Guru Nanak Dev founded Sikhism in the fifteenth century in Punjab India. The religion went through a unique formation process. Nine Sikh Gurus followed the founder in succession over a period of 239 years (1469-1708). In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, ended the line of personal Gurus by proclaiming Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), Sikh Holy Scripture, as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs.
Sikhism is not a blend of Hinduism and Islam as is often stated. It is a new revelation altogether. Sikhs believe that the teachings that Sikh Gurus gave the world came direct to them from God. Guru Nanak said to one of his disciples, Bhai Lalo: O’ Lalo, as the word of the Lord comes to me, so do I express it ( SGGS p. 722).This view was repeatedly confirmed and emphasised by all the Sikh Gurus.
The Sikh Gurus provided a revolutionary system of thought, aimed at the spiritual social and political regeneration of the people. The Sikh Gurus preached the unity of God. There is only One God of all humankind they said, and emphasised the ideals of Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man. They preached equality of people including gender equality. Sikh Gurus were against the worship of idols, rejected ritualism and ceremonialism and emphasised the seeking of the Divine within. The Gurus taught the Sikhs the possibility of direct Communion between human beings and God. They declared that people should strive to develop God consciousness and carry out God’s will on earth. They preached and practised the principles of equality, freedom and justice at a risk to their lives. Two Gurus were martyred (fifth Guru Arjan Dev and the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur) for upholding their beliefs of equality and the freedom of practice of faith.
In this section we will very briefly review the contribution of each Sikh Guru to the development of the Sikh Faith and institutions.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539)
Guru Nanak was born in 1469 at Talwandi (near Lahore) now known as Nankana Sahib, located in Punjab Province of Pakistan. His father Mehta Kalu was an accountant of land revenue in the government. Guru’s mother was Mata Tripta and he had an elder sister, Bibi Nanaki. Guru Nanak was born with a Divine status. Sikhs believe he was an embodiment of Divine Light. He was a heavenly messenger and taught humankind the path of righteousness and truth.
Guru Nanak was sent to school at the age of seven, but the student became the Master when he interpreted each letter of the alphabet to his teacher in accordance with Divine Truth. He taught his teacher deeper truth about human beings and God and the way to realize God. This was the first divine message delivered by Guru Nanak (see SGGS p. 432).
In accordance with tradition, Mehta Kalu wanted to invest Guru Nanak with the Janaeu (sacred thread worn by high caste male Hindus). Guru Nanak rejected the religious thread ceremony and said one ought to imbibe spiritual values like love, compassion, contentment and truth.
“Out of the cotton of compassion, spin the thread of contentment. Tie the knot of continence and give it the twist of truth. Make such a sacred thread for the soul. Such a thread, once worn, would never break nor get soiled, burnt, or lost. Blessed is the man who wears such a thread” (SGGS p. 471).
Guru Nanak was married to Mata Sulakhni and had two sons Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. For a few years Guru Nanak was in charge of the granary of the Nawab of Sultanpur. He soon resigned to embark on his divine mission.
One day Guru Nanak disappeared while bathing in the river Baeen. It was presumed that he had drowned. However he reappeared after three days. During this period he had a vision of God’s presence. The Almighty entrusted Guru Nanak to preach the Divine Name to the world. Upon his reappearance he announced that “There is no Hindu and no Muslim” meaning there is no difference between people. All are the children of God.
After this Divine Call, Guru Nanak spent about two decades travelling to different places in India and adjacent countries. During the four long journeys he travelled as far as Assam in the east, Sri Lanka in the south, Tibet in the north and Mecca in the west. He met people of various faiths; Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sufis, Yogis, and Sidhas. Bhai Mardana, a Muslim minstrel, was his companion during these journeys. He travelled to spread the Word of God, love, peace and harmony among humankind. He expressed his views forthrightly and clearly on God and His Creation, the place of human beings in the universe and how human beings can free themselves from the bondage of the ego self by dwelling on (Naam) the Name of the Lord.
In 1521 Babar a powerful Mughal king invaded India. At Eminabad, Guru Nanak was taken prisoner together with a lot of people. Babar met Nanak and in the ensuing dialogue Nanak fearlessly admonished the king and held him responsible for the destruction and loss of life. Babar was taken by remorse and a new moral and spiritual awakening came over him. He begged for forgiveness from Guru Nanak. He asked the Guru to be gracious to him and at the Guru’s behest freed all prisoners of war. Upon blessing him, Guru Nanak instructed Babar: ‘deliver just judgment, have reverence for holy men, be merciful to the vanquished and worship God in spirit and in Truth’.
Wherever Guru Nanak went he redirected people from their wayward ways to the love of God and His Creation. He taught them, that to serve God is to serve His Creation. He spoke against superstitious practices and taught the people to live a truthful life in accordance with their faith.
In the last years of his life he founded the township of Kartarpur and settled there. Here he practised the life of a householder, and looked after his farms. Thousands of people came to seek love and peace. Together they sang the glories of God and shared food in the common free kitchen he established. His followers came to be known as Sikhs (disciples). During his lifetime Guru Nanak composed a lot of hymns, which were transcribed and passed on to the next Guru and subsequently included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Before he left for his heavenly abode he appointed one of his disciples Lehna (whom he named as Angad) as Guru. Lehna was selected because of his piety and his willingness to give his all in the name of the Lord. Such was the love for Guru Nanak that both Hindus and Muslims claimed him to be their own. ‘Baba Nanak Shah Fakir, Hindu ka Guru, Musalman ka Pir’ meaning Guru Nanak is a great saint; he is a spiritual guide of Hindus and Muslims.
Guru Angad Dev (born 1504; Guru 1539 - 1552)
A major contribution of Guru Angad was the development of a modified alphabet of Punjabi language referred to as Gurmukhi script. This provided an alternative to the older established Sanskrit as the medium of Holy Scripture. With the use of the Gurmukhi script religion was no longer a mystery. It became a part of daily life. Guru Angad composed some hymns and used the name of Guru Nanak as he was one in spirit with him. The other Gurus who wrote hymns followed Guru Angad’s example. Guru Angad continued to promote Guru Nanak’s mission of honest living, sharing and meditating on God’s Name. He established a preaching center at Khadur. He encouraged women to be actively involved in service to humanity, particularly in the community kitchen. Guru Angad’s wife, Mata Khivi, was very devoted and committed to performing this selfless service.
