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Here was a Man! When Comes Another?




In the summer of 1921, a strange phenomenon was witnessed in the Punjab. That year, Sikhs launched a passive resistance movement to win back possession, from a handful of brahmins, of one of their historic shrines called Guru Ka Bagh, a few miles from Amritsar.

Batches of passive resisters went to this shrine. They were mercilessly beaten by the police. Their arms and legs were smashed; they were dragged by their long hair; many were hung upside down from branches of trees till they became senseless.

Instead of being cowed down by these brutalities, the number of passive resisters increased steadily till 500-strong jathas began to arrive every day at Guru Ka Bagh - amongst them many who had suffered beatings earlier and had been discharged from the hospital.

This "rare species of courage", as Gandhi and Rev. C.F. Andrews described, "was born of religious fervor", in its turn, born of a legend widely accepted by the Sikhs. It was said that wherever five passive resisters assembled to say their prayers, Guru Gobind Singh appeared before them. He led them to Guru Ka Bagh. And he, not the passive resister, received the blows showered by the police. When these satyagrahis were produced in court and asked their names and addresses, they gave their names correctly. But of their parentage and address, the answer invariably was: "My father's name is Guru Gobind Singh; my mother, Mata Sahib Devan. My home is the Guru's town Anandpur."

The Guru Ka Bagh satyagraha went on for some months till the Punjab gaols were crammed. Ultimately it was the police and the Government which gave in and agreed to Guru Ka Bagh being handed over to their rughtful owners, the Sikhs.

I have met many of these passive resisters and, with my own ears, heard them tell of the darshan of the Guru, and his ethereal form lead them to face the police. They swear that they lost all fear, and when they were tortured they knew no pain.

Soon after Guru Ka Bagh, yet another phenomenon was witnessed in the Punjab. The sacred pool surrounding the Harmandar in Amritsar was drained and desilted. In this Kar Seva, as it was known, millions of people took part. You can today meet hundreds of men and women who will swear that many a time while they were engaged in this Kar Seva, the Guru's white hawk swooped down from the skies and settled on the gold pinnacle of the Harmandar - and then as dramatically vanished into the blue heaven.

Skeptics will undoubtedly have explanation for these phenomena. Let us concede that in an atmosphere of religious fervor, such experiences are possible. However, the point to bear in mind is that for the Sikhs these phenomena have been usually connected with Guru Gobind Singh, because he has been to them their father-figure, their supreme hero, the sustainer of faith, hope and courage, and their beau-ideal - all in one.

What kind of man was this heroic Guru Gobind Singh?

By now you must be familiar with the main events of his life. I will not repeat them. I will only draw your attention to five points to help you judge the Guru's place in history. The choice of the number ‘five' is deliberate. Five has some kind of mystic significance in the Punjab - the Land of the Five Rivers. The Guru himself subscribed to the sanctity of the five:

panchon men nit bartat main hun
panch milan to piran pir

"Wherever there are five, there am I.
Where five meet, they are the holiest of the holy." 

First, it should be borne in mind that he was only a child of nine when his father, the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadar was executed by the order of Emperor Aurangzeb. In any mortal, such an experience would result in a traumatic shock followed, first, by fear and, then, by hate and desire for revenge against the people who had perpetrated the crime.

I have little doubt that many persons must have tried to fill young Gobind's mind with feelings of hatred and revenge against the Mughals. The Guru remained impervious to these influences. When he grew into manhood, he announced his mission in life in the following words: "I came into the world charged with the duty to uphold right in every place, to destroy sin and evil ... the only reason I took birth was to see that righteousness may flourish, that good may live, and tyrants be torn out by their roots." 

Secondly, it should be constantly before our minds that the Guru never subscribed to the theory of "might is right". Although he introduced the reverence of arms in Sikh religious ritual and even described the sword, the spear and the musket as ‘the pirs' - religious mentors of the Sikhs, this was entirely in the context of force as the righter of wrongs. He was fully aware of the fact that the teachings of the first five Gurus and the Granth Sahib were pacific in content.

But should truth and goodness be allowed to suffer annihilation at the hands of falsehood and evil? The Guru's answer was a categorical "No".

In a Persian composition entitled the Zafarnama, the Epistle of Victory, said to have been sent to Emperor Aurangzeb, he wrote:

"Chu kar az hama heelte dar guzasht, halal ast burdan ba shamshir dast" 

"When all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword."

In this context, it is significant that although Guru Gobind Singh dictated the final version of the Guru Granth Sahib, he did not include any of his own compositions exhorting people to rise in arms in the sacred text. 

Thirdly, the Guru took special care that anti-Muslim sentiment should not stain the crusade he was about to launch against the Mughals.

