Sikhism Theory and Origins


The founder of the Sikh religion was ironically born into a Hindu family; his name was Guru Nanak Dev Ji. He became the disciple responsible for spreading the truth, word of God’s will and reverence. These were key principles he believed and preached which will be discussed in this paper, namely working honestly and to the best of your ability, sharing your wealth with those less fortunate through charity and kindness and lastly but most importantly remembering the name of God and praising He who provides life and sustenance which are all commonly known as the Three Pillars of Sikhism. Furthermore, the article will highlight other popular aspects of the Sikh way of life and practice which include a brief analysis of the historical circumstances surrounding the conception of this religion.

Origin of the Sikh religion

Most historical accounts and literary records of the origin of the Sikh religion are through the eyes of Anglophone writers such as Hew McLeod who has authored “Sikhism” and “Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism.” An important part of Sikh history is retold through stories of the life of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, which are commonly referred to as “Janam Sakhis” (McLeod, 1997, p.3). Guru Nanak Dev Ji, (1469-1538) was born in Sultanpur and historical accounts state he received a vision to preach the way to enlightenment and God. He taught a strict monotheism, which meant there is only one God, formless and omnipresent, as well as a brotherhood of humanity, humility, charity, and sharing. He rejected idol worship and the oppressive Hindu concept of the caste system.

The first concept practiced and taught by Guru Nanak Dev Ji is that working honestly and to the best of your ability is one of the fundamental values and lifestyle practices of any human being. The term called “kirit karni” means to earn an honest and dedicated living by exercising the skills, abilities, talents and hard labor which an individual has been blessed with, for the benefit and improvement of themselves, their families and society. He advocated working with conviction, being dedicated and honest and to focus; not to be lazy and to waste your life to time. To do these things without ‘personal gain’ becoming your main motivation.

As mentioned previously much of the historical data and records of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s life are recounted in the form of stories or folk tales, which were transmitted by word of mouth scripted by one of the Guru’s followers and assistants named Bhai (Brother) Bala. Janamsakhis or folk tales aptly called “living by honest means” detailed the emphasis of the followers of this religion to undertake honest hard labor for making a living. Asceticism, as Guru Nanak’s father dismayed was explicitly rejected and instead, a disciplined worldliness and family life were set forth as the proper course. Living a simple life, through honest hard labor and resulting out of that, hard-earned money as well as donating some of that money in the name of the Lord, was the moral way to bring up the family.

The Guru himself ensured that there was practice behind the principles and values that he was preaching to his followers. He was born into an agriculture/subsistence household and had set his examples by working with his hands in the family’s fields for the remaining about 18 to 20 years of his life at Kartarpur. He emphasizes this in one of the famous hymns, also known as a “Shabad” which makes up the religious scriptures (

“Men without divine knowledge sing hymns. The Hungry Mulla maketh a home of his mosque. One who earneth nothing sitteth his ears; Another becometh a beggar and loseth his caste. Touch not at all the feet of those who call themselves gurus and pirs, and go begging. They who eat the fruit of their labor and bestow something in the name of Lord, O Nanak, recognize the right way.”

The second Janamsakhi details both the Guru’s practice and belief in the first basic principle or pillar of Sikhism to earn an honest living, as well as the second pillar, which is to enjoy the fruits of your labor by sharing with others who need it. It was popularly claimed in that time by many of the people who were close with the family, that Guru Nanak was a saint and ill-treated by his father perhaps through misunderstanding or ignorance. The founder’s brother in law had promised to find a job for him in a village known as Sultanpur. Once again he put practice behind his messages of working hard in honest labor to earn a living, and the Guru was offered the position of a storekeeper in a granary. As per the Janamsakhi account, one day he was weighing provisions and was counting each weighing saying,”Tera, tera, tera,…….” a word which has double meaning including the number 13, and religion reference to “Thine.” At this point, the Guru simply measured, weighed and distributed while continuing this mantra and it seemed the grain was being distributed in larger quantities than usual. In the spirit of his generosity and with his faith in God that the store owner would be blessed for these actions, he continued to provide for the customers until the reserve was finished. The customers did not know how to carry the bountiful gifts of this storekeeper, nor could they understand the bounties of the Lord behind the action. Ultimately the situation reached its climax when the Guru was charged for recklessly giving away the grain. When the owner ordered an inquiry, they were surprised when the stores were found full and the accounts showed a balance in favor of the Guru. After that, the Guru sent in his resignation to the employer to embark on his divine mission.

However miraculous and unimaginable the story seems its purpose in a Janamsakhi was to tell the events and encourage not only admiration but faith of the followers of the Sikh religion, in the divine power of God, and support that those who donate and give charitably with good intentions and no thought to what profits they themselves may gain are the truly rich people in life. This message can be seen throughout the stories of the founder’s life and serve as examples of how he practiced the concepts and exemplified the type of individuals he wanted his followers to be.

