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The Hair, the Comb and the Turban of the Sikhs

Dr. Trilochan Singh

nisan'i Sikhi in panj harif kaf

harghiz na basad in panj muaf1

Know these five K’s to be emblems of Sikhism,

Under no condition can one be exempted from them.

Sword and bracelet, drawer and comb—these four,

Without hair the fifth, all other emblems are meaningless.

(Guru Gobind Singh, Dasam Granth)

Hair of the head is a symbol of faith, intuition of truth, or the highest qualities of the mind. (G.A. Gaskell, Dictionary of All Scriptures)

Depiction of Sikh Articles of Faith
In Sikhism the human body is sacred because in it shines the brilliant light of Wisdom, and more so because it is the home of indwelling Spirit of God. It is not flesh and bones that are important, but what makes this flesh and bones appear to be the living image of God on earth, and that is the mind and the spirit of man. The human body becomes meaningful and a dynamic personality with the dazzling light of the mind and the spirit. The two are inseparable from each other. The health of the body depends on the health of the mind and the Spirit.

According to Sikh theology: “What is in the universe, is also to be found in the human body, and he who seeks it will find it.”2 “Such is the divine play of the Creator that He has reflected the whole Cosmos in the human body.”3 “In the body, we find the wealth of the whole world.”4 “He who is enlightened will search God within himself, and forget all other misleading paths.”5 This body is die golden fortress in which the eternal Light of His Word shines. It is the temple of God.

In the writings of Guru Nanak man is represented in his totality; man projected into existence, being-in-spirit and being- in-world. With all the multiplicity around him, man bears within himself the sign and yearning for unity with the whole. Guru Nanak thus breaks away and stands apart from the Hindu - Buddhist-Jain tradition in this sense, and counsels man against conceiving his transcendence apart from society. Not only does he separate man from humanity, but he recognizes that man cannot achieve his transcendence, save through humanity, and he can save his being through communion with God. It is within an enlightened mind and heart that the Cosmos is evaluated, and Existence and Being are revealed to man in a mystical communication of its transcendence; a communication which man must express in his life and reflect in his actions. “It is at the root of the certitude that is responsible for his constant assertion that each man can recognize in every other man the fact of human transcendence.”6

surti surafi ralaiai etu. tanii kar'i tulha lahghih jetii.

The Word leads to concentration,

Concentration to knowledge,

This is the riddle of the Guru’s Word.

The eternal Light dwells in the human mind.

And the human mind is the emanation of that Light,

And our five senses become the Light’s disciple.

(Adi Guru Granth, Guru Nanak, Raga Ramkali, 878)

The Light reveals itself in the transcendent State or the Tenth Seat of Consciousness (Dasam Duar) which is located in the head, and the head is complete and perfect as a seat of revelation only with the hair on it. Without the hair, the head of a mystic is like a maimed limb, never fully capable of containing the full splendour of divine revelation. Mystics like Eckhart and even Plotinus had a glimpse into this transcendent State, just as a mountaineer sees the peak from the foot of the hill. “Eckhart teaches-—at the apex of the mind ‘there is a Divine Spark’ which is closely akin to God, that it is one with Him, and not merely united with Him.”7

“Whereas hair on the head, because it grows on the top of the human body, symbolizes spiritual forces and can be equated with the symbolism of water, with the upper ocean, body hair is equivalent to lower ocean.” In general, hair represents energy and are related to the symbolism of levels. That is, hair located on the head stands for higher forces. Hair also signifies fertility. Origen used to say, “The Nazarites do not cut their hair because all that is done by just men, prospers and their leaves do not fall.” In Hindu symbolism hair like the threads of a fabric symbolizes the lines of force of the universe. A full head of hair represents élan vital, and the will to succeed. Hair then comes to symbolize the concept of spiritualized energy. Phaldor, in his Libro d’oro del Sogno comments that hair represents the spiritual assets of man. Abundant beautiful hair, for both man and woman, signifies spiritual development. To lose one’s hair signifies failure and poverty. Now, the reverse of the loss brought about by forces outside man’s control is, in part, willing sacrifice. For this reason Zimmer points out that “all who renounce and defy the principle of procreation and multiplication of life in order to embark upon the path of total asceticism, are bound on principle to cut their hair short. They must stimulate the sterility of the aged and hairless, who form the last link in the chain of generation.”8 Zimmer brings out two historical truths. Apostles who believed in a life-affirming view of life, valued and nourished hair on their head, as did the Nazarites. While others who espoused life- denying attitude of life, like the ascetic of various faiths, considered shaving off their hair first and foremost duty. Sikhism, as we have already stated, believes in life-affirming view of life.

