SIKH FESTIVALS About ten million of the world’s Sikh population lives in India and they use the Hindu calendar (see notes on Hindu festivals), with some variations. Sikh festivals are of two kinds, melas (meetings or fairs) and gurpurbs (anniversaries of the birth or death of one of the ten Gurus). Melas correspond to Hindu festivals and they are reinterpretations of them. Only four gurpurbs are regularly observed in Britain; the birthdays of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, and the martyrdom days of Guru Arjan and Guru Tigh Bahadur.
Melas have some common characteristics namely, a sense of joy; the playing of games and participation in organised races; the buying and selling of animals; listening to speeches concerning the Gurus; visiting local places of interest and religious significance.
TABLE OF SIKH FESTIVALS
See also ‘Challenging Issues when teaching about Sikhism’
Sikhism is not just a system of belief, but also a way of life – the social and religious are inextricably entwined.
In the fifteenth century CE the inhabitants of the Punjab were either Hindu or Muslim, but there were tensions between the two groups and at that time the Hindus were persecuted by their Muslim rulers. Some people became dissatisfied with both religions and became Sikhs, a word which means ‘disciple’ of a great teacher’ – Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak Nanak was born in 1469 CE into a Hindu family but he rejected the caste system and idolatry, teaching that one God alone should be worshipped; that all humans are equal; that all people should devote themselves to good actions and to God. These teachings were also mirrored in Bhakti Hinduism and the Sufi form of Islam.
When Nanak died in 1539 CE his teaching was continued by the second Guru, Angad who also put great emphasis on the importance of education. The third Guru, Amar Das reinforced previous teaching and also advocated the equality of all persons by attaching a ‘free kitchen’ (langar) to all Sikh places of worship, where people of all religions and castes could eat. The langar is a powerful practical symbol of Sikh equality and service to everyone, Sikh or not, in the community.
The Golden Temple and the Guru Granth Sahib The fourth Guru of Sikhism, Ram Das (1534-1581 CE), founded the holy city of Amritsar and the building of The Golden Temple was begun by his successor, the fifth Guru, Arjan, in 1589 CE. Guru Arjan also wrote many sacred songs and he compiled a book of these and those of former Gurus in a holy book called the Adi Granth, which was installed in the Golden Temple. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708 CE) also added the writings of the later Gurus to these and writings of other who were not Sikhs but reflected the Sikh vision of Go and humanity. This book became known as The Guru Granth Sahib. From this time, the teachings of the human Gurus ended and the Guru Granth Sahib is now considered the sole authority of Sikh teaching.
Guru Gobind Singh also founded the Khalsa, a brotherhood and army, free of caste, colour and social prejudice, formed to fight against tyranny and injustice. He prescribed five symbols for Khalsa Sikhs often known as the 5 K’s as their names begin with the letter K:-
1 Kesh uncut hair and beard, a sign of devotion to God and to
Group solidarity and identity.
2 Kangha a comb, a sign of cleanliness and self discipline
3 Kara a metal bangle symbolizing the unity of God and unity
with the brotherhood.
4 Kacchashorts or loose underwear, enabling freedom of
movement in battle and symbolizing chastity
5 Kirpan a dagger or sword, symbolizing authority, justice and
resistance to evil.
When disciples were initiated into the Khalsa the men also wore a turban and took the name Singh, meaning Lion. Women were given the name Kaur, meaning Princess.
BELIEFS IN SIKHISM The basis of Sikh belief is that:
God is one; God is creator of the world, transcendent, immanent, the eternal truth.
Humankind is made in the image of God.
Humankind should seek to commune with God and to withstand self-centredness which separates him from God.
Selfishness, anger, covetousness, lust and pride are serious sins which separate humankind from God and also destroy the relationship with people.
Sikhs should strive for self control, forgiveness, contentment, love of God, humility, working hard, sharing profit, helping the less able and serving the community.
Evolution of the Soul Sikhism teaches that the soul is not predestined. What a person does in this life, good or bad, will affect their soul. If a person persists in evil actions they will find themselves in an endless cycle of birth and death. However, God is merciful and can offer deliverance from bad deeds.
Equality of the Human Race In Sikhism there is complete equality between sexes in both political and religious matters. Sikhs are opposed to the caste system in Hinduism.
SIKHISM Some Items to include in the Home Corner
Pateella cooking pans
Vailna rolling pin for chapattis
Tawa a small iron frying pan for cooking chapattis
Chungair a straw container with a lid for serving chapattis
Chakola a circular board for rolling out chapattis
Nishan Sahib the flag a small saffron coloured triangular piece of cloth
with Sikh insignia in blue
Pictures of the Gurus
Tabla a drum used in the Gurdwara
Turban traditional male headwear
GURU NANAK’S BIRTHDAY
Guru Nanak (1469 CE – 1539 CE) was the founder of Sikhism. The name Guru means “light” and “darkness” or one who has passed from the darkness of ignorance to the lightness of understanding. A ‘Sikh’ may be interpreted as a ‘disciple’ or ‘follower’.
