Death Beliefs of Sikhs

Sikhs believe that the material world is transient.
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In Sikhism, death is understood as a natural part of life. When a virtuous person dies, it is believed he or she will enter into union with God. Although Sikhs believe in the transmigration of the soul, they also believe that the human form is the last incarnation before one experiences liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. This liberation occurs to those who have lived their life in accordance with God.

1 The Soul and Reincarnation

Like in Hinduism, Sikhism entertains a strong belief in reincarnation, the transmigration of the soul from one body to the next. The circumstances a soul is born into is dependent on the deeds and virtues of the individual in his or her past life. The accumulation of good merit, or good karma, leads to a closer relationship with God and therefore a more promising rebirth. Sikhs believe that a person can only be relinquished from the cycle of life, death and rebirth once he or she in a human form.

2 Funeral Ceremonies

Because the body is considered to be nothing more than a vessel for the soul, the physical body holds no great significance in Sikh funeral ceremonies. Cremation is the preferred method of disposal, but if that is not an option burial and submergence at sea are also considered acceptable. The first part of the ceremony involves ritual purification and the bathing of the body. Then, at the cremation grounds, hymns of detachment are recited to assist the mourning relatives in letting go of the deceased. Excessive crying is discouraged during the funeral, as it is believed that the soul’s union with God is an honorable part of the human religious experience.

3 The Ultimate Sleep

A commonly referenced Sikh metaphor for understanding death is the experience of sleep. When a person resides into sleep at the end of a long day, he is tired, yet he wakes up fresh and ready for the dawn of the new sun. Similarly, Sikhs believe that when a person has tired from a long life, death takes him away only to reproduce him in a new and fresh life. For this reason the Kirtan Sohila, the evening lullaby sung by many Sikhs before going to sleep, is sung at the closure of a Sikh funeral.

4 Death and Impermanence

It is not common practice to put up any kind of monument, memorial or headstone to commemorate the death of a Sikh. The reasoning for this is twofold: First, Sikhs believe in placing value on the good life lived by a person rather than the trauma of his or her death; and second, material existence is considered to be transient is Sikh cosmology. A hymn by Guru Tegh Bahadur that is often read at Sikh funerals states, “Why believe that the mortal body is permanent? It passes away like a dream in the night, like the shadow of the clouds. Those who realize that the world is unreal seek protection in God.”

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.