FIVE SYMBOLS, a set of five distinctive features or elements of personal appearance or apparel that set off Sikhs from the followers of any other religious faith. Any study of religious symbols involves a dual task: first, to explain the meaning of symbols not only in terms of their original connotations but also on the basis of contemporary categories of understanding; secondly, to discriminate between genuine symbolism and any post hoc interpretations which later times may have imposed on things originally having little symbolic relevance.

         A symbol is generally defined as something that stands for, represents or denotes something else, especially a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as being an idea, quality or condition. Words, phrases and sentences, for instance, represent various beings, ideas, qualities or conditions. Like any other religion, Sikhism also incorporates in its thought and practice a variety of symbols. Most of the philosophical terms such as māyā, kāl, mukti, anhad nād, are used in Sikhism in common with other religions of Indian origin; but there are others especially modified or coined by the Gurūs precisely to mark their new connotations. Of the modified verbal symbols the most significant is Gurū Nānak's Ik Oaṅkār. Ultimate Reality was the mystic monosyllable Om, which appeared first in the Upaniṣads as the object of profound religious meditation. In later times Om came to represent the Hindu triad, Brahmā, Viṣṇū and Śiva. By Gurū Nānak's time the more popular use of the term which equated the three mythical gods with their Creator, the Supreme One, had gained ground. Gurū Nānak modifed the term by prefixing the figure "1" to Oṅkār to stress the unicity of the Ultimate Reality. This made Sikhism a strictly monotheistic creed. Examples of symbolic terms originally coined or introduced by the Gurūs are nām, the manifest equivalent of the Transcendent One; hukam standing for Divine Will or Divine Law; nadar meaning Divine grace : Akāl, the Timeless One, i.e. God; Sarb Loh, lit. all-steel, representing the All-Powerful God. Another original term in Sikhism is Vāhigurū (lit. Hail! the Enlightener who dispels Darkness) for God. As the figures of Om and swāstika symbolize Hinduism, the cresent and the numerals 786 denote Islam, and the cross signifies Christianity, there are symbols which define and individuate Sikhism. There are symbols peculiar to the Sikhs and their use gives them their identity and marks them off as a distinct people. For example, their mūl mantra, in abbreviated form, the statement of their fundamental creed is used as a preamble to their religious writings. It is set down at the top of their private correspondence as well. It is also superimposed as a crest on their flag. Another form of the crest is a composite figure of khaṇḍā (double-edged sword), a chakra (steel quoit) and two swords joined close together at the bottom symbolizing strength and sovereignty of the Khālsā. The Sikh flag, reverently called nishān sāhib (sāhib, added as an honorific) comprising a high flying penant, yellow, saffron or dark blue in colour, with a khaṇḍā atop its flagpost, is commonly seen in the compound of a gurdwārā or Sikh place of worship. The flag, the crest and the war cry Sat Srī Akāl (True is the Exalted Timeless One) have served the Khālsā to maintain its high morale and esprit de corps through the ups and downs of its history. A penant is defined as an emblem of victory but the form of salutation current among the Khālsā--- Vāhigurū Jī Kā Khālsā, Vāhigurū Jī Kī fateh --- constantly reminds them that lest a triumph fill them with vanity, victory is always from God. Another popular and distinctive form of salutation is Sat Srī Akāl.

         Forms of salutation help to recognize the Sikhs as individuals and also as a community formed around the religion called Sikhism. But the most prominent distinguishing marks of the Sikhs, especially of the members of the Khālsā brotherhood, are what are commonly called the pañj kakārs, from each of the five articles beginning with the letter "k". The initiation ceremony called amrit sañchār, repeating the original ceremony that canonized the order of the Khālsā on the Baisākhī day of AD 1699, is itself symbolic of imparting a new immortal life to the initiates. During the ceremony every initiate into the order is enjoined upon to adopt and never to part from his person five symbolic physical objects --- kes (unshorn hair), kaṅghā (a comb), kirpān (sword), kaṛā (a steel bracelet) and kachchhā or kachhahirā (a pair of specially designed shorts) --- all names beginning with the phoneme 'k' and hence collectively called pañj kakār (pañj = five; kakār = symbols). The numeral pañj (five) itself has a symbolic significance in Sikh usage. Physical bodies, it is believed, are made of five elements; there are five khaṇḍs (regions or stages) in the ascent to the point of realization of the highest spiritual truth; the traditional village council, pañchāyat, consists of five members in the popular belief that where five pañches have assembled together (for the sake of administering justice), there God Himself is present; it is pañj piāre (the Five Elect) who prepared and administered amrit (the holy initiatory water) to novitiates; five bāṇīs (scriptural texts) are recited as amrit is being prepared; the Sikhs own five takhts as the seats of the highest religious authority and legislation; and traditionally for the daily religious devotions a regimen of five bāṇīs is laid down. Bhāī Gurdās (d.1636), records : As one Sikh is sufficient to announce his identity, two of them make up the holy congregation. Among five of them God himself is present (iku sikhu dui sādh saṅgu pañjīṅ paramesaru), Vārāṅ, XIII.19.

