General Studies Paper 1 (Art & Culture): Describe how Sikhism, a religious reform movement turned into a separate religion?



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Syllabus: General Studies Paper 1 (Art & Culture)

Describe how Sikhism, a religious reform movement turned into a separate religion? (15 Marks)

Sample Answer:


The history of Sikhism started with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Guru in the fifteenth century in the Punjab region, the northern part of the Indian subcontinent.

The development of Sikhism was influenced by the Bhakti movement. However, Sikhism was not simply an extension of the Bhakti movement. Sikhism developed while the region was being ruled by the Mughal Empire. Two of the Sikh gurus – Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur, after they refused to convert to Islam, were tortured and executed by the Mughal rulers. The Islamic era persecution of Sikhs triggered the founding of the Khalsa as an order for freedom of conscience and religion.


Sikhism as a religious and social reform movement

Sikhism is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru (1469–1539), and the nine Sikh gurus that succeeded him. The preachings of Gurunanak led to many religious reform movements.

The chief doctrine of the first sikh guru nanak was the unity of god, brotherhood of man, rejection of caste and the futility of idol worship. Nanak aimed at uniting hindu and muslims into one brotherhood. Gurunanak dev’s first words were: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”. With this secular principle he began his missionary work.

  • Sikhism was influenced by the nirguni(formless God) tradition of Bhakti movement in medieval India.   
  • Sikhism repudiates the fundamental basis of the Bhakti movement, which claims that god Vishnu incarnates by taking birth in a human form from time to time (sambhavami-yuge yuge), and has incarnated himself as Rama and Krishna.
  • In sharp contrast to the Bhakti movement, the opening lines of the Sikh scripture declare that God is unborn and, therefore, can never incarnate.
  • Sikhism lays emphasis on equality of man and woman, character building and honest work ethic, as well as leading a good virtuous married life, which is Maya according to many Bhakti and Sufi saints.
  • Nanak emphasised maya as not a reference to the unreality of the world, but of its values.
  • Sikh ethics emphasize the congruence between spiritual development and everyday moral conduct. Its founder Guru Nanak summarized this perspective with “Truth is the highest virtue, but higher still is truthful living”.
  • Guru Granth sahib the holy text of the Sikhs is a standing testimony of the syncretism and the universalism of Sikh religion as it contains not just the hymns of the gurus but also the hymns of Jaidev of Bengal, Namdev and Parmanand of Maharashtra, Sadhna of Sindh, Rama Nand, Kabir and Ravidas from Uttar Pradesh, and the famous Sufi saint Sheikh Farid (Baba Fariduddin) from patan in Pakistan.

The Nirankari Movement.

  • This movement, initially an offshoot of Sikhism, was founded in the 1840s by Baba Dayal Das (1783-1885), who emphasized the worship of God as nirankar (formless God).
  • His approach meant a rejection of idols, rituals associated with idolatry and the Brahman priests who conducted these rituals.
  • Dayal Das’s disciples were to worship the formless God, obey the shabad (preaching) of the Guru, serve their parents, avoid bad habits and earn their livelihood through work. Eating meat, drinking liquor, lying, cheating, etc., were forbidden.
  • The Nirankari movement stressed proper religious practice and issued hukmnamas (injunctions) to define its ideology and precepts.
  • The Nirankaris set up a chain of worship centres staffed by their own priests and thus became a permanent subsect of the Sikh religion.

Akali Movement

  • The Akali Movement was  another for Gurudwara Reform Movement.
  • The property and wealth of the Sikh temples were being misused by the Mahants and Priests of the temple.
  • Mahants considered the Gurudwara as their personal property and misused the income  of Gurudwara on drinking and loose living.
  • Thus these Mahants used the sacred Gurudwaras to centres for immoral life. Thus Akali Movement was a struggle for freedom and purification of Sikh historical places of worship.
  • It came into full swing from the early 1920’s. It produced tremendous and far reaching effects on the social and religious life of the Sikhs and brought them into the political movement for freedom of India.


Political advancement( development of Sikhism as a separate religion)

During the Mughal rule of India (1556–1707), Sikhism was in conflict with the Mughal empire laws, because they were affecting political successions of Mughals while cherishing saints from Hinduism and Islam. Prominent Sikh Gurus were killed by Islamic rulers for refusing to convert to Islam.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century the town of Ramdaspur (Amritsar) had developed around the central Gurdwara called Harmandar Sahib (Golden Temple). It was virtually self-governing and modern historians refer to the early seventeenth century Sikh community as ‘a state within the state’. The Mughal emperor Jahangir looked upon them as a potential threat and he ordered the execution of Guru Arjan in 1606.

After the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, his son Guru Hargobind at age eleven became the sixth guru of the Sikhs and Sikhism dramatically evolved to become a political movement in addition to being religious. According to the Sikh tradition, Guru Arjan Dev asked his son Hargobind to start a military tradition to protect the Sikh people and always keep himself surrounded by armed Sikhs.


In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa panth, by giving amrit to sikhs. In 1704 he fought the great battle with collective forces of Aurangzeb, Wazir Khan (Chief of Sarhind), and other kings. He wrote a letter of condemnation to Aurangazeb chastising him for his moral degradation which is called the Zafarnama or Fathenama. Guru Gobind Singh was assassinated by two Muslim soldiers. One of them was commissioned by Wazir Khan.

There after the institution of the guruship as a succession ended and the guruship was placed permanently with the Granth. Banda Bahadur emerged as the military head of the Sikhs and he was captured and executed by Bahadur shah 1. There after the Sikh khalsa broke down to Misls. These misls took advantage of the decline of Mughal Empire and the continuous invasions from north-west by Nadir shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali. The vacuum created by the declining Mughal state is effectively filled by Ranjit singh and his sukerchakia Misl.                 



As a result of the British policy of divide and rule many religious nationalist movements emerged among the Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs. The process involved differentiating the religions and creating communal boundaries.

The ideas of Guru Nanak had a huge impact on development of the Sikh movement from the very beginning. He emphasized the importance of the worship of one God. He insisted that caste, creed or gender was irrelevant for attaining liberation. His idea of liberation was not that of a state of inert bliss but rather the pursuit of active life with a strong sense of social commitment. Thus, Guru Nanak’s idea of equality had social and political implications The changing historical situation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries influenced the development of related movements in 18th and 19th centuries which further led to evolution of Sikhism as a separate religion.


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