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Unique History and Cultural Heritage of Vaisakhi

Dr Harbans Lal

They say that a word can inspire a thousand images but it will be hard to find such a word except the word of Vaisakhi. Vaisakhi really projects ecstatic images of nations, nature and cultural landscapes spread wide and across the entire globe. It is the time of year when people of almost every heritage are seen jubilant and celebrating with both sacred and secular merriment.

Northwest of the Indian sub-continent is especially festive because Sikhs celebrate the birth of their founding prophet, Guru Nanak in 1469 and the founding of the Khalsa in 1699, later will be the subject of my presentation today. But let me preface.

All Punjabis, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims welcome Vaisakhi as their spring festival when they harvest their crops. At this time, trees and bushes are laden with green leaves and bright colored flowers that blossom all around. People act out various expressions of thankfulness while appreciating at a deeper level many scenes of prosperity and cyclical regeneration.

History of Vaisakhi celebration is certainly not limited to Punjabis as is generally supposed. Celebration of Nababarsha – Naba Barsha (Poila Baisakh) is a famous occasion for our Bengali friends. It is the first day of the first month of Bengali year.

In the year 599 B.C. at the time of Vaisakhi, Mahavira was born as the last one in the galaxy of twenty-four Jain Prophets.

Similarly, the god/prophet of Hindus, Sri Rama, is widely believed to be born sometime in the end of March or the beginning of April, the exact date of his birth not yet established.

Vaisakhi is also the time of the birth of Sri Hanuman who is worshiped all over India. Every temple of Sri Rama has the idol of Sri Hanuman. His birthday falls on April 13. Hindus celebrate this occasion as one of their major festivities.

Only last year when I visited Hyderabad, I learnt that April 7 is Ugadi, the New Year for the people of the Deccan region of India.

My Sindhi friends, people from Sindh of Pakistan, often invite me to their celebration of their New Year at the same time.

Prophet Muhammad who gave birth to the second most followed religion of the world, Islam, was born on April 11.

Easter in the spring that falls around Vaisakhi, also called Pascha, is the most important religious feast in the Christian liturgical year. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians believe occurred on the third day after his crucifixion.

I know I missed many others who celebrate Vaisakhi festivities. A few examples I quoted are meant only to illustrate the overwhelming number of images that are associated with the celebration of Vaisakhi festival.

Today I know you are here to salute to the 10th Prophet of the Sikhs who had arranged on this day the famous Vaisakhi, 310 years ago in 1699, the event that has no parallel in the history of any Nation.

This day, He asked for their head from his followers and with those who came forward he gave birth to an order, an order of Khalsa, those who would continue to commit their head, metaphorically meaning body and soul, to the mission that he was ready to assign to them.

My 15 minutes presentation is not the time to go into all facets of the event, many books have been written, and many world class symposia and conferences have been organized around this subject.

I like to limit to the praises of my Guru, Guru Gobind Singh and there too I will limit to only one aspect of his multitude of teachings.

I will talk about his emphasis on love.
You may look at Vaisakhi as a drama of love. Love that the Guru used to mesmerize his audience when he ask for a head and the love that the Guru inculcated among those who came forward. To them he prescribed a Rehat, a specific life-style.

Was this the reason that our 18th century’s writers name the path of the Guru as Prem Sumarag meaning the sacred Path of Love.

To appreciate this event you have to go into the Guru’s lifelong teachings. It was Guru Gobind Singh, who said,

Sach kahon sun leho Sabai jin prem kio tin hee prabh paio.

[Listen to this and all should listen. Those who practice life of love, they alone will realize the purpose of this life, that is, to experience divine within and relate the divine to all Creation with active expression of love.]

The vision of love is always followed by the acts of love that join us to the reality that we intrinsically yearn for, but we do not know how to reach or how to realize, it remains a mystery without a specific path. According to our Guru, the path of love is the path to that mystery.

Secondly, with the practice of love comes a change that leads us into the dimension of spirituality. That is: Your eyes see because in spirit you become the witness to everything. You have newly expanded thoughts because in spirit you begin to know all. Similarly, you feel love toward another person because in spirit you are infinite love.

Connecting the spiritual dimension of human vision to love means abandoning the notion of limited self with its limited ability to act in love and regaining the Self with its unbounded ability to achieve and serve. These are the changes because of the spiritual vision that the Guru incorporated into his injunctions of Five Nash.

When the Guru created the Order of Khalsa, he defined Khalsa in the terms of this vision:
jwgiq joq jpY inj bwsr eyk ibnw mn nYk n AwnY Bul n mwnY ]
He is the true Khalsa (Sikh), who awakens the awareness within of divine light and divine creativity and lives the life of its practices, without permitting inroads to any thoughts of “otherness”.

Absolute and unconditional love and its “perteet” meaning full comprehension, full grasp, full understanding of the meaning of love, then becoming embodiment sjY of love, never again to believe in the illusions of the past.

