Another birthday of the Khalsa is upon us. The last year has been one of great trials and tribulations for the Sikh nation. In this article I write about the life of Guru Gobind Singh, his philosophy and about his masterful act in creating a new type of people, the saint soldiers or the Khalsa this day in April 1699. My purpose is not to sermonize but:
- a) To make an attempt to educate our younger generation, our youth on the life and times of Guru Gobind Singh whom even the non-Sikh historians regard as among the greatest man that India has ever produced and
- b) To remind ourselves, young and old, about our precious heritage, our rich history, our endless struggles against monumental odds to uphold basic principles of religious freedom and of the equally signal victories of the Khalsa culminating in the fall of the mighty Moghul power in India in the 18th century and the establishment of the Sikh state by Maharaja Ranjit Singh around 1880 and the events that followed.
We need to remind ourselves of this heritage and the message of Guru Gobind Singh so that both as individuals as well as collectively we remain conscious of our faith and our destiny that “‘the Khalsa shall rule,’ lest we should betray our father, Guru Gobind Singh and forget his promise that he will bestow all power to the Khalsa so long as it remains pure and his warning that he would not trust us and would have no use for us if we lose our uniqueness and our luster.
Guru Gobind Singh’s birth and early life:
Gobind Rai (as he was known at the time of his birth) was born in Patna in 1666 as the only son of the ninth Sikh Guru, Teg Bahadur. Gobind was religiously inclined from his early childhood and like his father would sit in deep meditation for long periods. He also took great interest in learning archery and shooting and several languages particularly Punjabi, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. As a result, he developed unusual skills in physical prowess, in languages and in religion.
At the tender nine, Gobind age of was appointed as the guru or the spiritual leader of Sikhs shortly after his father, Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 by the orders of the emperor Aurangzeb who was perhaps the most fanatical, the most insensitive and cruel of all the Moghul rulers. This execution took place at a major public thoroughfare, the infamous ChandniChawk in Delhi. One of the major shrines of Sikhs, Sis Ganj was later constructed at that site. The reason for this execution was Guru Teg Bahadur’s willingness to heed the pleadings of the Kashmiri Brahmins’ for help, since they were being tyrannized by the Moghul Governor of Kashmir who was forcing the Hindu population to either agree to be converted to Islam or be killed. Guru Teg Bahadur asked the Kashmiri Brahmins to tell the Governor that they will follow the lead of their Guru and that if he could be persuaded to accept Islam, they would too. This was, of course, accepting sure death since Guru Teg Bahadur knew fully well, as did everyone else, that the Moghul Governor and Aurangzeb will regard this as a challenge to their authority which of course, is precisely what it was. Sure enough, the guru was soon arrested, kept in a steel cage in prison under conditions of extreme hardship and torture and on his persistent refusal to save his life by giving up his principles and his religion, he was executed. The Moghul tyranny was so widespread and the fear so pervasive that Guru Teg Bahadurs’ body lay unclaimed for some time for fear of reprisals at the site where the heinous crime took place. The head and the trunk were later recovered separately by two persons under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night and in a_ blinding sandstorm. One of them, a water carrier of Delhi, Lakhi Banjara, secretly cremated the trunk by setting fire to his own straw hut in village Raisins near Delhi to avoid discovery. The other, a Ranghretta, by the name of Bhai Jiwan carried the head some 200 miles away to Anandpur on foot taking five days where it was properly cremated by the young son, Gobind, Dr. Karamjit Singh Rai now himself the guru. He eulogized his father by saying ‘“‘He saved with his blood the frontal mark (Tilak) and the sacred thread of the Hindus. O, what a wondrous act in this Dark Age (Kalyug). He gave his life, but not his honor! (P.6)
This is one of the major events which shaped guru Gobind’s later life. He also knew very poignantly the long history of religious persecution by the Moghul rulers of India of the Sikhs for almost 200 years prior to the execution of his father. His great-grandfather, Guru Arjan was burnt alive by Jehangir. It is generally accepted by the historians that “The death of Guru Arjan was a turning point in the history of the Panjab. He was the embodiment of many things that Guru Nanak had preached and stood for. He had brought the Hindu and Mussulmen together in creating a scripture where both were represented and in raising a temple whose foundation was laid by a Muslim and the super structure built by Hindus and Sikhs” 2 (p.62). The sixth guru, Hargobind (Guru Arjan’s son and Guru Gobind Singh’s grandfather) had taken up arms when he as cended the Sikh throne in 1606 at a time when he himself was 11 years old. Nevertheless, if Guru Arjan Dev’s murder was a turning point in the annals of Sikh history, Guru Teg Bahadur’s martyrdom produced the final spark for a major evolution in Sikhism at the hands of Guru Gobind Singh who was in addition conscious of his mission as ordained to him by the creator “I came to this world in order to protect and spread the religion and to thwart and uproot evil.’’
