Serving the Community: the Selflessness of the Sikhs

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes 

A voice carries through the balmy morning air; lyrical, but not quite singing. Around the marbled square, thousands of swaddled bodies move together in a bobbing mass: young and old, men and women, pilgrims, and tourists. Shirtless men splash in the pool, women pray; sightseers pose for photos. Feet are bare. Faces are alight with curiosity, rapture, and devotion.

Striking through the smoggy sky is a huge and brilliant structure of gold. Real gold, too: an estimated 750kg worth.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes 

A voice carries through the balmy morning air; lyrical, but not quite singing. Around the marbled square, thousands of swaddled bodies move together in a bobbing mass: young and old, men and women, pilgrims, and tourists. Shirtless men splash in the pool, women pray; sightseers pose for photos. Feet are bare. Faces are alight with curiosity, rapture, and devotion.

Striking through the smoggy sky is a huge and brilliant structure of gold. Real gold, too: an estimated 750kg worth.

To the snap-happy tourists and cash-strapped backpackers, this is a must-see to tick off their list (and perhaps get a free meal and lodging for the night). But to the Sikhs making their steady circumnavigation at its base, this holy structure is the physical embodiment of their faith. This is the Golden Temple, known to Sikhs as the Harmandir Sahib– the abode of God.

Located in the heart of Amritsar in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, the Golden Temple is the most spiritually significant monument in Sikhism. Many Sikh followers make a pilgrimage (yatra) to the temple at least once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage is an opportunity to pay their respects to the Guru Granth Sahib, the central holy religious scripture of Sikhism. Men can bathe in the central Pool of Immortality (Amrit Saras Kund) to purify their souls. The pool is believed to have miraculous healing powers.

The atmosphere is powerful. One doesn’t feel like an outsider, and that’s the whole point. But to truly appreciate the significance of this mighty structure, one must first understand the tenets of Sikhism.

Who are the Sikhs?

More than 25 million people around the world identify as Sikhs. Around 20 million live in India; almost 76% in Punjab. Sikhism has strong regional roots, which contribute to its sense of community. When India was partitioned in 1947, Sikhs from west of the new border fled with Hindus to India – most to Punjab.

In New Zealand, the Sikh population now stands at over 40,000. The past decade has seen large-scale migration from Punjab, with the population doubling between 2013 and 2018. Sikhism is now our fifth largest religion, and Sikhs our fastest-growing religious minority. The Christchurch Sikh community has seen the most growth, swelling ten-fold since 2011. The newly-rebuilt city has proved ideal for migrants, particularly those working in trades or hospitality. Many younger Sikhs have also chosen New Zealand to pursue their higher education following new restrictions in European and northern American countries.

Although a minority, there’s nothing minor about the Sikh contribution to our society. Famous for their philanthropy, Auckland’s Supreme Sikh Society recently came to the rescue of many struggling families during New Zealand’s lockdowns. In 2020, they distributed more than 120,000 food parcels to people throughout the city. The effort earned them the NZ Food Hero Award in the 2020 Kiwi Indian Hall of Fame Awards. When Auckland was struck by a longer lockdown in 2021, the demand for food parcels was even greater – and the Sikhs did it again. Between August and December, they prepared and handed out around 500 food parcels a day for those struggling to make ends meet.

Supreme Sikh Society of New Zealand president Daljit Singh says there is nothing heroic about their efforts – it’s just what they do. “Religion means serving the community. When you see people are in need, you must be going above and beyond to support them. I only did what I was taught: to work selflessly and always share, be there for others. When serving others without distinction, you will find how peaceful your mind is and I am fortunate that I belong to a whanau which is caring for others.”

Mr Singh explains that the voluntary work undertaken by Sikhs is referred to as sewa – selfless service. “It involves helping others in a variety of ways. It is a way of life for many Sikhs and is part of our daily routine. Sikhism teaches that sewa is an act of service towards God (Waheguru) and therefore must be done regularly in order to become closer to God. It helps keep you grounded, mindful, humble and appreciative.”

While thousands of Kiwis have been grateful recipients of Sikh generosity, it would be fair to say that many have little idea of what this ancient monotheistic religion is about.

What is Sikhism about?

To begin with, the original (and correct) pronunciation of Sikh is not seekbut closer to sick, with the final consonant similar to the Scottish word ‘loch’. The word ‘Sikh’ itself means “seeker of truth”, or “learner”, “disciple”. Sikhs are disciples of the Guru. The Guru (always with a capital letter) refers to a succession of ten spiritual guides who are the founding fathers of the Sikh faith.

