THE BLOG

The Future of the Sikh Tradition

02/06/2015 10:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
David Sacks via Getty Images

The Sikh tradition has long been at the forefront of social innovation. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (d. 1469 CE), developed creative solutions to address social and political challenges. He brought forward a fresh worldview that envisioned humanity as a collective family tied together by a single Divine Force, and he created institutions that would bring people together under the umbrella of spirituality, equality, and service.

Over the past 500 years, Sikhs have followed in Guru Nanak's footsteps and carried on his legacy. The entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to civil society has remained strong, inspiring Sikhs to disperse all over the globe and to serve their communities in all facets of life. At present, the Sikh religion is the fifth largest in the world, with approximately 27 million adherents worldwide.

Yet from an outsider's perspective, the future of Sikhism might seem bleak. Sikhs continue to be treated like second-class citizens and targeted in violence all over the globe, and for the past few decades the global Sikh experience has been viewed and narrated through the lens of victimhood. This is true in the homeland of Punjab where the Indian Government has perpetrated genocidal violence targeting Sikh communities. This is also true in the Diaspora, where the unique Sikh identity stands out in the public square and marks observant Sikhs as "the other."

From an insider's perspective, however, the future of Sikhism looks bright. Sikhs are neither limited to nor defined by the violence they encounter, and the Sikh psyche neither registers the notion of victimhood or sees itself through this lens. Sikhs have traditionally drawn from the spirit of chardi kala, everlasting optimism, and being targeted by misguided bigotry will never be reflective of the state of the community.

While outside observers might sympathize with the Sikhs who face discrimination, the Sikh community does not feel a need for sympathy. Sikhism teaches the importance of actively working against social inequalities, and Sikhs have a long history of persevering in the face of persecution. The Sikh spirit of principled service and justice continues to pulse through the community's veins, as does Guru Nanak's empowering vision of spiritual growth, charitable giving, and ethical practice.

Like every religious community, Sikhs have their fair share of challenges. Yet the future of the tradition appears bright. Sikhs continue to establish an equal footing in the global landscape, and the community remains devoted to fighting for equal rights and opportunities on behalf of all people. The future of Sikhism also seems bright because of the vast contributions it has to offer the world.

We live in globalized world where people of diverse backgrounds are interacting with one another more than ever, and it is painfully obvious to all of us that too many people are unable to reconcile different religious or ideological viewpoints. The Sikh tradition has an inherently pluralistic foundation that offers a fresh model for maintaining one's own religious conviction without imposing it on anyone else.

Sikhs believe that one can follow any number of religious paths to the same ultimate goal, so long as that path is traversed and mediated by the same core values, including love, wisdom, and discipline. This model of open-mindedness and open-heartedness also keeps Sikhs from engaging in competitions to proselytize or missionize people.

While it places no emphasis on conversion, the Sikh tradition remains one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Converts cite a number of reasons for joining the community, including the emphasis on equality, social justice, and mindfulness. The rationale often boils down to the fact that people believe the Sikh worldview coheres with their own understanding of what will bring peace and contentment.

Another meaningful contribution that Sikhism has to offer is its perspective on how we engage with the world around us. The Sikh worldview posits that the Divine is equally present in all people and things, and that therefore all of creation should be treated with love and respect. This vision informs a number of ethical practices, from how we treat and preserve our natural environments to how we engage and interact with one another.

The Sikh Gurus rejected social inequalities of all types and advocated for the equal treatment of all people, no matter their gender, profession, or religious background. As our society struggles with increasing social divisions along the lines of race, sexuality, and income, the Sikh outlook of Divine unity has much to offer.

The focus on unity extends to how one views the individual self, another incredibly valuable contribution in our age marked by compartmentalization, multi-tasking, and disjointedness. The logic of Sikhism compels the individual to maintain a balance in life through which one is nourishing and cultivating the spirit while also being socially and politically active. Service is prayerful action; engaging in social justice is part and parcel of religiosity. This holistic approach brings together the spiritual and the social, and provides a way for us to bring wholeness back into our lives.

The above are some of the unique ideas that the Sikh tradition has to offer the world, ideas that resonate with modern notions of civic engagement, social justice, and mindful practice.

Sikh communities around the world have been working fervently to establish equal footing in civil society and to gain fair representation within political machinery. As the global Sikh community continues to progress, society at large will go beyond seeing Sikhism exclusively through the lens of discrimination and victimhood and will begin appreciating the unique and meaningful contributions that the Sikh tradition has to offer the world.