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Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded the 15th century in India by Guru Nanak, the first of ten gurus (masters). According to tradition the last guru, Gobind Singh, in 1708, transferred the spiritual authority to the Guru Granth Sahib, stating that from that moment it would become the eternal guru of the Sikhs. The Guru Granth Sahib is the sacred text for the Sikhs, containing the fundamental principles of Sikhism through a wide range of religious compositions. It is considered a spiritual guide and a living guru in all respects. The devotees are required to meditate directly on the name of the one creator, while the codified rituals concerning the Guru Granth Sahib that are part of the Sikh worship can be interpreted as forms of devotion and social interaction with the guru. The gurdwaras are places of assembly and worship where the Guru Granth Sahib is housed and the Sikhs reunite in congregation (sangat) to recite, sing, listen and explain its verses.
In India the Sikhs are a religious minority mainly present in the north-west state of Punjab, while in Europe they are mainly settled in the UK as a result of colonial and postcolonial migrations. According to the British census, in 2011 they numbered 432,429, amounting to 0.7% of the population. In northwestern continental Europe, Sikhs began to settle in the 1970s as a side effect of changing British immigration policies that had limited primary immigration. Unable to enter legally in the UK, the Sikhs began to enter as single male labor migrants in neighboring countries initially intended as transit points. Despite the fact that by the 1980s most European countries had also restricted their immigration policies, the political turmoil in Punjab after 1984 gave rise to increasing waves of political migrants, especially to Germany (where they are currently estimated to be around 10,000), France (7,000), the Netherlands (6,000) and Belgium (5,000) and to a lesser extent to Norway (3,000), Denmark and Switzerland (2,500) and Sweden (1,500), where many of them applied for political asylum. Starting from the 1990s, the number of Sikhs has increased also in southern Europe, especially in Portugal (7,000), Spain (15,000), Greece (20,000) and Italy (70,000). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enlargement of the EU and the development of the Schengen Area, East European countries have also become attractive to Sikh migrants, especially Poland (3,000).
Given its different historical moments and diverse causes, Sikh migration has heterogeneous economic and demographic profiles in the various European countries. While Great Britain has almost zero primary migration and the age and family profile of British Sikhs approaches that of the rest of British society, in other parts of Europe, primary migration of professional, low-skilled and undocumented Sikh immigrants is still taking place alongside family reunions. European Sikh minorities are differentiated also from a socio-religious point of view. Historically, Sikhism condemns caste distinction, but within Punjabi society, cultural and social practices reproduce a caste-based hierarchical structure through endogamous marriage alliances, where landowners and farmers (Jats) form the upper level, the artisans (Ramgarhia) occupy the middle strata and the landless laborers (Chamars) are at the bottom. In the diaspora this caste hierarchy has occasionally been reversed from an economic point of view and has taken the form of religious expression. As a result, different social groups have sometimes built separate gurdwaras. Especially Chamars have attempted to assert a distinctive Ravidasi identity leaving the Sikh fold and building exclusive temples. Sects as for example Namdharis, Nirankaris and Radhasoamis and minorities linked to sants (Punjabi traditional preachers) such as the Nanaksar movement have also contributed to religious differentiation of the Sikh diaspora in Europe. Within mainstream Sikhism, the religious community is complex: the Amritharis are a politically very active minority and form the core of the Khalsa Panth. This religious order was founded by guru Gobind Singh in 1699 as a result of persecution of the Sikhs and to protect freedom of conscience and religion. Amritdharis wear the five symbols of Sikhism (the so-called “5Ks” alongside the turban) and respect a code of conduct (Rehat Maryada). Instead, the Sahajdharis (who wear only some religious symbols) and the Monas (clean shaven) are the majority among Sikhs.
The Sikhs face multiple challenges related to their establishment abroad. A main concern regards the inclusion of Sikhism within the legal systems of the different European countries and its formal recognition through the signing of mutual agreements with the States. This would give them access to state funding and extend their rights as religious minority. For example, Sikhs would be allowed to provide spiritual assistance in prisons and hospitals, or teach in state schools or open confessional schools recognized by the national educational system. They would also be allowed to wear the turban alongside their religious symbols in the public space or as part of professional uniforms. While this challenge has been successful over time in the UK, it appears to be uncertain in many other countries. This is mainly due to political-ideological and public order reasons. For example, French law bans the display of religious symbols in the strictly secular public space, while Italian law prohibits wearing the kirpan – a curved dagger that is one of the religious symbols of the Sikhs – considering it a white weapon. So far, however, formal recognition of Sikhism in many European countries has also failed due to the strong heterogeneity within Sikh communities and the lack of national bodies representing Sikhs vis-à-vis European governments.
