The mainstream Sikh tradition teaches that there were 10 gurus born between the 15th and 17th centuries: Guru Nanak's ideas were expanded by 9 subsequent gurus or teachers. Guru Nanak travelled widely and incorporated many ideas from the HINDU Sant (saint) tradition, the Hindu Bhakti (devotional) tradition and, indirectly, some of the Muslim Sufis (see ISLAM) into his own distinctive theology. He believed in monotheism (one God) and rejected Hindu concepts of caste, idol worship and bodily mortification, as well as the belief in salvation through ascetic isolation from worldly affairs. Guru Nanak claimed that salvation was accessible to all through devotion to God and the maintenance of a moral, responsible and selfless everyday life.
Guru Angad (c 1504-52) is said to have had Nanak's teachings written in Punjabi. He is also believed to have strengthened the unique Sikh practice of Guru ka langar, in which Sikhs repudiate one aspect of caste by eating together. Guru Amar Das (c 1479-1574) further organized the church and fought against purdah (seclusion of women) and sati (widow burning); Guru Ram Das (c 1534-81) founded Amritsar, Punjab, now the centre of the Sikh faith. Guru Arjun (c 1563-1606) collected Sikh scriptures into a single volume, later termed the Adi Granth, which became the main scriptural base of Sikhism.
Oppression by the Muslim Moguls and unsettled conditions in Punjab gave rise to increasing ethnic consciousness and militancy among Sikhs. Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the 10th and last human Guru, was both a spiritual and a military leader; he was made Guru after the martyrdom of his father, Tegh Bahadur (c 1620-75). In 1699 he is thought to have brought Sikh theology to its final development by creating the Khalsa (the pure), the community of believers who become amritdhari ("nectar bearing") through receiving amrit pahul (initiation). Men who did so took the name "Singh" (lion), while women took "Kaur" (princess). Men of the Khalsa were directed to observe the 5 kakas ("Ks"): to keep their hair and beard uncut (kesh), and to wear a comb (kangha,) symbolizing neatness, a steel bracelet (kara), soldier's breeches (kachha) and a dagger (kirpan). Some Sikhs (Sahijdharis, "lightly burdened") have not personally accepted these conventions, however, the majority of Canadian Sikhs are drawn from those who have (Keshadharis, "one who bears hair").
A continuum of religious observances was established among Sikhs. Amritdharis were required to observe a more onerous devotional practice and a more restrictive moral code (rehat maryada) than those Keshadharis who had not been administered amrit pahul, while Sahajdharis were, as the term implies, religiously more lightly burdened. All were nevertheless considered Sikhs, in that they subscribed to the core teachings of the gurus.
Mainstream Sikh tradition holds that Guru Gobind Singh, seeing impending death, permanently passed on the spiritual leadership of the faith through the Adi Granth scripture, naming it the Guru Granth Sahib. The writings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib are the moral foundation and teachings of Sikhism. After Guru Gobind Singh's death, Sikhs continued to have a turbulent history. As the Mogul Empire weakened, military and political conflict in Punjab escalated, to be subdued partially by the rise to power of the Sikh Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), who consolidated much of Punjab and Kashmir. Sikh converts increased dramatically during this period, as they did after Punjab was conquered by the British in 1846. Sikh men soon were an important part of the British Indian army, and thus migrated in small numbers throughout the British Empire.
Sikhism in Canada
Canadian Sikhs are one of Canada's largest non-Christian religious groups and form this country's largest SOUTH ASIAN ethnic group. More than half of all Sikhs live in Asia and approximately 17% live in North America. Census figures suggest that there were 278 410 Sikhs in Canada in 2001 (almost double the 1991 population estimate of 145 000). Immigration has been a key factor in the increase of Sikhs in Canada: Sikhs accounted for approximately 5% of the 1.8 million new immigrants who came to Canada during the 1990s. Today almost half of Canada's Sikh population lives in British Columbia.
