By Pradeep Singh
Wine may take an age to mature but a great spirit is timeless. Time does not define or confine divinity. Years are not a necessary condition for a life of spiritual lustre.
Guru Gobind Singh’s comparatively short life transformed into immortality. Born in 1666, his spiritual growth was rapid just as much as it was transformative for not only the Sikhs of Nanak but for all who were despondent in heart and faith. North India was in turmoil. The Mughal Emperium that had come to define the ethos of the last two centuries was in a turbulent state. The turmoil was due to the socio-political churning that was being witnessed and was inevitable. The eclectic atmosphere created by sages of, both, the Sufis and the Sants of the Bhakti Movement was an expression of the spiritual turmoil in the people across the social landscape of the Mughal Empire. Kabir, Chaitanya and Nanak and other kindred souls had forewarned the masses as well as the elite to lead a life of inner contentment through direct connectivity with the Almighty. They had taught that seeking God through mediation of priests or a church or through penance or pilgrimage was a mirage.
upThe anguish and despondency was felt perhaps more in the northern provinces of India as it was there that the social moorings of the people were under stress. While the Mughal Empire provided a new paradigm of growth with grandeur it did not do so with expected equity. The elite of the empire prospered immensely but the sub-elites and the overwhelming masses were ground in hardship and struggle for a decent and honourable livelihood. It would need an entirely different type of an empire to uplift the morale of the downtrodden, an empire which the Mughals with all their magnificence could not muster. Enlightened emperors like Akbar did much in the direction of inclusiveness and harmony and achieved a measure of success but again it was confined to the upper echelons of the non-Muslim rulers and chieftains.
Guru Nanak was followed by eight Sikh Gurus before Guru Gobind Singh emerged as the last in the line of these remarkable paragons of spirituality. He was the tenth Sikh Guru and he in many ways completed the ongoing charter that Nanak had crafted and was embellished by those who came after him. Each of the Sikh Gurus had contributed to the strengthening of the faith by adding institutions and features that were the need of the times. Thus emerged the pillars of the community like the langar (free community meal), sewa (voluntary labour), sangat (community of devotees), kirtan (choral hymn singing) and such which are vibrant and alive to this day.
However, by the time of Guru Gobind Singh the challenge before the Guru was multifaceted. The Sikh community was a pan-India phenomenon and its visible growth was disturbing to the Mughal power centres at Lahore and Delhi. The congeniality of Akbar’s reign was over and the empire was in the hands of those who had to deal with instabilities growing out of rapid growth and loss of control.
In the political sphere, Guru Gobind Singh faced aggression not just from the Mughals but also the Hindu and Rajput Chiefs of the hills. The Guru resided not in the traditional centres of Sikhism in Punjab but in the sub-montane hills at Anandpur Sahib and Paonta Sahib. Consequently, the threat to him and his mission came from the Muslim hardliners, who acted through the Mughal rulers and officials and also from the Hill Chieftains of present Himachal and Garhwal. Both these political rivals of the Guru created a dangerous front against him and the Sikhs.
The greatness of Guru Gobind Singh lay in his sagacious and correct assessment of his opponents. His fight against them was against their political agenda and therefore he did not raise his voice against Islam and its core tenets of egalitarianism and monotheism. He did not accept the unjust attitude and actions of Aurangzeb and questioned the ethical basis of his sovereignty. Likewise, he was opposed to the rigid Brahmanical social order supported by the Rajput Hill Chieftains who resented the Guru’s open acceptance of lower castes as devotees and followers.
Guru Gobind Singh also successfully addressed two major problems within the Sikh Panth. Sikhism had been served well by the nominated agents of the Gurus called Masands to help them stay connected to the dispersed Sangats. But overtime the Masand system became self- seeking and corrupt, undermining the Gurus at times. Guru Gobind Singh did away with this system at one stroke to be rid of the malaise. He also bolstered the Panth by a masterstroke of social engineering. He created an order of saint-soldiers: the Khalsa to be a protective shield for, both, the physical protection as well as safe custody of the Sikh identity. These measures have stood the test of time and furthered the mission of Nanak and his successors.
The eminence of Guru Gobind was not just in the spiritual and social spheres. He was an acclaimed man of letters. He was proficient in four languages: Braj, Hindustani, Punjabi and Persian. The vast body of his literary output is still extant in the opus, Dasam Granth, and other compositions. After the betrayal by Aurangzeb and the martyrdom of his four sons, the Guru’s refrain to the emperor was penned in one hundred and eleven chaste Persian verses titled the Zafarnama or ‘The Epistle of Victory’:
“Ki een marad ra zareh itibar nest
Chi qasm-e Quran ast yazdan yakest.”
(There can be no trust in a man who swears on the Quran and One God, but values not the holy oath and is false to his given word.)
The Guru was a man for the whole nation and not just the Sikhs or Punjab. Born in Patna and martyred in Nanded, Maharashtra, his luminous legacy shines on ever bright.
(Guru Gobind Singh visited Dehradun and the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai on a day after the demise of Guru Ram Rai on 4th September, 1687.)
(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun.)