The Soul of Freedom
A person’s response to his environs and situations depends on the nature of his beliefs and relative evaluation of his circumstances. The barriers erected by the Hindu society for the ‘untouchables,’ crippled them and rendered them invalid, and it led to their backward slide over several millennia. At the same time, nothing may deter or blunt the urge in human beings to explore the field of knowledge. The brain of any human being is not rendered deficient by caste or class barriers which are artificial and unjustified, whatever the background from which a person comes, high or low, backward or emancipated, privileged or discarded and abandoned by the society, in the quest of absolute truth. And it was a false premise of caste on which the Hindu society was framed and stood fragmented. The myth of the lower castes originating from the feet of Brahma was sanctified by Vedic authority to deny a right to these miserable sections from raising their voice. That was the firm opinion of Guru Nanak. He stood equally against the ruling Muslim invaders’ sophistry about their racial and religious superiority over the indigenous populace. Consequently, the behaviour pattern set by him for the Sikhs became the code of conduct of the new liberated souls.
There were always, in history, many so-called high-born too, who cringed and whined when confronted with adversity and vainly pleaded their inability to stand up for their rights and lived in a state of indignity in the face of repressions unleashed by the ruling class. They blamed their incapability on their circumstances and on caste considerations, community, place, time or lack of opportunity, thereby remaining stuck to the throttling rules of varnashram. Baba Banda Singh Bahadur was once approached by some Brahmins to seek his intervention in restoration of an abducted young bride by the local chief of their area. The response of the Sikh general was shocking to them as he wished, instead, to eliminate them! Why should a group of able-bodied youth cringe and whine in utter helplessness and stand abjectly while the culprit had, unhindered, carried their young woman to his harem with intentions to assail her modesty? Sensing their forlorn condition, however, he ordered his troops to chastise the local chief, to recover the bride, who was rescued and in the action the Nawab was killed.
The response of the high spirited followers of Banda was neither the result of their racial pride nor the vengeful bitterness of the long lease of subjugation under the heels of the marauders who ruled over them. It was the new wave of confidence in themselves and their right to freedom and their ability to cope with any situation howsoever grave and grim. The soul had been stirred during the Guru period for over two hundred and thirty years, and it was on a test-run in the early post-Guru era.
It was not always a cake-walk, as history was to prove. The point to note is that this high-flying bonhomie and altruism remained fixed in the Sikh psyche and did not get diluted in adverse situations which were to be their lot, time and again, with regularity, from their inception till the present times. It is hoped that this positive determination will also continue to exert itself on their character in the future as well. The so-called unprivileged lot, abandoned by the Hindus as well as the Muslims alike as the scum of society, barely existed on the periphery of the social order as good-for-nothing outcastes. Can we just marvel at this living miracle of their transformation by Guru Nanak, of their emancipation and his rejection of the theory of any particular genetic aptitude of races and their habit patterns? These people were finally absorbed in the main body of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, notwithstanding the protests and criticism of the high caste bigots who were asked by the tenth Master to leave the assembly if they objected to their inclusion into the main body of Sikhism. It was in line with the road-map defined by the earlier Gurus in their bani preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib:
The velocity of storms extinguishes not the flame,
It remains as steady and firm as the seat of authority.
Khatris, Brahmins, Sudras or the Vaish castes and
All others who are extensive and not countable,
Whoever lights the lamp (of supreme knowledge),
O Nanak, he will surely reach the destination.1
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 878
Thus, Guru Nanak unambiguously tore away the much hyped varnashram principle of the Vedic religion from its roots as well as the equally inhibiting theory of a chosen people of the Muslim ideology and other Semitic schools of thought, the myth of the privileged classes and the believers versus the pagans. The basic stipulation of Guru Nanak’s creed was the admissibility of one and all, without any reservation or pre-condition, to light the glow of flame of knowledge in anyone willing to follow his path. The superiority of caste and clan was rendered irrelevant. With this one stroke Guru Nanak redeemed the bonded souls to freedom and a life of dignity.
The above doctrine was soon put to test successfully, when not only in triumph, but in adversity too, the new adherents withstood all possible horrors when publicly put to death, with a mystical smile on their lips along with Baba Banda Singh Bahadur at Delhi, which paved the trend of further blood-curdling tortures, for over half a century with the state proclamations, more than once, of total annihilation of the Sikhs. Unfortunately, the same bias and the policy of repression and atrocities continue to be piled at them. The resentment against the Sikhs has a pattern. It is their ideology of the futility of the varnashram and their allowing equality of the lowly people with the high castes which was opposed tooth and nail by the Hindus. The maxims infused by Guru Nanak and his successor Gurus, their craving for freedom from the shackles and restrictions imposed by the old beliefs and affirmation of their self-confidence are basic postulates in the Sikh character. The Hindus opposed the process right from the times of Guru Nanak whether it was because of Lalo, the poor carpenter, whom he preferred over the caste conscious rich merchant or his staying with the vanjaras in the course of his travels, his mixing with the Muslim pirs and fakirs, his renunciation of the orthodox Hindu customs and rites. Ironically, these protests were constantly forwarded to the governments of the day, in spite of the highly biased, unsympathetic attitude of the Islamic state policies towards Hinduism.