Hair in Semitic Tradition

“Long heavy hair was considered a sign of vitality. In the case of Samson (he having been dedicated to God), the connection of long hair and bodily strength was based on current views. Absolam’s famous hair was considered not only an ornament, but as a token of strength. A bald head was an object of mockery.”9

“A luxuriant growth of hair on head and chin was regarded by the Hebrews and other Semitic people as an important constituent of manly grace. Solomon’s ‘youthful horsemen’ in the most delightful flower of their age had long hair on their heads. (Joshua Ant, viii, vii, 3.) It was admired distinction to have bushy curled locks, black as raven. Amongst women long dark tresses were held most captivating and they have always worn long hair. Men dreaded baldness as suggesting a suspicion of leprosy. (Lev, 13: 40) The Babylonians wore their hair long, binding their heads with turban.”10

“The Nazarites allowed their hair to grow uncut for religious reason. The High Priest and the priests in general, were expressly forbidden to have their heads shaved. The ancient Egyptians had combs and as the Assyrians also were very careful in dressing their hair, it may be due to mere chance that combs are not mentioned in The Old Testament. The Assyrians wore their hair in several braids reaching down to the nape of their neck. As a sign of mourning the head was shaved.”

“The Law in Judaism regards it in an entirely different light, as it forbids shaving the head on the ground that Israel belongs to Yahweh only (Deut, xiv : i.). Originally shaving in times of mourning indicates that the hair was sacrificed to the dead. The Law also regarded as a heathen custom, the shaving of the head in the centre Jer, ix: 26, 23, xix: 27.) and forbade it as such to Israelites.” (Lev, xix: 27).

“The ancient conception, mentioned above, that continuing growing hair like the blood is a sign of vitality, sufficiently explains the sacrifice of the hair. The Rabbinical literature in Judaism reveals that the hair was regarded by the Rabbis as so powerful an augmentation of beauty that married women were recommended to hide it. A man who curled his hair was regarded as a vain man. While Samson was filled with the Holy Spirit, his hair made a noise like the bells, and the sound was heard from Zorah to Eshtath.” In enumerating the wonders of creation, God pointed out to Job the wisdom shown even in the making of hair. A penalty of one hundred slaim is imposed by the Rabbi for pulling an antagonists’s hair, because human hair is associated with thoughts. The number of the hair of the human head is said to be one billion and seven thousand.”11

Among the Hebrews, Arabs and other peoples, cutting the flesh was often associated with shaving the head in mourning, or taking part of the hair to lay on the tomb, or on the funeral pyre. Among the Arabs and Hindus, women in mourning shave their head. The habit of tearing the hair in mourning still persists among the Jews and Hindus. It was also a sign of mourning to let the hair fall unattended and disheveled (Ezk, 24:17, Jth, 10:3).

Possession of a leader’s hair in primitive magic was esteemed a potent means of getting and retaining a hold on his person by his followers. The Arabs used to cut off the hair of the prisoners before setting them free. Wisdom in the Semitic faiths was always associated with grey hair. Hoary grey hair on the head was the crown of glory, the reward of a life of righteousness. For grey hairs to come down on the grave in peace was token of a life of God’s favour. Grey hair laid in men obligations of honourable and chivalrous conduct. White hair was an element of glorious appearance (Mac, 15:31), especially that of divine majesty (Dt, 7:8, Rev, 1:14). The hair of Samson was regarded as the seat of strength. (Jg, 16:22). The Jews swore by the hair (Ml, 5). One of the most binding oaths in the East now is by the beard.12

Hair in the Greek Philosophic Tradition

The Greeks loved rich waving hair, the youthful gods Bacchus and Apollo were figured with plenteous locks. Enslaved foreigners were forced to shave. It is the Egyptians who loved completely shaving their heads and faces, and they ridiculed long hair of the Asiatics and Greeks. Women never shaved their hair. Offering the hair to the Deity was common among the Greeks and Hindus. The idea more or less consciously underlying these practices probably was, that by means of his hair, part of himself, instinct with his life, the devotee formed stable link or connection with sanctuary and the deity, he worshipped. If an important part of life was conceived as residing in the hair, we can see why that of consecrated persons was so cared for. Priests not only allowed their hair to grow but kept them untouched.”13

