Naming in Sikh religion

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Copyright ©2006 M S. Ahluwalia

Paper to be presented at the International Conference on Naming in Asia: Local Identities and Global Change, 23-24 February, 2006, Singapore. The conference theme is Name and Religious Identities.

With the evolution of languages humans have always tried to name things. It is therefore not surprising that everyone has a name that uniquely identifies them. All human beings are given names quite early in their lifetimes. These names are the tags that they wear for the rest of their life and differentiate themselves from each other. Each name has a power and dignity of its own.

Shakespeare’s quote “What’s in a name?” would have us thinking minimizing its importance. However, we find that the fascination to find a unique name for the little baby has become so prevalent that book stores in India are flooded with texts on popular names. Interestingly in the United States, if you are applying for a social security number, your name is considered very important. The Department has issued a list of popular baby names based on applications for social security cards. It has also been found that the popularity of some names surely has a lot to do with the names of celebrities. Although the trend keeps on changing, now-a-days popular names from Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) and small screen are becoming a rage. For more adventurous parents, traditional religious or mythological names are still preferred ones.

In Western culture most of the people have more than one name--two given names and a surname. The given name consists of first name and a middle name. A surname is also called as family name, or the last name that differentiates persons with similar names. With regards to the First name (or Nick name), it is common belief that the more insight a person has into the powerful influence of his or her name, the greater is the opportunity to enjoy the success he/she is capable of achieving. This is true in case of all individuals, including the Sikhs—people following the Sikh religion--constitute a unique religious minority in the world. The Sikh presence in Asia, Europe and America has become increasingly visible during the last hundred years. More and more non-Sikhs around the world want to learn about the Sikh culture, religion and traditions, including the naming pattern.

Parents tend to give male children names that have religious significance or those that represent qualities of manhood, courage and bravery, while girls are given names depicting feminine qualities such as beauty, virtue and modesty. Among Sikhs there is no such differentiation as the same first name can be used for male as well as female child. For gender differentiation, the middle name Singh (meaning lion) is used for the male child and Kaur (meaning princess) for the female. Once initiated into Khalsa, Sikh women obtain the middle name Kaur. The middle name Singh is given to men, but Kaur is reserved solely for women. Though Sikh Gurus recognized the difference between men and women, however as individuals, we are all different from each other. This difference does not imply inequality. Women and men are different but equal. Sikh Gurus considered both women and men to be unique. They always respected the sexes and, therefore, made the distinction in middle names.

Most of the Sikh names are composed of two or more words combined to sound like one word signifying self-sacrifice, heroism and devotion to the Guru. It is unfortunate that the tradition of using “Kaur” or “Singh” is disappearing amongst several Sikh children. These are dropped in favor of last names. Although Sikhs all over the world don’t believe in caste and are not allowed to use surnames, still some are using clan or sub-sect name as the last name.

There is new trend noticed recently that some Sikh women have started using Singh as middle as well as last name. After marriage several Sikh and Punjabi women take their husband’s name as a middle and last name. For instance, Ajeet Kaur when married to Iqbal Singh becomes Ajeet Iqbal Singh and Preetam Kaur when married to Mohan Singh becomes Preetam Mohan Singh. There was a time when names of gurus and gods were very popular and a number of names were related to the religious deities. The Indian combination of devotional Hindu and Sufi Islamic doctrines founded by Guru Nanak, founder of Sikh religion, emphasizes the magnification of God by His name in a special form of devotion.

A variety of names for God are recognized and uttered by Sikhs. Although Sikhs believe that it is beyond human capacity to describe and define God, people can become purified and free of their egos by means of the veneration of His name, with intelligent awareness and detachment from the world. Such names are still popular among some families, because as long as Sikh community is alive, there will always be names like Nanak, Gobind, and Harkrishan. Sikhs like their name to carry some significant meaning or heritage relating to the Sikh traditions.

Naming of a child is an important and auspicious practice in all communities and religions. This ceremony differs from religion to religion or from one community to another. However, one thing is common in every community, be it Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Sikh, that God’s name is invoked and the ceremony is performed according to injunctions given by the respective holy book of the faith and supervised by the priest. Special celebrations are held in different ways for this purpose in various societies.

In Sikh religion there are mainly three life-cycle rituals--naming a child, performing a marriage and funeral services. In Sikh tradition the name-choosing ceremony whereby a child first receives his or her name is termed as namkaran. The namkaran (naming) ceremony involves both the selection of the name and its public application within the social context of the Sikh community. The time of the naming ceremony is left to the decision of the parents though, according to some scholars, it should be within forty days of the birth. This ceremony is kept very simple.

