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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK

World: South Asia

The Sikh Khalsa: Community of the Pure

Work continues at the Golden Temple in time for Vaisakhi 99

By Indarjit Singh OBE, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations

The creation of the Khalsa was the culmination of a process of social and spiritual uplift begun two centuries earlier by Guru Nanak - the founder of Sikhism born in 1469.

Central to Guru Nanak's teaching was a belief in one God: the supreme creator who is beyond the limited human frame of birth, death, form or gender.

[ image: Indarjit Singh: A story to inspire both Sikhs and non-Sikhs]
Indarjit Singh: A story to inspire both Sikhs and non-Sikhs
Guru Nanak taught the equality of all human beings, regardless of gender, birth or creed. He laid particular stress on the need for social responsibility and an active concern for others, particularly the oppressed.

In marked contrast to the bigotry of the times, Guru Nanak taught that no one religion has a monopoly of truth and, as different paths to the same one God, all should be respected.

He taught the Sikhs a higher view of tolerance involving the readiness to give one's life for another's beliefs.

Origins in martyrdom

The story of the Khalsa begins with the martyrdom in Delhi of Guru Teg Bahadur, the 9th Guru of the Sikhs.

The Guru, who disagreed with many aspects of Hindu teachings, was publicly beheaded by the Mughal rulers for trying to protect the Hindu community's right to freedom of worship. The Mughal emperor then challenged the Sikhs, who at the time could not be distinguished from other Indians, to claim their master's body. But in the event no one came forward.

The Guru's young son Gobind now became Guru, and, as he grew into manhood, he constantly stressed that Sikhs should always be ready to stand up for their beliefs, however difficult the circumstances.

Then he decided to put the community to the test.

The beloved five

It was the spring festival of Vaisakhi 1699 and everyone was out in the open, celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest.

Historian and novelist Khushwant Singh describes the scene
Guru Gobind Singh, sword in hand, emerged from a tent and asked that anyone willing to give his life for his faith should come forward. A young Sikh accompanied the Guru into a tent. To everyone's dismay the Guru reappeared alone, his sword covered with blood, and asked for a second volunteer.

A second Sikh stepped forward and again the Guru emerged alone, his sword again apparently covered in blood. In the same way a third, fourth and fifth volunteer accompanied the Guru into the tent.

Patwant Singh: "Guru Gobind radically changed the concept of leadership"
The crowd became alarmed. Many believed that the Guru had killed the five Sikhs, but then to everyone's joy, he came out of the tent again, this time followed by all five Sikhs who were clearly alive and well and dressed in turbans and other symbols that have since become symbols of Sikh identity.

He called the five Sikhs the Panj Piare - the beloved five.

Then the Guru put water in a bowl for sprinkling over the five in a simple initiation ceremony. He said prayers as he stirred the water with a short steel sword; symbolising the need for strength.

The Guru's wife, Mata Sundri, then came forward and placed some sugar crystals into the holy water or amrit as a reminder that strength must always be balanced by sweetness of temperament.

After completing his prayers, the Guru then sprinkled the amrit over the five.

Symbolic dress

Indian writer Patwant Singh explains the significance of a visible Sikh identity
He declared them to be the first members of a new community of equals, to be called the Khalsa. These 'saint soldiers' were to be dedicated to the service of others and the pursuit of justice for all people of all faiths

The Panj Piare were asked to wear five distinctive symbols of their new identity:

  • Uncut hair to denote saintliness
  • A small comb in the hair - a reminder of the importance of cleanliness
  • A kara or steel bracelet as a reminder of a link to God and Godly ideals
  • A sword for self-defence and protection of the weak, and fifthly
  • A khacha or (short) trousers , a more appropriate garment for a fit and active life than the cumbersome dhoti, generally worn in India.

In a move to end social divisions the five dropped their surnames - then linked to caste or occupation - and took the common name 'Singh', literally 'lion', a reminder of the need for courage.

At the same time, the Guru gave Sikh women the name or title 'Kaur', or 'princess' to emphasise dignity and complete equality.

Inspiration for the future

Khushwant Singh: "The Khalsa became a kind of Sikh samurai"
The Guru then knelt before the five and in a remarkable gesture of humility asked them to initiate him. Thus the Khalsa became a community in which master and disciple were equal.

The Guru now knew that Sikhs were prepared to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, whatever the challenge. The infant Sikh community had proved its courage and he was confident that it could now flourish without the need for further living Gurus. Before he was killed in 1708, Guru Gobind was to vest the authority of the Gurus in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

The story of the creation of the Khalsa is, appropriately for the new millennium, a story of new beginnings and high ideals that can inspire both Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike in the years ahead.

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