Sikhism is a distinct religion that originated in India in 1469 with the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The Khalsa was created by Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1699. In these 537 years, Sikhs have endured through many tough times.
The major time periods in Sikh History are:
Guru’s Period Era
Banda Singh Bahadur Era
Religious Persecution Era
Sikh Kingdom Era
Sikhism is now the World’s 5th largest religion with 26 million followers worldwide. The picture below shows the location of India, the homeland of Sikhs.
Guru’s Period Era
The first Sikh prophet, Guru Nanak Dev Ji was born in 1469 and the 10th and last Sikh prophet, Guru Gobind Singh Ji went to his heavenly abode in 1708. This time period lasted for more than 239 long years.
The Sikh religion progressed very well during this time, under the Guru’s proper guidance. While Guru Nanak Dev Ji started the Sikh religion by preaching against the caste system, animal sacrifice, and fasting, Guru Gobind Singh Ji completed its form by requiring all Sikhs to get baptized.
Many Sikhs, who were very close to Guru Sahib, wrote Rehatnamas based on his teachings, which are called the Sikh code of conduct. All the Gurus preached for service to humanity, sharing with the needy, and praising God.
Guru Angad Dev Ji, the 2nd Guru, developed the Gurmukhi script of the Punjabi language. Guru Amar Das Ji, the 3rd Guru, wrote the hymns, which are sung at the death ceremony. Guru Ram Das Ji, the 4th Guru, wrote the hymns which are sung at the time of marriage. Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the 5th Guru, compiled all the hymns of first four Gurus and himself into Adi Granth. Guru Gobind Singh Ji added the 9th Guru’s hymns into the Adi Granth and completed Granth Sahib. In 1708, he asked Sikhs to follow Granth Sahib and declared that Granth Sahib will be eternal Guru of the Sikhs in the future.
So by the time Guru Gobind Singh Ji went to his heavenly abode, the Sikhs had their own language, own holy Guru Granth Sahib Ji, own religious places, own baptism ceremony, own code of conduct, own marriage, and own death ceremony.
The Sikh religion is completely independent from all other religions.
Banda Singh Bahadur Era
Banda Singh’s original name was Madho Dass and he had many spiritual powers. He renounced the world lived in Nanded, South India. Guru Gobind Singh Ji reached there in 1708 and preached to him that renouncing the world may not be the right path, when the poor are being treated unfairly by the rich in this world. He became the Guru’s follower and got baptized and changed his name to Banda Singh. Guru Ji sent him to Punjab in northern India, along with 5 Sikhs to fight the tyrants.
He came to Punjab, collected an army and started attacking the small rulers of villages and towns. Ultimately, he had enough soldiers to fight with the ruler of Sirhind, who had mercilessly killed the two innocent young children of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The Sirhind army was composed of 25,000 men with cannons and elephants. Banda Singh had a smaller army with no artillery. But Banda Singh’s army had something which other side lacked.
They were ready to fight with religious fervor and to avenge the deaths of two innocent children of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. There was a fierce fight outside of Sirhind. Originally the Sirhind army started moving forward due to their superiority. Then Banda Singh prayed and used one of the five arrows given to him by Guru Gobind Singh Ji, who asked him to use them during these times. It tilted the scales. Now Banda Singh’s army started moving forward. Ultimately, Banda Singh led his army to victory in that battle.
He entered Sirhind and punished the cruel rulers. The ruler of Sirhind got killed, as with many of his advisors. He established the first Sikh kingdom. He made his close advisors the rulers of Sirhind and other towns. He established a new fort near Nahan and gave it a name of Lohgarh. That became Banda Singh’s capital.
Banda Singh ruled only short time but he made a great contribution for the poor people of Punjab. He ordered that ordinary peasants, who were doing agricultural work for the landlords, will actually be the real land owners. So he helped the poor and downtrodden people. He started his own currency in the name of Guru Nanak — Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Banda Singh’s kingdom stretched all the area of Punjab between Delhi and Lahore.
The Emperor of Delhi didn’t like Banda Singh’s rise. He ordered the Lahore ruler to collect all the army and attack Banda Singh. The Hindu and Muslim rulers of other towns and cities also obeyed to emperor’s orders and joined the Lahore army. Banda Singh was in the Gurdaspur area when he was attacked from all sides.
The Sikhs fought with bravery, but they were encircled from all sides. Ultimately, they fell back to Gurdas Nangal fort. There they remained encircled for eight long months. They ran out of ammunition and all rations. Many died due to hunger. The remaining were half dead due to hunger. Ultimately they were made prisoners in December 1715.
