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Sikh & Khalsa:
Is There a Difference?
The Roundtable Open Forum #100





What is the difference between a Sikh and a Khalsa?

Is there any, or did we just create a difference to cover up our misunderstandings?

From my conversations with a lot of Sikhs, it seems that many of us are confused between who is a Sikh and who is a Khalsa.

We tend to define both terms narrowly: “Sikh” as someone who believes in the teachings of Guru Nanak;  and “Khalsa” as some sort of enlightened person at an advanced stage who keeps hair, turban, kirpan, etc., who is supposed to be purer and more pious.

But have we ever stopped for a minute to think about these shallow definitions?

To me it seems that ‘Sikh’ and ‘Khalsa’ are the same thing and anything else is pure, cooked-up nonsense.

Let me present my argument.

Let's start with the most-often cited definition of Sikh - as a follower of Guru Nanak.

Do the rest of the Nine Gurus don't mean nothing to such “Sikhs"? Do they edit out passages from the Guru Granth Sahib that are attributed to the other Gurus, and the Bhagats? Or do they plug their ears while in the gurdwara listening to kirtan with their shabads?

Forget spirituality, even from a human rights perspective, do they not believe in (or chose to conveniently ignore) the sacrifices of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadar?

And, pray, what does it mean to be simply a follower of Guru Nanak?

To me this argument sounds like: "I am the son of my father, and even biologically speaking, it has nothing to do with my mother."

Quite absurd, I'd say.

We all agree that spiritually and philosophically, all the Gurus were the same. They are often described as the same "joat" (light) in ten different manifestations. In that respect, Guru Nanak is the same as Guru Hargobind or Guru Arjan or Guru Gobind Singh or even the child-Guru, Harkrishan.

So if Guru Gobind created the Khalsa, was it any different from the Sikh created by Guru Nanak?

If they were different, it would mean deviation of thought from Nanak to Gobind, a deviation of the spiritual path, rendering the hymns of Guru Granth Sahib as simple poems, and not to be entrusted with the status of Guruship.

This is something we all agree is certainly not the case.

So how can one justify suggesting that "Sikh" is something distinct from "Khalsa"?

Now on to "Khalsa".

Khalsa, the word, is derived from Persian - it originally referred to the land that was under the direct control of the king (and not franchised to a local chieftain or nobleman for upkeep and tax collection purposes); hence the ‘pure’ land of the  king himself.

Now, when the Khalsa was created, it was also given a definition: “Khalsa - Akal Purakh ki Fauj.”

Thus, “Khalsa” refers to a sovereign entity directly under the rule of Akal Purakh -- the One God of All creation.

(In my understanding, "fauj" does not necessarily mean an militaristic army, for in 1699, there was no abject need to create one. Even though there were minor skirmishes with the hill chiefs, it wasn't until 1702 that the real problems started - a full three years later).

Hence, the Khalsa are supposed to have a direct connection with Akal Purakh, with no middlemen involved.

In light of this, does it mean that Guru Nanak's Sikhs do not have a direct connection with Akal Purakh?

Do "Sikhs" have to go through a middleman, (perhaps a Khalsa?) to reach Akal Purakh, whereas the Khalsa have some kind of a magical direct-connection?

All of these debates make no sense to me -- either we can agree that all Gurus were the same, in which case "Sikh" is the same as "Khalsa". Or we can say that each Guru was a maverick, each with his own interpretation. Which would make our tenets wayward and whimsical, in which case we can start calling ourselves as "Guru Nanak's Sikhs", "Guru Hargobind's Sikhs", "Guru Amardas' Sikhs", the “Khalsa”, etc.

Why stop there?

We can also call ourselves "Dera Baba XYZ - “kesaa(n) wale (keeper of hair) follower of Guru ABC's Sikhs", or "Dera Baba XYZ - binaa kesaa(n) wale (not a keeper of hair), follower of Guru ABC's Sikhs", or pick and choose any other permutation and combination we like.

I for one am in the camp of "Sikh = Khalsa", and emphatically believe that there is no middleman or middlewoman between me and Akal Purakh and that my  ethical and value system is laid out in the Guru Granth Sahib. That no Sikh of any ilk has a higher status by way of membership in any group or strata.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

August 16, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 16, 2013, 1:53 PM.

Without complete respect for the Guru and His teachings, you cannot be Sikh or Khalsa!

2: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), August 16, 2013, 10:18 PM.

The 'middleman' between a Sikh and Akal Purakh is the Sikh's Guru. A Sikh takes his/her 'gur-mantar' from the Guru -- Guru Granth Sahib, and no other -- and then connects with Akal Purakh.

