By Dr. Jagtar Singh Grewal
Dr. Jagtar Singh Grewal is an internationally recognized Sikh scholar. His books on Sikh Gurus
and Sikh history have been widely acclaimed as accurate and perceptive. He is a Professor of History at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. He also served as Vic e-Chancellor of this University.
THE 20th century historians of the Sikhs have concentrated on the politics, government and the army of the period of Sikh rule, with a few recent exceptions. Consequently, we are just beginning to know something of Sikh social history during the late 18th and the early 19th century. As it may be expected a priori, Sikh literature of the period provides important insights into this social history. We propose to analyses the work of two writers who responded in different ways to the establishment of Sikh rule.
One of these two writers was Kesar Singh, a Chhiber Brahman, who did not participate in the Sikh struggle for political power but whose ancestors had been associated with the Sikh Gurus. Looking for patronage from the Sikh rulers in his old age he assumed the role of a mentor, trying to suggest how they should exercise power. The second writer was Ratan Singh, a Bhangu Jat, who was born after the establishment of Sikh rule but whose ancestors had participated in the Sikh struggle for power. Afraid of the threat to Sikh rule in the Punjab posed by the expanding British empire in India, particularly after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, he tried to demonstrate how sovereign Sikh rule was established. In the process, both these writers tell us much more about themselves and their contemporaries.
Born around 1700, Kesar Singh was taken to Delhi by his father Gurbakhsh Singh after the evacuation of Anandpur by Guru Gobind Singh in 1704. In Delhi Kesar Singh was associated, like his father, with the establishments of Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Devi, the widows of Guru Gobind Singh. He accompanied his father to Ramdaspur (Amritsar) in the second decade of the 18th century. He stayed there to see the beginning of a long political struggle of the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh against the Mughal administrators of the province of Lahore. Kesar Singh does not appear to have stayed long in Ramdaspur. Probably, he left it in the 1730s for his home in Jammu, where he wrote his Bansavalinama in 1769 when he was about 70 years old.
The full title of Kesar Singh’s work is Bansavalinama Dasan Patshahian Ka. It is not confined, however, to the ten Gurus. There are four chapters on the 18th century. An alternative title, Kursinama, underlines Kesar Singh’s interest in genealogies, like Bansavalinama, but the scope of his work is larger in terms of contents. Kesar Singh combines in his work the features of Janamsakhi, Gurbilas and Rehatnama literature in Gurmukhi. The bulk of his text is in Dohras and Chaupies, but there is also a large number of quotations from the Adi Granth and the Dasam Granth. There are occasional quotations from the Vars of Bhai Gurdas and the work of a court poet of Guru Gobind Singh. There are references also to Tulsidas’s Ramayana, Bhagawata Gita, Yog Vashishth and a Purana. However, the author does not give the impression of having been a learned person. Despite his familiarity with Sikh scriptures, he shows little grasp of the essential doctrines of Sikhism, or its social ethos.
The first known Sikh writer after Senapat who had written his Gursobha half a century earlier, Kesar Singh was impelled to write his Bansavalinama by the political change which brought the
Singhs of Guru Gobind Singh to the top. He writes on the assumption that Sikh rule had come to stay. He does not question the legitimacy of Sikh rule because Guru Gobind Singh himself had decided to confer ruler ship on the Shudras. But he is not exactly jubilant about this development. Perhaps, the clue lies in his personal predicament. He regrets at one place that he knows no ruler and he has received nothing for subsistence. He is contemptuous of those writers who take their compositions to the rulers and pander to them for patronage. He does not mind the patronage given to the descendants of the Sikh Gurus, but they were not th eonly grantees under Sikh rule. Kesar Singh believed that only the Brahmin Sikhs were entitled to receive state charity and, therefore, he feels bitter about the situation in which their claims were being neglected. His own claims to patronage by the Sikh rulers, he felt, were stronger than those of others because of the great services rendered by his illustrious ancestors to the Sikh Gurus.
However Kesar Singh was unhappy about the acquisition of power per se. This was because power and piety in his view did not go together. He was afraid that the Singhs would become more and d Sikh scholar. His books on Sikh Gurus te and perceptive. He is a Professor of das Vice-chancellor of this more engrossed in earthly pursuits and forget about Sikhs. He gives the impression at places that the doom of Sikhs is imminent. On the whole, however, the situation was not yet behind redemption. The foremost duty ofa ruler was to be just, and the Sikh rulers could refrain from injustice and oppression. Their power could be sanctified also by charity (punndan). Kesar Singh advised them not only to devote their time to the worship of God but also to disburse the revenues of their territories generously by way of dharmarth.
A potential beggar, Kesar Singh sets himself up as a mentor of the Sikh rulers, telling them whom to associate and whom not to associate with their government. Since the Sikh rulers had associated non-Sikhs with their administration from the very beginning, Kesar Singh does not miss the opportunity of traducing Khatris and Muslims who were certainly associated with Sikh administration. They are presented as the enemies of Guru Arjan, Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh. In fact, nothing good from them had come to the Gurus and their followers, according to Kesar Singh. Khatries are occasionally equated with the Hindus in general, but Kesar Singh’s consistent and vehment animosity is directed towards the Muslims in general.
