Role of Traditions in the Sikh Historiography
The traditions and legends play a very significant role in the Sikh historiography. Traditions implies “handing down of opinion, beliefs and practices to posterity” (Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary). Legend's connotation is “story handed down from generation to generation and popularly believed to have historical basis” (Webster’s World Dictionary). A powerful tradition tends to be a legend in the course of time. Therefore, role of both tradition and legends in historiography is similar. TheJanamsakhis, Gurbilas and Gurpartap Suraj Granth represent the written form of traditions and legends of the Sikhs. It is therefore very important to study the historical validity of traditions and legends as a source of information.
The legend formation has been a universal phenomenon. The first impulse which brought about the stories of great men was based on the elements of wonder and amazement at the marvellous deeds of the heroes. Men accepted as true and authentic whatever was repeated to them of the deeds of gods or heroes. It is for this reason that Alfred Lyall states that “the hazy atmosphere, marvellous and miraculous obscures all early origin of race and religion and clouds the beginning of history.”1 The dry land of authentic history emerges slowly out of the sea of fables. The delight in awe and astonishment is superseded by a taste for accurate thought and rigorous evidence. Toynbee has rightly stated that the Historian’s point of view is one of the mankind’s more recent acquisitions.2
The legends about the great heroes in the past form the earliest source of information. A man who has made his mark upon generation, who oversteps the rest by bravery, piety or some peculiar powers of mind or body, becomes among the folk the source and subject of legend. These legends rescued and transmitted to posterity are what could be saved out of flood of deep oblivion. Thus, however, exaggerated or complicated a legend might be, it is based on a kernel of truth. At times, that kernal may be very small. Sometimes, the attending circumstances make the situation complicated. Thus while studying any piece of religious literature, like that of Janam Sakhis - one has to keep in mind the process of legend formation.
The traditions about Guru Nanak’s achievements got currency when he was still alive. The contemporaries began to talk about his great itineraries, his visit to Mecca, Madina and Bagdad, his discourses with Pirs of Uch and Multan, his religious debates with Gorakhpanthis, Qazis and Pandits. This was the starting point of legend formation.
Most of the Janam-Sakhis have been written in the land of five rivers which has been a meeting ground for different cultures and civilizations. One of the dominant influences was that of Islam. The Janam-Sakhis have mentioned various Sufi/Saints/Yogis, Vaishnavas and persons belonging to different denominations with whom Guru Nanak had lengthy discourses. It indicates that these Sakhis might have accepted some of their influences and the symbols. The biographical works of the Muslim saints viz. Kashaful Majub by Data Ganj Baksh Hassan Ali Hajviri (1009-1230 A.D.), Tazakra-i-Aulya by Sheikh Fariduddin Attar (1119-1230 A.D.) had been very popular in the Punjab. These were widely circulated at the time of Guru Nanak and even afterwards. These two works abound with miracles which have been associated with the lives of Muslim saints. In the Qur’an the miracles of Moses have been described which led the Muslims to believe that a miracle on physical plane was an external part of an elevated soul. In this way we find that the introduction of the supernatural element in the Janam Sakhis was due to some extent influence of Muslim biographical religious literature. The supernatural element was the main feature of the medieval religious writings especially relating to the lives of the holy men as we find the miracles in the Vaishnava literature too.
The life story of Guru Nanak was current among his faithful Sikhs for more than sixty years. These had become part of the memories of the Sikhs. The first impulse which brought about the stories of Guru Nanak was based on the element of wonder and amazement at his marvellous deeds. When Bhai Gurdas wrote about the founder of Sikhism during the 17th century, he had before him the oral testimonies, legends, and traditions about the Guru which formed his earliest source of information. Later on, the tradition of Guru Nanak were converted into writing in the following four forms with different names:
1. Puratan Janamsakhi
2. Meharbanwali Janamsakhi
3. Bala Janamsakhi
4. Bhai Mani Singh Janamsakhi
Different attending circumstances brought variations in these written traditions of Guru Nanak. This point can be illustrated to any length. For details see the introduction to my book Janamsakhi Parampara, published by Punjabi University, Patiala, 1969 and 1990.
In the Asiatic Researches, John Malcom has significantly written “In every research into general history of mankind, it is of utmost essential importance to know what a nation has to say of itself and knowledge obtained from such sources has a value independent of its historical utility.3 The traditions of the Sikhs constitute what they have to say about themselves. The Sikh traditions have to be taken into account for writing on any aspect of history of the Sikhs.
Instead of indepth study of traditions and legends of Guru Nanak as incorporated into various Janamsakhis, Dr. W.H. McLeod had rejected Janamsakhis as “unreliable sources” as these are not based on the record of Guru Nanak’s life. Here he forgets that the account of prophets, seers and saints can be searched in their traditions which have been recognised as valid sources of information.4
According to Jan Vasina, the author of oral Tradition5 the study of tradition occupies a special place in the various kinds of historical sources. The traditions can be divided into following categories - narratives, legends, proverbs, historical plays, etc. In pre-literate ages people had highly developed powers of memory, and handed down their tradition in a suitable form for transmission by use of proverbs like “khada pita laha-da rhenda Ahmad Shahda”, folk song like one on which Bhai Vir Singh’s book sundari has been based. But tradition becomes more reliable when it is corroborated by some other evidence. On the whole, tradition is an important source of information. In the recent years, particularly in the study of history of African societies, the ethno-historians and anthropologists with historical interest have demonstrated convincingly how tradition can be recorded, collected, checked and utilized for historical purposes.
