A kirpan is a ceremonial sword carried by all devout members of the Sikh religion. Many Sikhs compare the symbolism of the kirpan to that of the Christian cross, stressing the fact that it stands for an ideal, rather than actually serving as a weapon. Wearing the kirpan is a constant reminder that Sikhs have a duty to protect people, fight for justice, and act with virtue. Because the kirpan is perceived as a functional weapon by people outside the Sikh community, Sikhs sometimes encounter legal or social difficulties as a result of their obligation to wear the kirpan.
Baptized Sikhs are obligated to wear five items, known as the “Five Ks,” at all times. In addition to the kirpan, the Five Ks include: the kachera, a pair of comfortable cotton shorts; the kara, a steel or iron bracelet; the kangha, a wooden hair comb; and kesh, or unshorn hair. According to religious tradition, the mandate to wear the Five Ks was given to the prophet Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. Like the kara, the kirpan is classically made out of iron.
The kirpan is worn strapped to a belt known as a gatra, and the wearer is specifically forbidden from using the blade in anger or malice. However, traditionally Sikhs were expected to draw their kirpans to defend the helpless, or to assist people in need. This was an important part of the saint-warrior ethos of the Sikh community, with many Sikh men training in martial arts to learn how to effectively defend others from attack.
For a Sikh, the kirpan is a very important religious symbol. Removing the kirpan is not allowed, and it is also emotionally traumatic, because the blade is an important part of the wearer's religious identity. Most Sikhs wear their kirpans under their garments, so bystanders are generally not aware that a blade is even being worn. The kirpan is typically strapped tightly into the belt it is worn with, and it may be worn in a variety of locations, depending on the needs of the wearer.
Unfortunately for Sikhs, people who are not in the Sikh community view the kirpan as a potentially dangerous weapon. Sikhs are asked to remove their kirpans before boarding aircraft, for example, and they are sometimes banned in schools and other public locations, despite protest from the Sikh community. In a desire to accommodate the religious imperative to wear the kirpan, some communities have specifically permitted the use of blunted kirpans, allowing Sikhs to retain this religious symbol while also satisfying local laws in regards to weapons.