Category Archives: Q. Hinduism and Other Religions

the evolution of sikhism and the khalsa identity

Sikhism originally started as an individualistic and pacifist religion, but morphed into a faith focused on a militaristic and warrior approach. Punjab, before Sikhism was founded, consisted of various tribes scattered throughout the state, with a social hierarchy based on the caste system (Singh 2004a:26). In the 1500s, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, created a sense of Punjabi nationalism with his belief in an individual religion with an omnipresent god, focused entirely on self-discipline and equality for all people (Singh 2004a: 45). Earlier passages in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, emphasize the importance of individual enlightenment instead of a communal identity: “Those who take on the mind are the greatest of heroes, Through their knowledge of self they stay merged in the Lord” (Shakle and Mandair 47).  The Khalsa, or soldier-saint, identity developed under the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, as a result of constant invasions into Punjab and became the only way to preserve the faith in these times of tumult. As the Khalsa became more established, it also became a symbol of the strength for the Sikhs. A fully united Khalsa has indicated prosperity and power for the Sikhs throughout Indian history.

Guru Nanak, the First Sikh Guru

As Sikhism was beginning to emerge, Muslim rulers from Persia were gaining more of a stronghold in the Indian subcontinent. Babar was the first Mughal ruler in 1527, and his successors varied in their tolerance towards other religions in India. Emperor Akbar, a powerful and tolerant Mughal king ruled from 1556-1605, respected the growing prevalence of Sikhism in India, even awarding Guru Ram Das the land on which the Golden Temple would later be built. However, the next Mughal ruler, Jehangir, who ruled from 1605 to 1627, was influenced by the prejudiced views of people in his courts and developed a strong hatred of the emerging Sikh religion (Sheob et al 170).  As the Mughals consolidated their control over India, Sikhism was gaining popularity and becoming more mainstream. Many of the Sikh beliefs, such as monotheism and equality for all people, aligned with Islam and went against Hindu traditions of purdah and the caste system. Consequently, these two religions began to form an alliance (Sheob et al 168).. This relationship threatened Brahminic Hinduism as many Hindus held important positions in the Mughal courts. There was a distinct hierarchy in Delhi, with Muslim rulers at the top, closely followed by the Hindu maharajas as their close advisors. As Muslims were in the minority in India, the Mughal rulers offered many more perks to the Hindus in order to appease them, as compared to their Muslim peers. The Orthodox Muslims, or ulemas, grew increasingly disgruntled and critical as the number of Hindus and the power wielded by them, grew in Mughal courts. The ulemas also began to feel threatened by the burgeoning Muslim-Sikh relationship and felt that if these alliances grew stronger it would undermine the preexisting fragile social order, even more (Sheob et al 172).

The ulemas were unsuccessful in spreading Islam under Akbar’s reign, so they proceeded to make a concerted effort with Jehangir to instigate his hatred for the Sikhs. They used flattery and referred to him as the “King of Islam,” in order to heavily influence him. These Muslims, together with the Hindus in the courts, worked together on a warrant for the death of Guru Arjun, falsely accusing the guru of undermining Jehangir’s position and sabotaging his rule (Sheob et al 172). Guru Arjun also had many enemies among the Hindus that were conspiring against him. His brother, Parthi Das, was upset that their father, Guru Ram Das, had picked Arjun, the younger sibling over him and had vowed revenge against his family by complaining to the Mughal courts. Chandu Lal, a Hindu also in the Muslim courts, began to plot against the guru after Guru Arjun refused the marriage proposal between Chandu Lal’s daughter and his son, the fifth guru, Hargobind. Chandu Lal alleged that Guru Arjun had written anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim books and was actively plotting to overthrow the Mughal leaders under the guise of a saint (Sheob et al 172). As the complaints against the Guru grew, they began to infuriate Jehangir; he said that “[The guru] was noised about as a religious and worldly leader… and from all directions fools would come to him and express great devotion to him.” Eventually, he had the guru arrested and decreed that “his property be confiscated, and that he should be put to death with torture” (Singh 57). The guru was tortured while in captivity and ultimately martyred on May 30, 1606.

This event was, perhaps, the pivotal turning point in the transformation of Sikhism from a pacifist religion to a warrior class. This led to the first confrontation between Sikhs and Muslims, and also revealed the growing tension between the Sikhs and the other religions in India at that time. Sikhism was under threat and the Sikhs had no other option than to band together to form a unified identity that could fight against the persecution they were facing (Sheob et al 173).

Guru Arjun’s son, Guru Hargobind, assumed the title of the next Sikh Guru and started to assemble an army and construct a fortress to defend against the series of clashes between the Sikhs and Muslims following the death of Guru Arjun. During the ceremony celebrating his accession as the next guru, Hargobind held two swords, which depicted him both as a spiritual and a political leader of the Sikh community. He said that his “rosary shall be the sword-belt,” showing the intersection between spirituality and a warrior identity (Singh 2004a: 60). Even the leisure time of the Sikhs was characterized by military exercises as Guru Nanak’s peaceful hymns turned into long discussions about battle strategies and victory songs. However, based on the sheer disparity in numbers of Sikhs and Muslims (the Sikhs being in the minority), the Sikhs realized that they would be unable to fend off Muslim attacks over an extended period of time (Singh 2004a:63). Guru Hargobind built a battle fortress near Amritsar and named it Lohgarh, which means castle of steel. Jahangir viewed this change in the Sikh identity as a threat to his throne and jailed Guru Hargobind for twelve years. The Guru was released after this time in exchange for a commitment of Sikh assistance in defending the Mughal throne against the other states in India that were beginning to mutiny against Mughals (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Hargobind”).

Guru Hargobind’s son, Guru Tegh Bahadur, became the ninth guru after the deaths of Guru Har Rai and Guru Har Krishen. The Mughal ruler at this time, Aurangzeb, was arguably one of the cruelest and most prejudiced Mughals (Sheob et al 175). He started his rule by demolishing Hindu temples, imposing taxes on non-Muslims and forcing conversions on Sikhs. When Guru Tegh Bahadur refused to convert to Islam, he was brought to Delhi and publicly executed in 1675. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s torture and subsequent execution further bolstered Sikh unity, so they could defend themselves from further persecution (Singh 2004a: 71).

This uncompromising unity became the first line of defense and survival and fully culminated into a distinct appearance for the Sikhs with the tenth and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh. With Aurangzeb’s increase in power after the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Sikhs experienced more aggression from the Mughals: their food supply was halted and they were trapped inside of their fortress. Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa and selected the Panj Pyare, or the five chosen ones in 1699. The Khalsa formalized the official metamorphosis of the Sikhs from pacifists to an organized military group, with a focus on external identity as the unifying force (Singh 2004a: 80). The Khalsa identity was defined by the five ‘Ks’: Kesh, meaning uncut hair, which was a symbol of strength, but also provided easy recognition of other Sikhs; Kara, a steel bracelet, showed a tangible connection to the guru; Kanga, a comb, demonstrates a pure body and soul; Kaccha, an undergarment, represents chastity; and finally, Kirpan, a symbolic sword, defines the warrior aspect of the saint-soldier Khalsa (BBC, 2009). The Guru’s four young sons were martyred by Mughal forces for their refusals to convert to Islam, so Guru Gobind Singh determined that the Khalsa and the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text, would become the path to practice Sikhism. Thus, the formation of a united warrior class became a necessity in order to preserve Sikhism, and is yet another example of the faith adapting with the circumstances at that time. This idea is illustrated in the Dasam Granth, a literary collection composed by Guru Gobind Singh. The Zafarnama section, written as a letter between the Guru and Aurangzeb, the Guru states, “Surrounded with no choice, in turn I too attacked with bow and gun. When matters pass all other means, it is allowed to take up arms” (Shackle and Mandair 140). This quotation highlights that the only way to defend Sikhism against cruelty and injustice was to form a warrior identity and fight back.

The Ten Sikh Gurus, with Nanak at the centre (Wiki Commons, Public Domain)

Banda Bahadur, a general in the guru’s army, fearlessly promoted the Khalsa and spread the guru’s word, after Guru Gobind Singh’s death in 1708. He was the first strong military leader of the Sikhs who was not a guru (Mahmood 108). He led a revolt that minimized Mughal power in Eastern Punjab and Haryana, but in retaliation, Banda, along with 700 other Khalsa soldiers were killed. With the loss of a strong leader, the Sikhs became outlaws, living in jungles where they would not be found and killing anyone who was associated with the Mughal Empire. This way of life became the only way for Sikhs to protect themselves and their faith. There was no strong Khalsa leader who could organize them militarily and, ultimately, this led to the persecution of Sikhs and diminished their power (Singh 2004a: 114).

In 1751, the Afghans began to invade Punjab, and there was a strong resurgence of the Khalsa, which led to the creation of the Sarbat Khalsa. The Sarbat Khalsa was a group of 11 different  misls, or tribes, led by strong leaders such as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Hari Singh Bhagi. These misls met twice a year in a large gathering in Amritsar (Singh 2004a: 116). The Sikhs once again emerged overwhelmingly victorious against Afghans, because of strong leadership which unified the army through the spirit of the Khalsa. This approach radically changed the Sikhs from outlaws into an organized group of freedom fighters, with the strength of the religion unifying the community (Singh 2004a: 117). The unified Khalsa army became a necessity against the enemy, especially as the Afghans greatly outnumbered the Sikhs. Unfortunately, despite the unity of the Sarbat Khalsa, the Afghans easily overpowered the Sikhs in the Wada Ghallughara, or the Sikh genocide, in which almost a third of the Sikh population was killed in 1762. After this event, Ahmed Shah Abdali tried to attack Amristar and the Golden Temple, but the Sikhs were able to regroup and defend themselves, and eventually were able to reestablish control over all of Punjab (Singh 2004a: 147-48).

Unfortunately, as the misls began to disintegrate, there was a rise in conflict amongst Sikhs over land and the Khalsa became more about gaining individual power or wealth (Singh 2004a: 174). Sikhs also began to form alliances with the British, who were just starting to make their presence in India known, in order to create a Sikh stronghold in India. During this time, the Punjab was heavily divided and difficult to rule politically, causing the state to be particularly susceptible to attacks from invaders (Singh 2004a: 185). Finally, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was able to reunify Punjab and unite the Sikhs so they could defend themselves. He was able to accomplish this through a common language and way of life. He established a secular kingdom that honored Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims and advocated for the peasants, who made up the majority of Punjab. This sense of Punjabi identity and nationalism reinvigorated the Sikhs and strengthened the military spirit of the Khalsa. At the height of Ranjit Singh’s rule, the Sikh empire extended from modern day Afghanistan in the east to China in the west, even though Sikhs were a minority in India. The Maharaja was able to achieve both Guru Nanak’s dream of uniting the Sikhs and Muslims as well as Guru Gobind Singh’s vision of military brotherhood (Singh 2004a:193).

During this time of harmony in Punjab, the British Raj was beginning to gain more power in the rest of India. The first encounter between Sikhs and the British was in 1809 when Ranjit Singh attempted to conquer Malwa, but the British were able to defend themselves successfully. This conflict led to the Treaty of Amritsar which certified that the East India Company would not interfere with the Sikh kingdom from that time forward, as long as Singh would only expand north of the Sutlej River, but not south of it (where New Delhi is located) (Singh 2004a: 221-223).

Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 led to yet another series of conflicts in Punjab. The lack of a central authority weakened the Durbar, and the sense of Punjabi nationalism was lost without a strong leader. Prospective leaders were more focused on personal gain and the succession for the throne which meant that there was less of a focus on the needs of the people of Punjab (Singh 2004b: 5). The insecurity caused the army to become the most powerful political body in Punjab. It was called the Army Panchayat and claimed to act in the name of the Khalsa. In response to the anarchy, British troops began to move closer to the Punjab border under the pretext of restoring order. By offering Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Sher Singh, and the Sandhawalia family special privileges to sabotage their own armies, the British Raj was able to quickly infiltrate Punjab (Singh 2004b: 18-21). Other leaders of Punjab, such as Maharani Jindan, Raja Lal Singh and Tej Singh were willing to sell Punjab to the British in exchange for their own personal safety. With a weakened Sikh army that was not united under one cause, the East India Company was able to conquer Jammu and Kashmir from the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1845; commanders of the Durbar army, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, were in communication with the British throughout the war. In the Battle of Ferozeshahr, Lord Hardinge, who was first to declare war on the Sikhs, issued a proclamation saying that those who left the Durbar would receive protection from the British, so once again, a weak Khalsa identity led to the defeat of the Sikhs (Singh 2004b: 49).

The Sikhs attempted to regain their land in the second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848, but the lack of a strong leader on the Sikh side resulted in yet another British victory. This event signaled the fall of the Sikh empire and culminated in the Treaty of Lahore, allowing the East India Company to take over all of Punjab by 1849 (Singh 2004b:81).

In order to prevent another Sikh uprising, the British assigned religion-based jobs in Punjab: Hindus conducted administrative work, Muslims were in the police force and Sikhs formed the army. Maharaja Dalip Singh, one of Ranjit Singh’s sons, was removed from India to prevent another nationalist movement; the Sikh flag was replaced by the Union Jack throughout Punjab, and the Rupee was introduced throughout India, instead of the Sikh currency. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India at the time, also wanted to destroy the Sikh identity to ensure that there was no chance of revolt, which he accomplished by turning the Hindus and Muslims in Punjab against the Sikhs. Sikh army soldiers were no longer trusted or deemed loyal, and as an unfortunate result, the Sikh soldiers lost their strong Khalsa spirit and became criminals (Singh 2004b: 87-88).

The Mutiny of 1857, a revolt that originally began between Bengali sepoys and British soldiers and spread to the rest of India was caused by the growing resentment against the British and their decrees including punitive taxes and forced conversions by Christian missionaries. The British used the old tactics of the Mughal rulers to convince the Sikhs to distrust Hindus and Muslims, in order to convince the Khalsa to side with the British during the riots. Together, the Sikhs and the British were able to conquer Delhi, capturing the palace of Bahadur Shah, the last heir to the Mughal throne. In exchange for their loyalty to the British during this tumultuous time, the Sikhs were given territory, money and palaces by the British (Singh 2004b: 109). They were also allowed back into the army and permitted to wear turbans, keep their beards and practice the tenets of the Khalsa to further foster the East India Company-Sikh relationship. This allowed the Sikhs to keep their identity, but also illustrates how the Sikhs had become more of an individual community within India without a sense of Indian nationalism or unity at this time (Singh 2004b: 112).

With the rise in Sikh conversions because of the advantages offered to them at the time by the British, different sects of the religions began to emerge. The Nirankari sect believed that the faith was beginning to merge into Hinduism (Singh 2004b: 123). To prevent this, they created their own ceremonies and disapproved of the militant Khalsa. The Radha Soamis established their own lineage of gurus to preserve the original message of Sikhism (Singh127). The Radha Soamis also disapproved of the military version of the Khalsa. Finally, the Kuka sect which followed the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh more strictly than other Sikhs and interpreted the Guru Granth Sahib literally (Singh 2004b: 135). These sects emerged from a need to preserve the Sikh power.

Reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, Pune, India

When England entered World War I in 1914, the British promised freedom to India in exchange for soldiers, weaponry and money. Sikhs formed 20% of the British army in the War, even though they only made up 2% of the Indian population at that time. Over 74,000 Indians fought in the war, most of them in trenches throughout Europe (BBC, 2015). They returned to India, expecting to be hailed as heroes, but instead were treated the same way as before (Singh 2004b: 161). During the war, the British began to impose heavy taxes on Indians, even though most people in Punjab were still recovering from a famine and an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1907. The government became significantly stricter in order to prevent another uprising in India during the war and instituted the Defense of India Act in 1915 (Singh 2004b: 183). With the end of the war, Indians expected these restrictions to loosen, but the Rowlatt Acts replaced these regulations in 1919. These acts essentially allowed Indians to be tried and imprisoned without a jury trial. Mahatma Gandhi called for a peaceful strike against these acts throughout the country. After several Punjabi political figures were arrested, violent riots began all over Punjab (Singh 2004b: 163).

In April 1919, 10,000 civilians were gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a garden in Amritsar to celebrate Basakhi, a spring festival. As large public gatherings were banned because of the ongoing riots, General Dyer, one of the officers of the British army and his troops opened fire on the families, killing almost 400 and injuring over 2000 people. After this incident, martial law was imposed in Amritsar and later included other districts in Punjab, including Lahore, Gujranwala, Lyallpur and the state of Gujarat (Singh 2004b: 164). The aftermath of World War I and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre caused a huge surge in nationalism throughout India and instead of a fragmented insurgency against the British, all of India became united against one common enemy. Protests against the Rowlatt Bills increased in aggression after Jallianwala Bagh, and British infrastructure, such as bridges, churches, and post offices were burnt and telephone and telegraph lines were cut. In response, General Dyer shut off Amristar’s water and electricity and Indians were forced to crawl on their stomachs on streets where British people had been attacked. These measures later spread to other districts in Punjab (Singh 2004b:165). Under Gandhi’s guidance, the Central Sikh League was created to oppose the Chief Khalsa Diwan, a Sikh political party established in 1902, who continued to support the British and General Dyer in order to gain more political standing. Once again, there was discord among the Sikhs and no common ideology to fight for, which weakened the religion (Singh 2004b: 167). However, after these incidents, in order to regain the Sikh favor, the British allowed Sikhs to carry kirpans with them and Sikh prisoners could wear turbans, showing that the best way to appease Sikhs as a whole revolved around preserving the Khalsa identity.

Before World War I, many Sikh peasants immigrated to Canada where they laid railway tracks for the Canadian Pacific Railways. After Canada passed its Immigration Law of 1910 which prohibited ‘artisans or laborers, skilled or unskilled’ from entering British Columbia, Sikhs immigrated to the United States, particularly California (Singh 2004b: 173). As a response to the large numbers of Sikh immigrants, Asiatic Exclusion League was established as a part of the US Immigration Department attempt to stop Indians from entering the country because of disease and violation of the “alien contract labor law” (Singh 2004b: 174). With the extreme racism against Sikhs, gurdwaras (Sikh temples) became safe havens for Sikhs and other Indians. The Khalsa Diwan Society was established in 1907 in Vancouver to build gurdwaras and religion once again became a factor that strengthened the Sikhs’ ability to defend themselves against the turmoil they were facing at that time (Singh 2004b: 175).

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese passenger ship chartered by a Sikh businessman named Gurdit Singh in the early 1900s, specifically to confront the unfair immigration laws in Canada and the US towards the Indians. The ship sailed from Hong Kong on May 23, 1914 via Shanghai and Yokohama and arrived in Coal Harbor, British Columbia, Canada, but was not allowed to dock because of the passengers’ race. The thoughts of the Canadians were clear: Canada was meant to be a “white man’s country” (The Canadian Encyclopedia, Johnston).  The British, who also controlled Canada’s immigration laws, were afraid that the new Indian immigrants would cause more rebellion on the eve of World War I. Finally, the Canadian government decided that they would only allow 24 immigrants of the 376 passengers to stay, of which 20 were returning citizens, and the Komagata Maru returned to India on July 23, 1914. When the ship arrived at the Kolkata harbor in India on September 27, 1914, all the passengers were declared enemies of the Raj. When the ship finally docked at Budge Budge Harbor, 20 supposed leaders were arrested. This created a violent riot, and the British killed 19 other passengers. Out of the remaining, a few managed to escape and the rest were sent back to their villages in Punjab and kept under village arrest for the duration of WWI (The Canadian Encyclopedia, Johnston).

This incident outraged Sikhs in Canada and large numbers of Sikhs congregated at gurdwaras, as they were one of the only places where they could be free of the racism they faced. As a result, political parties began to emerge, one of them being the Ghadar party. Funded by Sikhs in British Columbia and California, this was a Sikh communist party that was the first to declare war on the British Raj after the Komagata Maru incident (Singh 2004b: 175).  At the time, most Sikhs in India were preoccupied with World War I, so even though the Ghadar party used religious festivals to garner support, their ideas did not gain much traction in Punjab. This is yet another example of a split in the Sikh identity; there were now various Sikh political tribes in different parts of the world, which is a theme that affected the latter half of the 20th century as well.

In Punjab, the British government had taken over many gurdwaras for their political gain, impacting the extremist Central Sikh League’s management of temples. As a result, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was established, a loyalist group associated with the Chief Khalsa Diwan. The Shiromani Akali Dal was also created later that year to work under the SGPC on gurdwara reform (Singh 2004b: 194-98). In 1921, there was a famine in Punjab which brought economic failure to the state, leading to more anger towards the government and the loyalist parties, such as the Chief Khalsa Diwan. Extreme nationalist leaders were able to rise to power quickly and join the Akali party. In 1921, the SGPC also radicalized, passed a resolution that would boycott British goods. As more political parties were trying to follow the Non-Cooperation movement of Gandhi, the British understood that any violence against them would make the Raj look poorly (Singh 2004b: 200). Instead, to weaken supporters of Akalis, the British government proclaimed that the Akalis wanted a Sikh only state. However, this had the opposite effect as the Sikhs wanted a political party that gave them their freedom and their territory back to when the Khalsa was the most powerful. This message once again resonated and unified the Sikhs and the Akali party. The British reacted to this alliance by banning the Sikhs from serving in the armed forces if they continued to echo their support of the Akalis (Singh 2004b: 210).

The Sikhs made up the majority of the Indian army at that time, with almost 80,000 Sikhs serving. They were also the most active participants in the Indian government and had the highest proportion of voters compared to the other religions in Punjab. However, the government in Punjab did not reflect that. The Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 allowed Muslims to have their own representation as they were a religious minority in India. Even though Sikhs were also a minority, these guidelines did not apply to them and their voices were quelled by Muslims and Hindus (Singh 2004b: 218). The councils in Punjab also did not fairly represent the Sikh population: the Punjab Legislative Council had 93 members, out of which only 15 were Sikh. The Central Assembly consisted of 145 Indians, with only three Sikhs and the Council of States had 60 members, out of which one was a Sikh (Singh 2004b: 222). Yet again, Sikhs were frustrated with the government, leading to nationalist leaders being elected to offices in Punjab.

The elections of 1936 brought about the creation of another Sikh political party: the Khalsa National Party, whose entire stance was anti-Akali. Because of all the various Sikh political parties, there was no unified Sikh front, and therefore, they were not a powerful group that could make a major impact in Punjab (Singh 2004b: 223). It was difficult to create impactful change because the Sikhs did not know what they collectively wanted.

Similarly, the different political parties held different stances on World War II, which Britain had just joined. The Chief Khalsa Diwan encouraged Sikhs to enlist in the war, whereas the Congress party Sikhs did not support the effort, and Akalis only agreed to help the government if there were more Sikh soldiers involved. As the war began to come to a close, India itself was divided on what freedom meant for them. The National Congress Party wanted freedom for the entire country, whereas the All-India Muslim League wanted a separate Muslim state. Sikhs were apprehensive about complete freedom as that would mean losing their separate privileges from the British. They were also against a Muslim state as that would cause the split of certain areas of Punjab as well. This opposition to Pakistan became a unifying factor for Sikhs as they could either live in a majority Muslim state or have their land taken away because of it. The Sikhs came to a consensus that they would either support a united India or create their own Sikh state if Pakistan came to fruition (Singh 2004b: 238). The Sikhs were not originally involved in the Hindu-Muslim violence leading up to Partition, instead offering shelter for both religions in gurdwaras, following the peacemaking vision of Guru Nanak. But the Sikhs could be easily identified through their turbans and uncut hair, many Punjabi villages were destroyed, and Sikhs were raped, killed, kidnapped and forcibly converted. The militant Akali groups, such as the Akali Dal, the Akal Fauj, and Akal Sena were not real military groups with strong leaders, so the Sikhs did not have a strong fighter identity and it was difficult for them to defend themselves in the riots (Singh 2004b: 269).

Because so much of Punjab was lost after Partition, there was another surge in nationalism, eventually leading to a Punjabi-speaking state in 1966. Akalis claimed that Punjabi with the Gurmukhi script should be the only language in Punjab and the idea of Punjabi Suba, a Sikh state, started to gain more traction. Because of this, Punjab was further divided into three different states: Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (Singh 2004b: 303). Master Tara Singh, one of the key figures in organizing the SGPC, believed that with a Sikh majority state, Sikhs would be able to preserve their identity and traditions (Singh 2004b: 306).

In Punjab itself, some Hindus regarded Sikhs as a militant sect of Hinduism, with the only difference between the two being the Khalsa identity. Several fundamentalist leaders tried to give Sikhs an identity beyond the Khalsa. For example, President Giani Zail Singh created celebrations for each Guru and opened hospitals and universities with their names (Singh 2004b: 313). Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a nationalist Punjabi leader, tried to spread a message of returning to the traditions of Guru Gobind Singh by forbidding “modern evils”, such as alcohol and drugs. He believed that the only way to be a ‘true’ Sikh was to be baptized into the Khalsa and that all Sikhs should carry kirpans as well as modern weapons. He did not acknowledge the caste system, created differences between the Hindus and Sikhs and instigated communal violence (Singh 2004b: 324).

As religious violence between the two communities became more and more intense and Bhinderwale’s Khalistani, or Sikh-only state, vision gained traction, he moved to the base of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and declared war against the government. The Pakistanis aided the Khalistanis and provided them with weapons hoping that Pakistan would gain access to Kashmir through Punjab (India Today, 2014). After the Indian government unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the militants, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commenced Operation Bluestar in 1984. The army surrounded the Golden Temple, but underestimated the firepower of the terrorists. After a 24 hour standoff, the Indian army was forced to enter the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. Based on the government’s report, almost 1600 militants were apprehended but there were 500 casualties, including many civilians that were in the gurdwara as the gunfire started. However, actual estimates place the death toll between 1500-5000 (Singh 2004b: 364).

In the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, the Sikhs were seen as enemies of India. The Sikhs’ houses were searched for any arms and Sikh men were brazenly beaten and tortured in the streets by the police. Bhindranwale’s followers began plotting revenge after the attacks on the Golden Temple, targeting both Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zail Singh. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards shot and killed her. Her assassination set off a cascade of anti-Sikh violence: Sikh-owned stores and gurdwaras in Delhi were burned and robbed and Sikhs were murdered and raped, while the police did little to quell the violence. The Khalsa identity made the Sikhs easy targets, with their turbans or uncut hair. The Congress Party, the political party in power, believed that Sikhs “should be taught a lesson”(Singh 2004b: 378). By the end of the riots, over 10,000 Sikhs were killed, with another 50,000 that were displaced and living in refugee camps (Singh 2004b: 378-79).

A Sikh prays at a Gurudwara in Montreal. A poster speaks of the Sikh homeland of Khalistan. The display of weapons is prominent.

The resentment, tragedy and alienation the Sikhs faced during this time, once again, unified them. The nationalist, Khalistani movement grew in popularity, and was funded primarily by Sikhs living in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The 1985 elections in Punjab resulted in the appointments of people who were extremely anti-government and held extremist views (Singh 2004b: 399).

The bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 was the Sikh response to the tension between the Indian government and Sikhs. On June 23, 1985, the Air India flight en route to London from Toronto was bombed off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 passengers on board. This was coordinated with the Narita Airport bombing in Tokyo that killed two people. The intended target was the Air India Flight 301 headed to Bangkok (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v., “Air India Flight 182 Disaster). There are many conspiracies about the real perpetrators. One of the theories is that the attack was executed by Sikh militants as a display of power after the 1984 riots and subsequent unrest in India (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v., “Air India Flight 182 Disaster). Only one person was convicted for the attack, Inderjit Singh Reyat (Roach 1). He was later freed in 2017.

Young Sikhs practice traditional music at a Gurudwara, keeping their tradition alive.

While there is a huge disparity between how Sikhism evolved from Guru Nanak’s original vision of a pacifist faith focused on internal enlightenment into a warrior-saint identity, ultimately it was Guru Nanak’s ideology that has united the Sikhs throughout history. The Sikhs were forced to adopt the warrior persona primarily because of Punjab’s geographical location which made it particularly vulnerable to invaders, starting with the Mughals in 1527. Shortly after the decline of the Mughal empire, the Afghans began their occupation of Punjab, resulting in the Wada Ghallughara, which wiped out a third of the Sikh population in 1762. This was followed by the Anglo-Sikh Wars and the British annexation of Punjab. As a result of this constant turmoil, the Sikhs were forced to form a united front and a stronger, militaristic identity in order to preserve themselves and their religion. As has been documented throughout history, whenever the Sikhs were united under one cause, the Khalsa, a warrior style identity, the entire community emerged stronger. The Khalsa continues to be such a powerful uniting force for the Sikhs because of Guru Nanak’s original teachings of peace and equality for all. Guru Nanak’s message was emphasized both under Guru Gobind Singh and Ranjit Singh’s leadership as well as the Sarbat Khalsa. Over time and in the context of the larger Sikh diaspora, the idea of unity has changed and the political ideology of the Sikhs has taken on different forms to different people throughout the world, but the Khalsa identity remains the pivotal unifying aspect of Sikhism.

Works Cited

“Air India Flight 182 Disaster.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., June 16, 2019.

Dhavan, Purnima. When Sparrows Became Hawks: the Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

India and the Sikh Challenge, India and the Sikh Challenge § (1987).

Johnston, Hugh. “Komagata Maru.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 7, 2006.

Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley. Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

McLeod, John. The History of India. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2015.

McLeod, William Hewat. “Sikhism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., November 4, 2019.

Pletcher, Kenneth. “Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., April 8, 2020.

Rai, Raghunath. A History of the Punjab (1977-1984). 6th ed. Vol. 2. Jalandhar: New Academic Publishing Co., 2001.

“Religions – Sikhism: The Five Ks.” BBC. BBC, September 29, 2009.

