Sikh Traditions in Ontario

By: Pashaura Singh

From: Polyphony Vol.12 pp.130-136
© 1990 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

"Almost half of Canada's approximately 145,000 Sikhs live in Ontario. They make up a very large component of the South Asian diaspora in the province. Pashaura Singh describes the basic tenets and practices of the Sikh religion, emphasizing their contribution to the Sikh ethno-cultural identity."

This paper seeks to examine the Sikh perspective on their traditional religion in its Canadian environment. The emphasis on religion recognizes the priority Sikhs have always given to describing the distinctive nature of their identity and tradition. It also recognizes the centrality of their religion in the definition of Sikh ethnicity and culture. In Ontario the details of the rituals have not changed in any significant way. What is important is the presence in Ontario of a large Sikh community approximately seventy thousand as part of a world-wide diaspora that has helped to establish the Sikh religion as one of the great world traditions.

Although the Sikhs first arrived in British Columbia at the beginning of this century, their presence in Ontario came to be felt only in the mid-195O's, when the immigration laws were somewhat liberalized with the introduction of a quota system. A small number of Sikh students and professionals arrived from India, East Africa, and the United Kingdom. The birthday of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of the Sikh faith, was celebrated for the first time in Toronto in 1954 at the residence of Kuldeep Singh Chatwal.1 By 1965, there were about four hundred Sikhs in Toronto.2 They began to gather at a community centre on Eglinton Avenue for a monthly religious service. On the quincentenary of the birth of Guru Nanak in 1969, the community established the first permanent gurdwara or "the door of the Guru," the Sikh place of worship, at 269 Pape Avenue.3 Since the great influx of new immigrants in the 1970s, the gurdwaras have continued to proliferate. At present there are twenty-five temporary and permanent gurdwaras, which serve as multi-use community institutions for about sixty thousand Sikhs in the province.

The gurdwaras have had a pivotal place in the evolution of the Sikhs from a purely religious group to an ethnic one.4 The social and religious activities of the gurdwaras function as a bulwark against assimilative influences exerted by the exotic life of Western culture. Gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions play a central role in community life by making it more religiously and culturally homogeneous. They offer a wide variety of educational and cultural programs, such as the teaching and perpetuation of the Punjabi language and Sikh music and song among the new generations. Some Sikh organizations operate a Sikh version of Sunday school, where children are given formal instruction in the tenets of Sikhism, while others support Sikh charitable and political causes.5

The congregational worship in all gurdwaras in Ontario takes place every Sunday, not because it is the holy day but because it is then that most Sikhs are free to worship. It consists mainly of the singing of scriptural passages set to music with the accompaniment of instruments. Professional and amateur "ragis" ("musicians") lead the congregation in devotional singing. This congregational singing of "kirtan" hymns is the heart of the Sikh devotional experience. Through such kirtan the devotees attune themselves to vibrate in harmony with the divine word, which has the power to transform and unify their consciousness. This practice also helps them cope with the added challenges and obstructions that a modern technological society puts in the way of their spiritual life.

The exposition of the scriptures, known as "katha", may be delivered during the service, either by the reader of the gurdwara, "the granthi", who is responsible for conducting its routine rituals, or by one of the visiting traditional Sikh scholars, "gyanis", from India. At the conclusion of the service all who are present will join in reciting Ardas ["petition"], the Sikh prayer which invokes the divine grace and recalls the common heritage of the community. It is followed by the reading of the "vak", or divine command, from a passage of the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, selected at random, and distribution of "karah prashad" (sanctified food) to everyone. The free community meal, "langar", begins after the service or concurrently in the basement hall in larger gurdwaras. Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike sit together to share a common meal of traditional Indian vegetarian food, usually consisting of flat bread, bean stew, and curry. One can easily recognize a powerful egalitarian spirit in the meal and the way it is served.

The central feature of every Sikh ritual and ceremony is always the Guru Granth Sahib, installed ceremoniously every morning in the gurdwara. When a child is to be named, the process of "taking God's word" ("vak lao"), the random selection of a verse from the scripture provides the first letter of the chosen name. The initiation ceremony, or "amrit sanskar", must take place in the presence of the Guru Granth Saab. A Sikh wedding, according to the "Anand" ("bliss") rite, also takes place in its presence, and the performance of the actual marriage requires the couple to circumambulate the volume four times. The hymns of the Guru Granth Saab are sung at funerals. This is followed by a reading of the entire scripture. The celebration of the anniversaries of the births and deaths of the Sikh Gurus ("gurpurbs") is marked by an "unbroken reading" ("akhand path") of the scripture by a relay of readers in approximately forty-eight hours on weekends.

