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Historical Perspective on the Sikh Identity

Joginder Singh Jogi*

Lack of clear understanding of Sikh faith has led many writers to present distorted version of Sikhism. On occasions, an uncalled for controversy has been raised in certain quarters about the Sikh identity. The Sikh faith starting with the birth of its founder Guru Nanak Dev in the year 1469 AD and passing through various stages, climaxed in the year 1699 AD with the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. The seed which had been sown by Guru Nanak flowered through the hands of Guru Gobind Singh. Those who are unaware of this seed-to-flower development often fall prey to misconceptions. A proper evaluation of the evolution of this faith and its historical perspective will be of great help in understanding the Sikh identity. A proper understanding of the issue of Sikh identity would further provide an ideological perspective for Sikh society’s harmonious unity and co-relation with the mainstream of our national life.

By many scholars, Guru Nanak has been regarded simply as an exponent of Bhakti cult, while others treat Guru Nanak as a mere reformer. As a matter of the fact, Guru Nanak was not only a Bhakta of the traditional cult like Bhakat Kabir and others, but more than that a visionary and a prophet. He was not only a reformer or a revolutionary but an evolutionary. According to J D Cunningham (History of Sikhs), “Other reformers perfected the form of dissent, rather than planting the seeds of a nation. Their sects remain to this day as they left them. It was reserved for Nanak to perceive the true principles of reform and to lay the foundation on which Guru Gobind Singh created a nation.”

Several writers presented Guru Nanak’s mission as the promulgation of a New Religion. For example, Dorothy Field says, “The influence of Islam and of the monotheistic reforms of Hinduism on Guru Nanak is much in evidence. But it is also clear that in his view the religious world had gone astray and therefore a new and direct revelation was again necessary. How much he may have borrowed from Islam and Hinduism in the matter of doctrine, his religion remains distinct and complete in itself. In short, Sikhism may be regarded as “new and separate world religion.” Dorothy Field is not indeed alone in this approach. Numerous other writers agree that Guru Nanak gave a new religion to India different from others and laid foundation of new social institutions.

To understand the universal mission of Guru Nanak in its true perspective, it may be relevant to study the attitude of the Guru and his spiritual successors towards the contemporary beliefs, practices and ideologies, socio-political conditions and the oppressive foreign rule. Guru Nanak considered the caste system as the main cause for the miserable plight of the people and firmly believed that the system had struck at the very root of national life and was responsible for making the people unable to defend during many a crisis on their lives, their religion and their land against invaders.

Guru Nanak was extremely sensitive to the miseries and wailings of terror-stricken people around him. Referring to the brutalities perpetrated by the hordes of Mughals invading North India in the 1520’s, Guru Nanak said, “Did you, O God, not feel compassion?” “You are the creator of all. If a mighty man smites another powerful man, then one may not feel anger. If a mighty tiger falls on a herd of sheep, then the responsibility lies on the herdsman.”

To free people from religious bigotry, social subjugation and economic exploitation, Guru Nanak took revolutionary measures and laid down the foundation of a society, which was egalitarian in spirit and structure, repudiating the existing customary religious doctrines. He also took organizational steps in shaping Sikh society on separate ideological lines.

The Guru established Dharamsals in far flung areas, which became the central places where his followers could meet together for exchange of views. After completing his missionary tours, Guru Nanak settled at Kartarpur in Punjab which became the Central Dharamsala. Here he put his preachings into practice. His third successor Guru Amar Das made Goindwal as the centre of his followers, who gathered there on two occasions in a year. The centre was later shifted to Amritsar by Guru Ram Das, the fourth successor of Guru Nanak. Says Latif (History of Punjab), “In founding the town of Amritsar as a centre spot, the Guru laid the foundation of the future greatness of the Sikhs as a nation, for they were enabled now to rally at a common place of worship, conveniently situated both as regards distance and fertility of land. Amritsar began to be called “Guru Ki Nagri”; it acted as Mecca to Sikhs.”
Guru Nanak wanted to create separate ideology of Sikhism that needed continued efforts under the guidance of a true teacher. In pursuance of this organizational object he selected a worthy successor in Guru Angad Dev to lead and continue the movement. The pontification of Guru Angad Dev was of great significance in the evolution of Sikh identity.

Guru Angad Dev decided to propagate this new religion through the popular medium of Gurmukhi, a language commonly understood by the people. He declared that Sikhism was the religion of householders, and ascetics had no place in Sikhism. The Sikhs were thus separated from Udasis and raised above asceticism, free and fit to follow their course of national progress. Guru Angad Dev strengthened the institution of Langar (community kitchen) where people of all caste and creed, high or low, were to jointly partake food. This institution gained greater significance when it was made compulsory for any person to first take part in langar before he could have audience with the Guru. The system created a great sense of equality amongst the people.