Guru Amardas (born 1479; Guru 1554 - 1574)
Guru Angad appointed Guru Amardas the next Guru. Submission to the Guru’s order and the worship of God were the guiding principles in selection of Guru. Guru Amardas was an example of selfless dedicated service and humility.
Guru Amardas established a preaching center at Goindval. He worked to create a casteless society believing in One God. He eliminated caste distinctions by requiring his congregations to pray together and eat together. No one could gain an audience with the Guru without first partaking a meal from the Guru’s kitchen. So when Emperor Akbar came to investigate for himself the activities of Guru Amardas and his disciples, he had to sit with the common people and dine with them before he could have an audience with the Guru. Seeing the spiritual atmosphere of the Guru’s holy sanctuary, Emperor Akbar was deeply impressed.
Guru Amardas stood for the emancipation of women. He forbade the practice of purdah, (the veiling of women) and sati (self immolation by women on the funeral pyres of their husbands). Women were given equal rights as preachers. Of the 146 disciples appointed as preachers, 94 were men and 52 women. The rejection of the caste system and the equality of men and women were rather radical beliefs in India in the sixteenth century.
Sikhs were encouraged to live the lives of active householders. New forms of ceremonies for birth, marriage and death were introduced.
Guru Ramdas (born 1534; Guru 1574 - 1581)
Guru Amardas appointed Ramdas as the fourth Guru. Guru Ramdas founded the present city of Amritsar, which became the religious capital of the Sikhs. While carrying out his spiritual duties he started the construction of a pool, which measures 150 meters by 150 meters. The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) stands in the center of the pool connected by a causeway.
Guru Arjan (born 1563; Guru 1581-1606)
Under Guru Arjan, Sikhism entered a very important phase in its development. He built the Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple. He requested Hazrat Mian Mir, a Muslim Sufi saint, to lay the foundation stone of Harmandir Sahib, a remarkable gesture of harmonious relationship and acceptance of people of different faiths.
Guru Arjan then turned his attention to Sikh Scripture. He compiled the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture. He included in it the compositions of the first four Gurus and his own and of thirteen Hindu Bhagats, or devotees, five Muslim divines, a Sikh devotee and twelve bards. It is a universal scripture. He installed it in Harmandir Sahib with great reverence.
Guru Arjan was very compassionate. He set up medical centres, one of which was at Taran Taaran for the care of people with leprosy.
Jahangir who succeeded to the Mughal throne was not as liberal as his father Akbar. He would not tolerate the spread of any other faith and found an excuse to order the death of Guru Arjan by torture. Guru Arjan is the first Sikh martyr. While being tortured he said: “Sweet is Thy Will, O God. Devotion to Thee is the only Boon I seek.”
Guru Hargobind (born 1595; Guru 1606 - 1644)
The martyrdom of Guru Arjan proved to be a turning point in the history of the Sikh faith. Guru Hargobind adorned himself with two swords of miri and piri symbolizing spiritual and temporal authorities.
Guru Hargobind clearly understood the importance of the teachings of Guru Nanak and perceived how they could be applied to meet the socio-religious challenge, which confronted him. Guru Arjan’s parting message, to Hargobind to use arms as a recourse did not mean a deviation from the spiritual path. It was quite in consonance with the multidimensional vision of Guru Nanak. It was a signal to the rulers that the Guru would defend the religious and human rights of the people with the sword if necessary.
The Guru fought and won four battles. The purpose was always defensive, never to occupy territory, but to resist the might and power of the Mughal government who had embarked on a policy of discrimination against non-Muslim subjects.
In 1609 Guru Hargobind built the Akal Takhat (Throne of the Timeless) immediately opposite the Harmandir Sahib. In front of the Akal Takhat there is a large open space, where Sikhs assembled from time to time to debate, discuss and make decisions on secular matters concerning the welfare of the community.
The Guru undertook preaching tours. He toured the Punjab, went to the east, and north to Kashmir. During one of these tours he was questioned, “How can you be a religious man when you have a wife and children and posses worldly wealth and have arms?” The Guru replied, “a wife is man’s conscience, his children perpetuate his memory, wealth enables him to live, arms are needed to extirpate the tyrants.”
Guru Har Rai (born 1603; Guru 1644 - 1661)
Guru Har Rai was also a saint soldier like Guru Hargobind. In the morning and evening he would listen to devotional music in the company of his devotees and then discourse on the Guru’s word. He would miss no opportunity to inculcate in his disciples the noble sentiments of humility, compassion and selfless service.
Guru Har Rai set up hospitals for relieving the distress of the sick. Medicines were given free to those who came for treatment. When Emperor Shah Jehan’s son, Dara Shikoh was taken ill and the medicine prescribed by the royal physician was not to be found anywhere it was made available by Guru Har Rai from his own dispensary. The Guru also maintained a zoological garden.
Guru Harkrishan (born 1656; Guru 1661-1664)
Guru Harkrishan was only five years and eight months old when he was installed as Guru. He gave inspirational instructions to the Sikhs and resolved their doubts. To propagate the faith he sent preachers in every direction.
While he was in Delhi a smallpox epidemic broke out in the city. The Guru travelled to all corners of the city to help relieve those in distress. While caring for and serving those who were suffering from smallpox, Guru Harkrishan himself contacted the disease. Before passing away he uttered the name of the next Guru.
Because Guru Harkrishan cured many who suffered, devotees have the firm conviction that reciting the name of Guru Harkrishan will cure them of all ills.
Guru Tegh Bahadur. (born 1621; Guru 1664 - 1675)
Guru Tegh Bahadur devoted his life to spreading Sikh philosophy. He composed 116 hymns in 15 Ragas. His hymns give a message of non-attachment. He travelled extensively throughout the Punjab and to the east to Bengal and Assam to spread his message.
