Concepts in sikhism

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FIVE KHANDS (Ram Singh) or Padj Khands, lit. realms (panj = five, khand = region or realm), signifies in the Sikh tradition the five stages of spiritual progress leading man to the Ultimate Truth. The supporting text is a fragment from Guru Nanak’s Japu, stanzas 34 to 37. The Five Realms enumerated therein are dharam khand, the realm of righteous action (pauri 34), gian khand, the realm of knowledge (pauri 35), saram khand, the realm of spiritual endeavour (pauri 36), karam khand, the realm of grace, and sach khand the realm of Truth (pauri 37). The concept of the spiritual journey running into several stages is found in other religious traditions as well. The number of stages and the nomenclature may vary, but the broad features of the journey remain the same. The seven muqamat of the Sufis, the eight angas of Patanjal yoga, the five kosas of Vedanta and dash bhumis of Buddhism run on parallel lines though they are embedded each in a different cultural milieu.

The Panj Khands in the Japu delineate the different stages of spiritual ascent tracing the evolution of human consciousness on different planes involving man’s thought, emotions and action. Though Guru Nanak does not explicitly deal with these transformations and only touches upon the core characteristics of each stage (khand), yet the emphasis on one aspect does not exclude the others. In each stage, the status or position of the individual is set forth in a social setting. The seeker is not conceived of as a recluse or ascetic: social obligations and moral qualities form an essential core of the spiritual path. The empirical mind is first emancipated from the grip of desire and purified by a rigorous moral discipline. When it learns to stand still, it is brought to the Divine Portal which it can enter only with the divine grace. There it finds itself face to face with the Truth Eternal, i.e. God.

The delineation of the Panj Khands is preceded by two introductory remarks in the two preceding stanzas. First, there is the term pavarian, i.e. rungs of a ladder, denoting stages of the mystical ascent. Guru Nanak relates this ascent to the constant remembrance of His Name. Then occurs another insight which implies that all the endeavours that the spiritual aspirant makes and all the means that he employs during these endeavours have their ultimate source in divine grace without which he may not even feel the initial impulse towards spiritual life.

The first stage is the dharam khand. “The earth exists for dharma to be practised.” The word dharam has been employed in the sense of duty. Duty is usually performed either out of a sense of social responsibility or through moral awareness. Guru Nanak links this sense of duty to man’s consciousness of divine justice. This is the stage in which a sense of inquisitiveness is aroused in the mind of the devotee who is now no longer a casual onlooker of the world around but can perceive the divine purpose behind the creation of this planet of ours, the earth, which is set in the cosmic cradle of time and space and is sustained by the vital elements. Man has been placed in this world to respond to the Creator’s purpose. In His court, he will be judged according to his moral response.

The next is gian khand. “In the realm of knowledge, knowledge is ignited, i.e. illumination dawns.” The seeker here becomes aware of the universe and the mystery of existence. Through the creation, he gains knowledge of the Creator from whom it emanates. Knowledge here is not merely intellectual or sensual; it is intuitive awareness, a spiritual consciousness which expands the vision of the seeker. His sense of wonder is born not merely of his awareness of the many forms of life or the ordered movement of numerous celestial spheres, but of his perception of God who is the sole force behind all. In front of this limitless variety of cosmic life, he feels humble. This simultaneous experience of expansion of vision and of the sense of humility leads to vismaya or vismad (wonder).

Saram Khand is the sphere of spiritual endeavour. Here man strives against the last remnants of his ego which still afflict him in spite of his experiencing strong emotions of humility in the gian khand. If the sense of awe and wonder is not accompanied or followed by discipline, the experience might become a mere emotion, something remembered with nostalgia but having no permanent worth. To become worthy of receiving the divine grace, one must chisel one’s surati (consciousness) which is a unifying thread for all human faculties. This chiselling of intellect and wisdom would erase even the subtlest layers of ego from one’s mind.

