The way of life that is known as Sikhism began in the Punjab area of what was then India in the 15th c. as a revolutionary spiritual teacher, Guru Nanak, spread a simple message that the highest form of worship is to praise God’s Name.
Other guiding principles are to rise early in the morning and meditate, work hard to earn a righteous living, and to share a portion of the fruits of one’s effort with those less fortunate. Guru Nanak’s method of spreading his teachings was simple. He walked from village to village with his faithful disciples, the Muslim Mardana and the Hindu Bala, and when he arrived, he often sat down under the meeting tree, instructed Mardana to play his rabab, and extemporaneously composed divine poetry to music. These compositions were gathered in a small book that the Guru carried with him, which became the basis for the Sikh sacred writings, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak traveled extensively to other countries outside of India, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, China, Tibet, and Sri Lanka, mostly on foot. As news of this fascinating teacher grew, disciples called shishya began to gather around him. Those who stayed later became known as Sikhs, meaning students or disciples.
After his travels, Guru Nanak established a spiritual community in northern India where his followers could work and worship together. One of the most important institutions that grew out of this early community was that of Guru ka Langar, the Guru’s free kitchen. At mealtimes, everyone, high or low, rich or poor, would sit in long lines facing each other, receive the same food, and eat together in the spirit of brotherhood. In this way, the divisionism of the caste system was broken down and Guru Nanak’s message of equality and dignity was put into daily practice. Near the end of his life, Guru Nanak appointed his most devoted student, whom he renamed Angad, to be the next Guru. Guru Nanak passed his light on to Angad as one candle lights another. This succession continued for nine Gurus after Guru Nanak, establishing the unbroken lightline of the Ten Sikh Gurus.
Each successive Guru added other teachings to the Sikh canon. The fifth Guru, Guru Arjan, built the spiritual center, the Harimandir Sahib or Golden Temple, in Amritsar, India. He also gathered the writings of the Sikh Gurus and other esteemed spiritual teachers into the Adi Granth. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, added the writings of his father, Guru Teg Bahadur, to the Adi Granth, making it the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. He eventually appointed the Siri Guru Granth Sahib as the everlasting Guru, establishing the worship of the Holy Word as the highest spiritual authority. The times required Guru Gobind Singh to create a spiritual army to preserve the Sikh way of life on Baisakhi Day in 1699. He established the traditional form by which Sikhs are known today, including the distinctive turban and beard of Sikh men.
The Sikh way of life is based upon grisht jiwan, the householder way of life, living in the world, marrying, and having a strong family. Sikhs reside throughout the world, and are approximately 25 million in number. Practicing Sikhs live a healthy lifestyle which includes daily meditation and which eschews the use of alcohol and recreational drugs. Theirs is a life of practical spirituality in the world, with compassion and tolerance for others, and a generosity of spirit that feeds both body and soul.