Sikh heroism is not confined to a few well known names like Bhais Matidas, Satidas, Dyalaji, Mani Singh, Taru Singh and those martyrs who had attained spiritual ascendancy in their life time and were done to death in gruesome ways. It was a mass hypnotic wave which the Guru’s word brought about which still continues to confound their aggressors. It is with just pride that the Sikhs regularly mention in each prayer, the supreme sacrifices so zealously undergone by those brave people to create a solid base of Sikhism with their blood and sinews, which has surprised sociologists and psychologists, because these diverse persons did not belong to one genetic faction, race or caste. There were the untouchables, the outcastes, lowest of the lowly mixed with the higher castes who participated in the cause. Whosoever partook of that experience was instantly transformed into a distinct character-group. Of such dare-devils, a race was born and a culture was established. The Sikhs have demonstrated time and again that all persons with grit and determination are eligible to join the Guru’s ranks in equality. And anyone may discover that grit in him from selfless devotion.
All four varnas attain salvation
By the refrain of One Name.
Guru Nanak imparts preaching,
Whoever hears it obtains deliverance.2
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1001
That dividing humanity into all-encompassing, rigid, hereditary compartments of castes is an abiding blunder of Hinduism, is now acknowledged by the scholars the world over, even though the Hindus are not prepared, to date, to give it up and these restrictions continue to unreasonably plague their customs and traditions. The Islamic claim of equality and fraternity of the believers has not been translated into practice in India. Moreover, their inflexible belief about the irreversible doom reserved for those who remain outside the pale of the 'believers' is extremely prejudicial. The principle at work is the same as of the perpetrators of apartheid who segregated all people other than whites, holding them of inferior calibre. It cannot be termed a matter of Hindus alone as the problem has assumed international, multi-community dimensions.
The present-day Constitution of India representing the majority Hindu community’s will, openly recognises this caste inequality and perpetuates it by futile but clever efforts at reservations by lowering of academic and service efficiency of the so-called weaker sections which perpetually damages and restricts the overall standards of their education, skill and initiative. In the existing mind frame of the high caste Hindus, this problem will not only be encouraged to persist but also keep the Hindu society sharply divided by class hatred and is bound to have its ramifications on other religious communities as well. Till the Hindus eschew the inviolability of the caste differentiation tied up with birth, the menace will spread to other communities. This faulty thesis is further complicated by inept handling of the reservation policy. Reservations in any case are no lasting solution as the ultimate partition of the sub-continent proved in 1947. In the case of the Hindu scheduled castes and tribes, continuing the State reservation policy ensures not only their permanent cleavage from the mainstream Hindu society, codifying strict social barriers but to maintain dominance over them by superiority of knowledge and skills, keeping them captive, perpetually inferior, mentally, technologically and psychologically by granting of special concessions in educational and technical standards. These concessions are not going to end at any time in the foreseeable future even where efficiency is attained by a member of the scheduled castes of the same or better calibre than the high castes. The sooner it is realised by the so-called scheduled castes, it will be to their advantage. Caste reservation was a deft move by the high caste Hindus to kill two birds with one stone.
Another sinister aspect of this scheme is to bind the lower castes to stay Hindu, otherwise the special privileges are stripped as they step outside the Laxman Rekha by conversion. In return, the caste Hindus have undertaken to extend protection to the low castes in the shape of reservation, irrespective of their drooping level of efficiency. In other words, it is freely admitted that inefficiency among them is inevitable due to their low caste status and the nation has to ‘tolerate’ their ineptitude and inefficiency of performance and skills. On the whole, it may not mean much in a big administrative set-up of the size of India, where time-job ratio is not seriously implemented and a weak link may be covered up by many surplus hands.
Low efficiency is not a biological defect of any one caste and class of people. It is also illogically assumed that this inherent right to all the privileges ceases to exist on mere change of religion. The misery piled on these wretched weaker castes for ages is erroneously supposed to melt away the instant one converts from the shackles of the tight caste system in a bid for freedom and emancipation.
The stigma of being dubbed scheduled caste/tribal does not wash away even on being successful economically and living in high middle-class comforts or the rich man’s luxury. At the most, the caste Hindus may reluctantly socialise with them but that is the limit. The bear-hug of caste Hindus strangulates but does not assimilate them although pronounced in high pitched shouts of being part of the Hindu fraternity. The well-to-do among the scheduled castes and tribes continue to unabashedly corner all the benefits of their situation which elude their less active but more deserving members.
