For children: Sikhs, the turbaned people of India
India is one of the most intensely religious areas in the world. This might explain why in recent weeks there have been outbursts of religious tension between Muslims and Hindus in and around the city of Bombay.Skip to next paragraph
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Fierce clashes have also erupted between troops of the Indian government and supporters of the Sikh religion in that part of northern India known as the Punjab. This vast country, which has the largest number of people on earth after China, has many claims to religious fame.
India, for instance, was the birthplace of Buddhism. This Oriental religion, which never really took hold in India, claims about 250 million followers in the world.
India is also the motherland of Hinduism. As a world religion it ranks third with 457 million followers after Christianity (over 1 billion) and Islam (548 million).
Although only 11 percent of India's 850 million are Muslims, that is to say followers of the Islamic religion, that still makes India the country with the third largest Muslim population in the world. Only Indonesia and Bangladesh have more Muslims.
Although there are many cases of Muslims and Hindus living peacefully together in Indian villages, their religious beliefs and social customs are quite distinct.
The Muslim religion was introduced to India early in the 16th century by the Mogul emperors. It was a grieving Mogul emperor, for instance, who built the magnificent Taj Mahal temple in memory of his wife. The Mogul empire collapsed at the end of the 18th century when the Hindus, who were of Aryan background, seized power.
Nowhere, perhaps, is the difference between the two religions more startlingly different than in their views of God.
Muslims, for instance, are much closer to Christians than Hindus in their religious outlook in the sense that Muslims are monotheists. That word comes from mono (meaning one) and theism which is taken from the Greek word theos, meaning god. The Muslims, therefore, believe in only one God, just like the Christians and the Jews. The Muslim religion does not permit idols or idolatry, so mosques, which is what Muslims call their places of worship, are completely free of statues or religious paintings.
Only abstract designs (that is, designs that show no material objects or human forms) are permitted.
A Hindu temple is just the opposite - a lively place filled with paintings and art objects depicting gods and goddesses as well as animal life. This is because to the Hindu the creator takes many forms and can be expressed in water, fire, the planets, and the stars. The Hindu religion, therefore, is polytheistic , which means believing in many gods. The religion has more than 3 million divinities or gods.
A new religion, known as the Sikh religion, tried to bring together elements of both Hinduism and the Muslim religion. Although the Sikhs are actually an offshoot of Hinduism - they were founded by a Hindu guru (spiritual leader or teacher) - they follow the Muslim practice of worshiping only one God. This guru tried to bring the two religions together by saying ''There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. There is one God, the supreme Truth.''
Every Sikh carries the name Singh which means Lion, but not every Singh in India happens to be a Sikh. Devout Sikhs do not smoke or drink and they are required to follow the law of the five K's. They must let their beards and hair grow long (kesh), hence the reason for the turban which keeps the long hair in place; they must fix a steel comb (khanga) in their uncut hair; they must wear shorts (kucha) so they can have the mobility of a warrior; carry a steel bangle (kara) on their right wrist; and always go around with a sword (kirpan), which for practical purposes often comes in miniature form and might even be made of plastic.
Although Sikhs represent only about 2 percent of India's total population, their hardworking habits and military spirit have given them an influence in the country out of all proportion to their numbers.
They take much of the credit for making the Punjab the most prosperous area in India and the region which produces most of the country's food. Nearly half of all the medals won by the Indian Army in World Wars I and II were awarded to Sikhs.
Because of their achievements, Sikhs feel they deserve more power and recognition both in their own state of Punjab, where most of them come from, as well as in India as a whole.
In the last two years Sikhs have been protesting for a greater say in their country, but when these demands were not met more extreme Sikhs ready to commit violence took over. The result has been armed clashes between these extremists, known as Sikh militants, and the Indian Army.
Many of these more warlike Sikhs took refuge in their most famous temple - the Golden Temple at Amritsar in the Punjab. When there had been religious trouble in the past, the temple was left alone because it was viewed as a holy shrine.
The reason the Indian Army changed its mind and attacked the temple was because it had been turned into an armed fortress.
One reason the Indian government took the risk of attacking the temple was because it felt that too many weapons were being stored there. Another reason was the impression that many moderate Sikhs did not agree with the tactics of the extremists and were glad for a showdown that would put an end to the violence.
The question now remains whether moderate Sikhs are relieved that the Indian government stepped in to stop the violence, or whether in attacking the holiest of holy shrines to the Sikh religion, the government has forced moderates to side with the more extremist Sikhs in defense of their religion.