Karam Khand (the realm of grace) is the sphere where reigns the Divine grace. The process of liberation with grace initiated is now brought to completion. All sense of dualism ends. The devotee is one with the Lord and with those who have attained this state of bliss. One reaches here only after achieving a heroic victory over the evils. Yet he is not a passive devotee, but a man of awakened courage and great deeds.

The final stage of spiritual ascent, i.e. sach khand (the realm of the Truth), defies description. “Hard as steel is the story of this state to narrate.” Described as the abode of the Nirankar, the Formless One, sach khand is not a geographical spot, but the final state of the evolution of human consciousness. One can only experience it, but not describe it, for here words cease to have any meaning and no analogies can help in describing the Unique. Here in the Divine Court, the perfect ones rejoice in His presence. It is from here that His Will (hakam) goes out to the universe, and the liberated, grace-filled souls perform it joyously and effortlessly. The devotee becomes one with Him and realizes Him as a unifying force working through all objects of His creation. This way he attains to the non-spatial sach khand and to the Dweller therein, the Nirankar, who is nowhere outside his own heart.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

2. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Japuji Satik. Amritsar, 1950

3. Ram Singh, Japji da Visha te Rup. Ludhiana, 1969

4. Sohan Singh, The Seeker's Path. Calcutta, 1959

5. McLeod, W. H., Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. London, 1968

6. Talib, Gurbachan Singh, Japuji: The Immortal Prayer Chant. Delhi, 1977

Rm. S.
FIVE SYMBOLS (J. S. Neki), a set of five distinctive features or elements of personal appearance or apparel that set off Sikhs from the followers of any other religious faith. Any study of religious symbols involves a dual task: first, to explain the meaning of symbols not only in terms of their original connotations but also on the basis of contemporary categories of understanding; secondly, to discriminate between genuine symbolism and any post hoc interpretations which later times may have imposed on things originally having little symbolic relevance.

A symbol is generally defined as something that stands for, represents or denotes something else, especially a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as being an idea, quality or condition. Words, phrases and sentences, for instance, represent various beings, ideas, qualities or conditions. Like any other religion, Sikhism also incorporates in its thought and practice a variety of symbols. Most of the philosophical terms such as maya, kal, mukti, anhad nad, are used in Sikhism in common with other religions of Indian origin; but there are others especially modified or coined by the Gurus precisely to mark their new connotations. Of the modified verbal symbols the most significant is Guru Nanak's Ik Oankar. Ultimate Reality was the mystic monosyllable Om, which appeared first in the Upanisads as the object of profound religious meditation. In later times Om came to represent the Hindu triad, Brahma, Visnu and Siva. By Guru Nanak's time the more popular use of the term which equated the three mythical gods with their Creator, the Supreme One, had gained ground. Guru Nanak modified the term by prefixing the figure "I" to Onkar to stress the unicity of the Ultimate Reality. This made Sikhism a strictly monotheistic creed. Examples of symbolic terms originally coined or introduced by the Gurus are nam, the manifest equivalent of the Transcendent One; hakam standing for Divine Will or Divine Law; nadar meaning Divine grace: Akal, the Timeless One, i.e. God; Sarb Loh, lit. all-steel, representing the All-Powerful God. Another original term in Sikhism is Vahiguru (lit. Hail! the Enlightener who dispels Darkness) for God. As the figures of Om and swastika symbolize Hinduism, the crescent and the numerals 786 denote Islam, and the cross signifies Christianity, there are symbols which define and individuate Sikhism. There are symbols peculiar to the Sikhs and their use gives them their identity and marks them off as a distinct people. For example, their mul mantra, in abbreviated form, the statement of their fundamental creed is used as a preamble to their religious writings. It is set down at the top of their private correspondence as well. It is also superimposed as a crest on their flag. Another form of the crest is a composite figure of khanda (double-edged sword), a chakra (steel quoit) and two swords joined close together at the bottom symbolizing strength and sovereignty of the Khalsa. The Sikh flag, reverently called nishan sahib (sahib, added as an honorific) comprising a high-flying pennant, yellow, saffron or dark blue in colour, with a khanda atop its flagpost, is commonly seen in the compound of a gurdwara or Sikh place of worship. The flag, the crest and the war cry Sat Sri Akal (True is the Exalted Timeless One) have served the Khalsa to maintain its high morale and esprit de corps through the ups and downs of its history. A pennant is defined as an emblem of victory but the form of salutation current among the Khalsa—Vahiguru ji ka khalsa, Vahiguru ji ki fateh— constantly reminds them that lest a triumph fill them with vanity, victory is always from God. Another popular and distinctive form of salutation is Sat Sri Akal.

