KOER SINGH’S GURBILAS PATHSHAHI 10:
AN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY SIKH LITERATURE
Dr Madanjit Kaur
The study deals with an important issue of the early sources of information for Sikh Studies. Scholars dealing with Gurmukhi sources on Sikh Studies are not only handicapped by the paucity of authentic and original material at our disposal but are seriously confronted with the problem of dating, ,authorship and authenticity of the original texts incorporated in these sources. The study of these manuscripts presents a complex pattern of medieval Punjabi genre because we have mostly copies of different versions of these texts rather than the original manuscripts at our disposal. This problem becomes much more multiple, when scholars interpreting and assessing these sources make subjective assertions.
The focus of this paper is to authenticate the dating of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10, an important source of information about major events on the life and mission of Guru Gobind. Singh and the founding of the Khalsa..
The present study proposes to make a scrutiny of some views expressed recently by a scholar rejecting the authenticity of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 as an eighteenth century source of Sikh literature 1 The burden of his arguments and thesis presented in ‘A Reconstruction of Sikh History from Sikh Literature (1988) can be delineated as under:-
(i) The supposed clue to its date is ambiguous
(ii) A large number of passages is proved to have been lifted from Sukha Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi Dasvin, a work of A.D 1797.
(iii) The heterodox beliefs of the author and Hindu portrayal of Guru Gobind Singh do not vouchsafe for it, or the period claimed for it.
(iv) The account of Gurbilas Patshahi 10 contains certain ideas which would have been suicidal and silly for the Sikhs in the middle of the eighteenth century.
(v) The presence of post-eventum prophecies regarding internal conflict amohg Turks.
(vi) The echoes of differences between the Majha and Malwa Sikhs.
(vii) That the author of the Gurbilas Patshahi 10 mentions the presence of the English in the country.
(viii) That the conciliatory tone of the author of the Gurbilas Patshahi 10 towards the Muslims carries a strong imprint of Sikh rule under Ranjit Singh.
(ix) That the increasing number of men coming in the Sikh fold had to be educated in the rudiments of Sikhism, which led to the dilution of Sikh tenets in the welter of traditional beliefs.
Thus the scholar seeks to cast a doubt on the time of the work as well as on its authorship. 2 The date of compilation given at the end of the work 3 has been dubbed as ambiguous, and the change of metre in the last stanza of the couplet embodying the date of the work is Supposed to warrant this conclusion. 4 But how? He does not show. He very conveniently dismisses without discussing the internal evidence with regard to the authorship of the work, 5 produced by Dr. Fauja Singh in his introduction to the published edition of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 edited by Shamsher Singh Ashok. 6 This over-simplified device applied in rejecting the dating of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 as eighteenth century forbodes a subjective bias of the author. The damage of this step becomes clear when we keep before us writings of some western scholars who, by raising unbecoming controversies, are out, not only to decry, but also to demolish the very foundation of Sikhism: undo its doctrines, undermine the status of its founder, question evolution of the Sikh community, cast doubt on the genuineness of Sikh codes of conduct (Rahitnamas) and find fault with the question of ‘Sikh’ identity and definition of a ‘Sikh’
The question of the dating of this important work is very significant, for on its authenticity depends the resolution of many very intricate problems relating to the founding of the Khalsa, the Panj Pyaras, the rahit of the Sikh symbols (Five K’s) and succession of the Guru Granth Sahib as Guru after the death of the Tenth Master. This is so, for the view expressed in A Reconstruction of Sikh History tends to confirm the theses presented earlier in the writings of Dr. W.H. Mcleod7 who categorically rejects the traditional account about the founding of the Khalsa on the Baisakhi day of AD. 16998 and holds that the Sikh Rahit Maryada and Sikh symbols (Five K’s) were evolved sometime during the eighteenth century and were not prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh on the Baisakhi Day of A.D.1699 . 9
As the limited purpose of this paper is to re-interpret the dating of Koer’ Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10, we shall concentrate on the internal evidence of the work supporting and authenticating its authorship and dating.