         The five k's may be regarded as parts of the uniform of the Khālsā which is defined as Akāl kī Fauj, God's own army, created to fulfil the divinely ordained mission of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, viz. dharam chalāvan, sant ubāran dusṭ sabhan ko mūl upāran --- to uphold dharma, protect the saintly and uproot the wicked (Bachitra Nāṭak, 6). There is nothing esoteric or mystic about the five k's. They were simply chosen to serve as aids to the preservation of the corporate life of the Panth. It, however, seems to be essential for a social symbol to contain something of the nature of an archetypal kernel so that it may appeal rationally as well as emotively to the collective consciouness of the community and thereby acquire wide acceptance and emotional sway over the minds of men.

         Kes or the unshorn hair imprint on the individual the investiture of the spiritual man exemplified by rishis or sages of yore, and even of God Himself (whose epithet keshava means one who carries long tresses, although, it must be remembered, the God of Sikhism is Formless and is occasionally personalized only for the sake of explanation of the attributes by which He is remembered). They also signify manliness, virility, courage and dignity, and therefore signify qualities both of a sant (saint) and a sipāhī (soldier) and a life both of bhakti (spiritual devotion) and shakti, i.e. strength of conviction, of courage, and of fortitude.

         The vow to leave the hair untrimmed also signifies a disavowal of the cultic path of renunciation and asceticism marked among the practitioners by closely cropped hair or by keeping them matted.

         Long-winded explanations on scientific grounds of the advantages of full-grown hair sometimes advanced are really unnecessary. It is enough to say that the Sikhs keep their hair untrimmed and uncut first because it is one of their religious vows and secondly because it is a clear mark of identification. Gurū Nānak said, "if you see a Sikh of the Gurū, bow low and fall at his feet" (GG. 763). Rahitnāmās enjoin upon every Sikh to entertain and assist others. A Sikh will be the easiest to know from his long hair.

         Kaṅghā (the comb required to keep the hair tidy) symbolizes cleanliness. As a vestural symbol, it appears to repudiate the practice of Tantric yogis, who keep their hair matted (jaṭā) as their outward denominational symbol.

         Kirpān (the sword) signifies valour. It seems to represent what has been called "the sword of God in heavenly regions" (Isaiah, XXXIV, 5). For Gurū Gobind Siṅgh the sword was the emblem of Divine Energy for the destruction of the evil and protection of the good. Also called bhagautī (bhagvatī or the goddess Durgā, slayer of the demons) which in the Sikh vocabulary stands for the sword as well as for the Almighty. It is invoked at the very beginning of ardās, supplicatory prayer of the Sikhs.

         The word kirpān seems to have been compounded from kirpā (kṛpā or, compassion) and ān (honour, dignity). Hence as a symbolic weapon it shall only be wielded in compassion (to protect the oppressed) and for upholding righteousness and human dignity. It stands, therefore, for the heroic affirmation of honour and valour for the vindication of ethical principles.

         Kaṛā (the steel bangle) was adopted as a pragmatic accessory to kirpān. A set of strong steel bangles used to be worn by warriors as protective armour over the arm that wielded the sword. But besides the symbolism of self-defence that its pragmatic value seems to indicate, it has a deeper symbolic significance. As a circle it signifies perfection, without beginning, without end. Traditionally, a circle also represents dharma, the Supreme Law, and Divine justice. It also symbolizes restraint and control. The kaṛā, therefore, symbolizes for the Sikhs a just and lawful life of self-discipline (rahit) and self-control (sañjam) .

         Kachchh or Kachhahirā (pair of shorts) is a sartorial symbol signifying manly control. It contradicts the puritanical vows of chastity and celibacy (of sannyāsa). At the pragmatic level, its sartorial design makes for greater agility and easy movements, thereby ensuring ready preparedness, tayyār bar tayyār, (readiness beyond ordinary readiness).

         Of these five symbols, primacy unquestionably belongs to kes. It is the Sikhs' kes which rescued them from a critical situation. Unwarily, they had succumbed to a process of backsliding. The decline had in fact set in during the days of Sikh power. The stern religious discipline which had sustained the Sikhs through a period of difficulty and privation gave way to a life of luxury and plenty. They lost what, following Ibn Khaldūn, may be described as their "desert qualities." A second --- and even more sinister --- debilitating factor was the Brāhmaṇical ritual and practice which had gained ascendancy as an adjunct of regal pomp and ceremony. These now took a firmer hold over the Sikh mind. In this way, Sikh faith became garbled beyond recognition. The teachings of the Gurūs which had supplied Sikhism its potent principle of re-creation and consolidation were obscured by the rising tide of conservatism. It was fast losing its characteristic vigour and its votaries were relapsing into beliefs and customs which the founding Gurūs had clearly rejected. Absorption into ceremonial Hinduism indicated the course inevitably set for the Sikhs. This was the critical challenge they faced in the years following the British occupation of the Punjab.

         Such had been the dereliction of the faith that several British observers prognosticated dismally for it. Some thought it was already dead; others felt it was irretrievably due for extinction. The following excerpt from the Punjab Administration Report for 1851-52 --- a bare two years after the annexation of the Punjab --- will illustrate :

        The Sikh faith and ecclesiastical polity is rapidly going where the Sikh political ascendancy has already gone. Of the two elements in the old Khalsa, namely, the followers of Nanuck, the first prophet, and the followers of Guru Govind Singh, the second great religious leader, the former will hold their ground, and the latter will lose it. The Sikhs of Nanuck, a comparatively small body of peaceful habits and old family, will perhaps cling to the faith of their fathers; but the Sikhs of Govind [Singh] who are of more recent origin, who are more specially styled the Singhs or "lions" and who embraced the faith as being the religion of warfare and conquest, no longer regard the Khalsa now that the prestige has departed from it. These men joined in thousands, and they now desert in equal numbers. They rejoin the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came, and they bring up their children as Hindus. The sacred tank at Umritsar is less thronged than formerly, and the attendance at the annual festivals is diminishing yearly. The initiatory ceremony for adult persons is now rarely performed.


         It was the late nineteenth century renaissance, the Siṅgh Sabhā movement, which halted this relapse into Hinduism by, besides preaching Sikh religious doctrine, laying stress on the initiatory rite of Khaṇḍe dī Pāhul and meticulous observation of the mandatory pañj kakār, the Five Symbols.

         Along with kes, the turban became a crucial symbol, too. Sikhs cherish the greatest respect for it. They must not cut or shingle their hair and they must keep their heads covered with turbans. It may be observed how lovingly, painstakingly, proudly and colourfully they adorn their heads with neatly-tied crown like turbans. As Sikh history testifies, depilatory apostasy is the greatest sin among them. It is for this reason that they introduced into their regular petitionary prayer, they call ardās, words to this effect : Lord preserve our faith until our last breath and until the last hair on our bodies.

         These symbols, being the gift of the Gurū, also possess a sacramental status. They are held dear as keepsakes of the Tenth Gurū who had completely identified himself with his Khālsā. A keepsake essentially symbolizes a relationship of love. These symbols, therefore, also signify the Sikhs' love for their Gurū as also his for them.


  1. Sher Singh, ed., Thoughts on Symbols in Sikhism. Lahore, 1927
  2. Kapur Siṅgh, Parāśarapraśana. Amritsar, 1989
  3. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990
  4. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970
  5. Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Siṅgh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978
  6. Sikh Rahit Maryādā. Amritsar, 1975
  7. Padam, Piārā Siṅgh, Rahitnāme. Patiala, 1974

Jaswant Siṅgh Nekī