Sharing Jesus with Sikh Friends
I remember meeting a Sikh for the first time, when I started at university. I didn’t feel at ease around him at all. He seemed so different to me, dressed in a turban and all, and the name Dip just increased my sense that he was entirely ‘other,’ notwithstanding his Brummie accent, which, for a boy from the south coast seemed to increase, not decrease, his otherness!
I never got to know Dip, which I regret; our friendship groups had no overlap. Later, when I worked in north India, I met Sikh men everywhere. They were easy to spot as they were notably taller than other ethnic groups and always wore a turban. And they were always treated with respect, even as truck drivers, which many were. That’s a while back now but the origins of Sikhism go back a lot further.
How the Sikh religion started
The beginning of the religion of the Sikhs (Punjabi for ‘disciples’) can be traced to a line of ten teachers (gurus) beginning with Guru Nanak (1469–1539). As with the dominant bhakti Hindu tradition, these gurus preached that, in order to be saved from the endless cycle of rebirth one must live a life of devotion. But they differed from the mainstream Hindu tradition by arguing that that devotion must be to the ‘Formless One,’ rather than to one of many personal gods, like Krishna or Ram.
The geography of the Sikh homeland in the Punjab is immensely significant and directly contributed to the emergence of the Sikh religious tradition. A remarkably fertile area of South Asia, the Punjab is called so because of the five rivers that water the land. The region sits astride the main road into the Indian subcontinent from the West and was, for this reason, the first place to be attacked by invading Muslim Central Asian nomadic clans.
As more and more people embraced the teaching of the gurus a number of traditions arose, many of which emerged as the Sikh response to increasing political and military pressure from Muslim rulers. In 1699 the tenth guru instituted the Khalsa, a community of initiated Sikhs, who wear five emblems – the panj kakke (five ‘K’s):
- kes (uncut hair)
- kangha (small wooden comb)
- kirpan (sword, now merely symbolic)
- kacha (breeches)
- kara (bracelet)
In addition, Sikh men consider it a sign of honour to wear their uncut hair under a turban when in public.
What Sikhs believe
Sikhs believe in the oneness of God. All people, no matter their ethnicity, social level, or gender emanated from this one source and are therefore considered equal. Sikhs use terms drawn from both Hindu and Muslim traditions, as might be expected of a religion that arose in such a pluralistic environment. So they call God Allah (from the Arabic) as well as Parbrahm (from the Sanskrit Para Brahman, meaning the highest formless one).
Sikhs believe in the oneness of God
Sikhs believe that human groups have developed their religious customs and institutions in different ways due to the different settings in which they live, something we should be happy to acknowledge as far as it goes. They profess to regard all religious traditions as equally valid, while condemning idolatry and injustice. Furthermore, the idea that God can be incarnated (take on human flesh) is rejected as that is thought to contradict belief in the oneness of God.
God is understood to be in control of all things according to his hukam, the divine order. Human beings, therefore, must submit to God’s will without any doubt or questioning. At the same time, Sikhs believe that people can determine their own destiny and that they should do righteous deeds in order to attain truth. Although they believe in karma – the idea that one’s deeds are preordained – they also believe that one can attain mukti (liberation of the soul from human existence) by doing good and thus escape from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Sikhs believe that the ‘gurparsad’, the grace of the guru, can override the law of retribution. Acts of devotion to God strike out the consequences of any bad actions that may have been committed. Sikhs emphasise the importance of meditating on God’s name and many will participate in meditation sessions in their local gurdwara (temple).
How Sikhs worship
Sikhs worship God both individually and communally. Seriously minded Sikhs will rise early, take a bath, and recite the prescribed hymns and prayers.
Seriously minded Sikhs will rise early, take a bath, and recite the prescribed hymns and prayers
Sikh communal gatherings usually take place on a Sunday. Central to the service is the reading of the scriptures, compositions of the gurus collected centuries ago in a book called Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib is central not only ritually – participants show devotion to the book by bowing and making an offering – but also spatially – it occupies pride of place on a platform in the middle of the room. The book is accorded such high honour because it is seen as the living guru.
At the end of the service all the participants share sacred food (karah parsad) symbolising belief in the equality of humankind. Afterwards the congregation eat a meal called the langar together. This is a very important aspect of their communal life, one which they are keen to share with visitors. Sikhs also meet together on festival days and days for honouring particular gurus.
