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The 5 Ks : NOT mere SYMBOLS

Birendra Kaur

Every religion has some symbol(s) to represent its doctrine or identity. To quote some examples:

– The higher castes among Hindus wear janeoo (sacred thread).
– Brahmins retain shikha (tuft of hair on the crown) and put saffron marks on their foreheads.
– Hindu married women wear mangal sutra (necklace) and apply sindhoor (red powder) in the parting of hair.
– Muslims shave the moustache, but retain the beard.
– Jews grow long sideburns.
– Jewish men and boys wear yarmulkas (skullcaps).
– The Star of David is the symbol of Judaism.
– Christians wear a Cross.
– Buddhist monks shave their heads.
– Jains go about barefoot, with their mouths and noses covered with cloth.

Symbols are meant to be visibly exposed to public view. They represent a belief, but may have no practical utility, whatsoever. The Cross symbolises the death of Jesus Christ as well as all Christian beliefs. The Star of David represents the teachings of Judaism.

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, refused to wear the janeoo, the Hindu religious symbol. In this refusal, it was not the symbol as such that he rejected, but what it stood for, the caste ideology; neither was he convinced of its spiritual significance. He condemned the caste system very strongly :

What merit is in caste ?
Know thou the Truth within;
Of whatever caste one may be,
He who tastes the poison, will die ! Guru Granth Sahib, p. 142

He preached that there is only One Creator, Who is the Father of all, implying thereby the brotherhood and equality of all, and rejecting once again the caste system and the claim of superiority by one religion over another.

Guru Nanak was the first man, who, in spite of belonging to a high caste, declared equality of the lower castes with the high castes, and, in spite of being a male, equated the status of women with that of men, and that, too, five centuries ago in a geographic area where these inequalities were religiously-sanctioned norms. Some of the other unprecedented teachings and values that he inculcated are :

– Submit to God’s Will.
– Meditate on Him with every breath.
– Live in tune with nature.
– Respect for all religions.
– Carry out social responsibilities.
– Pray for the welfare of the entire human race.
– Once on God’s path, swerve not, even at the cost of life.

He himself lived a natural and simple life, and advised his companions and followers to do the same. The successor Gurus, too, lived in conformity with Guru Nanak’s teachings, and actively participated in every sphere of life for the spread of his message. They also practically demonstrated the system, even through battles and martyrdoms, whenever the situation demanded.

On the Vaisakhi of 1699, Guru Gobind Singh founded the order Khalsa, Akal Purakh ki fauj, the army of the Timeless Lord. The fact that the Guru chose the birthday of Guru Nanak for this historic event is very significant. And the manner in which he achieved this was also based on the rule laid down by Guru Nanak :

If you seek to play the game of love,
Then enter upon my lane,
With your head upon your palm. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1412

On this day, he coined a common title for men and women, Singh and Kaur respectively, and bestowed the five Ks (kakkars) on them. These 5 Ks give religious identity to the Khalsa. This identity personifies the universalism of the Sikh religion as preached by Guru Nanak — brotherhood of man, equality of man and woman, justice for the downtrodden, and welfare of all mankind. The 5 Ks remind the wearer, all the time, of the high ideals adopted by him. They represent a bond with the Guru — a commitment to the Guru’s cause — a proclamation to the world of one’s love and dedication to the Great Guru.

Moreover, as against the janeoo which is worn only by men, and circumcision which is performed only on men, the Guru prescribed the 5 Ks for both men and women alike, highlighting, once again, the equality of genders.

If mere symbolism was the Guru’s seeking, or if his aim was only a distinct appearance for Sikhs, he could have devised some hair / beard / moustache style different from that practised by other religions. For example, he could have demarcated a different area of the head for keeping of hair, in contrast to the location of shikha of Pundits, or another style of beard / moustache to stand out from that of the Muslims. He, instead, ordained to respect the human body in the form created by the Almighty.

The Guru’s message is for the entire mankind, which he proclaimed a single race. Although variations in external physical features suggest division of humans into different ‘races’, the contention is not borne out by the molecular data. The molecular data show that the DNA base sequence varies as much between individuals of the same ethnicities as between individuals of different ethnicities. So, what the Guru claimed centuries ago has now been proven even at the electron-microscopic level.