He founded the city of Anandpur Sahib, which developed into a prominent Sikh spiritual center.
Emperor Aurangzeb perpetrated atrocities and cruelties on Hindus and followed a policy of forcible conversions. Pundits from Kashmir appealed to Guru Tegh Bahadur for help. Guru Tegh Bahadur championed the cause of freedom of religious beliefs. For that he was executed in Delhi on 11th November 1675. He gave his life for the protection of human rights. He gave his head but not his faith. He set an example so that people of all faiths could live to practice their religion freely. He is often referred to as ‘Hind di Chadar’ (Protector of India).
Guru Gobind Singh (born 1666; Guru 1675 - 1708)
Gobind Rai succeeded his father Guru Tegh Bahadur as Guru at the age of nine. He was an Enlightener who dispelled delusion and brought awareness. He was one with God. He resolved to make a supreme effort to uplift the oppressed people.
He was an excellent poet. He wrote extensively. The main themes of his poems were the glorification of God and the value of arms. His works are contained in the Dasam Granth. There were 52 poets in his Court who enjoyed his patronage.
Guru Gobind Singh made Sikhism into an active movement to fight tyranny and injustice of the rulers and the discriminatory religious oppression of the people by religious leaders.
On the festival day of Baisakhi in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh called all his Sikhs to an assembly at Anandpur Sahib and told them of his mission. Guru Gobind Singh initiated the first five Sikhs with Amrit (nectar) and created a brotherhood of saint-soldiers called the order of the Khalsa(the pure ones). The five were chosen on the basis of their willingness to sacrifice their all for the Guru’s cause. He called them Panj Pyare or five beloved ones. He gave them the surname Singh or lions. He then made a supplication to the five and begged them to administer ‘Amrit’ to him. So the five now were the Guru and the Guru the disciple, which prompted the saying ‘Wonderful is Guru Gobind Singh, himself theMaster and himself the disciple’. The Guru was then named Gobind Singh. This established the practice that any five practising Sikhs who have taken Amrit and live according to the Sikh Code of Conduct can give Amrit.
A code of discipline is imposed on the initiated to ensure commitment on their part to the holy and lofty ideals of Sikhism. It requires a firm belief and practice of the teachings of Guru Nanak and all the nine succeeding Gurus. They accept Guru Granth Sahib as their Guru. The code requires them not to cut their hair, smoke or take intoxicants, not to commit adultery or eat meat slaughtered according other religious rites such as halal or kosher. They must wear five K’s (five articles beginning with letter ‘K’ of the Gurmukhi script). Kes - unshorn hair, Kanga - comb, Kara - iron bangle, Kachha - long shorts, and Kirpan - sword. The Guru believed that outward discipline was essential to maintain inner strength. Males must add the name Singh to their given name and females the name Kaur. There are prescribed prayers to be recited daily. They must be ready to fight for injustice and to fight for what is right.
The Guru used a khanda, a two-edged sword, to stir the amrit in a caste-iron bowl. This sanctified the khanda and together with the two swords of miri and piri as designated by Guru Hargobind and the chakra, the Sikh insignia was created.
In the center is the Two-Edged Sword, representing the Creative Power of God, which controls the destiny of the whole creation. It is the Supreme Power over life and death. One edge of the sword symbolizes Divine justice. The other edge symbolizes freedom and authority governed by moral and spiritual values. The two swords on the outside represent the concept of miri and piri. Piri is the sword of spiritual sovereignty and miri the sword of political sovereignty. In the middle is the chakra, symbolizing the all embracing Divine Manifestation, without beginning or end, Timeless, Absolute.
The Guru wrote to the Mughal King that ‘when all other means to restore righteousness fail, it is legitimate to take up the sword.’
Guru Gobind Singh and his Sikhs fought many battles against the Mughal army and some Hindu Rajas. Their purpose was not to acquire territory for its own sake. It was to fight an enemy of their faith and fight for freedom of the people. People of all faiths joined his forces. A notable example is that of Pir Saiyad Buddhu Shah, a Sufi Muslim saint who placed himself, his brother, his four sons and 700 of his disciples in the Guru’s hand.
Prior to his death Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of personal Gurus by installing Sri Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs: He declared that the Sikhs are to worship only the Timeless God and seek guidance from Shabad (Word) Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
On command from the Timeless God, I started this path.
All Sikhs are commanded to accept the Holy Granth as their Guru.
The Granth is the visible personification of the True Guru
Whosoever wants to meet the Divine should study its words.
The Sikhs always sing the above poetic instruction at the conclusion of their prayer services.
Guru Granth Sahib (1708 - forever)
Guru Arjan compiled the Granth Sahib in 1604. It was then called Pothi Sahib (Sacred Scripture) later referred to as Adi Granth – first Holy Book. Guru Gobind Singh prepared the final version currently in use in 1706. He made no changes to the first version except adding the compositions of the ninth Guru. In 1708 he declared it as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs. ‘The Word is the Guru and Guru is the Word. In the Word is contained the nectar.’ (SGGS p. 982) and ‘The holy book is the abode of God.’
Guru Granth Sahib contains the beliefs of the Sikh faith and is written in praise of God. It is the first religious scripture of its kind. The Sikh Gurus compiled it during their lifetime. In addition to the Gurus, its contributors include many holy men (Muslims and Hindus) from all over India. The selection criteria, was the contributors’ belief that the same God exists in every human being. For Example ‘God is the Father of us all. His reflection is in everyone of us’ (Kabir a Muslim saint, SGGS p. 1349). ‘In every heart there is God, none else than He speaks from there’ (Namdev, a Hindu devotee SGGS p. 988).
Sri Guru Granth Sahib gave a new outlook and philosophy to the people. The use of Gurmukhi script is significant and so is the use of Arabic, Persian, Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit and local dialects which indicate that God listens to prayers in all languages. God was not restricted to the high classes or castes. The inclusion of hymns written by saints or holy men belonging to the so-called low castes proved that any person, whatever his birth or faith, could become a holy person. No community or an individual has a monopoly on God and no one can claim to be the sole representative of God on earth.