3: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 17, 2013, 1:43 AM.

As a common Sikh, I feel a Sikh is a person who believes oneself to be a Sikh and believes in the Guru Granth Sahib. A Sikh worships only the One all pervading God who is the Guru in Nanak to the Granth Sahib. There is no difference in God and the Guru as stated in the Sukhmani Sahib. A Sikh worships the One divine and not the body. I further feel that Guru Gobind singh made all his Sikhs his Khalsa by abolishing the masand system. There is no middle man involved in the relation of the Sikh with his Guru, is what the institution of the Khalsa is about. I also feel that the five beloved ones and the rest who answered the Guru's call on the historic Vaiskhi of 1699 were already the Sikhs/Khalsa of the Guru. A Sikh believes in only one bani, one shabad and one Guru. Every Sikh is the Khalsa of the Guru. Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki fateh.

4: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 17, 2013, 2:56 AM.

I also feel that the Sikh way of life was started by Guru Nanak. I feel Guru Gobind Singh formalized this way of life on the historic Vaisakhi of 1699. He also raised a Khalsa army, gave it a uniform and a code of conduct to protect the way of life as Guru Nanak had propagated according to the Divine Will. The Khalsa army was raised for protection, growth and spread of the Sikh value system of universal rights and freedoms.

5: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 17, 2013, 11:11 AM.

I agree with #3 above. But the confusion needs to end. Let us get back to the basics. As always, there are two definitions: the Guru's and ours. We need to recognize both. Neither of these will ever go away. Our meanings will continue to evolve and change and we will need to adapt, but without losing sight of the original meaning, particularly if the original meaning is of any use to us. According to the Guru, a Sikh is someone who follows the Guru. Thus, all the bhagats and all the Sikh Gurus were Sikhs of the highest order. Guru Nanak was not a Sikh. He was Guru, also called in the Janam Saakhis as "Guru Parmeshar" (the Guru-form of the formless Waheguru). Similarly, we read that Guru Gobind Singh was Guru, until he became a Sikh of the Five Beloved and placed them above himself. Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh had Hindus and Muslims as their Sikhs. At the time of Ten Gurus you could not tell apart between Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Thus, in the past, people who practiced spiritual Sikhi have belonged to all faiths.

6: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 17, 2013, 11:13 AM.

Today, the term 'Sikh' has become a debate of faith and appearance rather than spiritual Sikhi, because spirituality is impossible to prove. Some even resort to calling individuals with untrimmed hair as 'pooran' (perfect or complete) Sikhs. Most of us now feel that having belief in Guru Nanak and in gurbani, over and above any other faith means that we are Sikhs, even if we do not follow everything that was commanded in gurbani. Most 'Sikhs' today believe that, in addition to having faith in Guru Nanak and/or being born in a Sikh household, living as a naturally good human being, is good enough to qualify as a Sikh.

7: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 17, 2013, 11:16 AM.

The division among us started with the creation of a distinct identity, which was a result of forethought that, due to natural decay as I have described above, Sikhi was going to be mixed with, and assimilated into various practices that the Gurus had rejected. 'King's property' - 'God's army' - or the most commonly circulated translation, 'pure', were not new and they are not appropriate as the meaning of Khalsa today. Creation of a distinct identity coincided with two other changes: change in the initiation from 'charan pahul' (water that was touched by the Guru's feet) to 'khanday di pahul' (water that was stirred with a double-edged sword) as well as terminating the lineage of human Gurus. Therein lies the confusion. The first five Sikhs who were so initiated were perfectly dedicated to the Guru, hence they were perfect in the spiritual sense, and they were called Khalsa. They met Guru Gobind Singh's definition of this term, and the Guru became their Sikh.

8: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 17, 2013, 11:21 AM.

An ancient spiritual lifestyle had become obscure from the society. Those who followed the footsteps of those five Khalsa Sikhs are called Khalsa Panth (path). Today we often refer to the entire Sikh population as Khalsa and/or Panth. But the fact that Guru Gobind Singh lovingly called all Sikhs as his Khalsa (his own) does not give us a right to call everyone Khalsa, otherwise this term would have no distinct purpose and we should abandon it. By Guru's definition, Khalsa means spiritually perfect ('pooran jyote jagai ghat mei') just because becoming the Guru's own and perfect spirituality are deeply connected. Another confusion arises from the fact that emergence (not creation) of Khalsa included an admonition to keep the kesh (hair) and bear arms (shastar) as parts of the new Khalsa identity. This was not to create a soldier. Sikh soldiers had already existed since the time of Guru Hargobind. These items were included as Guru Gobind Singh's gifts for us to keep.

