The Reality of Appearance

Once a Sikh steps out of his house he is destined to face one question. Why don’t you cut your hair? The simple and most appropriate answer to this question is that a Sikh keeps his hair unshorn, as his Guru has ordained it and it is an article of his faith. Most people accept this as a reasonable explanation but there are many who continue to prod further and further and some even go to the extent of making fun. Sometimes these people are unnecessarily vocal and their curiosity is not for knowledge but they have something else up their sleeves. What is really tragic and ironic is that even people who call themselves Sikhs, but do not keep unshorn hair, are asking this question. It is understandable if it comes from a Sikh child who tries to understand the rationale behind keeping the hair unshorn, but the situation has come to such a pass that many Sikh adults are putting this question to their fellow Sikhs who keep their hair unshorn. I have also faced this question many times. An attempt has been made in the following lines to answer this question and to understand the reality behind the concept of Sikh Appearance or Saabat Soorat.

Three Parts of the Whole

Sikh Appearance has three components, which merge together to make a whole. To understand the whole, it will be better to understand the parts in isolation and then look at the way these parts fall into their place to coalesce into the whole. These parts are:

  • Saabat Soorat
  • Khade Di Pahul
  • Amrit

Saabat Soorat means to keep your hair unshorn.  All Sikh Gurus have encouraged and asked their followers to keep their hair unshorn. This is evident from the fact that none of our Gurus cut their hair. We do not need any other evidence for this. So much so that even God has been visualised as having Saabat Soorat. [1] After the Vaisakhi of 1699, Saabat Soorat is now the patented or registered official outward appearance of Sikhs. No one can take it away from them. No one can change it. Unshorn hair is now an article of faith for Sikhs. However, it will be pertinent to note here that long uncut hair have nothing to do with the spiritual progress of a person. They are not antennas to gather signals of spirituality. At the most uncut hair might be a symptom of spiritual progress of a person, but in no way, it can cause spiritual advancement. It has been made clear Guru Grant Sahib time and again. [2] But at the same time uncut hair does have their own significance for Sikhs. It can be best explained by example of school dress. Just as the school dress does not help the students to be more intelligent in their studies, but still they are required to bear their school dresses to be recognised as students. Similarly, it is imperative upon Sikhs to maintain Saabat Soorat in order to be recognised as Sikhs. The word Sikh means a Student. A Sikh is a student in the School of Guru where he graduates to be a Gursikh. And just as there are many students who play truants and go to cinemas and other places instead of school, there are many Sikhs who do not follow even the basics principles of Sikhism even though they look like perfect Sikhs in their Saabat Soorat. So the argument that Sikhs can discard Saabat Soorat as it does not help them in their spiritual progress is fallacious. No school in this world will ask their students to shun the school uniform because some students in school uniform did not study properly. Saabat Soorat also fits in the overall framework of Sikh philosophy. Sikhism lays much stress on living in consonance with Nature or in the Hukam[3] of God. Cutting your hair is in a way disobeying the Hukam of God. Some people might retort back saying if cutting of hair is disobeying the Hukam of God then why do Sikhs cut their nails? This is a silly question raised only to embarrass and not to understand the argument. Sikhs like everyone else cut only the dead part of their nails and they also comb out the dead hair every day.

Khande Di Pahul is often wrongly called Khande Da Amrit. A sikh who has taken Khande Di Pahul is required to study, deliberate and practise the teachings enshrined in Gurbani and enjoy the eternal bliss or Amrit. May be this is the reason it has acquired the name of Khande Da Amrit. This does not mean that every Sikh who has taken Khande Di Pahul has been blessed with Amrit. Just as all students who enrol in a university pass out with different scores to their credit, similarly all Sikhs who have taken Khande Di Pahul have different level of spiritual achievement depending upon the hard work they put in. Khade Di Pahul is a formal process of initiation into Sikh religion. Initiation into Sikh religion has been in place right from the times of Guru Nanak. What this process was is a subject of history and does not fall within the purview of this topic. Suffice it to say here that Guru Gobind Singh has formalised this as Khande Di Pahul for all times to come. Probably he has done this as he knew there will be no human Guru for the Sikhs after him. Imagine the chaos if there were no such formal process of initiation into Sikhism. Even now we have different types of “Amirt” being administered by different Deras. Thanks to the foresight of our Guru, at least we have now the similar basic procedure. An initiated Sikh is required to adorn 5 Ks  (Kesh (hair), Kara (steel bracelet), Kachh (underwear), Kanga (comb), Kirpaan (sword)) and live his life as per the teachings enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib.