Roach, Kent. “The Air India Report And The Regulation Of Charities And Terrorism Financing.” University of Toronto Law Journal 61, no. 1 (2011): 45–57.

Shackle, Christopher, and Arvind Mandair. Teachings of the Sikh Gurus: Selections from the Sikh Scriptures. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

Shoeb, Robina, Tauqueer Ahmed Warriach, and Muhammad Iqbal Chawla. “Mughal-Sikh Relations: Revisited.” Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan 52, no. 2 (2015): 165–81.  Robina  Shoeb_v52_2_15.pdf.

Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs. 2nd ed. Vol. I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004a.

Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004b.

Singh, Tavleen, and Inderjit Badhwar. “Pakistan Involvement in Sikh Terrorism in Punjab Based on Solid Evidence: India.” India Today. Living Media India Limited, January 31, 2014. t-in-sikh-terrorism-in-punjab-based-on-solid-evidence-india-800879-1986-05-15.

“The ‘Incident.’” The “Incident” | Komagata Maru Journey. Simon Fraser University Library, 2011.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Hargobind.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., January 1, 2020.

Tuteja, K.L. “Akalis and the Non-Cooperation Movement – 1920-22.” Indian History Congress 41 (1980): 520–29.

“What Led to Operation Blue Star? A Look Back, 30 Years Later.” Hindustan Times. HT Media Limited, June 3, 2014. ears-later/story-mAAcKtvwDQzCfipYksoKAL.html.

“Why the Indian Soldiers of WW1 Were Forgotten.” BBC News. BBC, July 2, 2015.

This article was written by a sophomore at San Francisco University High School, Ria Dhillon (May 2020), who is solely responsible for its content. It was completed in partial fulfilment of an Independent Study conducted there, and submitted to the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge, with permission granted for publication on

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois was a French-Catholic missionary with the Missions Etrangeres de Paris sent to India in the early seventeen-nineties whose mission-work continued until the early eighteen-twenties. During this time Dubois authored a number of important detailed accounts of the Hindu faith and culture, which were valued by many for their ethnographic knowledge. Once such contemporary proponent of the Abbe Dubois’ work was Lord Bentwick. As discussed in the articleCastes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks quotes Bentwick, writing that, “in a political point of view, the information which the work of the Abbe Dubois has to impart might be of the greatest benefit in aiding the servants of the Government in conducting themselves more in unison with the customs and prejudices of the natives.” (see Dirks  65).

Little information is known about the Abbe’s life before his ordination an subsequent missionary work in India, where he was first stationed with the Pondicherry mission in the south of India. Following this the Abbe worked in Mysore aiding the reorganization efforts of the Christian community in the area, (see Dubois 1823:1-2). To better coalesce with the natives, Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois adopted the diet and clothing tendencies of his Hindu contemporaries, effectively renouncing the Euorpean lifestyle of the time. During his time in India many small agricultural communities were said to have been founded by the Abbe Dubois, as well as the introduction of vaccinations as a method of disease prevention, (See Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:19). By eighteen-twenty-three Dubois left India and returned to Paris, where he later became the director of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:xxviii).

Of the works authored by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois, the most influential of which is Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, which is divided into three distinct parts, each of which discusses at length a different pillar of both Hindu culture and religion. The first and second sections discuss respectively the ‘General View of Society in India, and Especially of the Caste System’ and ‘The Four States of Brahmanical Life’, having a primary focus on cultural and societal implications of the Hindu tradition. While the third section aptly titled ‘Religion’ is concerned with the actual spiritual beliefs of practitioners of the Hindu tradition. Each of the three larger sections is further divided into chapters concerned with specific topics falling within the overarching theme of the section.

The first five chapters of the first section discuss at length the caste system found at the epicentre of  Hindu culture. The Abbe suggests that the ubiquity of the caste system in Hindu culture is the sole reason the Hindus did not regress into total barbarism which had been observed by other cultures occupying the ‘torrid region’ (Dubois  and Beauchamp 1897:29). Dubois further illustrates the importance of the caste system by observing what  became of social ‘pariahs’ a demographic of Hindu society with which he had become very familiar with. Stating that a population composed of such individuals quickly devolves into something altogether worse than the cannibalistic hordes observed in the African continent (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:29).

The second section takes an in-depth look at the Brahmin caste of Hindu society, covering a vast array of religious practices and expectations. It discusses at length all stages of brahmanical life starting with upanayana a ceremony in which young brahmin males are bestowed with a sacred cord, signalling their entrance into brahmic life. From this point until the age of matrimony they are acknowledged as residing in the condition of brahmacari. If the young male does not marry for any particular reason in the prescribed time period is no longer viewed as brahmacari andthe name of grhasthais not given to him. However, the six privileges afforded to the caste are still available to him. The six privileges being ‘to read, and get to read the Vedas, to make and to cause to me made, the sacrifice of the yajna, and lastly to receive alms and to give presents to the Brahmins,(Dubois 1816:101-102).

The second stage of brahmanical life  is that of grhastha, a title afforded to Brahmin males who have married and had produced children. The Abbe highlights myriad of different observances this state of Brahmins is required to maintain, a significant portion of which focus on ritual purity and auspiciousness. Not the least of these practices is ritual bathing in water that is deemed sacred, like that of the Indus or Ganges rivers. While in the water, it is of utmost importance that the man to keep his thoughts transfixed on Visnu and Brahma, the ritual bath is finished “by three times taking up handfuls of water, and with their faces turned toward the sun pouring it out in libations to that luminary”, (Dubois 1816:149). After exiting the water the grhastha brahmin dresses himself in a particular fashion that does not affect his purity or auspiciousness. This practice is conducted three times over the course of a day.

Dubois also discusses at great length the assortment of different prayers devout members of the Brahman caste observe and provides an exhaustive example highlighting the specific mechanics of the sandhya or ‘triple-prayer’ (see Dubois 1816:154-157).

The third and final section of Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies focuses more attentively on religious beliefs at the core of Hindu tradition. The first chapter of this section begins to draw a parallel between the Roman and Hindu primary deities, comparing Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (see Dubois 1816:370). The Abbe continues by explaining the origins of each member of the trimurti (the aforementioned Hindu gods) and begins to highlight the henotheistic nature of the Hindu faith. Following this the Abbe gives a more in-depth description of each member of the trimutr, as well as other prominent figures like Krsna or Indra.  Discussing in detail the role each member plays in the Hindu religion. Special attention and detail is given in the discussion of Visnu, as Visnu is said to take up to ten different forms or avatara, each of these forms and the situation(s) they correspond to are briefly illustrated.

In his Letters on the State of Christianity in India in which the Conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable, a work composed of a collection of correspondences written by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois which were sent to his superiors in Paris, the Abbe gives a detailed account of the state in which the Christian, and especially the Roman-Catholic faith(s) were in India. The opinion held by Abbe Dubois was that because the caste system was so deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, the conversion of natives proved to be a task of immense difficulty. Abbe Dubois writes that “during a period of twenty-five years that I have familiarly conversed with them, lived among them as their religious teacher and spiritual guide, I would hardly dare to affirm that I have anywhere met a sincere and undisguised christian,” (see Dubois 1823:63). Dubois continues to describe the degree to which this effect was observed, noting that one of the greatest points of contention for Hindu converts is the christian belief of total equality between people of varied societal position in the eyes of God, that a Brahmin of high standing should be treated as equal to a ‘pariah’. Continuing this sentiment, the Abbe suggests that even a totalitarian or despotic rule could be imposed upon the Hindu people with greater ease than it would be to dismantle the caste system; thus highlighting the vast emphasis placed upon the caste system in the Hindu tradition.

The writings of Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois offered a valuable insight into the complexity of the Hindu culture and the religion as a whole. The thirty years of experience working and residing among the Hindu people, adopting many of their customs and practices, allowed the Abbe to accrue a wide and intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the Hindu tradition. Henry K. Beauchamp writes that “any account given by such a man of the manners and customs of the people amongst whom he lived must in any case be instructive,” (see Dubois and Beachamp 1897: xxii).

Works Cited and Bibliograhy:

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs, of the People of India; and of Their Institutions Both Religious and Civil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, (1816)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Beauchamp, Henry K (1897), Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1905)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1823), Letters on the State of Christianity in India in Which the conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable. To which is added a vindication of the Hindus, male and female, in answer to a severe attack made upon both by the Reverend ****.

London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green (1823), Reprinted by Asian Educational Services

Dirks Nicholas B. (1992) “Castes of Mind.” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992): 56-78

Related Topics:

  • Sadhya
  • Protestant missionary work taking place at the same time
  • Lord Bentwick

Related Websites:

Article Written By: Brendan Spiess (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Faxien (FA-Hsien): Chinese traveller

Shi Faxian wrote a detailed record of his travels from the years 399-418 C.E. after noticing that the Vinaya-Pitaka, a collection of Buddhist scripture, was unfinished, particularly, the Vinaya concerning monastic rules and precepts (Li, 157). Without this knowledge, those who wished to renounce and live religious life according to the Buddha’s teaching did not have the resources to do so. A completed Vinaya would provide monks or bhiksus with rules, daily activities and bhiksus ordination ceremonies. Faxian’s travels documented these rituals at the historical time that they happened. Through the culture and customs of the people he met. His major work is the translation of the Maha-samghika-Vinaya with the help of Buddhabhadra along with the recovery of the Sanskrit text Mahisasaka-Vinaya. Several pieces of his work appear in the collections of the Tripitaka (Li, 159).

Faxian was originally named Kung but was sent to the Buddhist order at the age of three. There, he was given the religious name of Fa-hsien meaning, “Law Manifest” (Fa-hsien, 7). Fa-hsien departed from Chang-an in the year 399 C.E. at the age of sixty-five. The list of places he visited is numerous, starting from dangerous deserts to powerful kingdoms to a three-year long return voyage. He crossed deserts, the Pamir Plateau, travelled through North, Central and East India, then sailed across the Indian Ocean and the China sea, landed at Laoshan and reached Chienkang in 413 C.E. (Fa-hsien, 7). By the time he returned to China he was seventy-four years old. Before his travels, Chinese monks had yet to travel further than North India. When Fa-hsien arrived in North India, sutras were passed down orally which convinced Fa-hsien to press further into India in pursuit of monastic rules that Chinese monks deeply needed. These monastic rules are one of three main parts of the Tripitaka. The Sutra-Pitaka, contains the sayings of Buddha and his main disciples, the Vinaya-Pitaka contains Monastic rules and the Abhidharma-pikaka is known as the Basket of Commentaries (Fa-hsien, 15).

Fa-hsien’s first stop travelling west was the country of King Ju Tan where he would stay for his first summer retreat. It was a Buddhist custom for monks to take the summer or rainy days off. From there Fa-hsien would travel to Tunhaung after his summer retreat through a desert that was known to have evil spirits and hot winds that killed every man who encountered them. It was described to have skeletons of those who perished there to mark the way (Fa-hsien, 16). He visited the Country of Shenshen and Agni. Both Kings in these countries embraced Buddhism and had four thousand monks from the Hinayana School. Agni held monks who held traditions far more strictly than Shenshen and who prohibited Chinese Monks (Fa-hsien, 17). The Country of Khotan was largely prosperous and hospitable. Here they witnessed the image procession. Travelling to Khalacha, Fa-hsien witnessed the five-year assembly, a time in which the king presents offerings to monks. From Khalacha, the group journeyed west to North India where they crossed the Pamirs. (Fa-hsien, 18-22).

They arrived in Udyana, the northernmost part of India and found all the inhabitants to speak the language of Central India. Here it was rumoured that Buddha came to this country when he visited North India. After a summer retreat they travelled south to Suvastu, it is said that the king tested Buddha by transforming into a hawk and a dove. To ransom for the dove the Buddha cut off a piece of his flesh for the hawk (Fa-hsien, 26). Travelling East, the places they visited had many claims to former actions of the Buddha. He gave up his body for alms, his eyes in Gandhara and head in Takshasila. Travelling south the group eventually reached the city of Hilo where there was built a temple for Buddha’s skull. Here, the king worried about security assigned eight men of noble families each with a seal to seal up the relic. Every morning they would check to see if the seals were broken or tampered with. Fa-hsien would go on to lose a companion to the cold of the Lesser Snow Mountains (Fa-hsien, 28-34). Eventually, they reached Central India, also known as the Middle Kingdom. It is here that Fa-hsien would acquire the Maha-samghika-Vinaya. He also obtained the Sarvastivada-Vinaya (Li, 202).

Having arrived in Central India, they arrived at a country called Samkasya where Buddha descended from the Trayastrimsas Heaven after preaching the Law to his mother for three months. To the southeast, Kanyakubja was a city in which the Buddha taught the law to his disciples. Further on, the Country of Vaisakha where the Buddha planted a willow twig that he used to clean his teeth with. Heretical Brahmans would cut it down, but it would spring up in the same place as before. Northward to the City of Sravasti was a city that was scarcely populated. Southeast from here laid the city of Kapilavastu and the garden of Lumbini. Here, the Krakuchchanda Buddha was born while in the garden of Lumbini, the queen bathed in a pool. When she emerged she gave birth to a son who would be bathed by two dragon-kings. A well was made there where the monks would usually drink from. (Fa-hsien, 49). East of this is the country of Ramagrama, known for its relics. Further east they reached the city of Kushinagara, where the Buddha was said to have entered Nirvana. East, they reached the country of Vaisali, north of which is the storeyed Monastery where the Buddha lived. Eventually, they reached the country of Magadha and the city of Pataliputra which was King Asoka’s capital (Fa-hsien, 50-58). King Asoka (272-232 B.C.E.) was king during Buddhism’s spread to Asia. Heading west they arrived at the new city of Rajagriha which was mentioned to only have two monasteries (Fa-hsien, 62). Passing through the Gridhrakuta Mountain, where the Buddha used to sit in meditation at the summit, they reached the city of Gaya. This city, unfortunately, was deserted. Fa-hsien returned to Pataliputra and travelled west to reach the city of Varanasi, a short distance away to the deer park where Pratyka Buddha entered Nirvana. Fa-hsien ended his journey in central India in the country of Tamralipti where he spent three years on a voyage to Chang-an (Fa-hsien, 63-72).

Fa-hsien’s main purpose in travelling west was to obtain monastic rules in India. He travelled to India during the reign of King Chandragupta II. His account of his travels, the Record of Buddhist Countries is the earliest account of information that we have of this era besides a few coins and sculptures (Fa-hsien, 9). The places that he names are of great interest to those studying the trade routes between China and the west. One of the earliest cultural interactions noted during his time in Shenshen, was that the monks residing there all practised the religion of India, but some observed it more strictly than others. This was how it was visiting countries to the west. It was only the language that differed from country to country. One of the earliest recordings of a cultural event was the record of the image procession in the country of Khotan. The image procession has a resemblance to that of a parade. It begins on the first day of the fourth month with the cleaning of the streets. The monks that the king has favour (during this time it was the monks of Gomati Monastery) would prepare a four-wheel image car three li from the city. This image was adorned with precious substances such as gold, silver, lapis-lazuli etc. Buddha’s image would stand at the centre of the car attended by two Bodhisattvas while divas of gold, silver or carved jade are suspended in the air. When the car approached the city, the king would take off his crown and change into clean clothes. Then, carrying flowers would burn incense before them. There is a different car for each ceremonial and each monastery had one day to parade its images (Fa-hsien, 19).

