LIONS IN THE PUNJAB: An Introduction to the Sikh Religion
By Andrea Grace Diem, Ph.D.
THE EVOLUTION OF SIKHISM FROM NANAK TO GOBIND SINGH
Typically Sikh history is presented as a three-fold historical breakdown: 1) Nanak founding the religion as he synthesizes Hindu and Muslim ideas; 2) the sixth guru turning to militancy in light of oppression; 3) and the tenth guru establishing the orthodox Sikh organization called the Khalsa in 1699. While we have already challenged the first part of this in Chapter One, the inaccuracies of the other two will be addressed here. To present Sikh history as consisting of three main events is much too simplified and overlooks the many intriguing facets of its development. To illustrate the complexity of Sikh history let us look at the succession of the gurus. Traditional Sikhs acknowledge ten gurus:
Ten Sikh Gurus
1. Nanak 6. Har Gobind
2. Angad 7. Har Rai
3. Amar Das 8. Har Krishan
4. Ram Das 9. Tegh Bahadur
5. Arjan 10. Gobind Singh
Rarely discussed, if ever, however, are the several gurus who protested the lineage succession and started their own movement. For instance, Nanak's son rejects the role of the second guru and starts a group called the Udasis. The same thing occurs with the son of Arjan, Prithi Chand, who sets up his branch, the Minas, to rival the sixth guru. Splinter gurus manifest on other occasions as well. The guruship of Har Rai is challenged by his elder brother, Dhir Mal, and that of Har Krishan by his elder brother, Ram Rai. The bottom line: there have been more than ten gurus in Sikh history. But from an orthodox Sikh's perspective the peripheral gurus are deviant aberrations and should not be acknowledged as authentic.
Example of Splinter Gurus in Sikh History
Sri Chand: Son of Nanak who rejects Angad's role and starts the ascetic group, the Udasis
Prithi Chand: Son of Arjan who protests the guruship of Har Gobind and develops the Minas
Dhir Mal: Grandson of Har Gobind who challenged the succession of his younger brother, Har Rai
Ram Rai: Son of Har Rai who fails to accept the leadership of his younger brother, Har Krishan
In order to establish an orthodox perspective and revitalize the Sikh community, members of a 19th century organization, the Singh Sabha, endorsed a glossed-over, simple view of Sikh history. They described the religion as a non-evolving "ism" with Nanak's teachings equal to modern Sikhs'. But this is far from true. One only has to compare Nanak's soteriological message to Gobind Singh's social one as a case in point. To properly understand Sikh history one must acknowledge its evolution. Sikhism has gone through numerous changes in response to socio-historical circumstances. In this chapter we will address the evolution of Sikhism as it moves from a peaceful, guru-bhakti movement in line with Sant teachings to a religious institution with justifiable military concerns and political aims.
Nanak, as we know, was interested in the mystical ideas of the Sant tradition and in establishing a religious community focussing on satsang and disciplined work. He did not have to concentrate on military objectives since there was relative peace in his local area. While during the time of Nanak the Mughals entered India and he witnessed the take over of the Lodi Sultanate by Babur's Mughal army, there was no real threat to his immediate social world. The community continued to live in harmony for about 100 years.
Guru Nanak's Hymn on the Value of a Religious Life in the Adi Granth
He cannot be installed like an idol,
Nor can man shape His likeness.
He made Himself and maintains Himself
On His heights unstained for ever;
Honored are they in His shrine
Who meditate upon Him.
Sing though, O Nanak, the psalms
Of God as the treasury
Of sublime virtues.
If a man sings of God and hears of Him,
And lets love of God sprout within him,
All sorrow shall depart;
In the soul, God will create abiding peace.
The main source of information about Nanak' life and times comes from 17th-18th century oral (later copied and modified) biographies, the Jaman Sakhis. They are filled with hagiography (embellished stories like legend and miracle accounts). While the Jaman Sakhis reveal little historical accuracy about Nanak they offer a great deal of insight into how Sikhs in the following centuries perceived him. Perhaps more importantly, they reflect the current needs of the pre-Khalsa community at the time. For instance, in the 17th-18th century there was an obvious need to reconcile the Hindus and the Muslims and so Nanak is depicted as one who pursues this. Also, in the Jaman Sakhis Nanak is described as a meat eater and as one who respects asceticism, both acts the historical Nanak would seem to oppose. Sikhs were probably turning to meat in their diet in this period thinking it would give them martial strength to combat the Mughals. As for asceticism, this approach was much more accepted now and Sikhs sought Nanak's endorsement. In addition, we learn that there must have been better relations between the Sikhs and some other religious groups at this time since Nanak's respect for them (but superiority over them) was emphasized. Thus, despite the Jaman Sakhis' inability to give us a realistic view of Nanak they certainly offer insight into the distinctive needs of the pre-Khalsa Sikh community.