Amrit is often translated as nectar or holy water or something that helps you live forever. This is not the meaning of Amrit in Gurbani.[4] The word Amrit occurs hundreds of times in Guru Grnath Sahib. To put it in simple words it is the teachings enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. And those who follow these teachings are blessed with this Amrit. It will be wrong to say that Amrit is a special blessing only to the Sikhs from Guru Gobind Singh. Some people wrongly single out Guru Gobind Singh as the only giver of Amrit (Amrit Ke Daate) in prayer or Ardaas. All Gurus showered Amrit on Sikhs profusely. Shabad Guru is ripe with and full of the fragrance of Amrit and showers it on every one who ponders on it.[5] In the concluding verses of Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Arjan Dev Ji has made it clear that Guru Granth Sahib contains Amrit.[6] Our Gurus have made clear that there is only one Amrit in this world and to obtain that Amrit is the sole purpose of our life. However, don’t have to search for this Amrit anywhereoutside. This Armit is inside everyone and is found with the help of Guru. [7] Now a question might be raised here if Amrit is the teachings enshrined in Shabad Guru, and then is it not possible for everyone, a Sikh or a non-Sikh, to have this Amrit. My answer to this question is yes. But I would like to add that a person who has worked hard on Shabad Guru to obtain Amrit will always fight for the rights of the downtrodden; will always live a good moral life; will never believe in superstitions or rituals; will never disobey his Guru; will always live under the Hukam of God. This is precisely what 5 ks stand for.

Saabat Soorat – A Stamp

Unshorn hair is often described as stamp of Guru.[8] This explains a lot about Saabat Soorat. Take an example of a company. Any document must have the company stamp in order to be an authentic official document of that company. The stamp and the subject matter of the document are two separate entities and have their own significance. The stamp on a document is the proof of its authenticity and tells us who it belongs to. The stamp in itself is not the document not does it change whatever has been written in the document. But the moment the document is stamped we know who it belongs it and whatever has been written in the document can be judged based on the objectives laid down in the constitution of that company. In the same manner a person with Saabat Soorat is bearing a stamp of the Guru and everyone will recognize him/her as a Sikh and now whatever that person says of does will be judged on the basis the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib. Any document even though it is absolutely in accordance with the constitution and objectives of the company will require the stamp of that company to be recognized as the genuine document of that company. Similarly, a Sikh has to have the Saabat Soorat in order to be called and recognized as a Sikh of the Guru. A Sikh is a Sikh only if he/she is a Sikh. A Saabat Soorat Sikh can be questioned if he/she does not follow the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, but we can not question every Tom, Dick and Harry as to why they do not follow the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib. No company will own a document that does not have its seal and stamp. Our Gurus were great visionaries. They put their final seal on Guru Granth Sahib in such a manner that no one can alter or interpolate in it. In the same manner they have made Saabat Soorat as our official appearance. But for the introduction of the 5 ks there would have been chaotic situation in the Sikh world.

Some Silly Questions

 These days it is common even among Sikhs to question the logic of having 5ks. Unfortunately these misgivings also find place in some magazines devoted to revival of Sikhism. A recent example of it is an article published in the June-July 2004 issue of Sikh Bulletin. [9] It will be in place here to examine some of the questions raised in this article and also at some other places.

Q. God made human being in his own image. But those who ask Sikhs to adorn 5 Ks are creating a caste system (Amritdhari, Sehhdhari, Patit etc) in Sikhs and are destroying this image.

