Reaching the Sikh Community with the Gospel-The Basics
Although Sikhism is a major world religion and is the fourth largest religion in England and Wales,i it is surprising that even in well-stocked Christian bookstores there is very little material in the way of reaching out to the Sikh community.
Typically in the apologetic sections, there are many books regarding Islam, some on Hinduism and a few on Judaism and Buddhism though little if anything on Sikhism. In 1992 Josh McDowell and Don Stewart wrote ‘Sikhism is a religion all but unknown to Western civilization’.ii
Strangely we are left with the same conclusion today since some western online sites listing world religions fail to even include Sikhism. Similarly the world population of Sikhs is the fifth largest and is approximately 27 million though there are few articles written about engaging Sikhs with the gospel on many apologetics’ sites, that are otherwise extensively equipped with reaching various religions and cults etc.
Interestingly, a classic work on the subject ‘Lions Princesses Gurus’ makes the same point in the opening paragraph of the acknowledgmentsiii. More recently though, there have been some useful articles written by Canadians who have the second largest Sikh representation globally.
One possible explanation could be the concentration of the Sikh population in particular areas of the world. 61% of the Sikh population is resident in the Punjab and 83% including the Punjab and other parts of Indiaiv and there are also significant Sikh populations in Canada, England and the U.S. and there are smaller yet sizeable numbers in Australia and Malaysia.
England has the third largest Sikh population in the world and the greatest Sikh population in London is in Southall including the largest Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) outside India. Immigration to the UK commenced in 1849 when the last ruler of the Sikh Empire Maharaja Deep Singh was overthrown and exiled. A century later, following India’s independence, there was an increase of Sikhs coming over from the Punjabv.
Sikhism acquired a considerable following in the west via Yogi Bhajan who set up a new form of Sikhism called Sikh Dharma and founded the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organisation in Los Angeles in 1968.viThe worldwide Sikh communities retain close links with the Punjab through family networks though exposure to western environments has resulted in interaction with western universities and English is increasingly becoming the lingua franca.vii
If you are interested in reaching a Sikh community near you; for specific information about Sikhism in Canada it would be worth reading Gospel Conversations in the valley by Imran Daniel http://northview.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Gospel-Conversations-with-the-Sikhs-in-the-Fraser-Valley-4a2bde.pdf and regarding Sikhism in Britain, ‘Lions Princesses Gurus’ by Ram Giddomal and Margaret Wardall. was published over twenty years ago, yet it is still essential background reading.
Essential Background Information and Guru Nanak
Because of the geographical setting, religious upbringing and experiences of its founder Guru Nanak, one might initially assume that Sikhism is basically a combination of equal elements of Hinduism and Islam since it does to some degree try to unify those contradictory faiths.viii.
However it would be much more helpful to recognise the influences and circumstances prior to the founding of Sikhism, consider how it has developed and seek to understand Sikhism as a religion of its own accord.
Guru Nanak is the most famous and revered of the ten Gurus. He was raised a Hindu of the Khatri caste though was employed as an administrator working for a Muslim nobleman.ix Around thirty years of age, Guru Nanak entered the river to bathe whilst concealed from his companions and pronounced three days later “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” and then undertook a series of travels before settling and establishing the first Sikh community in the Punjab region.xThe derivation of the word ‘Sikh’ originates from the Pali word ‘sikka’ meaning disciple.xiHe chose one of his disciples to be the next Guru.xii
Sikhism is Monotheistic and Guru Nanak considered himself a teacher, never as a manifestation of God and that everyone has direct access to God without a mediator.xiiiHe wrote 974 hymns which form a major part of the Sikh scripturesxiv and lived from 1469 to 1539. Nanak believed in reincarnation though rejected the caste system.
He also retained the doctrine of karma though rejected idolatry. In contrast with Hinduism, Nanak repudiated their scriptures, pilgrimage and ascetism.xvGuru Nanak greatly improved the status of women and shunned the Hindu practise of a widow sacrificing herself on her late husband’s funeral pyre.
