The Sikh Bangle
The Background of the Kara
Before an attempt is made to bring out the meaning and symbolic significance of the Sikh Bangle, it may be worthwhile to cast a glance at the Great Guru who bestowed the bangle on us and about whom Bhai Gurdas Singh writes:-
God was uniquely generous in bestowing unparalleled qualities upon Guru Gobind Singh – the bestower of the bangle. He was a great scholar, a truth-inspiring multilingual poet, a unique orator, a bewitching musician and singer, a democratic leader, a religious innovator, a skilled warrior, an excellent general, an exemplary martyr, a rare sportsman and a humble and devoted servant of God.
Guru Gobind Singh was a great lover of literature. He translated the Vedas, the Upanishads, etc., into the common language of the people. He employed fifty-two poets to create new literature. He was a great scholar of Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Brijbhasha and Punjabi. Not only could he use these languages most efficiently but he could also write poetry in these languages. His poetry is unique in its rhythm, its colourful use of adjectives and adverbs and its ability to inspire truth. In `Akal Ustat’ (Admiration of God) he has given a record number of 1,760 names to God. When he sang his poetry to the torrential music of Surand (an Indian musical instrument) the audience was spell-bound and the devotees unconsiously uttered. "Hail Master; Hail Holy One; Thou art Wonderful!". His perfect oratory could inspire the people to offer their heads for sacrifice.
He was an excellent democratic leader, who organized the demoralized and oppressed Indian nation into a brave, fearless and honest living community. He gave a crushing blow to the caste system which had appallingly divided and subdivided the Indian community. The people were not only segregated by the caste system, but this segregation, besides generating prejudice, hatred and suspicions, had condemned certain castes as untouchables. He boldly denounced all the roots of segregation-caste, creed and fake religion and declared the democratic equality of mankind. "Recognize ye the whole human race as one," he said. In the history of India he was the first man to make the peolpe transcend these differences and to unite them in the sacred cause of truth and honest living. The battle of Bhangani is unique in this respect. People from all walks of life fought shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy under the command of the Guru.
His organization was on democratic lines. In fact he was a great innovator of introducing democracy into religion. He baptized the first five beloved ones and then begged of them to baptise him. Thus he became a follower of his disciples
At times he obeyed his Sikhs, for example he had to leave the fortress of Chamkaur under orders from his Sikhs.
He was a skilled warrior and a renowned general with a sense of sportsmanship. In the art of wielding a sword and in archery, etc., he was singular. He never attacked anybody and he fought only for self-defence. He was neither aggressive himself nor did he tolerate aggression. On the battle-field, he always gave first chance to his enemy. In his turn he never missed a chance. he proved an excellent general by making only forty soldiers fight against hundreds of thousands at Chamkaur and by holding the small fortress for a full day. Even on the battle-field he was a thorough sportsman. He admired the bravery of his enemies. His men gave first-aid even to their wounded enemies. He never employed foul means to win, but preferred a fair struggle even at the cost of worldly defeat He never lost heart in the face of awful tragedies. After the battle of Chamkaur, he had Iost everything but his faith. His feet were terribly wounded by thorns. He had had no sleep for several days as he had to command his army, but he was still in high spirits and exceptionally optimistic in his zeal to uproot evil. It was then that he wrote the "Epistle of Victory" (ZAFFAR NAMAH) a masterpiece of poetry and courage. Soon after this he started gathering a new army. He was a great patriot and martyr. At nine he sent his father, Guru Teg Bahadur, to protect the faith of the Kashmiri Brahmans. This is the unparalleled example of somebody laying down his own life for the faith of other people. It was actually a sacrifice for a fundamental human right-the right of worship. He happily sacrificed his four sons, mother, devoted disciples and finally himself for the great cause of truthful living and he liberated his followers from the fear of death.
It is exceptionally remarkable that having all the virtues and good qualities, Guru Gobind Singh was still very humble. He called himself a puny servant of God". `By Thy Grace’ was always on his lips. He was unique in honoring his devotees.
His achievements by the age of fortytwo stand singular in history and his soul united with the Almighty in the following words:
The great bestowed bestowed his rare qualities upon us through his philosophy of Baptism.
