SINGH from Sanskrit sinha for lion, is an essential component of the name for a Sikh male. Every Sikh male name must end with ‘Singh’. Historically, this was so ordained by Guru Gobind Singh on the Baisakhi day, 30 March 1699, when he inaugurated the Khalsa, introducing a new form of initiatory rites, khande di pahul. The five Sikhs who from among the assembly had on that day offered their heads one after the other responding to the Guru’s successive calls were the first Sikhs who were administered by him the vows of the Khalsa. They were to adopt the five prescribed emblems, including kesa or unshorn hair and share a common end-name ‘Singh’ in token of having joined the self-abnegating, martial and casteless fellowship of the Khalsa. After initiation, Bhai Daya Ram had become Daya Singh, Bhai Dharam Das became Dharam Singh, Bhai Mokham Chand became Muhkam Singh, Bhai Himmat Rai became Bhai Himmat Singh and Bhai Sahib Chand became Sahib Singh. Guru Gobind Rai, who had himself initiated at the hands of these five, received the name of Guru Gobind Singh. Keeping the surname Singh signified getting rid of caste, because in the South Asian subcontinent, one's last name would identify their caste. By joining the single brotherhood of having a surname of 'Singh,' the caste was gotten rid of in Sikh families.
Every male Sikh has since carried ‘Singh’ as part of his name. This was a way of inculcating among the Sikhs a spirit of brotherhood as well as of valour. Wearing the distinctive symbols and clad and armed like a soldier with a flowing beard and a neatly tied turban on his head, a Singh had been set high ideals to live up to. As subsequent events proved, Singhs became a strong cohesive force admired even by their enemies for their qualities of courage and chivalry. For example, Qazi Nur Muhammad, who came in Ahmad Shah Durrani’s train during his seventh invasion of India (1764-65), in his poetic account of the campaign in Persian, refers to, the Singhs in rude and imprecatory language, but cannot at the same time help proclaim their many virtues. In section XLI of his poem, he says: “Singh is a title (a form of address for them). It is not just to call them ‘dogs’ (his contumelious term for Singhs). If you do not know the Hindustani language, (I shall tell you that) the word Singh means a lion. Truly, they are like lions in battle and, in times of peace, they surpass Hatim (in generosity). . . Leaving aside their mode of fighting, hear ye another point in which they excel all other fighting people. In no case would they slay a coward, nor would they put an obstacle in the way of a fugitive. They do not plunder the ornaments of a woman. . . They do not make friends with adulterers and housebreakers.”
As a rule, all Sikhs other than Sahajdharis are named Singhs even before the formal initiation through khande di pahul takes place. While ‘Sikh’ is a spiritual appellation, ‘Singh’ has socio-political overtones in addition. In practice all Singhs are Sikhs with the discipline enjoined upon them by Guru Gobind Singh added. In sentiment, however, they are closer to the community as a whole and more active socially and politically. Their special status is recognized legally as well. Under the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1971, while all adult Sikhs are eligible to be registered as voters for election to the respective Gurdwara Parbandhak Committees, only amritdhari Sikhs, i.e. Singhs, are qualified for the membership of these statutory bodies. Similarly Sikh rahit maryada or code of conduct published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee makes a distinction between shakhsi rahini or individual conduct and panthic rahini or corporate conduct. While the former applies to all Sikhs, the Singhs must conduct themselves, in addition, according to the panthic rahini.
1. Kahn Singh, Bhai, Gurmat Martand. Amritsar. 1962
2. Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna [Reprint]. Amritsar, 1989
Above adapted from article By Ganda Singh of Global Sikh Studies