The first Sikhs came to Canada at the turn of the 20th century. Some came to Canada as part of the Hong Kong military contingent en route to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897) and the coronation of Edward VII (1902) and returned to Canada to establish themselves in British Columbia. More than 5000 South Asians, more than 90% of them Sikhs, came to British Columbia before their IMMIGRATION was banned in 1908. This population was soon reduced to about 2000 through out-migration, almost all those remaining being Sikhs. Despite profound racial discrimination (see KOMAGATA MARU), Sikhs quickly established religious institutions in British Columbia. The Vancouver Khalsa Diwan Society was created in 1907 and through its leadership Sikhs built their first permanent temple or gurdwara ("gateway to the guru") the following year. By 1920, other gurdwaras had been established in New Westminster, Victoria, Nanaimo, Golden, Abbotsford, Fraser Mills and Paldi. Each was controlled by an independent, elected executive board.
From the beginning, gurdwaras were the central community institutions of Canadian Sikhs. Through them, Sikhs provided extensive aid to community members in need. The dramatic fight to have the immigration ban rescinded was also organized through the temples. By 1920 Vancouver Sikhs had contributed $300 000 to charitable causes in India and to the defence of Sikhs in Canada. Temples were also the focus of much anti-British revolutionary activity.
Canadian Sikh Religious Institutions
Canadian Sikh religious institutions reached another stage of development in the 1920s, when wives and children of legal Sikh residents were allowed entry to the country. In accord with the teachings of the gurus, men, women and children participated fully in both temple and home-based observances. Sikh religion provided the basis for a strong collective identity between the world wars, so that very few Sikhs renounced the faith or married outside it. The main religious revision of the period 1920-60 was a tendency among second-generation men to become Sahajdharis - to cut their hair and beards to conform to Canadian dress. Initiation into the Khalsa through amrit pahul became very rare.
Adapting Canadian Sikhism
Sikhism in Canada began to change its character in the 1950s as immigration resumed. Through the 1960s more Sikhs immigrated to Canada as immigration laws were relaxed and racial quotas were removed. Many postwar immigrants were more urbane, educated, westernized and religiously untraditional than those who had come before them. The democratic control over temples soon reflected this division between the immigrant Sahajdharis temple members and the establishment of alternative, more "orthodox" temples of Keshadharis in Vancouver and Victoria.
In the 1960s and 1970s tens of thousands of skilled Sikhs, some highly educated, settled across Canada, especially in the urban corridor from Toronto to Windsor. As their numbers grew, Sikhs established temporary gurdwaras in every major city eastward to Montréal. These were followed in many instances by permanent gurdwaras and Sikh centres. Most cities now have several gurdwaras, each reflecting slightly different religious views, social or political opinions. Through them Sikhs now have access to a full set of public observances. Central among these are Sunday prayer services, and in many communities the prayers are followed by langar (a free meal) provided by members of the sangat (governing council of holy men) and the congregation.
Worship includes prayer, reading of scriptures, singing hymns and meditation. Services are open to anyone who obeys the conventions for entering a temple: removal of footwear, head covered, and members must refrain from smoking or drinking. Although some Canadian congregations have incorporated chairs and tables, worshippers traditionally sit on carpets, with men and women separated from one another. It is also customary for worshippers to cover their heads while in the temple and to wash their hands and feet before entering the gurdwara. Temple observances are also held to celebrate the various gurus and such traditional Sikh calendrical celebrations as Baisakhi Day. Today weddings are held in the temple or in a family home and some Sikhs continue the tradition of arranged marriages.
Perhaps the most important aspects of Sikh religion in Canada are personal and devotional. A daily routine for an Amritdhari Sikh includes rising early for a bath, prayers and meditation. Many Sikh families have a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib in their homes and in the morning select a passage and read. A hymn is read at sunset, and a hymn and prayer at night. All Sikhs are expected to abstain from tobacco and alcohol, stealing, adultery and gambling. They are not to make caste distinctions, worship idols or acknowledge any living religious teachers as gurus.
Sikhism emphasizes the importance of family life, philanthropy, service and defence of the faith. Sikh philanthropy has been extensive, especially in support of local gurdwaras and increasingly of pan-Canadian social causes and the arts. Service has been traditionally interpreted in terms of service to the religion and the community, but this notion of service is slowly incorporating a broader perspective of Canadian social issues. Save for a possible resident gyanji (priest), volunteers take on all the affairs of local gurdwaras, from administration to cooking food at the weekly langar.