Forms of salutation help to recognize the Sikhs as individuals and also as a community formed around the religion called Sikhism. But the most prominent distinguishing marks of the Sikhs, especially of the members of the Khalsa brotherhood, are what are commonly called the panj kakars, from each of the five articles beginning with the letter "k". The initiation ceremony called amrit sanchar, repeating the original ceremony that canonized the order of the Khalsa on the Baisakhi day of AD 1699, is itself symbolic of imparting a new immortal life to the initiates. During the ceremony every initiate into the order is enjoined upon to adopt and never to part from his person five symbolic physical objects—kes (unshorn hair), kangha (a comb), kirpan (sword), kara (a steel bracelet) and kachchha or kachhahira (a pair of specially designed shorts)—all names beginning with the phoneme 'k' and hence collectively called panj kakar (panj=five; kakar = symbols). The numeral panj (five) itself has a symbolic significance in Sikh usage. Physical bodies, it is believed, are made of five elements; there are five khands (regions or stages) in the ascent to the point of realization of the highest spiritual truth; the traditional village council, panchayat, consists of five members in the popular belief that where five panches have assembled together (for the sake of administering justice), there God Himself is present; it is panj piare (the Five Elect) who prepared and administered amrit (the holy initiatory water) to novitiates; five banis(scriptural texts) are recited as amrit is being prepared; the Sikhs own five takhts as the seats of the highest religious authority and legislation; and traditionally for the daily religious devotions a regimen of five banis is laid down. Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636), records: As one Sikh is sufficient to announce his identity, two of them make up the holy congregation. Among five of them God himself is present (iku sikhu dui sadh sangu panjin paramesaru), Varan, XIII.19.

The five k's may be regarded as parts of the uniform of the Khalsa which is defined as Akal ki Fauj, God's own army, created to fulfil the divinely ordained mission of Guru Gobind Singh, viz. dharam chalavan, sant ubaran dust sabhan ko mul uparan—to uphold dharma, protect the saintly and uproot the wicked (Bachitra Natak, 6). There is nothing esoteric or mystic about the five k's. They were simply chosen to serve as aids to the preservation of the corporate life of the Panth. It, however, seems to be essential for a social symbol to contain something of the nature of an archetypal kernel so that it may appeal rationally as well as emotively to the collective consciousness of the community and thereby acquire wide acceptance and emotional sway over the minds of men.

Kes or the unshorn hair imprint on the individual the investiture of the spiritual man exemplified by rishis or sages of yore, and even of God Himself (whose epithet keshava means one who carries long tresses, although, it must be remembered, the God of Sikhism is Formless and is occasionally personalized only for the sake of explanation of the attributes by which He is remembered). They also signify manliness, virility, courage and dignity, and therefore signify qualities both of a sant (saint) and a sipahi (soldier) and a life both of bhakti (spiritual devotion) and shakti, i.e. strength of conviction, of courage, and of fortitude.

The vow to leave the hair untrimmed also signifies a disavowal of the cultic path of renunciation and asceticism marked among the practitioners by closely cropped hair or by keeping them matted.