"My sword strikes tyrants, not men", he said.

Amongst the earliest recruits to his army were Muslims. Although he fought the Mughals all his life - as indeed he did the Hindu Rajputs of the hills - he had both Muslims and Hindus fighting on his side, shoulder to shoulder with his Sikhs. This followed naturally from his conviction that all men were of one caste - maanas ki jaat sab ek pehchanbo - he exhorted. And that the mosque and the temple to be the same; the call of the muezzin and the chanting of the pandit were the same.

The non-communal tradition started by Guru Gobind Singh was continued into the time of Maharajah Ranjit Singh who was, as pointed out by Pandit Nehru in his "Discovery of India", one of the few genuinely secular rulers of our country. It was, therefore, in the fitness of things that in the crowning success of Sikh arms, the flag that the Muslim General, Colonel Basswan, carried through the streets of Kabul bore the emblem of Guru Gobind Singh; likewise, the Dogra, General Zorawar Singh, planted this saffron banner bearing Guru Gobind Singh's Chakra, with Kirpans crossed, beneath, in the heart of Tibet.

Guru Gobind Singh was able to raise his fight against Mughals into a struggle of the down-trodden against oppression of the rich, into a demand for justice against tyranny of wrong-doers, in short, into a crusade, a veritable dharma yudha against the powers of evil.

He forbade his soldiers from looting. He made them take solemn vows that they would never molest women of the enemy. He emulated the example of our ancient rishis and yogis and insisted that all Sikhs should wear their hair and beards unshorn - for they were not common soldiers but Sant Sipahis, Soldier-Saints. 

Fourthly, what deserves your attention is the incredible sense of loyalty and sacrifice that the Guru was able to arouse amongst his followers. Let me give you a few examples. You may have heard of the famous ‘baptismal' ceremony when five men willingly agreed to have their heads cut off. There are innumerable examples of similar sacrifice.

As well known as these first five Sikhs, known as Panj Piyaras, were another group of forty known as the Chaali Mukte (the 'Forty Liberated Ones') . Under great stress during the prolonged siege of Anandpur, these forty men asked the Guru to let them go. After getting a deed of renunciation, the Guru released them from their obligation. When these men returned to their homes,  their women folk taunted them for disloyalty to the Master. The men (including amongst them a woman, Mai Bhago) rejoined the Guru at Muktsar and fell fighting. The last request their leader, Mahan Singh, made to the Guru, was to have the deed of renunciation torn up before he closed his eyes for ever. 

Yet another example was of an old woman who came to the Guru for help. She told him that her husband and two sons had been killed fighting. All that remained of her family was her youngest son who was dangerously ill. She begged the Guru's blessings to restore him to health - not to have some one to look after her in old age - but in order that this son too could attain martyrdom in the battle field.  

How was Guru Gobind Singh able to fire his followers with this kind of reckless valour? Primarily, by setting an example himself. This is the fourth point of your consideration.

He fought alongside his men. He never put his family before his followers. On the contrary, at one of the engagements, he allowed two of his sons to go to certain death before he allowed any of his Panj Piyaras to do so. Within a few months he lost all his four sons: two were killed fighting, the other two, aged nine and seven, were executed by the Governor of Sirhind. His own mother died of grief.

When his wife asked him in tears for her four sons, the Guru answered, "What if four be dead; thousands live to continue the battle." It was by this kind of personal example that the Guru was able to train poor rustics who had handled nothing more lethal than a lathi and flabby, pot-bellied, timid shopkeepers, to become some of the greatest fighters the world has ever known.

He redeemed his pledge that "he would train the sparrow to fight the hawk" and "teach one man to fight a legion'. Pathans, Persians, Afghans and Baluchis of the North West Frontier region who had for centuries invaded India, terrified, massacred and looted our people, were beaten back into the homelands by these new soldiers of Guru Gobind Singh.  

It has never been fully appreciated by our historians that these Sikhs set up a human barricade against the invaders and so made possible the rise of Maratha power in the Deccan. 

Fifthly, and this is my final point, is the genuinely democratic spirit of this great leader of men. Guru Gobind Singh never claimed divinity for himself. He denounced those who tried to make him an incarnation of God.

"I was ordained to establish a Faith and lay down its rules," he wrote. "But whosoever regards me as Lord shall be damned and destroyed. I am - and in this let there be no doubt, I am but a slave to God, as other men are: a beholder of the wonders of creation."

He took no credit for what he did: he attributed all achievements to the Khalsa - all his victories, his power, his prestige, he said were due to the efforts of his followers. Although he was their Guru, he made himself their disciple - aapey gur-chela.

