Fact sheets

An Introduction to SIKHISM in Australia

Sikhism was founded in the fifteenth century in the Punjab, a part of India which is now in Pakistan. Sikhs believe that there is only one God, the same God for people of all religions. Sikhs believe that the soul goes through cycles of births and deaths before it reaches the human form (samsara). They also believe that actions from one life affect the next life (karma).The goal of a Sikh is to build a close and loving relationship with God through living a pure and honest life (kirat karni), meditating on the name of God (nam japna), and sharing through charitable work (vand shakna). People of different races, religions or sex are all equal.

Sikhism is based on the teachings of the ten Gurus from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh as recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh's holy book and final Guru. In the Punjabi language 'Sikh' means a pupil or follower and 'Guru' is a title for a respected religious teacher.

Sikhism began with Guru Nanak who was born in 1469CE in a village called Talwindi. His parents were Hindus who belonged to the Kshatriyas, the social caste of soldiers and rulers . When he grew up he worked in a government office with Muslims. He was a very religious man and studied both religions. When he was about thirty he went to bathe in a river and disappeared for three days. He returned and said that he had had a vision in which he learned that it is not the religion that people follow but the way they live and their knowing God that is important. He had seen God who had blessed him and told him to spend the rest of his life teaching.

For the next twenty years Guru Nanak travelled and taught, making four long journeys. He went all over India, to Arabia and to the countries that are now called Iraq, Tibet and Sri Lanka. Finally he settled in Kartapur with a group of followers, the first Sikhs. The Hindu caste system divided people strictly into social groups but Guru Nanak taught that all people were equal. His followers came from all social groups but they learned, meditated, sang hymns and ate together. Just before Guru Nanak passed away he named one of his closest followers, Guru Angad to succeed him. Thereafter each of the ten Gurus nominated his successor.

Guru Angad made a collection of Guru Nanak's hymns and developed Gurmukhi a writing system with which to record them. At that time the Punjabi language, spoken by most Sikhs, had no accurate written form. The fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev collected together the writings of the first four Gurus, some of his own and some from Hindu and Muslim holy men whose ideas agreed with the Gurus into a book called the Adi Granth. In 1604 the Adi Granth was installed in the Harimandir Sahib (Temple of God) in Amritsar where it remains today.

The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh made the final additions to the Adi Granth and, declaring it complete, said that it should be the next and only Guru. It is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Every copy of the Guru Granth Sahib is an exact replica of the original and is always 1,430 pages long.

In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh asked an assembly of Sikhs if any were willing to die for their faith. Five men stepped forward and became known as the panj piare, the five beloved ones, because of their courage and loyalty. They were the first members of a new group, the Khalsa which means 'the pure ones'. Everyone then shared amrit, a sweet mixture. As a further symbol of equality the Guru said that Sikhs should share the same names, Singh (lion) for men and Kaur (lioness or princess) for women.

Sikhs now become members of the Khalsa through the Amrit ceremony and as full members of their religion wear five symbols. These are called the five Ks because in Punjabi each one begins with the letter K. Kesh means 'uncut hair'. Sikhs do not cut their hair or shave and wear turbans from about the age of eleven. The kangha is a small wooden comb, a symbol of cleanliness. The kirpan is a short sword reminding Sikhs of their duty to fight against evil. The kara is a plain steel bangle symbolising one God and one truth, without beginning or end. Kachera are warrior shorts now worn as underwear which were different from the current dress. They symbolise leaving behind old ideas and following better ones.

The Khanda is the symbol of the Sikhs. It is made up of two swords (kirpans) symbolising fighting for what is right, surrounding a circular weapon (chakram) symbolising that God is one, without beginning or end. In the centre is a two-edged sword (Khanda) which gives the symbol its name. The Nishan Sahib is a triangular flag which flies above every gurdwara. It is saffron coloured with the Khanda emblem in the middle. The flagpost has a Khanda on top. 'Ik Onkar' (There is Only One God) in Gurmukhi script are the first two words in the Guru Granth Sahib and another important emblem.

The Sikh place of worship is called a gurdwara which means Guru's door. Every gurdwara has the Guru Granth Sahib on a special stool (manji) on a throne (takht) at the front of the room used for worship (the diwan hall). There is always a kitchen and a dining room because sharing a meal (langar) together after the service is an essential part of Sikh worship. Larger gurdwaras may have a library, classrooms where Punjabi is taught, offices and even guestrooms for overnight visitors. Each gurdwara is managed by a committee elected by the congregation (the Sangat). Every gurdwara flies the Nishan Sahib. There are five special gurdwaras in India called the Five Takhts (thrones) which all have connections to the Gurus.

Sikhs have two types of festivals. The more important ones are gurpurbs (holy days in honour of the Guru) which celebrate the birth or death of a Guru . The celebration of the birthday of Guru Nanak in November lasts for three days. The birthday of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh in December is also important. He instigated the Khalsa and the Guru Granth Sahib as the ultimate Guru. The death of the fifth Guru and first Sikh martyr, Guru Arjan is commemorated as is the death of the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur who gave his life for Hindu religious freedom.

The other festivals are melas or fairs which often relate to particular towns or areas. Melas provide opportunities for Sikhs to care for other people (sewa). Sikhs give money to charity and food to the poor. They also donate their time and skills in the service of others. Along with Hindus, Sikhs celebrate Divali, the festival of lights, but the significance is different. Sikhs remember the release of Guru Har Gobind by the Emperor Jehangir from prison and his clever plan which enabled 52 Hindu princes (rajas) to be freed with him. Baisakhi is the spring festival when the Amrit ceremony often takes place. An important part of most festivals is the Akhand Path, the continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib by members of the Sanga which takes about 48 hours.

Today Sikhism is the world's 5th largest religion with a following of over 20 million. Most Sikhs live in the Punjab and neighbouring Indian states but there are about 400,000 in the UK, 350,000 in the United States, 300,000 in Canada and smaller communities in Europe, Africa, South-east Asia and Australia.

It is difficult to separate the history of early Sikh arrivals in Australia from that of others from South Asia. It appears that the first Sikhs came sometime after the 1830s to work as shepherds and farm labourers. In the 1860s cameleers commonly called 'Ghans' (short for Afghans) were brought to Australia. Amongst them were many Sikhs. They worked as camel-drivers taking part in exploration of the interior or set up camel-breeding stations or caravanserais. Other Sikhs arrived as free settlers and worked as hawkers and were joined by some of the earlier cameleers. Some hawkers became so successful they had their own stores. In 1890 Baba Ram Singh and Otim (Uttam) Singh arrived and in 1907 established "The People Stores". Baba Ram Singh lived to be 106. He is thought to have brought the first Guru Granth Sahib to Australia in the early 1920s. As their families were not allowed to join these early pioneers many travelled back and forth finally returning to their original homeland to retire.

In the 1890s nearly 250 Sikhs worked on the sugar cane fields in Queensland. Others worked clearing bushland and establishing pastures for sheep and cattle. Later some Sikhs moved south to the New South Wales north coast, continued farming, established communities and built Australia's first purpose-built gurdwara in Woolgoolga.

From 1901 until the 1970s Government policy made immigration for Sikhs difficult and there were few new arrivals. However since then Sikh settlers mainly from India and Sri Lanka but also from other countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and the United Kingdom have come to Australia. There are now over 12,000 Sikhs in Australia.

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Theme: Cultural diversity and multiculturalism