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Chapter Four




Khalsa Sikhism as the only form of Sikhism is a major misnomer. Like Christianity, in Sikhism there are numerous branches with diverse practices. Distinctively (and perhaps in contradistinction with other major world religions), Khalsa Sikhs may recognize non-Khalsa Sikhs as "slow adapters" (sahaj-dhari), but not necessarily as deviant aberrations. In this tradition there exists unity in diversity, for despite differences most Sikhs see themselves as part of a larger family. (Note: There are some ultra orthodox Sikhs who may not agree with this, however). This family includes Khalsa Sikhs who shave their heads and non-Khalsa Sikhs who do not; vegetarian and non-vegetarian Sikhs; Sikhs who utilize the name Singh and Kaur and those who do not; and Sikhs who only recognize the ten past gurus and others who follow a living guru. Indeed, there is no clear consensus on who are Sikhs[1].

As we discovered in the previous chapters Khalsa Sikhism is viewed as the orthodox position. This understanding was initiated by the Singh Sabhas in the late 19th century and perpetuated by the numerous Sikh journals and academic writings at the time. Two factors that contribute to the strength of the Khalsa are the utilization of the surname Singh and the wearing of distinguishing marks (the five ks) by male members, both which provide the group with easily recognizable external signs and can bring strong solidarity.

There are Sikh organizations, however, that may appear to be part of the Khalsa since they wear the necessary attire but are in fact a derivative of it. One such group is the Healthy, Happy and Holy (3HO) or Sikh Dharma group. It was founded in the 1960s by an Indian immigrant to Canada and then to the United States named Yogi Bhajan. My first encounter with 3HO occurred in my UC San Diego days. I was assigned a research paper on a world religion and I chose Sikhism. With a friend for support I ventured down to Balboa Park area to attend a Sunday morning service. Not knowing what to expect I was caught off guard when asked to cover my head, remove my shoes and wash my feet before entering. Upon entry we innocently sat on the male side of the room not realizing there was a male and a female sitting area; our mistake was embarrassingly brought to our attention and corrected. Their service included singing religious hymns and reading from the Guru Granth Sahib. The special treatment of the book was remarkable. It was placed on gold material and fanned by a member. After the service a strict vegetarian meal was served free of charge.

The first thing I noticed about the members was that most were Caucasian. Moreover, both the Caucasian males and females wore the Khalsa symbols and white clothing. Seeing females wear a large white turban was something I had never seen in India. For the few Indians attending the service, only the males wore the five ks and their clothing was colorful. What I did not realize at the time was that I was visiting a different branch of Sikhism particular to America. While it was not orthodox Khalsa Sikhism found in the Punjab, the similarities and influences were apparent. From an Indian Sikhís perspective these white Americans, called gora or white Sikhs, are part of the larger Sikh community and should be welcomed. However, the differences between gora and non-gora Sikhs are obvious. Gora Sikhs tend to be more absolutist than Indian Sikhs, maintaining a strict vegetarian diet and requiring the five ks for both genders. Females wear the five ks since this group emphasizes radical egalitarianism. The white clothing worn certainly adds to the membersí distinction and contributes to their social identification and bonding in an otherwise non-Indian society.

Besides the 3HO there are several other Sikh movements as well. One such division is the Nirankaris. As Sikhs, members emphasize the formless quality of God, Nirankar, and the importance of interior discipline (meditation; simran). But unlike traditional Sikhs they acknowledge the need for a living guru who can serve as a spiritual mentor. The present guru can be traced historically back to the groupís founder, Baba Dayal Das. He supposedly took over the role of Guru Gobind Singh, who they believe lived until the age of 146 years old (dying in 1812). Moreover, members do not adhere to Khalsa requirements and are against the military position of the Khalsa. These minority Sikhs have criticized the Khalsa as imposing upon Sikhism divisive symbolism and predisposition to violence that Nanak and Kabir seem to reject.

Another branch of Sikhism is the Namdharis founded by Balak Singh. They are similar to the Nirankaris in their rejection of idols and ceremonial rituals and their focus on nam (repeating the name of God in prayer), but here followers accept Khalsa identity. Along with the five ks, members generally wear white garments, emphasizing living a simple, austere life. And, like the Sufis, Namdharis engage in ritual forms of dancing and ecstatic utterances.

Perhaps a lesser-known Sikh lineage is the Udasis Sikhs, ascetics with Nath ideas who claim descent from Nanakís eldest son, Sri Chand. The activities of this sect, pursuing a life of abstinence and wandering as beggars, are comparable to the practices of Jain monks.


Different Types of Sikh Groups

Different Types of Sikh Groups




The last major group to discuss is the Radhasoamis founded by Shiv Dayal Singh in the 19th century. They do not really classify as a Sikh lineage but as a modern manifestation of the Sant tradition with strong Sikh ties[2]. Many of the male Indian initiates follow four out of the five ks, eliminating the wearing of the sword as they take a position of non-violence. In addition, these same members assume the family name of Singh. While their ideology varies from traditional Sikhism, their family heritage is obviously intimately connected to it. (Note: Non-Indian initiates do not observe Khalsa standards.)

Philosophically, there are similarities and differences between Sikhism and Radhasoami. Both emphasize nirguna bhakti and meditation and their general concept of God matches. But who manifests Godís power is a subject of disagreement. For the Radhasoamis the idea of a living guru is paramount. Simply utilizing the Guru Granth Sahib as a source of divine inspiration is considered insufficient. Rather, what is needed for the spiritual progress of a wayward disciple is the ethical and mystical guidance of one who is believed to have attained enlightenment. Furthermore, unlike many Sikhs, all initiates follow a strict vegetarian diet.




A Comparison of Sikh and Radhasoami Philosophy

Radhasoami: Nirguna concept of God

Sikh: Ten gurus from Nanak to Gobind Singh; 11th guru is religious writings

Radhasoami: Living gurus are viewed as necessary aids for spiritual progress

Radhasoami: Lacto-vegetarian; no intoxicants; no pre-marital sex; general non-violence



A Comparison of Sikh and Radhasoami Philosophy

Sikh: Guru Granth Sahib (also called Adi Granth) seen as the direct manifestation of God today

Radhasoami: Writings of gurus of past and present in the Sant tradition; no one book held as holy

Radhasoami: Some Indian initiates wear four of the ks but not the sword and some utilize the names Singh and Kaur



Within the Radhasoami circle there are numerous gurus and lineages (over twenty with the largest being Beas), all teaching a similar message but with idiosyncratic nuances. For example, some may emphasize the repetition of one divine name in meditation such as the title Radhasoami and others may recommend a sequence of names given to the disciple at the time of initiation. Altogether, however, the Radhasoami teachers see themselves as part of a larger movement, the Sant tradition, and Nanak as one representative of it.

Today Radhasoami is now one of the largest and most widespread of the guru-bhakti movements. It has over two million followers and is found in 40 different countries, with fifty thousand initiates in America alone (and an increase of a thousand or so a year). There are several factors that have contributed to the success of Radhasoami as a "world religion" and to its popularity in the West. First of all, it uses English as its medium and has extensively published its teachings. Secondly, some of the gurus have gone on world tours, one of the most recent examples being Gurinder Singh in 1994 and 1997. In addition, for many in the West Radhasoami has a very appealing eclectic and ecumenical message. It argues that one does not need to leave oneís traditional religion to be affiliated with its teachings, preaching a sort of religious universalism. Westerners also seem to be attracted to its inner-worldly approach, since it promotes disciplined worldliness and not renunciation.