June 22nd, 2010
01:25 PM ET

Nikki Haley provokes question: What's Sikhism?

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

While researching my prior post about Nikki Haley coming under attack by her fellow South Carolina Republicans for her Sikh heritage, I came across a local activist, Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council, who told CNN, “Most people can’t even pronounce ‘Sikh,’ even the ones that are criticizing her.”

For the record, the word Sikh rhymes with click. But knowing how to pronounce Sikhism won’t take you very far toward understanding whether this religious tradition is something that voters in South Carolina should fear and candidates in South Carolina should flee.

So what are Sikhs and Sikhism all about?

To answer that question, I contacted Gurinder Singh Mann, who occupies an endowed chair in Sikh Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mann, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Sikhism (and himself a Sikh), took time out from a conference he was attending at Lund University, Sweden, to tell me this:

Belonging to a five-century-old monotheistic tradition, the Sikhs lay emphasis on a life of hard work, social commitment, and ethical living. A complex set of doctrinal, historical and sociological reasons made them a very political people and they have kept up that heritage in both the Punjab, the land of their origin, and wherever they have migrated to in the past century. Nikki Haley may well be the latest episode in this saga: you carry on your politics and change the religion if need be.

I then consulted the entry on Sikhism in my book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. This entry begins by observing that "the term Sikh means 'learner' or 'disciple,' so Sikhs are disciples of the one God and those who learn from its gurus."

The entry continues:

Sikhism emerged out of a culture steeped in both Hinduism and Islam, and early Sikhs attempted to reconcile the two, in part by focusing on heartfelt devotion to God rather than rites and doctrines. "There is no Hindu and no Muslim, so whose path shall I follow?" asked [Sikh founder] Guru Nanak. "I shall follow the path of God." Like Muslims, Sikhs are strict monotheists who emphasize divine sovereignty. They reject the view that God incarnates in human form, believing instead in a formless God that can be known through singing and meditation. . . .

Although Sikhs have been coming to the United States for roughly a century, they were largely invisible until after 9/11, when many Sikh leaders were invited to participate in interfaith services. Shortly after September 11, 2001, a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona, by a bigot who thought the man's turban marked him as a Muslim. Since that time Sikhs have worked to educate Americans about the differences between Sikhism and Islam. Sikhism received more positive recognition after Manmohan Singh was sworn in as the first Sikh prime minister of India in 2004.

There are now about 25 million Sikhs worldwide, making Sikhism one of the top eight religions in the world in terms of size. So whatever part of Nikki Haley (who is now a Methodist) reveres her Sikh heritage is in good company.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Politics • Sikh • Uncategorized

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soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. SEO

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    August 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  2. how long to boil corn on the cob

    My good friend consistently spoke about this webpage however this really is the 1st article I had gone through up to now. I'm quite pleased and at this point a follower of this.

    June 30, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  3. Share Quotes

    hinduism is a good religion, my father is hindu and also my mother ;".

    December 16, 2010 at 1:50 am |
  4. Fridge Freezers `

    Hinduism is also a religion of peace and it is also full of wisdom just like any other religion,-.

    October 12, 2010 at 2:10 am |
  5. canada_sikh


    Why are people making a big deal out of this politician women, she is not a SIKH, a true sikh does not cut/trim/shave body hair[her eyebrows are done, in the pic i saw of her]..............just becuase her ancestor decided to get it on with ......i mean inter-marry into a different race, this does not make her sikh...... HER NAME IS NIKKI HALEY, HALEY is clearly western last name...

    side note: there are men who trim thier beards , and yet consider themselves sikh , in the eyes of the guru these men put thier ego[looks,etc] before the guru's teaching of keeping god's gift of hair, so they are not men of God in sikhism terms.

    October 9, 2010 at 3:14 am |
    • Detachment

      Besides ego, what about hate, anger, lust and attachment. If a Sikh has a moment of lust, anger, hate or becomes attached to a worldly concept or being, is that Sikh no longer considered a true sikh?