. Long-winded explanations on scientific grounds of the advantages of full-grown hair sometimes advanced are really unnecessary. It is enough to say that the Sikhs keep their hair untrimmed and uncut first because it is one of their religious vows and secondly because it is a clear mark of identification. Guru Nanak said, "if you see a Sikh of the Guru, bow low and fall at his feet" (GG. 763). Rahitnamas enjoin upon every Sikh to entertain and assist others. A Sikh will be the easiest to know from his long hair.

Kangha (the comb required to keep the hair tidy) symbolizes cleanliness. As a vestural symbol, it appears to repudiate the practice of Tantric yogis, who keep their hair matted (jata) as their outward denominational symbol.

Kirpan (the sword) signifies valour. It seems to represent what has been called "the sword of God in heavenly regions" (Isaiah, XXXIV, 5). For Guru Gobind Singh the sword was the emblem of Divine Energy for the destruction of the evil and protection of the good. Also called bhagauti (bhagvati or the goddess Durga, slayer of the demons) which in the Sikh vocabulary stands for the sword as well as for the Almighty. It is invoked at the very beginning of ardas, supplicatory prayer of the Sikhs.

The word kirpan seems to have been compounded from kirpa (krpa or compassion) and an (honour, dignity). Hence as a symbolic weapon it shall only be wielded in compassion (to protect the oppressed) and for upholding righteousness and human dignity. It stands, therefore, for the heroic affirmation of honour and valour for the vindication of ethical principles.

Kara (the steel bangle) was adopted as a pragmatic accessory to kirpan. A set of strong steel bangles used to be worn by warriors as protective armour over the arm that wielded the sword. But besides the symbolism of self defence that its pragmatic value seems to indicate, it has a deeper symbolic significance. As a circle it signifies perfection, without beginning, without end. Traditionally, a circle also represents dharma, the Supreme Law, and Divine justice. It also symbolizes restraint and control. The kara, therefore, symbolizes for the Sikhs a just and lawful life of self-discipline (rahit) and self-control (sanjam).

Kachchh or Kachhahira (pair of shorts) is a sartorial symbol signifying manly control. It contradicts the puritanical vows of chastity and celibacy (of sannyasa). At the pragmatic level, its sartorial design makes for greater agility and easy movements, thereby ensuring ready preparedness, tayyar bar tayyar, (readiness beyond ordinary readiness).

Of these five symbols, primacy unquestionably belongs to kes. It is the Sikhs' kes which rescued them from a critical situation. Unwarily, they had succumbed to a process of backsliding. The decline had in fact set in during the days of Sikh power. The stern religious discipline which had sustained the Sikhs through a period of difficulty and privation gave way to a life of luxury and plenty. They lost what, following Ibn Khaldun, may be described as their "desert qualities." A second—and even more sinister— debilitating factor was the Brahmanical ritual and practice which had gained ascendancy as an adjunct of regal pomp and ceremony. These now took a firmer hold over the Sikh mind. In this way, Sikh faith became garbled beyond recognition. The teachings of the Gurus which had supplied Sikhism its potent principle of re-creation and consolidation were obscured by the rising tide of conservatism. It was fast losing its characteristic vigour and its votaries were relapsing into beliefs and customs which the founding Gurus had clearly rejected. Absorption into ceremonial Hinduism indicated the course inevitably set for the Sikhs. This was the critical challenge they faced in the years following the British occupation of the Punjab.