Banda Singh and 740 of his associates were brought to Delhi as prisoners. There they were given the choice to embrace Islam or get ready to die. All of them refused the forced conversion and were ultimately killed. Banda Singh and his four year old innocent child were brought out of prison. They were given the same choice but they refused. Ultimately Banda Singh’s four year old son was killed and his the child’s heart was forcibly put into Banda Singh’s mouth. Then he was killed limb by limb. He was martyred in 1716.
Religious Persecution Era
Banda Singh was martyred in 1716. The religious persecution of the Sikhs started immediately after that. They were outlawed by the Government. No laws protected their lands or property. They were attacked and murdered and their houses were looted. Thousands of Sikhs lost their lives like this. The remaining Sikhs retreated into the forests.
They survived on vegetables, fruits and even the roots of the trees. But they didn’t feel discouraged. They firmly believed in Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s prophecy that the Sikhs would rule the country one day. Some time they will come out of the forests to attack the government forces. The Government was getting more frustrated with them.
Therefore the Government decided to deal with them once and for all. A proclamation was made that the Sikhs should be wiped out from the face of earth. It was declared that financial sums will be given to the people who will kill the Sikhs and will bring their heads as a proof to the capital. This practice went on for many years.
Everyday money was given to the people who brought the heads of the Sikhs. Sikh women and children were arrested and brought to Lahore, the capital. There all children were killed and their body parts were put into their mothers laps.
The religious persecution went on for about 50 years. But the Government was weakened by the attacks from Ahmad Shah, an afghan king. Ahmad Shah reached all the way to Delhi and killed thousands of people. He imprisoned about 20,000 young Hindu girls and was taking them to Afghanistan to make them slaves.
Sikhs attacked his convey and released a good portion of those girls and sent them safely back to their homes. This infuriated Ahmad Shah. The next year, he again attacked India. Sikhs started retreating towards the safer areas. Ahmad Shah followed them and encircled them. There was a fierce fight and 70% of the Sikh community was slaughtered in one single day. This black day is also known as holocaust day in Sikh history. Ahmad Shah also destroyed the Sikhism’s holiest place, the Golden Temple.
Sikhs regrouped and got ready to fight the tyrants. Ultimately they became strong enough to defeat the tyrants and started ruling the area around 1760s.
Sikh Kingdom Era
As mentioned in the previous section, the Sikhs became strong enough to rule the area of Punjab by 1760s. They even conquered the capital of Lahore in the 1770s. However, they were divided into 12 different groups under the local leaders. They were all independent of each other as there was no main leader.
Maharaja Ranjeet Singh filled that whole. He was born in 1780 and he conquered Lahore in 1799, at the age of 19. He gained more and more territory every year he ruled Punjab for 40 years. He had a vast empire by the time he died in 1839 at the age of 59. His kingdom was so vast that he had to divide his kingdom into 4 different states, and he appointed Governors for those states.
He won territory in far away places. In fact, the present day boundaries between Pakistan and Afghanistan and also between Northern India and China were defined his kingdom. He was so strong that invaders from Afghanistan stopped attacking India very year. On the east, the Tibet Government, or present day China, signed a peace treaty with him. In the South, the British also signed a peace treaty with him, which defined his kingdom’s boundaries.
He was a very kind and fair ruler and he never gave the capital punishment to anybody during his 40 year rule. He would go to common people in the evening and at night in disguise to find out their problems and their feelings about his kingdom. He would change his policies based on the true feedback from the people. The British were very impressed with his personality. He also had many European Generals, especially French, in his army. Even the Russian Government sent their ministers to his kingdom.
The Sikhs went through religious persecution for more than 50 long years, as described before. Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s kingdom gave them the opportunity to settle down into civilian life. The Sikh community prospered during his time. He built many Gurdwaras during his period. He put all the Gold on Sikhism’s most sacred place in Amritsar, that’s why it is now known as Golden Temple.
Maharaja Ranjeet Singh died in 1839 at the age of 59.
The sons and advisers of Maharaja Ranjit Singh started fighting among themselves after his death and many of them were killed. The British bought the Generals of the Army and then attacked the Sikh kingdom. So the Sikh kingdom era ended in 1849, and the British annexed Punjab with the rest of India, where they were already ruling.
The British knew that Sikhs are great warriors so they rewarded the Sikhs with jobs in their army and won over them. The Sikhs proved to very beneficial to the British in many wars that they fought in. The British also gave lands to the Sikhs who retired from the Army. This induced more Sikhs into the army. By the time British left India and the country became independent, Sikhs constituted about 80 percent of the Army.
The British sent Sikhs to many battles far and near. The Sikhs fought for the British in the two world wars at places like Germany, Belgium, Italy, North Africa, Iraq, Burma, Singapore and China. 83,000 Sikh soldiers died and 146,000 were wounded while fighting in the 2 world wars. Some Sikhs were decorated with the “Victoria Cross Medal” — the highest war time medal. Sikh soldiers were also part of the victory parade in London after the second world war.
