Neither Hindu nor Muslim: Inside the Universal Brotherhood of Sikhism


C. Wayne Mayhall and Natun Bhattacharya

Article ID:



Mar 5, 2024


Feb 24, 2011

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 2 (2007). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.



Sikhism has approximately 25 million followers worldwide, 16 million who reside in the state of Punjab (which straddles Northern India and Pakistan), where the religion originated nearly 500 years ago. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born into Hinduism and familiar with Islam, but disillusioned with both. He nonetheless included some writings of Hindu saints and Muslim mystics in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. According to Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak received special revelation from God asking him to preach the tenets of Sikhism to all religions. Despite the opposition of the Muslim rulers who reigned in India at that time, Sikhism grew under the succeeding gurus. Sikhs place a great deal of importance in the gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib for spiritual guidance.

The Sikh worldview rejects some elements of the Hindu worldview, such as polytheism and the caste system, but accepts others, such as karma and reincarnation. Salvation, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, requires being obedient to the teaching of the gurus, and leads to a union with the Ultimate Reality in Sikhism. The Christian response should show familiarity with the Sikh view and focus on the true nature of the God of the Bible and His offer of grace through salvation in Christ.


July 11, 2004, Rajinder Singh Khalsa and his brother were in front of their family’s restaurant when they were confronted by five angry men. “Give me that dirty curtain,” one of them shouted. Khalsa tried to tell them that it was a turban, not a curtain. “Go back to your country,” shouted another man. “But we are American, where should we go? We are not Iranian. We are not Muslim. We are Sikhs from India,” replied Khalsa. “Then go back to India,” he shot back. At this point verbal abuse became physical violence and the men began beating Khalsa’s brother before turning on him, pummeling him in the face repeatedly. When the whirlwind settled, Khalsa lie unconscious on the sidewalk, his turban, ripped from his bloodied head, trampled underfoot. No one in the crowd who had gathered across the street to watch attempted to intervene.

Valarie Kaur, a third‐generation Sikh American, grew up in Clovis, California, where her family had farmed land since the early 1900s when her grandfather came from India by steamship. In the days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, grief gave way to fear, and fear regressed to violence against anyone who “looked” Arabic. “Sikhs who wore turbans became immediate targets,” Kaur told the Christian Research Journal. “Temples were burned, homes vandalized, people threatened, shot, stabbed.”

The attack against Khalsa and his brother was another in an unpredictable pattern of violence spreading across America. On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, was gardening outside his Mesa, Arizona home when he was shot and killed by a man who called himself a patriot. It was the first of 19 “retribution” murders that would follow in the aftermath of 9/11. These stories traveled by word‐ofmouth to the far reaches of her California farming town, compelling Kaur, who was a Stanford University student at the time, to set off across the United States in a Honda Civic with her cousin to document the madness on film.

“Nearly every person you see in America who wears a turban is a Sikh,” Kaur said. “We heard stories from Muslims, Arabs, and even Latinos who were placed in the ‘Muslim‐looking’ category, until at one point the camera turned 180 degrees on us and people started yelling at us, telling us to go back to our country.” They suddenly realized they were caught up in the whirlwind, too. The difference was that they had a camera to capture the moment.1


Most Americans who come across a turbaned Sikh man are unfamiliar with his beliefs and culture. Informed Americans assume Sikhs to be of Indian origin, but Sikhs themselves would say they are “Punjabi,” from the thriving agricultural state known as Punjab in Northern India, bordering Pakistan.2

A minority Indian religion, there are about 25 million Sikhs globally, 16 million of which make their home in the Punjab. Sikhs began migrating to the West Coast of the United States and to Canada in the early 1900s and started their lives in North America mainly as farm workers who would eventually become farm owners. Today, there are around half a million Sikh followers in the United States, professionals who work in diverse fields such as higher education, medicine, and the high‐tech industry, or who own farms (especially in California) or small businesses. It is not uncommon to see a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.

Sikhs represent less than two percent of the total population of India. They are present in most cities in the country, however, and are prominent in the military, the government, the transportation industry, and in almost all spheres of Indian life.

The current Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, an Oxford‐educated economist and a Sikh, spoke recently about his faith, affirming its relevance today: “The value system, as set out in the Guru Granth Sahib, should be the basis of evolving a worldview aimed at the overall betterment of humanity.”3Sikhism, insists Singh, is the fountainhead of wisdom and its contents are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago.

Pride in Sikh identity is strong not only among Sikhs in India, but also among Sikhs who are dispersed across the globe. The struggle for this identity goes back a long way, and can be traced to the tendency for many in India to perceive Sikhism as a form of Hinduism:

The boundaries between Sikhism and Hinduism were never sharply drawn until very recent times, and in the Punjab it was not uncommon, until the violent secessionist movement of the 1980s began to alter the landscape, for a Hindu family to raise one of their children as a Sikh. Sikhs who have abandoned the most overt marks of their faith, such as unshorn hair, can scarcely be distinguished from the Hindus, and it is not in the least incorrect to suggest that the wrath of orthodox Sikhs are directed as much at moderate Sikhs as at Hindus.4

Many Sikhs in Punjab sought autonomy and independence from India in the 1980s and ’90s, in the creation of a state called Khalistan. The Khalistan movement resulted in intense violence and governmental human rights abuses against Sikhs. This period in their history caused Sikhs to distrust the Hindus, who dominated the Indian political and social scene, even further. The violence began in 1984 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army into the most holy of Sikh sites in Punjab, the Golden Temple, to flush out militant Sikhs who had taken up arms to defend their sacred ground. The bloody confrontation continued beyond the Golden Temple as anti‐Sikh massacres in response to Sikh protest and rioting consumed India’s capital, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent Sikhs. As part of the cycle of violence and retaliations, Indira Gandhi was assassinated shortly thereafter by two of her own Sikh bodyguards.


Sikhism began about 500 years ago with the teachings of its founder Guru Nanak (1469–1539). Nanak was born in a high caste Hindu family but grew weary of the corruption and abuse of the caste system by the Brahmins, those in the highest caste, and of the brash militancy of Muslim rulers during this period. As a young man disillusioned with both Islam and Hinduism, Nanak, according to Sikh tradition, received a divine calling to initiate a new faith. “Nanak experienced the ultimate reality as without form and transcendent, above all things. He did not actually see the ultimate reality in any concrete form. He heard the divine words, the cup of nectar appeared before him, and he drank from it.…thus began the Sikh religion.”5

Despite periods of great persecution by Muslim rulers in India, Sikhism grew steadily and nine other gurus followed Nanak (see table 1), culminating in the tenth guru, Gobind Singh (1675–1708). Today, thousands of sayings, hymns, songs, verses, and poetry from the Sikh gurus and from Hindu saints and Muslim mystics (Sufis) compose the most holy book of Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib (the Book of the Gurus), which is displayed at the center of every Sikh gurdwara in India and abroad.

The Guru Granth Sahib is perceived as the continuation of the legacy of the living guru lineage. In fact, when the tenth guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, died, he ceased the practice of the appointing of the next guru; instead he pointed his followers to the Guru Granth Sahib as their spiritual and religious guide. The reverence accorded to the most holy book of the Sikhs is evidenced by rituals that are strictly observed in any given gurdwara around the world.

Guru Gobind Singh formed Sikhs into a spiritual sister‐ and brotherhood known as the Khalsa (Punjabi for “Pure Ones”) around the year 1699. Its purpose was to seal Sikh identity among Sikhs in the face of severe oppression from Muslim rulers.

The first five members of Khalsa were given the last name Singh, which means “lion.” The last name Singh today is almost universal for Sikh males. Sikh women have the common last name of Kaur, which means “daughter of kings.” Rather than choosing the family names that might represent caste or class, “Singh” and “Kaur” demonstrate a sense of equality in contrast with the Hindu method of naming children.

Five articles of faith were instituted to identify the five Sikhs who were initiated into the Khalsa. These symbols are commonly known as the “Five Ks” (short for the five kakaars) and are observed by Sikh men and women who take amrit, the Sikh baptism:6(1) Kesh: unshorn hair and beard; (2) Kangha: a comb for self‐sufficiency; (3) Kara: a steel bracelet for strength; (4) Kaccha: undergarments for military readiness; and (5) Kirpan: a ceremonial dagger that represents the commitment to stand up and fight injustice.


The Sikh culture is an example of solidarity par excellence. This group of people, through its family life, honest living, and community sharing, has been able to unite to assist each other and to remain, through the years of its comparatively young history on the stage of world religions, unmoved by all the attempts of its enemies to force a Sikh diaspora.

Consider, for example, the institution of Langar (Guru’s free kitchen), which was started by the first guru in the sixteenth century and strengthened by the later gurus. The rules of Langar require that all, whether high or low, rich or poor, should sit in the same row and partake of the same food without anydiscrimination, a practice viewed as adversarial to the Hindu system of caste division. Even Emperor Akbar, ruler of the Mughal Empire of India from 1556 to 1606, had to sit and dine with common people before he could see the guru.

