In a Punjabi village in 1469, Guru Nanak was born into a Khatri family—the ruling and military elite class of the region. As a child, he studied both Hinduism and Islam, focusing often on questions of spirituality and purpose. He married a woman named Mata Sulakkhani and became a father to two sons, living an ordinary working life until the day that changed his—and millions of others’—lives forever. While bathing in a river alongside a friend, Nanak vanished. Having accepted the worst, his friends and family couldn’t believe their eyes when three days later Nanak returned and shared a revelation. “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim,” he said, “only man,” meaning that in the eyes of our Creator, we are all one.
Guru Nanak began sharing what he had learned from God during this spiritual revelation—that living a moral, truth-seeking life is how we grow closer to God—not through complex religious rituals or social constructs that serve to divide us. Guru Nanak renounced his caste, encouraging people of all backgrounds to break bread together. He began traveling great distances to much of the known world—from Sri Lanka to Tibet and many lands between—to share divine messages of equality and women’s rights. He emphasized God as one creator, and discouraged rampant superstition and ritualism, explaining that one must draw closer to God by serving others. As he grew older, Nanak returned home to live a humble life alongside his followers from diverse faith backgrounds who called him Guru, teacher. He founded and nurtured a growing spiritual community, Kartarpur, in Punjab during the last decade of his life. A visionary, feminist, and innovator, Guru Nanak stood up for the rights of people on the fringes and dark corners of society, advocating that there was divine light in all.
Before his death, Guru Nanak appointed one of his faithful followers as successor in the care and leadership of the growing spiritual community. He named him Guru Angad, the “limb” of Guru Nanak. Guru Angad humbly approached this responsibility, leading a pious, hardworking life as a spiritual leader, guiding the community in hymns and prayers each day, opening schools for the children, and writing stanzas to record Sikh beliefs. Over the next 200 years, Sikh community leadership and spiritual guidance passed from Guru to Guru, the movement strengthening in the midst of local political and military turmoil. Each Guru contributed valuable insights and lessons to Sikh followers, some gave their lives in martyrdom, and many recorded their guidance in poetic passages eventually compiled into the first holy text of Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth. Meet the Gurus.
In the late 17th century, rampant religious intolerance and political tyranny posed a threat to the very existence of the Sikh community. To foster a renewed sense of courage within the Sikh community, Guru Gobind Singh formed the Khalsa. On March 30, 1699, Guru Gobind Singh invited thousands of Sikh followers to hear a message. As a test of faith, he asked five followers to come forward, willing to give their lives as a sacrifice. The crowd was shocked at this request. Boldly, one individual stepped forward and put his life in the hands of Guru Gobind Singh, who led him into a small tent and returned with blood dripping from his sword. This happened four more times, when finally, the Guru revealed to the crowd that the men were in fact alive, and the blood on his sword had been that of a goat.
These faithful individuals were privileged as the first members of the Khalsa—an institution embodying the most serious commitment to the Sikh community, its code of moral conduct and its responsibilities for protecting the oppressed. Divisions of caste meant nothing in the Khalsa, and each individual who joined was given a common last name, Singh (meaning lion) for men or Kaur (meaning princess) for women. To ensure that the Khalsa maintained their commitments to protect equality and religious freedom during a time of oppression, members were instructed to maintain a uniform appearance, including uncut hair worn under turbans. Guru Gobind Singh was then the fifth person initiated in the Khalsa Order by the new members. The founding of the Khalsa was the beginning of the democratic organization of Sikhs—from here on, common people would become Sikh leaders with the responsibility of actively protecting the underprivileged and downtrodden.
With the formation of the Khalsa, Sikhs were more unified and organized, earning their community greater attention. In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh was targeted for assassination by a leader of a different community who’d grown jealous of his relationship with local authorities. Though he survived the attack, Guru Gobind knew he didn’t have long to live. It was time to name his successor. In a small ceremony, Guru Gobind announced that the final Sikh Guru would not be a man, it would be a book—the Guru Granth Sahib. The eternal tome included all of the words of the Sikh Gurus, as well as some writings of Hindu and Muslim saints of that period, building on the first official Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth. As the next two hundred years brought Sikhs great challenges and opportunities, the Guru Granth Sahib was in their hands every step of the way, representing all Sikh spiritual heritage and providing hope, guidance, and reassurance of their path in the world.
With over 25 million followers, Sikhism is the 5th largest religion in the world today. While many Sikhs remain in the Punjab region of India, where over 30,000 gurdwaras exist, the presence of the religion is felt globally through Sikh immigrant families who have traveled to pursue new opportunities in countries around the world. Finding a home in a nation with freedom of religion that pursues equality for all people, half a million Sikhs now reside in America.
A note on imagery: Artists' renditions are for inspirational purposes only. Although some of the Gurus did pose for paintings, unfortunately none of these historical paintings have survived. Sikhism also rejects any form of idol worship including worship of pictures of the Gurus.