Understanding the Kirpan for non-Sikhs
by Sandeep Singh Brar

The Kirpan (ceremonial sword) worn by followers of the Sikh religion sometimes raises questions or concerns among people who are unfamiliar with the religion or it's tenants. The Kirpan is an ingrained part of the Sikh religion and is in many ways it's religious symbolism is similar to the Cross in Christianity. Just as a Cross is worn be devout Christians, baptized Sikhs are required to wear the Kirpan. The Kirpan is no more symbolic a weapons than the Christian Cross is symbolic of a torture instrument.

Sikhism is a 500 year old religion with over 20 million followers worldwide. It is ranked as a major world religion with even more followers than Judaism for example. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) who preached a message of One God for all of humanity founded it. He stressed loving devotion to God and universal principles of morality, truth and honest living and full equality of mankind irrespective of race, caste, creed or sex. Nine successive prophets succeeded Guru Nanak, the line ending with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. Sikhism is not a new-age movement, cult or sect, but a well established and respected major world religion with it's own distinctive beliefs and practices.

The Kirpan has been an integral part of the Sikh religion since it's early inception and has a very sacred religious symbolism for Sikhs. To suggest that it is a `dagger', or a `weapon' or merely a cultural symbol is both misleading and offensive to Sikhs.

To Sikhs the Kirpan is religiously symbolic of their spirituality and the constant struggle of good and morality over the forces of evil and injustice, both on a individual as well as social level. The usage of the Kirpan in this religious context is clearly indicated in the Sikh holy scriptures (Sri Guru Granth Sahib) and wearing it is ment to inspire a Sikh in their daily life;

"To forsake pride, emotional attachment, and the sense of `mine and yours', is the path of the double-edged sword." (Guru Arjan Dev, Devgandhari, pg. 534)

"From the Guru, I have obtained the supremely powerful sword of spiritual wisdom. I have cut down the fortress of duality and doubt, attachment, greed and egotism. The Name of the Lord abides within my mind; I contemplate the Word of the Guru's hymns." (Guru Ram Das, Maru, pg. 1087)

Guru Gobind Singh introduced the metaphor of the Kirpan to refer to God and his qualities;

"O Sword, O Conqueror of continents, O Vanquisher of the hosts of evil, O Embellisher of the brave in the field of battle. Thy Arms are unbreakable, Thy Light refulgent, Thy Glory and Splendor dazzle like the sun. O Happiness of the holy, O Crusher of evil intent, O Subduer of sin, I seek Thy refuge." (Guru Gobind Singh, Vachitra Natak, Chapter I)

The practice of Sikhs carrying the Kirpan as a religious symbol can be traced back to the lifetime of the sixth Sikh prophet, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644). Guru Hargobind regularly carried two swords, symbolic of a Sikhs spiritual as well as temporal obligations. Guru Hargobind introduced Sikhs to the concept of being a Sant-Sipahi (Saint-Soldier). A Sikh must be a Saint always meditating and remembering God. At the same time a Sikh is also expected to be a soldier, a person taking part in their social responsibilities to their family and community. Following the path of law, order and morality as laid out by the Sikh Gurus.

It was Guru Gobind Singh, the final living Sikh prophet who formally instituted the mandatory requirement for all baptized Sikhs to wear the Kirpan at all times. He instituted the current Sikh baptism ceremony in 1699 which is referred to as the `baptism of the sword' (khanda di pahul). During the ceremony sugar crystals and water are stirred in a steel bowl with a Kirpan before the initiate drinks the mixture. During the baptism ceremony the initiate is instructed in the duties and obligations of becoming a Khalsa (one belonging to the Divine). The Khalsa is expected to live by the high moral standards of the Sikh Gurus at all times which includes such things as abstaining from smoking, drinking and other intoxicants, performing daily prayers and always maintaining the distinctive physical symbols of Sikhism on their person. The most noticeable of these being uncut hair and carrying the Kirpan.

This injunction appears in the Rehat Maryada (The Official Sikh Code of Conduct); "Have, on your person, all the time, the five K's: The Keshas (unshorn hair), the Kirpan (sheathed sword), the Kachhehra (drawers like garment), the Kanga (comb), the Karha (steel bracelet)." (Rehat Maryada, Ceremony of Baptism or Initiation, Section 6, Chapter XIII, Article XXIV, paragraph (p))

The Rehat Maryada does not specify the length of the Kirpan or how it is to be worn by the devotee. Kirpans can be anywhere from 3 foot swords carried by Sikhs on religious festivals, marriages and parades, to a few inches in length. They can either be worn over ones clothing or under the clothing. The Kirpan is usually kept sheathed except when it is withdrawn from it's casing on such occasions as consecration of the ceremonial sweet pudding distributed during religious ceremonies.

To suggest that the Kirpan is a weapon is both incorrect and misleading. If it was instituted as a weapon, then would Sikhs not be expected to carry guns today? Guns were in common use during the time of Guru Gobind Singh. If the Kirpan was purely a soldiers weapon for Sikhs, than why do they not also carry a shield as well or other armour? Why do modern armies and soldiers carry swords on ceremonial occasions? Because it is symbolic of their military tradition and heritage. In the same way Sikhs carry the Kirpan at all times because it is symbolic of their religious tradition and heritage.