This caste division is enforced by the Indian constitution with strict vigil, so that a vast number of people, underfed and under-privileged, poor and below poverty line, are denied these concessions, if they are not in the ambit of the Hindu scheduled castes and tribes. In any civilised society, economically weak segments are the responsibility of the state and must be granted monetary assistance as well as special scholarships to come up in skill at par with the economically better placed classes. In India, it is a Catch-22 position, consequently, the rest of economic have-nots are left out in the cold. In case the sanctions granted to the Hindu low castes are extended to all economically weak segments, there is apprehension in the minds of the Hindus, of exodus of the exploited low castes to freely opt for better and more humane religious orders than Hinduism. Thus, a tightly covered can of worms is left to fester, denying millions of economically under-privileged citizens of this country equality with the acknowledged scheduled castes to a worse fate than the socially condemned criminals.
This defective perception of the basic problem lies in a myopic lack of vision of the caste Hindus who have been at the helm of affairs since the Independence of India. Simple matters of economic inequality have been blown up several times in order to apply surface dressing to the festering wound like distribution of subsidized rations in the J&K State when the remedy lay in steady economic upliftment with the provision of infra-structure for steady jobs by industrialisation and similar window dressings in the North-eastern states which continued to grow like irremediable cancers.
Our Gurus had an ideal solution to this jigsaw puzzle of the caste segregation and the bear hug in which the weaker castes are tightly squeezed. Firstly, the weak sections of the society must be treated at par, and given confidence of their ability to do as well as anyone else. We hear it said again and again that the Gurus spurned the offer of the caste Hindus to discard the weaker sections right from the days of Guru Nanak who drew the plan of action of Sikhism. He encouraged the workers and labourers over the high caste rich and influential. He chose his confidants like Bhai Buddha, a farmer, Bhai Lalo, a carpenter, Bhai Mardana, a mirasi, Kauda, the tribal and the lowly wherever he went.
Lowest of the lowly and lower than them too,
Nanak verily is with them; no truck with the rich and high,
Where the lowly are cared for is the blessed place.3
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 15
Guru Gobind Singh eulogised the weaker sections in his famous epistle:
I am established due to their magnanimity,
Otherwise there are millions of poor like me.4
Those who were discarded as outcastes and beyond the pale of caste structure assumed command of the Guru’s troops and inflicted crushing defeats on the twice born Rajputs and the Muslim ghazis. They were, spiritually, elevated to the highest ranks, and the Gurus honoured them by adding their bani in the Adi Granth which was appointed as the perpetual Master and guide of all Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh. The Sikhs take pride in bowing to their sacred memory every day. Efficiency is generated by putting faith and trust in a person and not by doping him with helplessness and lack of self-confidence. It is a falsification to project a sizeable section of our people helpless and keep them invalid perpetually.
In the present scenario, the Hindus 'magnanimously' condescend to extend protection to the ‘untouchables’ and the scheduled tribes by financial grants and lowering standards in education and employment and call it a benign gesture. However, neither have they abolished the mechanism of varna classification giving perpetual edge to one class of people as superior to others, nor have they done much to uplift these wretches materially to be in the mainstream. Their patronising attitude ensures a permanent wedge between the high and the lower castes which will never be obliterated. The malady has widened to encourage other communities to press for similar privileges to their backward sections, including the Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, which religious tenets deny anyone being inferior to others. Recognising the permanency of the varna division is a handy political and religious weapon with which the Hindus create compelling circumstances to attract the weaker sections of other communities to embrace and enhance the Hindu fold. While they cry foul about conversions by others in offers of material gains, they themselves practise it unabashedly to lure ignorant masses with the constitutional sanctions provided for the shuddhi movement being practised openly for which there cannot be any antidote.
Instead of such exploitative steps, there is the time tested Sikh doctrine to abolish the varna distinctions, thereby mending the psychological gulf between castes, high and low, and demolish the barriers and complexes.
1. folY vwau n vfw hoie ] jwpY ijau isMGwsix loie ]
KqRI bRwhmxu sUdu ik vYsu ] inriq n pweIAw gxI shMs ]
AYsw dIvw bwly koie ] nwnk so pwrMgiq hoie ]
2. KqRI bRwhmx sUd vYs sB eykY nwim qrwnQ ]
guru nwnku aupdysu khqu hY jo sunY so pwir prwnQ ]
3. nIcw AMdir nIc jwiq nIcI hU Aiq nIcu ]
nwnku iqn kY sMig swiQ vifAw isau ikAw rIs]
ijQY nIc smwlIAin iqQY ndir qyrI bKsIs ]
4. fJBh fe feqgk ;/ ;i/ jw j?, Bjh w';' rohp eo'V go/ ..
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies,
2009, All rights reserved.