Thursday, November 23, 2017
Gateway to Sikhism


FENECH, LOUIS E., The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January 1, 2001

Popular Sikh histories of today are united in their claim that the execution in 1606 of the fifth Sikh Master, Guru Arjan has always been understood as an heroic martyrdom. Yet the fact that this event is not mentioned either in the Bachitar Natak, the first Sikh text to allocate privileged space to martyrdom, nor in subsequent eighteenth-century Khalsa Sikh literature of the gur-bilas genre, makes such a claim very difficult to sustain. This paper turns a critical eye towards these sources and speculates as to how Sikhs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in fact understood Guru Arjan's demise.

Seva hari gur thim kurban [1]
To become a sacrifice for the sake of the Guru is the [true] service of God.

FOR THE VAST MAJORITY OF contemporary Sikh scholars, the tradition of martyrdom (sahidi) in Sikhism begins with the execution of the fifth Sikh master, Guru Arjan, in 1606 A.D. According to Sikh tradition, the Guru incurred the displeasure of the Mughal emperor Jahangir by supporting the emperor's recalcitrant son Khusrau's claim to the throne, an act which saw Guru Arjan jailed, beaten, and subsequently fined. On his refusal to pay the fine the Guru was quickly executed in Lahore on Jahangir's orders. In popular Sikh historiography, the implications of Guru Arjan's claim to martyrdom are made obvious. Firstly, that Guru Arjan himself conceived of his imminent demise as that of an heroic martyr and, secondly, that the Sikhs of the fifth Guru's day likewise shared this understanding of his death. [2]

These are indeed important traditions, traditions that have helped shape the direction and destiny of the Sikh Panth during this last century. And although they lack the support of any explicit evidence in contemporary sources, there may nevertheless be available for them implicit reinforcement, derived from an investigation of the earliest manuscripts of the Adi Granth.

In just such an examination, Pashaura Singh has come to a conclusion significant for these traditions. He states that the inclusion of heroic ballads in the scripture begins not with the sixth Sikh Guru, Hargobind, as general Sikh tradition maintains, [3] but with Guru Arjan. This is, of course, a logical conclusion since, according to Sikh tradition, Guru Arjan was clearly the moving force behind the creation of a Sikh scripture. [4] Pashaura Singh notes in his analysis of these earliest manuscripts that, while compiling the Adi Granth in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Guru Arjan recognized the high regard exhibited by the rural population of the Punjab for the heroic ballad (var) and himself selected the epic tunes (dhuni) of these ballads at the beginning of the vars in different rag sections of the Adi Granth. This process of appropriation, we are told, was undertaken in order to attract this rural audience, particularly those of Jat caste, to the Sikh faith. As our author makes clea r, however, the fifth Guru selected such dhunis "only for their musical directions, not for propagating the heroic stories behind them." [5] These are all debatable points, the last one in particular, since the values which were inscribed in the heroic stories the tunes carried would have probably become associated with the Sikh faith, a possibility that Guru Arjan, an exceptionally gifted compiler and poet, would not have overlooked. [6]

With Singh's illuminating evidence at hand one can well speculate that Guru Arjan appreciated these heroic values. He may have himself thus felt that both his self-conscious defiance of Mughal authority (if such actually occurred) and his imminent death were heroic acts, perhaps those of a martyr. It is entirely possible, finally, that his Sikhs also understood the fifth Master's actions in this way. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, Sikh tradition has affirmed all of this as beyond doubt. Guru Arjan died the glorious death of the heroic martyr, and his son, in response to his father's ordeal, enjoined his Sikhs to bear arms to protect themselves and all those considered righteous.