Punjab made a lot of progress during the colonial era. Many cities were connected by railroads and by paved roads. Schools were opened in all the towns, where English was also taught, which helped Sikhs when they started immigrating to western countries. The big cities had colleges also. The British generally tried not to interfere in the Sikhs’ religious affairs.
The Indians’ struggle for independence started in the 1920s and continued till 1947, when the British left India. The Sikhs were at the forefront of the independence struggle also. The British tried many freedom fighters, and hanged hundreds of them. They sent thousands to lifetime imprisonments at a prison on an island thousands of miles in the ocean. The vast majority of them (80 to 90 percent) were Sikhs.
Ultimately, the British left India in 1947. But they divided the country into two parts before leaving. The Muslim majority area became Pakistan and the Sikh and Hindu majority area became India. Punjab also got divided. The West portion was included in Pakistan and the east portion became part of India.
Religious riots broke out immediately and there was a mass migration of the population. About one million people lost their lives in the next two months. Millions more were displaced and were left without homes.
Sikhs started immigrating to the United States in 1897. Some Sikhs came straight from India, while others came from the far east, where they had immigrated decades ago. There were thousands of Sikhs living in California and the other western states by the end of the first decade of the 20th century. But the vast majority of them were singles because they couldn’t bring their families due to the strict immigration laws.
They couldn’t buy property and land due to the immigration laws either. So the majority of them either returned to India after a few years, or married women of Mexican ancestry. Early Sikhs mainly worked on agricultural or railroad construction jobs. Some of them worked in mines and lumber mills also. They built their first US Gurdwara in Stockton, California in 1912, which is still in operation today.
Bhagat Singh, was one of the educated Sikhs, who came to study at Berkeley University in 1912. When the announcement was made that anybody who would serve in US Army during first world war , would be given citizenship he joined US Army in 1914. He proudly served during the first world war and was honorably discharged at the end of the war in 1918.
But he was denied citizenship because he was not Caucasian. He fought his case in courts and went all the way to US Supreme Court, but ultimately lost. He ended up marrying a local woman and ended up staying here. He did his PhD and worked as a professor. He wrote more than a dozen books in his field of expertise.
Dalip Singh Saund was another Sikh who came to study at Berkeley University. He completed his PhD in Mathematics but couldn’t get a job due to the strict immigration laws. He started working in the agricultural fields and ultimately became a successful farmer. When immigration laws changed in 1940s, he got his citizenship. He became a judge in 1950s. He then ran for the US Congress in the 1950s from Riverside county of California and was a US Congressman for 3 consecutive terms.
Immigration of the Sikhs almost stopped after 1915 due to the strict immigration laws. The population of the Sikhs dwindled. There were only few hundred Sikhs living in California at the end of second world war. When the immigration laws changed in 1965, a new wave of Sikhs started coming. Most of them were educated and they got jobs in almost every profession.
Wherever they settled, they also built Gurdwaras. There are hundreds of Gurdwaras in the United States today. Some of them joined the US Army and proudly served. The Police forces in New York, Los Angeles, and the California National Guard have turbaned Sikh police officers. Since pioneer Sikhs got jobs in agriculture, they settled in California’s central valley.
Due to that, 10% of Yuba City’s population is Sikh. Sikhs get together on the first Sunday of every November to celebrate the anniversary of the first installation of Guru Granth Sahib Ji. There are an estimated 40 to 50 thousand Sikhs in the parade, which gives a big boost to Yuba City’s economy.
Early Sikhs Immigrants and their Role in Nation Building
Sikhs are thriving in India in the post-independence period. Sikhs can be seen in all the high posts in every aspect of the country. The present Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh. Gen. J.J. Singh, the Indian Army Chief, is also a Sikh. The Sikhs have served in very high posts of the Government and the private industry as well.
60% of the population in Punjab is Sikh, and Punjab is the most prosperous state in India. Sikhs have started immigrating to Western countries in the post-independence period. They generally have migrated to the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. One million Sikhs live in North America. 2% of Canada’s population is Sikh, as well as 10 of its Parliament members. Canada’s ex-health Minister and ex-premier of British Colombia are also Sikhs.
In America, Sikh Americans continue to contribute to all facets of the US economy. The first Asian American Congressman was a Sikh. The “father of Fiber Optics”, the chief marketing officer of Palm Inc, and America’s largest peach grower are all Sikhs. The largest Federal Court security contractor for the US Marshals service is Sikh owned. Sikhs are seen in most of the professions in America today.