A. First of all Sikhism does not believe that God created human beings in his own image. Sikhism believes that the entire cosmos is the creation of God who permeates Its Creation. Amritdhari, Sehajdhari etc are not castes among Sikhs. These are only stages in the progress of a Sikh. Casteism is a specific characteristic of Indian Society and introduction of 5 ks was one of the many steps that our Guru took to eradicate this evil from our society. Who is creating divisions among society? Those who opt to maintain the natural appearance? Or those who opt to do some alterations?

Q There are no instructions regarding 5 ks in Guru Granth Sahib. Why should then Sikhs adorn 5 ks?

A On every page of Guru Granth Sahib there is advice to the Sikh to follow the instructions of his Guru. The 5 Ks are the instructions of our Guru. We must follow it. Let me rebound this question to answer it. Are there any instructions in Guru Granth Sahib to cut our hair? Then why should be cut our hair. Hair is part and parcel of our body. Just as we take care of other parts of our body, we should take care of our hair also.

Q Gurbani preaches truthful living and condemns Bhekh or outward appearance. Then why should Sikhs worry about their outward appearance?

A Absolutely correct. Our Gurus have taught us that truthful living is even higher than truth. But this has no connection with your outward appearance. Purity or perfection in life does no come with cutting your hair or by not cutting your hair. If we prepare a list of good persons, the one for those who trim or shave will not be longer than those who keep their hair unshorn. Physical existence will always have an outward appearance. It is the law of nature. You can not get rid of your outward appearance by shaving your hair. You can only change it. Appearance tends to become a garb or disguise or Bhekh when you change it. There is no logic in saying that a particular outward appearance is better discarded as it does not help us in being perfect. Besides here we are quoting Gurbani in the wrong context just to suit our purpose. If we extend this logic then we do not have to take a bath and we do not have to bow before Guru Granth Sahib to be a Sikh. Because Gurbani says that there is no point in bowing your head before God when your heart is on the wrong path.[8] Should we then conclude that we should stop bowing before Guru Granth Sahib. And Gurbani says that one does not have to take bath to be clean.[9] Should we stop taking a bath?

Q Guru Gobind Singh asked only those who joined his army to be Khalsas and follow instructions about 5 Ks.

A. This is absolutely wrong. There is no difference between a Sikh or Khalsa. Being a Khalsa is a characteristic of a Sikh. I would say that the words Sikh and Khalsa are synonyms in Sikhism.

Q Can those who follow only Guru Nanak discard 5 ks?

A There is no difference between Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. They preached and practised the same philosophy. If some one follows Guru Nanak with heart and soul, he/she will definitely follow Guru Gobind Singh. It is not at all possible to follow one Guru and disobey the other. If anybody thinks that he can follow Guru Nanak without following Guru Gobind Singh, he/she has not understood Guru Nanak at all.

Q There is no dress code in Sikhism. Then why do we have to put on 5 ks?

A 5Ks are not a dress. They can fit in any kind of dress. The only dress code for a Sikh is turban and underwear. These items fit in quite easily in any dress. A Sikh is not supposed to wear a Punjabi dress. Dress is a part of culture. Religion transcends cultural barriers.  A person can be a Sikh wearing a dress from any culture on this globe.

Q Guru Nanak refused to wear the sacred thread (Janeo) in his childhood. Five Ks are like Janeo. Why should Sikhs wear it?

A  This question displays total ignorance of the custom of Janeo and is perfect example of mixing oranges with apples in order to confuse. Couple of things about janeo will clear this confusion and will make it clear why Guru Nanak refused it. [10] Women can not wear Janeo. A Shudra can not wear Janeo. Brahman, Khatri and Vaish become eligible for Janeo at different ages of eight, eleventh and twelfth respectively. Janeo is a ritual celebrating the birth of the spiritual life of a child. Obviously the Brahmin gets it at an early age. Shudra and women never get it. Janeo for different castes is made from different material. Now it is for everyone to see if the comparison of 5 Ks with Janeo is in order or totally out of place.