At the time chosen, the child is presented before the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Book) by the parents in the presence of relatives and family friends. This ceremony could take place in the Sikh temple (Gurdwara) or at home where Guru Granth Sahib is brought with proper decorum. In many cases, the ceremony may take place at the conclusion of a completed reading, akhand path, accomplished within forty-eight hours of uninterrupted recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Actual ceremony starts with the granthi (who perform the ceremony), preparing amrit (nectar made by stirring sugar and water with sword), and reciting hymns from the Gurbani. This is followed by the general prayer (ardas). At the conclusion of the prayer, the granthi recites an invocation

I present this child with Thy Grace I administer him the amrit. My he (or she) be a true Sikh. May he (or she) devote himself to the service of his Fellow men and his motherland. May he (or she) be inspired with devotion. May the holy food be acceptable (to the Lord). By the ever increasing glory of Thy Name May the whole creation be blessed.

After this recitation, a few drops of the nectar are administered into the child’s lips and rest of the amrit is given to the mother. Then Guru Granth Sahib is opened at random, and a passage is read aloud from the left page. This is the hukam (command) of God. The name of the child is chosen in keeping with the first alphabet of the first word of the passage. If the first letter is ‘S’, the name of the child must begin with this alphabet. Parents, relatives and friends could think of a name; for instance, it could be Satpal, Surinder, Surjeet or any such name beginning with S.

However, if there is not adequate choice of names with the first alphabet, then the subsequent alphabet may form the basis of the child’s name. The name is then announced to the congregation who profusely blesses the child and prays for his/her prosperity, long life and well-being. Sweets are distributed among the gathering marking the end of the naming ceremony. The ceremony underscores the idea that the name received by the child has the sanction of the Guru and the community, that they have essentially bestowed it upon the recipient. The names chosen are usually characterized by the aroma of Sikh teaching and history and are often taken out of the Sikh scripture. They may signify qualities such as devotion, humility and heroism.

Common Suffixes

In modern world there is a tendency to name a child somewhat differently. So parents, while choosing names for their children, do consider adding a suffix to give a different meaning to the name and make it more attractive. All these suffixes have their specific meanings, and when added to the first name, change the name’s meaning. There are several suffixes often used in most of the first names of Sikh children. For instance, in the first name Amar (immortal, eternal), different suffixes can be attached to mean differently--added to make Amarbir (eternally brave), deep to make Amardeep (immortal lamp), jeet to make Amarjeet (immortal victory), jot to make Amarjot (immortal light), leen to make it Amarleen (imbued in immortality), pal to make Amarpal (immortal protector), preet to make Amarpreet (immortal love), and tek to make Amartek (eternal support). Sometimes a suffix can be used alone as a complete name, particularly when it relates to specific concept in Sikh ideology.

Last Names (Family Names)

Last name, also known as family name or surname, is added to the first name. First name, middle name and surname together make up the legal name. In several cases last names are inherited and held in common by the members of a family. Most of the last names identify a person by his connection with another person, usually his father, residence or occupation. In various parts of the world, last names appeared vastly in different times and in different cultures.

In India, last names are derived from various castes. In Hinduism, these castes are grouped into four categories- Brahmin, Kshatriyas, Vaishya and Shudra. Sikh religion in fact originated as a voice of protest against the many prevalent ills of contemporary Indian society. In Sikh traditions, there is total rejection of the caste system as it was most damaging and weakening. It completely negated the humanitarian and equality principles fundamental to the Sikh creed. Sri Guru Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikh religion, and nine other Sikh Gurus strongly attacked the caste rigidities and a life full of superstitions.

Sikhs believe that all humans are one and they ought not to divide themselves on the ground of caste, creed or lineage. Although Sikhs have been prohibited to suffix their caste or sub-caste to their names, a majority of Sikhs in India and other parts of the world keep the caste suffix as means to identify their identities.

Generally, last names have little or no value in terms of their original function but perhaps do help non-Sikhs to distinguish between their Sikh friends of similar names. And personal identification is an inescapable necessity for the purpose of official records and other important secular affairs, such as education, business and marriage.

Among Sikhs, sub-castes have been grouped into several categories like Jats, Aroras, Khatris, Ramgarhias, Majhabis, Rajputs and Namdharis. Jat Sikhs are historically landowners, farmers and warriors. These are divided into numerous clans like Aulak, Bains, Bajwa, Bal, Bath, Bhullar, Chahal, Dhaliwal, Dhillon, Dosanjh, Gill, Grewal, Hundal, Kang, Randhawa, Sahota, Sidhu and Virk. Rajput Sikhs are closely connected with Jat Sikhs and have several principal divisions, such as Bhatti, Chauhan, Khokar and Rathore. Arora Sikhs are generally merchants, businessman, traders or, less commonly, warriors and professionals. There are very few Khatris engaged in agriculture. Most common Khatris are Bedi, Bhatia, Bindra, Chopra, Dhawan, Kapoor, Khanna, Malhotra, Sehgal, Sodhi, Soni, Talwar, etc.