In order to accomplish his divine mission, he was convinced that he had to infuse new spirit into his followers for which he had formulated a well thought-out plan. He knew that the Kashmiri Brahmins for whose protection his father had laid his life were new becoming jealous of his developing power. The Moghuls were always itching to exterminate the ‘‘infidels.’”’ The guru knew that the only way to extinguish religious persecution was to fight it head on. Later in a letter to Aurangzeb entitled ‘Epistle to Victory,’’ he proclaimed in the most apt and stirring Persian verse ‘“‘When all other means fail, it is entirely legitimate to resort to the sword.”
Also, like his grandfather, Hargobind, he let it be known that he would welcome offerings in arms and horses and that he would welcome able-bodied men to join his crusade,”’ 2
The Transformation from Sikhs to Khalsa:
It was in the light of the above martial atmosphere deliberately promoted and an expectancy for military action that he announced a major meeting of his followers on the first of Baisakh in 1699 (April 13, 1699) in Anandpur which was now the seat of Sikh church. “‘He specifically exhorted the Sikhs to come to the meeting with their hair and beards unshorn. It was here at this meeting that he used his genius and his skills at dramatics for psychological effects to accomplish his premeditated plan to infuse new spirit in his followers and to transform the behavior patterns of ordinary men into a new creed and a new type of people who would hence forth believe in service above self, who would fearlessly uphold righteousness, guard peace and preserve human dignity no matter what the odds or the consequences, and yet never lose their humility and their God consciousness and a people who believed in and wished goodwill for all humanity as a manifestation of God’s will.
This was the creation of a universal brotherhood of the Khalsa, the pure ones! How did he do it? After the morning religious service on that fateful Baisakhi day, he appeared on the stage of the overflowing and expectant congregation, drew his three foot long sword from its scabbard and proclaimed that he wanted to test the convictions of his followers. ‘‘Is there anyone who would offer his head for my sword?” he asked. For a while, the people thought that the Guru was not serious. But he insisted that he was serious. After some trepidation, one Daya Ram rose to offer himself. He was taken to an adjoining tent. A little later the guru came out of the tent with his sword dripping with blood and asked for another volunteer. In this manner, five men were “‘sacrificed”’ in the tent. A little later the guru came out accompanied by the five individuals dressed in new uniforms of the Khalsa, and announced that the “‘five beloved ones”’ will constitute the nucleus of the Khalsa. ‘‘These five beloved ones were baptized in a new manner. He mixed sugar in .plain water and churned it with a double-edged steel dagger to the recitation of hymns. The five who till then belonged to different Hindu castes were made to drink out of one bowl to signify their initiation into the casteless fraternity of the Khalsa and their Hindu names were changed to one family name “‘Singh’’ for henceforth their father was Guru Gobind Singh (so renamed after his own baptism by the five beloved ones), their mother Sahib Devan (who was the Guru’s third wife and having no children of her own she was honored by Guru Gobind Singh by being made the mother of the Khalsa) and_ their place of birth Anandpur. The baptism symbolized a rebirth, by which the initiated were considered as having renounced their previous occupations (Kirt nas) for that of soldering; of having severed their family ties (Kul nas) to become the family of Gobind; of having rejected their earlier creeds (Dharam Nas) for the creed of the Khalsa; of having given up all ritual (Karm nas) are that sanctified by the Khalsa.
Five emblems were prescribed for the Khalsa 2 P. 83. These were to wear their hair and beard uncut, to carry a comb in the hair, to wear a knee length pair of breeches worn by soldiers of the time, to carry a steel bracelet and a sword all the time.
Some twenty thousand people were baptized at this meeting. The ceremony ended with the Guru greeting the new converts with a new form of salutation! “The Khalsa are the chosen of God; victory is to our God”’ “Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh.”
Unquestionable the guru had wrought a miracle, serving as an instrument for the creator, he had succeeded in changing human nature and he had created a new man In so doing he had established what he referred as the “Creators army.”
The Battleground an¢ the Khalsa:
The Hindu rajas of Kashmir were using al sort of devious ways to stop the rapidly accele rating power of Guru Go bind Singh and his new army. They appealed to Aurangzeb for help who ordered the viceroys 0! Sirhand and Lahore to march against Guru Go: bind. 3 They besiege Anandpur in 1701. The Khalsa fought valiantly for three years but their supplies were completely cut off. The guru left Anandpur in the winter of 1704 and a large force of Moghuls set upon him in hot pursuit on the banks of Sarsa negotiating the promise given to the guru for safe passage. A pitched battle took place there and he was separated from his family, but he was able to make his way for Chamkaur in Ambala district. Two of his sons died fighting side by side with the guru. The two younger ones were bricked alive in Sirhand by the Moghul viceroy. Nevertheless, the guru remained absolutely unperturbed. The last battle took place in Muktsar in District Ferozepur. It was a pitched battle. It was here that the “forty saved ones”’ fell fighting. Khalsa suffered heavy losses but was victorious and defeated the Royal Forces.
In all these battles, the guru fought alongside his men and never put his family before his followers. After his victory in Muktsar, he reached Talwandi Sabo now called Damdama Sahib or the “resting place.”