Some may be just cultural Sikhs or secular Sikhs, but most have a degree of familiarity or conversance with their religion. The majority of first‐generation Sikh Americans, regardless of their sacred or secular persuasion, grant that preservation of their unique heritage is priority one.


There is, however, often a big gulf between Sikh immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s and Sikh immigrants who arrived only recently. There is disparity not only in social and economic spheres (many recent immigrants are highly trained professionals), but also in the degree of allegiance to Sikh traditions and faith. North American–born Sikhs are struggling to preserve their identity. Newly immigrated Sikhs are striving to succeed in their new homeland, and seeking to fit in often at the expense of rejecting their Sikh identity.

Having a basic understanding of the nature of Sikhism before launching into a conversation on Christian faith is best. Discovering also what an individual Sikh believes may provide a sense of where he or she is coming from. Asking questions may help to demonstrate a genuine interest in the person. Acknowledging the reverence and devotion the Sikh follower has for his or her religion and realizing that Sikhs, like other South Asians, are relational and community oriented above all else, are also important (see sidebar for an example of these concepts).

Sikh families view conversion to any other faith as a rejection of the community they so deeply value, and will shun the family member who converts. Theological discussions alone are not sufficient in the communication of the gospel to Sikhs. Traditional apologetics should be preceded by “cultural interaction, relationship building and a long term commitment.”7 Mikel Neumann describes these three elements as prerequisites to incarnational ministry, which goes beyond cognitive communication.

Despite adoption of a few religious concepts and a great deal of sayings of Hindu and Muslim saints in the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhs are very aware, and proud, of their own theological distinctiveness. In India, or wherever they are in the world, there are efforts to retain this unique identity. Sikh writings attribute the following saying to Guru Nanak as he was about to discover the new faith: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow the path of God.”8

Sikhs believe that if one is born into the Sikh faith, then that is what one should follow to achieve salvation. They also believe that Christians, Hindus, and Muslims likewise should seek God in their own realm of faith, since, in their view, there are many paths to the divine.


“The Guru is Himself the Transcendent Lord, the Supreme God, Saith Nanak: meditate thou on that Guru.”—Guru Granth Sahib9

How should Christians approach Sikhism? In order to witness effectively to Sikhs, Christians first need to comprehend the Sikh worldview. Simply presenting Christian presuppositions and comparing them with the Sikh worldview will not convince a Sikh of the validity of Christian faith. Sincerely seeking to understand the framework of Sikh religion, way of life, and cultural assumptions and values, however, will open the door for communicating the Christian worldview. The bond of community, importance of family, and deep sense of duty (dharma), service (sewa), and hospitality to others are just a few of the distinctive cultural values Sikhs embrace. Extreme reverence of the Guru Granth Sahib, the place of gurus, the oneness of God, and the all‐encompassing rule of the law of karma are some of the unique religious perspectives Sikhs espouse.

Having begun with such orientation to the Sikh worldview, Christians then can compare it with the Christian worldview (see table 2 for comparison overview). Sharing is best when they remain mindful of the context of Sikhism in the effort to promote a clearer hearing of the Christian message. One of the questions Sikhs may ask Christians up‐front is, “Do you know what a Sikh believes?” A contextualized approach to Christian witness not only makes the gospel more understandable, but also the communicator more credible. After this foundation is laid, the following theological discussion proceeds more effectively.


The best definition that any Sikh can give regarding the concept of God in Sikhism is to quote the Mulmantra—the fundamental creed of Sikhism, which appears at the beginning of the Guru Granth Sahib, volume 1, Japuji, the first verse: “There exists but one God, who is called The True, The Creator, Free from fear and hate, Immortal, Not Begotten, Self‐Existent, Great and Compassionate.”

The Christian concept of God, by contrast, is that God is the God of history. God’s plan for the world is unfolded from Genesis to Revelation. History is the divine purpose of God in concrete form. Many of the fulfilled plans of God since His creation show the evidence that He can be trusted. God is active throughout the history of humankind, first in the account of the Jewish people, and then in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. “The Bible is fundamentally a history book—the history of God’s redemptive acts, past, present and future. This ‘salvation history,’ especially the part called the New Testament, reveals that God is always acting according to His plan. The Bible, therefore, may be best understood as a history of the administration of a single divine plan for the redemption of the cosmos” (emphasis in original).10

The nature of God that emerges from the Bible and the nature of God in the Guru Granth carry somesimilarities cited in the Mulmantra above, but there are fundamental doctrinal distinctives to be weighed, such as God’s triunity, His fatherhood, His communicable attributes, and His covenant relationship with His people.