In agreement with Islam, Nanak advocated the sovereignty of a single absolute ruler, salvation through submission to God and careful reverence of the sacred scripture.xviIn contrast to Islam, there is at least 37 authors for their scriptures compared with one and no fasting or judgment day.xvii
The Ten Gurus
Guru Nanak (1469-1539)
Guru Angad (1504-1552)
Guru Amar Das (1479-1574)
Guru Ram Das (1534-1581)
Guru Arjan (1563-1606)
Guru Har Govind (1595-1644)
Guru Har Rai (1630-1661)
Guru Har Krishan (1656-1664)
Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675)
Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708)
In the era of the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan; a script was formed though it didn’t include a statement of beliefs and there was also an established community and a capital, Amritsar.xviii
Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru managed to collate many of the hymns and writings up to his era. The last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh was especially formative in the direction that Sikhism followed, and he declared that the Sikh scriptures known as Sri Guru Granth Sahib would be the next continual-perpetuating Guru. Those scriptures are still placed in an elevated position on a platform in the Gurdwara (temple)and the scriptures are greatly revered.
The Guru Granth Sahib does consist of some Hindu and Islamic writings though there is a vast body of Sikh hymns. Copies of the Granth are identical worldwide and there are some 5,900 hymns on 1430 pages.xix
The opening lines contain a summary of Sikh beliefs namely…
There is one God
Eternal truth is his name
Creator of all things and the all-pervading spirit
Fearless and without hatred
Timeless and formless
Beyond birth and death
By the grace of the guru he is knownxx
Guru Gobind Singh (tenth guru) determined five articles knows as the five ks which were required for initiated Sikhs to observe. Nonetheless, not all Sikhs observe the tradition of wearing the items listed below.
kes -uncut hair
kara-steel bracelet worn on the right wrist
The Gurdwara (temple)
Guru Hargobind was the first to use the word Gurdwara for the Sikh place of worship meaning the gateway by which the Guru could be freely accessed.xxiAs long as the Guru Granth Sahib is installed and given due respect a Gurdwara can be established in one’s home or a public place of worship.xxiiAll public Gurdwaras include the singing of hymns and reading from the Guru Granth Sahib in addition to a free community kitchen available to people from all religions.xxiii
Men usually sit on one side of the room and women on the other and children generally stay with their mothers.xxivGreat reverence is given to the Guru Granth Sahib. This includes showing due respect by taking off one’s shoes, covering one’s head, washing hands and bowing and touching the floor when approaching the Guru Granth Sahib.xxv
Like Hindus, Sikhs celebrate Diwali though it takes a different format. Gurpurbs are festivals associated with the lives of the Gurus and the most important ones are associated with the respective births of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh and the martyrdoms of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur.xxvi In addition, Vaisakhi is celebrated on 14th of April to mark the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh and the commencement of the harvest in the Punjab.xxvii
5 Ways to Reach Sikhs with the Gospel
1 Initiating Gospel Conversations
It usually helps to begin with affirming shared virtues of which there are several, before looking at areas which will inevitably differ. Imran Daniel has produced a helpful online resource about sharing the gospel with Sikh people in Canada.
He uses Paul in Athens example in Acts 17:16-34 as a means of explaining who God is and building a bridge of communication by connecting with the culture before explaining the need to repent and be reconciled with God before the day of judgment.xxviiiSikhs also believe in a Sovereign Creator though their concept of God is one that is distant whereas Paul spoke of the unknown God who was not far from us (Acts 17:27).
This could lead on to an important conversation about knowing God and that God wants us to know Him (Jeremiah 9:23-24) and how we can determine that we know God (1 John 2:3-4) and recognise the Spirit of God (1 John 4:2). In addition, that should point to the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully Man and dwelt among us and can relate to us in every way and that deeply affects the way that we pray to the Father and relate to Him (Hebrews 4:15-16).
We should always be ready to provide a hope for the reason within us (1 Peter 3:15). It would also be really useful to be able to share your testimony concisely and get the main points across in just a few minutes. Seeing as though there is generally so much ignorance from outsiders regarding the Sikh community it would be helpful to read a few testimonies from former Sikhs and consider their experience and how they came to faith.