During Fa-hsien’s time in Central India, he was able to acquire a copy of the Maha-samghika-Vinaya. The translation of this text would be his major contribution to Chinese Buddhism and the understanding of monastic rules. It was the most extensive and complete text of the Vinaya (Li, 202). First arriving in Central India he took the time to describe the environment. The customs of the region were that people were rich and contented and unaffected by any poll-tax or official restrictions. Only those who farmed on the land owned by the king would pay a land tax and they were completely free to go and come as they pleased. The king governed without resorting to capital punishment, but criminals were punished via fines according to their crimes. Those who committed high treason (a crime of the highest degree) would have their right hand cut off. The residents of this country did not kill living creatures, drink wine or eat onion or garlic. Although those with the title of, “chandalas” or “evil men” did. Chandalas would enter the town by announcing their presence by hitting a piece of wood. These people held the occupation of fishermen or hunters. The monks were lavishly treated by the king and devoted themselves to reciting scriptures or sitting in meditation. When a travelling monk arrived, they carried their robe and alms-bowl (Fa-hsien, 36).

Faxian’s records of his travels have undoubtedly played a key part in introducing a further understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism to the Chinese culture. From a country rich in Buddhists and poor in monastic understanding, it would be Faxian who would venture out further than North India into Central India where he would obtain and translate the Maha-samghika-Vinaya and bring back the Sanskirt text of Mahisasaka-Vinaya as well as numerous other Vinaya texts unknown to China. His journey was, therefore, a huge success. The list of counties that he travelled to were extensive and each country had its own story to tell. In the Northern parts of India, the countries all practiced religion but in different languages. Central India came with stories and claims of the Buddha’s travels through Central India. All of these can be considered to get a glimpse of what life was like in the fifth century.


Waugh, Daniel (1999) “The Journey of Faxian to India.” The University of Washington. Accessed January 29, 2020.

Li, J., and Dalia A. A. (2002) Lives of great monks and nuns. Berkeley: Calif. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Fa-hsien., and Li Yung-hsi (1957) A Record of the Buddhist Countries. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Association.

Related Topics for Further Investigation.


Monastic rule







Central India

Middle Kingdom

Buddhism in China



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic.

Article written by: Bennett Kubitz (February 2020), who is solely responsible for its content.

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

The origins of Hinduism in Sri Lanka have not been conclusively determined. However, it is known that the development of a multiethnic modern day Sri Lanka, primarily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religious worldviews, has unfortunately resulted in devastating ethnic and religious conflict. Currently, it is believed that the expansion of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka occurred relatively close to the evolution of the major ethnic group identified as the Sinhalese (Holt 70).  The Sinhalese are thought to have originated from the assimilation of various tribal or aboriginal ethnic communities that occupied Sri Lanka during the early Iron Age, approximately 600 to 500 BCE (Holt 70). However, some scholarly sources state that the Sinhalese may in fact have migrated to and colonized Sri Lanka around 500 BCE (Nubin 95). Despite these variances, it is accepted that the Sinhalese developed sophisticated civilizations with innovative technological advancements such as water tanks, reservoirs and irrigation canals (Nubin 95). Most importantly, the Sinhalese would help establish, spread and safeguard the traditions of Buddhism that would eventually be protected by the governing states of Sri Lanka (Nubin 95).

In regards to the spread of Hinduism from south India to Sri Lanka, the earliest inscriptions and texts from the Pali chronicles (the Mahavamsa) state that the primarily Hindu Tamils occupied Sri Lanka from the early Iron Age onward, directly parallel to the evolution of the Sinhalese (Holt 71). It is important to understand that there is a distinction between Sri Lankan Tamils, considered a native minority, and Indian Tamils, who later immigrated to Sri Lanka or are the descendants of these immigrants (Nubin 146). With their migration, the Indian Tamils brought with them their own Tamil language and spread their Dravidian cultural influences amongst the people of Sri Lanka. Additionally, since Tamil Nadu, India and northern Sri Lanka are closely connected in terms of geography, this physical link has supported the continual spread of Tamils in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). These Tamil immigrants comprised various castes and positions of power in the Hindu societies of south India, and “brought with them a kaleidoscope of religious myths and rites reflective of Hindu worldviews” (Deegalle 39). Archaeological evidence supports this migration model for the spread of Tamil language and culture in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). Eventually, some Tamil traders became elite and their significant influence in northern Sri Lanka allowed Tamil language and Hindu culture to become dominant (Holt 71). However, the Hindu Tamil influence was not as strong in the central and southern regions of Sri Lanka, where most Tamils were assimilated into the majority, Sinhalese Buddhist tradition (Holt 71). Additionally, as the Sinhalese slowly gained control of Sri Lanka, they started to view both Tamil language and culture as invasive and foreign to their native Buddhist traditions (Nubin 146). This tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Hindu Tamil minority has resulted in severe conflict throughout the history of Sri Lanka, even up to the past few decades (Mainuddin and Aicher 26).

The peak of these clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils occurred between the 5th and 9th centuries CE, when the Cola (pronounced Chola) dynasty, a Hindu empire of south India, increasingly pushed towards the Sinhalese-Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka (Nubin 101). Under the rule of Rajaraja the Great (983 – 1014 CE), the Cola Empire, which had already established hegemony over south India, proceeded aggressively to conquer Sri Lanka (De Silva 25). The Cola Empire gained near complete control of the Buddhist Sinhalese kingdom by removing the Sinhalese king at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka and subsequently, Rajaraja’s son Rajendra completed the conquest of the island (De Silva 26). A significant and relatively permanent change created by the Cola Empire, which outlasted its period of rule, was the shifting of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruva (De Silva 26). The Cola Empire’s primary motive behind shifting the capital farther south was to protect their empire from potential invasion from southern Sinhalese kingdoms (Nubin 102). However, the southern Sinhalese kingdoms would eventually overthrow the Cola Empire, but the crucial shift of the political and religious capital allowed certain aspects of Hinduism established during the Cola rule to be maintained in Sri Lanka (Holt 87).

Importantly, the Cola conquest resulted in significant changes in the religious and cultural dynamics of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). The rule of the south Indian Tamils of the Cola Empire allowed Hinduism to prosper in Sri Lanka, while Buddhism receded (Nubin 102). A crucial consequence of the Cola conquest was that it allowed Hindu-Brahmanical traditions and religious practices of Saivism to become dominant in Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Furthermore, various characteristics of Dravidian (south Indian) culture including notions of art, architecture and the Tamil language, collectively had a substantial impact on the religious and cultural structures of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Under the Cola Empire, many Siva temples were built in major centers of worship in the Anuradhapura kingdom. These temples in Polonnaruva, Kantalai, Tirukkovil and other cities further assisted in enhancing Hindu Saivite traditions in Sri Lanka (Carter 164). Interestingly, despite the large amount of evidence about Saiva religious practices in Sri Lanka that arises after the Cola conquest, earlier inscriptions from the Mahavamsa indicate that the origins of Saivism in Sri Lanka may date back to the pre-Buddhist period (Carter 162). During this time period of around 400 BCE, the majority of Sri Lankans likely followed religious practices that closely adhered to Hindu Brahmanic and Saivite traditions (Carter 162). Archaeological studies of these religious practices in early Sri Lanka suggest significant phallic (Sivalinga) worship and worship of Saivite deities that closely resemble the principal religious practices of Hindu Tamils at the time (Carter 163).

Once the Sinhalese kingdom regained power approximately a century after the invasion by the Tamil Cola Empire, under King Parakramabahu I, the city of Polonnaruva was transformed into a dynamic center of cultural evolution (Holt 87). Although certain cultural aspects concerning literacy, art and fashion seemed to resemble or evolve from Anuradhapura roots, the city of Polonnaruva allowed for an extensive Hindu community to flourish (Holt 87). Sculptural and archaeological pieces indicate that a significant Hindu Saivite presence was maintained in Polonnaruva (Holt 11). This Hindu community followed Brahmanical traditions that were supported by the matrimonial alliances between Parakramabahu’s royal court and Hindu political elite in south India (Holt 87). Smaller, localized communities of Hindus also continued to thrive and their origins are likely based on Hindu mercenaries that served military interests of south India (Holt 87). Modern day archaeological evidence of religious figures that were worshipped during these times in Sri Lanka indicate a high degree of connection to the practices of Hindu Tamils in south India. Many sculptures depict the Hindu deities Siva, his wife Parvati, and their elephant headed son Ganesa (Holt 87). Importantly, these Hindu deities as well as Skanda (or Murugan) were widely worshipped by the Cola Tamils. These statues also strikingly resemble deities worshipped in south India and are likely derived from the Thanjavur styles of Tamil Nadu (Holt 87).

Modern day, pluralistic Sri Lanka is shaped by four main religions, and primarily two major ethnic groups (Carter 149). Currently, approximately 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 15% are Hindu, 8% are Christian, and 7% are Muslim (Nubin 9). Importantly, we find that many characteristics of Hinduism in India are different from the Hinduism established in Sri Lanka. Among the Hindus of Sri Lanka, Saivism is predominantly practiced, whereas other Hindu sects are essentially absent (Carter 175). One reason for such a lack of diversity in the Hindu communities of Sri Lanka is due to the migration of largely Saivite Tamil Hindus from south India. Furthermore, the historical and geographical events that collectively established Saivism in Sri Lanka have also produced differences from Saivism practiced in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 175). Specifically, Vaisnavism and Saivism are thought to be contrasting systems in India, whereas in Sri Lanka, Visnu and Siva worship is complementary (Carter 175). Additionally, there are some temples in Sri Lanka devoted to the worship of Visnu even though there is not a significant number of Vaisnavites in Sri Lanka (Carter 175). Despite some of these differences, the established religious practices and traditions of Hindus in Sri Lanka have remained relatively unchanged until recent times. Many components of Hinduism in Sri Lanka including religious, cultural and linguistic factors can also be traced back to Hindu religious and political practices of south India. For example, Brahmin priests, who conduct rituals and ceremonies in social settings and in Hindu temples, do not involve themselves in the politics of public affairs (Carter 149). It is believed that this indifference towards public affairs by Brahmins can be traced back to the construction of Hindu society in India (Carter 149). Conversely, the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka has held a key voice in political issues and has received major support from the state (Carter 149).

Nearly all Sri Lankan Hindus are Saivites and adhere to the Saiva Siddhanta School that was developed during medieval times in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 150). Specifically, Saiva Siddhanta reveres the Vedas and the texts known as Agamas, whereas in south Indian Saivism, the collection of hymns referred to as Thirumurai and other texts including philosophical treatises comprise the canonical literature (Carter 150). This literature has also influenced Saivism in Sri Lanka, which in the broader sense can be thought of as “a blend of the Vedagama tradition with that of the Saiva Siddhanta” (Carter 150). Hindus in Sri Lanka have also maintained many of the cultural and linguistic characteristics of their Tamil Hindu counterparts in south India. For example, alongside the worship of similar deities, Hindus in Sri Lanka have also constructed temples, sculptures and other architectural monuments by employing south Indian artisans and architects (Carter 150). Additionally, many components of south Indian culture, such as the classical art of Bharata Natyam, have been established and sustained in Hindu communities in Sri Lanka (Carter 150). Sri Lankan Hindus also make pilgrimages to Cidambaram, Madurai, Ramesvaram, as well as other major Saivite centres in south India (Carter 175). Furthermore, many major religious festivals, such as the Kataragama festival celebrating the highly venerated deity Kataragama (or Skanda), occur in Hindu temples built at holy pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka (see Welbon and Yocum 299-304).

Although, possibly countless gods constitute the Hindu pantheon, for Tamil Hindus in both India and Sri Lanka, the gods Visnu and Siva are highly revered (Nubin 162). Visnu is referred to as the all-pervading god or “Blessed Lord,” who is the defender and creator of Dharma (Rodrigues 509). Visnu is usually depicted as a king with his wife, Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune (Nubin 162). One of Visnu’s ten incarnations is Rama, who is the central character in the epic Ramayana. The other most popular incarnation of Visnu is the god Krsna, who is a cowherd and a warrior prince. Krsna appears in the highly important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he primarily conveys fundamental teachings regarding devotion and following one’s duties (Nubin 162).  Siva is considered to be the most important Hindu deity for Sri Lankan Hindus (Nubin 162). Siva is referred to as the lord of the yogis or sometimes as Pasupati, “Lord of Animals” (Rodrigues 37). Siva is married to Parvati, the daughter of the mountains, and Siva is often depicted as an ascetic being, covered in ashes, meditating in the jungle with animals surrounding his presence (Nubin 162). For Tamil Hindus, the most powerful and creative expression of Siva is as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance” (Nubin 163). Large collections of literature and poems dedicated to Siva are held by some Tamil Hindus to be as sacred as the Vedic scriptures (Nubin 163). Although the primary focus for Sri Lankan Hindus is on the worship of Visnu and Siva, the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa (non-canonical narrative on the religious history of Sri Lankan royalty) also references the Hindu deities Brahma, Laksmi, Indra, Kuvera, Skanda, Visvakarman, Brhaspati, and Sarasvati (Deegalle 41). However, since much of the content of the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa is of Buddhist legend, myth, or folktale, searching these texts for connections to Hinduism in Sri Lanka can feel like trying to find information on Taoism by reading Confucian histories (Deegalle 41). Notably, female deities are also important amongst Hindu Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka, and they often receive more devotion by worshippers (Nubin 163). These goddesses are the Sakti, or cosmic energy, that has the ability to be both a creative and destructive force (Nubin 163).  Additionally, many small Hindu villages in Sri Lanka may also have their own local stories or origins based upon the presence of a specific deity. Therefore, they may have built specific temples for worshipping these deities, which usually include Ganesa, Muruga, Vairavar, and Kali (Carter 183).

