As a woman in my mid-forties, I often find myself thinking of my childhood as a long gone, distant past.
Having grown up in a predominantly Punjabi populated town in England, it seemed like a microcosm of Punjab. When out in public, I would scurry from one location to another, no meandering or lingering, head down, and eyes averted from the panoptic glare of prying eyes.
When speaking to young Sikh women in the Diaspora today I am confounded that they still experience the micro-aggressions of inaccessibility to public spaces. I am even more perplexed when the public space they are most discouraged from inhabiting is that of the Gurdwara.
Sikh women continue to not share equally in the public practice of Sikhi, they do get to lead the ardaas, in the presence of the sangat a Sikh woman rarely reads the hukamnama, and panthic seva is frequently seen as the domain of only the males.
It was in the light of such discouragement that I was completely bowled over when a scholar friend showed me a fascinatingsakhi, a teaching, centered around a Mai from Kabul, its sangat and Guru Amar Das, the Third Master.
A mai; — pronounced ‘maa-ee’ — (can be translated as ‘woman‘, but that implies an older woman; here I use the term as ’mother’.)
The Mai from Kabul was engaged in the daily seva of working on the construction of the staircase leading to the sarovar at Goindwal Sahib. Each day, as night descended, she would disappear, arousing the curiosity of the sangat.
While engaged in her seva she would extend her hand as if she was rocking a cradle, but there was no cradle to be seen. This repeated for many days until one day the sangat gathered and approached Guru Amar Das Sahib with their concern about her nightly disappearances.
Guru Sahib’s response was to describe in detail the Mai’s devotion to the Divine, her elevated spirituality, and that her nightly absences were due to her return to her family, most notable her baby, in Kabul.
This sakhi is replete with transformative potentialities. A woman is present in the very public space of a major building project, she is present without her family or any chaperone, and she is unknown to the sangat present. Her presence as a sevadaar (one who is engaged in devotional community service) is not questioned nor is it a cause for concern.
This young woman (we can assume she is young since she has an infant baby) is defying all acceptable behavior, even in terms of today’s social norms; she leaves behind a baby in order to do volunteer work!
It is rather her absences during the night that come under scrutiny.
A literal interpretation of this narrative would indicate that the Mai from Kabul teleports herself each night back to Kabul, the capital of modern-day Afghanistan, which is over 800 miles away from Goindwal Sahib. [The saakhi is set in the 16th century.]
In describing the Mai’s nightly disappearances, the Guru not only presents her as possessing the highest form of spirituality but also bestows her with superhuman powers and affirms her social respectability — she is an honorable servant of the Divine.
This narrative also addresses a quandary that women the world over face. It explicitly states that being a working mother and a panthic sevadaar are mutually inclusive. Being not merely in love with the Divine and one’s family, but also engaged in that love through active community seva, is the Sikh way.
Written by Surup Das Bhalla, this sakhi is from Mahima Parkash. Completed in 1776, Sarup Das states his own sources being the janamsakhis and information relayed through the oral tradition to the various scribes via relatives of the Guru and prominent and knowledgeable members of the community.
There is evidence that this narrative has historic origin. There are mentions of the ”Mai from Kabul” in an inscription at Gurdwārā Havelī Sāhib at Goindwal. In addition, her name appears in an early manuscript of Mahima Parkash. The narrative perhaps is derived from the oral tradition and may have gathered embellishment over time.
More importantly, such narratives reflect the nature of storytelling circulating in the late 18th century Punjab, the period of the authorship of this text and the Sikh ascendency.
Typically story-telling was designed to carry meaning and have a didactic nature. It would be interesting to explore whether such stories merely reflect, or were they also instrumental in changing, the prevailing cultural attitudes.
Too often patriarchy is seen as being primordial, the biological order of things, unchanging throughout the ages. However, this narrative demonstrates that social norms within the Sikh community have been changing.
Further exploration into history would perhaps connect us to a past that appears quite foreign to us today: one where the equal presence of Sikh women in the public sphere was the norm, where perhaps the prestige with which Sikh women were held meant that practices such as female infanticide, domestic violence and sexual violence were unheard of.
As we continue to celebrate International Women’s Day let’s celebrate today’s Mai’s from Kabul … who may be mothers, might one day become mothers, or may decide not to be mothers at all:
• Human rights lawyers, such as Jaskaran Kaur, Mallika Kaur and Palbinder Kaur Shergill
• Social Workers, such as Prakash Kaur and Dr Inderjit Kaur
• Ecowarriors such as Bandana Kaur
• Sikh studies scholars Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Pawan Deep Kaur Rehill, Tavleen Kaur, Bindy Kaur Kang and Preet Kaur Virdi;
• Equity officer Harpreet Kaur Neelam
• Sikh artists Anoop Kaur and the Singh Twins
• Human rights activists such as Parmjit Kaur, Navikran Kaur, Kirpa Kaur,
Thankfully, these lists are endless.
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TRANSLATION OF THE VERSES FROM MAHIMA PARKASH
A mother, who during the day worked on the construction of Baoli Sahib, and returned to her own home each night.
A mother who lived in Kabul was a Sikh of the SatGuru During the day she constructed the staircase of the Baoli, at night she completely disappeared and was nowhere to be seen.
A mother who worked with love on constructing the staircase, she served every day. But as night would fall she would disappear, no one knew where she went or where she was hidden. Everyday she did this work with devotion, in everyone’s mind there was worry, Entwined in devotional love, she served, with internally focused, mindful concentration. The SatGuru’s form imprinted on her mind, she served keeping one hand extended, As if pushing a swing, she would continuously move her hand.
On seeing this everyone would meet to remark upon it, no one could understand. For many days this continued in this way, and in this way everyone’s mind was pre-occupied.
One day all of the Sikhs went to speak to the Guru. And said there is a Sikh woman who does seva during the day and then disappears each night.
O SatGuru, there is a woman, who disappears every night, where does she go? She swings her hand pushing a cradle, but the cradle cannot be seen, it is confounding. Dear benevolent one, bless us with knowledge and eliminate the doubts in all of our minds.
Then the benevolent Guru said: “She is an honorable servant and spiritual thinker of the highest level. Through her husband she understands the Divine, she has enshrined my Sikh in her heart. With the Sikh in her mind she is engrossed in my devotion, this woman spreads out the Guru’s praise. Her heart is imprinted with my form, through this devotion all her desires are spent. Through the way of love she earns this service, as night descends she returns home to Kabul.
She is a great seer and she goes wherever she pleases, Putting her child into a cradle, she came here to serve.
Whenever she extends her hand like this, she is moving her son’s cradle. Here she looks after her son. Going back home she takes care of her husband and son. She is a great devotee and there is no difference between her and myself. Through her husband she has come to know the Divine. With her husband she understand devotional love. They recognize me as the Guru Divine. That is how greatest state is acquired. So Divine devotion can be earned within family life. There is no greater devotee than her. She is focused in devotion to the Guru.
Hearing this, the Guru’s Sikhs became ecstatic. And their minds immersed in the greatness of the Guru. The benevolent Guru is the giver of all. And as the Guru does so it pleases all.
Those who have love for the Guru, what can be said in their praise? Nothing is far for those who have placed the Guru’s image in their heart.
Teaching complete. Utter ‘Waheguru’. Showing its benevolent nature, the Divine takes one across.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Pawan Deep Kaur Rehill (University of California – Santa Barbara) for bringing this saakhi to my attention, Harpreet Singh (Harvard) and Surinder Pal Singh (Sikh Research Institute) for assisting with the translation.
[Tarnjit Kaur is a researcher at The Sikh Research Institute.]