Sikhism Glossary Terms

Adi Granth

(Also: Duru Granth Sahib) Adi Granth means literally the “First Book.” For Sikhs, the three thousand hymns (shabads) contained within its pages are the Word of God. Before the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, he invested the Guruship not in a human successor, but in the scripture itself. Hence, as the most reverend (Sahib) fully authoritative spiritual guide (Guru), the book is also known as the Guru Granth Sahib.

Akal Takht

In 1606 the Sikhs established their own royal court, similar to the Mughal court of the time, with the Guru as the royal and spiritual head. The temporal role of the Sikh Guru was symbolized by the seat called Akal Takht, “The Throne of the Almighty.”


Amrit means “immortal nectar,” and “taking amrit” is a term used for initiation into the Khalsa, the order of fully committed Sikhs. A bowl of water with sugar crystals is stirred with a double-edged sword, while sacred hymns are recited, infusing the solution with the power of the Divine Word. This water, which has now become immortal nectar (amrit), is sipped by each of the initiates, giving the rite its common name.


Amritsar is the city in the Punjab in northwest India that is the historical and spiritual center of the Sikh tradition. In 1574 the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das, established the town and had the “Lake of Nectar,” Amritsar, dug at its center. The magnificent temple called the Darbar Sahib, popularly known as the “Golden Temple,” was built on an island in the middle of this Lake of Nectar.


Baisakhi is held on the first day of the lunar month of Baisakh, which falls in the month of April. One of the main events of the day is the raising of a new Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag. Baisakhi also marks the anniversary of the first initiations into the Khalsa, the special company of the faithful to which most adult Sikhs belong. Hence, the initiation rite called “taking amrit” frequently occurs on this day.

Bhajan, Yogi

In 1968 Harbhajan Singh (1929-2004) popularly known as Yogi Bhajan, brought the message of the Guru Granth Sahib to the West. He soon attracted many young American followers with the universalism of the Sikh message, the practice of yoga and meditation, and the emphasis on a natural and healthy lifestyle. In 1969, he formed the movement called 3HO, (Happy, Healthy, and Holy Organization), which later became known as Sikh Dharma.


Dharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings of conscience. For the Buddhist tradition, the Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali) refers especially to the teachings of the Buddha. This body of teachings constitutes one element of the “Three Jewels” in which Buddhists take refuge: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (the community). For Hindus, dharma means righteous conduct, religious obligation, or religious duty—either the eternal obligations (sanatana dharma) incumbent upon all humankind, or the obligations specific to one’s caste and stage of life (varnashrama dharma).

Golden Temple

From 1581 to 1603 Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, oversaw construction of the Darbar Sahib, the great gurdwara at Amritsar. Darbar Sahib means “Divine Court.” After completion of the present structure in the early 19th century, the gurdwara became popularly known as the “Golden Temple” because of its massive gilded dome.


The granthi is the custodian of the book (granth). In the Sikh tradition, the granthi cares for the Adi Granth by maintaining the gurdwara and seeing to the daily observances in the special room where the sacred book is housed. He may also lead the chanting and singing of its hymns during services. The term is also used by the Ravidas sect.


The gurdwara, “the gateway of the Guru,” is the place for community gathering and worship in the Sikh tradition. The Guru is the Adi Granth, the sacred scripture of the Sikh tradition. Each center will include a chamber where the Adi Granth is kept, a room for th. singing of hymns from the Adi Granth, and a community kitchen where langar, the community meal, is prepared.


Gurmukhi is the “script of the Gurmukhs,” an epithet for Sikhs that occurs in the Sikh scripture. Also, Gurmukhi is not a language, but rather a script that was institutionalized and improved by the Sikh Gurus and eventually became an important marker of Sikh identity. It contains 35 main characters.

Guru Gobind Singh

Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) was the tenth Guru of the Sikh tradition. He is primarily known for establishing the community of Sikh initiates called the Khalsa and for installing the Adi Granth as his successor, thereby closing the line of Gurus.

Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was the first teacher of the community of disciples that became known as the Sikhs. His songs in praise of the formless and transcendent God are a cherished part of the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth.

