Each winter, Sikhs and Hindus across India and around the world thank their gods for a fruitful winter harvest during the Punjabi festival of Lohri. Like on Halloween, children go door to door singing folk songs and demanding lohri or “loot.” In return, neighbors give out money or snacks like sesame sweets, jaggery, popcorn, puffed rice, and peanuts. Because the date of the holiday follows the Vikrami (an ancient Hindu) calendar, Lohri falls on either January 13 or 14.
The night of Lohri, family, friends, and relatives gather around a bonfire dressed up in traditional Punjabi attire and make offerings to a fire god with a small portion of the children’s loot. The party walks around the fire together, throwing sesame snacks into the blaze and praying aloud in Punjabi, “Aadar aye dilather jaye (May honor come and poverty vanish)” and “Til sade, paap sade/jhade (As the sesame burns, thus may our sins burn/fall off).” The celebration ends by eating a traditional holiday meal, performing folk dances, and singing folk songs.
Sikhism was founded around 1500 by Guru Nanak (1469–1539) and nine subsequent gurus developed the community and the Sikh faith. Guru Arjan, the fifth in line, compiled the Adi Granth, which is the first authorized book of Sikh scripture. Sikhs believe there is only one god, genderless and eternal, and refer to this god as Waheguru (wonderful teacher). Sikhs also believe in rebirth and karma.
Those who do not serve the True Guru [God] and who do not contemplate the Word of the Shabad [Sikh scriptures]—spiritual wisdom does not enter into their hearts; they are like dead bodies in the world. They go through the cycle of 8.4 million reincarnations, and they are ruined through death and rebirth.
Guru Granth Sahib 88
Sikhs make up 1.7 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population, and they are spread out all over India, with the highest percentages located in Punjab, Chandigarh, Haryana, and other nearby regions. Outside India, the Sikh community has a significant presence in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Malaysia .
Do beliefs about sin and forgiveness overlap for Sikhs and Christians? Christianity Today’s South Asian correspondent spoke with a Sikh leader about his understanding of sin according to their faith’s scriptures and how best to understand the “May our sins burn/fall off” prayer.
CT also spoke with three Punjabi-background pastors, two of which were born Sikh before converting to Christianity. All three have celebrated Lohri at some point in their lives, and they explained how their experience of sin in the Sikh world corresponds to the Christian understanding of the concept.
Devinder Pal Singh, director, Center for Understanding Sikhism, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
In my opinion, the Punjabi expression Til sade, paap sade/jhade (“As the sesame burns, thus may our sins burn/fall off”) is only wishful thinking rooted in cultural ethos. It has no relation with classical understanding of Sikhism. For that matter, even Lohri has no roots in Sikhism since Sikhs do not worship the sun or fire. Instead, Lohri is generally celebrated by Sikhs predominantly because of its strong connection to Punjabi culture.
In Sikhism, all sins are considered rooted in one’s ego and evil impulses and desires. Sikhism considers a sin [to be] any deliberate noncompliance with hukam, the Punjabi word for “God’s law,” or defiance of the moral law.
Sins can only be atoned for by meditating on God and seeking union with him. According to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, “When one’s intellect is polluted or sullied by sin, it can only be purified by the Love of God.”
Early Sikh sources do not say anything about other forms of expiation (atonement) that the sinner or offender might have to undergo in the society to which he belonged. The concept of expiation continued to evolve throughout Sikh history and [was] first codified by Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the tenth Sikh guru, for his Khālsā (the religious order of warriors he initiated.)
This code was revised in the 18th and 20th centuries and today is mainly focused on the individual and the various ways in which the person must behave to be a good, non-sinning Sikh.
In Sikhism, expiation is summarily dealt with in the community and must involve service (sevā) to it.
The exceptions are the four major sins: hukka (smoking tobacco and using all other intoxicants), hajamat (removing hair), halalo (eating meat), and haram (adultery and sexual relationships outside marriage). Violations of these may necessitate re-initiation to the community for the offender.
Richard Howell, PhD (theology) and principal of Caleb Institute, Delhi. He was born and brought up in Punjab and spent a significant part of his life preaching the gospel there.
Sikhism defines karma as the sum of a person’s good and bad actions in this and previous states of existence that affects a person’s future. It is not a “vertical” relationship, so the sin of a person is not against a holy God, but is “horizontal” in that it concerns other people and yourself. Hence, there are consequences. Karma determines what happens to that individual’s soul in the next life, whether they go up the ladder or down. In order to progress in transmigration (the passing of a person’s soul from one body to another after death), one’s good deeds must outweigh the bad deeds.
The Lohri tradition of revolving around the fire and speaking the words “Til sade, paap sade/jhade” can point to the evidence of the presence of guilt. Burning sesame snacks in the fire can be, on one hand, a symbolic expression of confession and realization that you have done something wrong but, on the other, can simply be an act of increasing one’s good deeds.
In Christianity, sin is not merely understood as ignorance but also that people are guilty before a holy God. People have disobeyed him and declared their independence from him. That is sin, and it results in separation from the life of God because of disobedience.
Jesus brings us back in harmony with God, and it starts with his incarnation when divinity united humanity. Our confession reunites us with God because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We experience forgiveness because of the grace of God.
Jitender Jeet Singh, former Sikh priest and former national evangelist for Ambassadors for Christ, Haryana
Throwing the sesame sweets in the fire represents the sins an individual has committed throughout the year, and they get rid of them. This act is performed year after year and will continue for a lifetime.
Not so with those who place their faith in Christ Jesus. Christ has taken our sins upon himself and has set us free “once and for all.” There is no redoing again and again, every year. Christ gives every individual a volitional right. If we want to get rid of our sins, we will have to choose to approach Christ. And this is only once. It does not need to be repeated. There is no compulsion, and if we choose otherwise, we carry the burden of our sins to eternity.
Santar Singh, senior pastor, Khush Khabri Fellowship, Singapore. Born Sikh, he later became a Christian and studied at the Assemblies of God Bible College in Singapore. His church includes a service exclusively for Punjabis.
The Sikh understanding of sin is very different from the Christian understanding of sin. Sikhs don’t believe that they have inherited sin, unlike Christians who believe that they are born in sin and spiritually dead. Sikhs don’t believe that their nature is sinful; they believe that their acts make them sinners. In Christianity, a man is not a sinner because he sins; he sins because he is a sinner. What is inside a person manifests on the outside.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first guru out of the ten Sikh gurus and founder of Sikhism, formalized the three pillars (or duties) that help followers earn salvation: Naam Japo (meditation on God and reciting and chanting of God’s name), Kirat Karo (hard work and honesty), and Vaṇḍ Chakkō (sharing and consuming food and wealth together).
Christians believe what is written in Ephesians 2:8–9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We do not believe in works; we believe in the grace of God and our faith in the work of Christ.