      January 27, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  6. Ellis Gibson

    the religion of my grandfather is Hinduism and he says that it is a great religion."""

    July 22, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
  7. Boston_Hari

    There are factual errors here:
    1. "Although Sikhs have been coming to the United States for roughly a century, they were largely invisible until after 9/11, when many Sikh leaders were invited to participate in interfaith services." This is not correct. Sikhs had a lot of prominence, especially the NYC taxi drivers, during the '79 Iranian Hostage Crisis. The Sikh taxi drivers would pass out pamphlets made at their place of worship to nervous passengers.
    2. Sikhism is the 5th largest religion in the world, unless you're counting Shias and Sunnis or Orthodox and Catholic and Protestants differently.

    Finally, although Sikhism appears to be a syncretic faith between Islam and Hinduism, it shares a lot more with the Hindus. All 10 of the Sikh Gurus (their equivalent of a pope, but is allowed to marry) were born Hindus. All Sikh's in India's ancestors were Hindus. No Musilms converted to Sikhism. Revisionist historians may disagree.

    July 19, 2010 at 2:02 am |
    • canada_sikh

      Hari my friend there are also factual errors in your post........
      a) muslims did convert to sikhsim but not to a large extent as sikhs ....just an example( Emperor Aurangzeb of India instructed on of his spies to keep his beard, hair and become a sikh of Guru gobind Singh Ji ( tenth prophet)....and provide secret intel to the empror....after a while, the spy wrote I'm no longer your spy I have met a true incarnatin of the lord,and have become his sikh(disciple).
      b) the 10 sikh prophets were all seen as god incarnat rather than as popes or leaders......current guru is Guru Granth (written scripture which contains hymns, verses , poetry and also includeds some names and stories of hindu and muslim saints who were true men of god ....such as Namdev(hindu) and kabeer(muslim).
      c) all sikh gurus were born sikhs.....some ppl think that the 10 sikh prophets were born hindus is because– the baptism process of drinking amrit( holy water, which is made holy by reciting religious prayers) statrted after the tenth prophet initiated it [after you drink the holy water/nectar you are sikh and are to abide by sikh teachings,etc].........................before this the amrit would not be made by reading religios prayers in front of the water but rather by dipping the current prophets right toe in the water , this may seem strange to western folk................but think of it this way, that is god's toe not an ordinary man like you or me .
      Page 18 Line 12 Raag Sriraag: Guru Nanak Dev
      ਭਾਈ ਰੇ ਸੰਤ ਜਨਾ ਕੀ ਰੇਣੁ ॥
      O Siblings of Destiny, become the dust of the feet of the humble Saints.

      October 9, 2010 at 3:16 am |
    • canada_sikh

      muslims did convert to sikhsim but not to a large extent as [HINDUS]


      October 9, 2010 at 3:17 am |
  8. Jessica Bailey

    Hinduism is a cool religion that is also oriented towards peace and prosperity..`-

    July 9, 2010 at 2:49 am |
  9. Final Jeopardy!

    Did god make(create) man or vice versa?

    June 24, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
  10. Correcting Ignorance and Indoctrination