Indeed, according to him, the sins of an individual become associated with the class or the com
munity to which he belongs. Thus, the acts of the Mughal rulers and their administrators get associated with the Muslims. Since the use of Persian in administration enabled the Muslims as well as the Khatris to continue serving the new state at various levels, Kesar Singh does not approve of the use of Persian in Sikh administration. It is interesting to find Kesar Singh making use of Guru Nanak’s denunciation of the Khatris of his day for taking to Persian, the language of the malechh.
Kesar Singh appears to react to the liberal policies of the Sikh rulers more as a Brahman than asa Sikh, with conservative implications for Sikh polity. His presentation of Sikhi too is Brahmanized, with conservative implications for the Sikh social order. Members from amongst the erstwhile Brahmans, Khatris, Vaishyas and Shudras were a part of the Sikh panth; they all shared’ a common faith, bound together by the ties of Sikhi. This did not mean, however, that all other ties were snapped: Kesar Singh narrates the incident of Mazhabi Sikh who pretended to be a Sandhu Jat, ate with Jat Sikhs and, on that account, was punished by Kahn Singh Trehan, a descendant of Guru Angad. In the past, the Singhs who had consecrated their lives to the cause of the Panth did not have to bother about the distinctions of caste for matrimonial alliances. All that was insisted upon was that a Sikh should marry a Sikh. Similarly, they could put aside the sacred thread and dhoti and they could disregard ritual purity in eating. Among the contemporary Sikhs, however, a Brahman should marry a Brahman and a Khatri should marry a Khatri. No one should be forced either to wear or to remove the sacred thread. A Brahman Sikh need not put it aside. In support of the ties of caste, Kesar Singh invokes the authority of the Adi Granth as well as of the Gita. For him, exact varana has its own peculiar dharma which is not affected by the common bond of the Sikh faith. Caste distinctions can, and should, be upheld be’ cause there is no contradiction between the equality of faith and the inequality of social position in the Sikh Panth.
Kesar Singh knows that all the members of the Sikh Panth are not Singhs. He divides the Sikhs into four categories. Two of these belonged to the past and two to the present. In the past, there were Sikhs who had lived a life of piety in the presence of the Gurus; they were didari Sikhs. Their legacy was preserved by the murid Sikhs, who were living a life of piety and detachment in the present. Both these categories of Sikhs were not Singhs. Among the Singhs too, there were two categories: the mukta and the maiki.
The former: WHALLEY VINYL was always ready to lay down their lives in the cause of the Sikh faith; they belonged to the past. The latter were the contemporary Singhs who were involved in the maya of earthly pursuits. For Kesar Singh, the distinction between the maiki Singhs and the murid Sikhs is rather basic. As he puts it, Sikhi was instituted by Guru Nanak on the bank of the river Ravi and Singhi was instituted by Guru Gobind Singh under the shadow of the Shiwaliks. It is interesting to note that Kesar Singh’s own preference is for the former. Whereas the maiki Singhs are accountable to Dharamraj for what they do, the muridi Sikhs enjoy immunity from any such accountability.
Kesar Singh’s concern for Sikhi is no proof of his good understanding of Sikhism. He appears to hold on to Brahmanical beliefs and attitudes with remarkable tenacity. Besides one God, he believes in the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. In a long episode the Goddess is invoked by Guru Gobind Singh, with the help of a Brahman from the South, to avenge the martyrdom of his father by creating the Khalsa. The blue dress of the Khalsa was the dress of the Goddess. Kesar Singh subscribes to the idea of incarnation. Guru Gobind Singh is presented at one place as the avatar of Vishnu, and Sri Chand as the reincarnation of Gorakh Nath. Taking the doctrine of transmigration rather literally, Kesar Singh explains the enmity of Prithi Chand with Guru Arjan, of Ram Rai with Guru Har Krishan and of Aurangzeb with Guru Tegh Bahadur in terms of the law of karma. In combination with his belief in transmigration, this law explains much of the relationship betwen the Gurus belonged had all descended from Raja Dasratha. Guru Nanak gave to Ram Das through Angad and Amar Das only what the Bedis had owed to the Sodhis through the Trehans and the Bhallas. To Kesar Singh, the Vedas and the Puranas are
nearly as important as the Sikh scriptures. he can bracket the Adi Granth and the Gita as equally
authoritative texts. Nevertheless, Kesar Singh sub scribes to the idea of the unity of Guru ship and to the doctrine of Guru Granth in his own compromising way. He emphasizes that all the Gurus from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh should be regarded as one. Baba Nanak himself appeared in ten different forms; the spirit was the same though the corporeal form was different; the light was the same though the lamps were different. He also says that personal Guru ship ended with Guru Gobind Singh, but he refers to the Guru ships of Banda Bahadur, Jeet Singh, Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Devi. Guru Gobind Singh vested Guruship in the Khalsa Panth and the Granth. Kesar Singh tries to adjust both the Adi and the Dasam Granth by stating that the two were like real brothers. However, Adi Granth being the elder gets precedence over the younger; the Adi Granth is the Guru on the authority of Guru Gobind Singh himself. It was the duty of the GuruGranth. Kesar Singh insists that he is competent to interpret the Guru’s message. As an interpreter of the Guru Granth, he appears to propose a sort of alliance between the newly established Sikh state and a Brahmanized Sikhism.