On the occasion of the most famous North Indian festival of Baisakhi in the year 1699, Guru Gobind Singh gave an unusual general call to his devotees to assemble in the spacious ground of Anandpur. Thousands of people thronged to Anandpur and on the appointed day assembled before a specially pitched tent, which was carefully decorated for the occasion. Thousands of devoted eyes were longing for a glimpse of the divine master when, lo and behold! he appeared characteristically in a splendid martial uniform, brandishing a sword in his hand. His blissful eyes looked like balls of fire. His face was red and his appearance was terrifying.
Guru Gobind Rai asking for a head
The people were stunned and silent. The Master broke the silence in a roaring voice, "I want the head of a devoted Sikh! Is there any Sikh who can quench the thirst of my sword?, What a request! The demand was met by a Sikh called Daya Ram. He was taken into the tent A thud! And the sound of a falling body! The master came out of the tent with his sword dripping blood and looking ever so fierce. In a thundering voice, he shouted again, "I want the head of another devoted Sikh. Is there anyone who loves me more than anything else?" After some time the demand was again met and it was repeated three more times. By this time most of the Sikhs had slipped away. The master did not come out of the tent for some time now. Some were wondering, What has gone wrong with the Master?" To the amazement of all, the Guru came out with those beloved five, shining in golden robes like the master himself. Look at the unique way the master selected the leaders for a spiritual democracy.
The master took an iron bowl with some clean water in it, and his wife, Jito Ji, added sugar cakes to the water. The Guru stirred the sugar cakes and water with a Khanda (double-edged sword) while all sang the five Sikh prayers in a chorus. The sugar cakes dissolved in the water and the holy hymns transformed the syrup into an elixir. The Guru asked all the five beloved ones to take five draughts of the elixir (Amain). The Guru also sprinkled it five times into their eyes while they uttered `Waheguru ji ka Khalsa Waheguru ji ki fateh". (The Khalsa belongs to the Wonderful Lord, all glory to Him). Then the Guru put drops of the elixir on to their keshas (hair) while they again uttered. "The Khalsa belongs to the Wonderful Lord and all glory to Him"
After this the Guru changed their names, so that instead of having varous suffixes like Das, Ram and Chard, etc., their names ended with Singh (Lion). Thus he gave them one universal Brotherhood (Khalsa) and asked them to wear five symbols.
Kesh (long fair), Kangha (a comb), Kirpan (sword), Kara (a steel bangle) and Kaccha (shorts). All the symbols start with `K’ and are thus termed "the Ks"
The Five K’s
After having baptized the Sikhs, the master kneeled before them and begged them to baptise him. Thus the master introduced democracy into the spiritual world by becoming the disciple of his own disciples.
The whole process of baptism involves symbolism. Water being a universal solvent, is symbolic of purity and cleanliness. Having the property of flowing downwards, it is also symbolic of humility and the Khalsa’s concern for the weak and the downtrodden. The Khanda (double-edged sword used as a stirrer) represents power and divinity rolled into one. The readily soluble sugar cakes, losing their individual identity in a universal solvent like water, symbolize the sociability of the Khalsa and their freedom from caste and social divisions. The steel bowl represents the human mind and the Holy mother signifies the symbol of creation.
A Sikh’s opinion is shaped by the principles laid down by the Guru just as water takes the shape of the bowl into which it is poured. The Khalsa, thus represented an all-embracing, universal Brotherhood of self-appointed guardians of a society, free from caste ridden and pluralistic propensities.
The Indian community was appallingly divided and subdivided into castes and subcastes and these social grooves were becoming increasingly deeper day by day. Segregation had generated suspicion, hatred and prejudice, to the extent that the working classes were considered inherently inferior people and the people of low castes who had been doing the menial jobs, were considered to be untouchables. There was no sign of equality of human rights and consequently the Indian nation was divided and demoralised. The Khalsa gave a death blow to the caste system and transformed the nation into a single Brotherhood. The holy hymns supplied the new Brotherhood with the divine blessing.
The Guru asked the Khalsa to drink the elixir so that their bodies were purified. He sprinkled the elixir into their keshas so that their intellect was purified. Thus they were physically, as well as intellectually, purified. What remained? They were still to be purified spiritually, and to that end he sprinkled elixir into their eyes so that their vision was purified and they received clear picture of God and His creation. The Sikh baptism thus introduced spiritual democracy, confirming the belief in social equality and the desirability of ideal behaviour.
