How Did Sikhism Begin?
Sikhism, known as Sikhi in Punjabi, began in the late 15th century, during the life of Guru Nanak, who lived from 1469 until 1539. The spirit of God moved from Guru Nanak through his nine successors. After the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, re-joined with God in 1708, the Sikh scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, took on the status of living guru for the Sikhs.
In Sultanpur and across all of Northern India, Guru Nanak saw a society deeply divided between hindus and muslims. The muslims were a relatively new arrival in Punjab - they first started coming in about 1000 AD - eventually they started converting the local hindu population to Islam through the use of force and enslavement of women and children.
An integral part of muslim society was slavery - the nobles and royals kept domestic slaves - both men and women - these slaves were called ghulams. The Sufis also played a huge role in the conversion of people to Islam. Despite the ideal norm of equality in Islam, the muslim society was degraded into many many social divisions. The hindu society was no better either - and the ideal norm was of social differentiation.
In the 11th century, Al-Biruni, a famous Persian mathematician who also proposed a method to calculate the circumference of the earth, described in detail the division of the hindu society. There were at least 36 social groups and except for the higher caste brahmins and khatris, the rest lived in abject poverty. The condition of the untouchables (dalits) was outright inhuman. Women fared no better either; child marriage was rampant, women were regarded as inferior to men and widows in particular were treated with contempt.
The brahmins advocated meaningless rituals as a tool to further oppress the common people. These social norms remained unchanged even in the 15th century. Now add the fact that the hindus and muslims were always at odds with each other, we begin to get a sense of the social order - except for a chosen few, everyone lacked the basic human rights of equality, freedom and justice.
Any deviation from these social norms, either by a muslim or by a hindu, was not tolerable and punishable by law. Living in Sultanpur amidst such a repressive social order, Guru Nanak at the age of 30, proclaimed "There is no hindu and there is no musalmaan" and in this one sentence broke away from the norms of the prevailing society. In very simple terms Guru Nanak asserted that all humans were equal, entitled to a live a life with dignity. Everyone was the child of one God.
Guru Nanak saw a society deeply divided between hindus and muslims.
As a result, even today, Sikhs believe that all are equal in God's eyes. A Sikh selflessly prays daily for 'the good of all'. At the centre of Sikh teaching about equality is the langar (kitchen). Every gurdwara has a langar where all people are welcome to a free meal regardless of their gender, colour or religion. There are no discrimination or rituals observed in the langar and everyone eats together. Men and women are equal and share the same rights, women are encouraged and can lead in any aspect of Sikhism.