The initiation ceremony, known as "khande da amrti", in which sweetened water is stirred with a two-edged sword and sanctified by the recitation of five liturgical prayers, is conducted by five Khalsa Sikhs representing the original "Five Beloved Ones." All Sikhs initiated into the brotherhood of the Khalsa ("pure") must observe the Rahit (code of conduct) as enunciated by Guru Gobind Singh and subsequently elaborated. They must take the surname Singh ("lion") in the case of men and Kaur ("princess") in the case of women. In Canada, however, it has become a convention to use the name of one's "got" (clan, or exogamous group within the "zat", or caste) as a last name, reserving Singh and Kaur as middle names. The most significant part of the Rahit is the enjoinder to wear five items of external identity known from their Punjabi names as the five Ks. These are unshorn hair, symbolizing spirituality and saintliness; a wooden comb, symbolizing order and discipline in life; a miniature sword ("kirpan"), signifying divine grace, dignity, and courage; a steel bangle, symbolizing responsibility and allegiance to the Guru; and a pair of short breeches, symbolizing moral restraint. The five Ks are understood as outer symbols of the divine word. Putting on the five Ks along with the turban (in the case of male Sikhs) while reciting prayers symbolizes that the Khalsa Sikhs are dressed in the word of God. Their minds are thus purified and inspired, and their bodies girded to do battle with the day's temptations. They are also prohibited from four gross sins: cutting the hair, using tobacco, committing adultery, and eating meat that has not come from an animal killed with a single blow.

The significance and need for full commitment to the Khalsa discipline has received new recognition by the Sikhs of Ontario (especially by young adults) after the Indian army's attack on the Golden Temple of Amritsar in 1984. This new trend is quite evident from the frequent arrangements made by the gurdwara committees for the amrit ceremony, which was once a rare occurrence.6 Many Sikhs who had abandoned their turbans and beards because of discrimination by prospective employers, returned to their traditional ways. Although the wearing of the five Ks has been supported in principle under the Canadian Charter of Rights, the Khalsa Sikhs have sometimes had problems in wearing the kirpan, which is wrongly thought to be a weapon by many Canadians.7 In a recent case, for instance, a lower court in Ontario has asked the Supreme Court of Ontario to decide whether a board of education may prevent a Sikh teenager from wearing a kirpan to school.8 But in some other cases schools have quietly allowed the practice as long as it is not misused. In this connection, John Spellman makes the following observation:
The turban and the sword are at least equal to the crucifix for Christians. They identify, they remind, they teach and symbolize.... The "kirpan" worn by Sikhs is a sacred symbol and is no more to be used to attack someone than a crucifix.... There are practically no cases on record of any Sikh ever having been convicted in Canada of using his "kirpan" as a weapon.9

Most recently the proposal of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Norman Inkster that Sikh Mounties be allowed to wear turbans instead of flat-brimmed Stetsons has stirred strong emotions in western Canada.10

Sikhs are aware of, and worried about the host society's unfavourable attitude toward their religious traditions. Though the Sikh community must bear some of the responsibility for not explaining their culture to mainstream society, the problems have been exacerbated by negative reporting in the media. The Canadian media have inadvertently echoed the biased Indian press, which has historically accepted political manipulation, both overt and covert. The Punjab crisis has deeply affected the Sikhs of Ontario. Their indignation can be seen from the occasional speeches on the violation of human rights of the Sikhs in India made from the gurdwara stages on Sunday mornings.

The recent years have also witnessed among the Sikhs of Ontario a revived interest for their inherited tradition and identity. This awakened consciousness has produced a flurry of activities in children's education. Sikh parents realize that the worship in the gurdwara is conducted in Punjabi, which scarcely responds to the needs of children born in Canada. At school these children are being trained to be critical and rational and they are therefore questioning the meaning of traditional rituals and practices.

Traditionally trained Sikh granthis and gyanis in Ontario are unable to answer their queries. In addition a steady process of assimilation is in progress amongst second- and third-generation Sikhs. In response to these problems a group of concerned parents has started home-based Sikh worship conducted in both Punjabi and English.11 Another innovative feature has been added in the form of Sikh Youth Camps to train Canadian-born children in the teachings of the gurus.12 These camps last one or two weeks. Through them a spiritual environment is created which provides the children with continuous exposure to Sikh values and traditions.

Ontario Sikhs celebrate the annual Baisakhi festival in the middle of April with much dedication, pomp, and pageantry. On this day in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs, instituted the martial order of the Khalsa, a brotherhood of loyal Sikhs bound by a common identity and discipline. All the gurdwara committees collaborate in organizing a colourful march through the streets of downtown Toronto to the provincial legislature at Queen's Park. The procession is always led by the "five beloved ones," followed by a float carrying the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Saab. More than twelve thousands Sikhs from across the province participated in the procession in 1989.13 The celebration committee donated a wheel chair and a heart monitor to Sick Children's Hospital in Toronto on behalf of the Sikh community. In the past years generous donations were made to food banks and the United Way. The Sikhs have also responded to the call of the Red Cross Society to donate blood on a number of occasions, and they participated in the Terry Fox Run to raise funds for the Cancer Society.14