The Guru’s decisions reinforced the teachings of Guru Nanak. His recommendation of a simple life style with unshorn hair and beard, highlighted the wisdom of living in tune with Nature, according to the Will of the Almighty. Kes (hair) has life†, and is an organ of the body, performing a variety of vital functions, and, therefore, is of utmost importance to the body. Shaving or cutting amounts to interference with Nature. Kangha (comb) is necessary for the care of this organ, which requires regular maintenance to prevent matting and infestation with ectoparasites. So, in order to obviate shaving or cutting of hair, at the cost of interference with Nature, regular use of kangha is prescribed. It also stresses cleanliness and rejects the unhygienic practice of matting of hair.

The kachh (drawers) is a more comfortable, decent and practical wear than other comparable garments. It allows free movement of the body. There is no risk of exposure, and one can, thus, function efficiently. Its substitutes are either impractical, or indecent, or uncomfortable.

The tight jeans that the modern man is so fond of, lead to many complications. In addition to restriction of free circulation of blood and natural growth of the pelvic region, these cause damage to testicles in males and interfere with ability to have a natural delivery in females.

Morphologically, the anus, vulva, and urethra are in close proximity in females. And, whereas the stool is replete with bacteria, protozoan cysts, etc., the reproductive and urinary tracts must remain sterile. It is, therefore, much more hygienic to wear loose underpants to avoid inflammation and infection of the reproductive and urinary tracts.
In men, tight underpants interfere with the regulation of temperature of the testes (contained within the scrotum), which is absolutely essential for production of sperms and their survival. Sperm production and their survival require a temperature that is lower than that of the body. Because the scrotum is isolated from the body cavities, it provides a favourable environment at about 3° F below the body temperature. On exposure to cold, special muscles in the walls of the scrotum bring the testes closer to the pelvic cavity, where they can absorb body heat. Exposure to warmth reverses the process. Even a rise in temperature to that of the body destroys the sperm cells, leading to lower sperm count and even sterility.

The kara (steel bangle), which is required to be worn on the arm, is ideally positioned and makes itself seen / felt whenever we act, thereby reminding us of our pledge and commitment to the Guru. The Guru, thus, constantly assists us in leading a truthful life. It also provides protection. During a sudden attack, we raise our arm over the head as a reflex action. The arts of self-defense too draw upon this gesture. In such a situation, the kara provides protection to the raised arm. And during a fight, the kara protects the arm that uses the kirpan (sword). Thus, just as comb (kangha) follows hair, the kara supplements the kirpan. Besides, it can even add to the force of a punch and is, thus, a weapon itself.

The fifth K prescribed by the Guru is the kirpan (sword). The word kirpan is derived from two words — kirpa (compassion) and aan (honour), which signify and highlight the purpose for which it is to be used. The Guru’s soldier who carries a kirpan, must be a saint as well, and, as such, can commit no crime. His / her responsibility is to fight injustice. The Guru recommended the kirpan, although firearms were being manufactured during his times. The modern military guns, too, are provided with a bayonet at the anterior end. A kirpan has its own plus points : easy to carry; indispensable in hand-to-hand fight; never runs out of ammunition; and does not require license from any government, the Guru’s saint-soldier being answerable to the Almighty alone.

It must, however, be pointed out that use of the 5 Ks alone, is by no means prescribed as a guarantee for salvation. Just as a separate dress code is prescribed for different games / activities to suit different requirements, the 5 Ks were made obligatory for the particular way of life of the Khalsa. We know, however, that simply wearing the uniform of a team does not make one a good player. So the stress remained on righteous deeds and truthful conduct for the Khalsa. At the same time, it must be stressed that one cannot be a member of a team without wearing its uniform.
The 5 Ks do not interfere with the functioning of the body in any way. The body has been left complete, in its natural form, without application of substances on its surface or mutilation of parts thereof. Knowing the health hazards associated with interfering and altering the body’s surface†, we should have enough common sense to realise the importance of a natural and simple life style.