Such an understanding of the fifth Guru's demise, however, clearly veers into the realm of conjecture for a number of reasons. Two of these reasons, in particular, were presented in one of my previous essays. I shall briefly summarize them here. [7] Firstly a meticulous analysis of contemporary and near-contemporary sources does not substantiate the claims of Sikh tradition. Such analysis, in other words, makes it clear that many scholars extrapolate far too much from these texts, filling in the numerous gaps in the narrative these sources supply with popular understandings forged in later centuries. And, secondly, I seriously doubt that martyrdom as a concept was present in the Sikh tradition during the early to mid-seventeenth century, inasmuch as an investigation of the many hymns in the Adi Granth used by traditional Sikh scholars to support the presence of this conceptual system are always taken out of context and misconstrued. It appears to me that the relatively stable political and social atmosphere o f sixteenth-century northern India, due in large part to the benign policies of the emperor Akbar and to the relatively small size of the Sikh Panth, did not necessitate such a generalized doctrine of redemptive death.

Since the publication of that article in early 1997, what has continued to intrigue me about the fifth Guru's demise is not so much the concrete events that led to his execution or accompanied his death. Although we do not know how the Guru actually died--a point about which Sikh tradition itself is also confused--we do know that Guru Arjan earned the disapproval of the Mughal authorities for his apparent support of Prince Khusrau's claim to the throne and was therefore killed by them. This fact is beyond doubt, because of the testimony found in the memoirs of the emperor Jahangir, the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri primarily, and, to a lesser extent, in both the Dabistan-i Mazahib or "School of Religions," a contentious Persian text dealing with Indian religions attributed to either Mohsin-i Fani or Zulfiqar Ardastani, and the account that appears in a letter written by the Jesuit missionary Jerome Xavier in late September 1606, just months after the Guru's death. [8] All these reports are relatively contemporaneous with the fifth Master's execution and their evidence, its brief and ambivalent nature notwithstanding, provides the earliest available account of it.

What interests me particularly is how Guru Arjan's death was construed by the Sikhs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Did Sikhs of these two periods perceive this death as heroic, perhaps that of an heroic martyr? Although I have shown that Sikhs of the early- to mid-seventeenth century would not likely have perceived this death as a martyrdom, since this concept had not yet been elaborated, I have not analyzed just how the Sikhs of this period did interpret the execution of Guru Arjan. The following section will attempt this. The concept of martyrdom, "heroic death with the hope of posthumous recognition and anticipated reward," [9] however, does appear in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. How, therefore, do Sikhs of this later time understand Guru Arjan's demise and what then does this say about eighteenth-century Sikh understandings of the concept which Sikh authors will only later term sahidi or sahadat? [10] It is very tempting to see the gur-bilas and rahit-nama authors of the eighteenth century sharing an understanding of Guru Arjan's death and execution that corresponds with today's general interpretation. This is indeed a powerful temptation since many of today's Sikh histories refer to these very gur-bilas authors when making their claims in regard to Guru Arjan's execution. An examination of the eighteenth-century Sikh sources, however, demonstrates otherwise. Let us begin our discussion with a better understanding of what constituted an heroic death in the earliest Sikh literature since, in later Sikh tradition, the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, as well as every other Sikh martyrdom, is perceived as such.


Although a careful reading of the Adi Granth will fail to define what a specifically "heroic" death entailed during the period of the first nine Sikh Gurus, we may partially reconstruct this understanding by implication. There are, after all, a number of references to the lifestyles of "true heroes" (sura, sur, vir, surbir) in the text and these certainly tell us how one lived heroically, according to the Sikh Gurus. We may only assume, however, that the death of anyone who died emulating these "heroic" values may have been understood as a heroic one. The two Gurus who have the most to say about the hero's lifestyle are Nanak and Arjan. A hero, according to Guru Nanak, embodies the following qualities:

sabadi sur jug chare audhu bani bhagati vichari [11]
O bhagat, it is only through the contemplation of the mystical word inscribed within and without the cosmos that you can become a [true] hero (sur) throughout the four ages. [You must therefore] contemplate the sacred utterances of the Guru [with deep devotion).

Guru Arjan would no doubt concur with the first Guru, as the statement below makes clear:

Jo isu mare soi sura [12]
The one who destroys [duality] is the [true] hero (sura).