Another main challenge for Sikhs concerns the chances of finding or obtaining new places to build or establish gurdwaras. Their number has grown through time and with the rising of the Sikh community. In Great Britain they number about 180, while in Italy they number at least 40 and in Germany about 20. Besides being places of worship, they serve as centers of social, political and educational activities, especially Punjabi classes for Sikh youths. They may also provide economic support like meals and temporary accommodation. Indeed, the langar (free meal) is regularly served to devotees as well as to the needy. If the majority of gurdwaras has been established in rented or purchased premises, a more recent trend is to build completely new “display gurdwaras,” which prove the success of the community and represent Sikhism to local societies.
A main concern regards the maintenance of gurdwaras. Sikh tradition does not recognize any priestly class; instead, granthis, ragis, kathakars are people who specialize in preaching its tenets and history. All devotees are encouraged to do voluntary free service (seva), but normally gurdwaras stably employ granthis to maintain the daily routine, offer various service and take care of the Guru Granth Sahib. Historically, granthis come exclusively from Punjab, as in no country of the diaspora there is currently a training institute in charge. This is sometimes problematic as they do not speak the local language and do not know any customs of the host country where the new Sikh generations were born and raised, and this could make them unable to impart the tradition to young Sikhs.
The transmission of the Punjabi language and of the gurmukhi alphabet is another challenge for the Sikhs of the diaspora, as religious service in the gurdwaras is exclusively in Punjabi. In recent years the Guru Granth Sahib has been translated into English and other European languages to try to remedy the lack of comprehension among younger Sikhs. In addition, screens with translated versions into English or with transliteration of its religious verses can be displayed in the main gurdwaras. However, translations are not accorded the same status as the Guru Granth Sahib in its original language, as it remains the focus of worship in all countries. Therefore, the issue of nurturing the Sikh tradition through the scriptural language remains an enduring question for young Sikhs in the diaspora. Besides Punjabi classes offered to pupils by gurdwaras, the community concern for these topics has fostered the establishment of independent or grant-aided Sikh schools, so far only in the UK within the European context.
Sikhs in Europe have generally displayed a strong ability to adapt themselves and create harmonious relationships with their neighbors. By trying to seek out cultural similarities with the host country, they have created distinct images of themselves as being “good migrants” in comparison to other minority groups. At the same time, they have tried to internationalize Sikhism as a “world religion,” rendering it more acceptable by local societies and making it known with publications in various languages. Recalling their participation and sacrifice in WWI and WWII as soldiers of the British Army, they have emphasized Sikh values such as the struggle for justice and the freedom of the weak and oppressed and used history to legitimize their current presence in European countries. At the same time, they have often mobilized to ask for the recognition of their religious symbols. Young Sikhs appear to be exposed to increasing secularization. At the same time, many of them engage in processes of redefining the Sikh tradition through the creation of new interpretations adapted to European cultural contexts. This process seems to have two main outcomes: on the one hand Sikh youth may try to “deculturalize” their legacy by discerning religious elements from inherited Punjabi cultural customs. This may concern topics like castes, arranged marriages and gender issues. On the other hand, young Sikhs may experience new forms of religious revitalization and the creation of specific subcultures within various transnational youth activities, like Sikh youth camps or devotional music programs across Europe. Finally, Sikhs have tried to meet the religious instances of the devotees in the diaspora by founding international charitable organizations (like the Global Sikh Council). They have also tried to support interreligious dialogue by becoming part of international religious platforms (such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions) and by participating to the World Council of Churches.
Singh, P. & Fenech L. E. (Eds.). (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jacobsen K. A., Singh Mann G., Myrvold K. & Nesbitt (Eds.). (2017). Brill’s Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Leiden – Boston: Brill.
Jacobsen K. A. & Myrvold K. (Eds.). (2011). Sikhs in Europe. Farnham: Ashgate.
Jacobsen K. A. & Myrvold K. (Eds.). (2012). Sikhs Across Borders. London: Bloomsbury.
Jacobsen K. A. & Myrvold K. (Eds.). (2015). Young Sikhs in a Global World. Farnham: Ashgate.
https://www.globalsikhcouncil.net (it is the website of the Global Sikh Council)