Religions around the world aren’t always ancient. Sikhism is a young religion that originated in India but it has over 25 million practitioners around the world.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Sikhism?
- How Do Sikhs View Death and Dying?
- Is There Salvation in Sikhism?
- What Happens in the Sikh Afterlife?
In this guide, we’ll explore how Sikhs view death and how to escape the cycle of rebirth. By learning about death in different cultures, you can better understand your own beliefs.
What is Sikhism?
Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world and continues to be the most commonplace in India. Sikhism originated in South Asia, which now falls into the present-day states of India and Pakistan.
Sikhism is often confused with Hinduism, the largest religion in India. Both faiths have origins in India and believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation is the rebirth of a person’s soul multiple times before merging with a higher power. However, there is a significant difference between the two. Hindus believe in multiple gods (polytheism) and Sikhs focus on one (monotheism).
The only way to attain a union with Waheguru, or God, is to lead a moral life. The concept of morality and reincarnation became cornerstones of the Sikh religion.
It began with Guru Nanak, a spiritual man who lived a life of service toward God and those around him. The people that followed his teachings became Sikhs. Eventually, 10 gurus grew the Sikh community. Today, the Sikh holy book and the spiritual community guide Sikh principles.
Instead of a focus on heavenly rewards or paradise in the next life, Sikhs take advantage of their physical life to perform good deeds. There are no heavenly rewards like there are in the Christian afterlife. Actions on earth will decide what or who Sikhs will reincarnate into or if they reach the ultimate goal — unity with God.
A person’s soul occupies one of three tiers when they are reborn: human, animal, or plant. Before looking into death and the afterlife, let’s look at what a Sikh needs to do to live a moral life and break this cycle of rebirth.
The role of karma
The illusions of the physical world or maya keep Sikhs from uniting with God. Relationships, possessions like cars and homes are types of maya. To reach God, Sikhs break away from maya and focus on worship through prayer and special deeds.
Karma is the good or bad deeds that accumulate throughout a person’s life involve play into cause and effect, where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Mortals get a human body because of good deeds but reach the gate of salvation with God's kind grace.
To accumulate good karma, Sikhs wear the “Five Ks,” or items, at all times. The last guru, or spiritual leader, told all Sikhs to wear these items. They are:
- Kesh, or long hair. Sikhs should not remove any body hair but must accept themselves as they are.
- Kachera, or cotton undershorts. They are a symbol of purity.
- Kangha, or comb. All Sikhs must wash and comb themselves to practice self-care.
- Kara, or bracelet. It’s a sign to remember God and always practice restraint in all actions.
- Kirpan, or sword. Not for self-defense, the kirpan is a symbol of bravery and fighting against injustice.
Remembering God in the heart and soul is the cornerstone of Sikhism. Only through actions and accumulating good karma can a Sikh reunite with God in the afterlife.
How Do Sikhs View Death and Dying?
The physical world takes precedence over the afterlife. Sikhs believe this life is the most important. The physical life is a gateway to the Sikh afterlife; a chance to reunite with God. Each life is a chance for the soul to progress in its different forms through life experience. Through daily meditations, chants, and service to others, Sikhs keep one God in their heart.
Sikh funerals mean that all Sikhs are equal before God. There’s no social class system or elaborate funeral ritual. The Western funeral elements you are familiar with aren’t present, like gravestones or caskets. The Sikh funeral is simple, like their death view.
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The Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji or living guru
The Sikh’s religious text is the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, or the Guru Granth Sahib. The book includes a set of scriptures, hymns, and guidance on how Sikhs should live their life. The first Sikh guru wrote the text. Later, other gurus contributed to it.
Today, this text and the Sikh spiritual community guide the religion. The Guru Granth Sahib is especially important in daily life and events like deaths and weddings. The holy book offers clues to the guru’s thoughts on life and death. It reads, “To reach your True Home after you die, you must conquer death while you are still alive.”
There are two ways a Sikh can live his life — in heaven or in hell. To achieve heaven on earth, Sikhs use the Guru Granth Sahib to structure their lives. Instead of physical pleasures, they focus on good actions and remembering god. For Sikhs, focusing on anything else is hell on earth.
Is There Salvation in Sikhism?
Salvation saves people from harm and unites them with God. Different religions have specific death rituals to complete before believers achieve salvation. In Islam, the family takes special steps to take care of the body after death. In Sikhism, believers achieve salvation — a union with God — through actions in the physical life.
Sikhs believe anyone can attain salvation, no matter the religion. They defend other religions as they would their own. Being a Sikh does not guarantee salvation either; believers must keep God in their hearts at all times with intentional thoughts and action.
One intentional action is prayer. Prayer is essential to letting go of the ego — feelings of self-importance — to recognize God within. Reading from the Guru Granth Sahib connects Sikhs to God. Group prayer is especially important. Important meetings and celebrations like weddings include group prayers.
What Happens in the Sikh Afterlife?
As mentioned before, Sikhs believe in reincarnation. The soul passes into a new form or body after death. They aren’t the only ones. Both Buddhist and Hindu funerals have elements that ease the soul’s transition into its next life. Human life is the last step before salvation. Humans are capable of right and wrong choices, so the human form is the most important.
Freedom from the cycle of rebirth is mukti. Sikhism differs from many other religions because practitioners can achieve mukti either after death or during their lifetime. The soul suffers so it can’t reach enlightenment in Buddhism, but to Sikhs, it’s the ego that holds a person back from uniting with God. Sikhs can surpass their ego when they dedicate their life to follow God.
The five evils, or thieves, that stop the soul from fully loving God are:
- Kam — lust
- Krodh — rage
- Lobh — greed
- Moh — attachment to physical possession or people
- Ahankar, or ego — this is the biggest obstacle for people to overcome and the most difficult.
The jivanmukta is a highly spiritual Sikh who overcomes the five evils. He has let go of human faults like ignorance and pride. Jivanmuktas are rare individuals because it’s difficult to attain a high level of spiritual enlightenment. They see God in themselves and around all others. They live a life of ethics and awareness that all Sikhs strive for.
Planning for the Afterlife
Death discussions are usually taboo, no matter which religion you ascribe to. It’s difficult to think about your own mortality. We can learn from the Sikh outlook on life and death. Sikhs are death positive; they acknowledge death as part of life and embrace it.
Have you started planning for your own death? Begin with a meaningful conversation with yourself or your loved ones. Cake guides you through important legal and medical decisions so you can focus on your loved ones. Sikhs dedicate their own existence to mediation and service to others. Whether you’re a Sikh practitioner or not, that’s an honorable way to live.