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Editorial


Vaisakhi of 1699

Ishwinder Singh

More than three centuries have passed since Guru Gobind Singh’s unique feat in Anandpur during the Vaisakhi of 1699, but the event remains firmly etched in Sikh history. Even though historians may quibble over the details but there can be no denying the impact of the event, which is there for all to see. Much has been written about the dramatic events of the day but very little study has gone into how the Guru’s actions were actually the culmination of the thought of his predecessors. In this paper an attempt is made to place the event in its historical context and to examine Guru Gobind Singh’s actions in the light of initiatory rites of other religious communities, so as to appreciate their true significance.

I

As per well established Sikh tradition, a large number of Sikhs had assembled at Anandpur to celebrate Vaisakhi in the year 1699. Midway through the festivities Guru Gobind Singh suddenly appeared with an unsheathed sword in his hand. Addressing the congregation, he called for a Sikh who was willing to offer his head to him. The audience was stunned and there was no response. The Guru repeated his call again. On his third call, a Sikh volunteered and the Guru led him to a tent nearby. After a short while, Guru Gobind Singh re-appeared with a bloodied sword in his hand and asked for another head. Another Sikh came forward and humbly offered his head. He was also taken to the tent and Guru Gobind Singh returned again with a blood soaked sword asking for the third, the fourth and the fifth head.

The call for heads stopped after the fifth volunteer and there was all quiet for some time. All eyes were on the gate of the enclosure. The gate opened and out walked Guru Gobind Singh with the five volunteers. The volunteers were now in new clothes, had turbans on their heads and swords by their side. The Guru called for some water in an iron vessel and asked his wife to put some sugar crystals (patashas) in it. He started stirring the water with a double-edged sword while chanting prayers. After the prayers were over, the ambrosial water (pahul) was administered to the five volunteers. The Guru then introduced the volunteers as ‘The Beloved Five’ (Panj Piarey) to the audience. He further spelt out that in future it would be binding on the Sikhs to maintain the ‘Five Ks’, that is, unshorn hair (kesh), sword (kirpan), comb (kanga), iron bangle (kara) and short breeches (kachh). Guru Gobind Singh then requested the ‘The Beloved Five’ to administer pahul to him in the same manner. Between the Vaisakhi of 1699 and the Holi of 1700, about 80,000 Sikhs took initiation of the double-edged sword.1

II

Guru Gobind Singh had taken over the leadership of the Sikhs following the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in November 1675. The early years of his pontificate were rather uneventful as he received religious and literary education as also training in the use of arms. He inspired his followers to take interest in martial activity and over the years this brought him in conflict with first the hill chiefs and later the Mughal authorities. However, for several years before 1699, Guru Gobind Singh was free from warfare or the threat of attack and was able to reflect on the situation, calmly and seriously. The primary object of his life, as also that of the earlier Gurus, was to re-establish the true dharma and to re-invigorate and re-energize the forces of goodness and righteousness. The time had now come to give final shape to this mission.

Of particular importance was the selection of the day. At Vaisakhi, the sun reaches the highest point of its orbit. This is the final point of the rotation of the earth, when the vegetation fully wakes up out of its slumber and ripens into its fruition. This is the end of experimentation, the spring and the growth, and at this point the growth matures into ripeness and abundance. Guru Gobind Singh chose this day for his unique feat with some significance in his mind, so as to usher in the dawn of a new and regenerated society.2

Turning to the events of the day, first of all we find the call for the heads. Guru Nanak had stressed the difficulty involved in following his path by underlining that it involved readiness to lay down one’s life.3 Guru Arjun and Guru Tegh Bahadur had given practical shape to this ideal by embracing martyrdom for the cause of righteousness. Significantly, the readiness to lay down one’s life for the sake of a righteous cause was the criterion used by Guru Gobind Singh in his call for volunteers, the Beloved Five.4

Another significant point was the preponderance of the number ‘five’ in the entire ceremony. Firstly, Guru Gobind Singh stopped after calling five volunteers. The ceremony was conducted using five substances – an iron bowl, water, sugar crystals, a double-edged sword and recitation of the five liturgical prayers (panj banis). The pahul was given to the volunteers to drink it five times and then it was sprinkled on their eyes and hair five times. Finally, the ‘Five Ks’ were made mandatory for the Sikhs.

A proper understanding of the significance of the number ‘five’ in the Indic framework in general and the Sikh worldview in particular would make it evident that this preponderance of the number five was neither accidental nor coincidental. In the Indian thought, the human body is made up of five elements – air, water, earth, fire and ether. There are five senses of action and five senses of knowledge. Further, there are five vices – lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride and also five virtues – truth, contentment, compassion, duty and patience.

In the teachings of the Gurus, the number five acquires further significance. In the Japji, Guru Nanak refers to the five realms of spiritual development.5 His conception of panch (lit. five) refers to the truly devout who win divine approval to become supreme as the leaders of men.6 Guru Nanak’s ideal of panch later on became the inspiration of Guru Gobind Singh’s selection of ‘The Beloved Five’ (Panj Piarey) on the Vaisakhi of 1699.

Bhai Gurdas dwells at length to detail the significance of the number five in one of his compositions.7 Herein he also expresses the idea that wherever five Sikhs are gathered there God too is present. This provides a clear indication why groups of five Sikhs were asked to administer pahul to those desirous of partaking it.

The use of the double-edged sword by Guru Gobind Singh during the ceremony of initiation was also not accidental. ‘Sharp as the edge of the double-edged sword’ was the metaphor used by Guru Nanak for his faith.8 This metaphor was used by Guru Amar Das too (‘Sharper than the double-edged sword and thinner than a hair’).9 Bhai Gurdas used it for the path of Guru Hargobind, ‘the master of both the spiritual and temporal realm.’10 Guru Gobind Singh was giving tangible shape to an idea and a metaphor made current by his predecessors.

III

Now let us analyze the events of Vaisakhi of 1699 in light of a framework developed after studying the initiatory rites of various orders.

The term initiation in the most general sense denotes a body of rites and oral teachings whose purpose is to produce a radical modification of the religious and social status of the person to be initiated. In philosophical terms, initiation is equivalent to an ontological mutation of the existential condition. The novice emerges from this ordeal a totally different being: he becomes ‘another’.11

According to Mircea Eliade, the initiatory rites always follow a standard pattern that involves:

.  Seclusion
.  Death
.  Resurrection

Initiatory ‘death’ signifies both the end of the ‘natural’ acultural man and the passage to a new mode of existence, that of a being ‘born to the spirit’, that is, one who does not live exclusively in an immediate reality. Thus the initiatory ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ represents a religious process through which the initiate becomes ‘another’, patterned on the model revealed by ‘gods’ or mythical ancestors.12

Analyzing the events of Vaisakhi of 1699, we find that they conform to the abovementioned tripartite pattern. Each time a volunteer responded to the Guru’s call for a head, he was ushered out of the congregation into the tent. This signifies the first stage of ‘seclusion’ where the initiate is separated from his social role and rank. He is now at the dynamic threshold where the past borders are gone and future possibilities are yet to come.

In the second stage the volunteer is alone in the tent with Guru Gobind Singh. What happens inside is not known to the congregation outside. The volunteer has made his passage into a liminal sphere. Guru Gobind Singh comes out of the tent with a bloodied sword in his hand. The volunteer is assumed dead by the Vaisakhi gathering.

This whole process is repeated with all the five volunteers. Then the initiates are led out of the tent by Guru Gobind Singh and the initiation with the double-edged sword is carried out. A new code of conduct is prescribed and ‘the Beloved Five’ are now resurrected. They now return to society with a new status and role and with a new awareness of the self.

IV

Along with these few similarities in the general nature of the religious fellowships and their methods of initiation, there are innumerable variations among them that derive mostly from the respective worldviews of their preceptors, the nature of authority, inner differentiation, attitude towards the world and a host of other ethnic, geographical and cultural factors.

Comparing the Sikh initiation rite with the rites of other orders we find that through his actions on the Vaisakhi of 1699, Guru Gobind Singh intended to clearly distinguish Guru Nanak’s worldview from that of other orders. A detailed discussion on this point would be beyond the scope of this paper. However, a brief discussion which follows is intended to be illustrative.

Many medieval orders contemporary to Sikhism emphasized on the renunciation of worldly life for those who sought ‘other-wordly’ ends. Their initiation rites thus symbolized ‘social death’ of the initiate. One of the principal features of these rites was the shaving of the initiate’s hair, beard and moustache (For example see the initiation rites of the Sanyasis, Jogis and Dadupanthis). The idea which lay at the base of this custom was that hair is considered symbolic of the generative and creative forces of world of nature and by sacrificing it, the initiate stresses his firm determination to refuse to cooperate with this life-impulse of the creation process.13 Following the initiation, the initiate was required to either keep his head completely shaven or to not shave it at all and to wear it matted (jata), frequently dressed in ashes. The initiate is also specifically instructed to practice celibacy and not to keep weapons.

In direct contradistinction to the life-negating philosophy of these orders, Guru Nanak took a life-affirming view.14 A Sikh is required to lead the life of a householder though not let worldly temptations lure him from the path of God-realization.15 It is this ideal which was given shape by Guru Gobind Singh through the choice of the Sikh symbols.
The initiates were required to keep their hair, beard and moustaches unshorn signifying their acceptance of social activity for the achievement of their goals. The comb and turban perform the function of constraining the hair and imparting an orderly arrangement to it. Therefore these signify control over worldly temptations.

In contrast to the vow of not keeping weapons, the Sikhs were specifically instructed to wear arms. However, the kirpan came coupled with kara which was meant to impart the same orderly constraint on the sword, as the kangha does over the kesh. Finally, the vow of celibacy was replaced by the kachh which signified purity and chastity with a commitment to the procreative world.

V

The above discussion makes it evident that Guru Gobind Singh’s actions on the Vaisakhi of 1699 were not an aberration in the movement started by Guru Nanak to meet immediate challenges. Rather they were based on a sound understanding of the teachings of the earlier Gurus as also the practices of other orders. To conclude using the words of an eighteenth century poet “the creation of the Khalsa was the result of a well worked out gradual process (sahije rachio khalsa) based on the knowledge dawned by the inspiration and the order of the Eternal Guru.”16

Notes and References

1 Harbans Singh Noor, Connecting the Dots in Sikh History (Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2004), pp. 30-34
2 Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasana, ed. Piar Singh and Madanjit Kaur (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev Univ, 2001), pp. 42-43
3 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1412, M 1
4 This issue has been examined in detail by Jarnail Singh in his article ‘Vaisakhi of 1699: A re-look’ appearing in theVaisakhi 2005 issue of www.SikhSpectrum.com
5 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, pp. 7-8, M 1
6 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 3, M 1
7 Bhai Gurdas, Varan Bhai Gurdas, Var 7, pauri 5
8 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1028, M 1
9 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 918, M 3
10 Bhai Gurdas, Varan Bhai Gurdas, Var 24, pauri 21
11 Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopaedia of Religion, Vol. I, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), pp. 225-226
12 Ibid.
13 Kapur Singh, op. cit., pp. 76-77
14 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 730, 1245, M 1
15 Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 152, 661, 877, M 1
16 Bhai Gurdas II, Varan Bhai Gurdas, Var 41, pauri 16

 

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