The second pillar or concept, which Guru Nanak Dev Ji advocated and preached for, was for sharing your wealth with those less fortunate through charity and kindness. The term “Vand ke Chakna” means to distribute what you have and enjoy with others and is a principle to share what you have and to consume it together as a community. This could be money, food, objects or equipment, etc. The term is also used to mean to share one’s wealth with others in the community, to give to charity, to distribute in Langar, which is a free kitchen found in every Sikh temple and to generally help others in the community who need help. A Sikh is expected to contribute at least 10% of their wealth/income to the needy people of the world or to a worthy cause. To share the fruits of one’s labor with others before considering oneself. Thus, to live as an inspiration and support to the entire community.

During his early years as he was growing up, Guru Nanak’s father had insisted that he find employment and earn a living instead of spending his time in the meandering forests, reflecting on God. He disagreed with much of what the Guru had accepted and practiced in his daily life. A particular Janamsakhi details the story of how Guru Nanak chose to share his wealth with those who needed it most. Titled, “true bargain,” the Janamsakhi details the story of when Guru Nanak’s father wanted to test his son for his ability and aptitude in working and earning a living with the rest of the family. He gave the Guru twenty rupees and sent him to the nearest town, to buy some goods of common use at an inexpensive rate and then in turn, sell them at a profit. The family servant Bala was also sent with him and along their way, the Guru saw a group of faqirs (ascetics) who as he discovered through conversation, had been hungry for several days. The Guru spent all the money in feeding the faqirs and called it a true bargain. He realized the nature of his act and did not go home but sat under a tree outside his village. Bala went home and he narrated the whole story to the Guru’s father, who became livid with this apparent waste and loss of money. The Guru explained to him that he could not think of a more profitable bargain of feeding the hungry and providing for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

This is one of the fundamental beliefs and pillars of Sikhism; to be generous with one’s fortune and share it to provide food, shelter, clothing, and money for the people in society who cannot provide for themselves. Kindness, charity, and goodwill toward the brotherhood of humanity are the most important philosophies which the founder of Sikhism wanted to instill in his followers.

Despite the fact that he was discouraged, taunted and maybe even insulted for his beliefs, the founder of the Sikh religion was steadfast and negativity failed to have any effect on Guru’s disinclination towards the ordinary world affairs. Throughout his employment, work at home in the village and fields of his residence and throughout his journeys, the historical accounts of this saint indicate that while he was working, no matter what task he had been performing he was witnessed as always meditating or reciting the sacred hymns in reverence to God.

This introduces the third pillar and most important facet of the Sikh religion and tradition as reverence and a lifestyle devoted to the word and will of God. The term “Naam Japo” is in reference to the remembrance of God by repeating and focusing the mind on His name which varies from “Waheguru” to “Satnam” and so on, but these two being the most common. This being a main pillar of Sikhism, the term is used to refer to very important activity in the everyday life of a Sikh – the singing, quiet meditation, listening of a sacred text or sacred words with critical importance given to the meditation in the Guru Granth Sahib. There are very strict guidelines for a baptized Sikh and these are dictated in what is known as the “Rehit Mariyada” which was formulated by the tenth Guru; Guru Gobind Singh.

Part of the daily worship of God expected from any Sikh demands that the individual pray daily in the morning and in the evening incorporating reverence into part of his or her everyday routine. As per the tenets of the Sikh faith, the main prohibitions are from eating meat, as it was also once a living creature of God’s and should not be consumed for the pleasure of the palette; and from cutting their hair because that was their God-given nature at birth and should not be destroyed or shorn in any way to preserve the natural state of their body.

In reference to the third most important pillar of the sikh faith, a Janamsakhi dictates the epiphany that Guru Nanak experienced at the age of thirty; while Guru Nanak was out one morning he was supposedly gone missing and was presumed to have drowned after going for one of his morning baths to a local stream. Within a three day period, he had reappeared in what was recorded to be meditative, trance-like state. The first of his famous words “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” began at that moment and thus commenced the reign of Guru Nanak who would spread the teachings of what became known as Sikhism.

He began with the basic message and principles discussed in this paper thus far which consisted of the three fundamental pillars of the religion. Guru Nanak Dev Ji was a humanitarian in every sense of the word, and through his famous quote stating, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” he began a revolutionary movement of people from those various backgrounds coming together despite their differences and confusions of the world history and rulers of the kingdom around them, to learn and practice a new religion which advocated brotherhood, universal truth, equality and living an honest life. Much of the Guru’s teachings and poetry, which he often wrote to praise God through songs that became hymns, are contained in the Sikh scriptures.

The ultimate goal of a Sikh follower is to attain unity with God through the blessed union of the human soul, with its creator.

