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Quebec politicians passed a motion on Feb. 9 that bans the controversial Sikh religious symbol from the national assembly. This kirpan is displayed in Ottawa March 2, 2006. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

What is a kirpan?

A kirpan is a small sword, worn in a sheath on a strap or belt.  It is an article of faith that initated Sikhs are supposed to wear at all times. 

The word kirpan comes from two words which translate as mercy and bless. The kirpan is supposed to be a weapon of defence only.

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Giani Atma Singh Aziz holds kirpans prior to a news conference by Swiss knife maker Victorinox in New Delhi Sept. 1, 2004. The company launched a series of Kirpans in India to mark the 400th anniversary of the installation of the Granth Sahib, Sikhism's holy scripture, at the Golden Temple. ((B. Mathur/Reuters))

It is usually worn under clothes. The blade is typically about 8 centimetres long, but ceremonial kirpans are the length of a standard sword. Manvir Singh, a Sikh minister of religion in the U.K., told CBC News that there is no size requirement but the kirpan cannot be so small that it is merely symbolic. And the blade must be iron or steel.

The kirpan is one of the five Ks of Sikhism.

What are the five Ks?

They are articles of faith for an initiated Sikh. There are no exceptions.

The five 'kakar' all begin with the letter 'k,' hence the name:

  • kes: uncut hair
  • kanga: a wooden comb worn in the hair
  • kara: a metal bangle or bracelet worn on the wrist
  • kachhera: loose, long underwear, about knee-length
  • kirpan

Which Sikhs wear a kirpan?

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Sikh women hold ceremonial kirpans during a religious procession in the northern Indian city of Allahbad, Nov. 13, 2005. Both female and male Sikhs may be initiated, and then required by their faith to wear a kirpan. ((Jitendra Prakash/Reuters))

The Sikh faith stipulates that from the time of baptism or initiation, Sikhs, male and female, must wear a kirpan and the other four Ks. They are known as Khalsa Sikhs and comprise an estimated 25 to 30 per cent of all Sikhs in Canada, Gian Singh Sandhu, the founding president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, told CBC News.

A Sikh may become a Khalsa at any age.

What is the Khalsa?

In the Sikh faith the Khalsa is the army of God. It is not a conquering army, nor does the Khalsa only defend Sikhs. The Khalsa is required to defend any victims of aggression or injustice.

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Sikh youth light oil lamps inside the complex of the holy Sikh shrine of the Golden Temple to mark the birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, in Amritsar, India Jan. 11. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, declared wearing a kirpan a commitment of faith in 1699. ((Munish Sharma/Reuters))

What are the origins of the requirement to carry a kirpan?

The requirement dates to 1699 when Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, declared that every Khalsa Sikh must wear the five Ks to symbolise their commitment to their faith.

That was a time of Mughal conquest and conversion to Islam in south Asia.

Can Sikhs change the requirement to wear a kirpan at all times?

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Montreal teenager Gurbaj Singh Multani displays his kirpan in Ottawa March 2, 2006 after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8-0 that a total ban of the kirpan in schools violates the Charter of Rights because it infringes on the Charter's guarantees of religious freedom. In 2001 Multani was barred from wearing his ceremonial dagger to school. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

No. Guru Gobind Singh was the last human guru and he declared the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, the next guru, thereby ruling out any change.

What happens if a kirpan is used as an offensive weapon?

First of all there may be criminal charges, depending on the circumstances and applicable laws.

Among Sikhs, according to Gian Singh Sandhu, someone who misuses a kirpan would be ostracized and "looked down upon."

Manvir Singh explained that Sikhs would consider such a person an apostate.  Through a formal process someone who misuses a kirpan would be declared 'tankhaiya,' and no longer an initiated Sikh.

A sikh who has broken their vow may be able to redeem themselves, however. One requirement would be to perform a stipulated amount of community service, Singh said in an interview.

How many stories since 1940 did a search of the Facts on File World News Digest for the term 'kirpan' find?

One. The story, from 2006, is about the Supreme Court of Canada's 8-0 decision that, "a Montreal school board's prohibition on Sikh ceremonial daggers in schools abridged the freedoms of orthodox followers of the religion."

CBC News has a detailed timeline on that case.