Plato called human hair the natural ornament of the head, and the Greeks, says Prof. Becker, “bestowed great pains on the natural ornament of the head, the hair as Plato calls it. They were averse to having it covered in any manner. Winkelman remarks that the natives of the South are endowed with greater profusion of hair than the inhabitants of northern lands, and by the Greeks its growth was carefully cherished as it was thought to contribute greatly to render the figure noble and attractive. No less attention was lavished on the beard, which was not looked on as a troublesome encumbrance, but as dignified ornament of maturity and old age. Hence the whiskers, the moustaches and the beard were allowed to grow. None of these parts were shorn, but of course there were variations in the wear, according to race, abode, condition and individual character. Compare for instance the busts of Solon and Lycurgus or those of Plato, Antisthenes and Chryasippus. Also see the busts of Demosthenes, Diogenes, Epicurus, Epimenidus, Euripedes, Epicrates, Aeschines, Aeschylus, Sophoclese, Aristophanes and Zeno. “Pythagoras kept long hair, beard etc.” Eratosthenes says, as Phavorinus quotes him in the eighth book of his Universal History, that Pythagoras was the first man who ever practiced boxing in a scientific manner in the forty-eight Olympiad, having his hair long and being clothed in purple. It is recorded of Servius, the sixth king of Rome that his hair emitted sparks on being combed.”14

“Monuments as well as the writers tell us that men wore their hair long in the Homeric period, also down to the fifth century. We sometimes find depicted hair of such length and thickness that it seems almost incredible that a man’s hair could have been so much developed.”15 Epictetus argues strongly in favour of wearing long hair. Flavius Domitianus Augustus persecuted the philosophers and ordered them to go to exile. Some of them, in order to conceal their profession of philosophy, shaved their beards. Epictetus would not take off his. And during these days when one of his companions addressed him: “Come, then, Epictetus shave yourself.” Epictetus replied, “If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not shave myself.” “But” said the other, “I will take off your head.” “If that will do you any good, take it off’, replied Epictetus.16

“Alexander brought into fashion the custom of shaving, but there can be no doubt that it was partially adopted at a much earlier period, though the practice was certainly regarded as contemptible. Chrysippus expressly states that this new custom of shaving was introduced by Alexander. Plutarch asserts that Alexander caused his soldiers to be shaved from the motives of strategic caution. The innovation was stoutly resisted in many States, and was forbidden by special laws which do not seem to have had much effect.”17

Hair and Shaving in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Tradition

Hair has had a positive and negative value and interpretation in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain tradition. To keep hair is to love vital activities of life, to accept social responsibility and to live in a society as part of society. But to shave the hair means renouncing society, renouncing the social ethics of life.

Hair: The Glory of Man’s Vital Energy

According to Apastambha’s Aphorisms, “He who wishes to be consecrated according to the rites of the Vedas shall wear all his hair in one knot, or let him tie the lock on the crown of head in a knot.”18 The Satapatha-Bramana says: “When he has performed the consecration ceremony (Abhiseka) he does not shave his hair. The reason why he does not shave his hair is this: that the collected essence of the waters, wherewith he is then sprinkled (anointed), is vigour, and it is the hair of the head that it reaches first when he is sprinkled; hence were he to shave his hair, he would cause that glory to fall off from him, he would sweep it away; therefore he does not shave his hair.”19 “The clothing of the twice-born (Brahmin) should be of linen or cotton or also a deer skin, or a cloth entirely dyed with reddish colour. There should also be girdle of muhga, and he should have matted hair.”20 Naradya Dharmasastra says that Brahmins could not be punished by death sentence even for such heinous crimes as man slaughter. “A Brahmin must not be subject to corporal punishment. For him shaving his head, banishing him from the town, and parading him on an ass shall be his punishment”.21 Thus shaving the head was equated with capital punishment for the Brahmins.

Heinrich Zimmer says, “diva’s tresses are long and matted, partly streaming, partly stacked in a kind of pyramid. This is the hair of the model Yogi of the gods. Supra-normal life-energy amounting to the power of magic, resides in such wilderness of hair, untouched by the scissors. Similarly, the celebrated strength of Samson, who with naked hands tore asunder the jaws of a lion and shook down the roof of a pagan temple, resided in his uncut hair.... Much of the womanly charm, the sensual appeal to the Eternal Feminine, das Ewig-Weibliche, le charm eternal, is in the fragrance, the flow and lustre of beautiful hair. On the other hand, anyone renouncing the generative forces of the vegetable-animal realm revolting against the procreative principle of life, sex, earth, and nature to enter upon the spiritual path of absolute asceticism has first to be shaved. He must simulate the sterility of an old man whose hair has fallen, and who no longer constitutes a link in the chain of generation. He must coldly sacrifice the foliage of the head.”22