Sikhs teach that the nature of humanity is essentially good; the divine sparks that are within people need only to be fanned into a flame of goodness. Guru Nanak taught that a person’s sin is caused by environment. These moral lapses may be cleansed through meditation and prayer.11

Christians teach that the nature of humanity is sinful. Unlike in Sikhism, human sin is a crucial part of Christian theology. The Bible teaches that people inherit a sinful nature from Adam. In Romans 8:5–7

Paul talks of human nature directed by sin. This depravity of the sin nature is more than just the acts of transgression. A person’s sin is caused by his or her own nature. Sikhs do not mention the concept of sin at all. Bad actions do lead to bad karma, but bad actions are not considered sins, per se. Bad actions lead to bad retribution, morally speaking. People are not judged according to a divine code; they are judged according to the religious code of ethics and moral conduct that they select and exercise for themselves.

Sikhism tends to place a great deal of emphasis on the works of its followers to attain liberation from the cycle of transmigration and reincarnation. A Sikh can never be certain that even if he or she lives an obedient life, follows the five‐stage path as prescribed by his religion, and recites the name of God and prayers, he can be free from the law of karma and its consequent reincarnations. Would he be reborn in a higher existence or lower existence? Would he reach mukti, or be released into the Ultimate Reality? He doesn’t know, and to a certain extent doesn’t care. For the Sikh, salvation, liberation, and realization of God and self may be achieved here and now through love and service to others. The Sikh mindset is focused on the foreground of the moment, not the background of the afterlife of mystery and wonder.

In contrast, the New Testament Scriptures emphasize that when we put our faith in Christ, we are saved by grace only. Salvation is bestowed as the free gift of God for the undeserving sinner because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross (Rom. 3:24; 2 Cor. 5:18–19; Eph. 2:5–9). This strong theme of assurance for salvation occurs in the New Testament Scriptures time and again.


One of the main objections of Sikhs to Christianity is that it is too exclusive. It is contrary to the Sikh belief in pluralism, that all roads lead to the same God. Christ’s claim in John 14:6–7, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (NIV) is a challenging concept to explain to the Sikhs. No Sikh guru or founder of any major religion ever made this claim, nor could one ever support such an astounding assertion, as Christ did. Christ’s claims to His own uniqueness are backed in the gospels by His sinless life and, above all, resurrection. There are numerous pieces of evidence for the fact of the resurrection in Scripture.12Paul said that Christ’s resurrection provides the “proof” of Christianity. The concluding statement of Paul’s Athenian address was, “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (17:31b).13


In addition to theological refutation, the mention of supernatural encounters of individual Sikhs with God can demonstrate the reality of Christianity. There are many stories of transformed lives, but two well‐known conversions of Sikhs stand out in the Christian history of India.

One Sikh convert, Sadhu Sundar Singh, had a dramatic conversion experience in the early 1900s in Punjab. His encounter with Christ was a powerful testimony of God’s saving grace. He was fourteen when the sudden death of his mother sent him on a downward spiral that began with his persecution of Christian missionaries, who he viewed as representatives of a so‐called loving God who had failed to save his mother. One evening, after burning a Bible page by page for the amusement of his friends, Singh retired to his room with thoughts of suicide, only to confront in the small hours of the morning the risen Christ in a vision that forever changed his destiny. He would survive the horrifying night to become a legendary evangelist and, eventually, die a martyr for the God he once despised.

Another well‐known Sikh convert was Bakht Singh, who was born in Punjab into a devout Sikh family. In the late 1920s, he is believed to have embraced a more liberal lifestyle; then, on a transatlantic voyage, curiosity led him to attend a Christian service. He knelt with the others for prayer, and later wrote, “I was trembling….I felt a divine power entering into me. I was repeating the name of Jesus again and again. I felt great peace”; thus he was won to Christ.14 A Christian who is prepared to present the reality of Christ’s redemption lovingly and relationally with the Sikh mindset in view is well equipped to win more Sikhs to Christ.



