Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition

Article excerpt

In the early days of my life I heard much about Shahid Bhagat Singh and Baba Dip Singh in dhadhi gatherings. Wherever there were such gatherings I used to attend. I've always listened to [dhadhi] songs. Listening to them gave me a lot of strength. Listening to our people's history is important to us.(1)

In 1739 Nadir Shah, the emperor of Persia, was returning to Iran after having sacked Delhi. According to Rattan Singh Bhangu's mid-nineteenth-century Gur-panth Prakas (The History of the Guru's Community), the shah, during his brief stop in Punjab, was greatly annoyed at the losses Punjabi highwaymen were inflicting upon his booty-laden baggage trains. Incensed at their audacity, the shah asked Zakariya Khan, the governor of Lahore, to describe the perpetrators of these dating raids. The governor's answer, according to Bhangu, noted the endurance and rare courage of these bandits; their ability to bear all the punishment he could muster and yet, in spite of this, continue to increase in number; and their extraordinary altruism, despite such hardship. He closed with the following enthusiastic statement:

ek hoi tam sau sau laraim(2) marane te vai mul na daraim rahai chau un maran ko din mazhab kai bhai ham marat ul thak gae ui ghatat na kitahum dai(3)

One [of them] battles like a hundred warriors. Death is something of which they are not afraid. Their [fondest] desire remains to die for their faith. We are tired of killing them, but their numbers do not decrease.

It is the Sikhs about whom the khan is speaking. And although this exchange appears in an account with a proSikh bias, Zakariya Khan's opinion regarding the character of the adherents of gurmat (the Guru's teaching), especially their contempt for death, is a generalization we also find in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Persian manuscripts - albeit with a strong pro-Muslim bias(4) - and early European accounts dealing with the Sikhs. Meeting with Sikhs for the first time in 1805, for example, John Malcolm quotes from a "contemporary Muhammedan author":

. . . the Sikh horsemen were seen riding, at full gallop, towards "their favourite shrine of devotion. They were often slain in making this attempt, and sometimes taken prisoners; but they used, on such occasions, to seek, instead of avoiding, the crown of martyrdom:["] and the same authority states, ["]that an instance was never known of a Sikh, taken in his way to Amritsar, consenting to abjure his faith."(5)

Of course, the Sikhs to whom Malcolm alludes are those of the khalsa (pure) variety. It is well known that Sikh warriors of the eighteenth century often chose a Khalsa identity, and it was principally as soldiers that our Persian and British authors encountered these disciples of the Guru.(6) Yet despite this fact most Sikhs today would consider such descriptions of eighteenth-century Sikhs in general accurate - and which, moreover, they would extend to contemporary Sikhs. The specific characteristic with which we are concerned is both Bhangu's and Malcolm's emphasis upon the Sikh desire to don "the crown of martyrdom."

To many contemporary Khalsa and non-Khalsa (or sahaj-dhari) Sikhs the Sikh sahid or martyr is a highly revered figure, an unambiguous exemplar of virtue, truth, and moral justification. Sikh sahids give their lives in upholding righteousness (dharam) under the most painful and chilling circumstances, providing testimony (sahadat) to their faith with their blood. As with Christian and Muslim "witnesses to the truth" the unsought-for reward Sikh martyrs receive for such stalwart and courageous behavior in the face of torture and imminent death is liberation from the cycle of existence, union with God (Akal Purakh, "The One Beyond Time"). Sahids thus become the ideal Sikh athletes of piety, offering a glorious example of resistance to tyrannical authority, while paying the ultimate price for their powerful commitment to the Sikh faith, its doctrines, symbols, and Gurus. …

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