The caste ideology had assigned to women, including those of upper castes, a low social position. A notable aspect of the social improvement effected by Guru Nanak was the emancipation of women. For him men and women were equal not only before God but also before one another. “Why call her bad form whom are born Kings”? said Guru Nanak. Guru Amar Das abolished the custom of Parda and Sati. Some of the Manjis (Preaching Centres) were placed under the charge of women, who participated in equal terms in the Sikh movement. It has been observed that “Guru Amar Das constructed a fence around the plant that germinated, lest it should be destroyed by the gale of all-consuming existing social practices. The plant got opportunity to grow and fructify.” – Guru Ram Das nominated his youngest son, Arjun Dev, as his successor, rejecting the claim of the eldest son, Prithvi Chand. In adopting the hereditary-cum-merit principle, in the choice of successor, Guru Ram Das changed the very character of Guruship. Latif writes, “it materially contributed to the growth of Sikh power, for, henceforth the Guru was looked upon by his disciples not in the light of a spiritual guide only, but also as a worldly lord and a ruling sovereign. The Guru became Sacha Padshah in whom was to vest a combination of spiritual and temporal authority.”

According to Jagjit Singh (The Sikh Revolution), the Sikh thesis aimed at total emancipation of man. It did not regard religion as a ritual or ceremonial obligation, or a mere quest for spiritual bliss, which could be compatible with slavery and religious dictation. The gradual build up of morale against the oppressive political authority posed a challenge to the Mughal Empire, which formed part of political struggle.

As against Akbar’s religious liberalism, Emperor Jahangir fell prey to the Revivalist Movement of Islam led by Sheikh Ahmad Sirhandi of Naqshabandi Order. As recorded in his autobiography, Jahangir decided to put an end to the growing influence of Sikhism under Guru Arjun Dev, who in turn refused to comply with the dictates of the Emperor, being opposed to the mission of Guru Nanak and made the supreme sacrifice of his life.

The martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev was a turning point in the Sikh movement, which could be pursued further only with an armed struggle. This sacrifice prepared the people, who had been cowed down by centuries of tyrannical political domination, for an armed struggle. Martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev flared the peaceful hearts of the Sikhs. It generated the spirit of ordinary people and converted them into great soldiers of the times. According to Hari Ram Gupta (History of Sikh Gurus), Guru Arjun set the noblest example of courage and boldness in resisting the wrongs of the mightiest power on earth, and this sowed the seed which was to bear rich fruits in due course. The sacrifice gave to the Sikhs a new line of thought and action.

Before the execution of Guru Arjun Dev, his son Hargobind had become his successor. Guru Arjun Dev had instructed his son that he would have to retaliate the tyranny of the Mughal Empire. Guru Hargobind girded himself with two swords – one signifying Miri (temporal power) and the other signifying Piri (spiritual power). He laid the foundation of Akal Takht – The Throne of God, and raised it as the seat of temporal authority, where the Guru discussed with Sikhs the policies in relation to the political situation. The Guru formulated a policy which was to lead the most down-trodden people to political advancement and thereby created a revolution in the life of Sikhs. Guru Hargobind demonstrated the possibility of Sikhs openly assuming an attitude of defiance against the Mughal Government and prepared the way for a climax to be witnessed at the hands of Guru Gobind Singh.

The founding of the Khalsa by the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh was the epitome of the mission of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak identifies himself with the lowest of the low born, for, 'where the weak are cared for, Thy mercy is showered’. Describing the attributes of God, Guru Gobind Singh says, “God ever cherisheth the poor, saveth saints and destroyeth enemies”. Thus, protecting the poor and the weak and destroying the tyrant are, according to Sikhism, God’s own mission. Guru Gobind Singh descended to protect the religion and punish its adversaries, to save the saint and destroy the tyrants. The Guru says that it was in pursuance of divine-mission that he created Khalsa to restore justice and righteousness. At the time of initiating the five beloved ones, who offered their heads for the cause of the Guru, they were asked to repeat ‘Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh’. (The creation of the Khalsa was by His Own grace and the victory of the Khalsa was hailed as God’s victory). At the time of baptism ceremony, each entrant to the Order of Khalsa gained five freedoms: freedom from shackles of (a) earlier religion (b) earlier deeds, c) caste bondage, (d) earlier taboos and e) earlier customs and rituals. The Guru conferred upon them equal status and, as members of the newly-acquired brotherhood, all of them dined together. These measures ensured complete break of the Khalsa from the caste system.

According to Indu Bhushan Bannerjee (Evolution of Khalsa), “Guru Gobind Singh brought a new people into being and released a dynamic force into the arena of history. He sought to create an idea! Sikh society with different ideals and motivations and gave a new direction to Indian History.”

It would, therefore, appear that by laying down new religious and social institutions, by defiantly rejecting the caste ideology, by continuously struggling against the mighty oppressive Mughal Empire, and by making supreme sacrifices unparalleled in the annuls of history, for the furtherance of Divine Mission, Sikhism has traveled a long way and has established, beyond any doubt whatsoever, its separate religious identity. Sikhism is neither the sword arm, nor the sub-whole of any other religion. It is an independent and complete religion with its own distinct identity, code of conduct and value system. It needs to be already understood in that light and accorded a proper place in the comity of world religions.


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