Such had been the dereliction of the faith that several British observers prognosticated dismally for it. Some thought it was already dead; others felt it was irretrievably due for extinction. The following excerpt from the Punjab Administration Report for 1851-52—a bare two years after the annexation of the Punjab—will illustrate:

The Sikh faith and ecclesiastical polity is rapidly going where the Sikh political ascendancy has already gone. Of the two elements in the old Khalsa, namely, the followers of Nanuck, the first prophet, and the followers of Guru Govind Singh, the second great religious leader, the former will hold their ground, and the latter will lose it. The Sikhs of Nanuck, a comparatively small body of peaceful habits and old family, will perhaps cling to the faith of their fathers; but the Sikhs of Govind [Singh] who are of more recent origin, who are more specially styled the Singhs or "lions" and who embraced the faith as being the religion of warfare and conquest, no longer regard the Khalsa now that the prestige has departed from it. These men joined in thousands, and they now desert in equal numbers. They rejoin the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came, and they bring up their children as Hindus. The sacred tank at Umritsar is less thronged than formerly, and the attendance at the annual festivals is diminishing yearly. The initiatory ceremony for adult persons is now rarely performed.

It was the late nineteenth century renaissance, the Singh Sabha movement, which halted this relapse into Hinduism by, besides preaching Sikh religious doctrine, laying stress on the initiatory rite of Khande di Pahul and meticulous observation of the mandatory panj kakar, the Five Symbols.

Along with kes, the turban became a crucial symbol, too. Sikhs cherish the greatest respect for it. They must not cut or shingle their hair and they must keep their heads covered with turbans. It may be observed how lovingly, painstakingly, proudly and colourfully they adorn their heads with neatly-tied crown-like turbans. As Sikh history testifies, depilatory apostasy is the greatest sin among them. It is for this reason that they introduced into their regular petitionary prayer, they call ardas, words to this effect: Lord preserve our faith until our last breath and until the last hair on our bodies.

These symbols, being the gift of the Guru also possess a sacramental status. They are held dear as keepsakes of the Tenth Guru who had completely identified himself with his Khalsa. A keepsake essentially symbolizes a relationship of love. These symbols, therefore, also signify the Sikhs' love for their Guru as also his for them.


1. Sher Singh, ed., Thoughts on Symbols in Sikhism. Lahore, 1927

2. Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna. Amritsar, 1989

3. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

4. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970

5. Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978

6. Sikh Rahit Maryada. Amritsar, 1975

7. Padam, Piara Singh, Rahitname. Patiala, 1974

J. S. N
GIAN (Dharam Singh, Major Gurmukh Singh)(Skt. jnana), knowledge, understanding or consciousness, is what differentiates human beings from the animal world and establishes the superiority of homo sapiens over the other species. Nature has not only provided man with a qualitatively superior brain but has also endowed human mind with a dynamic inner stimulus called jagiasa (Skt. jijnasa), desire to know, inquisitiveness. Perhaps it is on account of this urge for knowledge and the consequent exercise that human brain or mind (psyche or soul for the ancients) gradually developed over the millennia. Gian consists in man's capacity to distinguish various forms, colours, sounds, smells or their compounds in the shape of objects in the phenomena surrounding him through his sense perceptions. It also includes an understanding of his thoughts, sentiments, feelings and emotions which, though conditioned by external stimuli, are yet the formulation or creation of his own mind. Gian is acquired or gathered through the mental faculties of cognition (process of knowing) and affection (affective process pertaining to feelings and emotions). The mind also possesses a third faculty, conation (concerning desire and volition), which is closely related to and interacts with cognition and affection. Epistemological theories are broadly classified as materialism and idealism. While the materialists regard the mind, consciousness or spirit as the product of material world, or nature, the idealists hold that nature and material world are the product of consciousness, of spirit, which is independent of the material world.

In the religious context the idealist view takes precedence over the materialist. Even the primal man must have noticed through experience a twofold division in phenomena. Some things existed and events happened in an orderly or regular manner so that they were easier to understand by personal experience. These formed for the aboriginal mind its natural world. But there was another world of experience, the extraordinary or supernatural, which was baffling and difficult to understand. This was the world of belief, which formed the earliest religion of magic, sorcery, necromancy and witchcraft, traces of which persisted even during the later civilized ages in the form of superstitions, rituals and forms of worship. Knowledge (gian) thus came to be classified as natural or ordinary and spiritual or mystical. In Greek philosophy especially in the works of Plato or Aristotle, for instance, words used are episteme for ordinary and gnosis for spiritual knowledge in opposition to doxa (belief).