Nanak was born a Hindu but he despised what he considered to be the excessive ritual and priestly domination of sixth century Hinduism and followed what he believed to be the essentials of religion. This included a personal relationship with God and living a virtuous life.
Nanak spoke out against abuses such as idolatry, ostentatious worship, superstitions, the oppression of women, the rigid caste system, and the elitism and power of the Hindu priestly caste (Brahmin). He also emphasised the religious value of living a virtuous disciplined life both in the family and in the community. Today Sikh ethics stress involvement in the world, the community and the family, and the importance of serving others. Asceticism, celibacy, self-imposed suffering and deprivation are not valued.
Guru Nanak is deeply admired by Sikhs as a perfect example of piety and holiness. He is regarded as a man who was chosen by God to reveal His message.
Following Guru Nanak, there was a succession of nine gurus who consolidated what Guru Nanak had originated:
Guru Nanak 1469 – 1539
Guru Angad 1504 – 1552
Guru Amar Das 1479 – 1574
Guru Ram Das 1534 – 1581
Guru Arjan Dev 1563 – 1606
Guru Hargobind 1595 – 1645
Guru Har Krishan 1656 – 1664
Guru Tegh Bahadur 1621 – 1675
Guru Gobind Singh 1666 – 1708
The Festival The celebration of Guru Nanak’s Birthday is universal in Sikhism. Nanak was born in April, but his birthday is celebrated in November each year. The reason for this is probably linked with the Hindu Festival of Divali where the main symbolism is that of light overcoming darkness. It seems likely that Sikhs saw November as a good time in which to celebrate the Birthday of their Guru who ‘enlightened’ them in the ways of God.
The preparations for the festival are considered to be extremely important and they form part of the festival itself. Men and women dress ensuring that they are wearing the five symbols of Sikhism (kesh, kanga, kara, kach, kirpan). Women wear traditional Punjabi dress in the homeland (often a sari, or tunic over trousers and a scarf on their head) and many will find ornamental ways of wearing some, if not all, of the five symbols.
Two days before the birthday the complete reading of the Granth Sahib (Holy Book) begins with members of the community sharing the task of chanting or reciting it continuously throughout the day and night. Towards the end of the reading the Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship), is visited by members of the community so that they are able to share in the excitement of the occasion.
A ceremonial meal is prepared in the temple kitchen (langar) during the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. This is called Kara Parshad and it is made from flour, butter, sugar and water, heated together and stirred.
Hymns are recited while the preparations are taking place. One ready, the kara parshad is covered with a clean cloth and taken into the Gurdwara and placed near the Granthi (reader of the Guru Granth Sahib at services). After the prayer of Ardas (petition) the parshad is cut with a dagger and each person present is given a small piece as a symbol of unity and brotherhood.
Later in the day, a procession takes place and in the Punjab the Guru Granth Sahib is paraded through the streets on a raised seat or throne, often with a canopy overhead, accompanied by a guard of honour of five men. These men represent the first five members of the Khalsa who were prepared to die for the brotherhood. Each member of the bodyguard carries a richly decorated kirpan.
Members of the congregation accompany the procession singing, chanting and scattering flower petals. At times the procession is halted so that guest speakers may read or tell stories to the people concerning the life and teaching of Guru Nanak. When the speaker has finished the crowd shout, ‘Waheguru’ meaning ‘wonderful Guru’, a name given to God. The day closes with the procession returning to the Gurdwara.
In Amritsar, the centre of the Sikh religion, there are great celebrations for Nanak’s Birthday. At the Golden Temple, Sikhs worship and hundreds of small ghee lamps are lit around the perimeter of the sacred pool which surrounds the building. The Guru Granth Sahib is processed in the streets in much the same way as in the Punjab.
In Britain the festival is usually celebrated in the Gurdwara with Birthday parties at home afterwards. For the five-hundredth Birthday of Nanak (1969), Sikhs congregated in the Royal Albert Hall in London and a procession took place in the surrounding streets of the city.
WORSHIP IN THE GURDWARA Traditionally Sikhs follow the example of Guru Nanak, worshipping in the morning and the evening. Worship in the Gurdwara is usually on Sunday in Britain, although it is not a specific Holy day in the homeland.
On arrival at the Gurdwara Sikhs remove their shoes, cover their heads and wash their hands as a sign of respect for the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book).
When the Gurdwara is entered worshippers approach the Guru Granth Sahib and kneel with their foreheads touching the floor. An offering of money, good or flowers is made and then worshippers sit on the floor, traditionally with the men on one side of the Gurdwara and the women on the other. The congregation always face the Guru Granth Sahib. The service commences with the opening of the holy book by one of the congregation, either male or female, who has been appointed to read. Alternatively the Gurdwara may appoint a Granthi or reader who conducts the services and performs ceremonies.
