Cheat Sheet

A Dummy’s Guide to Sikhism

Sunday’s tragic shooting has brought attention to a religious group often misunderstood. From its origins in India to why followers wear turbans, a brief primer on the faith.

08.06.12 8:13 PM ET

The tragic temple shooting in Wisconsin has brought the usually low-profile religion of Sikhism into the spotlight. With over 300,000 Sikhs living in The United States, by some estimates, and over 25 million followers worldwide, it bears clarification—just what exactly do Sikhs believe? Here’s a simple cheat sheet for the world’s 5th-largest religion.

First off, how do you pronounce the word Sikh?

While pronouncing the word as “seek” is quite common—and listed as correct in sources like—the more accurate pronunciation is to use the same vowel sound as “seek,” but both the letters “k” and “h” pronounced, as in Mikhail Gorbachev. The word Sikh means “disciple” in Punjabi.

Is Sikhism an ancient religion?

Actually, it’s one of the youngest. It was founded roughly 500 years ago by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of South Asia.

What are the basic tenets of Sikhism?

Sikhism holds that there is one God, or Waheguru, that is described in the religion’s scripture—the Gurū Graṅth Sāhib—as “shapeless, timeless, sightless” and omnipresent. Sikhs also believe that the soul goes through multiple cycles of births and deaths before reaching human form. Spiritual union with God—often practiced through meditation—is the ultimate goal of human life.

And what does that look like in modern practice, exactly?

According to The Sikh Coalition, a non-profit group that promotes Sikh civil rights, modern Sikhism “preaches a message of devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings and social justice, while emphatically denouncing superstitions and blind rituals.”

So is Sikhism a sect of Hinduism or Islam?

Not at all. Sikhism is not a sect of any other religion, and was founded by Guru Nanak as a unique faith that rejected many Hindu and Islamic tenets. Sikhism condemns practices such as pilgrimages and worship of idolatry as examples of “blind” ritual, according to The Sikh Coalition.

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Why do Sikhs wear turbans?

Turbans are worn because of one of the five articles of faith—also known as “The Five Ks”—states that all baptized Sikhs are obliged to wear uncut hair. The Five Ks all Sikhs are obliged to wear are:

•    Kesh (uncut hair, which is usually tied and wrapped in a Turban, or Dastar)

•    Kanga (a wooden comb, usually worn under the Dastar )

•    Katchera (cotton underwear worn as a reminder of the commitment to purity)

•    Kara (an iron bracelet, worn as a symbol of eternity)

•    Kirpan (a curved sword, worn in different sizes—sometimes a small sharp dagger, sometimes the traditional curved sword, from one to three feet in length)

Wait, what was that about a giant sword?

All baptized Sikhs are ordered by the tenth Sikh Guru to wear a ceremonial dagger in order to represent a commitment to self-defense and what The Sikh Coalition calls a “capacity and readiness to always defend the weak and the oppressed.”

Do women have the same rights and obligations as Sikh men?

Yes, in fact. Sikhism doesn’t differentiate between gender obligations, and was one of the first religions to put forward the idea that men and women are equal. Women may lead religious congregations, though in cultural practice, it isn’t common.

Do Sikhs have holidays?

Technically, no—that would be a blind ritual. Since each day is supposed to be approached as a rebirth, every day should be seen as an equal opportunity to get closer to God.

Do Sikhs have any dietary restrictions?

Since Sikhs denounce ritual superstition, the only dietary restriction is that a Sikh should not eat ritually-blessed food, such as Kosher or Halal cuisine. Sikhs are also not supposed to consume alcohol, which is viewed as a distracting intoxicant.