Many Sikhs teach their children their culture and religion. Temples offer classes teaching religious precepts and the written language to children; some second-generation Sikhs speak Punjabi from an early age but must be formally taught the unique Sikh gurmukhi written script in order to read from the Guru Granth Sahib.
There have been several attempts to develop a unitary national Sikh religious organization, but this objective has not yet been achieved. National and regional conferences to discuss Sikh issues have been held in several cities, and informal contacts between various regional temple organizations are usually maintained. The primary organizational basis of Canadian Sikhism is the local temple association and some Sikh Canadians also maintain strong religious ties with India. Theologians, teachers, singers and musicians visit Canada, and Indian religious texts are in wide circulation. Sikh Canadians who visit India often go on a PILGRIMAGE to the famous Sikh shrines, especially the Darbar Sahib (commonly called the Golden Temple) in Amritsar.
Relationships between Sikhs in Canada and India
Canadian Sikhs are affected by events concerning Sikhs and Sikhism in India such as the rise of a nationalist movement for Sikh rights and for an independent Sikh state, Khalistan. Many Canadian Sikhs have supported this movement financially, especially after the Indian army's attack on the extremist Sikh independence sect led by Jarnial Singh Bhindranwali, which had established itself on the grounds of the Golden Temple. During the attack in 1984, Bhindranwali and more than 1000 others died and a sacred Sikh shrime was seriously damaged. Following the attack, Sikhs in Canada held demonstrations against the Indian government, resulting in the deterioration of relations between Canadian Sikhs and Hindus.
Canadian Hindu-Sikh relations were further strained when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by 2 of her Sikh security guards 31 Oct 1984; in India, more than 2500 Sikhs were reportedly killed in the rioting and looting that followed. That no one was ever charged further alienated Canadian Sikhs from the Indian government and fuelled separatist sentiments. On 23 June 1985, Air India Flight 182 was blown up in what was widely regarded as an act of revenge against the government of India perpetrated by Canada-based Sikhs; ironically, most of the 329 who died on the flight were South Asian Canadians, and most were Sikhs.
Several provincial court cases have heard arguments regarding the issue of security versus religious freedom stemming from orthodox Sikh students who wear a kirpan while in school. In 2001 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Québec student who had refused to remove the kirpan did have the right to wear it while in school. In 2004 the Québec Court of Appeal struck down the decision, ruling that community safety was more important than wearing the kirpan and that the ceremonial dagger violated the "weapons and dangerous objects" of the student conduct code. In 2006 the Supreme Court again decided that religious tolerance was to be encouraged in Canadian society and that a total ban infringed on the guarantee of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights. Several provinces have addressed the issue by limiting the blade size or requiring that the kirpan be hidden under clothing. Sikh MPs may wear a kirpan in the House of Commons, but they are still banned from some courtrooms and Transport Canada bans all "knives or knife-like objects."
These events in Canada and India have had an effect on general Sikh religious practice in Canada. Heightened Sikh consciousness has led to an increase in Amritdharis and Keshdharis, even among second- and third-generation Canadians. With its strong community institutions and group consciousness, Sikhism has grown in Canada, despite the pressures of assimilation.
See also PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION.
Author NORMAN BUCHIGNANI
Narinder Singh, Canadian Sikhs (1993); Moni Minhas, The Sikh Canadians (1994); C.H. Loehlin, The Sikhs and Their Scriptures (1964); H. Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs (1964); W.H. McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968); K. Singh, A History of the Sikhs, 2 vols (1977); W.O. Cole and P. Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs (1978); Norman Buchignani and D. Indra,Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada (1985).
Links to Other Sites
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion
A virtual community for the academic study of religion in Canada, with current news, job listings, feature articles, and information about scholarly publications in the field.
Canadian Centre for Diversity
This site offers educational resources that focus on celebrating diversity and inclusion in Canadian society.
Asian Religion and Ethics Unit
The website for the Asian Religion and Ethics Unit at the Faculty of Religious studies of McGill University.
Putting 500 years of Sikh culture on display
A news story about the opening of a multimedia Sikh museum housed in the Ontario Khalsa Darbar in Mississauga, Ontario. From thestar.com.
From One Prayer to Another
A multimedia website that examines how different religions coexist in Canada. From Radio Canada International.