Sikh Naming Practices
While the Sikh traditions requires that the name of the newly born should start with the first alphabet of the first word at the top of the page of Guru Granth Sahib opened at random for naming a Sikh child, the exact name starting with this particular alphabet is left to the discretion of the parents of the child. In older days parents were not very fussy about choosing the name. We often hear such names Vir Singh, Jodh Singh, Lal Singh, Kala Singh, Teja Singh and Ganda Singh. Literally translated some of these would mean red, black, sharp and onion. We also come across such names as Dilitorh Singh, Jang Bahadur Singh, Karnail Singh and Jarnail Singh. If one goes through the names of some of the great men of Sikh history one finds that men with smaller names had bigger achievements to their credit. Vir Singh, the name with smallest three letters was the greatest Punjabi litterateur and exponent of Gurbani in the twentieth century. Jodh Singh was the first Sikh Principal of the Khalsa College, Amritsar while Teja Singh and Ganda Singh were known scholars of Sikh history and Lal Singh well-known interpreter of Sikh theology and Zail Singh, first Sikh President of the Indian republican. What is in the name becomes clear from the Punjabi joke Natha Singh Prem Singh one and the same thing. But that is no longer valid. Parents in modern times would like to find a name for their son or daughter which sounds meaningful and good to pronounce. And here starts the difficulty of finding a suitable name while stiking to the Sikh practice of starting the name with the first alphabet of the first word of the page of Guru Granth opened for the purpose. Quickly deciding the name within the given parameters becomesall the more difficult in the case of parents settled in foreign countries. Unlike India where the mother can leave the hospital by simply registering the names of the parents and instead of proposing name for the child simply filling male/female child, in North America the mother cannot leave the hospital till a formal name of the child is registered in the hospital records.
Strictly following the Sikh tradition a Sikh woman has a distinct identity if she sticks to the Sikh principle of a caste-free society. Thus a woman named Harbans Kaur remains Harbans Kaur as a daughter and wife in case she does not use the caste and Harbans Kaur Gill in case her father’s caste is Gill and Harbans Kaur Brar in case she marries a person with Brar sub caste. In both cases she has no identity of her own if she follows the caste, in the first case as Miss Gill and in the second Mrs. Brar. Rather than asserting their independence and individuality in the western style where often women have started using surname of their husband after their own name without dropping the first surname of their father. Sikh men and women would do well by going back to the Sikh tradition of using the surname of Singh and Kaur after their first names as enjoined by the Gurus.
Most Sikhs have three names: a personal name, a name to show Sikh identity (Singh, ‘lion’ for a male) and a clan or sub sect name. Women often just use Kaur (female) as a third name but can also use ‘Singh’ as many families have taken this as a surname. Compound names are common, especially those ending in 'inder' (from the Vedic god of battle, Indra) which can be male or female, and beginning with bal- (Sanskrit 'bala', strength). The Name of God is stressed in the names. The Guru Granth Sahib , the holy book of Sikhism, is opened and the name begins with the first syllable on the page. Men are often addressed as ‘Sardarji’ (abbreviated S.) which is an honorific similar the English ‘Mister’ (abbreviated Mr.).
Most Punjabi names can be used for males or females and women sometimes take their husband’s name as a middle or last name. This means that women sometimes have names meanings warrior, brother or strength which are more traditionally male. English spellings for these names can vary as Hindi and Punjabi use written accent marks to define pronunciation and not everyone follows the same system when converting from one language to another. For instance, the name Avinash (‘indestructible’), a modernization of Abnash, also occurs as Avinasa, Abinash and Abhinash. While Sikhs are no supposed to use caste after their common surname of Singh (lion) for male and Kaur (Princess) for female, of late it is becoming common with the Sikhs to use caste after Singh or Kaur. While most use their caste such as Surinder Singh Ahluwalia, Jagmit Singh Brar, Jagjit Singh Arora and Harnam Singh Suri, Surjit Singh Majithia and Gurdial Singh Dhillon. Others use the names of their village as their surname such as Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Parkash Singh Badal, Surjit Singh Barnala and Surinder Singh Kairon. We also notice that some of the girls have also started writing Singh after their first name such as Deepaling Singh, Regina Singh, Malvika Singh with some using both Kaur and Singh in preference to the originality assigned name such Nikki Guninder Kaur Singh. There are others who would like to spell Kaur differently such as Punjabi writer Ajit Cour and her artist daughter Aparna Cour.
Most elements can occur as a suffix or prefix but some are more likely to be one than the other. For instance, -pal, -want and -jit/jeet are far more common as suffixes.