In the more recent colonial history of Sri Lanka, Hindu religious practices have become less extensive due to the persecution of these religious worldviews by European colonizers, and also due to an increasing Buddhist influence (Carter 165). Specifically, the Portuguese colonizers persecuted Saivites, who in turn responded by fleeing to India. The Saivites that remained in Sri Lanka found themselves struggling to assert their Saiva religious practices, as they were unable to participate in fundamental religious observances such as temple worship (Carter 165). The Dutch imposed similar restrictions, but eventually British rule near the end of the nineteenth century allowed for greater religious freedom for Saivites in Sri Lanka (Carter 165). Nowadays, Sri Lanka faces problems of segregation based on caste (“caste-ism”) and untouchability that continue to be prevalent because of the absence of social reforms in Sri Lanka that are, however, taking place in India to fight the hierarchical division of groups into classes (Carter 155). On the political forefront, the proportional representation that Hindu Tamils enjoyed in the Sri Lankan government was eliminated with the 1949 Indian and Pakistani Residents Act (Mainuddin and Aicher 35). Additionally, the 1978 Constitution enshrined Buddhism with the state, further increasing the political tension between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). In the next few years, radical Tamils formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and led an armed combat against the Sri Lankan government during the Sri Lankan Civil War to protect their Tamil statehood (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). Furthermore, the continued warfare by the Hindu Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan government in the 1990s indicates that the separatist self-determination issue is not yet resolved. These constant struggles illustrate the extent to which the heterogeneous society of modern day Sri Lanka continues to sporadically encounter clashes between the revivalist Sinhalese, Buddhist majority, and the separatist Tamil, Hindu minority (Mainuddin and Aicher 28). These struggles will likely resurface in the future as the relatively young sovereign nation of Sri Lanka continues to address conflicting political and religious powers in attempt to define its true national identity.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis 49: 45-66.

Carter, John R. (ed.) (1979) Religiousness in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Marga Institute.

De Silva, Kingsley M. (1981) A History of Sri Lanka. London: C. Hurst.

Deegalle, Mahinda (ed.) (2006) Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka. New York: Routledge.

Holt, John (ed.) (2011) The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, USA: Duke University Press.

Jayaram, Narayana (ed.) (2004) The Indian Diaspora: Dynamics of Migration. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kumar, Pratap P. (ed.) (2013) Contemporary Hinduism. Durham, UK: Acumen.

Mainuddin, Rolin G., and Joseph R. Aicher (1997) “Religion and self-determination: A case study of Sri Lanka.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs 10:26-46.

Nubin, Walter (ed.) (2002) Sri Lanka: Current Issues and Historical Background. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Schwarz, Walter (1988) The Tamils of Sri Lanka. London: Minority Rights Group.

Welbon, G. R., and G. E. Yocum (eds.) (1982) Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. Delhi: Manohar.

Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006) Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Cidambaram temples

Cola (or Chola) Dynasty


Dravidian (south Indian) culture



Saiva Siddhanta


Siva Nataraja

Tamil Nadu





Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article written by: Harshil Patel (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Parsis in India

Parsis, a religious and ethnic minority in India, practice Zoroastrianism, a revealed, monotheistic religion based on the ancient teachings of Zarathustra (Nigosian 3).

Immigration and Settlement in India

Parsis immigrated to the Indian state, Gujarat from Persia (present day Iran) through a series of migrations in the eighth and ninth centuries (Roy 184 & Nigosian 42). The reasons for Parsis emigration is not fully understood, though scholars suggest that the rise of Muslim Iranian dynasties in Persia led to religious tensions resulting in the diaspora to India (Boyce 157). Archeological records indicate that the Parsi immigrants settled on the island Div for two decades before sailing to the mainland and permanently settling in the Indian state, Gujarat (157).

The early history of Parsis in India is uncertain because information of the exodus from Persia derives from a Persian epic, the Quissa-i Sanjan, which was composed in the sixteenth century from oral traditions (Nigosian 43 & Kreyenbroek 44). According to the Quissa-i Sanjan, the Indian prince, Jadi Rana, allowed the Parsis to create a settlement, Sanjan (named after their hometown in Khorasan) (Nigosian 43). The Quissa indicates that Jadi Rana required the immigrants to: explain Zoroastrianism, abandon the Persian language and speak Gujarati, perform marriage ceremonies after sunset, surrender weapons and wear the Indian sari (43-44). Jadi Rana’s conditions for settlement appear to be well integrated in Parsi culture because Gujarati continues to be spoken among Parsis in India today, although some Arabic and Persian vocabulary for ritual items and religious terms were retained (Boyce 157) and Parsi women continue to proudly wear the sari (Nigosian 44).

Zoroastrianism was the central organizing feature of the Parsis as evident by the division of the growing number of settlements into five distinct panthak (regions) which were governed by priests and a council (Boyce 167). Sanjan, the original settlement, was the central panthak because it housed the atash bahram (Fire of Victory) (167). Parsis often performed a pilgrimage to the atash bahram for worship after rites of passage or to acquire sacred ash to perform a sacred rite (167). The atash bahram also functioned as a sacred link to the mother country because it contained ash that had been brought from an atash bahram in Persia (166-167).

Parsis maintained a strong connection to Zoroastrian communities in Persia by sending messengers to Khorasan (a remote, mountainous region that the Parsis first fled to before sailing to India) and Persia (Nigosian 43). Messengers retrieved items used in rituals and sacrifices in addition to Zoroastrian prayer and worship texts (Boyce 166, 168). Furthermore, Rivayats, a series of instructive letters regarding practical and religious matters, were exchanged between the Persian and Indian Zoroastrian communities (Nigosian 42) until a dispute in the eighteenth century over differences in the Zoroastrian calendar ended Iran’s role as a religious authority over Parsi Zoroastrian (Boyce 189-190).

Practice of Zoroastrianism

The Rivayats reveal that the Zoroastrians in India remained fully orthodox by continuing to follow Iranian practices of rituals, purity laws and priesthood with a few minor exceptions (173). For example, due to the sacredness of the cow in Hinduism, bulls and cows were no longer sacrificed, although the sacrifice of goats and sheep continued (173). Boyce suggests that this sacredness also influenced the use of bull’s tail hairs to sieve the hom juice (174). Additionally, the traditional hom juice (similar to the Hindu soma), made from a plant found in the Persian mountains, was no longer available, therefore, an Indian alternative was found (173). The Parsi belief in the hereditary nature of Zoroastrianism and the subsequent rejection of converts or intermarriage was possibly influenced by the rigidity of the Hindu caste system (174).

Orthodox Zoroastrian Parsis worship the creator god Ahura Mazda primarily through prayer, purity, and fire sacrifices at fire temples. Zoroastrian’s worship and lifelong pursuit of ‘Good Thoughts’, ‘Good Words’ and ‘Good Deeds’ aids the dualistic, cosmic battle between Ahura Mazda and the evil force, Angra Mainyu (also known as Ahriman) (Kreyenbroek 4-5). Ahura Mazda’s seven helpers, amesha spenta (‘Beneficent Immortals’), also represent characteristics such as wholeness, righteousness, and good thought, which Zoroastrians are to develop throughout their lives (5). Parsis traditionally observe five prayer watches throughout the day (5) which involve praying toward an atash dadgah (household hearth fire) (9) or light (17), tying and untying the kusti (sacred cord around the waist) (8), reciting prayers from the Avesta (6-7), and perhaps lighting incense (17). Parsis believe when prayers from the sacred Zoroastrian text, Avesta, are properly recited, the words of the Avesta have divine powers to aid good beings in the cosmic battle (6-7).

Fire and fire temples are essential to Parsis religious practice because “fire represents the purity of the divine” (9). The most sacred fires, atash bahrams, are very costly and maintained by dasturs (high priests). To maintain purity, only Zoroastrians are permitted in fire temples (17). Before entering the individual should have a purification bath, cover his/her head, wash every exposed part of the body, as well as, tie and untie the kusti (17). Upon entering the fire temple, the individual is expected to acknowledge the picture of Zarathustra and priests or esteemed members of the community before approaching the fire to pray, worship, or provide an offering of sandalwood (18).

Traditional ceremonies and festive occasions in a Parsi’s life includes: navajote, weddings, pregnancy announcements, births [for more detail see Kreyenbroek 34-36], moving into a new house, going on a journey and death rites (18-21) [for a contemporary understanding of Parsis’ lives and practices see Luhrmann]. These events usually involve purification through bathing in milk and flowers (18-21) and the presence of a tray with an oil lamp, betel nuts and almonds, dates, rice, salt, flowers, a silver cone and rose-water sprinkler (18) [For information on religious holidays throughout the year see Kreyenbroek 22-27].

The most important rite of passage for a male Parsi, navjote, is an initiation ceremony similar to a Jewish Bar Mitzvah or a Hindu Upanayana ‘Sacred Thread ceremony’. Typically this ceremony occurs after the child has memorized important kusti prayers between the ages of seven and nine (Kreyenbroek 27). Navjote involves the child bathing in milk and flowers, receiving a kusti (sacred cord belt) and a sudreh (sacred shirt worn under regular clothes), and performing a ceremony with food, rituals, priests, prayers and additional bathing (28). Throughout a Parsi’s life he/she will ritually tie and untie the kusti after waking up, defecating or urinating, and before praying, eating and bathing (Nigosian 99).

Engagement and wedding ceremonies have traditionally been the most important rite of passage of a Parsi girl. Weddings can be quite elaborate, with the exchange of many gifts between families, and a four day celebration (Kreyenbroek 29). The first day of the marriage ceremony, madav-saro, is marked with the couple planting a mango tree in a pot and visiting both parents’ homes (30). On the second day, divo-adrani rit, the families exchange gifts and the new couple’s gifts to the groom’s house (31). The bride receives a new sari with rice knotted in the corner, a necklace with a silver coin pendant and green beads from her in-laws as a sign of welcome into the family (31-32).

The final ritual in a Parsi’s life occurs at death, when the deceased is bathed and laid in a stone amphitheater, a dakhma (‘Tower of Silence’). The deceased is consumed by birds or animals because Parsis’ beliefs in the purity of the natural elements, such as fire and earth forbid contaminating it through the burial or cremation of bodies (8).

Parsis under the Mughal Reign

The Mughal reign in northern India and present day Pakistan during the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries affected Parsis’ fire temples and worship. Religious persecution during a Muslim campaign resulted in moving the atash bahram from Sanjan to Navsari (Boyce 171-172). As a result of this transition the traditional pillar alters were permanently replaced by large metal containers serving as an altar for the atash bahram in the Navsari fire temple (172). The atash bahram remained in Navsari until 1741 when disputes between the two regional groups of priests, the Sajanas and the Bhagarias, resulted in the Sajanas moving the atash bahram to Udwada, a village south of Sanjan where it remains today (188-189). The Bhagarias responded by creating the second atash bahram in India at the fire temple in Navsari (188-189). There are currently nine atash bahrams in India (one in Udwada, one in Navsari, one in Yazd, four in Mumbai, two in Surat) [see the Heritage Institute link below for pictures of each atash bahram]. Due to continuing persecution during the Mughal reign, less sacred fires, atash adaran (Fire of Fire’s), were established in fire temples which were indistinguishable from homes to make worship safer (188). For a brief period of time, under the patronage of Emperor Akbar, a sacred fire burned in the royal Mughal court, and priests were commissioned to document religious laws, ordinances, correspondence and terminology resulting in a rich literary record which informs scholars of Parsi history and practice (183).

Trade and British Relations

The rapid growth of trade in India due to the East India Company and imperialist interests in the seventeenth century significantly influenced Parsi society. Agriculturalists and craftsmen in rural Gujarat migrated to the emerging commercial center, Bombay (present day Mumbai) to become tradesmen, shipbuilders, and merchants (Hinnells 2007:101). After Bombay was ceded from the Portuguese to the British in 1661 the city grew in popularity and became the cultural center of Zoroastrianism (Kreyenbroek 45). To encourage migration to Bombay, the British gifted the Parsi community a prominent piece of land in Bombay known as Malabar Hill (Roy 187). Parsis’ willingness to be Anglicized and travel in addition to acquire western education contributed to Parsis acquisition of prominent positions in society and trade (188). Parsis were prosperous and favoured by the British because they were not encumbered by a trade, caste or purity laws which restricted interactions among foreigners and various castes (185-187). Parsis were well liked by Europeans as evidenced by traveler’s accounts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which describe Parsis as a “gentle, quiet, industrious race” (Boyce 186) [see Karaka for nineteenth century perspectives on Parsis and their customs].

As the Parsis’ wealth accumulated through business enterprises (187), a religious organization of community leaders, the punchayet, was established to oversee religious and social matters such as, charity, trusts, weddings, funerals and gahambar (communal feasts) (Hinnells 2007:101). The punchayet also ensured that the community upheld Zoroastrian values regarding marriage, intermarriage, divorce and bigamy (Hinnells 2007:101). Non-conformists were punished and individuals who rejected the authority of the punchayet were excommunicated (Wadia 129). The anjuman, a communal assembly, was also an important political and social body in the Parsis community because it could act as a legislative body, and appoint, suspend or dismiss a dastur (high priest of the atash bahram) or priest (Hinnells 2007:102).

Parsis after Indian Independence in 1947

The punchayet, the anjuman and the dastur declined in religious and social authority by the mid-nineteenth century (Boyce 186). Kreyenbroek states that “the nineteenth century thus marked the transition from a stable self-image based on centuries of traditional life, to a state of affairs where many aspects of Parsi religious and social life were constantly called into question.… After more than a century and a half, however, these problems still show no sign of being resolved” (Kreyenbroek 46). Specifically, Zoroastrianism fell under attack during the nineteenth century from Christian Europeans such as Reverend John Wilson who raised theological questions based on early and inaccurate translations of the Avesta. The Parsi community reacted with embarrassment when Zoroastrian priests failed to satisfactorily respond to Wilson’s theological challenges (46). The priests were in an impossible situation because Parsi priests functioned as spiritual and moral guides for the panthaks, in addition to, performing rituals and sacrifices in the fire temples, rather than acting as religious scholars and developing rigorous theological systems. Regardless of the unfairness and inaccuracy of the accusations, the priestly authority and prestige significantly declined in the nineteenth century. These changes also resulted in a decline priests, especially gifted or qualified priests because educated, intelligent or wealthy boys from the priestly class were discouraged from entering priesthood (53).

Recently, wealthy Parsi patrons have contributed to creating and funding a three year priesthood program to train new priests in theology, rituals, psychology, sociology and history (54). However, the stigma regarding the priesthood still remains (54). In 1977, the program ‘Zoroastrian Studies’ was founded. It is based on the lectures of the internationally acclaimed speaker, Khojeste Mistree, which has increased interest and pride in orthodox Zoroastrian practices, scripture, and theology (Hinnells 2007:262).

Avenues of religious reform have also occurred through the development of Zoroastrian movements. For example, Neo-traditionalist Parsis are orthodox in practice but emphasize a personal search for truth in contrast to Modernist Parsis who pursue a western lifestyle and combine new, non-traditional views with nostalgic traditions (47-48). The Reformist school of thought emphasizes secularism by suggesting that ‘Parsi’ is strictly an ethnicity, not a religious identity (48). In opposition, Traditionalists are decidedly orthodox in theology and practice as evidenced by their emphasis on restricting intermarriage and converts (47). Additionally, an esoteric Zoroastrian sect, Ilm-I Khshnoom (Path of Knowledge), arose based on liberating the soul through asceticism and vegetarianism (263).

Recent questions that Parsis from all schools of thought are facing include: When an individual marries a non-Zoroastrian, can he/she still be a part of the religious community and receive the traditional death rites? How are the children resulting from the intermarriage to be integrated into the community? Will Zoroastrians accept converts? (Hinnells 2007: 265 & 269) Considering that the national and international populations of Zoroastrians are declining should intermarriage be permitted? [regarding causes of population decline see Paul Axel’s article] Will the diaspora of Parsis to North America and Britain continue? What does it mean to be a Parsi? Is it an ethnic identity to be preserved? Is it a cultural heritage? Is it a religious belief?