Through the practice of love he made us aware of pure creativity and pure spirit. Through the vision of love he made us free from all memories or images from the past. His Love was Beyond all illusions.

Like the tiny spark of fire that consumes a forest, his spark of love was all that was needed for his followers to experience love in its full power and glory, in all its aspects, earthly and divine. To them love became spirit, and all experiences of love, however insignificant they seem, were actually invitations to the sacrifice to uphold the truth and justice. Within every story of their sacrifices was a love story hiding the wooing of the creation and thus the Creator.

It is therefore that he emphasized. I repeat.
pUrn pRym pRqIq sjY bRq gor mVI mt BUl n mwny ]
Absolute and unconditional LOVE and its “perteet” meaning full comprehension, full grasp, full understanding of the meaning of love, and becoming embodiment sjy of love, never again to believe in the illusions of the past embedded in cemeteries or cremation grounds.

The expression - path to love - is not simply a metaphor; it reappears throughout spiritual history and cultures in many guises. On the day of Vaisakhi, Khalsa became the guise in 1699.

Thus Guru Gobind Singh created Khalsa to raise awareness within, awareness of the creator and the creation, meaning nature and the world order consisting of laws of nature, awareness of society’s problems followed by solutions to society’s problem and problems of its environments through pro-active resolution of them using the armor of love.

Guru Granth says,
ijn qUÍ syivAw Bwau kir syeI purK sujwn ]
Those will become the truly wise who serve the divine mission through the acts of Love.
And those who serve the Creator with acts of love, God will carry them across.
ijn@I qUÍ syivAw Bwau kir sy quDu pwir auqwirAw ]
Those who serve You with love - You carry them across.
p 968, Sata Balwand

The prophet lived at a time (1666-1708) when religious fanaticism in South Asia was at its height. It was endlessly posing a grave threat to the human spirit of freedom and liberty.

Practice of pluralism and multicultural life was in peril.
Those with faith practices different from their misguided rulers were persecuted and the religious places of one religion were replaced with those of others. Guru’s great-grand-father, father, four sons and countless followers were put to death by the powers because they stood against the effort to uniformity of religion and culture. You are well aware of the notorious designs of Moghul administration at the time of Aurangzeb.

It was a dark, grim and ominous period in human history. The innate human desire for individual expression and diversity of belief that was inherited in Indian culture was being severely curtailed.

Guru Gobind Singh worked tirelessly to restore society’s confidence in the time-tested human values of unity in diversity, freedom of faith practices, justice and compassion.

He challenged the ruling and dominant powers with grit and determination.
With equal might he challenged the wide-spread religious bigotry and spread a religion of love and freedom of choice in religious practices. It meant preserving the tapestry of regions and religious practices and not a uniform one religion or one way to achieve the religious acceptance.

Let me tell you a story right from the Guru’s childhood.
When time came to announce public recognition to the prophetic role of the Child Guru, it was done through a profound public demonstration by a renowned Muslim saint, Syed Bhikhan Shah.

The saint was miraculously inspired by a divine vision to make his journey to the Guru’s birth place, Patna, to bless the infant Gobind, and to pronounce him divine.

When he reached in the Presence of the child Gobind, the pir presented a pre-meditated riddle. He placed two bowls of sweets before the child; one bowl was purchased from a Hindu’s shop, and the second from a Muslim’s shop, thus signifying the two major contemporary religions in India.

The riddle sought answer to an unspoken question, which sought guidance as to which religion this divine prophet would belong and lead. The proper response would permit the pir to pronounce the Guru’s divinity and his prophetic authority to lead a certain people.

To everyone’s admiration and deep satisfaction, the baby stretched both hands and placed one in each bowl.

By this action the child Guru was indicating that he would not profile people among religious divides signifying that all religions would be dear to him. Further, he would honor a Muslim holy man, Bhikhan Shah to become the medium of his first message.

Thus in his very first public message, Guru Gobind Singh laid the path to love for all through interfaith events and dialogues, and sanctioned inter-religious appreciation and accommodation during the difficult times of religious divisions and fanaticism.

Further, he chose symbolic language of Loveful gesture over the literary languages to communicate his first public sermon.

Amazingly, the Guru used profound public demonstration to impart his first sermon of love in multi-faith dimension. Guru emphasized diversity of faith and its practices that the India is constituted of.

Although in this story Guru Gobind Singh dramatized it, actually the appreciation of diversity in human ecology was presented as Cosmic Plan or Hukam throughout the Sikh teachings. Guru Granth says,

myrY pRiB swcY ieku Kylu rcwieAw ] koie n iks hI jyhw aupwieAw ]
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 1056

My Eternal Creator has staged a play. He has created no one like anyone else. He made them different; he placed all the flavors and their appreciation within each body. Then he looks at this diversity with pleasure.