B. Singh is a former Sikh and Pastor of a Baptist Church in South Asia and it is really interesting to consider what was instrumental about his coming to faith and equally what wasn’t so helpful. Singh warns against those who begin witnessing with the sole intention of converting them without genuine interest of intention for friendship and understanding the culture.
Similarly he argues against using Sikh cultural symbols as a launchpad for outreach since that will likely be perceived as an attack on their culture.xxix In his own words ‘The Holy Spirit got my attention when I heard that the reason behind Jesus’s death and resurrection was the sin I couldn’t shake or fix by being a devoted, religious person’xxx.
Sadhu Singh had a vision of the Lordxxxiand was changed dramatically afterwards. This has also occurred in the Muslim world.
Ram Gidoomal, co-author of Lions Princesses Gurus and chair of Stewardship said “I come from a Hindu family, was brought up in the Sikh faith and was educated at the Aga Khan Muslim school in Mombasa.
I became a follower of Jesus in a pub in South Kensington as a result of what was then called Campus Crusade, but is now Agape. Up to then, I had seen lots of different ways of giving. My father gave very generously towards the building of new Sikh and Hindu temples and I’d seen the generosity of Muslims who had built schools and hospitals.
However, I was used to seeing giving as a way of paying for one’s past misdeeds. Once I started reading the gospel, I realised that there is nothing we can give that will buy us favour. Jesus paid for it all. My epiphany came when I realised that our sole motive for giving is as an expression of thanksgiving.”xxxiiHe also recommended focussing on grace and letting the Holy Spirit convict.xxxiii
3 Sharing from Scripture
Gidoomal & Wardell recommend always having your Bible ready when you visit Sikhs since they too treat their scriptures with great respect so avoid carrying your Bible in your arm, in your pocket or putting it on the floor.xxxivThis is similar to when sharing from the Bible with Muslims being, careful not to use a Bible you have marked for personal study and to try to keep it in an honourable (generally elevated position) and to treat it with due respect.
Sikhism takes a keen interest in ascertaining and knowing the truth and this would be a worthwhile line of enquiry to investigate, so you could explain that Jesus said that He is the way the truth and the life (John 14:6) and prayed for the disciples to be sanctified by the truth and that His Word is truth (John 17:17).
Some Sikhs are keenly interested in evidence and proof, so you could unpack the many infallible proofs that the Lord presented from Acts 1:3 or how Paul proved that Jesus was the Messiah from Acts 9:22 or the assurance God has given by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:31).
Marshall notes that Sikhs are restricted by quoting the fundamental creed of Sikhism found at the front of the Guru Granth Sahib when asked concerning the concept of God.xxxvIn contrast Marshall advocates introducing Sikhs to the God of the Bible as the God of history. “God’s plan for the world is unfolded from Genesis to Revelation. History is the divine purpose of God in concrete form.
Many of the fulfilled plans of God since His creation show the evidence that He can be trusted. God is active throughout the history of humankind, first in the account of the Jewish people, and then in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. “The Bible is fundamentally a history book—the history of God’s redemptive acts, past, present and future.”xxxvi
4 Getting alongside Sikhs
The history of Sikhism in relation to other religions is complex and understanding and empathy is required. Firstly, there is the whole issue of the areas within Hinduism and Islam which Sikhs both do and don’t agree with. Added to that, Sikhs may be wary of being both colonialised and missionized and fear that they may be stripped of their cultural identity.
There will inevitably be a great cost for a Sikh to trust in the Lord for salvation and it may well result in polarisation from the family and community. It is likely that they will need practical support, friendship and discipleship.
Although Sikhism has grown in the UK, the community is relatively recent and there can be differences in the generations and there are still strong links with the larger community in the Punjab. When having a Sikh round to visit it is important to be hospitable and giving in terms of time and being willing to listen attentively to where they are coming from.
Asking questions is important and demonstrates genuine interest rather than presumed opinions. When explaining the gospel, it is necessary to either avoid using Christian jargon or probably more helpfully, use Christian terms but carefully confirming what is meant by those terms.
For example grace is an important concept within Sikhism, though it is not the same idea as the biblical concept of unmerited favour and is to some degree earned and is linked with redemption from karmic debt.xxxvii
5 The Gospel is good news for Sikhs
Curiously enough, according to Gidoomal and Wardell, there is a reference to Jesus in the Guru Granth Sahib. “God has destroyed the head of the Devil through Jesus of the world. There was a light from heaven; all came to congratulate Him, blessed be the king of all people the destroyer of the wicked and Saviour of the poor; the creator of the universe, save me, I am your servant. God is one; may victory belong to Him.”xxxviiiThat could be a useful point of reference to consider that claim further in the Bible.
Whilst the Guru Granth Sahib does mention Jesus and grace, it is a different gospel and there is a different understanding of grace which is in some ways is akin to Catholicism since it depends on additional works.
In fairness, we can commend the emphasis on monotheism and robust rejection of idolatry and general ethical framework within Sikhism,xxxixthough the belief in reincarnation is contrary to Scripture and dying once and then the day of judgement (Heb. 9:27). The aim of Sikhism is ultimately to break the cycle of rebirths and to achieve union with God by being devoted to Him.xl
The solution is to repent and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation since our sins separate us from God and only the Lord Jesus Christ could reconcile us to God. He fulfilled prophecy and was preceded by the forerunner, John the Baptist. He lived the perfect sinless life and He is the One who knew no sin and became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
His resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection and only He can provide assurance of where we will go in the next life. We will die once and there will be a day of judgement. We have sinned and could never pay the price for our sins which is not the same as karmic debt. The Lord Jesus can be known personally. He is the truth and promised that you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).
i Religion in England and Wales 2011 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11
ii Josh McDowell Don Stewart Concise Guide to Today’s Religions (Scripture Press, Bucks, 1992),p385
iii Ram Gidoomal & Margaret Wardell Lions Princesses Gurus Reaching Your Sikh Neighbour (Highland, Godalming 1996), p7
iv Oxford Sikhs Sikh Population http://www.oxfordsikhs.com/SikhAwareness/Sikh-Population-Around-The-World_159.aspx
v Countries with the largest Sikh populations https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-largest-sikh-populations.html
vi Norman L Geisler The Big Book of Christian Apologetics (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2012), p532
vii General Editor Christopher Partridge The New Lion Handbook The World’s Religions (Lion Hudson, Oxford 2005), p241
viii McDowell Stewart p389
ix Partridge p217
x Ibid, p217-218
xi Compiled by Mark Water AMG’s Encyclopaedia of World Religions, Cults & The Occult (AMG, Chattanooga, 2006), p263
xii Ibid, 265
xiii Ibid, 264
xiv Partridge, p218
xv McDowell Stewart, p388
xvi Ibid, 388
xvii Ibid, 389
xviii Gidoomal & Wardell, p58
xix Ibid, p60
xx Ibid, p60
xxi Gurdwaras https://www.sikhs.org/gurdwara.htm
xxiv Giddoomal & Wardell, p78
xxv Gurdwaras https://www.sikhs.org/gurdwara.htm
xxvi Guru Gobind Singh Gurdwara https://www.bradfordgurdwara.com/intro-to-sikhism/festivals-and-gurpurbs/
xxviii Imran Daniel
xxix B. Singh I am a Sikh and this is what I believe https://www.imb.org/2018/01/26/im-a-sikh-and-this-is-what-i-believe/
xxxi C. Wayne Marshall Neither Hindu nor Muslim https://www.equip.org/article/neither-hindu-nor-muslim/
xxxiv Gidoomal & Wardell, pp149
xxxvii Sikhism FAQ’s What is Grace? https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/sikhism-faqs/sikhism-faqswhat-is-grace
xxxviii Gidoomal & Wardell, p61-62 cited from Padshahi 10 Chaupai, Rahiras Sahib quoted in Sundar Ghutka pp.299-300
xxxix Geisler, p532
xl Water p284