Though the discussions of Parsi identity in India and the future of Parsis globally have been and continue to be a painful process, it has been necessary to usher Parsi beliefs and practices into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These issues have revitalized the study and celebration of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history as Parsis attempt to negotiate these questions in a modern context. Parsi life today is certainly not as orthodox and homogenous as it has been in previous centuries however, these changes represent the rich diversity of its cultural, historical and contemporary heritage.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Axel, Paul (1990) “Cultural and Historical Factors in the Population Decline of the Parsis of India.” Population Studies 44 #3 (Nov 1990): 401-419.

Boyce, Mary (1979) Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge.

Hinnells, John R. (2005) The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Diaspora. New York: Oxford University Press.

______ (2007) “Changing perceptions of authority among Parsis in British India.” In Parsis in India and the Diaspora. John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams (eds). New York: Routledge. 100-118.

______ (2007) “Parsis in India and the diaspora in the twentieth century and beyond.” In Parsis in India and the Diaspora. John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams (eds). New York: Routledge. 255-276.

Haug, Martin (1907) Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Kapadia, S. A. (1913) The Teachings of Zoroaster and the Philosophy of the Parsi Religion. London: John Murray.

Karaka, Dosabhai Framji (1884) History of the Parsi: Including their Manners, Customs, Religion and Present Condition. Vol 2. London: Macmillan and Co.

Kreyenbroek, Phillip G. (2001) Living Zoroastrianism: Urban Parsis Speak about their Religion. London: Routledge.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. (1996) The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Metha, Deepa (dir) (1998) Earth. Aamir Khan, Nandita Das, Maia Sethna, Shabana Azmi (per). Film.

Nigosian, Solomon A. (1993) Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Roy, Achinto Lahiri (2011) “World’s Smallest Business Community: The Parsis of India.” Reshmi International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 6 #2 (Jun 01, 2011): 183-192.

Shahani, Roshan G. (2003) “Parsis: Exploring Identities.” Economic and Political Weekly 38 #33 (Aug. 16-22, 2003): 3463-3466.

Wadia, Rusheed R. (2007) “Bombay Parsi merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” In Parsis in India and the Diaspora. John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams (eds). New York: Routledge. 119-135.

Wilson, John (1843) The Parsi Religion: As Contained in the Zand-Avasta, and Propounded and Defended by the Zoroastrians of India and Persia, Unfolded, Refuted and Contrasted with Christianity. Bombay: American Mission Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Ahura Mazda

amesha ppenta

atash bahram (alternative spelling Atash Behram)/Victorious Fire


dakhma/Towers of Silence

Fire temples


Ilm-I Khshnoom sect



Quisse-ye Sanjan (alternative spelling Qissa-i Sanjan)


sudreh & kusti



Zoroastrian calendar

Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article written by: Meagan Kinisky (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hsuan Tsang (Xuanzang) (Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim)


Hsuan Tsang (Wade-Giles) or Xuanzang (Pinyin), whose roles include travelling monk, ambassador, and translator, stands as a prominent figure in Chinese and Indian religious history. Being ordained a monk in the Buddhist faith, Hsuan Tsang devoted much of his time and energy to learning Buddhist doctrines and understanding Buddhist scripture. He eventually became dissatisfied with the translations of the Buddhist texts he was studying and set out on a pilgrimage to India to find a more accurate understanding of the Buddhist principles he was studying (Sen 2006:29). Along the way, he met with rulers and other influential characters in India, Nepal, and Bengal. He was also able to bring back many Buddhist texts still in their Sanskrit form and devoted the rest of his life to translating them. Through his efforts during his travels, Hsuan Tsang was able to begin diplomatic relationships between China and India and made Buddhist ideals and principles better understood to the people of China and India.

Hsuan Tsang was born in Ho-nan province around the year 600 CE. Born as the youngest of four brothers, Hsuan Tsang accompanied his older brother Chang-tsi, who was a Buddhist monk, to a Pure Land Buddhist temple where he was ordained a monk at the age of thirteen (Beal xviii). After the Sui Dynasty collapsed, Hsuan Tsang and his brother fled to Chengdu where he was later ordained as a Bhikshu or priest at age of twenty and continued his studies of Buddhist ideals and teachings. During the following years he sought out foreigners and diligently learned other languages including Tokharian and Sanskrit (Wriggins 9). Because of the knowledge he had attained of the Sanskrit language, he developed doubts about the accuracy of the translations of Buddhist texts. He discovered that the texts contained translation errors which caused them to portray different meanings than intended (Sen, 2006:29). Because he was unable to determine which texts had been translated correctly, Hsuan Tsang set out to travel to India in order to obtain original documents so as to make Buddhist principles more clearly understood.

Hsuan Tsang, along with other monks, petitioned Emperor Taizong in order to legally leave China. They did not receive an answer from the Emperor but were advised to remain in China (Wriggins 11). Not receiving formal authorization from the Emperor to leave China meant they would face severe punishment which included death. Determined to begin his pilgrimage, Hsuan Tsang, in the year 627 CE, set off on his journey to India (Sen 2006:28-29).

Because of his determination to undertake this pilgrimage, Hsuan Tsang ignored the Emperors edicts for him to return to Chang An. Due to his fear of being kept from leaving China, he illegally began his journey at night by travelling across the Hu-Lu River and sneaking past five watchtowers in order to avoid being detected (Beal xix). Hsuan Tsang then continued north along the Silk Road visiting many Buddhist sites and even teaching in several communities. While travelling, he recorded his encounters with stories of Buddhist legends and miracles linked with each site and wrote in his book Da Tang Xiyu ji (Records of the Western Regions) the treacheries of long distance travel (Sen 2006:29). In one instance, he recalled a time when he was taken captive by bandits while he was sailing on the Ganga River. The bandits were followers of Durga (the goddess of victory of good over evil) and decided to offer Hsuan Tsang as a sacrifice to their goddess (Gifford 74). Hsuan Tsang, being bound and facing death, asked for an opportunity to meditate and prepare for death (Gifford 74). He became so absorbed in the meditation that he forgot about the bandits and his impending death and was only awakened when the bandits became afraid of a severe storm which arose (Gifford 75). The bandits learned that Hsuan Tsang was a revered monk from China and decided to let him go. They repented and even converted to Buddhism after taking the five tenets from Hsuan Tsang (Gifford 75). In his adventures, he crossed dangerous rivers and three of the highest mountain ranges in Asia (Wriggins 3). He travelled the North Silk Road for many years until he entered India.

While on the Silk Road and in India, Hsuan Tsang consulted with many prominent figures which include a Buddhist monk named Prajnakara, the Great Khan of West Turkey, the king of Turpan and King Harsa of India (Wriggins 3). Sen suggests that meeting with the rulers of these different areas may have put Hsuan Tsang in favor with Emperor Taizong and would help in bringing to his attention the Buddhist religion and other countries in South Asia (Sen 2003:17).

Hsuan Tsang eventually entered India in 633 CE where he lived for many years in order to immerse himself in Buddhism. Because of his interest in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, he stationed himself at Nalanda monastery and spent his time there perfecting his Sanskrit, reading and studying Buddhist scripture and translating several Chinese texts into Sanskrit (Mei 59). He also visited all the sacred sites related to the life of the Buddha and even debated philosophical points with Buddhist and Brahmanic scholars (Ganguly 19).

Another important aspect of Hsuan Tsang’s visit to India was to establish diplomacy between China and India. In one meeting in the capital city of Kanauj with King Harsavardhana, Hsuan Tsang made known to him the pleasant state of China and the type of ruler Emperor Taizong was. The result of this meeting was an establishment of diplomacy between Kanauj and the Tang Court (Sen 2006:30). After learning many things pertaining to Sanskrit, Buddhism and collecting as many Sanskrit language Buddhist texts as he could, Hsuan Tsang returned home and reached the Tang capital in the year 645 CE (Sen: 2003:36). He traveled back to China along the South Silk Road, continuing to gather Buddhist texts and knowledge.

Upon his return to China, he was greeted as a hero, who brought home with him several treasures and relics which included several statues of the Buddha and a myriad of Buddhist texts. Having been a positive influence on the leaders of the countries he visited, he continued to play a role in promoting both Buddhism and diplomacy between India and China. In 645 CE, after hearing the effects that Hsuan Tsang had on foreign rulers and the journey he endured, Emperor Taizong granted an audience with him. Emperor Taizong questioned him thoroughly on foreign leaders, climate, products and customs (Wriggins 5). When Hsuan Tsang declined an offer from the Emperor to accompany him on a military campaign to the east, Hsuan Tsang was asked to write a detailed account of his journey, which is known as Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (Sen 2003:36). This account was then studied so as to gain a further understanding of China’s neighbors.

After fulfilling the Emperors wishes, Hsuan Tsang devoted himself to translating the Buddhist texts he had brought back with him from his journey to India. Not only did he translate the texts, but he was also able to develop new practices of translation (Mei 54). He did not use group translation but rather translated the texts by first carefully analyzing the original meaning of passages then interpreting them into paragraphs or chapters of the original manuscripts (Mei 56). In cases where he deemed that Sanskrit terms could not be translated into Chinese, he used transliteration or the practice of converting one script to another. This ensured that the translation of the texts stayed true to the meaning the original authors had intended.

When Hsuan Tsang had finished his work of translating the Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, his efforts amounted to seventy five sets comprising 1,335 volumes, equaling 130,000,000 words, which amounts to more than half of the entire library of Buddhist literature translated during the Tang dynasty (Mei 54).    Some of Hsuan Tsang’s writings and translated works include the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, the Yogacaryabhumisastra, the Dasapadarthasastra, the Cheng Weishi Lun and the Mahavibhasa (Chung 150). Because of this massive undertaking, and due to his outstanding accuracy, Hsuan Tsang is considered one of the three best translators in ancient China (Sen 2006:29).

After studying as a monk in his youth, travelling for seventeen years and 25,000 kilometers on his journey to India, and undertaking his monumental work of translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese, he died at the age of 65 in 664 CE at the Ya Hua Temple north of Chang An (Mei 59). His translations are still read and studied today and Hsuan Tsang is still regarded as one of the most important figures in Chinese religious history.


Asher, Frederick M. (1980) The Art of Eastern India, 300-800. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Beal, Samuel (1885) Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World Translated from the Chinese of HiuenTsiang (A.D. 629). Boston: J.R. Osgood & Co.

Chung, Tan (1998) Across the Himalayan Gap: An Indian Quest for Understanding China. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Ganguly, Swati (1992) Treatise in Thirty Verses on Mere-Consciousness. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Gifford, Julie A. (2011) Buddhist Practice and Visual Culture. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Mei, Cheng (2003) “Xuan Zang’s Translation Practice.” Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 11, no. 1: 54-62.

Naquin, Susan and Yü, Chün-Fang (1992) Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sen, Tansen (2003) Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: the Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400. United States: University of Hawaii Press.

Sen, Tansen (2006) “The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing: Sources for Cross-Cultural Encounters Between Ancient China and Ancient India.” Education About Asia, 11, no. 3: 24-33.

Wriggins, Sally Hovey (2004) The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Yen-Yi, Liu, Buzzola, Alberto, Shinhui, Yap, Shinozaki, Fran, Petterson, Jasmine and Casipit, David (2006) Dust in the Wind: Retracing Dharma Master Xuanzang’s Western Pilgrimage. Taipei: Rhythms Monthly.



Buddhism in China

Cheng Weishi Lun


Emperor Taizong


Great Tang Records of the Western Regions

Journey to the West

King Harsavardhana


Mahayana Buddhism




Silk Road

Sino-Indian Relations

Tang Dynasty


Yi Jing



Article written by: Jared Wescott (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Jews of India

Judaism within India has traditionally been represented by three distinct Jewish communities, the Cochin Jews, the Bene-Israel and the Baghdadi Jews (Egorova 2006:1, 4). It is notable that only the Cochin Jews and the Baghdadi Jews are “recognized as ‘conventionally’ Jewish” (Egorova 2010:108). Nathan Katz has stated that Indian Jews have traditionally been treated better than other Diasporic communities, and as a result were able to flourish within, as well as contribute to, Indian society (Katz 4). The Cochin Jews are the oldest Jewish community in India as well as the most well known. This group is extremely proud of their history, as well as of their acceptance in India (Katz and Goldberg 1989:54). This community is further divided into three different groups known as the “White Jews”, the “Black Jews” and finally the Meshuhrarim, which are the former slaves of the first two groups (Egorova 2006:4). The Bene-Israel have a relatively unknown history and scholars are forced to rely primarily on Christian missionary writings for information dating prior to the nineteenth century. According to these missionaries, they began as oil-pressers on the West Indian Coast before moving to Bombay and changing occupations in the mid 1800s (Ergova 2006:4). The Baghdadi Jews also emerged in the late 1700s with their main communities in Bombay and Calcutta (Ergova 2006:5). Despite the name, this group includes a diverse range of Jews originating throughout the Middle East (Egorova 2006:5). In spite of sharing the same religion, each community mostly kept to themselves, although at times they have shared synagogues and cemeteries (Egorova 2006:5-6). As a result, the dominant Indian culture has affected each community differently and each group enjoys distinct rituals and texts. [It must be noted that other Jews, not affiliated with the above three communities, immigrated to India as refugees during World War II, but they will not be discussed in regards to the established Jewish groups in India.]

The Cochin Jews have a unique foundation myth that contains two sacred origins, Israel and Shingly (Katz 11).  This myth is depicted in rituals, songs and most notably, a series of paintings in their main synagogue. The paintings begin by linking Palestine to India by depicting trade dating to the time of Solomon, with the next image showing Jews fleeing by sea to Shingly following the destruction of King Herod’s Temple. The third image shows their ship landing on the Indian coast, complete with a map of India with Shingly clearly marked. The remaining images illustrate the Indian King receiving them and the establishment of their synagogue in the modern period (Katz 13-15). Despite this rich myth, very little is known about the Cochin Jews in pre-Colonial India. According to Nathan Katz, “no external documentation proves Jews lived there between the fourth and ninth centuries”, however, Arab journals refer to Jewish merchants in India as early as c. 850 CE (26-30).

One of the earliest references to the Bene-Israel may be found in a letter from the Jewish scholar Maimonides, who refered to a group in India that only practiced circumcision and the Sabbath. The first definitive mention is found in 1768 in a letter between a Cochin Jew and “his Dutch business partner” referring to the group by name (Katz 91-92). Traditionally, they were referred to as Shanwar Telis, meaning “Saturday Oil Pressers” (Katz 96). Scholars are unsure when the group emerged in India, but Christian missionaries wrote that in the early 1800s, the Bene-Israel claimed to be descendents of an ancient shipwreck leading some missionaries to declare them a “Lost Tribe of Israel”(Katz 2000, 93-95). In attempts at conversion, missionaries taught the community Hebrew and English, which in turn strengthened their own identity and link to Judaism, rather than aiding in their conversion to Christianity. This allowed them to translate their own distinct prayers and songs (Katz 95). The Bene-Israel currently has two synagogues in India (Egorova 2010:106).