(1) The chief merit of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 is that the date of the completion of the work is explicitly given at the end of the account as under:
The date of this work was calculated by Bhai Vir Singh as 1819 Bikrami (A.D. 1762). He clearly takes into account both the word Basu which represents eight and the word ekadsi which means eleven. But Shamsher Singh Ashok and Fauja Singh, it appears, accept 1808 Bikrami (A.D. 1751) as the date of start of the work and 1811 Bikrami (AD. 1754) as the date of conclusion of the work. Hence, it is not correct that the word ekadsi has not been taken into account or kept unexplained. In fact, Bhai Vir Singh’s work clearly took this into account in arriving at its date as 1819 Bikrami (AD. 1762). Hans’s second argument about the change of meter at the end of the dating is without any basis. It appears Hans is not aware of the fact that the meter had to be changed because the four lines of the Swaya had ended earlier and Koer Singh’s option was either to restart another Swaya of four lines or repeat a Dohera as he has done here and at numerous other places in the text. 10 11 12 Hence, the criticism about the date, which is the strongest point of the writing, is without any rationality. We can, thus, very clearly and safely place the work between A.D. 1751 and A.D. 1762 and there can be no doubt about its being a mid-18th century work. By no stretch of imagination can the unambiguous date be ignored. Had Koer Singh wanted to predate his work, he would never have given the date clearly and claimed only to have received the account from Bhai Mani Singh’s lectures. If he had any desire to pre-date his work, he could easily claim to be the contemporary of the Master as some writers of Rehtnamas have done. Hence, authenticity of the date or the timing of this work is unchallengeable.
(2) Gurbilas Patshahi 10 written by Koer Singh sometime in A.D. 1751-1762 is thus anterior to Sukha Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 which was completed in A.D.1797. Therefore, there is no question of Koer Singh’s indebtedness to Sukha Singh.Besides, Koer Singh’s work is primarily based on the narration of events by eye witness contemporaries of the Tenth Master. In fact, the work is an anthology of discourses delivered by Bhai Mani Singh13 who received Amrit from the Tenth Master. This inference is authenticated by internal (evidence of Gurbilas Patshahi 10 which mentions this categorically:
This is not the only reference to Mani Singh, there are other references too. Even the concluding part of the work expresses acknowledgement of the debt he owes to Bhai Mani Singh for the entire account’
This is another factor showing its non-dependence upon Sukha Singh’s Gurbilas for its narration. There is however, no doubt that Koer Singh’s Gurbilas drew on ‘Bachitra Natak’ (part of Dasem Granth), Gursobha (Saina Pat) and Jangnama (Anni Rai) 14
Koer Singh preceded later writers of Gurbilases. Material for many events and even verbatim passages recorded in Sukha Singh’s Gurubilas. (A.D. 1797), therefore, appear to have been lifted from Koer Singh’s work and not the other way round. While Koer Singh clearly indicates the source of his information, there is no ground to suggest an inverted inference as drawn by the learned author. Therefore, the presence of a large number of common couplets in both these works does not form any reason to place the dating of Koer Singh’s work in nineteenth century; There is no indication to suggest that Koer Singh’s work is later than that of Sukha Singh. .
(3) It is clear from the internal evidence that Gurbilas Patshaht 10 was written by Koer Singh Kalal, 15 who was a Sahajdhari Sikh and perhaps, took Khande di Pahul if at all, at a very later stage.
For this reason, the account of Sikh belief-system recorded in his Gurbilas lacks adequate understanding and naturally suffers from introduction therein of his Brahmanic convictions and puranic vision. It appears he has at places projected his old convictions and personal beliefs in explaining Sikh theology and Sikh practices as also futurology of Sikh history. His statements about the prophecies made by Guru Gobind Singh in this regard can be seen as post-eventum rather than prophecies. 17 Thus, mythology and history merge as the subjective correlation of Puranic inheritance of the author with the societal role of Sikh ideology in which he does not seem to hesitate giving way to his Sanatanist beliefs while purporting to write about the life and works of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh.
A socio-cultural study of the text of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas reveals that the work excels in the application of epic dimension to mythic sensibility. Even a cursory survey of the text would reveal that Gurbilas Patshahi 10 is a typical medieval Indian text, the popular genre of the eighteenth century Punjabi literature. 18 Therefore, the impact of Vedic culture and Puranic school of thought is visible in the modes of literary forms applied by Koer Singh in his account. 19
This factor is primarily responsible for drawing the conclusion that its author, Koer Singh,”held heterodox beliefs” and depicted “Guru Gobind Singh as worshipper of the Goddess” 20 and presented a “Hinduized portrayal of Guru Gobind Singh”,21 that the Guru remained detached and passed on the responsibility of creation of the Khalsa Panth on the Goddess herself, the Khalsa was placed at the feet of the Goddess and the Guru was an incarnation to destroy the Turk-Malechas. 22
(4) The fourth argument forwarded in rejecting Gurbilas Patshahi 10 as eighteenth century work is that the author of the Gurbilas Patshahi 10 does not show much sympathy with the
people, for example:
‘One should be ever vigilant. The officials should not get involved with the people. One should be efficient, neither too friendly nor too inimical to one’s subjects. People are like lions (singhs) who find friends in none.’ 23 It is preposterous for a Singh, much more for Guru Gobind Singh, to hold such a doctrine. ‘The subjects need a strong hand to deal with, 24 Women, people, land and money are faithful to none.’’25 ‘Such ideas would have been simply suicidal and silly for the Sikhs to hold in the middle of the eighteenth century.’ 26 These were the stock ideas held by medieval Hindu scholars as a legacy of Manu and Chankaya. It has already been stated that Koer Singh is a person with strong Brahmanical sentiments and leanings. Hence this suggestion against women and for ‘discriminatory or hierarchical beliefs is natural from him. The objection of Hans is again without any meaning because such Brahmanical expression of views against woman and equality is not only contrary to the Sikh views of the 18th century but they are opposed to the Guru Granth itself. Hence, Hans’s argument is hardly relevant regarding the dating of the work on this account.
(5) Fifthly, Koer Singh’s statement about the conflict between the Turks and the consequent opportunity for the Sikhs to establish their rule seen by our scholar as post eventum prophecies is not sustainable. 27 Koer Singh was composing his work at a time (AD. 1751-1762) when the Afghan invasions of the Punjab were on and the disintegration of the Mughal power was on the anvil.
The Afghan-Mughal conflict proved it golden opportunity to the Sikhs. Under the able leadership of Sardar Kapur Singh Faizullapuria, the Sikhs had already organised themselves into Dal Khalsa (Military groups of the Sikhs). Sardar Kapur Singh had come to be addressed as the Padshah (King) or Nawab of the Sikhs. He was the supreme commander of the Dal Khalsa. At the meeting of the Dal Khalsa on the Baisakhi day of 1748 at Amritsar, which was almost synchronous with the first Abdali invasion, on the proposal of Kapur Singh, the chief command of the Dal Khalsa was reorganised into twelve misls (Confederacies). 28
The Sikhs in collaboration with Kaura Mal had defeated the Afghans. 29 They were offered a Jagir by Mir Mannu. 30 During the third Afghan invasion (AD. 1751-52) Punjab virtually passed under Sikh protection until Lahore and Multan were ceded to Ahmed Shah Abdali (AD. April 1752). 31 The Sikhs reconsolidated their position and spread out in Bari Doab, Jullundur Doab and across the Sutlej.
They crossed the Jehlum and subdued the Musilm tribes of the region by the end of the same year. 32 Keeping this background in view one can easily imagine, that the vision of Koer Singh in making prophetic statements through Guru Gobind Singh about the future development of the Sikh history is a by- product of the historical events witnessed by the author himself. It does not demerit the dating of the work, rather, it supports the fact that the recorded date of the work, A.D. 1751-1762, is correct.
For two reasons Hans’s argument carries no weight. First, as indicated above even if it is assumed that it was a post-event prophecy, the event in fact had taken place before Koer Singh wrote his book. Second, that the practice of attributing prophecies to saints was a common trait of the period. And, in fact, Senapat, who wrote his book in early 18th century and was a contemporary of the Tenth Master has also recorded virtually the same prophecy regarding the defeat of the Turks and the dominance of the Sikhs. If Hans’s rationale is stretched it would lead to an evidently ridiculous suggestion that Senapat was a person of the 19th century.
(6) The sixth argument forwarded for rejecting its recorded date and considering the Gurbilas Patshahi 10 as nineteenth century work is that,”there are echoes of differences between the Majha and the Malwa Sikhs”...33 “The acceptance of British overlordship by the Sikh chiefs of the Malwa could form the background for this opinion of the Malwais.”’34 This is a far fetched conclusion. The Malwa states passed under the protectorate of the British in A.D.1809. But the Sikh chiefs of the Malwa region had throughout maintained an attitude of indifference to the Khalsa cause; and, if at all they took any interest, it favoured the Afghans. The Patiala House owed their extensive states and important position largely to the favours conferred by Ahmad Shah and they also professed submission to the Afghans. For this reason the Malwais were held In contempt by the Majha Sikhs. 35 Koer Singh’s apathy and bias towards Malwais had been generated on account of Malwa Sikhs’s lack of dedication to Khalsa convictions and the selfish behaviour of Phulkian misal which seldom joined the Dal Khalsa and did not come forward to join the Majha Sikhs in any compaign against the enemy of the Khalsa. Rather the Malwais sometimes acted against the interests of the community.36 Therefore, the above argument is frivolous.
(7) The seventh argument for the dating of Koer Singh’s Gurbilas as nineteenth century work is that,”the author of the Gurbilas Patshahi 10 was familiar with the presence of the English (Firangi of Koer Singh) in the country.”. 37 This. argument again is frivolous and is based on lack of knowledge of the induction of this word in Indian literature. Koer Singh has mentioned the term firang. 38 Awareness about firangis (the Europeans) in India is to be met in various Persian sources of seventeenth and the sixteenth centuries. 39 The word even stands used in the’ Akal Ustat’ by Guru Gobind Singh 40 which is anterior to Koer Singh’s work.
(8) Hans looks upon Gurbilas Patshahi 10 as the nineteenth century work on the basis of the argument that: The conciliatory tone of the author of Gurbilas Patshahi 10 towards the Muslim...together with the Hindu portrayal of Guru Gobind Singh, makes one suspect that the Gurbilas Patshahi 10 carries a strong imprint of Sikh rule under Ranjit Singh for whom it was absolutely necessary to hold three communities in some kind of a balance.”41
The question is that if the author is simply projecting the political exegesis of the Sikh rule under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, why has not Koer Singh mentioned any historical reference to the Maharaja’s rule in the related context? It is an accepted fact that they theory of. soverignity followed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh was that of a Benevolent Monarchy and trusteeship of a Welfare State.
Here again Hans’s argument is based on two assumptions. First, it is baseless to suggest that Ranjit Singh’s human treatment of his non-Musilm subjects was born out of sheer opportunism and was not because of the Sikh ideology and ethos to which the seals of all the Sikh rulers bear testimony. Benevolent liberalism of the Sikhs was an integral character of the Sikh society, quite incongruous with the contemporary and earlier rulers of the times. Second, that the Sikh rule and the liberal treatment of the subjects is a phenomenon of the 18th century as evidenced by the rule of Kapur Singh, Jassa Singh Kalal and at the time of conciliation with Mir Mannu through Kaura Ma1. 42
At any rate the Sikhs did not oppress the innocents as is vouchsafed by the writings of Qazi Nur Mohammad who says ‘they (The Sikhs) do not stand in the way of fugitives; nor molest a woman. 43
(9) Lastly, Hans relates his hypothesis about the expansion of the Lahore Kingdom out of its true context and forwards it as supplement to justify his argument mentioned above by asserting that: the expansion of Sikh rule under Maharaja Ranjit Singh marked a new departure in the evolution of Sikhism. Rulership was aspired to but never fully visualized in the Sikh doctrines. The position was further complicated by the minority status of the rulers. Thus the bonds with the Hindu constituency had to be strengthened. The Muslim population had to be pacified not only administratively but also doctrinally.Furthermore, the increasing number of men coming into the Sikh fold had to be educated in the rudiments of Sikhism, a process which led to the dilution of Sikh tenets in the welter of traditional beliefs
44 It is clear that the scholar is deliberately making a misrepresentation of Sikhism and distorting the unity of Sikh thought for the sake of rejecting Gurbilas Patshahi 10 as eighteenth century work. It is also derived from his thesis put forth in A Reconstruction of Sikh History from Sikh Literature that the history of Sikhism is an evolution of the product of historical factors rather than of its fundamental doctrines. There is no historical evidence to support the view that theoratically there was any departure in the fundamentals of Sikhism in the course of the development of the history of the Sikhs. In reality the Sikhs had successfully faced challenges both of Mughal oppression and of reabsorbtion into the Brahmanical Hinduism. However powerful the Sikh rulers had been, they could not afford to formulate any dilution in the Sikh doctrines enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. Therefore the last argument of Hans carries the imprint of not only a misconception but also of misinterpretation of the authenticity and unity of the thought and traditional beliefs of Sikhism in order to support the view expressed by Mcleod earlier in his various writings.
A critical analysis of the subject under study cannot escape the attention of a discerning scholar that the views expressed about Grubilas Patshahi 10 in Hans’s A Reconstruction of Sikh History from Sikh Llterature (1988) are incorrect assertions about a significant source of early history of the Sikhs and are based on self-contradictory statements and textual analysis, without a rational exegesis of the hypothesis adopted by the scholar.
1. Surjit Hans, A Reconstruction of Sikh History from Sikh Literature, ABS
Publications, Cosmic Printers Modem Market, N.C. Road, ]alandhar, 1988,
3. Gurbilas Patshahi 10 (ed. Shamsher Singh Ashok, Introduction by Fauja Singh,) Patiala, 1967, p. 295.
4. Hans, op.cit.,p.266.
5. Gurbilas Patshahi 10, op.elt., pp.47,99,294-95.
6. Ibid., Introduction, pp.1-2.
7. His Publications are :
Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, Oxford, 1968;
The Evolution of the Sikh community, Oxford, 1979;
Early Sikh Tradition, Oxford, 1980; The Chaupa Singh Rahitnama Duncdin,
1987; The Sikhs, History, Religion and Society, New York, 1989; Who is Sikh?
8. Evaluating the traditional interpretation of the founding of the Khalsa,
We may be sure that something certainly did happen on that Baisakhi day of 1699, and that some of the traditions will even tuallyurn outto be substantialIy
accurate. Moreover, there can be no doubt that the Khalsa did eventually
establish an effectuill claim to represent the orthodox form of the Sikh Panth.
Already, however it is possible to demonstrate that many of the traditions are
historiographical phenomena, features which developed subsequently but
which came, in even later in terpretations, to be related to the time and in ten tion
of Guru Gobind Singh.
- The Evolution of the Sikh Community, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1975, p.16.
9. Ibid, pp51-52.
10. Koer Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10, p.295
11. Bhai Vir Singh, Devi Punjan Pardtal, Khalsa Samachar, Amritsar 1963, footnote
12. Hans, Op.cit., p.266.
13. Koer Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10, p.296.
15. Ibid., p.295.
16. Ibid., p.296.
17. Ibid., Introduction, p.3.
18. Ibid., p.294.
19. Ibid., p.295.
Ibid., p. 27]
21.Mythic identification of the life history of the Sikh Gurus is not new for scholars famlier with the nature of sources of information of Sikh history. Most of these accounts were written by Brahmin authors or Udasis or Nirmalas who were educated in Vedantic institutions. The impact of their training is clearly reflected in their writings. Most important among them are Kesar Singh Chibbar, Banasawalinama Dasam Patshaian Ka, Sohan Kavi, Gurbilas Patshahi 6. Koer Singh Gurbilas Patshahi 10, Sarup Das Bhalla Mahima Prakash, Santokh Singh, Nanak Prakash abd Suraj Prakash Granth etc.
22. See the structural framework of the various episodes recounted in different
chapters of his Gurbilas Patshahi 10.
23. Hans, Op.cit., p.267.
24. Gurbilas Patshahi 10, Op.cit., p.175.
25. Ibid., pp 37,43,59,68,71,79,84, 100,26,127,258.
30. Hans, O.p.cit., pp.268-269.
31. Ibid., p.269.
32. Sohan LaI SuriIUmat-ut- Tawarikh (Persian), 1885, Lahore, Dafter n, p. viii, Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, History of the Sikhs, VoI. I, Orient Longmans, Bombay, ] 950, p.136.
33. Tarikh-i-Ahmad Shahi, pp.23-24, Terikh-i-Muzzafari(Persian),p.457i Ali-ud-Din Mufti, Ibratnama (Persian) Ms, 1854, p.238, Sohan lal Suri Umdat-ut-Tawarikh, Dafter I, pp.129-131 as quoted by Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, History of the Sikhs, V 0l.I, p.141 also Gian Singh Giani, Shamsher Khalsa, Part II, Bhasha vibhag Punjab Patiala, 1970, p.169; Rattan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakash, Fifth Edition, Khalsa Samachar Amritsar, 1982, pp.329-331.
34. Gian Singh Giani, Shamsher Khalsa,Part-II, p.l65; Teja Singh and Ganda Singh,
History of the Sikhs, Vol. I., p.139.
35. Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, Op.cit., p.l39
36. Ibid., p.147.
37. Hans, Gp.cit., p.269.
39. Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, O.p.cit., p.l64. Kushwant Singh, History of
the Sikhs, Oxford University Press Delhi, 1977, Vol. I, p.135.
40. Ibid., also, Rattan Singh Bhangu, op.cit., p. 324; Karam Singh Maharaja Ala Singh
(Punjabi), Khalsa Parcharak Vidyala, Taran Tarn, 1819, pp. 207-213.
41. Hans, op.cit., p.269.
42. Gurbilas Patshahi 10, p.259.
43. See Court Chronicles produced during the time of the Mughal
Emperors-Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
44. ‘Akal Ustat’, 255, Sri Dasam Guru Granth Sahib Ji, ed. Giani Mohinder Singh pub.
Jawahar Singh Kirpal Singh Amritsar, 1966, p.38.
45. Hans, Op.cit., p.269.
46. Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, op.cit., p.132; Khushwant Singh Gp.cit., p. 130.
47. Nur Muhammad, Qazi, fang Namah (Ms. 1778, A.H., A.D. 1764-65) Persian,
Eng. Tr by Ganda Singh, Pub.KhaIsa College Amritsar, 1939, Ch. XLI.
48. Surjit S. Hans, The Gurbilas in the Early Nineteenth Century in Journal of Regional
History, Department of History, Gurur Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Vol.II,
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