And so too would the third Sikh Guru, Amar Das, agree with this general understanding:

nanak so sura variamu jini vichahu dusatu ahankaranu maria [13]
The [true] hero, says Nanak, [14] is the one who overcomes within [himself] the enemy of self-centredness.

These are merely three of many such descriptions of the true hero, all of which bear the same imprint. Commensurate with the understandings of other religious and secular personages mentioned in the Adi Granth, the true hero is defined by the Sikh Gurus principally in spiritual terms, alluding once more to the primacy of these concerns in their thought. [15] It is not the victorious soldier or the warrior of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana who merits the status of hero, in other words, but the pious Sikh who contemplates the sabad and "sees" the mystical presence of the divine throughout creation, thereby destroying difference.[16] According to Guru Nanak, true heroism lay not in victory over others but in vanquishing the self through the remembrance of the divine name:

Mani jitai jagu jitu [17]
By conquering the self one conquers the world.

The closest understanding of an heroic death which the Adi Granth provides, differs, however, from that of the later "hero." In the first Master's well-known Rag vadahansu alahaniam 2, for example, the following passages notes that

maranu munasam suriam haqqu hai Jo hoi marani paranano / sure sei agai akhiamhi daragah pavamhi sachi mano [18]
Blessed is the death of heroic men (munasam suriam) if their dying is approved of (by the immortal Lord]. Only these men may be called heroes who obtain true honor before the Court [of Akal Purakh].

Guru Arjan, likewise, maintains, in his Ruti or hymns on the seasons and months of the Indian calendar, that

jin junia sei tare se sure se bir / nanak tin baliharanai hari japi utare tir [19]
Those who know Him, cross over [the Ocean of Existence]; they are the brave heroes (sure), the heroic warriors (bir). Nanak is a sacrifice to those who meditate on the name of Hari, and cross over to the other shore.

Although these hymns are perhaps purposefully vague in their attempts to encompass many types of death (we can only assume, for example, that our own death will be deemed praiseworthy) we may infer that an heroic death in the context of the Adi Granth is the death of an individual who had constantly remembered the nam inscribed within and without creation during his life. The contemporary account of Guru Arjan's death would certainly fit this definition. For during the last moments of his life, so tradition adamantly claims (a claim which we have no reason to contest), Guru Arjan's attention was focused solely on the divine, totally engrossed in the act of nam simaran, the Sikh discipline of remembering the divine name. [20]


Although later tradition makes it clear that Sikhs interpreted the fifth Master's demise as that of an heroic martyr, seventeenth-century Sikh and Persian accounts say very little of how the nascent Panth understood Guru Arjan's death. [21] Part of the reason for this may be that Guru Arjan's execution was purposefully kept a private affair. This is a strong possibility since there exists no evidence to suggest that Guru Arjan's execution was public. The cause for which the Guru died (if there was one), an essential component in the transformation of a victim into a martyr, therefore, would not have been known or made known, as the event lacked a Sikh witness. Later Sikh tradition, of course, supplies both spectators and a cause, [22] but all that the Sikhs of the fifth Guru's immediate period and afterwards would have known, probably, is that the fifth Master died while in the custody of the Mughal nawab of Lahore. The Dabistan-i Mazahib, an account written some forty years after Guru Arjan's execution, doe s indeed note that at least some Sikhs knew that the fifth Master had died at the hands of the Mughals. After stating that the fifth Guru had been arrested by the authorities for his alleged support of Khusrau, the author claims that Guru Arjan


[Glave up his life as a result of the heat of the sun, the severity of summer, and the torments [inflicted upon him] by the bailiffs (azar-i mohassalun).

This is an observation most likely attributable to a Sikh informant, perhaps Guru Hargobind or Guru Har Rai, the two Gurus whom the author allegedly knew. Yet even here there is no mention of the Sikh reaction to or conceptualization of this event.