Within the Khatris, there is a popular group called Khukhrain that includes Anand, Bhasin, Chadha, Kohli, Oberoi, Sahni, Suri, Sabhrawal, etc. Ramgariha Sikhs are commonly known as tarkhans (carpenters) and include several sects and clans such as Dhamna, Jheeta, Matharu, Minhas, Bhamrah and others. There is another class of Sikhs called Majhabis, also known as Rangretas, who are Harijans (using Gandhi’s terminology) and have become Sikhs. It also means menial class converted to Sikhism.

Besides these, in several cases names of villages, towns and even cities are applied to the last name to distinguish the person in question. For instance, Surjit Singh Barnala belongs to village Barnala, and Prakash Singh Badal belongs to village Badal. It is difficult to work out simple classification of surnames because of changes in spellings and pronunciation. Many old words are now obsolete and have obsolete meanings. For many years, the spelling of a name depended on the discretion of the writer. The same last name might be spelled in different ways in the same document; for instance, a popular last name Dosanjh is also spelled as Dusanjh or Dausanjh.

Honorific Titles and Nicknames

Some time-specific honorific titles are given to prominent Sikhs. Unlike Western practices, these titles may be added before or after the Sikh names and might often appear as a combination. Personal attributes or qualities are also used by some people. Several Sikh authors, poets and writers also use titles called takhalas as their last names, like Azad, Bawa, Bir, Data, Kanwar, Maskeen, Musafir, Nawab Naveen, Parwana, Safir, Seetal, Shan, Talib, Tej, Tir, Wanjara, Zakhmi, etc.

In recent years, nicknames in every cultural group and community have become very popular. We do recognize that despite our careful selection of the child’s name, a nickname may be appropriated or attached over time. A name with several variations lets a person change his or her name as he or she grows up. For instance in Western culture Robert becomes Rob or Bob, Elizabeth becomes Liz, Kathryn becomes Kathy. And among Sikhs nicknames are often derived from the given names. Darshan becomes Darcy, Gurdeep become Gordy, Manmohan becomes Moe, Ravinder becomes Ravi, Rajinder becomes Raj, Sukhwinder becomes Sukhi, Harinder becomes Harry, Surinder becomes Cindy, and Jaswant becomes Jessie.

In various parts of the globe, there nicknames are often used for the convenience of pronunciation and simplicity. In contrast, a name with no nicknames tends to be less flexible and more formal. Many adults are known throughout their lives by their nick names they acquired in childhood and by which family members and friends still call them. Just because you hear someone called by a nickname doesn’t mean you should do the same.

Many people are offended by assumed familiarity being thrust upon them, or it might be that they don’t like the nickname and would prefer not to encourage its use. There are some Sikhs who don’t approve nicknames and would like to be called by their complete first names. Among several Sikh and Punjabi families, nicknames may also be coined, out of affection and love for the child, by grandparents, friends, mothers, or other relatives. Like first names, there is no any naming ceremony for nicknames.

Sikh Immigrants and back-home Culture

While selecting the “first or given name” of their child, the newly arrived immigrant parents, not fully conversant with the western culture or its subtle intricacies, often decide to settle on a name based on back-home culture, that might be too long, alien and difficult to pronounce for the indigenous population in which they have decided to live. Coupled with an alien background, skin color and other distinct characteristic, it could haunt them later on particularly to the deserving children in seeking admissions in professional colleges or competitive jobs. The difficult to pronounce “first or given names,” often leads children and their parents to avoid using such lengthy names. Such names are therefore end up being left reserved for official use only on legal documents such as driving license or social security numbers etc. In their place, short and easy to pronounce “nick names” or the abbreviation of original names start taking over. It is a phenomenon that seems to be fairly popular among the Sikh immigrants.

It has been observed that the Western culture has influenced to some extent several Sikh and Punjabi children into using English nicknames such as Bobby, Gary, Goldie, Janice, Kim, Lily, Rick, Rocky, Sam, Shelly, Susan, Vicki, Winnie, etc. In this way the Sikh parents try to fulfill both the obligations, i.e. of religious needs as well as societal perspective around them. When it comes to maintaining the ordained requirement of Sikh faith, there could not be a second view. The Sikh parents follow the established guidelines in seeking help from Sri Guru Granth Sahib as far as the first letter of the first names is concerned which is followed by Singh or Kaur as the case might be.

Global impact

A majority of Sikh children, particularly those born and raised in western countries will ultimately live in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies. Some might question, then why could not the Sikhs make the western society learn about their names like they do for theirs? However, this will only lead to satisfying one’s ego whereas the ground realities do not tend to support such wishful thinking. The fact is that the discrimination is bound to persist in any multi-cultural society and multi-ethnic community regardless of the pious upfront put forth by the majority of the given country.


Certain things in life never change. Therefore, cautious awareness and introduction of a fresh thought process that makes life easier for the Sikhs (especially immigrants), within the established limits of Sikh religion should be encouraged. This will help future generations to live their lives to the fullest without violating Sikh religious guidelines.