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Martyrdom and Its Significance in my Religion

Ms Simren Kaur*

Martyrdom in Sikhism is a fundamental concept and represents one of the most interesting concepts in this vast religion. It is a statement of love for Sikhi, it is a call for freedom of religion and righteousness, and it is a self-less action for the furthering of humanity.

Martyrdom has been a very real part of Sikh lives since the Martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev Ji, through the wars in 18th Century, past the era of British rule, and even very recently with Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, who was opposing ill-treatment of the Sikhs during the pogroms of the 1980’s.

This Sikh doctrine has been an integral part of the Sikh religion from the beginning. Contrary to the popular belief that it was introduced with Guru Arjun Dev Ji, it was.

Guru Nanak who spoke to his Sikhs during the 15th Century and still speaks to us today through the Guru Granth Sahib. He says:

“Shouldst thou seek to engage in the game of Love, step into my street with thy head placed on thy palm: While stepping on to this street, ungrudgingly sacrifice your head.”

Many religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, the Aztecs – include martyrdom, though most border on selfish sacrifices. Sikhism is the only religion in which the ultimate sacrifice is not a selfish act but martyrdom.

Christianity is based on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice one made for their religion. By the 4th century of the Christian era, the original, very simple expectation that one just naturally died on behalf of Jesus Christ had fully metamorphosed into the idea of “martyrdom”. Many people began killing themselves with the name of Christ just to reach heaven. It changed martyrdom to more a maniac suicide, in which dying for one’s faith was not just a duty but an honour and a privilege.

For Catholics and many other Christians, martyrdom is considered a “free ride to heaven” under canon law. Every religious movement known to man has seen its adherents suffer and die for the cause, but Christianity and Islam are the two major religions that offer this ironclad guarantee of eternal bliss.

Islam, much like Christianity, raised the idea of martyrdom to a whole new level. Fundamentalist and extremist Islamists believe that they have a moral obligation to jihad, which they define as a war to create Islamic nations and expand the scope of the religion using force.

According to the fundamentalist view, martyrdom is the highest privilege of Islam. Enigmatic leaders have long recruited soldiers who would fight to death on the promise of heaven. This is yet another form of suicide masked by the noble name martyrdom.

Death by this so-called martyrdom is advertised in Islam as a much more carnal and appealing concept than the Christian harp-playing eternal chastity-fest, including an eternity of Allah-sanctioned carnal bliss.

In Islam, martyrdom is not for the good of Islam, but to reach heaven. It is a selfish act to reach God.

In India, the vast Hindu culture used different forms of sacrifice. In fact, sacrifice in popular Indian culture is mainly on the offering of animals to a stone deity. Martyrdom never was an issue for Hindus, as most were swayed easily by the governing religion of the time.

This sacrifice of animals is extremely incongruous to Hindu belief. From the Sikh point of view, while many of Indian cults accept ahimsa (non-violence and a respect for all life) as a core principle, they indulge in large-scale sacrifice of animals.

Every year at the temple of Bhairon during the fair at Devi Pattan, hundreds of buffaloes, goats and pigs are sacrificed. It is not consistent that those holding a concept of respect for all life can easily discard it to sacrifice so many animals.

Nath practices, too, are similar. In fact, this culture takes sacrifice to a new level by substituting animal sacrifice for human sacrifice. Many would wrongly believe that this is martyrdom for their religion, but, again, like Christianity and Islam, it is only a selfish pledge to die for God – or Gods and Goddesses – to reach bliss.
Anything that is remotely similar to martyrdom in Hinduism is based on the rationale that life is considered a suffering and sinful, and release from it, “mukti” or salvation, is the goal of mankind.

Similar to the Hindu culture, the Aztecs of Mexico also had many gods. In this extinct religion, priests made human sacrifices to make the sun god happy. Aztecs fought in wars to capture men to sacrifice. On God’s Feast Day, they killed their slaves for the gods. Human sacrifices were offerings to the sun and the earth, so that food would grow, as if food would not grow without their annual sacrifices.

Priests would dress up as the supreme gods and wait on the top of an extinct volcano. The priest would rip out the victim’s heart and roll the bodies down the temple stairs to lie in a heap. Even after that undignified exit from life, most victims were happy to die because they thought they would go straight to heaven. In fact, many Aztecs preferred to die in battle, or as sacrifices, as they believed they would never reach heaven, if they died of natural causes. The Aztecs used human sacrifice to pay homage to their gods.

Though many religions have irrational definitions of martyrdom, one religion is very definite in its concept of martyrdom. The Sikh institution of martyrdom is entirely alien to the method of sacrifice referred to in all these religions.

In Guru Granth Sahib there is a clear condemnation of the sacrifice of animals to propitiate gods. The Guru Granth Sahib records:

“Slaughter of animals you dub as religion - Then brother! Tell what is irreligion? Each killer of animals you style as saints – then who is to be called a butcher?” (p.1103)

In relation to the throwing away of one’s life, the Sikh concept is entirely different. Since human life is an opportunity and its goal is to carry out the Altruistic Will of God, the very concept of release from life is rejected. Obviously, removing one’s self from existence cannot be a logical or even holy thing to do. It is certainly not better than living a holy life.

“High is truth, but higher still is truthful living” – and not dying.

Sikhism follows a miri-piri system. In contrast to religions forcibly converting thousands, the Guru’s hymns say,“one has to live a life of commitment to the cause of love, and in pursuance of it one has to struggle against oppression by the powerful”.

Mukti, salvation or ‘release’ means freedom from egoism, selfishness and individualism, says the Guru. Killing yourself is not the way to achieve righteousness.

Guru Arjun Dev Ji explained true sacrifice and true Martyrdom to Sain Mian Mir, when the Sufi Saint came to meet him in prison. He said, “I bear all this torture to set an example. The true test of faith is the hour of misery. Without example to guide, ordinary persons’ minds quail in the midst of suffering. And, if he, who possesses power within him, defends not his religion by open profession thereof, the man who possesses no such powers will, when put to torture, abjure his faith. The sin will lie on the head of him who has the power but showeth it not; and God will deem him an enemy of religion.”

It should be clear that in Sikhism the goal is not to attain personal salvation or Moksha or ‘eternal bliss’. It is instead the perception or recognition of His Will and working in line with its direction.

This state is synonymous with God-realization.

To commit the ultimate sacrifice in Sikhism is not to attain an afterlife in heaven, it is not to rid yourself of your sins, and it is not to seek favour with God. In Sikhism, the ultimate sacrifice is the martyrdom. Martyrdom in Sikhism means to recognise the Will of God. It means that no matter what the perils, you will accept Wahe-Guru’s will.



1. Dr Kharak Singh Mann, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, January-1994
2. Martyrdom, www.rotten.com/library/religion/martyrdom/
3. The Concept Of Martyrdom In Islam, www.al-islam.org
4. Ahimsa (definition), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa
5. The Aztecs (Religious Beliefs), library.thinkquest.org/27981/beliefs.html



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