The closest we come to a contemporary understanding of Guru Arjan's death from a Sikh account, however, is the twenty-third pauri of the twenty-fourth var of Bhai Gurdas. Based upon the criteria noted above it is clear that the entire pauri presents the Guru's life and death as that of a hero. Yet tradition takes this conclusion one step further. It maintains, for example, that the third stanza of pauri 23 deals solely with the fifth Guru's stoic composure as he was subjected to horrific tortures by the minions of Jahangir.

sabadu surati liv mirag jiu bhir pat chiti avaru na anti [24]
[Like] the deer [which even after being captured remains intoxicated by the sound of the hunter's bell] so too was [the Guru] wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the divine Word resounding throughout the universe (sabad) at the time of his distress (bhir). Nothing else came into his mind.

Let us never underestimate the power of Sikh tradition: even for a careful historian of the Panth this statement is enough to establish that Bhai Gurdas admires the exceptional composure of Guru Arjan under vicious torture. [25] This claim, however, is a conclusion that is based only on the assumption that the pauri deals with Guru Arjan's execution. In the seventeenth century (and even today) this line, indeed the entire pauri, would have been construed as a poetic expression characteristic of the death of a holy and pious person. [26] Other lines in this pauri likewise compare Guru Arjan with forms of animal and insect life (the fish, the moth, the bee, and the rain-bird [papiha], respectively) to describe his joti jot samauna, "the merging of one's light with the divine Light," in ways which would have been characteristic of the period in which these hymns were composed. The second line, for example, states in typical fashion that

darasanu dekhi patang jiu joti andari joti samani [27]
Having taken a privileged divine sight [of the Eternal Guru, Guru Arjan] merged his light into the divine tight [which is Akal Purakh] in the same way that a moth [is, on sight, attracted to and ultimately extinguished within the candle's flame].

The image of the moth and the flame of the candle is, of course, met with not only within the Adi Granth, in describing the ultimate stage of equipoise but also in the earliest Sufi poetry describing [fana.sup.[contains]], the annihilation of the self in God. [28] It appears then that many Sikh authors take the third line of the pauri out of context by interpreting the word bhir to signify torture, a word that occurs often in the Adi Granth and usually means "distress" or "hardship." [29] Although torture is a credible understanding of the term bhir in the light of later Sikh interpretations, it is an understanding that can only have tradition as its base. As Surjit Hans has demonstrated, a historically contextualized reading of Guru Arjan's hymns appears to demonstrate that the fifth Sikh Master was plagued by a number of difficulties during his tenure as Guru, [30] a contention also supported by Sikh tradition. It may be that Bhai Gurdas is alluding to these alleged hardships.

Nevertheless let us keep in mind that what is important for our purposes here is not whether this pauri deals with Guru Arjan's execution; although how Guru Arjan dies or the cause for which he dies is left unsaid, it is quite certain that the pauri does deal with Guru Arjan's final hours. And in this treatment it allows us to infer that Bhai Gurdas understood the fifth Master's death as that of a hero, since the description of Guru Arjan's life and last moments in this var conform to the pattern of the hero's life and death we noted in the Adi Granth. We can only assume that Bhai Gurdas' understanding would have been shared by the many Sikhs who formed his principal audience in the first part of the seventeenth century.


Although the words sahid and sahidi will not be adopted by Sikh authors to describe Sikh martyrs and Sikh martyrdom, respectively, until the early nineteenth century, it is in the Bachitar Natak, a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century text attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, that the concept of martyrdom finally makes its way into the Sikh tradition. The relevant passage is in regard to the execution of the tenth Guru's father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, at Delhi in November 1675. [31] As I have mentioned elsewhere, it is in this passage that we first discover that one will enter heaven as a consequence of sacrificing himself for the "sake of righteousness" (dharam het). It is in this passage, in other words, that we find something altogether new to the Sikh tradition. [32]

In the light of the development of the idea of the heroic redemptive death one would therefore expect the demise of Guru Arjan to merit the same attention in the literature of the eighteenth century as that bestowed upon the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, and to be thus glorified and extolled as that of an heroic martyr. After all, not only was the fifth Sikh master a Guru but he was also the great grandfather of the alleged author and principal protagonist of the Bachitar Natak, Guru Gobind Singh. Yet, surprisingly, the only reference we have to Guru Arjan in the whole text of the Bachitar Natak is very brief, mentioning only that the divine light of Guru Nanak had been passed onto him and then, subsequently, onto the fifth Guru's son, Guru Hargobind. [33] In other words, nothing is said of Guru Arjan's death. And this will remain the case throughout the first part of the eighteenth century.