In order to comprehend the true symbolic significance of the five Sikh symbols and especially of the bangle, it seems imperative that a brief mention should be made of symbolism in general and its importance in religious and social fields.
Symbolism of the Kara
A symbol is an object which signifies another object, an idea or a sign, usually representing something abstract. Symbolism in human life is analogous to the presence of air in the atmosphere. The atmosphere will not only be useless but meaningless to us in the absence of air. Life cannot be sustained without air, yet ordinary people seldom realise or appreciate the importance of air and attach little value to it. Similarly, symbolism, though an integral part of human life, is seldom appreciated by many of us.
All cultures and human behaviour are thoroughly charged and fully replete with symbolism. Society is peculiarly subject to the influence of symbolism in the fields which are emotionally charged, such as politics(flag colours, etc.) and religion (crosses, domes, etc.)
The etiquette of a society, bowing to superiors or saluting, etc., are nothing but symbolism. A child, prior to learning some phonetic symbols, communicates by signs. It puts forward its arms so as to invite somebody to pick it up. The psychologist confirm that phonetic symbols, (the languages), are symbols of human behaviour. The different shades of meaning attached to a word further exhibit symbolism, e.g. light is a symbol for knowledge, wisdom or truth while darkness is a symbol for death and mourning, and white is a symbol for purity and virginity, etc.
The commercial world exploits symbolism very deliberately.
In England a barber has a red and white pole, a pawnbroker has three golden balls outside his shop. Look at your watch, it is a certain and accordingly the company has put some symbols on it. Likewise various firms put different symbols on their products. How these symbols make us buy their goods can be explained only be expert psychologists. Certain symbols, for example, phonetic symbols (languages), are meaningful to almost everybody and thus useful to them. However some symbols such as religious symbols, are not intelligible to most of us, but are meaningful and useful only to the experts. A single word often carries wider and deeper meanings (by symbolism) than the simple word itself. For example, the words Negro, European, Indian, etc., are intelligible to everybody, but Homo Sapient is intelligible to some only. To those few, it is more meaningful than each of the simple words, as it represents not only all of them, but more than that. Similarly, religious symbols are not only difficult to understand, but they have an extremely wide and deep connotation and hence they are enormously useful in the religious life. As the use of symbols contributes to the success of commercial products, similarly religious symbols contribute to the progress of religion. To and ordinary Christian, a cross is a reminder of Jesus and his crucifixion but historian would say that the symbol of the cross has appeared in various cultures from time immemorial and it has undergone many changes and adaptations. It never disappeared completely, as it was meaningful and useful to the spiritual aspect of human life.
A double-edged axe symbol was used by the prehistoric Egyptians as a sign of power and divinity. Later on, this symbol underwent a lot of changes, and finally appeared again in the Sikh religion in the form of the Khanda ( a double-edged sword) and, curiously enough, it represented the same thing Power and Divinity.
Historians further confirm that wisdom is revealed to wise people through symbols, Art, literature, poetry, religion, etc., which deal with the unconscious, are full of symbolism. One of the latest approaches to the study of the unconscious mind is through symbols.
Religious faith is deeply tooted in the unconscious, and the unconscious is accessible only through very complex symbols. Hence symbolism is inseparably linked with religion.
The Sikh Bangle
It was customary in India (and still is) for the sister to put a "Rakhi"* on the wrist of her brother signifying her affection and her dependence on her brother in times of danger.
*Rakhi, a multi-coloured and richly decorated woollen flower, which is tied round the wrist of a brother by the sister. Usually brothers reciprocate this gesture by pledging not only physical protection to their sisters in the times of danger but also monetary gifts. The festival falls in August every year.
The brother would prepared to sacrifice his own life and to save the honour of the country and that of his sister from invaders and tyrants. The ceremony usually took place at the time of the brother’s departure for adventure or for a campaign. This implied that the females were weaker than the males and that they had to be protected by the males. When Guru Gobind Singh baptised his Sikhs (1699) he discontinued this practice among Sikhs (male or female) to wear a steel bangle (Kara) instead of a ‘woollen Rakhi.’ The idea was that all males and females are not only equal but also strong enough to defend themselves. All the Guru’s followers, irrespective of sex, were trained to fight in self-defence and to help the oppressed. Thus this steel bangle, unlike the woollen Rakhi, became the symbol of freedom and equality of the sexes, and the Sikh women no only derived courage, but also shared the national struggle with their brothers. The Guru’s idea of making his female followers brave, fearless and courageous was demonstrated by several Sikh women. Mai Bhago, Dharam Kaur and Sahib Kaur were some of those, who not only fought shoulder to shoulder with their brothers, but also commanded the Sikh platoons. The Kara thus led to a great awakening in Society and boosted the morale of Sikh men and especially women, who no longer remained weak (Abla) but became as brave as lions (Singh).