The Holy Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is installed in every Sikh Gurdwara (place of worship). It is the focus of all Sikh ceremonies, including the naming ceremony, weddings, initiation and death ceremonies as well as private devotion. Sikhs treat Guru Granth Sahib with great reverence. It contains the word of God. It is Shabad (Word) Guru. It is handled with the reverence that would be shown to a personal Guru.
In the Gurdwara, the Guru Granth Sahib is placed on a special high platform (Sikhs refer to it as Takhat, meaning a throne) under a canopy. Worshippers bow or prostrate before it before they are seated for prayers. As a mark of respect no one turns their back to Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhs went through a lengthy period of persecution after the death of Guru Gobind Singh. Ahmad Shah Abdali a ruler from Afghanistan continued to invade India and cause havoc. His invasions lasted until 1767. The Sikhs went through their darkest period and suffered a number of holocausts but eventually triumphed. They organized themselves into 12 misls (cavalry groups) for their defense and survival. They struggled for leadership among themselves and finally Ranjit Singh one of the leaders of the misals prevailed and in 1799 the Sikhs occupied Lahore. For the next 40 years they controlled the Punjab and much of North West Frontier including Jammu and Kashmir. Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away in 1839 and the British succeeded in annexing the Punjab in 1849.
The Sikhs used non-violent methods to fight for their rights and freedom and obtain justice. Of particular significance is their non-violent campaign during 1920-1925 against the British to obtain control of their Gurdwaras. These had been handed over by the British as private property to some. They succeeded and in 1925 the Sikh Gurdwara Act was enacted, handing over the control of all Sikh Gurdwaras in India to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) also set up by the Act. This is the premier Sikh body today.
According to Sikhism there is only One God. God sends His emissary called Guru, who is the embodiment of Divine Light. Sikhs have ten Gurus but they believe they were one in Spirit. As one candle is lit from another the Divine Light passed from one Guru to the next as succession took place. There is testimony of this in the Guru Granth Sahib. ‘The Light in Guru Angad was the same Light as in Guru Nanak. The Master had only changed His physical Body’ (SGGS p. 966). All Gurus used the name Nanak in composing their hymns. God delivers His message – Gurbani(now included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib), through His emissary, the Guru. So since 1708 for Sikhs the Divine Word is the Guru forever. Sikhs strictly reserve the title of Guru to the ten personal Gurus (Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh) and to Guru Granth Sahib only.
Over a period of 239 years the Sikh Gurus contributed to the world a belief in one God and one humanity. They popularised the use of Gurmukhi script for writing the Scriptures, which spread Sikh beliefs to all humankind. They put forward the Sikh philosophy and established Sikh institutions. They built the spiritual center Harmandir Sahib, and the temporal center Akal Takhat propagating the doctrine of Miri and Piri, a balance between the spiritual and the empirical life. They instituted ‘ sangat' and ‘ pangat’ – praying together and eating together. Finally they gave the Sikhs a distinct identity, with the requirement of maintaining a uniform of the five K’s: kachha, kanga, kara, kes and kirpan .
Origins of the Community in Australia
Sikhs have settled all over the world as seekers of new opportunities in life. It was also the spirit of adventure that encouraged them to migrate to distant lands. There was some migration in early nineteenth century. The momentum increased after the British had annexed the Sikh empire in 1849.
The British took advantage of the reputation of the Sikhs as brave, fearless saint-soldiers and recruited them in the guardian forces and as policemen in the colonies in the east, namely Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao and other Chinese Settlements. The Sikhs were involved in the British expedition into Afghanistan and east into Assam. It appears that Sikh migration to Australia can be linked to Sikhs who had come to South East and East Asia or had been to Afghanistan during the British campaigns there.
The first immigration of Sikhs to Australia may be related to the introduction of the camel and camel-handlers (cameleers) from the North Indian Frontier. Also a few of the Sikh soldiers after they received their discharge from the army made their way to Telia (meaning Australia). When the word about Telia spread in the Punjab many farmers followed suit.
Afghans, Hindus and Singhs
Sikhs have been mistaken for Pakistanis, Arabs, and Afghans. In Australia the term ‘Afghan’ was used for any dark-skinned turbaned person especially if he was a cameleer or a hawker. “A small proportion of Afghans were Sikhs, and an even smaller proportion were Hindus, but to the Europeans and Aborigines they were simply placed under the homogeneous title of Afghans… Sikhs were often called ‘Hindus’ by the Afghans themselves…” (Stevens 1989, 206 as quoted by Dya Singh3 ).
On the one hand the Sikhs were collectively referred to as ‘Afghans’ and on the other hand they were referred to as ‘Hindus’ or simply Indians. However a Sikh can be identified by his surname Singh.
All Sikh males have the surname ‘ Singh’ and all Sikh females have the surname ‘ Kaur ’. Even after marriage the female retains the name ‘Kaur’. This is religious practice. Upon initiation all take the name Singh and family names are discarded and every one belongs to one brotherhood. In recent times the surname Singh has been relegated to second or middle name status. With the increase in Sikh migration the Western bureaucrats coerced new arrivals to add clan or village names after the name Singh as a conventional western type surname. Some have voluntarily adapted.
In tracing early Sikh migration to Australia official census records appear less than precise. Sikhs were included with Afghans, Hindus or Indians. Evidence can be sought from other sources for example information conveyed orally by early settlers, review of directories, petitions, or crematorium records. In review of records the surname ‘Singh’ is the principal clue. There is a very high degree of probability that a Singh is a Sikh and not a Hindu. Some early Sikh migrants integrated into Australian society and intermarried with European or Aboriginal women. Their descendents have the surname Singh.
There is some evidence of Sikhs arriving in Australia during the first half of the 19th century. It is likely that they worked as farm labourers and shepherds. Some may have taken to hawking. A Croppo Sing is credited to have opened the first bank account in State Bank of South Australia in 1847. Croppo Sing’s surname is correctly spelt as “Singh” in the biographical index of “South Australians 1835-1885”. ( Dya Singh).
There is convincing evidence a greater number of Sikhs arrived in Australia during the second half of 19th century. Sikhs took on jobs as cameleers, hawkers, labourers, and agriculturalists depending on the circumstances of their arrival and the place they landed.