The Baghdadi Jews began as a growing community of Middle Eastern Jews who spoke Arabic and Persian. According to Katz, they were attracted to the economic opportunities to be found in the new thriving centre of Calcutta, and as a result their community began to spread throughout the major cities within British Colonial India (Katz 128-130).

Each of the three respective communities has a variety of religious and societal practices. The Cochin Jews have their own unique “festival prayer books”, first published in 1757 in Amsterdam (Katz 49). This group also has more elaborate and distinct Passover rituals. For example, there is a greater emphasis on purity, which will be discussed in greater detail in regards to the influence of Hindu Society below (Katz and Goldberg 1989:56). There are a number of unique songs found in various religious festivals that are not found in any other Jewish community as well (Katz 73-82). The Bene-Israel have a notable emphasis on “Elaihu Hanabi” or “Elijah the Prophet”, who they claim visited their ancestors, and thus connects them to the Book of Kings found in the Hebrew Bible (Katz 101-102). The Bene-Israel also engage in a food ritual known as the “Malida rite”, which is a special food offering (Katz 103). Additionally, women often practice fasting rituals for auspiciousness and there is also an increased emphasis on arranged marriage and related rituals (Katz 116). In a similar vein, the Baghdadi Jews raise Ezra to an elevated status, although their religious practices are similar to those of other mainstream Jewish groups (Katz 135).

Despite maintaining their Jewish identity, their geographical location and the existing societal pressures found in India have greatly influenced all three of the main Jewish communities. The Cochin Jews are unique in that they are considered to be both Jewish and Indian, an achievement that relied on three distinctive aspects of the community. As described above, they have a foundation myth that celebrates both their homeland and their Diasporic status. As such, they have “emulated and thereby affirmed the social hierarchy” found in their new land, and finally they used Hindu rituals and symbols within their own religion (Katz 10). Perhaps most notably, they emulated the Brahmin class, to legitimize their own identity within India (Katz 9-10). As discussed above, they have a unique foundation myth, which they claim is further legitimized in the Cochin Synagogue by the presence of two copper plates. These plates, which they claim to date to 379 CE [though likely dating to 1069 CE], describe their royal reception by King Cheramanperumal and this story is repeatedly celebrated through unique folk songs, which celebrate their founder, Joseph Rabban, and the Indian king as well as their new home rather than Israel (Katz 2000:33-37).

The Cochin Jews also established their own caste system. In the 1500s, Sephardic Jews traveled to Cochin and blended with notable elite families, creating a “sub-caste”, often referred to as “White Jews” or “Paradesi (foreign) Jews”. This group enjoyed an elevated status in the synagogue (Katz 38, 59-60). In a similar vein, there is an emphasis on having “untainted” Jewish blood as well as light skin colour. It is likely that this emphasis on “purity” is a result of their emulation of the Brahmin elite class (Katz 44, 61, 72). Perhaps most interesting is the extent that Hindu purity notions are reflected in kosher laws. For example, if a Gentile touches the surface kosher wine is place upon, it is no longer considered to be pure, and during Passover, every grain is analyzed for outside contact. In addition, during preparations for Passover, there is extensive cleaning and scrubbing and, everyday items are replaced with those deemed pure whenever possible (Katz and Goldberg 1989:60-61). According to Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg, “the ritual observances of the Cochin Jews serve as a means of periodically reaffirming their status in the Indian caste hierarchy” (Katz and Goldberg 1990:202).

Adaptations can also be seen within the Bene-Israel, when large groups took jobs in Bombay, which meant working on the Sabbath. As a result, there was a shift in emphasis to their Friday evening service rather than the traditional Saturday service (Katz 97). The Bene-Israel also created a sub-caste, not based on skin colour but instead upon supposed lineage; notably, however, all castes shared the synagogue, but the elite, known as the Gora, enjoyed special privileges and a heightened status (Katz 99-100). It is also interesting that traditionally they also chose not to consume beef and engaged in other traditional Hindu practices such as “shunning widow remarriage and propitiated certain Hindu deities” on occasion (Katz 100).

Despite their contact with Indian society, the Baghdadi Jews continued to speak Arabic and enjoy Arabic culture. When they moved to Bombay however, the group found themselves identifying with the British, rather than the Bene-Israel who were the dominant Jewish group in the city (Katz 136). According to Katz, the Baghdadi Jews were more “cosmopolitan” and thus identified more strongly with British customs than traditional Indian ones and as a result, they adopted English, but also retained their Hebrew and Arab-Jewish identity (Katz 141-143).

Finally, it must be noted that the creation of the State of Israel has created a drastic population shift for Diasporic communities, including those in India. Beginning in the 1950s, Cochin Jews began to immigrate to Israel en masse and as a result, the once thriving community has greatly been reduced. For many, it was the Promised Land and a new beginning (Katz and Goldberg 1993:251-253). Despite initial questions of the “authenticity” of the Bene-Israel’s form of Judaism, many saw economic opportunity in a young nation requiring craftsmen and skilled workers. As a result, the Bene-Israel’s population, in particular its youth, has largely immigrated to Israel (Roland 247-252). Due to their close ties with Britain, following Indian independence, many Baghdadi Jews considered emigration but only those with close ethnic ties with Israel left, due to the opportunities that remained in India (Roland 263).

Despite sharing a common religion, it is apparent that the three main Jewish communities in India have developed their own respective traditions and celebrated history.  Each has reacted to their unique relationship with their adopted Indian homeland and it is clear that certain aspects of Indian culture and religion, such as concerns with maintaining proper societal hierarchy and purity have influenced each community, most notably the Cochin Jews and the Bene-Israel. Despite their proud Jewish-Indian identities it is clear the creation of the State of Israel has had a profound affect on the Cochin Jews and the Bene-Israel and their future in India remains unknown.


Egorova, Yulia (2006) Jews and India: Perceptions and Image. New York: Routledge.

_____ (2010) “From Dalits to Bene Ephraim: Judaism in Andhra Prades.” Religions of South Asia. Vol. 4. pp. 105-124.

Israel, Rachael Rukmini (2002) The Jews of India: Their Story. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Katz, Nathan, and Ellen S. Goldberg (1989) “Asceticism and Caste in the Passover Observances of the Cochin Jews.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 57. pp. 53-82.

_____ (1990) “The Ritual Enactments of the Cochin Jews: The Powers of Purity and Nobility.” Ritual Studies Vol. 4. pp. 199-238.

_____ (1993) The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Katz, Nathan (2000) Who are the Jews of India? Los Angeles and Berkley: University of California Press.

Roland, Joan G (1989) Jews in British India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Hanover: Brandeis University Press.

Slapak, Orpa (1995) The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. London: University Press of New England.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Malida Rite

British Colonial India

Missionaries in India

Dutch Occupied India

Sub-Castes in India

India and World War II

Hinduism in Israel

Purity in Hinduism

Bene Ephraim

Cochin Jews


Baghdadi Jews

Islam in India

Christianity in India

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by Jessica Swann (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Swami Abhishiktananda

Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux)

Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda was a French Benedictine monk.  He was born on August 30, 1910 at St. Briac in northern Brittany, the eldest child of a large devoutly Catholic, Breton family.  It became evident early on in his life that Le Saux was drawn to priesthood and was sent to a seminary in 1921.  Despite vehement protests from his parents he decided to become a Benedictine monk and entered the monastery of Kergonan soon after his nineteenth birthday (Stuart 5).  Although his friends and family alienated him because of his choice, Le Saux continued on that course and was eventually ordained as a priest in 1935.  Even before he had taken his final vows Le Saux heard the call to India.  This occurred because Kergonan was unable to fulfil Le Saux’s deepest aspiration, which was to seek God (Stuart 11).  He found a way to seek God by reading Indian texts and discovering the perspective of Advaita.  As a result, he decided that he wanted to live a monastic life in an Indian church or one of contemplation in a hermitage (Stuart 11).  After several years of trying to figure out a way that he could achieve his goal, Le Saux finally found the answer in the priest Jules Monchanin.  In Monchanin he discovered a kindred spirit who had a similar desire to study in India.  Monchanin had been in India since 1939 and was in charge of the parish at Kulittalai (Stuart 14). After corresponding with each other over the course of several years, Le Saux was finally able to convince his Bishop to let him travel to India and join Monchanin in 1948 (Stuart 21).

Despite being born in France and remaining fiercely devoted to his nationality, Le Saux spent the last twenty-five years of his life in India, dying there in 1973.  Although he was master of ceremonies for his monastery and a well respected member of the church Le Saux was overtaken by his passion for India (Du Boulay xv).  After years of trying to figure out a way that he could fulfill this passion Le Saux became discouraged.  However, after coming into contact with Monchanin his passion was reunited and he fervently set out trying to make it a reality.  This passion was finally realized when he left his home in France in 1948, never to return, at the age of thirty-eight and traveled to India; where he spent the remainder of his life (Rodrigues 425).  Although he never returned to his home, the family ties that had been created were very strong.  This is evidenced by the fact that throughout his twenty-five years in India Le Saux corresponded regularly with his siblings, writing to them almost monthly (Stuart 9).   Upon arriving in India he joined Monchanin at Kulittalai and began his Indian initiation on the first day (Stuart 22).  The two Catholic men began to prepare for the ashram lifestyle that they hoped to lead while still continuing their Catholicism.  Le Saux was enchanted with the Indian lifestyle and as such took up their customs very quickly.  Within two months of being in Kulittalai he had adopted the local diet, clothing and various other customs and practices of the area (Stuart 24).  Le Saux also put great effort into studying not only the Christian works but Sanskrit and Hindu texts as well.

Swami Abhishiktananda had traveled to India because he had been drawn to the Hindu perspective of Advaita, which means to experience a state of union with God in a mystical union of non-duality (Vattakuzhy xiv).  This perspective was so fascinating to Le Saux that he co-founded a Christian ashram in 1950 called Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) and became Swami Abhishiktananda (Bliss of the Anointed One) (Rodrigues 425).  The religious experiences that Le Saux had while he was living in India caused him to become one of the great spiritual bridges between Christianity and Hinduism.  This is due to one of the most interesting facts about Swami Abhishiktananda.  Despite immersing himself in the Hindu culture he never stopped practicing Christianity.  In fact he remained devoutly Catholic his entire life and never stopped celebrating Mass (Du Boulay xv).  As a result, he was faced with many challenges in trying to harmoniously blend all the religious aspects of his life.

Due to the challenges that he faced while trying to stay true to his religions, Le Saux was in a state of spiritual agony for most of his time in India (Abhishiktananda 2006:150).  The main question that led to this was whether or not it was possible to be drawn towards advaita but still remain a Christian (Abhishiktananda 2006:150).  One of the ways that Le Saux was able to answer this question was first by gathering a definition of what it meant to be Christian along with several notable examples.  Once he had completed this he used it to compare it with the followings of advaita.  An answer was found to the question in the form of comparing the followers of the gospel to the sannyasi. Le Saux discovered that in order to be a true follower of the gospel one must complete several paradoxical tasks, many of which are eerily similar to those that the wandering Indian ascetics are required to do (Abhishiktananda 2006:156).  Although it was not a perfect answer and he still ran into many problems over the course of his life Le Saux was able to continue his quest of maintaining both his Christianity and advaita.

As part of their initiation into an ashram lifestyle, Monchanin took Le Saux to many of the surrounding ashrams near Kulittalai.  While visiting each of these ashrams Le Saux constantly discussed their plans of founding their own ashram to anyone who would listen – in an attempt to find recruits, focusing on the diocesan clergy (Stuart 34).  After several months of doing this they decided that it was finally time to begin construction.  However, things went very slowly in the beginning and Le Saux was worried about how the ashram would be financially sustained.  Fortunately construction was completed and the proprietor of the ashram had provided enough money so that there were no further issues (Stuart 35).  Once construction was completed and the ashram was fully functional it served as the home for Le Saux for many years; however, he was often travelling the countryside and he was not always there.

Ultimately Le Saux became a sannyasi, an Indian holy man, and traded the habit of his fellow Christian monks for the saffron robes worn by Hindu ascetics (Du Boulay xv).  One of Le Saux’s many features was that he wished to experience everything firsthand (Abhishiktananda 2005:23).  In order to personally accomplish this meant that Le Saux couldn’t stay at Shantivanam; he merely used it as his base.  While travelling the Indian countryside Le Saux, was able to experience several spiritual enlightenments.  One of these was his aspiration to become a true sannyasi and as a result he tried to renounce everything; however, he never totally renounced his roots.  In an effort to maintain the renunciation Le Saux refused to go home and visit France, despite his family asking him multiple times.  He didn’t want to return home because Le Saux believed that if he simply forgot his past his renunciation would not be complete (Stuart 9).  The added challenge of remaining in contact but never being able to see his family was a great burden on Le Saux.  It was a constant struggle for him to be so disconnected from them, but he viewed it as a way to strengthen his devotion.

When Le Saux first came to India he had a specific goal in mind.  He wanted to firmly establish Indian monasticism along the lines of a well-tested rule – in this case Benedictine monasticism.  Basically, he wanted to Christianize India following the Benedictine style that he knew (Abhishiktananda 23).  However, after spending only a short amount of time in India he realized that this was not going to happen.  It forced his point of view to change quite dramatically.  After coming to understand Hinduism from a Christian perspective Le Saux saw that intellectually Hinduism and Christianity were not compatible (Stuart 28).  Instead of letting this stop him, Le Saux viewed it as a challenge that he needed to overcome.  If he couldn’t unite the two religious traditions in some way the swami decided that his only remaining course of action was to try and discover the truth through the Hindu experience (Stuart 28).  At first he had wanted to Christianize the country, which would have reduced the Hindu influence, but several months after staying in India his viewpoint totally changed.  The paradigm shift that Le Saux underwent shows the profound effect that being immersed in the Hindu culture had had on him.

The work of swami Abhishiktananda did not stop with his death.  After he had died at an Indore nursing home the Abhishiktananda Society was formed.  The Society’s Mission is, “to make known the spiritual message of the late Swami Abhishiktananda and to coordinate the efforts of those interested in it and in its further implications” (Yesurathnam 127).  Henri Le Saux was simply a man who was searching for God and was willing to do anything he had to in order to complete that search.  However, his path led him down a road of many contradictions:

He was a man who longed for silence and yet loved to talk, a man who rejoiced in solitude yet had countless friends; a man who reveled in books and writing, yet preferred the direct teachings of lived experience.  Most of all was the contradiction between the irresistible attraction he felt toward advaita, the nondual experience of Hinduism, and his inborn love of his Catholic faith:” (Du Boulay xv).