Although the institution of the gurdwara serves as a rallying point and an integrative force for the Sikh community, the management of its affairs sometimes becomes a bone of contention between different groups. That happens because the members of the gurdwara committee often use their position to enhance their own image in the wider society. Thus factional politics in gurdwara affairs can have a divisive effect in the community, and are usually based on personalities, not issues.15 Paradoxically, this factionalism may result in greater long-term community solidarity, because it forcefully draws people's attention to community issues.16 In the absence of an external threat, however, this factionalism seriously weakens the community's ability to work toward a unified goal. Ontario's Sikh community is steadily becoming more mature in organizational matters. The inauguration of a new building housing the Ontario Khalsa Darbar gurdwara on Dixie Road in Mississauga on 25 June 1989, marked the beginning of a new phase of development in this direction. This is the second-largest gurdwara in Canada, seating four thousand. (The largest, in Vancouver, seats five thousand.)17

The Sikhs of Ontario take a keen interest in Canadian ecumenical matters by freely participating in fruitful inter-religious dialogues. On a number of occasions they have organized multi-religious services at their functions.18 Sikhism is the mouthpiece of mutual co-existence and understanding. It emphasizes tolerance and the acceptance of diversity of faith and practice. Its existential commitment is towards the ideal of universal brotherhood and the altruistic concern for humanity as a whole. In the multicultural context of Canada, where stress is being placed upon equality of race and sex, Sikh ideals are thoroughly in place and congenial to the developing values of the society.

It may be concluded that living in Ontario has not brought a significant change in Sikh religious practices. Sikh worship in the gurdwara follows tradition, and a Sikh granthi still comes from India. The difference is that Western culture has added new challenges and obstructions to the spirituality of the Sikh tradition. Without an adequate knowledge of Punjabi, the language of the Guru Granth Saab, the new generation of Sikhs is in danger of being theologically illiterate. This situation has created new responses from the Sikh community. Sikh parents have started home-based worship in both Punjabi and English. They have introduced another innovative feature in the form of Sikh Youth Camps to pass on the Sikh traditions to the children. Political events in India have further heightened the distinctive self-identity of the Sikhs. The ideal before the Sikhs of Ontario is integration into the Canadian mosaic without the loss of their identity.

Pashaura Singh is a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Religious Studies, University of Toronto.


1. Interview with Kuldeep Singh Chhatwal, October 25, 1989.

2. Leone Kirkwood, "Globe and Mail", (January 18, 1965), p. 12.

3. Wayne Edmonstone, "Sikhs Open First Temple in Toronto." In "The Toronto Star" (August 2, 1969), p. 85. Also see Gurufatha Singh Khalsa, "Sikh Religion." In Spirit of Toronto (Toronto: Image, 1983), p. 299.

4. Burnet, Jean R., with Howard Palmer, "Coming Canadians:" An Introduction to a History of Canada's Peoples (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988), p. 146.

5. Buchignani, Norman, and Doreen M. Indra with Ram Srivastava, Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985), p. 186.

6. For instance, all the gurdwara committees of Metro Toronto area jointly organized
the "amrit" ceremony on the Baisakhi Day 1989 at gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha,
Malton. Eighty-five Sikhs received amrit that day. The Ottawa Sikh Society had its second "amrit" ceremony on that day, and twenty-five Sikhs were baptized.

7. Singh, Pritam, "Fight for our Identity-Kirpan." In Proceedings of the Sikh
Heritage Conference 1981
(Willowdale, Ontario: Sikh Social and Educational
Society, 1981), p. 50.

8. O'Connell, Joseph T., et al, "Postscript: The View from Toronto." In Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto, Centre for South Asian Studies, 1988), p. 446.

9. Spellman, John W., Calgary Herald (September 17, 1987). Cited in Sikhs in the Canadian Mosaic (Calgary: Canadian Council of Sikh Organizations of Calgary, 1988), p. 1.

10. Graff, James L., "May Mounties Wear Turbans?." In "Time" (October 30, 1989), p. 56.

11. For instance, Savinder Singh Bhasin's group has been meeting every second
Friday in different homes for the last two years for the evening service. Here
children participate in "kirtan", routine rituals, and rational discussion on Sikh

12. In the summer of 1989 eight such camps were organized by the Ottawa Sikh
Society, the London Sikh Society, the Sikh Resource Centre, Princeton, and the
Windsor Sikh Community.

13. Frances Kelly, "Toronto Star" (April 17, 1989), p. A6.

14. Interview with Raghbir Singh Samagh and Inderjit Singh Bal, October 20, 1989.

15. Singh, Jarnail, "Dynamics of Sikh Organizations." In Proceedings: Sikh Conference 1980 (Ottawa: The National Sikh Society of Ottawa, 1983), pp. 193-205.

16. Continuous Journey, p. 182.

17. Hudson, Kellie, "Toronto Star" (June 26, 1989), p. A12.

18. Singh, Jarnail, ed., Sikh Symposium 1985 (Willowdale, Ontario: The Sikh Social and Educational Society, 1986), pp. 1- 11.

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