Services vary in length but they will usually include reading, prayers, sacred songs and an address or sermon. Throughout the service a member of the community will wave a chauri or yak hair whisk over the Guru Granth Sahib as a sign of respect. At the end of the service Kara Parshad is distributed as a sign of unity, equality and as a symbol of God’s blessing on his people.
Evening services include the ritual of placing the Guru Granth Sahib in a ‘resting place’ for the night where it is covered over.
At the end of communal worship a meal is served in the langar or Gurdwara kitchen. Food for the meal is provided by the Sikh community but all people visiting the Gurdwara will be invited to share in the meal as a symbol of equality and brotherhood amongst all people.
FOOD IN SIKHISM Sikhism puts emphasis on the importance of sharing food with others and that it should be honestly earned. There are few prohibitions although meat which is slaughtered in the Muslim manner is prohibited. Most Sikhs are vegetarian through individual choice and vegetarian food is usually served in the Gurdwara, in order that anyone attending is able to share in a meal. Foods might include vegetables, curry, chapattis, pulses and rice. Alcohol is forbidden in in the Gurdwara and in Sikhism.
Fasting is not practised in Sikhism since Guru Nanak taught that it did not necessarily make people closer to God. The most important food in the religion is Kara-Parshad, which is made and eaten both in the Gurdwara and the home. Kara Parshad is made from equal quantities of flour, sugar, melted butter (ghee) and water which are boiled together to make a thick pudding-like consistency. The preparation of kara parshad requires that it is cooked by a person who has recently bathed and who is wearing clean clothes, in a clean kitchen. Sacred songs are often recited during the preparations.
In the Gurdwara the kara parshad is put into a bowl and covered with a clean cloth and taken to stand near the Guru Granth Sahib. The kara prashad is cut with a kirpan or two-edged sword at the end of the service and distributed to all those present, where it is accepted with two hands cupped together and eaten immediately. Sharing the parshad is a symbol of the equality of all people in the sight of God.
Sikhs take great pride in the preparation of food and children learn culinary skills when they are very young.
A Story from Guru Nanak THE NEEDLE STORY Guru Nanak used to travel from village to village along dusty roads of India. One day he came to a town and saw a house decorated with dozens of flags. The local people told him that the man who lived there was very rich and every time he got another thousand rupees he flew another flag. “This man needs some guidance”, thought Guru Nanak. “He has got it all wrong. Money is no use unless you use it to help other people”.
He went to see the man, who was called Duni Chand, and gave him a needle. “Look after this needle and give it back to me when we meet in the next world”, he said.
Duni Chand took the needle back to his wife. “This man must be mad”, he said. They both decided to go back to the Guru and return his needles. “We can’t do it”, they told him. “We can’t take anything with us into the next world”.
Guru Nanak smiled and asked them “Why are you saving up all this money then?” The couple looked shocked – they had not thought of that before. “There is only one thing you can take into the next world”, he told them, “ .. the kindness you have done in this life”.
Duni Chand learned his lesson. He did not give up his business in Lahore but he did use all his money to help the poorer people who lived near him.
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE Guru Arjan is associated with building the first Gurdwara at Amritsar, after excavating the lake.
The present Golden Temple dates from the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh – about 1801. Today Amritsar is the centre of trade and learning and has many famous buildings as well as the Golden Temple. There is a tower, a museum, castle and a university.
Sikhs regard the Golden Temple (Harmandir) as an important focal point to their faith.
It is traditional to place marigolds or any other flowers near the Guru Granth Sahib. This is because the colour is associated with the saffron robes of the first initiated Sikhs who volunteered to follow Guru Gobind Singh. The Sikh flag is also saffron coloured.
The Gurdwara was called Harmandir which means “Temple of God”. It has four entrances (one on each side) to show people it is open to everyone – a Sikh or non-Sikh.
The outside walls are covered with gold leaf, the inside has floral designs on the walls.
The Golden Temple can only be reached from a 60 metre causeway across the lake.
In common with all Gurdwaras the Golden Temple has a Langar or Free Kitchen. Today there has had to be an extension to the Langar facilities to deal with the vast numbers of people who visit the Golden Temple. The original Langar and the new one are fully used all day to cope with the visitors’ needs.
THE STORY OF AMRITSAR A beautiful young woman once married a leper. This was at the result of her father’s hatred at her acceptance of the Sikh faith. She was devoted to her task of caring for her husband. Their exclusion from the community led them to travel. During one of their journeys they came to Amritsar where the woman left her husband sitting on the banks of the lake. He decided to have a bathe, keeping one finger out of the water.
When his wife returned she found a very handsome young man sitting where she had left her husband. He identified himself by showing her his infected finger. She was amazed as he dipped his finger back into the lake and it was instantly cured.
The young woman was overjoyed at the miracle and word soon spread throughout India about the powers of the waters of Amritsar.
Today the Golden Temple stands in the middle of that lake and people bathe there regularly.
The word Amritsar means “pool of nectar”.