  1. From September 2001 to January 2002, Kaur and a cameraman traveled across the country, documenting the crimes of prejudice. In 2004, director Sharat Raju turned the footage into a feature‐length documentary, titled Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, and produced by New Moon Productions. To see a clip of Divided We Fall, visit www.dwf‐ Visit Kaur’s blog at
  2. Manpreet Singh, “Power in Punjab: Christians See Churches and Opposition Grow among Sikhs,” Christianity Today, July 1, 2003,
  3. “PM Exhorts Sikhs to Prepare for Next 400 Years,” Tribune News Service, September 1, 2006,
  4. Vinay Lal, “Sikhism: A Capsule Account,” Manas: India and Its Neighbors,
  5. Nikky‐Guninder Kaur Singh, Sikhism: World Religions (New York: Facts on File, 1993), 21.
  6. Ranbir Singh Sandhu, “Sikhs in America: Stress and Survival,” Sikh Spectrum, no. 4, September 2002,
  7. Mikel Neumann, “The Incarnational Ministry of Jesus,” in Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, ed. Irving Hexham, Stephen Rost, and John W. Morehead II (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 37.
  8. “Sikism [sic],” GodWeb,
  9. Asa Mohalla 5.
  10. Dean Davis, “One Shot, One Bible, One God: Apologetics and the Unity of Scripture,” Christian Research Journal 27, 5 (2004): 37 (
  11. Ram Gidoomal and Margaret Wardell, Lions, Princesses, Gurus: Reaching Your Sikh Neighbor (Godalming, UK: MacLaurin Institute, 1996), 143.
  12. See, for example, Jesus Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, ed. Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000); Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), and Frank Morrison’s classic work on the subject, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958).
  13. Ajith Fernando, The Christian’s Attitude toward World Religions (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 72.
  14. Reuben David, “The Passing of an Era: A Tribute to Bakht Singh,” Urbana,


Table 1:

The Sikh Gurus

Order Guruship Notes
1st guru, Nanak Dev 1469 – 1539 Founded Sikh faith, spoke against the Hindu caste system and the oppression of women
2nd guru, Angad Dev 1539 – 1552 Recorded Guru Nanak’s and his own hymns, built Langars to defy caste rules
3rd guru, Amar Das 1552 – 1574 Emphasized adopting the spirit of selfless service
4th guru, Ram Das 1574 – 1581 Established Amritsar city, where the Golden Temple was built by his successor
5th guru, Arjan Dev 1581 – 1606 Compiled holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and built the Golden Temple
6th guru, Har Gobind 1606 – 1644 Added to the Sikh Way the use of the sword to defend the weak (turning point in Sikh history)
7th guru, Har Rai 1644 – 1661 Preached importance of not causing harm or grief to anyone
8th guru, Har Krishen 1661 – 1664 Began his reign at age five and died three years later (youngest Sikh guru)
9th guru, Tegh Bahadur 1664 – 1675 Resisted conversion to Islam despite being tortured; in anger, the Emperor had him beheaded
10th guru, Gobind Singh 1675 – 1708 Named the Guru Granth Sahib the final guru and teacher of the Sikhs, formed the Khalsa community (last human guru)
11th guru, Granth Sahib 1708 – forever Composed of 5,872 hymns of various authorship and styles (final guru and teacher of the Sikhs)


Table 2:A Comparison of Key Theological Concepts in Christianity and Sikhism 15

Christianity Sikhism
God God is Triune. God is transcendent andimmanent, sovereign, omniscient, andinfinite, yet personal in His dealings with Hispeople throughout history. God is one. God is transcendent andimmanent, with and without personalattributes.
Salvation Salvation is redemption and reconciliationwith God through Christ’s atonement for sinon the cross. It is a gift of God, attainable byHis grace alone. Salvation is freedom from transmigrationand reincarnation and the assimilation intoUltimate Reality as one. It is achievable byboth works and grace.
Scripture The Bible is the source of guidance. Inspiredby God and infallible, it contains historicalrecords of God’s dealings with humanity. The most revered Guru Granth Sahib is thesource of guidance. It contains hymns,poems, songs, and rituals directed to God.
The Human Condition Humans, although created in God’s image,are fallen and sinful, but redeemable byGod’s grace. Humans suffer from self and ego, but canturn toward God by right deeds.
Heaven and Hell Heaven and hell are real. Hell is aconsequence of disobedience to God,although one may be saved from thatdestiny if he has received God’s grace. Heaven and hell are merely symbolic. Someform of “hell” may be one of theconsequences of disobedience to God.
  1. For a detailed account of the history of the guruship in Sikhism, see Sukhbir S. Kapoor, Sikhs and Sikhism (East Sussex, UK:Wayland Publishers Limited, 1982), 16–29. For a brief summary of the history, beliefs, and practices of Sikhism, see WinfriedCorduan, Pocket Guide to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) and C. Wayne Mayhall, Roger Schmidt, et al., Patterns of Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2004).

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