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Q&A: The Sikh religion and its history

A Sikh holyman guarded a walkway at the Golden Temple, Sikh's holiest shrine in Amritsar, India.

Sanjeev Syal/Associated Press

A Sikh holyman guarded a walkway at the Golden Temple, Sikh's holiest shrine in Amritsar, India.

NEW DELHI (AP) — The Sikh faith has roughly 27 million followers worldwide, and the vast majority live in India. Here are some answers about the religion and its history.

Q: How did the Sikh religion originate?

A: It was founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak, who preached monotheism and equality, in reaction to the Hindu caste system. After fights with India’s Muslim Mogul rulers, the religion grew more militant. The 10th and final founding leader, Guru Gobind Singh, commanded Sikhs to carry a kirpan, or curved ceremonial dagger.

Q: What is Sikhs’ historical role in India?

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A: Sikhs at one point controlled a powerful kingdom in what is today western India and parts of Pakistan. The British captured it in a bloody war in 1849. Around that time, the British army formed a Sikh regiment that still exists in the Indian military. Though Sikhs comprise about 2 percent of India’s population, they make up a far higher percentage of the military.

Q: What are the customs of their faith?

A: Besides carrying the kirpan, traditional Sikh men don’t cut their beards or their hair. Most cover their heads in yards of cloth elaborately wrapped into a turban. Sikh men all take the name Singh, meaning lion. The religion’s holiest site is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which is surrounded by a lake.

Q: Has there been tension with India’s government?

A: Sikhs complained of discrimination after the nation achieved independence in 1947, and militant factions grew in power. In 1984, Sikh militants demanding the formation of a new nation of Khalistan holed up in the Golden Temple before being cleared out by Indian forces with tanks. Several months later, two Sikh security guards for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi shot and killed her in retaliation, prompting bloody anti-Sikh riots across Delhi and other cities. The Sikh uprising was crushed in much-criticized police actions across Punjab in the 1990s.

Q: What is their current role?

A: Sikhs hold some of India’s most important positions. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Army Chief Gen. Bikram Singh, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, head of the financially powerful planning commission, are all Sikh. They are a majority in the agriculturally crucial province of Punjab, known as the breadbasket of India, which is currently ruled by the Sikh-dominated Akali Dal party. Their temples, or gurdwaras, often run free kitchens giving food to all comers. They are sometimes found on street corners during hot summer months handing out cool drinks of ice, milk and rosewater to passing drivers.

Q: What has been the reaction in India to the shooting at a US temple?

A: Giani Gurbachan Singh, the Sikhs’ highest-ranking priest, called the shooting a ‘‘security lapse’’ by the US government and called on worshippers in the United States to adopt all possible security measures at their temples, including closed-circuit cameras. A Sikh delegation was being sent to Wisconsin to check on the investigation and another was being sent to New Delhi to talk with Indian and US officials to ensure no repeat of the violent attack.

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