A Fact of Life

It is a fact of life that there are Sikhs in this world who adorn all the 5 ks and look like perfect Sikhs. But none of their actions are as per the teachings of our Gurus. Some people say these people are a lesson for others to discard Saabat Soorat. This is a dangerous step. It is like throwing away the baby with the bath water. No company in this world has ever withdrawn its product for the reason that there are spurious products similar to their product in the market. There was no dearth of such Sikhs even during the times of our Gurus. The right step is to show to the world what real Sikhism is about while maintaining the Saabat Soorat. That is what the Sikhs did during the period of Gurus and that exactly is the need of the day. We must speak Sikhism to this world. We must communicate to the world as Sikhs. At the moment there is no communication between the world and the Sikhs. That is the reason there are confusions about Sikhs in the world. And this communication has to be in the authentic and official form. And remember Saabat Soorat is our only registered and patented appearance

Is Saabat Soorat Necessary To Be a Good Person.

NO. All good persons in this person are not necessarily Sikhs. All Sikhs are not good persons. It is very simple. Though some school do have good reputation, but all good students are not the monopoly of a single school. As a student we must learn from all those who have excelled in their studies irrespective of the school they studied in. This is what our Gurus taught us. That is why we have verses by persons other than our Gurus are included in Guru Granth Sahib. Outward appearance as I have said earlier is at best the symptom of good deeds and not a cause of it. As Sikhs we are required to love all people as all of us are children of the same God.

I would like to conclude this discussion with an example from sports. There are many good soccer players in this world. They play for different clubs or countries. Each club has it own unique uniform. All play the same game. What distinguishes them is their uniform. You cannot play for Real Madrid while putting on a Manchester United jersey. You may be very good soccer player, but you will be recognized as Real Madrid player only when you wear their trade mark costume. And at the same time you can not become a Real Madrid player just by wearing their jersey. You have to have the soccer skills and you have to register yourself with that club to earn your right to wear their jersey while in soccer field. In the same manner there are different religions in this world. They have different codes to be followed. Just as in soccer at the end the day what matters is your skills in field, here what matters is your good deeds.


1    ਤੇਰੇ ਬੰਕੇ ਲੋਇਣ ਦੰਤ ਰੀਸਾਲਾ ॥ ਸੋਹਣੇ ਨਕ ਜਿਨ ਲੰਮੜੇ ਵਾਲਾ ॥  ( Page 567 )

(You got beautiful eyes and lovely teeth. You have long hair and beautiful nose)      

        However these are only poetic expression indicating preference of our Gurus for Saabat Soorat. This does not mean that God in Sikhism has a special appearance. God in Sikhism does not have any particular colour, shape or appearance.

2   ਕਬੀਰ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਇਕ ਸਿਉ ਕੀਏ ਆਨ ਦੁਬਿਧਾ ਜਾਇ ॥ ਭਾਵੈ ਲਾਂਬੇ ਕੇਸ ਕਰੁ ਭਾਵੈ ਘਰਰਿ ਮੁਡਾਇ ॥ (Page 1365)

(You may have long hair or a bald head. What matters is your faith in one God that demolishes duality in your life)

  • Every thing in this world is under the Hukam of God. In order to be one with God it is imperative to understand and live in this Hukam. It has been said in Jap Ji Sahib which Sikhs recite every morning.

ਹੁਕਮੈ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਸਭੁ ਕੋ ਬਾਹਰਿ ਹੁਕਮ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਹੁਕਮੈ ਜੇ ਬੁਝੈ ਤ ਹਉਮੈ ਕਹੈ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥੨॥ (Page 1)

(Everything in this cosmos is happening as per God’s Hukam. Those who annihilate their ego can understand this Hukam, the laws operating this cosmos)

  • The word Amrit occurs many times in Guru Granth Sahib. Some examples to illustrate the meaning of Amrit will be relevant here.

ਗੁਰ ਕਾ ਸਬਦੁ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਰਸੁ ਖਾਇਣ ॥ (Page 962)

(To understand the knowledge of Guru is like enjoying delicious Amrit)

ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਬਚਨ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਕੀ ਬਾਣੀ ਜੋ ਬੋਲੈ ਸੋ ਮੁਖਿ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਪਾਵੈ ॥੨॥ (Page 494)

(The words of Guru are Amrit. The one who reads them enjoys this ambrosial nector)

5   ਗੁਰ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਭਿੰਨੀ ਦੇਹੁਰੀ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਬੁਰਕੇ ਰਾਮ ਰਾਜੇ ॥ ਜਿਨਾ ਗੁਰਬਾਣੀ ਮਨਿ ਭਾਈਆ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤਿ ਛਕਿ ਛਕੇ ॥  (Page 449)

(Guru (Knowledge) is drenched and fragrant with Amrit. Those who fall in love with words of Guru drink this Amrit)

6  ਥਾਲ ਵਿਚਿ ਤਿੰਨਿ ਵਸਤੂ ਪਈਓ ਸਤੁ ਸੰਤੋਖੁ ਵੀਚਾਰੋ ॥ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਨਾਮੁ ਠਾਕੁਰ ਕਾ ਪਇਓ ਜਿਸ ਕਾ ਸਭਸੁ ਅਧਾਰੋ ॥ ਜੇ ਕੋ ਖਾਵੈ ਜੇ ਕੋ ਭੁੰਚੈ ਤਿਸ ਕਾ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ ॥ ਏਹ ਵਸਤੁ ਤਜੀ ਨਹ ਜਾਈ ਨਿਤ ਨਿਤ ਰਖੁ ਉਰਿ ਧਾਰੋ ॥ ਤਮ ਸੰਸਾਰੁ ਚਰਨ ਲਗਿ ਤਰੀਐ ਸਭੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਪਸਾਰੋ ॥੧॥ {Page 1429}

(GGS is like a plate with three foods, truth, contentment and contemplation. It has the ambrosial nectar in it and the one who imbibes the knowledge contained in it gets the utmost satisfaction. This is not something to be ignored. Keep it close to your heart. It helps you see though the darkness of ignorance)

7   ਨਾਨਕ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਏਕੁ ਹੈ ਦੂਜਾ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਨਾਹਿ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਮਨੈ ਮਾਹਿ ਪਾਈਐ ਗੁਰ ਪਰਸਾਦਿ ॥

(Page 1238)

( Nanak says there is one and one only Amrith which is in our mind and can be found with help of Guru)

ਜਿਸੁ ਜਲ ਨਿਧਿ ਕਾਰਣਿ ਤੁਮ ਜਗਿ ਆਏ ਸੋ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਗੁਰ ਪਾਹੀ ਜੀਉ ॥ ਛੋਡਹੁ ਵੇਸੁ ਭੇਖ ਚਤੁਰਾਈ ਦੁਬਿਧਾ ਇਹੁ ਫਲੁ ਨਾਹੀ ਜੀਉ ॥੧॥ (Page 598)

(The treasure of Amrit, which is the purpose of your life, is with the Guru. Renounce the disguise and cleverness. You cant achieve this by being ambivalent.)

8    Guru Gobind Singh has used this term for unshorn hair in his Hukamnama to the Sangat of Kabal.

9    The article is “Who Am I” by Bawa Singh Jagdev. Sikh Bulletin refused to publish the rebuttal by this author.

10   ਸੀਸਿ ਨਿਵਾਇਐ ਕਿਆ ਥੀਐ ਜਾ ਰਿਦੈ ਕੁਸੁਧੇ ਜਾਹਿ ॥੧॥ (Page 470)

(Bowing your head in respect means nothing if you don’t have respect in your mind)

11    ਸੂਚੇ ਏਹਿ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਹਿ ਬਹਨਿ ਜਿ ਪਿੰਡਾ ਧੋਇ ॥ ਸੂਚੇ ਸੇਈ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਜਿਨ ਮਨਿ ਵਸਿਆ ਸੋਇ ॥੨॥ (Page 472)

(Those who have wash their bodies clean are not pure and pious. Only those who love God from their hear are pure and pious)

Note: This was written on 5/10/2004 and published in Sikh Review.

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