Leaving aside the historical background of the bangle, let us now consider the philosophical and psychological interpretation of this symbol. It is circular in shape. The circle is one of the most important and oldest of symbols. It is known as ‘Mandala,’ a word borrowed from Sanskrit. The psychologists consider the Mandala to be one of the most important Arch-types which shape our conscious and unconscious behaviour. Philosophically it is highly significant. It is a symbol of strength and integrity, a symbol of obedience, equality, oneness, universality and eternity.
Structural engineers know that the round shape is the best shape for strength, as it distributes a blow of strain. They increase the strength of the weak part by corrugating it. The roundness of the skull shows nature’s ingenuity in protecting our brain, the most important organ of our body. A round object, if it is weak, cannot keep its roundness when subjected to strain. For example, the wheels of a car remain round to the degree to which they are strong and inflated. Any wheel weaker or short of air will lose its roundness. As long as it is round it continues to bear the strain and pressure. No wonder most of the Sikhs when subjected to torture and coercion maintained their integrity of character. Bhai Taru Singh happily preferred the removal of his skull to the removal of his Keshas (hair), Bhai Mani Singh happily bore the torture of being but to pieces joint by joint. Baba Banda Bahader’s flesh was pulled off from his living body with hot pincers but he did not renounce his faith.
In mathematics the round symbol is called Zero (0) which is again significant. Divide a number by zero: (X/0=infinity) and it becomes infinity. That is, the Mandala can raise a small quantity to infinity. In the above example, the value of X, whether it is big or small, is immaterial as long as it is being raised by the ‘Mandala’. Thus the wearer of the steel bangle should never worry whether he is great or small, what he should be careful of is that he should be supported by the attributes of the ‘Mandala’, his zeroness, and his humble nature. This attribute is further illustrated by the mathematical fact X^0=1. When the power of a number is regarded as zero (0) it becomes one. That is, when a Sikh combs his hair in the morning and in the evening, he raises his right arm above his head and the bangle goes about his head. His power is symbolically raised to zero (0), or in common words, he says, "O Almighty God, Wonderful Lord (Wahe Guru) you are omnipotent, I am nothing, I am puny, I am zero, and his value become one. Who is only one? Who has no rival? None but God!" So, he loses himself or his ego and thus enjoys the elixir of ‘Name,’ and becomes one with God- a way to unite him with God. Once again the tying of a turban round the head symbolise the same effect. The bangle is called ‘Kara’ and another associated word is ‘Kari,’ which means link, so it is a symbolic way of linking with God.
‘Kara’ also means strict and the associated word ‘Kari’ also means handcuff (Hath Kari). Looked at from this angle, the bangle on the right hand shows one’s discipline. That is, one is not free to do anything one likes, but one has to remain under some wholesome restrictions. Like a true Christian one says, "Under wholesome restrictions I find perfect freedom." This sounds a bit paradoxical, but so is most wisdom paradoxical. It is steering between two dangers that is why the master sprinkled the elixir (Amrit) into the eyes of his followers, so that the Khalsa (True Followers) are enabled to receive the divine vision. A person is free to the degree to which he is responsible. An irresponsible person would find himself in trouble sooner or later. He cannot remain free and escape the law of a responsible society. For example, a careful and responsible driver who obeys the set rules driver, who does not obey rules or who does not know the rules, or who is a learner, is always under a strain and cannot drive freely. In Islam ‘Musalman’ means a person who submits himself to the will of God. Thus the bangle on the right wrist of a Sikh enables him to have the good qualities of a true Christian, a holy Muslim and a pure Sikh (Khalsa) merged into one. What a wonderful gift from our unfathomable Master, Guru Gobind Singh!
