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Martyrdom and the Sikhs
– Concept and Tradition –

Hazara Singh

Martyrdom stands for supreme sacrifice against tyranny, discrimination and exploitation perpetrated by the state or any oppressive system. It excludes the ventures for self-glorification and focuses mainly on a valiant tryst with death for a cause leading to the greatest good of the largest number.

Literally Sikh means sish i.e., a disciple, keen to learn. A Sikh is not superstitious or orthodox but an innovator. Being dynamic in approach through the combination of head, heart, and hands, he is not bound by divisive taboos and inhibitions.

Concepts are corollaries of the basic philosophy which lead to the evolution of a particular faith. Traditions get laid when the followers of that way of life display courage to stand by those precepts through enlightened conviction. Often a remedy for a contemporary malady has to be explored, when either no clue to the effect is available in the parent source or a suggestive precedent has been left by the founder. Tradition in Sikhism disfavours ritualism.

Concept and Tradition
Sikhism is a realistic philosophy which does not consider the life on earth as an illusory dream. It impresses that living should not be wasted in abstract expectations after death, but be devoted to self-improvement and selfless service of mankind for transforming the mortals into His image (gurmukhs).

Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of Sikhs, includes sermons of such preceptors as believed in the oneness of God, regarded all human beings as equal, and emphasized that worldly activities can be sanctified by leading a purposeful life.

A Sikh neither fears death nor shuns anyone due to imaginary prejudices. Being a believer in the Divine will, he strives for defending virtue from being debased by evil, even risking his life in the bargain.

Immortality, i.e., overcoming death, the theme of many an epic, is an unnatural wish and a biological impossibility. It is not to be invoked from any deity, but can be sought through virtuous deeds by leaving noble footprints on the sands of time. Accordingly, initiation in Sikhism is called amrit chhakna, i.e., partaking of nectar. God, in His Benevolence, reprieves worldly lapses, if they are sincerely regretted and firmly pledged to be redressed. Desperados get transformed as saints, and the deserters earn esteem as heroes after they switch on to virtuous and duteous way of life. Paying tribute to martyrs and complimenting the selfless devotees forms a conspicuous part of Sikh invocation (ardas),

To sum up, recitation (simran), service and sacrifice constitute the warp and woof of Sikh faith. Their co-ordination as a way of life, in due course, led also to other broad concepts like nationalism, humanism and the martyrdom for a cause in the caste-ridden, fatalist and inert Indian society.

Historical Evolution
The divine revelation as epitomized by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of Sikhism, in the mool mantra, preamble to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, conveys that :

– Common parenthood of God implies that all human beings, irrespective of their birth, gender, creed, colour and race, form a universal fraternity;
– The divine Image as Eternal Truth, free from fright and rancour, means that ignorance amounts to profanity and the prejudices created thereby are baseless;
– As God does not have any form, it is not right to worship Him as an idol; and
– The belief in His common parenthood as well as in His existence as unimpeachable truth keeps enthusing the human beings in their march towards excellence.

These precepts when put into practice illustrate :

‘Truth is great but greater still is truthful way of living’
The philosophy of Sikhism passed through four testing stages from the pronouncement of its gospel to its adoption as a way of life.
First, when its founder revealed Eternal Truth as explained afore.
Second, when Guru Arjun Dev (1563-1606) laid his life for upholding that truth. He blended an element of sacrifice with the persuasive approach of the founder.
Third, when Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) complemented the rosary with sword by adopting the concept of Miri-Piri (saint soldier).
These three landmarks prepared the ground for the Sikh faith to enter its fourth and final stage; to practise truth as a way of life through the foundation of the Khalsa in 1699.

Weeding out of superstitions, observance of purposeful secular activities, practice of religious tolerance, love for mankind, respect for women and the recognition of worth instead of stress on status by birth have been the salient precepts propounded by Guru Nanak all over the subcontinent when modern means of transport and communication were not still available. As he rose form the grassroots, his knowledge about the plight of people was firsthand. His observations, as such, made a direct appeal to their emotions, notions and actions, stirring social awakening and moral transformation. The native priestly classes got alarmed as their grip on masses started loosening.

The contemporary rulers branded the Sikhs as atheists and idol breakers. They too began to feel occasionally perturbed when they found the common people, both Hindus and Muslims, getting favourably inclined towards the liberal order pursued by the spiritual successors of Guru Nanak. This is corroborated by the memoirs of Emperor Jehangir. The Fifth Nanak, Guru Arjun Dev, on his declining to be converted to Islam, was persecuted through callous scorching.

Impact of Martyrdom
The martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of the East. Till then, the cult of non-violence preached by Lord Buddha (563-483 BC) had remained an academic creed. Guru Arjun Dev was the first to awaken the in-human conscience of wicked rulers through brave and patient suffering. It also impressed on the oppressed that non-co-operation with evil and the urge to uphold virtue are essential modes of conduct for maintaining self-respect.