In India, too, gian is divided into two categories: paragian (higher or spiritual knowledge) and aparagian (lower or worldly knowledge). In practice, the word gian in philosophical sense usually refers to paragian, also called atmagian, and the highest knowledge is termed brahmagian, the awareness and understanding of the Ultimate Reality. The earliest Indian religious text, the Rgveda, though mainly comprising hymns of praise and prayer addressed to personalized powers of Nature, does contain some speculative hymns. Brahmanas only describe rituals by means of myths. It is the Upanisads which are devoted primarily to religious speculation using rational tools. Advait Vedanta defines gian as self-effulgent (svaya-prakas). No other knowledge is required to know it. The self- effulgent gian enlightens human minds and eradicates the darkness of ignorance (agian or avidya). Metaphors of day and night and of light and darkness have been extensively used in Indian religious literature for jnana and ajnana, respectively.

Sikhism, without rejecting empirical perceptual knowledge, holds gian (spiritual knowledge) definitely superior and more desirable than ordinary knowledge. Guru Nanak beautifully illustrates gian vis-à-vis worldly knowledge in Japu (ji). After referring to, in stanza XXXIV, the perceptual phenomenon of day and night, changing seasons, the elements amidst which is set the Earth for practising dharma (righteous actions or righteousness), stanza XXXV depicts gian khand, the region of true knowledge, as illimitable expanse of myriad karam bhumis (lands of action), suns, moons and universes. The comparison clearly brings out that gian consists in directing the mind from the limited realities and concerns of this puny Earth towards the limitlessness of the True Reality depicted as sach khand and finally defined as inexplicable in stanza XXXVII. Elsewhere gian itself is said to be inexplicable and available through grace to the exclusion of other wayward efforts (GG, 465). It is also acquired by listening to nam (God's Name), having faith in it, internalizing it with love and delving deep into the inner recesses of one's mind (Japu, xxi), i.e. through reason, contemplation and meditation. That the jewel of gian or understanding of Ultimate Reality lies within one's self and may be had by listening to Guru's advice, subject of course to God's grace, has been stressed again and again in the Sikh Scripture (GG, 2, 102, 425, 569, 644, 684, 1002, 1378). Faith has of course been prescribed as essential, but stress is also placed on vichar (reason or contemplation). Another crucial factor to attainment of gian is the Guru whose words and whose favour are the key to true understanding. Guru for the Sikhs, after the ten prophets from Guru Nanak (1469-1539) to Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), is their Word embodied as Guru Granth Sahib. Company of holy men (sant) and holy assembly satisangat is also highly commended as being instrumental in the attainment of gian. Mere intellectualism and sophistry are, on the other hand, decried as useless wrangling detrimental to body and mind (GG, 230).

Knowledge attained by super-rational and super-sensuous faculties is intuitive and mystical in nature. It is paragian, the highest form of knowledge. Its attainment not only leads to emancipation of the seeker but also enables him to work for the emancipation of others. Possessor of the highest gian, the brahmgiani, is highly praised by Guru Arjan, Nanak V, and is even equated with God Himself (GG, 272-74).


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

2. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Japuji Satik. Patiala, 1988

3. Bhasha Vibhag, Japuji: Ik Tulnatmak Adhiain. Patiala, 1972

4. Locke, John, Essay on the Human Understanding. 1690

5. Berkeley, George, The Principles of Human Knowledge. 1710

6. Progress Publishers, ABC of Dialectical and Historical Materialism,

Moscow, 1976

7. Punjabi University, Sant Vinoba Bhave Krit Tika Japuji. Patiala, 1969

8. Gurnam Kaur, Reason and Revelation in Sikhism. Delhi, 1990

9. Talib, G.S., ed., The Origin and Development of Religion. Patiala, 1985

D. S

M. G. S.

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