Why Do the Sikhs Have Unshorn Hair?

A Sikh can be readily identified in any gathering as a Sikh by virtue of his turbaned appearance. But the turban is really there to hold the unshorn hair in place, so the question naturally arises: Why do the Sikhs keep their hair unshorn? The fact that they were supposed to do so when the khalsa was constituted is merely a statement of fact and does not amount to an explanation.

No less than five explanations have been offered. According to one explanation the reason they were asked to keep their hair unshorn was in order to make them readily identifiable. In a crisis people tend to conceal their identity and the Khalsa was founded in critical times. For instance, when the Romans came looking for Jesus even his famous disciple Peter thought it wise to feign ignorance. If, however, one’s identity cannot be readily concealed, then it is difficult to cop out. Some have therefore argued that in the troubled times in which Sikhism arose, people would often conceal their identity to avoid having to face up to the responsibility which came from being a Sikh. The idea then was to make the Sikh so readily identifiable that it would not be possible for him to disown his identity. Once he could not disown his identity he would be compelled to take a stand. In other words, it was a way of inculcating bravery.

A second explanation has something to do with this as well. It is said that Punjab in the eighteenth century was subject to a number of invasions from the north-west. These invaders used to have an unruly appearance and their flowing hair struck terror in the heart of their opponents. The idea then was to get the would-be fighters used to the long hair of the tribesmen who would invade India, by calling upon the fighters to keep it themselves. A third explanation is connected to this one in that it is also martial in nature. The mass of hair protects the head delivered to it.

The argument used most often to explain the practice of keeping the hair unshorn is the perception that the Sikh was a soldier-saint. Religious men in India have the habit of keeping their hair unshorn and by maintaining this practice the Sikh signaled that he was a soldier but not a mercenary, and that his vocation was connected with the vindication of justice. This also would encapsulate the fact that the Sikhs originally were a pacific religious group which had transformed themselves into a martial community to fight for justice. Such a transformation did not involve any contradiction for the Sikh, who had become a soldier imbued with the religious spirit of saints.

Another argument in the same spirit would identify the unshorn hair as a symbol of dedication. It is a common feature of Indic spirituality to affirm a moral resolution with a physical accompaniment. This may reflect the more general working of the human psyche. Even in modern times we have the example of a person who refused to have his hair cut until a particular country acquired a communist government. Photographs of him being shaved appeared in numerous papers when his ambition was realized.

Yet another argument would connect keeping the hair unshorn with concepts of group solidarity. This Sikhs could then be looked upon as affirming their collective identity by pursuing this resolve jointly

A recent writer offers yet another reason for the practice. According to William Owen Cole the maintaining of uncut hair or kasha by the Sikhs symbolizes the belief that a Sikh should not interfere with natural God-given form. Circumcision, for instance, is rejected on the same ground.

It is thus possible to offer psychological, martial, spiritual, social and natural explanations of the practice of keeping unshorn hair. Our impulse on being confronted with this battery of explanation might well be to ask: Which of these is true? This natural query however has become somewhat suspect in the study of religion which has come to recognize that a religious symbol need not be univalent, that is, have only one reference-point. All of these explanations could be part of the interpretation of why Keshadhari Sikhs keep the hair unshorn. The important point to note is that when what initially appeared to us as a puzzle is recognized as a symbol, then it ceases to be a puzzle.

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