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The Kirpan (IPA: [k?r’p?n]) (Punjabi: ?????? kirpan) is a ceremonial sword or dagger that must be worn by all baptised Sikhs (Khalsa), after a mandatory religious commandment given by Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Guru of Sikhism) in AD 1699.

In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh told his Sikhs at the Baisakhi Amrit Sanchar to constantly and regularly wear a Kirpan at all times. Amrit Sanchar is a holy religious ceremony that formally baptizes a Sikh (Khalsa). Historically, the Kirpan was an article of defense which together with the other 4 Kakars formed the external visible symbols to outwardly display one’s commitment to the Hukam of the tenth master. The five Kakars clearly and instantly identify a Khalsa Sikh. The Kirpan is worn on a cloth belt called a Gatra.

The kirpan has both a physical function, as a defensive weapon, as well as a symbolic function. Physically it is an instrument of “Ahimsa” or non-violence. The principle of ahimsa is to actively prevent violence, not to simply stand by idly whilst violence is being done. To that end, the kirpan is a tool to be used to prevent violence from being done to a defenseless person when all other means to do so have failed. Symbolically, the kirpan represents the power of truth to cut through untruth. It is the cutting edge of the enlightened mind.

A baptised sikh, better known as a Khalsa Sikh, is a “Sant-Sipahie”—a saint-soldier: A saint first and then a soldier. So to satisfy this term, one must first become a saint and then a soldier. As a saint, one must have total control over one’s internal vices and be able to be constantly immersed in the five virtues as clarified in the Guru Granth Sahib. Only then can a sikh become a soldier. Also, the Khalsa is “Akal Purakh de fauj”—the Army of God. Guruji clearly chose these words very deliberately: He did not state that the Khalsa was the army of the Khalsa or an army of the sikhs or the army of Punjab—but an Army of God whose function was the protection and safeguarding of all the peoples of God.

The kirpan is the symbol crystallising the fact that when a Khalsa joins this army, he or she has left behind the docile environment of subservience and subordination and has joined the proactive and caring world of the fearless, brave, and courageous defence force of Guru Gobind Singh. The recruits of this army have a dynamic and constant duty to protect and to fight for justice for all the people of the world and to side with the oppressed and offer assistance and support to all weaker inhabitants without any reference to their race, sex, caste, nationality, religion, or beliefs. If this kirpan is removed, it is like removing their spiritual identity.

The Kirpan is one of the ‘Five K’s’ of the Khalsa Sikhs. ‘Kirpan’ literally means ‘weapon of defence’ (kirpa means mercy and aan means bless), as opposed to the ‘talwar’, a weapon of offence.

Typically made from iron, kirpans range in blade size from 3 inches (7.6 cm) to over 3 feet (90 cm), though sikhs in the West wear kirpans with a blade of about 3.5 inches (9 cm). Most sikhs wear the kirpan under their clothes and most people observing a random sikh would not be aware that he was carrying a kirpan. To the sikhs, it is a highly important religious symbol; it is rarely used as a weapon.

Sikhs often protest the characterisation of the kirpan as a weapon. Traditionally, a sikh should never use the kirpan in anger or for a malicious attack. However, a sikh may use it in self-defence or to protect a person in need. Some sikhs choose to learn the art of Gatka. This is a martial art devised by the Sikh Gurus that uses circular movements to effectively swing a kirpan.

The requirement that baptised Sikhs wear the kirpan has caused problems for believers in many areas, especially where the custom clashes with local laws against carrying weapons. In cases where safety regulations conflict with wearing the kirpan, such as boarding an airplane or entering a prison, Sikhs reluctantly comply with authorities. Some regulations allow the kirpan under certain restrictions; for example, rules in some California schools require that the kirpan be blunted and riveted into a sheath. This prevents any possible use of the kirpan as a weapon, but still allows it as a physical symbol of faith.

Guru Gobind Singh shows in the following Shabad the qualities that makes one fit to become part of his world mission called the Khalsa Panth. One must never shirk from conducting oneself in the most upright and considerate manner possible. The Khalsa has to be prepared at all times to willingly and consistently behave in the most impartial and just manner and to always without fail to undertake to carry out righteous and Gurmat acts; to never have any fear or show even the slightest hesitation when taking such actions; to never flinch from stepping in front of the enemy to protect the poor, weak and needy of the world – to never have any apprehension or anxiety from the righteous fight ahead. To never have any doubt or apprehension even if the opponents number 125,000 and have an unfair advantage. The Khalsa always accepts that the outcome of the fight will be in their favour. And without reservation to know and trust that Waheguru will be their support and protector and that triumph will be theirs:

While the bravery of a Khalsa can never be questioned as history is witness to the steadfastness of their resolve. (see Battle of Saragarhi). However, under no circumstances is the Sikh allowed to use force in aggression. Bhagat Kabir makes this very clear in the following verse:

The Khalsa is expected to live by the high moral standards of the Sikh Gurus at all times as stipulated in the Guru Granth Sahib and Reht Maryada which includes such things as abstaining from smoking, drinking and other intoxicants, performing daily prayers and always maintaining the five distinctive physical symbols of Sikhism (Kakars) on them. The most noticeable of these symbols being uncut hair (Kesh) and carrying the Kirpan.

This injunction to wear the 5Ks (Kakars) appears in the Reht Maryada (The Official Sikh Code of Conduct); “Have, on your person, all the time, the five K’s: The Kesh (unshorn hair), the Kirpan (sheathed sword), the Kaccha (drawers like garment), the Kanga (comb), the Karha (steel bracelet).” (Reht Maryada, Ceremony of Baptism or Initiation, Section 6, Chapter XIII, Article XXIV, paragraph (p) see SGPC Regulations)

The Reht Maryada does not specify the length of the Kirpan or the construction of the various parts of the Kirpan or how and where it is to be worn by the devotee. Traditionally, Kirpans can be anywhere from 3 feet (90 cm) blade size as carried by Sikhs on religious festivals, marriages and parades, to just a few inches (cm) in length like the regular kirpan worn by devotees in the West. They can either be worn over ones clothing or underneath. The blade is normally constructed of mild steel and the handle may be made of metal surrounded with leather or wood. The Kirpan is always kept sheathed except when it is withdrawn from its casing on such occasions as blessing of the Karah Prasad, ceremonial sweet pudding or Langar distributed during religious ceremonies.

Guru Gobind Singh in the following verses instructs the Sikhs to only draw the sword as a last resort and in response to an attack by the aggressor: