I DIVERSE ROOTS OF SIKHI
For many Sikhs today, there is little difference between being Punjabi and being Sikh. But this was not always the case. Sikhi has a rich and vibrant history outside of the Land of the Five Rivers and it is a legacy the Panth is only beginning to take notice of. In fact, four of the five Punj Piarey — the Five ‘Beloved Ones’ of the First Vaisakhi Day — were from outside of Punjab.
Guru Nanak’s Udasis — journeys — are the foundational stories of Sikhi and it was during those epic travels that Guru Sahib first spread his message. But why did He spend 30 years of his life on such difficult and far-flung journeys?
The answer comes in his own bani. In Siddh Gosht, Guru Nanak records a dialogue between himself and the yogis at the top of Mount Kailash. They ask him the reason for his traveling and Guru Sahib replies: Searching for gurmukhs is why I became a traveler. [GGS:939]
Guru Nanak’s primary purpose in traveling over much of Eurasia was to find other spiritual- seekers with whom he could share hisexperience of the Divine.
Was Guru Nanak a missionary then? Not in the traditional sense since he sought to create relationships based not on hierarchy, but mutual love and respect. He didn’t teach with anger or arrogance but instead used dialogue, humour and seva to create connections. Humility was the foundation of His teaching method. As Bhai Gurdas tells us, developing a mindset of humility was one Guru Nanak’s first tasks. First of all Baba Nanak obtained the grace of Waheguru and then underwent rigorous discipline. He fed himself with sand and made stones his bedding (he learned humility). [Vaar 1:24]
It was through these relationships that Guru Nanak was able to cultivate in others a relationship with Waheguru. He wasn’t seeking converts but instead was looking for, as he puts it, fellow gurmukhs; those who were oriented towards the Formless One.
Due primarily to the voyages of Guru Nanak, but also the impact of the travels of Guru Amardas, Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Harkrishan, Guru Tegh Bahadar and Guru Gobind Singh, the spread of Sikhi was not restricted to Punjab but instead extended across South Asia and beyond.
Before long, there were Sikh communities flourishing from Kabul to Burma, from Tibet to Sri Lanka, during the Guru period.
One such community was of the Sikligar Sikhs.
II THE SIKLIGAR SIKHS
The history of Sikligar Sikhs is difficult to ascertain as there has been almost no scholarly research done on them and they are barely mentioned in historical records. They most likely originate from the Marwar region in Rajasthan, though some claim their origin in Hazur Sahib in Nanded, Maharashtra. Today they live across India, with significant populations in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.
In their pre-Sikh period, Sikligars were most likely a clan of metal workers. They were granted the title of Sikligar, which means ‘Polisher of Weapons’ in Persian, by Guru Gobind Singh himself.
Weapons were central to the development of Sikhi; they allowed our nation to exert our sovereignty, protect our path and defend the rights of others. Thus, Sikligars Sikhs played a central, if largely forgotten now, role in Sikh history.
Based on their own oral tradition, the Sikligars joined the Sikh nation either during the time of Guru Hargobind or Guru Gobind Singh. They may have encountered Guru Hargobind on his return from Gwalior or met Guru Gobind Singh on his travels to the South in the latter part of his life.
Some contemporary theories suggest that they may have joined the Panth earlier, during the time of Guru Nanak. This is not an unreasonable suggestion as evidence of small groups of adherents who revered Guru Nanak can still be found all over South Asia and beyond.
It is difficult to determine how many Sikligar Sikhs there are, and estimates range wildly. What is clear though is that they now almost all live in abject poverty. Since the time of British colonization they have been marginalized and outcast. With the end of Khalsa Raj, the British worked to destroy the sovereign spirit of the Sikh nation. Weapon-makers of the Panth were naturally cast off and actively discriminated against.
After India’s ‘independence’ in 1947, Sikligars were labeled, without any basis, as a ‘criminal caste’ by the Indian state. This would prove to be incredibly damaging to the community and created a legacy of prejudice as well as abuse and neglect from police and governmental authorities.
Though Sikligars were largely forgotten by the Khalsa Panth over the last century and a half, they have shared in our Nation’s collective history and trauma. In 1984 Sikligar Sikhs were targeted and suffered terribly at the hands of government sponsored pogroms.
Like tens of thousands of other Sikhs across India, Sikligar Sikhs too were brutalized and killed and their property was stolen or destroyed. We may have forgotten about them, but the enemies of the Panth did not.
Though historically the Sikligars made weapons for the Khalsa Panth, today many are engaged in small scale metalwork; making keys, welding and tool repair. They are marginalized; living on the edges of towns and cities. They are desperately poor, generally illiterate and lacking basic social services.
Part III TOWARDS A DIVERSE PANTH
Paradoxically, though we often talk about Sikhi’s universal appeal, we have allowed ourselves to become dominated by one ethnic group. Sikhs have a rich cultural heritage from across South and Central Asia that we have largely lost and forgotten. As we strive to engage the wider world, a basic first step may be to try and help those non-Punjabi Sikhs who are in need of support.
Beyond Sikligars, there are also Vanjara Sikhs, Satnamis, Nanakpanthis, Afghani Sikh refugees and other small pockets of followers of Guru Nanak across the subcontinent. There is also the need for integral work of destroying caste boundaries and building bridges with Sikhs in Punjab who have traditionally been considered ‘low-caste’. These Sikhs have been discriminated against for centuries and the last several decades in ‘independent’ India have seen an intensifying of caste-based persecution.
Guru Nanak instilled in Sikhs the desire to make the world a more just and equitable place. But we also have an obligation to care for our own family. Through a concerted and organized effort, it may be possible to make a real difference in the lives of our long forgotten sisters and brothers.
Development work is difficult and recent research suggests that much of the money poured into developing countries over the last fifty years has not led to significant beneficial changes in the lives of those who need the most help.
What does this mean for our community as the cause of Sikligar Sikhs grows increasingly more popular and we see many different organizations raising money in their support?
Perhaps that we need to remember the methodology of Guru Nanak.
He didn’t go out into the world to save people, but instead inspired them to realize their full potential. By entering into a dialogue based on genuine respect we can support Sikligar Sikhs, be it financially or with people on the ground, to develop the capacity, knowledge and skill that will allow them to transform their own lives.
There are NGO’s today who are working with Sikligar Sikhs to help build grassroots solutions, like ‘A Little Happiness Foundation’ (http://alittlehappiness.org/ ). Let us, as a community, support them in this incredibly challenging and, for our nation, integral work.
And while we work to help others, let us also develop ourselves and strive to become gurmukhs so that we too, like Guru Nanak five hundred years ago, can build relationships with others who have fallen in love with the Beloved Divine.
[The author, Santbir Singh, is the eLearning Program Manager for the Sikh Research Institute. He currently resides in Toronto with his wife and two children.]
[Note: Much of the information on Sikligars in this piece comes from a very informative article by Jagmohan Singh titled “On the Forgotten Sikhs Trail“. It appeared in the book, “Sikhs Living in States Other Than Punjab“, published by the Institute of Sikh Studies in 2010.]