A monotheistic religion, Sikhism was founded in the 15th century in the Punjab by Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Contemporary Sikhism is based on the spiritual precepts of Guru Nanak and the nine Sikh gurus who followed him, and the holy book called the Adi Granth. Sikh society centres around the gurudwaras or communal centres of worship.
Sikhism was born in India at a time when devotional mysticism swept over the sub-continent, stimulated by the inter-action of Islam and Hinduism, both trying to exist harmoniously within the other's ambit. The mysticism was represented by Sufi saints in the case of Islam, and by the Bhakti saints of Hinduism and they garnered followers of every creed. Sikhism has elements of both Hinduism and Islam but above all it is considered an independent revelation from God to the Gurus.
Image: Gouache painting showing a Sikh ruler, from a set of Company Paintings.
The fifth Guru, Arjan (1581-1606), founded the Golden Temple, the shrine of the Sikhs at Amritsar, and compiled the sacred hymns of the canon of the Adi Granth. He was executed by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir for perceived support of a rebellious son, and this caused a militaristic tradition to rise in the Sikhs, forged by the last Guru, Gobind Singh (1675-1708). He institutionalised the five 'Ks' of the Sikh religion: kes (unshorn hair), kara (steel bracelet), kaccha (shorts), kanga (comb) and kirpan (dagger).
Taking the name of 'Singh' or lion all Sikh men had to bear the five Ks. He also declared that after him the Granth or Book would serve as Guru and ended spiritual succession. The Sikh identity was further bolstered by the kingdom of Sikhs established in the Punjab by Maharaja Ranjit Singh (reigned 1799-1839).
Sikhs believe in the omnipotence of one supreme God whose worship is their main duty. They believe that turning to God will result in freeing oneself from karma and the cycle of rebirth. Sikhs reject idolatry, priesthood, rituals and caste, and believe instead in generosity and good actions.