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Altaf Qadri, Associated Press
Devotees sit in front of the illuminated Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine on the occasion of Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year, in Amritsar, India, Tuesday.

When we heard of the killings at the Sikh temple (or "gurdwara") in Oak Creek, Wis., this past Sunday, we were reminded of the murder of Balbir Singh on Sept. 15, 2001, in Mesa, Ariz.

A gunman killed Singh, the owner of a gas station there, as revenge for the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center that had occurred only days before.

A murderous assault on innocent Muslims would have been immoral and misguided enough, of course. But Balbir Singh was a Sikh, not a Muslim. Islam and Sikhism are entirely distinct religions.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that was founded on the Indian subcontinent during the 15th century. Today, it constitutes the majority religious belief in the northwest Indian state of Punjab and has somewhere between 16 million and 30 million adherents worldwide, most of them of Punjabi origin.

Sikhs venerate a series of 10 "gurus" who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. (The Hindi term "sikh," pronounced like "sick," means "disciple" or "learner"; the Sanskrit word "guru" means "grave man" or "venerable man.")

The first of the gurus of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (d. 1539 A.D.), preached loving devotion (in Sanskrit, "bhakti") to God, whom he conceived as utterly without physical form, and encouraged his disciples to meditate on the divine name — which is, in a sense, the only way through which God can be perceived.

Guru Ram Das (d. 1581) founded a city in India that has since come to be known as Amritsar, which is regarded as the sacred center of the Sikh faith. The spectacular "Harmandir" or "Temple of God," also known as the "Darbar Sahib" or "Sanctuary of the Lord" and, more commonly in English, as "the Golden Temple," is situated in Amritsar, where it is the main object of Sikh pilgrimage.

Guru Arjan (d. 1606) created the Sikh holy book, often called the "Adi Granth," by compiling the sacred poetry of the various gurus and of certain medieval and early modern poet-singers such as the great Kabir (d. 1518). It is filled with hymns of praise to the indescribable God and with poetic reflections on the path to salvation.

Sikhism teaches, much as Hinduism does, that reality is veiled by "maya" or illusion, and, like Hindus, Sikhs believe in a cycle of multiple births and rebirths. "Dharma," or righteousness, is the key to spiritual advancement.

Sikhs can often be recognized today by their names — Sikh men traditionally take the name "Singh," meaning "lion," while women take the name "Kaur," meaning "princess" — as well as by Sikh males' characteristic turbans and beards.

Those turbans and beards probably account for their being confused with Muslims. But they're definitely not followers of Muhammad.

Indeed, Guru Tegh Bahadur (d. 1675) is considered a martyr by Sikh believers because, it is said, he was executed for refusing to convert to Islam.

With the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, the line of Sikh gurus came to an end. In much the same way that living prophetic authority in Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Islam gave way to the authority of written canonical scripture, it is reported that he himself announced that, from henceforth, authority would rest with the community as a whole, in reliance upon the text of the Adi Granth.

It was he who ordained beards, turbans and other distinctive items of dress and prescribed the taking of characteristic names, probably in order to preserve Sikh distinctiveness in the Muslim-dominated India of the Mughal Dynasty.

The Adi Granth is treated today almost as if it were a divine person. It is itself, Guru Gobind Singh taught, the guru. It is consulted for advice, and children's names are often determined by opening the book and selecting a name beginning with the same letter that appears first on the left-hand page.

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The book sits in a place of honor on a raised platform in the temple or "gurdwara," draped in garlands of flowers and, each night, covered with a cloth. Devout Sikhs place food offerings before it, and its passages are regularly sung and recited. It provides a tangible focus for devotion in a faith whose concept of God is rather austere and definitely incorporeal and immaterial.

Sikhism has been present in North America since at least the early 20th century and has a significant headquarters in Los Angeles.

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