Nanak's teachings were carried on by Angad, a 73 year old disciple. He compiled hymns of his guru and maintained the community at Kartarpur. During Angad's rule very little change is noted.
Guru Angad's Hymn on the Mastery of God in the Adi Granth
He Himself is the Creator;
He Himself for all His creatures,
Sets different places.
Whom should I despise,
Since the one Lord made us all?
There is one Master of all things,
He setteth each man to his task
And watcheth over all men.
Some have great tasks, some little tasks,
No one departeth unrewarded.
Naked man comes into the earth,
Naked he departeth hence;
In between he toils to make a show.
The man who understandeth not the Will of God,
How shall he bear himself on death's call.
The third guru, Amar Das, however, implemented significant changes for the Sikhs. First of all, he established the langar (caste free dining) that allowed Sikhs to openly challenge the social hierarchies of the Hindu world. He also set up particular festival days and Sikh rituals, ensuring a sense of community for the people. Moreover, Amar Das is noted for creating a Sikh administration. It was referred to as the manji system, since masands, territorial deputies or group leaders (some of whom were women), were responsible for certain locations and overseeing specific tasks. Perhaps at this time the numbers were growing and the community needed more organization. And, most importantly, Amar Das began collecting the past gurus' utterances which became the govindval pothis that later made up the Adi Granth.
Guru Amar Das' Hymn on the Divine Name in the Adi Granth
Thy Name, O Lord, is my sustenance,
Only on the true Name, which quieteth all my hungers do I live;
The true Name, abiding in my heart,
Hath granted me peace and joy,
And fulfilled all my desires.
I am ever a sacrifice unto the Guru,
Whose gifts these are
Thy Name, O Lord, is my sustenance.
Next in the gaddi (guruship) was Amar Das' son-in-law, Ram Das, who set up the city of Amritsar as the group's center. The Mughal Emperor Akbar, who ascended to power about forty years after the death of Nanak, granted this land to the Sikhs as a sign of peace and respect.
Guru Ram Das' Hymn on the Grace of God in the Adi Granth
Lord, I am Thy child, and know nothing of Thy greatness.
I am ignorant and a fool. Lord, have mercy.
Bless me with Thy High Wisdom: Change a silly child to a sage.
My indolent mind had nodded and fallen to slumber.
By the grace of God I met the Guru!
By whom my spirit was illumined.
O Guru, inspire me with everlasting love of God
And make the Name of the Lord my life-breath.
O Guru, without the Name of the Lord I would die:
It is to me what wine is to the drunkard.
Ram Das had three sons but chose the youngest, Arjan, to follow his footsteps, leading to resentment by the eldest brother, Prithi Chand. When Prithi Chand developed his own religious writings, Arjan reacted by collecting the govindval pothis (which were in the hands of Mohan, Amar Das' son) and creating the Adi Granth in 1603. This sacred book contains the sayings of the Sikh gurus and other Sant teachers such as Kabir as well as Muslim and Hindu writings. Supposedly, Akbar, a ruler noted for his compassion and tolerance, was quite impressed with the work. In addition, to give Sikhs a greater feeling of permanency and cohesion, Arjan decided a religious site was needed and organized the construction of Hari Mandir (meaning the Temple of God), otherwise known as the Golden Temple.
It was during the life of Arjan that the Sikhs first experienced strong persecution. When Akbar died he was succeeded by Jehangir, an emperor who assumed a position of extreme intolerance. He disliked the Sikhs, and his resentment peaked when his son, Khusrau, ran away and sought the guidance of Arjan. Jehangir, suspicious the guru conspired with his rebellious son, arrested Arjan. The guru died while in custody and since then Sikhs have thought of him as a martyr of the religion. His martyrdom marks a main holy day for Sikhs (along with the birthday of both Nanak and the tenth guru, Gobind Singh).
Guru Arjan's Hymn on Repeating the Name of God in the Adi Granth
Ever, ever, ever repeat the Name of the Lord:
Satiate thy mind and body by drinking its nectar.
The holy man who hath obtained the jewel of Thy Name
Will look, o Lord, on no other than Thee.
The Divine Name for him is wealth,
It is beauty and it is delight,
The name is his happiness, it is his companion.
He who has been satisfied with the savoir of the Name
Shall find his whole body and soul absorbed in it.
To contemplate the Name rising, or resting, or sleeping
Is, O Nank, the proper task of the man devoted to God!
The sixth successor was Arjan's eleven year old son, Har Gobind. Feeling the hostility in the region this guru organized a Sikh army, signaling the Panth's shift to militancy. The interest in martial exercises can also be explained by the increase in the number of Jats, a farming caste with a strong military tradition. As the oppression continued Har Gobind wore two swords (miri-piri) around his waist, a sign of temporal and spiritual strength. When Jehangir ordered the disbandment of the Sikh army he placed the guru in prison for one year. The next Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, was even worst. Har Gobind and his disciples were forced to relocate, seeking refuge in the Himalayan foothills (Sivalik Hills) in 1634. Before Har Gobind died he appointed his second grandson, Har Rai, to succeed him.
Living in seclusion in the mountains for several decades the Sikhs experienced relative peace. The next leader was Har Rai's five year old son, Har Krishan. Though the threat of the Mughals receded for awhile it certainly returned during the reign of the ninth guru, Tegh Bahadur, the grand uncle of Har Krishan. He fought against the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's policy to exterminate all religions other than Islam. Tegh Bahadur's challenge led to his death. While traveling throughout the Punjab he was arrested by Mughal officers and publicly beheaded. His son, Gobind Singh, was only nine when his father died, and, like a few Sikh gurus before him, he assumed the heavy responsibility of being a spiritual and political leader as a child.
Guru Tegh Bahadur's Hymn on the Value of a Religious Life in the Adi Granth
I have found out the falseness of all world attachments.
Everyone seeks his own happiness,
One's wife or one's closest friend claims, "he is mine!"
In life they all cling to one:
But in death neither friend nor wife keep company.
Such are the world's strange ways; I have often taught thee this.
But, my foolish mind, thou hast grasped
not my teachings till now!
Saith Nanak: Only by singing the songs of the Lord
Can the pilgrim safely cross life's terrible ocean!
During Gobind Singh's reign Mughal tyranny was now too much to endure and the Sikhs felt an overpowering duty (dharma) to fight. In reaction to the tensions in the area, Gobind Singh reestablished martial exercises and the utilization of arms to defend themselves. Sadly enough, in a skirmish with the Mughals his own four sons were killed. (With no family heir it makes sense why the guruship was not passed on to a human figure but to the sacred writings themselves.) The fact that the Dasam Granth, writings attributed to Gobind Singh, contain military ideas attests to the concerns of the time. The following hymn about the importance of the sword is a classic example of this.
Guru Gobind Singh's Hymn on the Importance of the Sword in the Dasam Granth
Sword, that smiteth in a flash,
That scatters the armies of the wicked
In the great battlefield;
O thou symbol of the brave.
Thine arm is irresistible, thy brightness shineth forth
The blaze of the splendour dazzling like the sun.
Sword, thou art the protector of saints,
Thou art the scourge of the wicked;
Scatterer of sinners I take refuge in Thee.
Hail to the Creator, Saviour and Sustainer,
Hail to Thee: Sword Supreme.
Gobind Singh is credited with implementing the Khalsa (translated as a community of the pure), which offered clear guidelines of proper Sikh behavior. Members of the Khalsa were viewed as orthodox. There are a couple of possible reasons for the founding of it. The first reason is obvious: to solidify the Sikh community in order to combat the general tyranny at the time. The other major reason was most likely Gobind Singh's desire to lessen the power of the masands originally set up by Amar Das. He may have feared that their strength and independence would lead to a disunited community.
Important Sikh Terms
Adi Granth: The most sacred writings for the Sikhs containing the sayings of the Sikhs gurus and other Sant teachers as well as Muslim and Hindu writings; text is revered as the living guru today receiving the title Guru Granth Sahib
Dasam Granth: Religious text with military concerns allegedly written by Gobind Singh
Khalsa: Refers to the community of the pure or orthodox Sikhs; members of the Khalsa adhere to the five ks and follow specific prohibitions (no smoking and no eating of Mulsim meat); they also assume the name Singh (meaning lion) for the males and Kaur (meaning princess) for the females.