Even during the early Buddhist period, shaving was the sign of ugliness and contemptible. But Buddhism made shaving essential for renunciation. The early Parsls also considered shaving a sin and crime. The Epistle of Manuskihar, a Parsi Text says, “And concerning handsomeness and ugliness in themselves, which are only through having taken up an opinion and belief, there is a change even through time and place; for any of the ancients whose head was shaved was as it were ugly, and it was so settled by law, and it was sin worthy of death for them; and then its habits did not direct the customs of the country to shave the head of man.”23

Shaving the hair was also punishment for women. “When a married woman commits adultery, her hair should be shaved, she shall have to lie on a low couch, receive bad clothing, and the removal of all the sweepings shall be assigned to her as her occupation.”24

Shaving the Head: A Symbol of Escape from Social, Political and Cultural Responsibilities

“Full of hindrance is household life, a path defiled by passion, free as the air is the life of him who has renounced all worldly things. How difficult is it for the man who dwells at home to live the higher life in all its fullness, in all its purity, in all its bright perfection. Let me then cut off my hair and beard, let me clothe myself in orange coloured robes, and let me go forth from a household life to a homeless state.”25

The Sufi dervishes, the Christian monks, the Hindu ascetics, all shave off their heads with this sense of escape from the mundane world to live purely in the spiritual world. And the reason as Zimmer points out is, “to renounce and defy the principle of procreation and multiplication of life in order to embark upon the path of total asceticism,” and this principle is inevitably associated with shaving the hair. Heinrich Zimmer says, “The ascetic hostility to the hair of the human organism is so excessive in the extreme sect of the Jains that they will tolerate no hair whatsoever on the person of an ordained holy man. Part of their ritual of ordination consists in a thorough weeding out of every single hair growing on the head and body. Here the idea of the tonsure is, so to say, carried to its limit; and correspondingly, the Jain idea of self- renunciation is drastic beyond bounds. In accordance with their archaic, fundamentalist and thoroughgoing doctrine, the Jains so scheduled their disciplines of bodily mortification, that in old age these ideally culminate in death from an absolute fast. As with the hair, so with the last vegetable requirement of the flesh, the revolt against the principles of life is pressed to the end.”26

We have already stated earlier in this chapter that according to Sikh philosophy of a physically complete man, a human being must preserve all their hair on his head and face as an essential part of his body. Just as the skull performs the protective function of the brain, the hair as an inseparable part of the skull performs the function of the preservation of the élan-vital of a human being. The complete Man, the Man who is conceived in Sikh Scriptures as a man with hair and turban on his head—“sabat-surat dastar sirra: Complete Man with hair, beard and turban on his head.”27

The hair of the head is also inseparably connected with the comb and turban in Sikh discipline. The continued association of the comb as one of the K’s (Kahgha : Comb) signifies that the hair should be kept clean and healthy like other parts of the body. Matted hair or disheveled hair is not permitted as it is a sign of lethargy, uncleanliness, indifference to social responsibility and cynical attitude of life. Going out bareheaded in the streets is an offence. Not to keep the hair clean by shampooing it regularly is also a serious transgression of the Sikh Code of Conduct.

In the classical Indian tradition, we have already shown that there were two ideals: One of the recluse, who shunned society and preferred the life of cloister or the cave, the other of the Rishi (Rsi) or Ksatriya who lived in society and accepted all responsibilities and challenges of life and yet he was wedded to righteousness and justice:

Dande eva hi rajendra

Ksatradhrama na mundam

(Mahabharata, Santi-parva, 23, 46)

Commenting on it Dr Radhakrishnan writes; ’’His Svadharma or law of action requires him to engage in battle. Protection of right by accepting battle, if necessary, is the social duty of Ksatriya and not renunciation. His duty is to maintain order by force and not become an ascetic by shaving off his hair, “O thou best of men” says the author of Mahabharata, (Udyoga Parva), “there are only two types who can pierce the constellation of the sun and reach the sphere of Brahm. The one is the sannyasin who is steeped in Yoga and the other is the warrior who falls in the battle fighting.”28 Guru Gobind Singh combined the holiness of the Rishi (Rsi) and Christ with the social and political responsibility of the Ksatriya and gave to the world the Khalsa ideals, which come very near Plato’s ideal of Philosopher King; the Philosopher with hair and beard and the highest enlightenment and administrative ability.

The hair of the Khalsa is sacred to him because the Five Beloved Knights (Panj Piaras) of Guru Gobind Singh anointed them with Amrit, the baptismal water of immortality. The hair, the head, the mind and the consciousness (surta) have been made alive and vibrant with a new life.

“When He touched my hair and blessed me, how can I bear my hair being shorn. The Sikh is the dedicated. I nestle the fragrance of His touch in my tresses.... The inspired personality of this Brotherhood is song-strung, love-strung, gentle, fearless, death despising, even death courting, seeking no reward for incessant self-sacrifice in the name of the Master, dying like moths round the lamp, living like heroes, shining like orbs, intoxicated, sweetly exhilarated every moment of life, elevated above sorry details of things, wishing well to the whole universe of life, and desiring nothing but the lyrical repetition of His Name.... The breath of Man is to resound with it, his pores to flow with its nectarean bliss. The eyes go half-upwards under the upper lids, the forehead seems to be filled with nectar My Brotherhood of the Khalsa is scattered in the history of man in rare persons. All those who call themselves Brothers (Khalsa), but are not so inwardly, spiritually, intentionally, consciously and subconsciously of the Guru, are struck off the Roll.”29

Thus the hair of the Sikh is a symbol of his vow to live for the love of God; a vow to seek immortality through contemplation and action, a vow to dedicate mind, body and soul at the altar of Truth, Justice Freedom for which the Gurus lived and died. Personal liberation (mukti) and life in heaven are never the aim of an enlightened Sikh. The hair must be neatly tied in a tress knot on the apex of the head and a comb tucked in it, ready for use at any time, and a turban tied round it. The turban of the Sikhs is thus an inseparable part of his religious and cultural personality.

All the Sikh Gurus kept hair and beard, and all the Sikh Gurus and Apostles wore turbans. The oldest painting of Guru Nanak, which Ram Rai took with him from his father Guru Hari Rai, now preserved at Dehradun as a relic, shows Guru Nanak wearing the Pathan type turban, which was worn by the Punjabis. This type of turban with little modification continued to be worn by the first five Gurus. It was a little smaller in size, and worn more gracefully than the common Pathan did, in the manner of the Sufi saints. From the time of Guru Hargobind the Rajput style became common, and it was patronized even by the Mughal rulers. Out of this style the Sikh warriors who carried a quoit on their heads, developed variations which we see in the paintings of the Sikh warriors. The Sikh princes of Ranjit Singh’s durbar developed a distinct style of their own, out of which emerged many modern styles, fundamentally resembling one another.

References and Notes

  1. nisan'i Sikhi in panj harif kaf. harghiz na basad in panj muaf. kara kardo, kachh, kangha, bidan. bila kes hech ast, jumla nishan. (Guru Gobind Singh, Sarb Loh Granth, (MS: Hazur Sahib), Dasam Granth, (Sangrur MS)).
  2. Adi Guru Granth, Guru Nanak, Raga Maru, p. 110. see also, p. 698.
  3. Ibid., Guru Amar Das, Raga Majh, p. 117.
  4. Ibid., Raga Suhi, p. 754.
  5. Ibid., Raga Suhi, p. 754.
  6. Trilochan Singh, Guru Nanak’s Religion: A Comparative Study of Religions, p.15.
  7. W.R. Inge, Christian Mysticism, p. 115.
  8. Cirlot J.F.., Dictionary of Symbols, p. 134.
  9. Jewish Encyclopaedia.
  10. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible.
  11. Jewish Encyclopedia.
  12. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Dharam Ahant Singh, Plato and the True Enlightener of the Soul, pp. 156-57.
  15. Blummer, The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks, p. 64.
  16. Discourses of Epictetus, Tr. G., Bk. I, Chap. 11.
  17. Dharam Ahant Singh, Plato and the True Enlightener of the Soul, p. 159.
  18. Apastamba’s Aphorisms, Tr. George Buhler, p. 8.
  19. The Satpatha Brahmana (Mahayana School) Tr. Julius Eggeling, p. 120.
  20. Anugita, Tr. Kashlnath Trinibak Tilang, p. 361.
  21. Naradya Dharamasastra, Tr. Julius Jolly, p. 163.
  22. Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, p. 157.
  23. Epistles of Manuskihar, p. 408.
  24. Naradiya Dharmasastra, p. 83.
  25. Tevigga Suttanta, Tr. T.W. Rhys David, p. 187.
  26. Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, p. 166.
  27. This hymn of Guru Arjan in Raga Maru, Sohile (Adi Guru Granth, p. 1084), which is a treatise of Muslim ceremony of circumcision, also gives a glimpse of the philosophy of the Sikh Gurus. The man who is conceived to be physically and spiritually the image of God, is conceived in Sikh theology a complete man as conceived by God with hair and turban on his head.
  28. Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Gita, Tr., p. 112.
  29. Puran Singh, The Spirit Born People, pp. 122-24.

Source – The Turban and the Sword of the Sikhs by Dr. Trilochan Singh