9: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 17, 2013, 11:36 AM.

Thus, 'Khalsa' is neither an army, nor a 'true' Sikh, nor a subset of Sikhs. Today, the term Khalsa applies to someone who has become a student of the path of Khalsa Panth by being initiated or taking the pahul. This includes keeping a distinct identity. The purpose of this Khalsa Panth is preservation of the spiritual Sikhi, the part of Sikhi that always starts with proper initiation, and to preserve the Sikh traditions. Only some rare souls attain the state that deserves to be called a Khalsa. The students of the path of Khalsa preserve this path by staying distinct, but not separated, from the society as well as those who claim to be Sikhs and followers of Guru Nanak and who may choose alternate pathways to connect with the Guru. We should be neither confused nor mix up the terminology, mistaking it as a noble gesture of creating unity by amalgamation. Otherwise the path will become obscure again.

10: R Singh (Canada), August 17, 2013, 1:29 PM.

Anyone who fails to understand the pivotal role of Guru Nanak to the Sikh religion, can hardly qualify to put forward any argument about anything. Sikhism is based on the philosophy of Guru Nanak, and none of the succeeding Gurus addressed themselves as any other than Nanak in Guru Granth. Therefore there is no other Sikhi outside of it. So, degrees/colours of Sikhi can vary with traditions, but first a Sikh then a Khalsa. That is why Sikhi of our Gurus was universalist, while ours is exclusionist. Let us evaluate, whey we are into 'my way or the highway', when there is no mediator between Guru and Sikh, whatever garb one may choose to be in.

11: Rup Singh (Canada), August 17, 2013, 2:02 PM.

A Sikh is someone who believes in the Ten Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib, and Khalsa does the same but has taken Amrit and the 5 Kakaars and lives in Rehat and meditates/contemplates on the Banis daily as per instruction when given Amrit. If we were to just go by the fact that the Gurus are One Jyot (and they are) ,and there is no difference between a Sikh and Khalsa then why didn't Guru Nanak give Amrit and the Five Kakaars to the Sikhs? Also, if a fauj was not needed until 1702, do you suggest that a fauj can be established and trained just before it's needed or would it need years of training to be battle ready? The arming of the Sikhs was started by Guru Hargobind but he did not give Amrit and the Five Kakaars. It took 230 years, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh to ready the Sikh to become Khalsa ... Sant Sipahi.

12: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 18, 2013, 2:16 AM.

A Sikh is a student of the Guru Granth Sahib. The Khalsa is the community of Sikhs.

13: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 18, 2013, 6:30 AM.

The Guru had complete authority. Each Guru did what was required of him as per the Divine Will. The Guru Granth has complete authority. The Khalsa's unity lies in remaining within the framework of the teachings of the Guru Granth which are inclusive, universal and eternal.

14: Avinder Singh (Plainview, New York, USA), August 18, 2013, 8:47 AM.

You cannot be a Sikh - a learner - if you are not willing to clean your body, mind and soul of worldly impurities and thus try to become a Khalsa. And you cannot become a pure one - a Khalsa - if you are not willing to learn to be a Sikh.

15: V S Mann (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), August 18, 2013, 11:23 AM.

Whether "Sikh" or "Khalsa", we need to be more respectful in how we address our Gurus. How about addressing them as they should be: "Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji" (rather than "(Guru) Nanak") and "Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji" (not "Gobind")? We can't expect others to respect our Gurus and traditions if we don't address them with due respect ourselves.

16: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA..), August 18, 2013, 11:32 AM.

Whether Sikh or Khalsa, the religion itself comes from ONE Divine Source in varying degree of purity in the process of transmission. Religion has to deal with human life and has to provide solutions to the problems upon which life depends. Therefore, religion must remain in the process of renewal time to time.

17: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 18, 2013, 12:10 PM.

The Khalsa is a brotherhood which exists within Sikhism. One must be Sikh to be a Khalsa but one does not need to be Khalsa to be Sikh. Unfortunatley, many Amritdhari Sikhs do not understand the position of the Khalsa in Sikhi and present a holier than thou attitude towards non-Amritdharis. A Sikh is someone who believes in the Guru Granth Sahib and the Bani of the Gurus. Being a Khalsa is a choice open to all Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh asked for the Punj Pyarey to step forward as volunteers, he did not pick them.

18: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 18, 2013, 5:12 PM.

My whole psyche tends to surrender to the 'Great Nanak' or Guru Nanak and the Khalsa is my 'saviour' that I have this ultimate freedom to do this without any worries about any enemies, inner and outer that can defeat me to go off this path of Truth.