Kirtan: Singing praises to God
Jaman Sakhis: Hagiographical accounts of the life of Nanak; lit. translates as "birth testimonies"
Important Sikh Terms
Panch kakke: Five ks followed by male members of the Khalsa. The five ks are: kesh (uncut hair), kara (bracelet), kanga (comb), kirpan (sword), and kaach (briefs)
Rahit: Code of behavior followed by Khalsa members
Sangat: Congregation of earnest devotees
Satsang: Attending a spiritual discourse
Sikh: Literally translates as "disciple," referring to a disciple of the guru
Simran: Repetition of the name of God in meditation
Singh: Last name given to Khalsa Sikhs; it translates as "lion" indicating courage (Kaur or princess is used for females)
Wahaguru: Honorific title for God; literally means "Praise to the Guru"; also spelled Wahiguru and Waheguru
Allegedly, Gobind Singh enforced the Khalsa way of life in 1699 on Baisakha Day. While it is probably hagiography, the story goes like this: the guru was looking for males who were willing to die for the Sikh cause. As a disciple volunteered in front the community, he entered a tent and did not reemerge. Instead the guru exited the tent with a bloody sword in his hand which suggested that the disciple inside the tent offered himself as a sacrifice. Four other volunteers came forward willing to submit their lives. In the end Gobind Singh revealed that none of the five actually were harmed and the blood on the knife was from an animal. The action displayed by the five Sikhs, referred to as the "Five Beloved," was revered as extreme courage and they became the first members of Gobind Singh's Khalsa. From then on they assumed the name of Singh, meaning lion, and the females in the family were called Kaur, meaning princess. Supposedly based on Gobind Singh's decision, Khalsa members also had to follow a certain code of behavior (rahit). They could not smoke, in rejection of Muslims who smoke the hookah, or eat Muslim hala meat. Most importantly, they were to observe the wearing of the panch kakke or five ks: kesh (uncut hair), kangha (a comb placed inside the turban), kara (a bracelet), kirpan (a sword), and kaach (short cotton briefs). The five ks gave the Sikhs distinction, an important tool for social cohesion. Sikhs could easily recognize each other and feel a sense of comradeship in time of political tension.
The Five Ks
Kesh: No cutting or shaving the hair; for males hair is usually wrapped up in turban
Kara: A bracelet, usually steel or silver, is worn; steel represents strength
Kanga: A comb is placed inside the turban for easy access
Kirpan: A sword is carried representing a willingness to defend the Sikh people in light of aggression
Kaach: Short cotton briefs, usually part of the uniform of soldiers, are required for male Khalsa members
Yet, instead of being established by Gobind Singh over night in the late 17th - early 18th century, the rahit seems to have evolved over three centuries. There is evidence that the five ks crystallized in the 18th century and became fully developed in the 19th century when they were institutionalized by the Singh Sabha. Early rahit manuals are inconsistent in discussing the five ks: some materials omit all of them while others only mention the not cutting of hair (kesh) or a few out of the five ks. If Gobind Singh religiously enforced all of the five ks then we should see this is the writings of the time. Since we do not, it is fair to assume that the famous Baisakha Day did not happened as described. Orthodox Sikh behavior finally took on the form that it did due largely to Jat influence (Jats usually did not cut their hair and they had a military tradition). We still witness the evolution of the rahit as oversees, contemporary Sikhs often cut their hair to fit into their new social environment. Interestingly, through Sikh history there is no evidence to suggest a choice between being a member of the Khalsa or expulsion. If one rejected the pahul (initiation) into the Khalsa one was known as a sahaj-dhari Sikh, a slow adapter, but still recognized as a Sikh. The heterogeneous constituency of Khalsa and non-Khalsa Sikhs still exists today.
Important Dates from Nanak to Gobind Singh
1469 Birth of Guru Nanak
1539 Death of Nanak and the guruship of Angad
1552 Death of Angad and the guruship of Amar Das
1574 Death of Amar Das and the guruship of Ram Das
1581 Death of Ram Das and the guruship of Arjan
1603 Arjan compiled the Adi Granth and constructed the Golden Temple
1606 Death of Arjan and the guruship of Har Gobind
1634 Sikhs seek refuge in the Himalayan foothills from Mughal oppressors
1644 Death of Har Gobind and the guruship of Har Rai
1661 Death of Har Rai and the guruship of Har Krishan
1664 Death of Har Krishan and the guruship of Tegh Bahadur
1675 Death of Tegh Bahadur and the guruship of Gobind Singh
1699 Baisakha Day when the Khalsa was supposedly implemented
1708 Gobind Singh died and the Guru Granth Sahib is honored as the living guru