The first of these fathers is Guru Nanak. Born in Pakistan in 1469, Guru Nanak is said to have been around 30 years of age when he felt himself “being swept into God’s presence”. He was bathing in the river at the time, and emerging afterwards, his first words were, “There is no Hindu, no Muslim.”

Guru Nanak went on to become a spiritual leader. He gave away all his material possessions and devoted the rest of his life to sharing his insights, travelling through Asia, and singing poems of his teachings.

Later, he established a settled community in Kartarpur, now in the Punjab province of Pakistan. The community followed a daily discipline combining work and worship, and Nanak continued to preach and shape what later became Sikhism. Most Sikh homes are adorned with portraits of the Guru Nanak in tribute to the first martyr of their faith.

Guru Nanak also composed 974 of the hymns that make up the Guru Granth Sahib. Before his death in 1539, he appointed one of his disciples to succeed him as Guru. This tradition would continue over 10 gurus until the passing away of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. It was this Guru who encouraged his followers to wear a turban, both as a means of creating a unique identity for Sikhs, separate from other religions, and also to reinforce the idea of equality in the eyes of God.

The 10 gurus would be teachers and leaders of Sikhism, establishing the religion over the course of almost 250 years. ‘Guruship’ was eventually passed on to the Sikh holy book , Guru Granth Sahib, which is now considered “the living Guru”.

Hospitality, worship, and brotherhood

Although there are some parallels between Hinduism and Sikhism, Sikhs have their own separate scripture and calendar, rites, places of worship, and a sense of shared history.

The teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib follow many original Hindu teachings and concepts. Both faiths believe that a person comprises not only a physical body but also an individual soul. This soul is referred to as atma or atman. After the physical body dies, the atman continues through the cycle of rebirth (samsara). Based on samsara, Hinduism and Sikhism also share the concept of karma – that everything we do in one life will influence our fate in the next. Sikhs also celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights; and the Hindu day of Rakhi (Raksha Bandhan), a festival dedicated to brothers and sisters.

The difference is in their worship. Hindus recognise a variety of gods and goddesses and can make offerings to their deity of choice. Hindus also worship images or statues of their gods in their home or in public. Each day of the week is dedicated to a particular god.

Although worship is an essential part of a Sikh’s life, they believe that there is only one true god, Waheguru. Waheguru is the creator of everything, is immortal, and is without form. For this reason, Sikhs do not have images of God in their place of worship, the gurdwara. Nor do they worship the Gurus, although pictures of Guru Nanak are often hung in homes and gurdwaras. Instead, Sikhs worship by listening to teachings, sharing food, and sharing their community spirit.

There is no set day for worship, but the working week means that most choose to visit the gurdwara on a Sunday. This is a time for everyone to worship together, support each other and socialise.

Serving the community

Guru Nanak taught that all paths lead to God, that all people are equal, and that everyone can experience freedom through loving and serving others. This message underpins the Sikh devotion to hospitality and acceptance of all other religions, which is exactly what can be experienced at the Golden Temple.

So although very much a site of worship, the temple is an open house for all walks of life and faiths. The four entrances – north, south, east, and west – symbolise welcome to visitors from all corners of the world. Anyone and everyone, regardless of caste, creed, or race, can seek spiritual solace at the temple. Certain rules of etiquette do apply: men and women must cover their heads and bare skin and remove their shoes. Every visitor must walk through a foot bath to ensure their feet are clean.

The first Harmandir Sahib was built in 1604 by the fifth Sikh, Guru Arjan. The temple that stands today is one that has been rebuilt several times over, having been destroyed by Mughal armies and Afghan invaders over the centuries. The original temple was built on a lower level so that all visitors had to step down to enter, thus showing their humility.

Women making roti at the Golden Temple langar

As part of Sikh servitude, the temple provides a free meal that all visitors eat together. This is no simple snack: it’s a substantial nosh-up of rice, dahl, chapati, and a rice pudding. The meals are served to over 100,000 visitors a day by the Sikh community kitchen (langar) in an incredibly smooth, well-oiled system. Hundreds of rotating workers chop garlic, knead chapati, ladle dahl, collect plates, scrub floors – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The temple complex also offers free dormitory accommodation, where tourists can stay without charge for up to three days. Most pilgrims, however, sleep outside in the courtyard at night.

Back home in New Zealand, the Sikhs continue to serve the community and share their hearts with others, asking nothing in return but inclusiveness and the oneness of humankind.

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in