    Each religion that has grown and has developed a significant number of followers (read Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, & Confucianism) is a developing tradition of piety and worship. Each of the traditions has been understood and has had a slightly different meaning to each of its own followers over the years (centuries and millenniums) and even today. Each tradition has originated in a specific location at a specific time, has spread through either word of mouth and exemplary lives or by the tip of the sword (and almost all by both). Each tradition makes truth claims that are not reconcilable with the truth claims of the other religions. Thus, they can not all be correct. All offer a meta-narrative that, when accepted and taken as truth, forms the basis of the followers understanding of the meaning and value of human life, the purpose of human life, and the goal of human life. Due to decades of religious conversion and spread, each religion has followers on every continent. Do not equate one with the other, since, as i mentioned earlier, they each make truth claims that are mutually exclusive of one another. Christianity claims that Jesus is God's Son sent to earth to die for humanity's sins and that one need to repent and believe in Christ's saving power in order to be saved from damnation. Islam claims that Jesus was a prophet that was mistaken and distorted and that Muhammad is God's final prophet and that his revelations (God's literal words given to Muhammad through an angel) is the final authority. Judaism believes that a messiah is still to come, that Jesus was/is not him, and that when the Messiah does come the world will end. Hinduism believes in one supreme being (Brahman) and man incarnations of that god (deity) and that through continuous lives that are well lived one can escape this world (moksha) and become one with the godhead (one's Atman becomes Brahman). Buddhism asserts that all life is suffering and that the escape from this life is through no longer having desire.

    June 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  11. Harry Met Greatest Gawd Number Two

    What religion did cavemen practice?

    June 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • Bobby Ray

      They practiced running faster than a sabre-tooth, or at least faster than the guy next to them

      June 23, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
  12. sally

    Mike, What about the major #1 religion created by God himself and much older than the other religions? Judaism.

    June 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • Bobby Ray

      Hinduism actually predates Judaism, and has more followers (about 1 billion vs. 13 million). All religions are believed to be created by God or Gods by adherents of said religion.

      June 23, 2010 at 10:55 pm |
  13. rajeev

    Religions as we term it for our convincing belief are all evolved through one place or point where principles for human existence is long being belived – the mother of all religions – Hinduisms. Hinduism is debated as principle of living or existence with humans on earth or as religion. Well what you belive and live in if is religion then Hinduism is religion. If you respect or follow its principles then it is the rules and virtue you have chosen to live with. As of until now there is no starting date for Hinduism which includess not just rules for existence of humans , rituals of celebration and science and vast knowledge of Universe. These all can have been lived many predeccessor civilizations in their own way. Christanity,Islam, Judaism follwed these basic principles as per the practice of land where they were preached. There are many comparisons of principles as these were borrowed and preached again to the humanity existence in those violent times. Sikh was born out with one principle to protect Hinduism. He was the only human who was designated the right to protect hinduism at whatever cost killing the enemy. This was done during the period when Islam was on a war footing to convert existing civilizations with force and fear.Hindu families use to send their first born boys to sikh panth for their training. The training was focussed on one concept of One god and no caste no creed. The god was what he wanted to belive and the book of principles was the granth which he had to trust . The granth were the saying of Gurunanak.These were the warriors who were ready defend hinduism and if you read uncorrupt history you will note that the strongest of leaders have sacrificed their lives and families defending. Gurunanak was a preacher a Guru who preached the concept that all humans are equal and there is no caste so that all humans on the indian continent fighting the caste war could gather on one ground in peace. It is very difficult to decimate and explain the historical times and the human socio behaviour of those times. But as said and agreed history is always made by the minute passed , and then it is left to the philospphers and historians who will convince the time according to their interpretation.

    June 22, 2010 at 9:41 pm |
  14. j

    ..I only read one religion that preaches you that,'if you are a christian or muslim or hindu or Buddhist you would act one' and you are not born in the any religion, you have to learn, work, understand and believe in It'

    June 22, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  15. d

    she is a politician, not to be trusted.

    June 22, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
  16. jonathan

    There are tooo many religions in the world..I prefer to stay ignorant and deal with each one on an individual basis..There is no comparison to the Christianity which the apostles preached...and that form of Christianity is the only form acceptable...

    June 22, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • mike

      Too many religions maybe but at least you should know the top 5
      3.Hindu -indian
      4. buddist- indian
      5.sikh- indian

      June 22, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • Reality


      Modern-day Christianity: A religion based on the embellished sometimes "mythicized" life of one illiterate, Jewish preacher man. Said life has been reviewed in great detail by many contemporary NT exegetes. Most have concluded that only 30% of the NT is authentic.