Thus, the 5 Ks prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh are not mere symbols, but are requirements of a complete, healthy and decent life style. If they were mere symbols, then miniatures of the 5 Ks worn around the neck in a string would suffice. Also, there was no need to prescribe five Ks; one would have served the purpose. Moreover, their value as symbols could also be questioned, since they are not meant to be displayed. The kangha is not placed over the turban, the kara may not show with full sleeves, the kachh is not worn over the trousers, and the kirpan may not be visible in the winter clothing. The kes, of course, is to be respected as a part of the body, and their location is a decision of Nature.

One of the Gurus’ main concerns was to liberate man from the meaningless rituals which plagued the society during their times. Some of the rituals practised, to mention a few, are :

– Self-mortification / penance / tormenting the body;
– Bathing at places of pilgrimage, river banks, etc.;
– Celibacy / renouncing the world / abide on the bank of Asi rivulet near Kashi;
– Dwelling in wilderness, and at burial / cremation grounds;
– Practicing of 84 sitting postures of yogis;
– Controlling breath / sit in trance / stand on head / make still the circuitous chord / sit cross-legged for hours / maintain silence (pranayam, samadhi, kundalini, monbrat, etc.);
– Enduring hunger, poverty, pain of hot and cold water / denying sleep;
– Going about naked;
– Wearing a rosary around neck / two loin cloths / tinkling anklets on feet;
– Painting religious symbols and sacrificial / frontal marks on body;
– Rubbing sandal or ash on body / placing basil leaves on forehead;
– Circumcision / splitting ears / shaving head / matted locks / hair tufts;
– Diet restrictions like denial of corn / living on milk alone;
– Offering rice balls at Gaya / alms of many sorts, etc.

Such rituals were common in the belief that these would wash off sins, earn merit and bring honour at the Lord’s Court.

But ritualism was strongly decried by all the Gurus. There are countless hymns in Guru Granth Sahib to this effect. The Guru deems ritualism as ostentations of self-conceit (p. 890), and as useless deeds comparable to a house of sand which cannot stand (p. 1348). The Guru says that rituals do not efface demerits. Rather, the persons performing such acts frequently fall a prey to ego (p. 1305), and their souls are consumed by the false pride of intellect (p. 335). The Guru also shows the true path :

They who make truth their fasting,
Contentment their pilgrimage,
Cognition and meditation their ablution,
Compassion their deity,
And forgiveness their rosary,
Those are the most sublime persons. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1245

As mentioned earlier, the use of the 5 Ks alone is, by no means, a guarantee for salvation. It is only their use as a part of the total discipline prescribed by the Guru that can bring tej (glory), and title to the Guru’s love. Guru Gobind Singh’s views regarding ritualism are as follows :

“Could the Lord be realised —
by eating filth,
then the swine would;
by smearing the body with dust,
then the ass and the elephant would;
by haunting the cremation grounds,
then the vulture would;
by living in a domed monastery,
then the owl would;
by wandering listlessly,
then the deer would;
by standing still and silently,
then the tree would;
by abstinence from sex,
then the eunuch would;
by walking barefoot,
then the monkey would.”
— Akal Ustat, pp. 71-72

The 5 Ks are a category apart, and belong neither to the category of symbols, nor rituals. They are a distinct feature of Sikhism alone. Sikhism is distinct in many ways. For example, it is the only religion that :

– advocates assimilation of the message following contemplation, instead of blind faith;
– aims at spiritual growth without binding one to any superstition or myth;
– guides one to have direct communion with God;
– claims that liberation is possible during one’s lifetime;
– expects one to be a saint and a soldier, simultaneously.

Guru Gobind Singh decorated and equipped his Khalsa in a manner that emanates Guru Nanak’s ideology of submission to His Will, brotherhood of mankind, equality of man and woman, justice for the downtrodden, welfare of all mankind. And that is exactly what the Khalsa form stands for.

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa; Waheguru ji ki Fateh
God’s Khalsa; God’s Victory



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