In old times, there were specialists whose concern was to memorise and transmit the traditions. In ancient India, the verses of the Rig Veda had been preserved in memory from generation to generation till they were brought in the written form. In the Rajput states in medieval India, there used to be bards who recited the important events of the dynastic history of the rulers. In Sikh history, the descendants of Bhatts whose verses have been included in the Adi Guru Granth have recorded some of the important dates and events relating to Sikh Gurus.
Just as tradition of Guru Nanak can be studied in the Janamsakhis, the tradition of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru and Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru can be searched in the Gurbilas Padshahi Chhevi and Gurbilas Padshahi Das by Sukha Singh and Bir Singh. Baba Sarup Das Bhalla was the direct descendant of Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru and he has compiled Mehma Parkash in 1776 A.D. basing his account on traditions of the Gurus prevalent in his family. Baba Sunder Singh of Patna, author of Gur Parkash also belonged to this family. Bhai Santokh Singh’s celebrated work Gurpartap Suraj Granth is mostly based on the traditions and anecdotes relating to the Sikh Gurus. It can be proved beyond doubt that Bhai Santokh Singh painstakingly collected the traditions of the Gurus. To cite only one example, that his account of the travels of Guru Tegh Bahadur is identical with that of Sakhi Pothi subsequently discovered by Attar Singh Bhadour and published by Khalsa Samachar, Amritsar. The historicity of traditions cannot be lost in ornate poetry, verbosity of expression and superb imagination of similes and metaphors employed.
One of the important works relating to the eighteenth century history of the Sikhs is Panth Parkash by Rattan Singh Bhangu. According to Karam Singh all the dates mentioned there are correct. I have verified some of its accounts with the Persian sources and found them to be similar, for instance, the account of Sikh-Maratha invasion of Sirhind in 1758 in Panth Parkash is identical with that of Tazakara-i-Imadul Malik a Persian contemporary account.6 The entire Panth Parkash of Rattan Singh is based on the traditions of the Sikhs. He himself writes at the outset:
“Now I write the account of the Sikhs in the way my ancestors had spoken and also I have heard from the elderly Sikhs of great qualities.”7
About the account of martyrdom of Bhai Mani Singh, he writes:
“Rattan Singh has written the account after hearing from his father who had seen it.”8
Similarly, some Persian writers of Sikh history have based their accounts on tradition. Dewan Amar Nath in Zafar Namah Ranjit Singh writes, “The events narrated by the writer were investigated from the elderly contemporary persons.”9
During recent years, Giani Gian Singh (1822-1921 A.D.) devoted his long life in search of Sikh traditions and preserving them. Before him there was no book dealing with the complete account of the Sikhs. First he wrote Panth Parkash in 1880 A.D. Subsequently he visited all the places connected with the Sikh Gurus and collected anecdotes and traditions and compiled Twarikh-i-Guru Khalsa dealing with the lives of the Sikh Gurus. Later on, he wrote Shamshir Khalsa dealing with Sikh struggle during the 18th century. It was followed by Raj Khalsa - giving account of Sikh states in Cis-Sutlej territory, Ranjit Singh and post Ranjit Singh period uptil annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849.
The most important source of information on which Giani Gian Singh relied was the tradition of the Sikhs.
He collected his material by undertaking long travels and recording the statements of elderly persons. Perhaps he had no time to verify, check or analyse the traditions. That work was started by his contemporary Karam Singh who can be called a pioneer in the field of Sikh history research. His approach to tradition can be studied from his research monograph Katak ke Vaisakh.
Bhai Vir Singh while writing Sundari, Bijay Singh and Satwant Kaur has judiciously used folk songs depicting times, anecdotes regarding eminent persons like Kaura Mal (Dewan of Mir Manno) and anecdotes of the Sikhs in face of relentless persecution. In the preface of Bijay Singh, he writes, “Many accounts incorporated in this book have come from elders who are no more .... some accounts have been taken from folksong.... This book has been prepared by mingling history, traditions and imagination”.
It may be concluded that many of the sources of Sikh history are based on traditions which form the backbone of Sikh history. Just as Bhai Vir Singh has attempted, tradition plays a significant part. No history of the Sikhs could be fairly written without taking into account the Sikh traditions. How far the traditions could be verified, checked, analysed or interpreted is the job of researchers.
1. Alfred Lyall, "Asiatic Researches", Vol VI, pp. 50-51.
2. Arnold J. Toynbee, "An Historian's Approach to Religion", p. 3
3. "Religion of Sikhs", Malcolm's Sketches of Sikh, Calcutta, 1958, p. 85
4. See my article "An Historical Perspective of Janamsakhis" Journal of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1990.
5. Jan Vasina, "Oral Tradition - A Study of Historical Methodology", Kaga, London, 1965, p. xi
6. For details, Maratha - Sikh relations in "The Historical Study of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Times", Kirpal Singh, Delhi, 1994, p. 33
7. Rattan Singh, "Panth Parkash, Khalsa Samachar, Amritsar, p. 1
8. Ibid., p. 213
9. Zafarnamah Ranjit Singh, (Persian), Edited by Sita Ram Kohli, Panjab University, Lahore, 1928, Preface.
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