Ratan Singh Bhangu, like Kesar Singh Chhibber, subscribes to the twin doctrine of Guru Granth and Guru Panth. However, whereas Kesar Singh attaches greater importance to the doctrine of Guru Granth, Ratan Singh appears to attach greater importance to the doctrine of Guru Panth. Unlike Kesar Singh Chhiber, the idea of Sikh sovereignty is all important to. Ratan Singh Bhangu. Whereas Kesar Singh is socially conservative and indifferent to ideological differences, Ratan Singh appears to put great emphasis on both equality and conformity.
Ratan Singh Bhangu subscribes to the idea of the unity of Guru ship from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, using the metaphor of a lamp being lighted by another. When Guru Gobind Singh visits Dadu Dawar, he is greeted as “the tenth Nanak”. Ratan Singh is also uncompromising on the end of personal Guruship with Guru Gobind Singh. Banda Bahaduris rejected by the tat Khalsa because, among other things, he declares himself to be the Guru. Similarly Sodhi Gulab Rai, Kharak Singh Gangushahi, Harbhagat Niranjania and his successors are disfavored by the Singhs because of their claim to Guru ship. According to Ratan Singh, both the Adi and the Dasam Granth, referred to as Damdami and Amritsari, were in the camp of the Khalsa at the time of the Great Carnage of 1762. This was probably a common practice. However, when Ratan Singh Bhangu uses the term Guru Granth, he appears to refer to the Adi Granth. When, for instance, the robe of honor and the title of Nawab are sent by Zakariya Nawab are sent by Zakariya Khan to the Khalsa at Ramdaspur, because a Singh was reciting at that time an appropriate verse from the bani contained in the Adi Granth, interpreted as an indication coming from the “Guru Granth”. In any case the Khalsa opened the Guru Granth to hear appropriate orders in a given situation. The verse from the Granth is regarded as the voice of the Guru.
For Ratan Singh, Guru Gobind Singh became one with his disciples when he asked “the cherished five” to give him khandipahul. He became at once the disciple an the Guru (ape gur chela). The individual Singh was all important in the eyes of Guru Gobind Singh but any five Singhs collectively were much more important. Like “the cherished five”, they could initiate others into the KhaIsa fold. The prayers of “the five” were regarded as efficacious because of the presence of the Guru among them. Indeed all the power that is in the gurbani is there in “the five” too. That was why. Kapur Singh accepted the robe of honor only after it had been placed at the feet of five Singhs. However, “the five” were not more important than a whole congregation (sangat); rather, they represented the congregation. “The Guruand the Sangat are one, there is no difference between them”. The congregation in turn is representative of the entire KhaIsa That is the sense in which the Guru is the Khalsa and the Khalsa are the Guru. In other words, “the five” represent the Guru Panth in certain situations just as a whole congregation represents the entire Panth in some others. It is extremely significant to note that Ratan Singh Bhangu compares the vesting of Guru ship in the Panth by Guru Gobind Singh with the vesting of Guru ship in Angad by Guru Nanak. Personal Guru ship ends with Guru Gobind Singh but the doctrine of the unity of Guru ship remains intact.
There are frequent references to councils (diwan) held by the KhaIsa and resolutions (gurmata) passed by them. Such resolutions were passed in a variety of situations on specific issues of immediate concern. They were binding on everyone present and also on those who were informed about them precisely because the Guru was believed to be present in the Khalsa. The term gurmata itself is suggestive of special significance attached to these resolutions. They were often passed in the presence of the Guru Granth but this was not the only or the primary reason why they. Were called “the resolutions of the Guru”. Ratan Singh uses the term mate in its ordinary connotation of decision or intention. The term gurmata is reserved for the occasions when the Khalsa deliberated on a certain issue in the presence of a large number. The time of Baisakhi and Diwali at Amritsar naturally provided the occasion for many a gurmata.
Though the gurmatas related generally to specific and immed late issues, their implications were not necessarily of a short duration. The resolution to attack Zain Khan, the Afghan governor of Sirhind, for instance, did not merely mean his elimination; it also involved the occupation of his territories on a lasting basis. In this connection, Ratan Singh’s reference to another resolution passed by the Khalsa at the Akal Takht carries even a greater significance. According to this gurmata, the Singh who occupied a certain territory first had the right to keep it and to administer it. No one, howsoever, more powerful, was supposed to oust him from that place. That was why there was a tendency among the important leaders to occupy Cities and towns or large chunks of territory, while the smaller leaders and even individual Singhs occupied villages or small pockets of territory. This was made possible by the sanctity attached to the doctrine of Guru Panth. By contrast, actions taken by a miss, an association based on kinship or local ties did not have the sanctity which the gurmata based action possessed. To be continued