A world was waiting to be born.
“Kartarpur” (City of Creator) and “Begampura” (City without Sorrow) are the Guru‘s (the perfection) vision of purposeful living, as articulated in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptural canon. They are described as achievable utopias. In the spiritual domain of these places, the incessant Divine presence for lasting peace is felt by all who visit, such that travelers become not only citizens, but friends. The political state is stable because of steady government—a system of leadership which is only possible when no citizen is deemed second or third class, but rather enjoys equal status with no suffering or fear. The economic arena of this state is excellent and famous for levying no unfair taxes. Consequently, all of the residents are wealthy and content. This is the vision each Sikh is to first, make an integral part her awareness, and then forge such a connection with these ideals as to realize them as realities for universal good, beyond borders and beliefs.
And all this has already happened before, in 1710. The Khalsa Raj, or Republic, was successfully established by Gurbaksh Singh, lovingly remembered by the Sikhs as Banda Singh Bahadur. Banda for he chose to become the Guru‘s disciple; Singh for he formally gave allegiance to the Guru; and Bahadur for being a fierce warrior of the Guru.
Over the course of a lifetime, a person inevitably changes several times, embracing one newly discovered fad, and then falling over herself in pursuit of another that speaks more freshly to her. There is no mistake that Banda was seeking too. His was a life defined by two extreme identities by the age of 38, when he met Guru Gobind Singh Sahib in September 1708. Before that fateful meeting, his allegiance had been to Vaishnavite and Shavite traditions. He was a natural fighter and hunter, known as Lachman Dev. He had studied religious texts, spirituality, and Tantra. His journey contained a career as a Rajput warrior but also as an ascetic called Madho Das Bairagi, after he was turned from hunting by the immense pain of killing a doe which delivered two dead fawn.
Recently, I was volunteering for Panjab Digital Library working on their exhibition on the Khalsa Raj. One late night I said to my friend, Davinder Pal Singh, “I‘m getting old, I‘m too tired today, I will work on it tomorrow.”‖ Davinder Pal‘s immediate reply: “You know Banda was 38 when he started his Sikh journey.”‖This gave me great pause, as I thought, “How lousy of me! I have been repeating Guru Amardas Sahib‘s beautful rendition every morning: O my body what you have done since you came into this world? And still I am allowing my smaller agendas to weigh me down! I must recreate the entire structure of what I consider to be my purpose!”
By way of this example, and in the light of those deeds and words which continue to define Banda Singh Bahadur, I posit that Sikhs are wasting their energies today on quotidian squabbles over what to eat and what to read. Why are we translating our personal preferences into religious laws? Perhaps, we are in trouble because our Remembrance and Identification with the Divine (nam-simran) is reduced to a mere ritualistic discipline, when the Divine should instead be a source of great inspiration and strength in working toward realizing an open and inclusive society! We should all ask ourselves today, this minute: Has the Guru really entered my life? Has the Guru penetrated my being at the level of my deep thoughts and feelings, not merely the routine of my day?
But let us turn back to Banda, in exploring these questions. We know that he was already several decades into his journey when the Guru entered his life and he became Guru‘s Banda (disciple). The inspiration of Banda Singh Bahadur can be understood, as Gurbani (infinite wisdom) says, “Fortunate is the one who discovers the path.” The Guru blessed Banda and proscribed his role: He would establish Sikh sovereignty and uproot tyranny; through bravery in war and careful planning, he would establish the government which has come to define Raj Karega Khalsa (the Khalsa shall rule). And so, Banda, was hand-picked by Guru Gobind Singh along with a council of five Sikhs for a very clear mission to Panjab.
Banda understood what a Sikh does is in constant continuation of the Guru‘s mission, not his own. Hence, the expression “Coin struck in both the worlds by the guarantee of Guru Nanak‘s Sword–By the grace of sovereign Master, victory to Guru Gobind Singh, the King of kings.”‖ Banda‘s ideological sharpness and clarity is amazing: Guru Nanak passed the sword-wisdom to Guru Angad and commenced the Sikh doctrine of double sovereignty, spiritual and political. So, the very question of whether Sikhs ought to be politically active is really moot. We can look in this light at today‘s discussion on the kirpan’s (sword) relevance, and see it is being facilitated by either ignorance of Sikhi, or with intent to make Sikhs impotent. Have we understood how kirpan is to be used gracefully to protect someone‘s honor as the last resort?
In so many of his accomplishments, the greatest asset Banda had was his faith in the Guru. An arduous and punishing journey of some 2,500 km., he attempted with no training, no weapons, no army–only submission to the Guru. Yet, in 20 months, Banda Singh Bahadur captured Sarhind and established the Khalsa Raj! Reflect on this, and now ask: After 26 years, is protest the only venue for what happened in1984? Should we be content to sit and await a leader with a ―background‖? Is the Sikh submission becoming merely an act of ceremony, losing sight of the doctrine of Love and Justice which is a call to action?
With this question, perhaps we can turn to history for inspiration in action when we ask: Who was it that fought with Banda to defeat the Mughals? And what did they bring to fight such a formidable power with?
The majority were Sikhs and tillers of the soil. A small number were mercenaries and looters who joined to take advantage of the situation. (Again, we jump to more contemporary times and see that something very similar happened from 1984-1993. Déjà vu!) These soldiers brought to the fight one thousand swords, 217 small swords, 114 daggers, 278 shields, 173 bows, and 180 rifles, in addition to sickles, spading forks, shovels and axes. Yes, these are the weapons that were confiscated in Gurdas Nangal. This means that the largest dynasty in South Asia at the time was confronted with remedial weaponry, with what was at hand. It was the battle of ideas fought with spirit. Recall the battle of Amritsar in June 1984!
To that effect, there is no excuse for the silent spectator in contemporary battles! You and I need to start participating, for in light of such resilience and improvised strength, how can we cite lack of resources or people as excuses in not pursuing the Sikh agenda?
Where are the Guru‘s bande (Sikhs) today to uphold what‘s embossed on the seal of the Khalsa Raj: “The cauldron to feed, sword to defend and the resultant victory have been achieved with the unrestrained help received from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh”? Are we really working to feed the hungry? Or providing simply more trimmings to those who are already partaking in excess? Are we using our resources to give voice to the voiceless, or merely altering our values to align with the established? Let us go beyond the training ground of the Gurduara (place of learning) where we learn to invoke the spirit of victory!
In terms of rights and freedoms granted to the people, the Khalsa Raj was ground-breaking. Banda broke down 700 years of slavery and the myth of foreign power. His reforms were truly remarkable; making changes and according freedoms unknown in the western world in the early seventeenth century. Most historians credit Banda with land reformation, for he abolished zamindari and redistributed land equitably among the tillers. His was a land revolution where the old model of revenue was reversed. Formerly structured as one part to the tiller and three parts to the government, Banda created a system that accorded three parts to the tiller and one part to the government. These land rights were meant to be blue-prints for today, but we must ask ourselves what happened to this system in today‘s Panjab?
And as a general, Banda showed such honesty and integrity as to be an example to leaders everywhere today. Recall Banda‘s response to Muhammand Amin Khan, as he took graceful responsibility for excesses and wrongs which were committed during his military campaigns by a few mercenaries and looters. Banda invoked the Divine Law, rather than revenge as the motive for his movement against the Mughals. In fact, in the Khalsa Raj, vengeance had no place: No Dargah (Muslim sacred places) in
Sadhaura and Sarhind were demolished upon their capture. This is true despite the fact that leaders of these same cities were responsible for decisions which resulted in the imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom of several Guru Sahibs and their Sikhs. Religious tolerance and acceptance was the rule of the Banda‘s day, which sadly seems all too foreign in today‘s post-9/11 realities. Consider as a case in point that New York, and several other American cities, are barring the construction of Mosques out of fear of Muslim extremists.
Banda‘s journey as a Sikh clarifies the doctrine of “here and now”. For his deeds were that of a mortal, legendary accomplishments—not fascination or magic. Over the course of seven stormy years (1709-1716), Banda‘s expedition encompassed his first meeting with the Guru, to his capturing Sarhind, to the embrace of his own death as a final, poignant act of total submission. Banda‘s journey is the best model available of how, despite imperfection, by becoming Guru-oriented, one can achieve excellence against formidable powers and unlikely odds. Over 700 Sikhs under the leadership of Banda embraced death over desertion or disloyalty. This is a testimony to his values and charisma.
For, although there is much about Banda‘s legacy to praise, we see that his deeds have not always been canonized positively. Such is the risk of any individual who takes a courageous stand against power. The stories will spin out of control, rumors will grow in the shadow of truth, and the leader risks corporeal and character assassination to the fullest. Sikhs must understand and evaluate their leaders on the basis of Sikh doctrine, not the propaganda war that plays with the public mind, to borrow Noam Chomsky‘s words. These sorts of campaigns to smear the public recollection are not new. They happened to the “General”‖ in early eighteenth century and the “Jarnail” in late twentieth century. Their total devotion to the Guru‘s mission was reason enough for the state at the time to put its mighty machinery into motion to attempt to destroy them.
The Raison d’être for Sikhs is to fight the religious and political domination. That is what the Ten Nanaks actively pursued, so too the inspired Sikhs of the Guru, including Banda! He prepared the coming generations of the Sikhs for worse future conflicts: Sikhs warring with Afghans, Iranians, and the Mughal Empire to safeguard South Asians; dark times when murders of Sikhs in the thousands were legally sanctified. Even multiple desecrations of Darbar Sahib didn‘t deter Sikhs, who drew on the inspiration of Banda to continue challenging the state in a highly mobile guerilla bands. Ratan Singh Bhangu captures this attitude quite aptly: “They are not subservient to anyone; they are either purely sovereign or in a state of rebellion.” In these acts of great bravery and commitment, political power was captured by courageous Sikhs for the common people, not for any one single clan or a tribe. Thus, the Guru‘s pluralistic vision of the society was, and shall again be realized by conferring equal political, economic, social, and civil rights of the people.
Which brings us back to the tasks of today, in light of the inspiration of this great historical figure—the true tercentennial commemoration of Banda Singh Bahadur‘s establishment of the Khalsa Raj is possible if the Sikhs actively pursue the following course: Firstly, remain focused on the Sikh vision of ‘Begampura‘ by filtering out the noises of divisiveness. Then, adopt zero tolerance for racist and sexist behavior in all spheres of participation and influence, be it in the home, the school, the gurduara, or the workplace. Finally, Sikhs must stand up with strength and grace for those under-represented issues and peoples that include, but are not limited to, eradicating poverty, alleviating conflicts—be they driven by ethnicity, religious persecution, or gender discrimination—ensuring human rights, protecting the environment, and the championing rights and concerns of immigrants everywhere.
Thus, in the final analysis and synthesis, only one question remains: Are you ready to be Guru’s Banda?
Harinder Singh is the co-founder and Chief Programming Officer of the Sikh Research Institute. He assisted in developing and reviewing the Sojhi curriculum published by SikhRI. He is an interdisciplinary researcher and a global orator. His passion is to learn and share the Sikh culture.