Shiploads of camels were brought to Australia in the 1860s. There were Sikhs among the handlers. It is known that a Pal Singh lived in Perth in 1886. He was a camel owner in Wyndham. Later more Sikhs joined him. The cameleers were referred as Afghans and the enclaves where they lived were Ghantowns. There was a permanent Ghantown in Kalgoorlie. In 1898, 45 Sikhs from Perth signed a petition addressed to the Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The petition makes reference to them being members of the expeditionary force against the Afghan tribes in ‘Kandahar’ and “Gabul”. Having been induced to come they were being discriminated and denied miners’ rights and hawkers’ licenses. The petition requests for better treatment and livelihood. The 1901 census of Western Australia shows that there were 261 Afghans and no Indians. It can be assumed that all the Sikhs were included with the 261 Afghans. ( Sarawan S Vagel pg. 6-7)
Camels and camel handlers were also brought to South Australia. Presumably there were Sikhs among them. There was likely a small community of Sikhs from about 1866 to about 1930 in Port Augusta linked to the arrival of the camel ( Dya Singh).
It is also reported that the first cremation in Adelaide was that of a Sikh. The entry in the Register of Persons Cremated in the West Terrace Crematorium reads “4 may 1903: Bishen Singh 32 years (Sikh) Resident of Hindley Street. Ceremony conducted by Bhagwan Singh.” The Advertiser reported on 5 May 1903 and the Observer on 9 May 1903 that about 20 Sikhs attended the funeral.
Sikh hawkers are reported around the turn of the century in various towns in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
Sikhs were reported in Queensland and New South Wales. They worked in the cane fields or followed other agricultural pursuits. A Basant Singh arrived in Cairns in 1885. So did Mahan Singh who cleared land in the Ballina area. The early migrants began to cluster in two distinct groups in northern New South Wales mainly in the Clarence District and the Atherton Tableland in Queensland. They moved between these two locations depending on seasonal work and ventured into surrounding areas. ( Bhatti & Dusenbery, 2001 p.42 ).
Restrictive Immigration Practices 1900 to 1950
Anti-Asian racism was strong in Australia around the turn of the 20th century. The early Sikhs faced union hostility and resentment over cheap coloured labour taking away “white man’s jobs”. The Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1901. It introduced an education or language test, requiring immigrants to pass a dictation test in any European language. The test was administered at the point of entry at the Officer’s discretion. Consequently when there was a need for labour some were allowed in without the test. Those living in Australia wanting to return home could obtain a certificate of domicile offering them exemption from the dictation test. Given these restrictions a small number of Sikh continued to come to Australia. Some came as British subjects filling the demand for labour in agricultural industries especially in sugarcane and being exempted from the dictation test.
The early arrivals were mainly sojourners. Conditions in Australia were harsh, they did not have regular work or any fixed accommodation. They tried to make enough money and return to Punjab.
India’s contribution to the war effort brought in some measures and improvements in the conditions of the overseas Indians. It is known that some Sikhs left Australian shores to join the war effort serving under Australian command. Those surviving returned to Australia. In gratitude Indians were allowed to bring in their dependents. However the easing of restrictions was not reflected at the State level. There were still restrictive practices. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) got an industrial award in 1919 in Queensland prohibiting coloured labour from cane cutting. New South Wales Acts of 1913 and 1916 prevented aliens to hold some land from the Crown. Other legislation prevented Asian ownership of small businesses and employment in public authorities. As conditions were still harsh they had to move around to seek work. So there was no inducement to bring in families and dependents.
Srinivasa Sastri President of the Servants of India Society visited Australia in 1922. He expressed concern over discrimination against Indians. Some changes were introduced. In 1925 Indians were allowed to vote. In 1926 they were eligible for pension. However it was only decades later the Indians took advantage of these changes due to circumstances or lack of knowledge. Only in the 1930s and 1940s the sons of the pioneer Sikh migrants followed. The current Sikh population at Coffs Harbour owes much to these early pioneers.
In 1911 there were 3698 Hindus (Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims) in Australia. The numbers declined. In 1947 there were only 2189 Indians in Australia. The 1954 census recorded a slight increase for Indians to 2647. The decline in Western Australia was very marked. There were no Sikhs there in 1947. There were clusters of Sikh around Cairns, Lismore and Woolgoolga on the Pacific Coast. During the late 1930s and early 1940s a number of Sikh settlers brought in their sons who subsequently settled in Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga area. With regular work and income they started to bring in their wives and children to join them in Woolgoolga. They arrived in the 1950s.
The early arrivals were able to establish trust and respect with White Australians. There were cooperative relationships among them. Some helped them during the depression years with rations, information and licenses, and correspondence ( Bhatti & Dusenbery ). These relationships helped the Sikhs set themselves up in the banana and sugarcane industries subsequently.
The commitment of Australia to the World War II caused an acute shortage of labour in Australia. So the Sikhs now moved to regular employment as hawkers, market gardeners, and agricultural labourers. They could now obtain union tickets to work in sugar cane plantations. There was also work in the banana industry. A Sikh reports being called for the army but under the Manpower Program was required to work in the rural areas. Another Sikh went to war and died of his wounds upon returning to Australia. One reports that he was employed by the Australian meat industry to prepare mutton and lamb in accordance with Sikh traditions for Sikh soldiers serving in the war. Australians recognized the contribution of the Sikhs and acknowledged that. Harry Gale a solicitor and resident of Woolgoolga says:
In Australia after the war there was the ‘populate or perish’ policy. Australians could not very well say to the Indians that we don’t want you now because the Sikhs fought besides Australian and British forces in Syria, Palestine and Egypt during World War II. I remember the Sikhs in Palestine and seeing the Sikh Battalion going through the camp. They were tall, fine chaps with their turbans. They have played their part and we have to respect them.( Bhatti & Dusenbery , p106).
