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Guru Nanak with Hindu holymen

The Roots of Sikhism

The youngest of the world’s major religions, Sikhism is just five centuries old. The religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of what is now northern India and Pakistan. He began preaching the message “Ek Ong Kaar,” positing that all people are created by one creator, and rejected the caste system and religious sectarianism. These were radical beliefs during a time when religious factions and political divisions plagued the region.

By aligning himself with no religion, Guru Nanak aligned himself with all religions. He criticized superstition and social injustice and believed that people could experience God from within themselves, emphasizing a practical daily life of dedication rather than an explicitly monastic life. His followers took on the name Sikhs, or learners.

The Last Living Guru

An illustration of four bearded men in turbans and white robes
Guru Gobind Singh (with bird)
encounters Guru Nanak Dev

Before his death, Guru Nanak passed on the leadership of the new Sikh religion to the first of nine successive Gurus. The last of these living Gurus, Gobind Singh, died in 1708. He decided that the Sikhs no longer needed a living leader, and appointed as his successor Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of writings by Sikh Gurus and others. Sikhs can read the Guru Granth Sahib in a Sikh temple, or Gurdwara, or in their own homes.

Guru Gobind Singh was also responsible for creating the Khalsa order of soldier-saints, which outlined the Sikh virtues of dedication, social consciousness and commitment. The Khalsa are men and women who have been baptized as Sikhs and follow the Sikh Code of Conduct and Conventions. This involves wearing prescribed physical articles of the faith, including uncut hair, the turban and the kirpan, or ceremonial sword.

The Sikh Diaspora

A black-and-white photograph of lines of troops standing
The Queen's Sikh Indian troops on guard in grounds of summer palace near Peking, China,1902

Sikhs have been religiously persecuted, attacked both by British colonialists in the 19th century and by members of other religions in India, where they are a minority. During World War I and World War II, more than 83,000 Sikh soldiers died fighting for the British and U.S. Army. Sikhs also fought in India’s struggles for independence against the British. When the country was divided following the end of colonialist rule in 1947, the Sikh area of Punjab was split into both India and Pakistan.

Sikhs have lived in the United States for more than 100 years. They began immigrating in 1897, from India as well as other countries. In the early 20th century, thousands of U.S. Sikhs worked on farms, in lumber mills and mines and on the Pacific and Eastern Railroad. Although U.S. laws prevented them from buying land and gaining citizenship, many Sikh men married women outside their religion. In 1912, the first Sikh temple was established in Stockton, California.

In 1984, the Indian Army invaded and destroyed the Golden Temple complex, a sacred Sikh shrine. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant Sikh leader, had been using the shrine as a refuge. The incident was a linchpin for Sikh unity around the globe.

Sikhs Today

A color photograph of a group of Sikh men, women and children

A second wave of Sikh international immigration followed the U.S. immigration law changes of 1965. Today, there are 23 million Sikhs worldwide. One million Sikhs live in North America, including 250,000 in the United States, many in major metropolitan areas such as New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.

According to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, there are 255 Sikh temples and centers in the U.S. Fifteen thousand Sikh Americans live in the Greater Sacramento area of California. Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian American Congress member, was a Sikh. Three percent of Canada’s population is Sikh, including 10 of its Parliament members and the ex-premier of British Columbia. In comparison, less than two percent of India’s population is Sikh. In 2004, Manmohan Singh became the first Sikh Prime Minister of India.

Learn more about Sikh beliefs and practices >>

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