case a masked man shot a notorious drug dealer with a single shot behind the ear. Sikhs are believed to be involved in the lucrative “B.C. bud” marijuana trade. Two Sikhs charged but found innocent in the terrorist attack on an Air India 747 were also from Vancouver.

In December 2004, Sikhs in Britain launched violent protest against a play called Behzti (“Dishonor”) that explored moral corruption within the Sikh religion. The play as written by a Sikh, Kaur Bhatti. It most controversial scene involved the rape of a young woman in a Sikh temple by a man who claimed he had sex with her father. The rapist is ultimately killed with a sword in the temple. Hundred of demonstrators, enraged by the depiction of rape and murder in a temple, stormed the theater in Birmingham where the play was staged and broke windows and destroyed equipment. The violence and threats of violence forced the closure of the play.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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