This is said to be accomplished through the practice of daily meditation, working in honest labor and earning a living to support one’s family and providing for the care of others and those less fortunate through kind acts, charity and help wherever and whenever it may be required. In retrospect, it seemed to be a simple solution to a widespread problem, for historically in India the region of Punjab (presently part of which is in Pakistan) had been marred with interracial conflict and wars by rulers attempting to convert people of their religions. Muslim rulers set out their armies to attack entire villages and kill or maim anyone who refused to convert to the religion of Islam. These innocent victims were both Hindu religious followers and the newly formed Sikh religious followers.

Historical accounts indicate that the religion began with a small following naturally, however, grew rapidly due to its ease, simplicity of practice and practicality in monotheism. Ironically Guru Nanak Dev Ji was himself born into a Hindu family, and perhaps by taking the best practices and traditional beliefs of the religion, he created a new, simplified and practical new one. It became even more practical as the religion progressed and grew rapidly through the region of Punjab, and culturally the idea of Sikhs being recognized as saintly soldiers of God was widespread at the onset of the Mughal (Muslim) regime.

Simultaneously, Guru Nanak was transferring down the reign of the Guruship however he chose neither of his sons as his successor. After a series of tests and displays of loyalty, courage, adherence to the strict principles and practices of Sikhism and belief in the divine spirit, Guru Nanak chose one of his followers who displayed the conviction of a true and loyal worshipper of God to continue to spread his teachings and the tenets of the religion. The Guru, “knowing that his time to depart was approaching had to appoint his successor. His sons had disobeyed him and so they did not prove themselves to be worthy of Guruship” and he did not believe they would practice and teach the tenets of the religion as faithfully and fervently as he did (McLeod, 1997).

When Guruship was passed on to the next Guru Angad, people realized that Guru Nanak was soon to depart from the world and his followers and believers in the newly created religion, Sikhs, Hindus, and even the Muslims came from all across the country to have one last holy glimpse of Guru Nanak, the disciple of God. Since his message and throughout his reign, the Guru traveled far and wide around India and the Middle East and what are present-day parts of Pakistan and therefore he had not only a cast of followers, believers and practicing Sikhs, but he had the type of nature and humanitarian personality which so many non-Sikhs loved.

His message was a global one, applicable to all of mankind and it is not surprising then when Muslim devotees wanted to bury him after his death there was a conflict with the Hindu followers who desired to cremate his body. He was a man of the people and catered to Muslims, Hindus and the Sikhs alike, so there was a discrepancy as to who really had the right to his remains. Since the Sikh tradition practices cremation, it is unclear as to why it was such a difficult decision but here again, is the difficulty in reliance upon the historical texts or Janamsakhi accounts which may or may not be valid. As the Janamsakhi dictates, the story is, when the Guru was asked for his decision, he replied, “Let the Hindus place flowers on my right and the Muslims on my left. Those whose flowers are found fresh in the morning may have the disposal rights of my body.” The Guru drew a sheet over him and when the sheet was removed the next morning, his body was not found underneath but the flowers on both sides remained fresh.

What is thought to have happened is the abstract notion of the soul of Guru Nanak, referred to as “the light” had blended with light and the spirit of God, and he merged with his Master? ( It seems to suggest that the Guru was not a body but was a divine light in human form, who had come to earth as God’s messenger to preach and put into practice a common, simple, monotheistic religion which would focus its follower’s energies on the worship and reverence of only one God, without the need for fancy idols and rituals. The Hindus and the Muslims removed their respectively placed flowers and cut the sheet into two. The former cremated the sheet and the latter buried it as per the rites of their own religions. The Sikh followers revere the founder of their religion and in his honor had built a Gurdwara (a Sikh temple/place of worship) at that site, while the Muslims created a tomb in his honor on the bank of River Ravi. The river has since washed both away and destroyed them.

In conclusion, it is evident that this relatively new religion to the world originated from the creativity, divinity, and persistence of a divine messenger from God, named Guru Nanak. He believed in the presence and worship of one God who is the provider and sustenance of life and carefully dictated a regime of daily worship and reverence to this formless spirit, to attain a peaceful and happy life. He also put into practice the three pillars of Sikhism, which serve as the base of this religion including every Sikh individual’s right and responsibility to work hard in life and earn an honest living. His followers are also expected to share their wealth, skills, abilities and time to serve, help and protect the less fortunate members of society with donations, charity work and humanitarian aid wherever and whenever they are needed. Lastly, he preached for Sikhs to worship and pray to the one God who has provided the human race with life and He who provides everything in the world, as Creator and Destroyer. He discouraged the worship of idols and what he thought were fruitless ritual practices conjured up originally perhaps by some enthusiastic businessmen. He created a universal religion, one that does not have any complicated methods or expectations, but which serves the needs of humanity. Since his passing the religion had grown into a succession of ten Gurus over 400 years and has an immense following and population throughout the world.

References web site. (2004). “Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji” Retrieved from
McLeod, Hew. (1997) Sikhism. Penguin Books: London. Pp. 8-23.
McLeod, W.H. (1984) Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism University of Chicago Press: USA. Pp. 5-15

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