Some of the Sikhs give a wrong meaning to the Verse "SATGUR SIKH KE BANDHAN KATE" (The master frees his disciple from restrictions) and hold that we should not have any restrictions. The master does it, he makes his follower free from bondage but by making him responsible. They forget the Verse "BANDE SO JO PAWE VICH BANDI" (True Humans are those who accept discipline).
Thus to free us from bonds or temptations, we must accept responsibilities or wholesome restrictions. Thus, the bangle demands that the wearer should surrender unconditionally to the Almighty. Even in the highway code, the triangles warn, rectangles inform but circles command. Thus the master demands from us responsibilities.
Let us discuss another property of the circle. That is the constancy of it radius which is the distance of any point on the circumference from the centre. It reminds us of the equality of mankind and speaks against any kind of discrimination, of colour, creed, caste, class or religion etc. A true Sikh wearing a bangle will keep in his mind that all human beings are equal inn God’s court, as they are all children of God. It enables him to transcend all the divisions which separate man from man and makes hatred, jealousy and prejudice, etc., or in other words, it blesses him with unbiased and scientific outlook. My dear wearer of the bangle! Remember all people are at an equal distance from God wherever the stand in the world. Our master would never bless a person who generates hatred on the basis of caste, colour creed, nationality or any other distinction. "The father is one and we are all children of one father." (EK PITA EKAS KE HAM BARAK.)
Furthermore, the circumference of a circle shows its continuity as it has no starting or ending point. The never-ending natural processes work in a cycle of carbondioxide and oxygen, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, etc. Thus it brings the wearer of the bangle into contact with Eternity and it reminds him of the infinity of his master. It gives him boundless self-confidence. The collar around a dog’s neck reminds the public that he belongs to somebody who is responsible for him. They dare not maltreat him, particularly if the master is strong and is likely to remain strong in the future. What about the dog whose master is infinite, omnipotent and unfathomable? A person who wears Guru Gobind Singh’s collar is really great because his master is great.
The `Mandala’ (The Circle) appears on the Olympic flag as well, representing the unity of mankind and that of the five continents. Olympic Games themselves represent sportsmanship and struggle for its own sake. The Olympic Motto is `Participation is more important than winning.
The bangle reminds a Sikh that ‘struggle’ is the meaning of Life victory or defeat is in the hands of God.’ It reminds a Sikh of whit Guru Nanak said, `He is the doer of everything, man is powerless (KARE KARAI APE AP, MANAS KE KICHH NAHI HATH.) The wearer of a bangle is constantly reminded of this philosophy. How happy is the person who leaves the fruit of his labor in God’s hands! He would never grumble.
Let us consider everyday life in the machine age. If we eliminate the wheels from machines, the whole edifice of modern civilisation would tumble down like a house of cards. In other words. The progress of man depends upon this circle. No wonder that some people attribute the meaning of progress to the ‘Mandala.’ Even the Indian National flag displays the same symbol (Ashoka-chakra) on it, hoping that the prosperity of the nation will be perpetual.
How great is Guru Gobind Singh who has placed the symbol of prosperity into the hands of the Sikhs! No wonder the Sikhs are the most enterprising community in India and perhaps abroad. Forming only 1.2 percent of India’s population their services in industry, contribution they make is larger than their numbers warrant. They have a marvellously inspiring history.
The Mandala in the Realm of Religion
Specialists in comparative religion, psychology, literature, art and anthropology confirm that the mandala symbol has been very persistent in the history of religion. In ancient China, for instance the symbol represented one supreme power, the Great Architect of the universe. The celestial world and heaven were represented by the Egyptians and by the Maya by round symbols.
In Rome, the Romans used domes as a symbol of imperial power and divinity. In the church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinpole, the dome symbolises the Glory of God (Encyclopedia Britannica). If you study the symbol of the Christian (Cross) it has appeared in various forms and psychologists regard it as a for of Mandala. In Islam, domes and arches exhibit the symbolism of Mandala. Hindu religion is full of Mandala, e.g. Swastika is a form of Mandala. The snake around Shiva’s neck is also symbolic of a Mandala.
From the study of various religions and their symbolism one is thoroughly convinced about the spiritual significance of the ring. Naturally, any religion in the absence of divinity cannot claim to be perfect. Thus, the bangle constantly reminds the wearer of the Supreme Divine Power. Hence Guru Gobind Singh, the bestower of the bangle, has exalted the Sikhs by giving them this marvellous symbol which humanity as a whole may aspire to wear.