Events in India and Australia in the early 1950s led to a change in the thinking of the sojourners to settle permanently in Australia. Bhatti and Dusenbery say that the effect of partition in Punjab; Punjabi settlements grew in Woolgoolga; easy start offered by the growing banana industry and a generational change in the thinking of Australia as home contributed to this. Most Sikhs now moved to Woolgoolga. The possession of British Passports increased their mobility. So now with permanent jobs and regular income they were prepared to bring their families.
Sikh cane cutters had settled in North Queensland. In the 1960s when machinery was introduced into cane cultivation most of them were rendered jobless. They moved to Woolgoolga and Coffs Harbour.
The 1950s also saw the arrival of many Sikh students. Some came under the Colombo Plan, others arrived at their own initiative. Like students, Sikh professionals also started arriving in Australia. However, they could not settle permanently because ‘Whites-only Policy’. Some who married White Australians were allowed to stay if the union produced a baby.
In the 1960s immigration rules were relaxed. Qualified professionals could come to Australia and could qualify for citizenship after fifteen years. However in 1966 this was further relaxed to five years.
The White Australia Policy was abolished in the 1970s. This encouraged Sikhs as professionals or under family reunion scheme to come to Australia. They have come from various countries, namely India, East Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, England, Fiji, etc. They settled in the cities largely in Sydney and Melbourne.
The growing community has moved into all types of occupations, for example, the police, armed forces, correctional services, customs and civil service.
In Western Australia the Sikh community has grown in recent years. Some students arrived in the 1960s and since then there has been a gradual increase of families arriving and settling in Perth. In South Australia new arrivals have settled in Adelaide and in the Riverland region. In Victoria a large number have settled in Melbourne with a small community in Shepparton. Sydney has a large number of Sikhs.
Ninety percent of the Sikhs have arrived after 1980 . The 2001 Commonwealth census shows there were about 18000 Sikhs. Since then a lot more have arrived. A large number of them are students
Sikhs arrived on Australian shores in the 19th century. They accepted any job. Conditions were harsh. The lived in makeshift shelters and moved frequently looking for work. Having made sufficient money they returned home. Some of them came back to Australia. Having developed love and attachment to the country they stayed and brought in their sons and womenfolk. These early migrants found conditions to their liking in the Woolgoolga and Coffs Harbour area. Sikh settlements have sprung up there. The early arrivals have been successful in farming and contribute substantially to Australia’s output of sugar and bananas. The younger generation is educated and is moving to the cities taking on professional jobs. There were no Punjabi cultural or religious institutions until the building of the first Gurdwara at Woolgoolga in 1968.
During the 1950s and 1960s students and professionals arrived. Subsequently more followed with relaxation of White Australia policy. The earlier Sikh migrants were mainly from the Punjab. But now we have a mix of Sikhs coming from other former British colonies. They have settled all over Australia. Most of the Sikhs arrived after the 1980s.
Sikhs believe in One God. Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Scripture) begins with the numeral 1 (Ek) and Oangkar. It is significant that Guru Nanak used a numeral to refer to God, emphasising the unity of God. There is only one God and no other. Guru Nanak says what is One, cannot be yours or mine but is One for everyone. Guru Nanak said
There is only One Supreme Being, the ever unfolding Creative power; Eternal Truth, Creator Being, without fear, without enmity (rancourless), Timeless, not born, self-existent, realised by the Grace of the Guru. The True One was there at the beginning, was True throughout the ages, is True now, Nanak says, will be True in the future. (SGGS, p. 1)
Guru Nanak’s concept of God is that of a Benevolent and Gracious Being whose primal covenant with humankind is to provide them with a refuge of his abiding love. God in His essence is nothing but pure and good. God is all love. Guru Granth Sahib abounds in positive, moral and ethical attributes of God. God has been extolled as father (pita), Mother (mata), brother (bhrata), friend (mittar), protector and helper (rakhanhar), shelter of the poor (greebniwaj), helper to the helpless (nidharian didhir), as remover of pain and suffering (dukh bhanjan) as generous and forgiving (daata, danee, dyal, bakshind), merciful (raheem), etc. This aspect of God is significant because it assures humankind Divine support and direction. God saves the saints, protects the righteous and redeems the repentant sinners.
Purpose of life
This life is a gift by God, and it is an opportunity to realize the One ( SGGS p, 12). The highest ideal of human life is to evolve from the lower self to a higher self, to evolve from a self-centered person (manmukh) to a God-centered person (gurmukh). So one has to cultivate all those attributes, which are associated with Him. ‘O mind, you have emanated from the light of the Lord, know, your source’ ( SGGS p. 441). Such an ideal gives relevance and a sense of direction to the entire moral and spiritual life of human beings.
Salvation is attainable by the Grace of God, in this lifetime. A Sikh’s goal is to make oneself worthy of such Grace through effort by becoming a gurmukh. Salvation signifies a spiritual experience, a state of perfect inward tranquility and harmony, equipoise of the soul (sehj). It implies a submission of one’s ego to God’s cosmic order (Hukam). It leads to eternal bliss and freedom, which is the eternal destiny of the spirit.
Equality – Brotherhood
There is no virtue in the caste system. All people are equal before God. Discrimination on the grounds of race or religion is an act of denial of God. The Sikh Gurus helped to unite people in one unique brotherhood having faith in one common God with many names. God may be referred to as Allah, Ram, Gobind, God, Waheguru, etc. depending on one’s liking and the community in which one is raised. All those who love Him achieve the goal of human life.
The Creator exists within all Creation, and all human beings have a spark of Divine light. Consequently no race, colour or gender is intrinsically superior to others.
‘God is the Father of us all; His reflection is in everyone of us, hence do not grade any person as inferior or superior’ ( SGGS, p. 1349).
‘Know that Divine Light is within all, do not inquire the caste. There is no caste in the next world.’( SGGS, p.349)
Guru Gobind Singh said: ‘recognize all belonging to the one race of humanity’.
The Sikh Gurus were particularly concerned with gender equality. Women were discriminated against. They were considered inferior. Guru Nanak strongly disapproved of this thought. He encouraged them to take an active role in every sphere of life. He said: ‘We are born of woman, we are conceived in the womb of woman, we are engaged and married to woman. We make friendship with woman and the lineage continued because of woman. When one woman dies we take another one. We are bound with the world through woman. Why should we talk ill of her, who gives birth to kings? From a woman a woman is born. There is none without her. Only the True Lord is without a woman’ ( SGGS, p. 473).