Le Saux underwent many transformations over the course of his life.  His wide-ranging experiences in the spiritual field gave him unusually clear insights into both the Christian and Hindu religions, despite the lack of cohesion between the two traditions.  Through his experiences and teachings a bridge between Hindu and Christian spirituality was formed that exists to this day.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Abhishiktananda, Swami (1998) Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. Delhi: ISPCK.

Abhishiktananda, Swami (2006) Swami Abhishiktananda: Essential Writings Selected with an  introduction by Shirley Du Boulay. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Du Boulay, Shirley (2005) The Cave of the Heart: the Life of Swami Abhishiktananda. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Oldmeadow, Harry (2008) A Christian Pilgrim in India: the Spiritual Journey of Swami            Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux). Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Stuart, James (1989) Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told Through His Letters. Delhi: ISPCK.

Vandana (1986) Swami Abhishiktananda: The Man and His Teaching by Some of His Friends and Disciples. Delhi: ISPCK

Vattakuzhy, Emmanuel (1981) Indian Christian Sannyasa and Swami Abhishiktananda. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India.

Yesurathnam, Regunta (2006) A Christian Dialogical Theology: the Contribution of Swami Abhishiktananda. Kolkata: Punthi Pustak.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Abhishiktananda Society

Benedictine Monasticism





Cuttat circle

Raimon Panikkar


Ramana Maharshi


Bede Griffiths

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic (Seminar)

Article written by: Josh Campbell (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.


Kabir, also known as Kabir the Great, is one of the most famous saints in the Indian tradition (Partin 191). He is a unique saint because both Hindus and Muslims are attracted to his teachings as well as in his sayings (Vaudeville 5052). Some may say he was kind of a mystic poet due to his teachings. His teachings mainly consisted of poems and songs, which were in a language that most Hindus understood. He belongs in the category of the first generation Hindi poets, which contained a Hindi dialect. This dialect is not “amenable” to the classifications of linguists (Partin 191). His works are in the form of mystical poetry of various strengths, which allow the literary aspects to come across with philosophical and religious significance (Stahl 141). Kabir is an individual who was able to give expression to personal experiences of inner divine or absolute reality (Heehs 1).

There is little on the history of Kabir, such as what his personality was like, as well as a detailed biography on him. What is known is that Kabir was born as a low-caste Muslim, also known as a Julaha, around the city of Banaras during the fifteenth century (Vaudeville 5052). He was born in 1440, and passed away in 1518 (Stahl 141). It has been claimed that Kabir was born into a family with a Muslim father who greatly influenced his life (Stahl 141). We know that Kabir was born into a caste of weavers, who had recently become Muslim converts, and was raised in a Muslim lifestyle. It is also believed that Kabir was married, with children, and made his living as a weaver, as the rest of his caste did (Bly ix). However, it is unknown how many children Kabir fathered or who his wife was. Kabir’s family belonged to a caste of married “Jogis” or “Jugis”, which are devotees or performers of jog. By practicing this sect of yoga, they believed they may attain a union with the Supreme Being (Bailey 1). Kabir was also involved in the bhakti movement, which was a reaction against Buddhism, as well as parts of the Vedanta philosophy (Stahl 142). Bhakti was related to Vishnuite devotion, where God is seen as the main object of devotion (Partin 194).

Kabir viewed the world as a moment fading between two deaths in a world of transmigration. He discusses self interest, the woman as ‘a pit of hell’, and man turning to his innermost self in order to find what is true (Vaudeville 5053). He did not see the significance in bonds between family members, because he believed those relations rested on self-interest (Vaudeville 2052). Another main belief of Kabir was that death encompasses all, and there would be no escape for one except to its own heart. For example, the only way to rid one’s self of negatives in life, such as egoism, would be to search one’s own soul to find the answers (Vaudeville 2052). Only those who find the answers or the “diamond” within oneself, has a chance at achieving eternity. This is relatable to the idea of jivatma in Hinduism, which is representative of the individual soul. It was believed by Kabir that if man turned away from the outside world, and focused only on the interior world, then one could be drawn to his innermost conscience. One’s innermost consciousness is related to the status of God, according to Kabir (Partin 196).

The words of Kabir appear to be very tragic, but also show his uniqueness as a poet. The tragedy is present when he discusses the insignificance of family, and how many things remains a mystery in life (Vaudeville 5053). His words are full of metaphors and various rhymes. The works of Kabir are regarded for both their literary qualities, as well as their spiritual qualities (Heehs 26). As a person, as well with his words, he is compared to the Buddha, due to his great voice in India (Vaudeville 2053). Rather than having a positive outlook on the world like many do, Kabir was very pessimistic and focused on intrinsic actions. Some may call him ungodly, but he seems to be one of the masters of “interior religion” (Partin 192). There are many words of Kabir, also known as Kabirvanis. However, there is not a book or authoritative version of them (Vaudeville 2052). The poems, verses and songs recited orally by Kabir were collected by his disciples, as well as various followers (Hess 3). It is believed that Kabir had been illiterate and was unable to ever write anything down. Many followers and critics of his work say, “I don’t touch ink or paper, this hand has never grasped a pen. The greatness of four ages Kabir tells with his mouth alone,” in order to describe what Kabir may have been like, and why his works were orally passed on through generations (Hess 3). There is no way to prove that Kabir was illiterate. However, it is known that Kabir preferred his words to be passed on orally, rather than by paper. His message was so popular that they were widely imitated before they could be written down. Kabir’s works were largely an oral tradition in the beginning, and in most instances, still are. The main topic of Kabir’s songs seems to be that God is the ultimate truth (Dass preface). The oldest dated words of Kabir are found in the Guru Granth of the Sikhs, compiled by Guru Arjun in the Punjab around 1604 (Vaudeville 5052). The poetry was also a union of both the Islamic and Hindu traditions (Stahl 143).

There are many stories about Kabir, but the most famous one involves his death and cremation. It happened in the city of Magahar. As Kabir was about to die, two different groups gathered in order to fight over what would happen to Kabir’s body. The two groups were the Muslims and the Hindus. It is said that after Kabir went into his tent to die, his body vanished, and all that was left was a heap of flowers (Vaudeville 2052). The flowers were divided between the two parties as a way of symbolizing both groups’ possession over the body. The Muslims buried their half of the flowers, whereas the Hindus cremated theirs, and arisen a memorial tomb, also known as samadhi, over it. Since the time of his death, a story has circulated claiming that Kabir was born to a Brahman virgin widow, who committed him to the Gangas, and he was later saved and raised by Julahas. This story attempted to “Hinduize” the saint (Vaudeville 2052).

Some Muslims in the past viewed Kabir as being a Sufi because many of his “words” are similar to those of a traditional Sufi (Vaudeville 2052). Even though Kabir was opposed to some practices of the Islamic religion, he still associated himself with Sufi groups (Partin 195). Modern Muslims and Hindus, however, accept the “words” of Kabir. He is also seen as the unifying force between the two religions, even though he himself expressed rejection of “two religions”. Kabir was also against idol worship and caste distinctions, this was because he used several Vaisnava names to speak of God. He, in turn, saw the idols as lifeless stones (Partin 192). Kabir also discusses the importance of purity, fasting, pilgrimages and other ritual practices throughout his various works. A verse Kabir’s pertaining to the ritual washing, discusses the importance of physical and spirtual cleansing. Kabir states, “What is the good of scrubbing the body on the outside, If the inside is full of filth? Without the name Ram, one will not escape hell, even with a hundred washings!” (Kabir 192). His notion of God also seemed to be more than that of worshipping a personal god, as he alludes to a reality that is beyond words, rather than a god (Vaudeville 2052).

Another interesting fact about Kabir, and his poems, is that he sometimes speaks as a man, and other time speaks as a woman. An example is, “This woman weaves threads that are subtle, and the intensity of her praise makes them fine. Kabir says: I am that woman” (Bly xv). This is interesting because it gives Kabir various identities through his literature.

Kabir, who does not have much of a bibliography is seen as being very popular in various religions. He is one who, through his own intimate experience, believed that God is “the One,” “the True,” and “the Pure” (Partin 201). According to Kabir, God is the only one who is able to meet the challenge of death, because he is the perfect guru (Partin 201). Kabir believed the only way one can interact with God, was to delve into the very depths of one’s own soul, and only then, would God be able to speak with one. Even though Kabir may have rejected the teachings of other religions, he was still followed by many, and created his own group.


Bailey, Jan (2006) Jogis

Bly, Robert (2007) Kabir: Ecstatic Poems. Boston: Beacon Press.

Heehs, Peter (2002) Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Expression and Experience. New York: New York University Press.

Hess, Linda Beth (2001) The Bijak of Kabir. New York: Oxford University Press.

Partin, Harry and Charlotte Vaudeville (1964) “Kabīr and Interior Religion.” History of Religions 3: pp. 191-201.

Stahl, Roland (1954) “The Philosophy of Kabīr” Philosophy East and West 4: pp.141-155.

Vaudeville, Charlotte (2005) Kabīr Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 8. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p5051-5053

Related Topics








Guru Granth

Related Websites

Article written by: Megan Heck (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak was a very influential person during his lifetime. He lived during an age of change, and much of that change was due to his teachings. His main goals involved making the world a better place and trying to ensure that all people were equal. His ways of teaching were very effective and they challenged the way that people saw the world that they lived in. Guru Nanak’s lifetime can be divided into three parts; family life, travels, and retirement. It is during his travels that he did most of his teaching and during his retirement that he developed the basis for Sikhism.

Guru Nanak’s father wanted him to take over the family business and become an accountant, but Guru Nanak wanted exactly the opposite. He wanted to lead a religious life and stay detached from worldly attachments (Gurnukh Nihal 36). While he was growing up, Guru Nanak spent a lot of time with both Hindu and Muslim saints. During his childhood, he would gather his friends and discuss the power and greatness of God. He was not concerned with following what everyone else did; he followed his own path. For example, when it was his turn to participate in the Sacred Thread Ceremony, he refused to wear the traditional thread and said that he wanted one that would last for his entire lifetime (Gobind Singh 18). His father wanted to change Nanak’s perspective and decided to arrange his marriage to force him into a ‘typical’ life. Nanak was married early and his wife gave birth to two sons.

Guru Nanak spent the next ten years caring for his family (Gobind Singh 20). During these years, he spent a fair amount of time praying, as he still wanted to lead a religious life. One day after he was finished his prayers, he entered a cave and fell into a trance that lasted for three days. When he awoke from this trance, he ran out of the cave shouting “There is no Hindu and no Musalman.” With this phrase, it is believed that Guru Nanak had three meanings (Gurnukh Nihal 37). First, that all men are equal, regardless of religion or race. Secondly, that Hindus and Muslims had forgotten the true meanings of their religions and therefore no true Hindus or Muslims existed. Thirdly, that he felt he needed to end the hostility between the two groups. With this, he began his life as a missionary.

First he headed east for twelve years. He wanted to visit places that were holy in Hinduism. Along the way, he questioned Hindu practices and challenged the reasons for participating in such practices. Next, he travelled south for five years to see some important places to the Buddhist and Jain religions. After travelling south, he travelled north to the Himalayas for two years. Lastly, he travelled west to the Muslim countries for four years before coming home to spend his last years with his family. During his last years, he nominated his closest disciple, Bhai Lehna to be his successor (Gurnukh Nihal 46).

It is important to note that although Guru Nanak grew up in a society where Hinduism was very prevalent, his teachings and ideas are not based on the Vedas or the Upanisads (Seshagiri 5). His concepts are based on his own thoughts and ideas, which he formed throughout everyday life; they “came to him as and illuminations of his entire life” (Seshagiri 5). Despite this, some of his ideas agree with the Vedas and the Upanisads. For example, both Guru Nanak and the Upanisads oppose being materialistic and self-centered (Seshagiri 5). On the other hand, Guru Nanak rejected the idea of rituals as he focused more on the internal and spiritual aspects of religion. He believed that the reason for living was only the search for Truth, (Seshagiri 5) and that a chaotic and impulsive life is not the way to find Truth. He is claimed to have said, “Truth is the highest of all but higher still is truthful living” (Seshagiri 6). But, what is this Truth that he speaks of? Guru Nanak believed that God is Truth; anything related to God is Truth (Seshagiri 7).

As most people do, Guru Nanak had strong views on God, creation, and the soul. He believed that there was one God who was the creator and governor of the world. He believed that the creator God was responsible for all the other gods and goddesses. It was his view that the God is able to create all things, and the God is fearless and infinite. He also believed that the God has no mother, father, son, wife or relative (Gobind Singh 7). With regards to creation, he thought that everything came into being at the God’s command and that how He did it is beyond our understanding (Gobind Singh 10). Also, he claimed that the limit of the creation is unknown. Guru Nanak thought that the God had created earth as a school for man to learn dharma. Guru Nanak was a strong believer that everything that we do, whether it is good or bad, makes an imprint on our soul (Gobind Singh 12). The imprints combine to form habits and therefore, have an affect of how we live our lives. He also believed that the soul does not die with the body, but transfers to the next body and continues in the next life (Gobind Singh 13). While Hindus believed that there are four different dharmas for the four different varnas, Guru Nanak believed that there is only one religion, and that religion is Truth and that Truth is for all (Seshagiri 8). One of his most apparent beliefs was that men should not be divided by race, religion, or any other such division (Seshagiri 8). He said that there are two different kinds of men; God oriented and self-oriented. Guru Nanak thought that a man’s religion is not defined by words such as ‘Hinduism,’ or ‘Buddhism,’ but by the actions that he performs. He also believed that by thinking of and remembering God alone, the heart becomes pure.

In Guru Nanak’s lifetime, there occurred many social, political, and spiritual advancement, and Guru Nanak is honored for many of these advancements. He helped people notice the flaws that existed in their ways of life. He made it a goal to help people improve their lives and improve the way they treated the people around them. Overall, he tried to expose and correct the negative aspects of life that he saw developing around him. Politically, people were ignorant as to what was going on around them. He began to show people what was really going on and encourage them to change it for the better. Guru Nanak’s goal was to change the outlook people had on life. This increased religious tolerance. He had made a strong impact with his messages and any future attempt to change things back to the way they were before were expected to meet great resistance.

Guru Nanak influenced many lives and many aspects of life that continue to the present. He was a man of action and refused to sit by the side and let the world continue as it was. He had many strong ideas to get his world to live at peace and he did his best to spread those beliefs.


1. Mansukhani, Gobind Singh. (1968) Guru Nanak, World Teacher. Delhi: Light Press

2. Singh, Gurmukh Nihal. (1969) Guru Nanak, His Life, Time, and Teachings. Delhi: The Raisina Printery

3. Rao, K L Seshariri. (1991) Guru Nanak and the Vedantic Tradition. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials

Other Readings

1. Mansukhani, Gobind Singh. (1974) Life of Guru Nanak. Delhi: Everest Press

Related Research Topics

1. Sikhism

2. Religions in India

3. Sikh Gurus

4. Religions in Asia

Related Websites

1. The Sikhism Home Page

2. Guru Nanak

Written by Caitlin Duncanson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.