Whenever the congregation passed a resolution it acquired the sanctity of a gurmataa - an ordinance of the Guru binding even on the Guru himself. Guru Gobind Singh was thus a rare combination of many qualities - a sophisticated aesthete composing poetry in many languages - Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian and Punjabi; a handsome cavalier fond of chase and danger; a soldier who dedicated his life to fight tyranny; a leader who looked upon his followers as comrades and equals; a Guru who exhorted people to worship the God they love best but insisted they look to their fellow beings as equals; a man who sacrificed all he had - his family and his worldly possessions and ultimately himself - for his ideals.

This ideal he stated in lines which have become the most quoted of his compositions:  

O Lord, of Thee these boons I ask: Let me never
Shun a righteous task.
Let me be fearless when I go to battle.
Give me faith that victory will be mine.
Give me power to sing Thy praise,
And when comes the time to end my life,
Let me fall in mighty strife... 

Has the world produced any men as great as Guru Gobind Singh?


[Courtesy:The Sikh Review]

February 17, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Jag Singh (Birmingham, England), February 17, 2010, 12:21 PM.

In answer to the closing question in the article - no. And never again shall a man as great as Gobind Singh enter this world again.

2: Sangeeta Luthra (Los Altos, California, U.S.A.), February 17, 2010, 12:54 PM.

Once again, S. Khushwant Singh reminds us of the core values and spirit of Sikhs. He is one of the greatest writers and historians of our community and it is so wonderful to see he is still writing and sharing his knowledge! He not only pays tribute to Guru Gobind Singh but really reminds us that the Guru is with us only WHEN we choose decency and honesty over convenience and personal gain.

3: Amarjit Singh Padda (Southall, United Kingdom), February 17, 2010, 3:52 PM.

Since childhood, I have been a fan of S. Khushwant Singh's books and articles. This article is very interesting. At this time, we desperately need to be inspired by Guru Gobind Singh and unite as a single panth.

4: Surinder Kaur (Canada), February 17, 2010, 10:26 PM.

Is this the work of Khushwant Singh? I am surprised considering his anti-Sikh rants against those laying down their lives for Sikh rights in current day Punjab! [Editor: This piece was written and first published several decades ago.]

5: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), February 20, 2010, 11:39 AM.

The article is well written and should be read and understood by everyone - the sacrifices of the Guru and the principles laid down by him.

6: Harcharan Singh Bahra (Solihull, United Kingdom), February 21, 2010, 2:57 PM.

Firstly, what a fantastic article from a person that many Sikhs sadly wish not to acknowledge. Let him carry on with his good work, writing wonderfully about Sikhism. Sadly, we do not have many like him. I pray that all Sikhs put aside their minor differences and take a little inspiration from Guru Gobind Singh's life and achievements and unite to prapogate this wonderful philosophy to all mankind. Guru Fateh.

7: Suprit Pal Singh (Melbourne, Australia), May 05, 2010, 10:12 AM.

A great article reminding us of our Guru's deeds in his earthly bana. Sardar Khushwant Singh has written as best as any mortal can write about the glory of the Guru. But, pardon me, he was not a man, for me as a Sikh he was God's Messenger extolling us all to strive to be one with God. It is difficult for us to put in a jacket of words the glory of Guru Gobind Singh. Maybe we need somebody as big as Him for that! For us as Sikhs Guru Nanak's message and Guru Gobind Singh's message are indistinguishable. Hence, the recital of his bani, Jap Sahib, brings us closer to realizing Guru's stature and station for us all humans.

8: Harpal Singh (Delhi, India), June 13, 2010, 3:51 PM.

The following is a quote from Brig. Partap Singh Jaspal (Retd.): "Let us ask ourselves a simple question in a wholly dispassionate condition of mind, "Has the world so far produced a renunciator of Guru Gobind Singh's stature? He watches this world-play, this lila of God, with what total detachment. Such is the flavour of the holy lives practically lived by our great and beloved Gurus and their Amrit Bani is filled with eternal fragrance of their lofty ideals flashing before our eyes now. After having sacrificed everything and after having completed His divine mission, He - in all humility, as a last touching homage to Guru Nanak - installs Guru Granth Sahib as the Eternal Guru."

9: F.C. (India), September 01, 2010, 3:20 PM.

Harcharan Singh ji, Our Guru's teachings should be followed not just by Sikhs; they belong to all of humanity. Have you not read how He and the other Gurus inspired Rabindranath Tagore to compose some of his most inspiring and memorable poems? Guru Sahib's life and teachings represent the very best of human civilization, please do not belittle them by compartmentalizing them.

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