Justice and Human Rights
When the sixth Sikh Guru put on two swords of miri and piri (spiritual and temporal authority), he was preparing his Sikhs to fight for righteousness. He was crystallizing Guru Nanak’s idea that fighting against the wrongs is not against the spirit of any religion but it is an essential ingredient of a practical religion. The Sikh Gurus fought not for narrow selfish ends but for the deliverance of the people from religious and political bondage, for justice and human rights. The ninth Sikh Guru gave his life for the rights of the people for freedom of worship. The Gurus fought to save the people from tyranny of the rulers. Sikhs have imbibed these principles from their Gurus and have ever since faced the challenges. They have always upheld justice, liberty and freedom. This is an essential feature of Sikhism.
Guru Nanak envisaged a healthy and harmonious society based on the principles of mutual help, co-operation, tolerance, goodwill, sharing, and collective well-being. He threw open the doors of organised religious life to all without distinction and to men and women from all walks of life. The three cardinal principles of the Guru’s teaching are:
Family. The cardinal principles can best bepractised while living truthfully as a householder. The Sikh Gurus believed that asceticism and renunciation of the world is unnecessary. The Sikh Gurus themselves were married and lived as householders. The life of a devout householder is favoured.
Sangat and Pangat. In order to give concrete expression to his ideas of unity, equality and fraternity, Guru Nanak started the twin institutions of sangat and pangat According to these principles the high and low, rich and poor, men and women could sit together, pray together and eat together. Remembrance of God’s name is to be practised not only in the solitude of one’s home but also in sangat.Sangat is the holy congregation. It is aimed at improving the spiritual perception, ethical discipline and social harmony of the congregation. It had the distinctive practical purpose of carrying the society forward towards collective enlightenment. It enables people to imbibe the spirit of universal love, peace, tolerance and brotherhood. In Sri Guru Granth Sahib the creative role of sangat is repeatedly emphasised.
Pangat literally means people sitting together in a row. The purpose is to eat food from the Guru’s kitchen (Langgar). In this practice the principles of equality and brotherhood are emphasized. The provision of langgar also fosters a spirit of charity on a large scale and becomes a powerful binding force.
Sewa and Simran. (Service and meditation) The Sikh Gurus undertook preaching tours and established Gurdwaras(places of worship - house of the Guru). They also established new townships. The devotees visited them in large numbers and met there every day and formed into large sangats. Some stayed for long periods of time. They were offered free food and accommodation. The Gurus prompted the Sikhs to promote the welfare of their fellow beings. So they participated in community projects and the preparation and serving of langgar. All this is referred to as sewa. Sewa is simply the performing of service to the community out of love and devotion without the expectation of any reward. They also participated in daily religious services referred to as simran. Simran is the continuous remembrance of God’s Name. Sikhs today follow these principles wherever they are. Simran and service go hand in hand. Physically the person does the service while the mind is in tune with God.
Articles of Faith
Guru Gobind Singh prescribed five articles of faith for uniformity and to add fervour to the devotion of the sincere. These are commonly referred to as five K’s, since each article begins with a letter ‘K’ of the Gurmukhi script. These are mandatory for a Sikh who has been initiated into the faith. These are:
Kes. Unshorn hair. Sikhs do not cut their hair. It is a privilege of a Sikh to keep hair, a privilege that all humanity should enjoy. It is an acceptance of God’s Hukam – or God’s Will.
Kanga. Hair is God’s gift and cannot be neglected. Kanga, a small wooden comb is prescribed to kep the hair neat and tidy.
Kachhera. A specially designed pair of shorts or underwear. Also a reminder to restrain our physical desires and not to usurp what is not ours.
Kara. It is a steel bangle worn on the right wrist. A symbol of eternity, it is a reminder of noble actions.
Kirpan.Kirpan refers to a sword. It can vary in length from three inches to three feet. Guru Arjan the fifth Guru instructed his successor the sixth Guru to keep the kirpan. The sixth Guru had two kirpans one signifying spiritual authority and the other temporal authority. It was the tenth Guru who prescribed it as an article of faith for all Sikhs who are initiated.
A Sikh with a kirpan should not be regarded as threatening on the contrary he is a friend and an ally of those needing protection. A kirpan is carried for religious observance. It is an article to upkeep righteousness. It is only unleashed or lifted against tyrants and evil persons who had blocked all avenues of peaceful resolution.
It affirms the principles of universal justice and universal law under all conditions and all circumstances. As Guru Gobind Singh stated in his ‘Zafarnama’ or the ‘Epistle of Victory’, addressed to the Mughal king Aurangzeb: ‘when the situation is past all measures and persuasion, it is rightful duty to lift the sword.’
As articles of faith kirpans are also kept at places of worship used for ceremonial purposes e.g. initiation (baptism) ceremony, during religious processions, flag raising, and consecrating parshad (holy food).
An initiated Sikh is to demonstrate a discipline of exemplary behaviour and pledges to uphold principles of high moral values and social justice. The external identity, contained within these articles of faith is a major part of the Sikh psyche. It resonates the Sikh values of realizing nobility and divinity within each of us in the external world. The Sikhs have been persecuted over the years for these articles of faith.
The initiated Sikh (Amritdhari) is referred to as a Khalsa, a committed man or woman who would:
It should be noted that many non-initiated Sikhs also wear the Khalsa articles of faith and use Khalsa surnames, Singh or Kaur.
Sikhs have several ceremonies. These are described below:
Birth and naming of a child. There is great joy in the family at the birth of a child. As soon as practicable and feasible the baby is taken to the Gurdwara to be given a name. After the singing of hymns there is a prayer requesting a suitable name and God’s blessings on the child. A Hukamnama is read from Guru Granth Sahib, opening a page at random. The reading is done of a first new verse at the left hand page. The first letter of the first word is used to form a name. This may happen privately or in the sangat. The parents may choose a name or seek the help of the extended family. Singh is added to the first name for a boy and Kaur for the girl. This is in anticipation that the child will eventually be initiated into the faith. Also Sikh names are gender neutral and can be given to boys or girls. For instance we are unable to say if ‘Satnam’ is a male or female. Therefore it is necessary to say ‘Satnam Singh’ for a male and ‘Satnam Kaur’ for the female.
