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Friday 10 July 2020

Guru Gobind Singh: Warrior Saint

As we celebrate the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh or Prakash Parav, it is hard to ignore the fact that seldom has there been a hero of his stature. While his date of birth as per the Gregorian calendar varies, the believers hold it to be a saptami tithi that began this year on 4 January at 3:06 PM and ended on 5 January at 2 PM.

A man of many parts, the tenth and last Guru of the Sikh faith is someone who truly belongs to the ages. Apart from starting the Khalsa order in Sikhism, something he might be best remembered for across the world, this warrior Guru was a man of exceptional spiritual prowess as well as literary genius, something clearly evident from his writings. Guru Gobind Singh is one of those towering mammoths whose true and complete evaluation might forever elude us.

The only son of Guru Tegh Bahadur, he was born Gobind Rai Sodhi in Patna Sahib in 1666 at a time when his father, the ninth Guru of the Sikhs, was visiting Bengal and Bihar. From a tender age, it was evident that life was going to be indeed exceptional for this precocious child. It is often said that the greatest of challenges cross the path of the most brilliant of men, and it is through these challenges that their will gets forged into steel. It was definitely the case with Gobind Singh, who at the tender age of 9 was elevated to the status of the Guru of the entire Sikh faith, when his fearless father, Tegh Bahadur was put to death by the fanatic Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for steadfastly refusing to convert to Islam.

Young Gobind rose to the challenge like no one else could. It was under the banner of this charismatic young Guru that the Sikhs rallied, united against a tyrannical and extremely mighty emperor, who had infamously vowed to wipe out the last Sikh from the face of the earth. Aurangzeb failed. Regular genocides of Sikhs and Hindus did not help in achieving his ghastly target. From his first major battle against the Mughals at Bhangani in 1688, Guru Gobind Singh led the Sikh army with steely, unshakable resolve. He saw Aurangzeb’s religious fanaticism as something essentially evil, and he was clear about his own Dharma.

Over the next decades, Aurangzeb would step up his fanatical quest against the Sikhs and yet Guru Gobind Singh would continue to defy successfully the mighty Mughal. The battle of Nadaun in 1691 saw a Mughal defeat at the combined hands of Guru Gobind Singh, Bhim Chand and some other Hindu kings and chieftains. The Sikhs also tasted victory in the battle of Guler in 1696.

During the Vaisakhi festival in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh initiated the Khalsa Panth. As contemporary accounts state, he called for five volunteers, one after the other, to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Dharma. In each case, he entered a tent with the volunteer and emerged alone with a bloody sword to call for the next volunteer. In the end, he drew the curtain, revealing the five bravehearts, unharmed and beaming, and baptised them into the Khalsa. After the baptism, he in turn sought baptism by the Panj Pyare (five dear companions) and in effect became the sixth Khalsa in Sikh history. After this, Guru Gobind Singh invited all Sikhs to join the Khalsa order, with the decree that there will be no caste differentiation within the Khalsa, with the men being christened Singh, meaning ‘lion’, and the women Kaur, signifying ‘princess’. The Khalsa was also decreed to carry the five K’s, ‘kesh’ (uncut hair), ‘kangha’ (wooden comb), ‘kara’ (metal bracelet), ‘kachhera’ (undergarment) and ‘kirpan’ (sword). The starting of the Khalsa is often seen as a quintessential step in uniting the Sikhs against the marauding Mughals.

Guru Gobind Singh
A popular depiction of the martyrdom of Guru Gobind Singh’s sons [Image: DNA]
In the following year, the Sikhs under Guru Gobind Singh won a decisive victory at the First Battle of Anandpur where the Guru killed the Mughal general Painda Khan in direct combat. The Sikhs also staved off the Mughals in the following battles of Nirmohgarh and Basoli. The Second Battle of Anandpur in 1704 was a protracted one in which Aurungzeb held the city under siege. Although allowing the Guru and his family safe passage after some time, the Mughal army treacherously captured the young sons of Gobind Singh, who were later put to death in captivity.

Over the next two years, there were a few more significant battles between the Mughals and the Sikhs. The elder sons of Guru Gobind Singh died in the Battle of Chamkaur, rendering him heirless. The battle of Muktsar in 1705 was the final major battle in which the tenth Sikh Guru fought against the Mughals. In fact, the name Muktsar was given to the site of the battle by Maharaja Ranjit Singh a century later, in honour of the Sikh martyrs.

Apart from being a fierce warrior and an excellent general who fought and successfully resisted an army many times the size of his own, Guru Gobind Singh was a man of an exceptional degree of enlightenment. For all the continuous transgressions and incredible cruelty of Aurangzeb and his generals against the Sikhs in general and Guru Gobind Singh’s family in particular, the Guru was totally bereft of any personal animosity towards the Mughal emperor. A glimpse of this comes from the Zafarnama, a letter in Persian the Guru wrote to the Mughal emperor after the major battle of Muktsar. In this defiant letter the Guru unequivocally condemns Aurangzeb and his generals for their barbarism. It is replete with warnings that such wanton religious and imperialistic persecution were bound to be the death of the Mughal Empire. At the same time, despite the spiritual rebukes, the Guru praises Aurangzeb for being a charitable person and even calls him “king of kings”. Here we have a glimpse of Guru Gobind Singh’s unparalleled equanimity, showing that he is ready for reconciliation with the man who made him an orphan at 9 and was responsible for the barbaric killing of his sons.

Guru Gobind Singh outlived his archenemy Aurangzeb by a year and died in 1708 of wounds inflicted by a Mughal assassin, who was in turn killed by the Guru. Defiant till the end, his example of selflessness and heroic sacrifice continued to serve as a shining beacon for Sikhs and all those who stood up to Mughal imperialism.

The Sikhs did not elect any other human Guru after Gobind Singh, but looked to the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book, as their constant guide, in keeping with Guru Gobind Singh’s instructions. Not only for his indomitable fight against the Mughals, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs will be remembered as someone who undertook great reforms within the society, doing away with differences and uniting his people. The unassuming spiritual Master had repeatedly insisted that he himself was “not God, but His humble servant”. Centuries later, the ideals of the Khalsa also contributed a lot in inspiring people of Punjab and elsewhere in their fight against the colonial British. Guru Gobind Singh is a living symbol of the warrior saint for all posterity and one of the brightest icons in Indian and, in turn, world history.

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Sagnik Chakraborty
Sagnik Chakraborty
A writer, editor, translator and teacher of languages based in Hyderabad, he serves this portal as a contributing editor

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