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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh



Martyrdom in The Sikh Tradition: Playing the Game of Love

A Review by Dr Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon

Author: Louis E. Fenech,
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
P. 306.

The Book under review is a revised version of the author’s dissertation, ‘Playing the game of Love: The Sikh Tradition of Martyrdom,’ submitted for the Ph.D. degree to the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto in 1995, under the guidance of W.H. McLeod. The author has dedicated the book to McLeod, his mentor who offered him ‘helpful critiques and suggestions’ and shaped his opinions.

The book endeavours to trace the concept of martyrdom throughout the history of the Sikh people. In the ‘Introduction’, the author states that ‘Shahid’ and ‘Shahadat’ are Islamic terms which entered the realm of Sikh literature in the early nineteenth century. He believes that it was through the efforts of the ideologues of the Singh Sabha Movement that martyrs and martyrdom began to occupy such a prominent place in the Sikh religious tradition. He argues that ‘martyrdom was not something new to those within the Sikh Panth. But this feature of the tradition received a strength and a coherence that it had not known previously, thanks to the Singh Sabha efforts’. He goes on to argue that it was through the ‘rhetoric of martyrdom’ that the Singh Sabha achieved a dramatic success. The rhetoric of martyrdom became a form of ‘stylistic medicine’ that Singh Sabha writers and exegetes administered to themselves and to their audience. The theme of martyrdom was well-suited to the situation faced by the Singh Sabha ideologues dealing with identity issues. In the hands of the Singh Sabha, ‘the martyr became the symbol of corporate Sikh identity par excellence’.

The burden of Fenech’s thesis is to prove that martyrdom has not been an essential feature of the Sikh tradition as popular histories suggest. He believes that martyrlogical interpretation of Guru Nanak’s history and theology was developed and nurtured by the Singh Sabha. He contends that ‘martyr tradition provides a frame work to interpret the Adi Granth which, in turn, provides the material for the martyr tradition. Each feeds into the other in continuous and circular process’. He refers to plurality of traditions in Sikihism and divergent interpretations of Guru Nanak’s hymns by Khalsa Sikhs on one hand and Nirmala or Udasis on the other hand. He notes that Singh Sabha’s interpretation of Sikh tradition came to the forefront through wide publicity given to it through the medium of newspapers, tracts and other publications. He further states that the rhetoric of martyrdom was continued by the S.G.P.C. and the Akali Dal to serve their ends.

This is an unexpected book on an unexpected theme. Phenomenon of martyrdom, so deeply embedded in Sikh religion and Sikh history, had never been the subject of any academic debate. It is only with the advent of atheists, sociologists and anthropologists on the academic scene that such issues have come to be raised. In fact all religious faiths face challenges from materialistic philosophies and scienticism. Western scholars trained on this line of thought, fail to grasp the full meaning and implications of the grand life-affirming faith of Guru Nanak with an inalienable social content. Their failure to understand this world view leads to obvious flaws in their understanding of Sikh history and religion. W.H. McLeod views Sikh religion as a 'religion of interiority.’ He asserts that Guru Nanak made no contribution to Indian religious thought and that Sikhism had no independent and distinct ideology of its own. Dr. Harjot Oberoi, an anthropologically attuned historian tends to oversimplify the Sikh movement by branding the Sikh faith as nothing more than a peasant faith. He completely denies the role of Sikh scripture or spiritual element in Sikh history. He views Sikh history through a material lens and explains it in terms of what he calls ‘material, pragmatic or economic interests.’

Fenech virtually toes the line of McLeod and Oberoi in most of his assumptions. His book endorses their ideas on methodology and world view. He fails to understand the religious situation, motivation and religious sensibilities of eighteenth century Sikhs who had no access to any academic platform to proclaim their doctrines or definitions of martyrs and martyrdom. Spirit of martyrdom for faith flew in their veins and their heroic acts spoke louder than words. They defined themselves with their sacrifices. They wrote history with their blood. There were no adequate terms at that time to describe their spectacular acts. But then heroic acts do not always follow stereotypical patterns, especially when viewed from the soul’s perspective. Courage comes in many forms. A path breaking study of the hero phenomenon was carried out by Joseph Campbell whose book ‘The Hero with a thousand Faces’ had sold millions of copies around the world. The message of Guru Granth Sahib is not in the form of any set codes of morality or modes of martyrdom. Guru Nanak’s call to the Sikhs was for altruistic deeds and sacrifice for one’s convictions and faith.