Passive resistance was effectively practised by the Fifth Nanak more than two centuries before the American polemicist, Henry David Thoreau, who is regarded as the preceptor of both Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, wrote about it in his treatise, Walden

Miri Piri
Gautam Buddha denounced the caste system and preached social equality about two thousand years prior to the Sikh Gurus. But his stress on non-violence, which offers no effective alternative and poses threat to territorial integrity and political stability of the country, could not stand the test of times. Guru Hargobind, through the concept of Miri-Piri, put forth that the hand that holds rosary for praying, along with earning and sharing it with the needy, is under an equal obligation to defend itself as well as the weak against oppression. It conveyed that just as dependence on offerings is a sin, likewise it is sacrilegious to be cowed down by tyrants.
The precepetors in India had been given to tying a thread around the wrist of a local chieftain for seeking his protection. The concept of Miri-Piri implied that the intelligentsia, unable to defend themselves, cannot be independent in their thinking.

Guru Hargobind was also particular about the construction of temple for Hindus and mosque for Muslims wherever a gurdwara was built because he valued the right of people to profess and practise the religious faith of their choice. This was an effective way of demonstrating disagreement with the insular theocratic approach of the rulers. Thus, the ground was prepared for the Sikh faith to enter its final stage.

Foundation of the Khalsa
Mediatation in seclusion had not proved useful to society; its blending with the service of fellow beings imparted a positive approach to life. The adoption of sacrifice as an element of faith gave a purposeful meaning to worldly pursuits by popularising death for a cause rather than impairing or ending oneself in a vain hope of salvation from the cycle of birth and death. The perusal of Indian epics reveals that many preceptors and warriors threw away their weapons, abandoning the cause for which they had taken up the cudgels on hearing correctly or incorrectly about the death of their sons. Bravery, lacking the sense of sacrificing personal affinities for a public cause, is an unsteady force. Guru Gobind Singh, tenth and the last in the series of Sikh Gurus, lent a new concept to sacrifice, when he got his near and dear ones martyred for upholding a noble cause. He was just nine when he heard his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, observing that the Hindus could be saved from forcible conversion, if a virtuous person would be prepared to offer his sacrifice. He exhorted him to face the ordeal himself as none was holier than he. Imagine the lofty thinking and rare pluck of a lad depriving himself of paternal protection for the welfare of the oppressed.

Guru Tegh Bahadur is adored as Hind di Chadar (protective cover of India), for he faced martyrdom to uphold that all human beings are equally entitled to freedom of conscience. After his father had laid his life but not given up his faith, Guru Gobind Singh resolved that not only the souls of people were to be purified but their muscles also required to be strengthened. He decided to evolve a new order which would not hesitate to wield sword against tyranny. On the Baisakhi day in 1699, he founded the contemplated order giving it the name of ‘Khalsa’, the pure. He declared:

The Khalsa shall not only be warlike but also sweeten the lives of those whom he is chosen to serve.
Social and political situation in India started undergoing a revolutionary change after the inception of Khalsa.
Guru Gobind Singh raised the concept of martyrdom to new heights when his two sons, in their teens, died fighting. He solemnly submitted: “Oh! Lord, I have surrendered to Thee what belongs to Thee.’

Two factors helped the growth of nationalism in India; foundation of the Khalsa and the influence of western system of education. Both have their distinct contribution to the transformation of Indian society.

Sikhism released the soul of people from superstitions. The new order in fact marked the evolution of nationalism in India. For the first time, many people overlooked their castes, felt a sense of brotherhood, realized their obligation towards fellow beings and forged themselves into a disciplined lot. Till then, whosoever invaded India found the victory waiting for him. But after the inception of Khalsa, the tide turned its course. Not only the foreign aggression was resisted, but the Indian forces during the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh established their supremacy beyond Peshawar. The invasions from north-west ceased thereafter.

Mahatma Gandhi subsequent to his return from South Africa got strengthened in his conviction about the effectiveness of passive resistance as a political tool after the successful non-violent campaign launched by the Sikhs under the banner of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in 1920-21 for retrieving the control of gurdwaras from the hereditary mahants, who enjoyed the protective care of the then government. Mahatma Gandhi lauded the achievement as :

“First decisive battle of India’s freedom won. Congratulations.’

The contribution of the Sikhs to the freedom struggle forms a glorious chapter in its chronicles. Punjab was the last to be annexed by the British but the foremost to weaken the foreign domination as per an earlier observation of Mahatma Gandhi after the annual session of Indian National Congress held at Amritsar in December 1919.

“Plassey laid the foundation of British Empire. Amritsar has weakened it”. (1:71)

Hunger strike as a political tool often resorted to by Mahatma Gandhi was first effectively pursued by the Babbar Akali prisoners in April 1926. Their ordeal lasted six weeks. (3:177)

This paper is based on the extracts from my pamphlet “Sikhism and its Impact on Indian Society”.
First published by SGPC, Amritsar in 1969 during the observance of 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev and later by me in 1999 as my humble contribution to the celebration of Tercentenary of the Khalsa.


1. Durga Das, India from Curzon to Nehru and After, the John Day Company, New York 1970.
2. Fauja Singh, Who’s Who of Punjab Freedom Fighters, Vol 1, Punjabi University Patiala, 1972.
3. Kamlesh Mohan, Militant Nationalism in Punjab, Manohar, 1985.


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