Guru Ram Das

The fourth of the ten Sikh Gurus, Ram Das served as Guru from 1574 to 1581. He is primarily known for establishing the town of Ramdaspur, later known as Amritsar, in the Punjab.

Hemkunt Foundation

Sri Hemkunt Foundation, established in 1980, promotes Sikh religion and culture, primarily through the distribution of religious books and the organization of national and international symposia. The foundation places special interest on the concerns of Sikh children growing up in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Kenya.

International Sikh Dharma

Soon after Yogi Bhajan came to the United States in 1968, he attracted a large following of young Americans. In 1969, the movement called 3HO, an acronym for the Happy, Healthy, and Holy Organization, was formed. This later became known as Sikh Dharma. Today, there are some seventy Sikh Dharma centers (typically called Guru Ram Das ashrams) throughout the United States. Members are readily identified by their distinctive dress in white cotton garments and white turbans.

Japji; Japji Sahib

Sikhs recite five prayers daily, the most important being the morning prayer, the “Japji,” which was recited by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) each morning. The opening stanza of the Japji, known as the “Mul Mantar” affirms that there is one God, without form (Nirankar), but known through the grace and voice of the Guru.


All Sikh women who have joined the Khalsa assume the name Kaur, “Princess.”


Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, created the Khalsa, the “alliance of the pure” in 1699. When a Sikh comes of age or is ready for a greater level of commitment, he or she joins the Khalsa through the special initiation known as “taking amrit.” Initiated Sikhs wear five signs of their new identity and acquire a new name. Singh for men and Kaur for women.


The kirpan is a sword, more commonly a small knife, carried by initiated Sikhs who have become members of the Khalsa, the order of fully committed Sikhs. It is one of five symbols of Sikh identity.


Langar is the communal meal shared by Sikhs and all visitors to the gurdwara. For Sikhs, eating together in this way is expressive of the rejection of the Hindu caste system to reaffirm the equality and oneness of all humankind.


According to the Sikh tradition, God cannot be known in any image for God, the Nirankar, is invisible, infinite, beyond the confines of form. This transcendent God can nonetheless be known through the voice, or “unstuck sound,” that has been mediated through the Guru—initially the ten human Gurus and subsequently the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture).


Rahim was popular name for God among the Muslims of North India.


In the Sikh tradition, the term rehras refers to evening prayers.


The term sadhana is used in the various religious traditions of India to refer to particular disciplines of religious practice to which one commits oneself, whether such practices be meditation, asceticism, ethical living, or the faithful worship of a personal deity.


Sangat is a Punjabi term for “community” and refers particularly to the religious community.

shabad kirtan

In the Sikh tradition, shabad, literally “word,” refers to the divinely-inspired Word of God, especially as it was first sung by the ten Gurus and subsequently recorded in the Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture. There are gurbani, or hymns of the gurus, and bhagatbani, the hymns of the saints. All of the shabads are set to particular traditional musical scales called ragas, each meant to be played at a particular time of day or to evoke a particular mood. The term “kirtan” refers to singing the praises of God in communal worship. Such singing of shabads, usually to the accompaniment of an accordion-style harmonium, is a central component of any gurdwara program.


Sikhs call their tradition the “Sikh Panth,” meaning the “community (panth) of the disciples of the Guru.” The tradition reveres a lineage of ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak in the 16th century and coming to a clos. with the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. Thereafter, the Divine Word of scripture became authoritative as the Guru Granth Sahib. The Sikh population currently numbers over fifteen million. While the Sikh heartland continues to be the Punjab in northwest India, Sikhs have now settled throughout the world, especially in Kenya, England, and North America.


Upon initiation into the Khalsa, Sikh men assume the name Singh, “Lion.”


Sikh men wear a turban and Sikh women wear a long head scarf known as a chunni in fulfillment of one of the basic vows taken when joining the Khalsa (the order of committed Sikhs)—to leave the hair uncut as a sign of complete dedication to God. This is one of the five important markers of Sikh identity.
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