Many Sikhs would like to become the disciple of a highly respected guru or sant (saint). They are initiated into the guru–Sikh relationship by learning a sacred formula, the gurmantra, and make an offering of money to their new guru.
How Sikh life is changing in the modern world
The Punjab was an independent kingdom before it was annexed by British India in colonial times. The Sikhs were considered one of the great ‘martial races’ and were actively recruited into the army as they were thought to be courageous and loyal. Punjabi regiments made significant contributions in both World Wars. The partition of India, with the demise of the British Empire in 1947, however, was a great tragedy for the Sikhs as many were killed by rampaging mobs.
Some have become more devoted to their tradition while others interpret the tradition more loosely
From the 1960s, two major changes affected the people of the Punjab: India’s ‘Green Revolution’ made the region prosperous and many began to migrate to other parts of the Commonwealth. Today many of the now 27 million Sikhs can be seen on the streets of London, Melbourne and Calgary.
As with all communities, the Sikh community is seeking to work out how to adapt to life in the twenty-first century. Some have become more devoted to their tradition while others are seeking to interpret the tradition more loosely, allowing them, for example, to drink alcohol, This has led to a growing problem of alcoholism, at least in the British Sikh community.
Still others, especially in the West, are encouraging the emergence of a new intellectual leadership, based in Western universities and using English, rather than Punjabi. These intellectuals, influenced by Western scholarship, are giving critical attention to the scriptures and to the interpretation of the Sikh myths. This must surely result in a greater openness to both atheism and the gospel.
Social ties, however, remain strong. Values of honour and shame dominate decisions about marriage and career as well as considerations of beliefs and ultimate commitment.
Ten tips for sharing Christ with Sikhs
Talk about your devotion to Guru Jesus
Tell your friend that devotion to your Guru Jesus is the most important thing in your life. Tell them that Guru Jesus was the Formless One who took on human form for our sakes. If you get the opportunity, show them how this is taught in the Bible in such passages as John 1:1–18 and Philippians 2:5–11.
Treat your Bible with the utmost respect
If you have a stack of books on top of your Bible, your friend might think it is of little value. You want your friend to encounter the Lord Jesus in the word, so do everything you can to show that it is worth reading and meditating on. Feel free to give a Bible or a portion of the Bible, such as Uncover Mark, to your friend and offer to read it with them.
Don’t attack Sikh beliefs
Anyone whose most deeply held beliefs are under attack would defend those beliefs vigorously even if they have doubts themselves. A frank exchange of views will emerge as trust is built up.
Invite your friend to tell you about what they consider the most important issues in life, their family, their community, their customs. Feel free to visit the gurdwara with them. You can watch the service and, though you might not want to eat the sacred food (karah parsad), do join them for the langar meal. Not doing so would likely cause unnecessary offence.
Respect your friend’s parents
If you get to meet your friend’s parents, go out of your way to show them respect. The Bible teaches us to honour our father and mother (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1–3). Western culture has largely abandoned this value. It will speak volumes if you show you are different to the majority of your contemporaries.
Be sensitive to Sikh rules about eating and drinking
Don’t drink alcohol when you are with your Sikh friend and find out if they eat meat before you buy them a Big Mac.
Don’t say you want them to ‘convert to Christianity’
If you talk about ‘conversion’ your friend will consider it an invitation to abandon their family and community, rather than an act of devotion to Guru Jesus.
Ask your friend if they have any questions about your beliefs and practices. If they have been on Sikh polemical web sites they may have been exposed to caricatures of the teaching of the Bible, such as that Satan is a parallel power to God or that Jesus was born from the agency of the angel with Mary. Of course, the more you understand about the true teachings of the Bible, the easier you will find it to help others understand the truth, so there is no substitute for getting into good Bible study habits yourself.
Share your testimony
The story of your own spiritual journey will be very appealing. Help them see that devotion to Jesus is not something that naturally comes with your upbringing, as it involves a spiritual transformation.
Pray for your friend, that they would come to devote their life to the greatest guru of all, who is the Word become flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
“Religions: Sikhism.” BBC Online (Cited 23.8.19).
Various authors. ‘Sikhism.’ Part Seven in The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions. Gen. ed. Christopher Partridge. Third ed. revised and expanded. (Oxford: Lion, 2005).