The situation becomes somewhat less opaque in the mid to late 1740s with the completion of the rahit-nama attributed to Chaupa Singh Chhibbar, a brahmin Sikh writer in the entourage of Guru Gobind Singh, who, according to tradition, himself was martyred in 1723, alongside the adopted son of Mata Sundari, Ajit Singh. [34] In this rahit-nama we find two possible references to one of the alleged antagonists of Guru Arjan, Chandu Shah, a wealthy Sahi Khatri of Lahore. According to a prevailing Sikh tradition, Chandu Shah, who was employed as a revenue official to the Mughal nawab of Lahore, was humiliated when Guru Arjan refused to permit his own son, the future Guru Hargobind, to marry the arrogant Khatri's daughter. Seeking revenge for the refusal, Chandu Shah slandered the Guru and had him brought up before the nawab on false charges of treason. The Guru was summoned to Lahore, imprisoned, and executed. [35] Although the author of the Chaupa Singh Rahit-nama does not identify Chandu Shah by name, he does clai m the following, in his long list of offenses against the Rahit that are subject to punishment:

jo guru ka sikh hot ke sirind vale khatri sucha jhutha ate sahi khatri ina da sati vari muhu phitakare bina nau lae so tanakhahia [36]

The Sikh of the Guru who fails to utter the seven-fold curse whenever a reference is made to [either] that Khatri of Sirhind [who was called] Sucha-[nand but who treacherously demonstrated that he should properly be called] Jutha-[nand], or to that Sahi Khatri [of Lahore] shall be labeled a Sikh who is worthy of a punishment (tanakhahta). [37]

What this actually means for later Sikh historians is subject to conjecture. Does the reference to the "Sahi Khatri" actually indicate the now-infamous Chandu Shah of Lahore? If so why does a reference to him make it mandatory for a Sikh to utter the sevenfold curse? Although the allusion is unclear, Piar Singh Padam, in his compendium of rahit-nama traditions, states that it is in fact Chandu Shah. His version of this passage, for example, replaces sahi khatri with chandusahi khatri. [38] But again, this is based only upon later Sikh tradition.

But it is a well-warranted conjecture, as it finds some support in another, later Chhibbar text, the Bansavalinama Dasam Patsahiam ka of Kesar Singh Chhibbar, completed in 1769. Although the references in regard to the Guru Arjan--Sahi Khatri narrative are likewise vague in the Bansavali-nama Chandu Shah is named in an earlier narrative concerning events that took place in 1578 (s. 1635), as the leader (musandi) of the Sahi Khatris of Lahore. This narrative deals with Guru Ram Das' refusal to allow the betrothal (kuramai) of his son, the future Guru Arjan to a daughter of the vicious Sahi Khatris. [39] This anecdote also appears in the Chaupa Singh Rahit-nama but, again, without direct reference to Chandu Shah. [40]

Although it is quite clear that both of these allegedly Chhibbar products draw upon similar sources in the construction of their narratives, [41] the Bansavali-nama is the very first Sikh text to deal specifically with the death of Guru Arjan Ultimately, Kesar Singh, a Chhibbar brahmin Sikh, whose Bansavali-nama draws upon the ubiquitous puranic cosmology also found in the lengthier portions of the Dasam Granth, interprets Guru Arjan's death by reference to the laws of karma. [42] He nevertheless indicates, as well, that the execution was the result of the combined machinations of the Sahi Katris and the fifth Guru's elder brother, Prithi Chand, who, according to tradition, had coveted the guruship of the Sikhs and had presented, spuriously, his own compositions as those of the legitimate Sikh Guru in order to bolster his claim. [43] To this end Kesar Singh notes that Guru Arjan was taken to Lahore and jailed through the collective efforts of these detractors.

ek mas sram pai tin pran tiage / tis ka badala lain tha sase abhage / soi sasa prithia hoi janama hoi janama bhai / it karan vahu vairu kamai [44]

He then states that the Guru suffered hardship for a whole month, after which he gave up his life. It was that inauspicious, hare-marked phase of the moon [45] which enabled [both Prithi Chand and the offended Sahi Khatris] to take their revenge. Prithi Chand was born under that phase of the moon and so he performed hostile deeds.