Diversity is a law of nature and a law of life that the Creator formulated as a Play of His Love. Plants and animals diversify to evolve and survive; they perish if they don’t. Structures of stars and lands vary millions of times in size and characters, and, the cell and biological particles in the human body do the same.

Just as our physical world is diverse, so are our religions, our cultures, social systems, orbits, and traditions.

The law of diversity applies to the institutions of religions. Pluralistic religions originate out of the human ecology of diversity. They are best suited to survive along with human evolution and human ecology. The Guru Granth recognized these identities.

isru nwnk lokw pwv hY ] bilhwrI jwau jyqy qyry nwv hY ]
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 1168

Nanak places his head at the feet of all people and is a sacrifice to as many identities ascribed to You, O’ Infinite.
Let me quote from the writings of the Guru Gobind Singh’s durbar.

To spread his message of a perfect egalitarian society based on one-ness of God, Guru Gobind Singh paraphrased this doctrine by celebrating the diversity in all of its myriad forms. He wrote:

koaU iBea muMfIAw sMinAwsI koaU jogI Biea
koaU bRhmcwrI koaU jqI Anumwnbo ]
ihMdU qurk koaU rwPsI iemwm swPI mwns kI jwq sbY eykY pihcwnbo ]
krqw krIm soeI rwjk rhIm aeI dUsro n Byd koeI Bum BRm mwnbo ]
eyk hI kI syv sB hI ko gurdyv eyk eyk hI srUp sbY eykY joq jwnbo ]

– Akal Ustat

Many believe that they become superior by accepting celibacy or undertaking meditation, by giving up material comforts, by making themselves look different, or by wearing long and matted hair or no hair. Others feel higher by joining a particular sect of Islam as, Shia, Sunni, etc. But no one should overlook the basic fact that followers of all religions are the same human beings. The Creator of all provides for the needs of all humans. There is one God of all and that God alone should be worshipped.

Do not remain an ignorant and believe in anyone else except the one Creator. All humanity is equal, each one of us carries the reflection of the Creator in us, and we are all manifestations of one Creator.

Guru Gobind Singh believed that the differences among humans in terms of color, appearance and ethnicity were due to God’s creative process; all human beings had a moral responsibility to cherish and preserve this sacred creativity.

He emphasized the unity of human spirit despite many apparent distinctions. He explained that the differences in our outward appearance, clothes, customs and practices are attributed to the choices that only we make. He said:

dyvqw Adyv j`C gMDRb qurk ihMdU inAwry inAwrY dysn ky Bys ko pRBwau hY ]
Many are gods or demon, or celestial musicians. There are heavenly tribes and the learned people or the artists. There may be seen as people of different religions as Muslims (citizens of Islamic nations) or Hindus (natives of Indian subcontinent). They all look and act differently, but their apparent differences are due to the influences from their countries and cultures, or in the clothes they wear.

mwns sbY eyk pY Anyk ko Brmwau hY ]
All human beings are one and the same, although there is a deception of differences.
Guru Gobind Singh was a champion of human rights. He advocated freedom of culture, religion and thought for every individual.

We can thus see that self-righteousness which comes from dividing the world into us and them has no place in Guru Gobind Singh’s vision of love, his Prem Sumarag.

His teachings and his sacrifices made great difference and, thank God, the diversity so characteristic of today India, was preserved by the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh and sacrifices of his Khalsa.

Santokh Singh, a great historian of India rightly observed. I will end my presentation with a poem written by the famous poet, Bhai Santokh Singh:

Cwie jwqI eykqw Anykqw iblwey jwqI, hovqI kucuIlqw kqbyn kuurwn kI ]
pwp prpk jwqy, Drm Dsk jwqy, brn grk jwqy swihq ibDwn kI ]
dyvI dyv idhury sMqoK isMG dUr hoqy, rIq imt jwqI sB bydn purwn kI ]
sRI gurU goibMd isMG pwvn prm sUr, mUrq n hoqI jo pih, kruxw inDwn kI]

Were Guru Gobind Singh not there at the critical junction of Indian history, there would have been all uniformity meaning everybody would have been converted into one religion, one sets of cultural and social behaviors, and a single way to worship or dress; the diversity would have taken wings. In favor of one such religion, the others would have been destroyed and their holy places adversely transformed. To be diverse would have been a sin punishable with torture and death. Sin would have replaced the virtues, Were Guru Gobind Singh not there at the critical junction of Indian history.

On this day of Baisakhi, we must celebrate the all-inclusive worldview of Guru Gobind Singh. Indeed, Guru Gobind Singh’s ideal of appreciation and preservation of diversity as a pivotal feature of all human activity is also an American ideal and UNO charter of Human Rights. We must never forget to defend it. On this day of Vaisakhi, we take pride in its celebration.



ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved.