WAR AND SIKHISM
It is generally asserted that the first five Sikhs Gurus, to Guru Arjan (1563-1606), were opposed to individual participation in war, and to war as a measure of national policy, and that it was the persecution of Guru Arjan by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir which obliged the Sikh movement to diverge from its true doctrine of pacifism.
Arnold Toynbee1 says that Sikhism fell from its religious height into a political trough, because the Sikh Gurus, Hargobind and Gobind Singh ......... succumbed to the temptation to use force. And adds, that this ‘downfall’ of Sikhism was used by a clever militant Hindu reaction against the Mughal Empire, as its instrument. 2
Both these impressions are as mistaken as they are generally current.
To appreciate this mistake it is necessary to understand the real Sikh doctrine on the use of force in human life, the doctrine of pacifism of Mahatma Gandhi and its apparent roots, the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa, and the present-day political trend that war should be renounced by the nations of the world, as well as the true Hindu doctrine on non-violence.
These four trends of thoughts are broadly based on basically different notions and they must not be confused with each other if the Sikh position is to be properly appreciated.
The Gandhian argument against war is that it is an embodiment of violence, himsa, and himsa being per se evil and morally wrong the war is permissible under no circumstances whatever on moral and religious grounds. According to this doctrine, if the choice is between annihilation and war, or war and the perpetuation of another moral wrong, it is the alternative other than the war which must be preferred, war being the greatest evil of all.
In the Bhagved Gita, the cream of Hindu thought, war appears not as a means but as an end in itself, the pride, duty and glory of the Ksatriya caste. In fact, any gain sought through war is thought to vitiate its merit; the solider is not to concern himself with the result of the battle. This became the Rajput ideal in the centuries to come, against which the utilitarian Aurangzeb fretted and declared that ‘the Hindus are worse then worthless as soldiers, because with obstinacy of the mules they refuse to acquiesce in a strategical retreat.’ It was this view of the matter, the Hindu doctrine of the final and once-for all pitched battle, which cost the Hindus their disastrous defeats, one after the other from the eleventh century to the fifteenth century, in the battle fields of Lamghan in Central Asia, and in the plains of the northern India. It was only in the eighteenth century, when the sudra but the shrewd, Marathas abandoned this high and mighty ksatriay ideal, that the Hindu honour was retrieved in the battle-fields.
In the earthy Arthasastra, war is mentioned as the last resort of a state, after the other means of diplomacy, perfidy, and threats, (Sam, Dam, Bhedda) have failed. War here is essentially a means to an end, the prestige, power, stability of the state. The whole basis of this approach to the problem is essentially moral, that is, all moral considerations are deemed as simply irrelevant.
These two doctrines, the Gandhian and the truly Hindu, on war must be contra-distinguished from the present day world trend of pacifist thought. The present day argument against war is that continued tension and series of crises will sooner or later produce war, that all wars are now likely to turn into nuclear wars being mutually distructive, to the point of annihilation, cannot be safely considered as instruments of national policy. An implicit postulate of this argument is that surrender is preferable to annihilation, despite any moral issues that may underlie the threatened conflict.
The Sikh doctrine of war is different from all these three approaches towards the problem. Firstly, Sikhism declares that war is a perfectly legitimate and permissible activity, both, as a measure of national policy and as an individual activity expressing itself in the use of force and employment of violence. Force and violence are not per se evil. Guru Gobind Singh in his second epistle, the Zafamamah, made it plain that:-
chun dast az hameh hille darguzast
halal ast burdan b-shmshir dast
Secondly, war and use of force are to be deemed as means and not ends in themselves. This dictum of Guru Gobind Singh, that ‘the hand may legitimately move to the hilt of the sword, only when all other peaceful means have failed,’ clearly implicated this second point of distinction of the Sikh doctrine.
Thirdly, Sikhism discountenances the ideas that war and violence are to be avoided at all costs and that even annihilation and surrender are preferable irrespective of the moral issues involved. Guru Nanak himself has declared that ‘it is the privilege and right of the true man to fight for, and die in the cause of righteousness’:
mania munsa suriyan hakk hai,
hoe mare narvano — Dhanasari I
The Sikh position and the Sikh doctrine, therefore, must not be confused, either with the Gandhian thought, or the ksatriya ideal, or the Christian pacifism, or the present day no-war mental trend.
The Sikh way of life is distinct, independent, and self sufficient religion in its own right.