Secondary: Festivals of World Religions
The Sikh festival of Vaisakhi (or Baisakhi)
By Caroline Donne
Date varies from year to year - please check the REonline Festivals Calendar.
- Vaisakhi is a new year festival in the Sikh calendar and recalls the institution of the ‘Khalsa’. The story originates in 1699, after a long period of Sikh persecution. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last human Guru (the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is considered to be the last Guru), called together all the Sikhs and, as the story shows, instituted a group of five men known as the Khalsa who would be willing to dedicate themselves to God, to defend their faith, and to care for the poor and the helpless.
- From this time onwards, men and women from as young as 16 or 18 have been initiated into the Khalsa as a sign of their commitment to follow the Sikh way of life.
- On Vaisakhi people gather in gurdwaras (temples) and there is a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. A new Sikh flag is put in place and the flag pole washed. There are shared meals and celebrations. Very often people are initiated into the Khalsa on this day.
- If possible, find pictures of some of the five Ks – the five symbols of those who have dedicated themselves to the Sikh way of life. These are: uncut hair (kesh); the hair comb used to keep the hair clean and neat (kanga); a steel wrist-band which, through its unbroken circle, reminds Sikhs that God is one (kara); the sword, which symbolizes the willingness to defend the faith and the poor and helpless (kirpan); and short trousers (kacha). You might also like to mention the Sikh turban, which is not one of the five Ks but is used to keep the uncut hair (kesh) tidy. This is a good opportunity to invite a Sikh parent or a representative from the Sikh community along to show the five Ks and to talk about the festival.
- On a board you could put some of the key words from today's assembly, such as devotion, Guru, Sikh, etc.
- A picture of the Sikh flag.
- Introduce the theme of devotion. What are the students devoted to? Sports teams, bands, personal fitness? How do we show our devotion to things? Wearing football scarves; downloading the music of the bands we like; going to church or to the temple. Explain that today’s assembly is about a group of people who showed their devotion to God in an amazing way. Explain that the story is important for Sikhs who celebrate a festival known as Vaisakhi at this time.
The story comes from India. It happened over 300 years ago at a time when life was difficult for Sikhs. They had been under attack for many years and consequently poverty was widespread.
The Sikh leader was called Guru Gobind Singh. He decided things had to change, and so, on the spring festival of Vaisakhi, he called the Sikhs to join him. There was a huge crowd, over 20,000 people. Guru Gobind Singh stood outside his tent and called out: ‘I need a Sikh who is willing to die for God and for the Guru.’
His words were passed through the crowd. Everyone was amazed. Who was devoted enough to give up their life? Twice more the Guru called out to the crowd and asked the question. Then one man came forward. The Guru took the man into his tent. After a while the Guru came out by himself. But in his hand was a sword covered in blood! The crowd gasped. Then the Guru asked again. ‘Who is willing to die for God and the Guru?’ Surely no one else would come forward.
What about that sword with blood on the blade? But then another man stepped forward and went into the tent with the Guru. Once again the Guru came out of the tent alone, with blood on his sword. Then amazingly, another man stepped forward and went into the tent, and then another. Four brave and devoted men – and each time the Guru stepped out of the tent alone, with his sword in his hand.
Then a fifth man stepped forward and went into the tent with the Guru. How many men must die, the crowd wondered. But this time the Guru came out of the tent, with his sword, and behind him were the five men. They were still alive!
‘This was a test’, the Guru explained, ‘to see who was brave enough and willing to give up everything to show how much they were devoted to God.’ The Guru called the five men the ‘Panje Pyare’, the beloved ones. They were to become the first members of a group called the Khalsa, which would defend the Sikh faith and care for the poor and helpless, whoever they were and whatever they believed.
Then the Guru made a mixture of sugar and water called ‘amrit’. He asked the beloved ones to give him some of the amrit, to show that although he was the Guru all people were equal in God’s eyes. That day amrit was given to people in the crowd who said that they believed in one God, and that all people were equal. They were given new last names too, to show that they now belonged to one big family – women were given the name Kaur, which means ‘princess’, and men were given the name Singh, which means ‘lion’.
From that time onwards any man or woman, or boy or girl, who shows that they want to follow the Sikh way of life, takes part in a special ceremony which is often celebrated at this time. They, too, join the Khalsa and they make five important promises:
1 To wear five signs or symbols of the faith (see the five Ks above).
2 To follow the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and the holy book called the Guru Granth Sahib.
3 To help people in need.
4 To give up alcohol and tobacco and to be faithful to their husbands or wives.
5 To work hard and to give to charity.
Stress that the point of the festival is not that the five wanted to die for their beliefs, but that Sikhs wish to serve God and people in a peaceful and helpful way.
Focus on the themes
Think again about what you are devoted to. Is it so important to you that you would give up everything for it? Is it worth being devoted to? Will it bring happiness? Will it last? Will it help people?
Time for reflection
Invite the students to take part in a time of quiet and to think about what they have heard. Use music to help the reflection. You could go on to say the following words, which are adapted from those said by the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan:
‘Not even the scorching wind touches him who takes refuge in the Lord.
He throws his protective ring around us so that no suffering can overpower us.
How fortunate we are that God is our support.’