Sikh ideology is radically different from other religious systems in India. The basic reason is that Guru’s religious experience about God is that ‘He is all love and the rest He is ineffable’. This mystic experience of the Guru is completely different from the other Indian religious systems in which the ultimate Reality is ‘sat-chit-anand’, which is a quiet concept. As against it, love expresses a clear, dynamic and creative concept which intimately links God to the world, love being the fount of all values and virtues expressible in the world. It is this religious experience of the Gurus that determines the dynamics of Sikh religion. It is in this context that Guru Nanak says, ‘If you want to play the game of love, step on to my path with thy head on thy palm’. The game of love played by a martyr is beyond intellectual analysis. An atheist or a rationalist cannot gauge the immensity of a martyr’s selfless love and his self-sacrifice. Like Walt Whitman a martyr seems to say, ‘Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, when I give, I give myself.’ And he is universal in his sympathy. He is a humanitarian man, when the call comes to relieve human distress. Fenech fails to capture the true essence of the ‘Game of love’ played by Sikh martyrs.

It is indeed amazing that Fenech has tried to build a thesis which has no basis in facts, logic or history. He is not able to analyze the reasons why the first four Sikh Gurus took ‘on overt action in response to aggression’. He also casts doubt on the veracity of traditional accounts of martyrdom of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur. He contends that Guru Arjan does not warrant the status of a martyr as he was executed by Jahangir, not for his faith but for lending help to rebel prince Khusrau. He does not quote any authentic historical source to support his contention. He goes on to focus his critical lens on Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom. He refers to ‘competing Muslim and Sikh claims regarding the ninth Guru’s activities and capture. He states, ‘Persian sources maintain that the Guru was a bandit who was justly executed for his role in rebellious activity, while the Sikh narrative holds that Tegh Bahadur died in the attempt to secure the rights of all people, particularly the Brahmins of Kashmir to practice their religion. Which Persian sources is he talking about? No answer. In a state of confusion, he suspends judgement on these claims. He entangles himself in self-contradiction when later on, he states, ‘All this, of course’, does not imply that the ninth Guru did not die the death of a martyr. The attempt above is simply to dispel the Tat Khalsa (Singh Sabha) notion that the community for which the Guru died was a different one from his own. He finds support for this conclusion in a Gurbilas text, Suraj Parkash, (1844) written by a Nirmala scholar Santokh Singh, who asserts that the ninth Guru’s faith was none other than the Hindu faith. He argues that the Singh Sabha added more significance to the Guru’s martyrdom by maintaining that Guru offered his life for another’s right to practice a religion. He traces the roots of the Singh Sabha interpretation in the thought of the European Enlightenment, particularly the utilitarianism of the John Stewart Mill variety.

The book abounds in conjectural assertions and baseless assumptions. The author sets aside clear historical and ideological evidence and assumes that the directive force in the Singh Sabha was derived from European Enlightenment. He takes no cognizance of Guru Nanak’s sublime ideals of universal love, brotherhood of mankind and concern for human rights without any distinction of caste or creed. These ideals were the motivating force for Singh Sabha. These were the sources of their rationale and not European Enlightenment. Ninth Guru’s martyrdom underscores the inalienable right of all individuals to worship in good conscience-a belief that is in consonance with the philosophy of the first Guru. Yes, the community for which the Guru died was a different one from his own. It is well-known that, apart from other distinctions, the Brahmans have a deeply-entrenched caste system. It is absurd for the author to draw a simplistic conclusion on the testimony of a single text called ‘Suraj Parkash’. Coming to Guru Gobind Singh and the creation of the Khalsa, the author observes that ‘the general lack of specific terms to designate the concept of martyr and martyrdom seems to indicate that these ideas were not remarkable features of the nascent Khalsa Sikh tradition, their presence notwithstanding’. He notes that the Sikhs of the Khalsa did not represent a homogenous body and they had heterodox features. He further notes that the history of armed resistance under Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Bahadur has a distinct Hindu orientation. He refers to some accounts dealing with the term Shahid which applied to ‘forces greater than the heroic warriors for the faith who sealed their testimony with their lives’. This Shahid was looked upon as a harmful or benevolent entity who required propitiation. The author sidetracks the issues and makes irrelevant observations regarding the worship of ancestors, Sakhi Sarver, Guga Pir and Seetla among the Sikhs, about which he gives no data at all in support of his argument.

