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SikhismSikhism is a religion that originated in South Asia during the 15th Century and is distinct from both Islam and Hinduism. Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that retains some elements of Islam and Hinduism while also defining important differences from them (rejecting, for example, the caste system). It is the fifth largest religion in the world with an estimated 25 million adherents, the majority of them in India, although there has been a substantial diaspora to other areas of the world.

Sikhism has an importance far beyond those numbers because Sikhs have played a disproportionately large role in the armed forces and public affairs in India for the last 400 years. Although most Indian Sikhs (80 percent) remain concentrated in the state of Punjab, nearly 3.5 million Sikhs live outside the state, while about 4 million live abroad. This Sikh diaspora, driven by ambition and economic success, has made Sikhism a world religion as well as a significant minority force within the country.

Baptised Sikhs (Amrit-dhari or Khalsa) constitute an orthodoxy within Sikhism. Non-baptised Sikhs (who form the majority in the UK) are either Kesdhari Sikhs (keep their hair unshorn and wear the outward symbols of the Sikh faith), or Mona Sikhs (retain an affiliation to the Khalsa but remove the outward symbols of the faith). The existence of the Khalsa [the baptised) community] creates a potential division within the Sikh community between those who have undergone the baptism ceremony and those who practice the system laid down in the Guru Granth Sahib but who do not adopt the distinctive life-style of the Khalsa.

Among the latter is a sect of believers founded by Baba Dayal (d. 1853) named the Nirankaris, who concentrate on the formless quality of God and his revelation purely through the guru and the Guru Granth Sahib , and who accept the existence of a living, enlightened teacher as essential for spiritual development. The dominant tendency among the Sikhs since the late nineteenth century has been to stress the importance of the Khalsa and its outward signs.

Revivalist movements of the late nineteenth century centered on the activities of the Singh Sabha (Assembly of Lions), who successfully moved much of the Sikh community toward their own ritual systems and away from Hindu customs, and culminated in the Akali (eternal) mass movement in the 1920s to take control of gurdwaras away from Hindu managers and invest it in an organization representing the Sikhs. The result was passage of the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925, which established the Central Gurdwara Management Committee to manage all Sikh shrines in Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh through an assembly of elected Sikhs. The combined revenues of hundreds of shrines, which collected regular contributions and income from endowments, gave the committee a large operating budget and considerable authority over the religious life of the community.

A simultaneous process led to the Akali Dal (Eternal Party), a political organization that originally coordinated nonviolent agitations to gain control over gurdwaras, then participated in the independence struggle, and since 1947 has competed for control over the Punjab state government. The ideology of the Akali Dal is simple--single-minded devotion to the guru and preservation of the Sikh faith through political power--and the party has served to mobilize a majority of Sikhs in Punjab around issues that stress Sikh separatism.

There is no official priesthood within Sikhism or any widely accepted institutional mechanism for policy making for the entire faith. Instead, decisions are made by communities of believers (sangat ) based on the Guru Granth Sahib --a tradition dating back to the eighteenth century when scattered bodies of believers had to fight against persecution and manage their own affairs. Anyone may study the scriptures intensively and become a "knower" (giani ) who is recognized by fellow believers, and there is a variety of training institutes with full-time students and teachers.

Leaders of sects and sectarian training institutions may feel free to issue their own orders. When these orders are combined with the prestige and power of the Central Gurdwara Management Committee and the Akali Dal, which have explicitly narrow administrative goals and are often faction-ridden, a mixture of images and authority emerges that often leaves the religion as a whole without clear leadership.

Thus it became possible for Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, head of a training institution, to stand forth as a leading authority on the direction of Sikhism; initiate reforms of personal morality; participate in the persecution of Nirankaris; and take effective control of the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, in the early 1980s. His takeover of the Golden Temple led to a violent siege and culminated in the devastation of the shrine by the army in 1984. Later terrorist activities in Punjab, carried out in the name of Sikhism, were performed by a wide range of organizations claiming to represent an authoritative vision of the nature and direction of the community as a whole. The maintenance of a monopoly had up to that time 'been the principal, or perhaps the sole end and purpose of the dominion which Great Britain' had assumed over the colonies. The monopoly was the principal badge of their dependency, and the sole fruit gathered from that dependency. For the sake of that fruit, Great Britain incurred heavy expense in supporting the colonies during peace and defending them during war ; and at the opening of the 19th century, many persons were of opinion that Great Britain would be a stronger and wealthier nation without her colonies.

The first blow was struck by Wallace in 1822; the last blow was dealt to it by Russell in 1850. Eight-and-twenty years were, perhaps, not too long a period for the destruction of a policy which had been a century and a half in consummating. Before, however, the mercantile system fell, one of its chiefest and most characteristic achievements was destroyed. The mercantile system survived in its integrity for the first quarter, and partially endured for the first half, of the nineteenth century; but the trade in slaves its pampered offspring perished prematurely in 1807.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:13:28 ZULU