The Path of the Masters (Sant Mat)
The Five K's
© Jagannatha Prakasa, November 8, 2006 (last updated: March 29, 2017)
As with any people, not all Sikhs are fully devoted to their religion.
Although Sikhism accepts no caste distinctions, there is a common way to identify those Sikhs who are devout in the performance of their religion. All males who are born into a Sikh family are named Singh, but since the time of Guru Gobind Singh, only those who are devout, those who are indeed 'lions for God' typically employ this name. To qualify as a Singh one must be sincere in religion, above social reproach, and observe five cultural practices. These practices are known as the five Ks because Khalsa (Khalsa Sikhs are those who accept the reforms of Guru Gobind Singh) Punjabi Sikh names all begin with that letter:
- kesh: uncut hair. From birth onward devout Sikhs never cut their hair, including their beards. This is indicative of their desire to transcend material nature and attain spiritual realization. The body is not important beyond its role as a vehicle for enlightenment.
- kangha: comb used to keep the hair clean. This comb is kept under one's turban. The practice of kesh should not be taken as neglect for the body, it is cared for as one might care for an automobile, hence the kangha.
- kara: metal bracelet or bangle worn on the right wrist. Since the Sikhs reject all forms of asceticism, they are actively engaged in life. Indeed, unless a man works and supports his family he can't be considered a Singh. When one reaches out his (right) hand to work, the bracelet reminds him of God. By this he is always careful to deal honestly with all men.
- kaccha: knee-length underwear. Sikhs are to be very modest.
- kirpan: dagger. Sikhs reject the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence). They see it as a moral weakness and betrayal of religious requirements. If a Sikh sees a wrong being committed he is duty bound to stop it. Sometimes such righteous intervention requires force. The dagger is not therefore merely a religious symbol, it is a tool, even a weapon, for righteous intervention or self-defense. There is also of course the spiritual symbolism. The dagger cuts through maya or illusion. This application is secondary however. Pramjit told me that sometimes the dagger can cause a problem. As a Singh he can never be separated from his kirpan. When Sikhs travel this is sometimes a problem. Airlines, for instance, will not allow them carry the kirpans on planes. Likewise they sometimes encounter difficulties in stores and other public places. To remedy this, they have developed tiny kirpans, about the size of pocket knives. In this way they can observe their religious requirements and public laws as well. Once the plane lands, they take the kirpan from the luggage and strap it on their sides.
If a Singh violates any of these principles, for any reason, he must be baptized anew in order to reclaim the Singh title. If, for instance, a Sikh goes in for surgery and his hair is cut for that reason, he is no longer a Singh. He must approach the Sat Sangat (the Sikh congregation) and be rebaptized. I asked Pramjit how serious it would be if he lost his status as a Singh due to such an eventuality. He replied that what matters is the consciousness, not physical circumstances; but it was obvious from his demeanor that such would be viewed as most unfortunate. On the other hand, I spoke with a thirty year old Sikh who has never been baptized. He wears the turban and observes the five Ks, and yet has never felt the need (or the inner purity) to accept baptism. His devotion to the five Ks is such however that even though he is an expert tennis player, he refuses to remove his turban or kirpan to do so.
The idea of Pauhal (baptism) may seem alien to Indian philosophy at first glance. When we think of baptism, we tend to think of Christianity of Judaism. Where did the Sikhs get the idea?
"Nam" is the source and the means to merge with the Unmanifest One. The Guru is the doorway to Nam, and so by taking refuge of his Grace one achieves liberation. The way to the Guru is baptism (Pauhal or Amrit). Without baptism a Sikh has no Guru (technically), hence no Nam and therefore, no liberation. This idea should not be taken too far however.
Guru Nanak started this ritual of initiation in typically Hindu style. From Guru Nanak until Guru Gobind Singh Sikh initiation consisted of two parts. First, the Guru's feet were washed. Due to the Guru's touch, this foot-water was considered amrit or nectar. It was then given to the disciple to drink (as Charanpauhal or Caritamrita). The second rite was the giving of Nam, the transcendental experience of the Holy Word.
Guru Gobind Singh instituted the baptism rite which is observed today. Although Guru Nanak rejected all visible forms of worship, temples, rituals and the like, Gobind Singh created the Khalsa or Guru Panth ("community of the pure ones") as the external form of Guru. Actually, he empowered and reorganized the existing body of the faithful. With this change, those who would be Singhs (initiated 'lions of God'), had to join the Khalsa through the rite of baptism. Baptism is conducted by five advanced Singhs in the presence of the Khalsa, "Let it, therefore, be very clear to every Sikh that in order to get into Guru's fold and seek Guru's grace, one will have to get baptized by the Five Beloved Ones. Only then will one's efforts toward spiritualism become fruitful". The rite consists of readings from the Guru Granth, sacred songs, prayers and the preparation of a special solution of water and sugar. The candidates are then sprinkled with this water on their heads and eyes. At this time they are instructed in the rules of Khalsa membership, loyalty, moral conduct and receive Nam.
To be a Sikh is to be a member of a family. It is to follow in the bold, yet humbly devout footsteps of Guru Nanak and his successors. Sikhism is not a religion, but a way of life. It is SANT MAT, the Path of the Masters.