19: Harinder (Punjab), August 19, 2013, 6:43 PM.

A Sikh is like a mathematical variable, a learner and adapter of life. He keeps evolving with time. A Khalsa is like a mathematical constant who sticks to the puritan life as espoused in the Rehat Maryada. Both are needed for the well-being of the community but both are not the same. The Khalsa is connected to the past, the Sikh to the future.

20: Amarjit Singh Duggal (Atlanta, Georgia, USA), August 21, 2013, 9:07 PM.

Very good discussion ... and a necessary one. I personally think: As a matter of policy, it is time to make a clear distinction. Any and every body can be a Sikh. And, any body who adheres to the Rehat Maryada is Khalsa. And there are various different types of Khalsas as well, if you look around you. For example: (#) Vegetarians and firm believers of meat eating. (#) Just simple and small kirpan carrying to a real weapon carrying. (#) To a Nihang type khalsa, who believes in Sukh nidhaan to a purely -- whatever. The point I am making is, it is time to move on from discussion to the real mission of spreading Guru's message, which is a universal message and without getting everybody involved, we are not doing any justice to it. Any body who believes in Sangat Pangat, any body who believes in Guru Granth ahib, and various different methods defined in it to reach peace, is acceptable as a Sikh, and any body who believes and respects Shastra as means to liberate a down trodden community, is a Khalsa, regardless of what he eats and how he or she looks. With this definition, I am not saying entire Punjab police force is Khalsa! Sure, they carry arms as well but the point I am making is, Punj Kakaari rehat needs to be followed as well, and Kesh is number one Kakaar, that cannot be set aside.

21: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 22, 2013, 7:17 AM.

Sikh: "O brother, he alone is my Sikh, my friend and my relative, who does whatever the Guru desires. He who walks under one's own desire is separated and suffers injuries." [GGS:601]

22: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), August 22, 2013, 7:22 AM.

Khalsa: "When someone dwells day and night on the ever-awake Light and does not worship anyone besides the One Lord. When perfect love illuminates his conduct and not even by mistake he respects fasting, graves, monuments, monasteries, etc. When giving, compassion, self-restraint, austerity, and not seeing anyone besides the One Lord, become his pilgrimage. When the perfect light of the Lord illuminates his heart, only then consider him as the immaculate Khalsa." [Guru Gobind Singh: 33-Swayyyas]

23: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 22, 2013, 11:42 AM.

It is very difficult to believe that Guru Gobind Singh created a Khalsa who was different or a step ahead of the Sikh. Guru Granth Sahib does not make any distinction within its sangat. It only demands the mind of the believer. I feel, as a policy, (1) we need to define a Sikh (Khalsa) as one who believes in the Guru Granth Sahib and declares oneself to be a Sikh, thus making the khande di pahul voluntary; or (2) we define a Sikh (Khalsa) as one who takes the khande di pahul.

24: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 22, 2013, 8:01 PM.

We should surrender ourselves to the written word of the ShabadGuru for the basic definition of the Sikh/Khalsa or we should surrender ourselves to other writings for the same. We seem to have taken the middle path and find ourselves to be neither here nor there.

25: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), August 23, 2013, 7:09 PM.

Sikh scholar Dr. Jaswant Singh Neki defined Khalsa thus: "An important institution of the Sikh Panth is Khalsa. Those who join this institution are initiated with khande-di-pahul. Thereafter they are born again. It is believed that their ancestral professions, religious associations, castes, blood relationships and any other inheritance are all discarded in favor of their new identity. Then the initiated individual is given training to live a life of an altruist. The initiated individual is inculcated with spirit of fighting against injustice and for protection of every compromised section of the society. Along with being a spiritual person, the initiated individual is given training in becoming soldier. This individual is taken out of the Brahmanism (religion and caste laden society as synthesized by clerics). Henceforth the members of the Khalsa creed enter into a society based upon the principle of oneness of humanity with all beings children of one divine parent. To Khalsa kinship all are one human race, none is a stranger per the verse of the Guru Granth [p 97). The foremost commitment of the Khalsa is to the Infinite Wisdom, Waheguru. Next it is committed to the well-being of all. In between, the Khalsa initiate is loyal to the Khalsa society itself whose protection is sought in the daily prayer as 'wherever there is Khalsa, they may be protected and nourished." [Jaswant Singh Neki, 'Sada Vigaas', p 33, Singh Brothers, 2007. Translation from Punjabi in English is author's.]

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Is There a Difference?
The Roundtable Open Forum #100"

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