Here the guru stayed nine months and immediately took up another project. He completed the holy Granth by adding hymns of the last four gurus who preceeded him. From here he wrote another classic the “Epistle of victory” (Zafarhnama) to Aurangzeb, in which he castigated him for his bigotry, his treachery and hypocrisy in proclaiming that he was a manof God.
He died at the age of 42 on October 7, 17-08 having been stabbed by two pathans who were supposedly mercenaries of Aurangzeb. Shortly before he succumbed to his wounds, he told his followers that the life of gurus was to end with him and that the Sikhs should regard the holy “Granth” as the living embodiment of the guru thereafter. This too was a singularly original act. He abolished succession to a living guru and for the first and perhaps the only time in human history showed; that a “‘true King” had transferred both temporal and spiritual soverngnity, the former to the Khalsa and latter to “Guru Granth” without the people ever even asking for it.
Although a detailed account of the various battles that the Khalsa engaged in is beyond the scope of this discussion, suffice it is to say that “the guru had made death for a cause so popular that when price was put on the head of every Sikh and the whole community was hounded out of their habitations and lived for years in the woods and the hideouts, not one surrendered or accepted defeat: 1 (P. 74).
A mere two years after the death of Guru Gobind Singh, his handpicked military general, Banada Singh Bahadur (who was till then an ascetic named Madho Das) had captured Sirhind in 17-10 and virtually reigned the large territories between the rivers Jumna and Satluj. He even introduced a new calendar dating from his capture of Sirhind and had new coins struck (to mark his reign) bearing the names of his spiritual masters, Guru Nanak and Gobind Singh. Although Banda’s was a short reigh, the Sikhs shook the Moghul empire to its foundations and ultimately Maharaja Ranjit Singh established the Sikh State over entire Panjab in 1799 or by the end of “the Guru’s Century” and later also in Kashmir, Ladakh and the Pathan land right up to the Khyber pass. “‘For the first time in India’s long history, the tide of invasions had turned westward. This was nothing short of a miracle’’ 1 (P. 74).
In conclusion, the historians agree that the ‘‘Sikhism and Sikh Society as they emerged from the transformation affected by Guru Gobind Singh, may be interpreted as the most significant direct and creative response to the challenge that the me
daieval islamic 90CI0rellgious creed and political authority offered to the contemporary Indian Society”’ 4 (P. 3). Professor Bannerji similarly asserts that “It is undeniable that Guru Gobind Singh must be counted amongst the greatest of Indians of all ages” 5 (P. 156).
Any account of Guru Gobind Singh will be incomplete without the mention of his genius as the most creative and prodigious poet who has few peers in the annals of literature. His compositions on the Khalsa, his autobiography and his hymns in defining and praising God (for example) are classics in the world of letters and are revered by the Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. He had 52 poets and bards in his court that could themselves sing and compose in several languages as did the guru himself. He thus enriched the Sikh literature and theology. In spite of all these superhuman qualities, he never claimed divinity for himself and put himself at par with his Khalsa. He insisted ‘“‘I am the slave of the perfect One. I came to this world to witness his creation.”
No wonder, Bhai Gurdas Singh, one of the eminent Sikh theologians wrote about Guru Gobind Singh:
“Lo, a man is born amongst men Chivalrous, unfathomable, Singular and Unique’’ 1 (Pg. 1).
This is the man we remember today, the man whose company or even whose touch and sight could lift ordinary mortals to unbelievable heights of human achievement, the man who ‘‘redeemed his pledge that he would train the Sparrow to fight the hawk and teach one man to fight an army.
The “‘Khalsa”’ today:
We are a proud and a blessed people. And we rejoice in having Guru Gobind Singh as our father. However, in my humble opinion there is no greater duty for us as individuals today than to do some introspection on what Khalsa was “then” and what it is “Now’ and to ask the question if we still maintain that same vigor, that purity, that lustre. Believe the answer is obvious. Most of us pay only lip service to the lofty ideals of the Khalsa and lack that total commitment to mould our lives according to the code of conduct of the Khalsa. To cover up for our failings (or actually lack of total dedication) we often resort to questioning the ‘“‘need”’ of this and the ‘‘need’”’ of that and tell ourselves that the times have changed. We make compromises and in so doing we forget the guru’s injunction not to loss our uniqueness.
Of course, another illustrious saint solider, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale has brought about a renaissance of the Sikh Spirit. Through his life and martyrdom he has conveyed us the same eternal lesson not to yield when persecution becomes rampant and is practiced in the name of the state. We cannot surrender our Sikh identity to Hindu fanaticism any more than Guru Gobind Singh permitted it to be surrendered to Moghul fanaticism. However, we must commit ourselves to belong to the fraternity of the Khalsa by taking Guru’s Amrit, if we are to overcome the odds against our religious identity and of course, overcome we must.
- Singh, Gopal 1966. Govind Singh
- Singh, Khushwant, 1963. A History of the Sikhs, Vol. 1
- Singh, Teja. 1944. Essays in Sikhism.
- Ray Niharranjan. 1967. Sikhism and Indian Society An Introduction (Trans. Indian Inst. Adv. Studies, Vol. 4).
- Bannerjee, I: 1962. Evolution of the Khalsa (Part II).