The author seems to go on a wild goose chase to look for materials to support his unsustainable thesis. As an academician, he should not draw conclusions from a lop-sided study of stray sections of the Sikh community who adhered to some local socio-religious practices during a period when some Hindus found it convenient to enter the Sikh fold. Sikh scripture is full of hymns opposing the worship of Pirs, Devis, gods and goddesses. The term ‘Shahid’ might have been used to describe a mystic entity but it cannot in any way, dilute the significance of a Shahid or martyr in the Sikh tradition. If, as stated by the author, Sikh tradition was not clearly defined before the advent of the Singh Sabha, then who were those Sikh heads on whom the Mughal state, that identified its enemies very well, fixed the prices?  In the turbulent and war-torn eighteenth century, most of the accounts of Sikh history were lost or destroyed. Even Muslim chronicler Mohsan Fani bears ample testimony to the unique features of Sikh ideology and ethos.

Like Harjot Oberoi, Fenech thinks that Sikhism is a peasant religion. He believes that Sikhs of the pre-Singh Sabha period were rustic peasants who had no knowledge of the Sikh scripture or ideology and whose primary concerns were economic and pragmatic. He belongs to the current crop of materialist scientists who distinguish between primitives and ‘advanced’ societies without realizing that while the so-called primitives lacked modern technological skills, they were in certain regards, far more proficient than the modern humans. They knew that the Universal Reality can at best be experienced, not intellectually known that ordinary logic is not useful to achieve such an experience. Mircea Elide observes that ‘de sacralization pervades the entire experience of the non-religious man of modem societies and that in consequence, he finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in archaic societies’.

Any attempt to interpret the Sikh movement purely in terms of external factors is like the one venturing to explain the growth of Christianity without reference to the life and teaching of Christ and attributing his deep concern for the poor and his criticism of the rich as due to many of his followers being poor fishermen destined to face a life of penury and misery. It is preposterous to study the entire Sikh movement in terms of the economic struggle of the leadership of Sikh peasantry and to remain quite oblivious of the role of the Gurus and their ideology. Sikhism is not a sociological growth. It has its ten prophets, a revealed scripture, well-defined doctrines and a world-view which are entirely different from the fundamentals of the contemporary religious systems. Sikh tradition has always preserved that spark of life that makes their history so dynamic. Author’s failure to take cognizance of the Sikh tradition accounts for so many inadequacies in his analysis.

The author completely undermines the Sikh tradition of martyrdom. He divests the martyrdom of the Gurus of its halo and challenges their status as prophets. He delinks glorious Sikh history from its inward springs. He overlooks what the Sikhs think of their Gurus and the scriptural Guru i.e. the Holy Granth Sahib. Mohammedans place their implicit faith in their prophet. Similarly Christians regard Jesus Christ as the son of God. Will Fenech or any other Western Scholar venture to analyse and evaluate Jesus Christ and his martyrdom with materialistic yardsticks?

History is much more than mere enumeration of facts and events. Carlyle in his essay on history expresses the view that history is a sort of communication. The best example of this communication can be found in J.D. Cunningham, who with his profound and penetrating vision, could capture the genius of Sikh thought and describe its operation in history in lucid terms. He describes Sikh history on an epic scale. Fenech, with his limited vision, fails to identify the motivating force behind Sikh history. Just as the various blind men could only comprehend parts of that elusive elephant, the author fails to comprehend the phenomenon of martyrdom in the Sikh tradition. He has a fallacious and lop-sided view of Sikh concept and tradition of martyrdom.

Conclusion : Godless materialism of the West, which denies the divine dimension in human affairs, is already on the wane. Materialism is fast losing acceptance as an accurate model of Reality. To isolate the spiritual from the mundane aspects of Reality is to ignore the all important relationship that exists between the two. Those who view the world in polarized terms cannot do justice to the study of religion which needs different tools of analysis.


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2014, All rights reserved.