Digest of terms
in contrast to Hinduism, against the background of which it emerged under Guru Nanak (1469-1539), Sikhism rejected the caste system in favour of an egalitarian ethic of mutual respect, and rejected patriarchy in favour of gender equality, so that in principle no stigma attached to divorced women and widows, and remarriage was allowed. Symbolic of this new ethic was the langar, or community kitchen and eating area attached to Sikh temples, where people of all castes, both men and women, could eat together. The food served is always vegetarian, not because this is a requirement of Sikhism, but in order to enable people of varied sensibilities to feel included. In practice, however, both caste and patriarchy remain deeply rooted, the power of traditional culture proving greater than the power of religious teachings.
Emphasis is placed on humility and truthful living in the light of the teachings of the Gurus contained in the scriptural Adi Granth, and on seva, service to humanity. This ethic of service has led in practice to building and running dispensaries, hospitals and schools open to people of all faiths, also orphanages and support for a range of humanitarian institutions. There are also Sikh relief agencies, and charitable work in general is of high importance. Honesty and hard work are prized, leading to a reputation for success in industry and business ventures. Service to humanity is seen as an essential form of service to God (Sikhs are strict monotheists).
In reaction to persecution, in 1699 a militant defense organization, the Khalsa, was formed by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, and became for many the backbone of the Sikh tradition. Yet Sikh identity was to remain an often hotly contested issue. Khalsa men are duty bound to wear a kirpan, a sword (nowadays it can be an ornamental dagger), representing readiness to fight in self-defence and on behalf of justice and the cause of the weak and oppressed. In effect a just war doctrine had been introduced into a previously largely peaceful movement - as indeed had happened in Christianity. Despite their prominence, though, Khalsa Sikhs remain a minority overall.