Amrit (intiation ceremony). The Sikh initiation ceremony is referred to as Amrit Pahul. The ceremony takes place in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. Only those taking the Amrit and seven Amritdhari Sikhs will be present for the ceremony. Amritdhari means the initiated. One acts as a granthi , five are required to prepare the Amrit and the seventh is in attendance to ensure there are no interruptions. Men as well as women may perform the ceremony. Similarly those wanting Amrit can be male or female. They must have the five K’s on their person.
Before commencing there is a prayer beseeching God’s blessings. Then a Hukamnama is read. The five Amritdharis pour water into a cast iron bowl with some sugar and use a khanda to stir it gradually, simultaneously reciting prayers. Each takes a turn and recites a prescribed prayer. When the Amrit is ready it is poured into the cupped hands of each initiate for them to drink. This is done five times. Then it is sprinkled into their eyes and hair. Each time this takes place they say Waheguru ji ka Khalsa Waheguru ji kiFateh. (The Khalsa belongs to God, Victory to God). They repeat the Mool Mantra (the fundamental Sikh doctrine) together five times. The code of Conduct is explained. The ceremony is concluded with a thanksgiving prayer and a reading of a Hukamnama from Guru Granth Sahib. Finally they get Parshad.
Marriage ceremony. The two families including relatives and friends of the bridegroom and the bride come together in the Gurdwara. The ceremony is performed in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. Hymns are sung and a commencing prayer is said. Then the bride’s father hands over one edge of a ‘Palla’ (scarf) of the groom to the bride. This symbolizes the joining of the bride and the bridegroom. The core of the ceremony is the reading and singing of the four ‘Lavans’ or hymns of Anand Karaj. The first hymn is read and then sung as the couple get up and circumambulate slowly around the Guru Granth Sahib in a clockwise direction. This procedure is repeated four times. It symbolizes the joining of two souls in a permanent relationship on earth and the spiritual journey of the soul bride to her Husband Lord.
Death and Cremation. Death ceremony consists of two parts: cremation and the final prayer. The body is washed and dressed in clean clothes including the five K’s (five articles of faith). A procession of family, friends and relatives then takes it to a crematorium. A final prayer ‘Sohila’ is recited. This is followed by a supplication to pray for the salvation of the departed soul. The eldest son or a close relative then does the committal. Members of the funeral party go to the Gurdwara to read a short passage from the holy Guru Granth Sahib and then return to their homes. The ashes of the deceased are subsequently collected and disposed of by casting in a river or into the sea.
For the comfort of the bereaved family and for seeking the blessings of God for the departed soul, a complete reading of Guru Granth Sahib is done. The final four pages are read in the congregation and the ‘Call of God’ (Ramkali Sadh) is recited, to give solace to the family of the deceased.
There are many Sikh festivals. They relate to birthdays, the accession and death anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus. There are other specific events as well. While Sikhs recognize the significance of each one of these, they tend to celebrate some of the major ones more than the others.
The celebrations of the anniversaries relating to the Gurus are known as Gurpurabs. They are celebrated by the Sikhs all over the world with great enthusiasm and festivity. At the Gurdwaras the Gurpurabs are celebrated by organizing AkhandPaaths. This is non-stop reading of Guru Granth Sahib. It takes approximately 48 hours to be completed. The reading is done in relays, each reader taking a turn for two hours. The Akhand Paath normally starts two days before the Gurpurabs. The finishing ceremony is scheduled on the day of the Gurpurab. Following the conclusion of Akhand Paath normal prayer service is held. As is usual with all Sikh prayer service Langgar– free vegetarian food is served after the ceremony.
The festivals are an occasion for the revitalization of faith and rededication to the principles and practices of Sikhism. Every one is able to participate in these festivals. The services usually involve kirtan (hymn singing) followed by lectures and prayers.
The major festivals are:
Guru Nanak ’s Birthday. Guru Nanak is the founder of the Sikh Faith. This day is usually celebrated in October or November of each year.
Guru Gobind Singh ’s Birthday. Guru Gobind Singh is the tenth Guru of the Sikhs. His birthday is celebrated on the 5th of January of each year.
Guru Granth Sahib . Sri Guru Granth Sahib was completed on the 16th of August in 1604. It was first installed in the Golden Temple on 1st September of that year. This latter day is usually celebrated. In 1706 Guru Gobind Singh declared Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs. This day falls on 20th October each year. This is always celebrated.
Martyrdom of Guru Arjan . He was martyred on the orders of the emperor Jahangir in Lahore in 1606. The martyrdom day falls on 16th June.
Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred on the orders of the emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi in 1675. This is commemorated on 24th of November each year.
Other Sikh Festivals
Baisakhi. This is the birthday of the Khalsa. On this day in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh initiated the first five Sikhs (five beloved ones) in to the order of the Khalsa. Those who accept this initiation have to live in accordance with the Sikh Code of Conduct and have five articles of faith on them. This is celebrated on the 14th of April each year.
Sikhs believe in One God. God is the Creator, who has existed and will always exist. The essence of God is Truth. A person’s goal is to live in accordance with God’s Will. Every one is equal, whatever their caste, creed or gender. One can have direct communion with God. There is no need for a priest. Sikhs do not believe that any religion has a monopoly on Truth. They do not regard Sikhism as the only way to God. ‘Any person who loves God realizes Him’ ( SGGS p.8). Rituals are to be avoided. One can live in the world as a householder and continue to meditate on God’s Naam, earn an honest living and share one’s earnings. Devotion can take the form of prayer and community service (sewa and simran). Be just and fair to all. Social justice is to be supported. The use of force as a last resort is justified to uphold it. Death is not an end. It is a transition to a life where the joy of being in the presence of God can be fully realised.
This site was last updated 02/11/06