      June 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • Mike Stearman

      I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. – Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu.

      June 22, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  17. G. Singh

    Thank You Stephen for this information about Sikhs.
    However I totally disagree to part of what Gurinder Mann said about Sikhs. " you carry on your politics and change the religion if need be" Sikhs over the centuries have sacrificed their lives for the defense of freedom of religion for entire humanity. Sikhs do not change their religion because of convenience. The fifth master Guru Arjan was martyred by Mughal ruler Jahangir because he refused to convert to Islam . Ninth Sikh master, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded by fanatic Muslim ruler Aurangzeb because he stood for the freedom of religion of Hindus who were being forced to convert . Two young princes of the last Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh age 6 and 8 years who were captured by the state Governor were bricked alive BUT refused to convert to Islam. 7000 Sikhs along with the Banda Singh Bahdur who who were captured by imperial forces were brought to Delhi and were killed in front of public. Given a choice between Islam and gruesome death, every single one of them chose death. Again Sikhs are not against Muslims, but against hatred and intolerance and bigotry. Many religions condemn non believer or infidels but Sikhs believe in one universal lord who is for entire humanity. While it is fashionable and politically correct to talk about multiculturalism and diversity, and women's rights, the Sikh Scriptures complied 400 years ago embraced this concept of universal brotherhood and equality and taught Sikhs to respect all religions. Here is an English translation of a hymn from GGS page 1299 about the universal outlook of Sikhism.

    I see no stranger, I see no enemy;

    Wherever I look, God is all I see.

    I don't think of Us and Them,

    No one do I hate or condemn,

    I see God's image – each one a friend.

    Of any religion, caste or race,

    All I see is God's shining face –

    His smiling face, His gracious face.

    Accept as beautiful all His design,

    I learnt this truth in sangat divine. ( Holy congregation)

    One Word resounds in me and you –

    Waheguru ... Waheguru ... ( O wonderous Lord, O Wonderous Lord)

    In him, in her, in me and you –

    Waheguru ... Waheguru ...

    Beholding in every being His light,

    I bloom like a flower in joy and delight.

    June 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
    • jonathan

      This of course includes criminals who will kill you and steal what you have...

      June 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
    • rckmom

      that kind of thinking is 'sweet' but will get you killed i the worst way imaginable by the muslims!

      June 23, 2010 at 6:17 am |
    • diamondmind

      Thank you G. Singh! This is a wonderful insight. I am a Buddhist and feel that Sikhism is a wise and compassionate spiritual practice. My favorite form of yoga is a Kundalini yoga taught by Sikhs.

      June 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  18. Anuj

    my question is for stephen prothero about his appearence on "the colbert report" when you were asked about hinduism and said " the problem with hinduism is you keep getting reborn and thats the problem". You didn't explain how ones karma has to do with it and what you do in your life (good or bad) determines your next life, it's more than just being reborn over and over again im surprised you didn't explain how karma which is cental to the hindu religion and originates from the hindu religion determines your rebirth. When asked "is hinduism to buddhism as christianity is to judaism" I noticed you sort of cringed at he fact that both religion WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT are basically one of the same and originate in India. Both religions belive in the problem you call reincarnation and karma, also both are considered polytheistic faiths. SO why didn't you acknowledge the vast similarities that both faiths have?

    June 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
    • jonathan

      Probably because he don't know enough to speak on the subject.

      June 22, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • God's Man


      June 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
    • Bllleeeeeeeeeeeeeehhhhh

      because it would be supercessionist to describe the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism in that way.

      June 26, 2010 at 7:10 pm |
  19. jonathan

    As Henry Fonda once said in "Once Upon A Time In The West," well we can just bundle them all together and deal with them all at once.....LOL!

    June 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • jonathan

      I couldn't think of anything else to say..:)

      June 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  20. Reality

    Isn't this the third thread on this subject? A bit overdone??

    June 22, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.