Before the month was up, Kesar Singh continues, burning sand was poured over Guru Arjan's body, which was subsequently bound and thrown into the Ravi River, where the Guru died. [46]

Yet as horrible an ordeal as this may have been for our Chhibbar author, what appears to be his principal focus is not so much the actual torture and execution of Guru Arjan as his belief that

so ehu badala turkam pasom kise sikh na lita [47]
There was no Sikh who could exact vengeance from the Muslims (turkam) [for the heinous deed of killing Guru Arjan].

This statement may perhaps account for Chaupa Singh's reference to the uttering of the sevenfold curse we noted earlier, since the curse may be interpreted as a form of symbolic revenge. Kesar Singh's statement, however, may also be explained in the light of his most prolific chapter, the tenth, which deals with Guru Gobind Singh, the founder of the Khalsa.

The strict impression one receives from the rather lengthy account of Guru Gobind Singh's attempts to summon the Mata Devi (10: 53-175) is that the tenth Sikh master creates the Khalsa in order to avenge the death of his father, the martyr Guru, Tegh Bahadur. [48] Kesar Singh knew full well that in the early seventeenth century there had been no attempt to inaugurate such a righteous order of saint-soldiers in order to exact vengeance for the execution of the fifth Guru. But by no means is Kesar Singh's spiteful passage at the end of his Guru Arjan narrative meant to detract from the glory of the sixth Sikh master, Guru Hargobind, or from the Sikhs of that period. Clearly, Kesar Singh treats Guru Hargobind with all due reverence and does the same for his Sikhs. [49] The statement may be interpreted rather as an attempt to foreshadow and further glorify the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh, the group that Kesar Singh will later have the tenth Guru himself refer to as "liberated [Sikhs]" (mukate), one of four subdi visions of the Sikh Panth. [50] For Kesar Singh, this was the true self-respecting Khalsa community of the early eighteenth century, a group that was to be distinguished from the rapacious Khalsa Sikh rulers of his day (whom he terms "avaricious [maiki] Sikhs"), the very same rulers who failed to patronize Kesar Singh and the rest of the Chibbar brahmin Sikhs. The "liberated" were those Khalsa Sikhs who could and indeed did extract blood for blood, upholding their personal and collective honor and self-respect in the process. As Kesar Singh's Chhibbar predecessor had said some twenty-five or so years before the completion of the Bansavali-nama:

Singh sikhu sai hai jo guru ka vairu lae [51]

A [true] Singh is a Sikh who avenges the Guru.

A reading of Kesar Singh Chhibbar's narrative of the execution of Guru Arjan in the light of these passages leaves one with the idea that our author does not understand the fifth Guru's demise as that of an heroic martyr. Instead, Guru Arjan is presented as a victim of the combined schemings of Prithi Chand, the Sahi Khatris, the Muslim authorities, karma, and the inauspicious phases of the moon. By "victim" here I do not mean to imply the vicarious sacrificial victim that Guru Tegh Bahadur is often understood to be, but rather an innocent victim in the strict sense of the term. [52] What this suggests for our purposes, of course, is that although Guru Arjan's death may have been considered heroic (but Kesar Singh never explicitly states this) it was certainly not conceived of as that of a martyr before the middle of the eighteenth century. Were his execution judged in this way, there is simply no doubt whatsoever that the fifth Guru would have received far more attention in the Sikh texts of this period tha n he does, particularly since martyrdom occupies privileged space in these sources. Indeed, in the many texts that comprise the Dasam Granth, especially the Bachitar Natak; in Sainapati's Sri Gur-sobha; in the works of the Chhibbar brahmins; and in the very late eighteenth century gur-bilas text attributed to Sukha Singh, the Gurbilas Patsahi 10, references to martyrdom abound but there are no attempts to understand the fifth Guru's demise in this light. [53] Even as late as 1841, in what is perhaps the most important of all Sikh examples of the gur-bilas genre, Ratan Singh Bhangu's Gur-panth Prakas, the first Sikh text repeatedly to expatiate upon sahid and sahidi, we find nothing more than one solitary line in regard to the death or execution of Guru Arjan, and this as an afterthought in a discussion of the debased nature of the Mughal state. Here Bhangu asks:

kaya guru arjan darayai na borayo /kaya tegh bahadar sis na tarayo [54]

Was Guru Arjan not thrown into the river [by the Mughals]? Was [Guru] Tegh Bahadur's head not cut off [by them as well]?

Why Guru Arjan was thrown into the Ravi is left unsaid. It is not until the later gur-bilas literature, in particular Santokh Singh's famous Gur-pratap Suraj Granth of 1843, that we finally find Guru Arjan's death being related in some detail, with the clear implication that he died the death of a martyr. [55] Perhaps the reasons for the conspicuous absence of any such death narrative in early Sikh literature may be discovered by examining just what constituted martyrdom in the so-called heroic period of Sikh history, the eighteenth century.


I have examined the type of martyrdom that is often proclaimed in these earliest texts elsewhere, but I think it requires further elaboration for the purpose at hand. The ideal redemptive heroic death we find in this early literature is one which almost always occurs on the battlefield during a righteous war (dharam yudh), and one which is also intimately associated with the Sikhs, and after 1699, with the Khalsa Sikhs of Guru Gobind Singh. Examples within the literature of this period are indeed commonplace. Since all the gur-bilas and rahit-nama authors of the eighteenth century were familiar with the Bachitar Natak, arguably the first example of the gur-bilas genre, let us look there.

The eighth canto of this text deals specifically with the famous battle of Bhangani, which took place in September 1688 between the forces of Guru Gobind Singh and those of his traditional adversaries, the Hindu princes of the hill states. In the poet's verses dealing with the death of Guru Gobind Singh's cousin, Sango Shah, we have observed elsewhere how this death was presented as martyrdom. [56] Death in battle has the same consequence in Bachitar Natak 8:26, which deals with Raja Hari Chand, the heroic ruler of Handur hill state and committed adversary of the Sikh Panth:

chhuti murachhana harichandam sambharam / gahe ban kaman bhe air mare / lage angi ja ke rahe na sambharam / tanam tiag te devlokam padharam [57]

Now [the brave] Hari Chand had [finally] come to his senses, and catching hold of his bow and quiver of arrows he furiously pulled the shafts back and let them fly. [Any Sikh] who was struck by one [of these missiles] was instantly killed and, abandoning his mortal frame, would make his way into heaven (dev-lok).

That the deaths of Sango Shah and the Sikhs facing Hari Chand represented the ideal, redemptive demise of the time is underlined by the famous passage we find in the Chandi Charitr (Acts of [the goddess] Chandi), also attributed to Guru Gobind Singh:

dehi siva bar mohi ihai subh karaman te kabahum na tarom na darom ari som jab jai larom nisachai kar apani jit karom aru sikh hom apane hi man ko ih lalach hau gun tau ucharom jab av ki audh nidan banai ati hi ran mai tab jujh marom [58]

O Lord of might, grant that I may not be deterred from performing righteous deeds. That I may fight with faith and without fear against my enemies, and win. The wisdom I require is the grace to sing your glory. When my end is near may I meet death on the battlefield.

What is especially important in this passage is its final sentence, an importance underscored by the fact that it also appears (only very sl will strive to be most comprehensive directory of Historical Gurudwaras and Non Historical Gurudwaras around the world.

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