There are about 27 million Sikhs living across the world today, which makes about 0.39% of the total world population, according to recent data. Approximately 83% of all Sikhs reside in India, of which, roughly 75% reside in Punjab, which is the only place in India where they form a majority. People recognize Sikhs by their external appearance, mostly. Most Sikh men wear colorful turbans & maintain a beard, kept long or at times, short & the women can be recognized by their apparel, which is mostly a simple salwar kameez. The more devout Sikhs, or the Amritdharis are more distinguishable as they stand apart from the crowd by virtue of not just the turbans & beards, but also the kirpan they proudly display, worn across the chest with the help of a broad, strap like holder or band. The Amritdhari women are hard to miss too. They cover their heads with their own version of a turban & carry the kirpaan too. But that’s what lies on the outside. What remains hidden, is the symbolism behind these physical characteristics which most modern people don’t understand & the rich history it stands for. There’s a reason why devout Sikhs won’t renounce their hair or kirpaan even for the sake of vanity.
What amazes me is, how little people know of the origin of Sikhism & the sacrifices this sect has made for protecting the weak. What saddens me is how people, suffering of their own unawareness, end up ridiculing their appearance.
Early History & Vision
Sikhism was first revealed to Dhan Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Guru of Sikhism (historically, there are a total of 10 Gurus) in the 15th century in undivided Punjab in India. It is a monotheistic belief system which propagates that God is One & that all men & women are equal in the eyes of almighty. The holy text of the Sikhs, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is considered not just God’s word, but the embodiment of the Guru himself. The final, living & eternal Guru & therefore extremely sacred. The vision in the Guru Granth Sahib is of a society based on divine justice without oppression of any kind. While it acknowledges and respects the scriptures of Hinduism and Islam, it does not imply a moral reconciliation with either of these religions.
Rise Of The Warrior Sect
Until the rise of the 10th & last Guru of the Sikh Guru lineage, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, Sikhism was never a formal religion. It was he, who formalized Sikhism in 1699 by calling for 5 men who were willing to give their heads, baptizing them to form the Order of the Khalsa, the panj piyaare, or the five pure ones.
Sikhism in the era of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji became heavily induced with the socio-political events of the time, mainly in Punjab Province. While the teachings of both Hindu & Islamic saints, poets & philosophers were respected in Sikhism, what it was in conflict with, was the Mughal empire. The law of Mughal rule dictated that people had one of two choices. Convert to Islam or die. Many prominent Sikh Gurus were killed by the Mughals for refusing to convert to Islam & for opposing the persecution of Hindus & Sikhs by the Mughal regime.
A very prominent chapter of Sikh history was beginning to unfold when Sri Guru Gobind Singh was only 9 years old. A delegation of Hindu Pundits appealed to Guru Teg Bahadar, the 9th Guru of the Sikhs & his father, for help in resisting forced conversion to Islam. Gobind Rai entered the council and asked what the meeting was about. His father explained, and the boy asked how a solution could be found. His father told him it would require the sacrifice of a great man. Gobind Rai told his father, that as a guru, he was the greatest of men.
Subsequently, Guru Teg Bahadur made arrangements to leave Anandpur, where the were residing at the time, in order to intervene on behalf of Hindus who were being forcibly converted by death threats. Guru Teg Bahadar appointed his nine-year-old son Gobind Rai to be his successor and tenth guru of the Sikhs.
Under the order of the Mughal Emporer Aurangzeb, Guru Teg Bahadar & his companions were arrested & every attrocity & form of torture known to mankind, was employed in an unsuccessful effort to coerce them into conversion. The 9th Guru attained Martyrdom, but he remained true to his faith till his last breath.
These events led to the Rise of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the formation of the order of the Khalsa as discussed earlier, who were the original Amritdharis. As a child, Guru Gobind Singh ji engaged in martial training from early childhood. He had a child-sized arsenal of weapons. Games with his playmates took the form of mock battles. After his father’s martyrdom, Guru Gobind Rai raised a guard, built a fortress, and practiced military maneuvers. A number of minor conflicts arose with local adversaries over petty jealousies of neighboring kingdoms. After founding the Khalsa order, Guru Gobind Singh fought a series of major battles attempting to protect his Sikhs and Anandpur from assault by Mughal forces. Vastly outnumbered, courageous Khalsa warriors defended their holdings to the last breath. As you can see, Sikhism militarized to oppose Mughal hegemony. The emergence of the Sikh Confederacy under the misls and Sikh Empire under reign of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh was characterized by religious tolerance and pluralism with Christians, Muslims and Hindus in positions of power. The establishment of the Sikh Empire is commonly considered the zenith of Sikhism at political level, during this time the Sikh Empire came to include Kashmir, Ladakh, and Peshawar. Hari Singh Nalwa, the Commander-in-chief of the Sikh army along the North West Frontier, took the boundary of the Sikh Empire to the very mouth of the Khyber Pass. The Empire’s secular administration integrated innovative military, economic and governmental reforms.
Sikh Contribution In The Struggle For Independance
Sikhs played a crucial role in India’s struggle for Independence from the British Raj as well. Let’s glance at the figures provided by Maulana Abul Azad, President of the Congress Party at the time of Independence.
- Out of 2646 Indians deported for life to the Andaman Islands (where the British exiled political and hardened criminals) 2147 (80%) were Sikhs.
- Out of 127 Indians sent to the gallows, 92 (80%) were Sikhs.
- At Jalliawalla Bagh out of the 1302 men, women and children slaughtered, 799 (61%) were Sikhs.
- In the Indian Liberation Army, out of the 20,000 ranks and officers, 12,000 (60%) were Sikhs.
- Out of 121 persons executed during the freedom struggle, 73 (60%) were Sikhs.
These numbers are HUGE considering not just the ratios at first glance in their own, but given the fact that they still form less than 2% of India’s total population even today. In fact they continue to serve and protect the country in the Army. The Sikh Regiment is an infantry regiment of the Indian Army that recruits from the Sikh community & is the most decorated regiment in the Indian Army.
Spirit Of Servitude
Sikh temples, or Gurudwaras double up as both places of worship as well as a refuge for the homeless, the hungry & the poor. The Harimandar Sahib, Or Golden Temple, situated in Amritsar, Punjab, is host to a 24 hr langar or communal meal without any cost to absolutely anybody who choses to eat the meal. The people serving at the Gurudwara are members of the Sikh community, who perform seva, or services out of their own free will for no charge to the Gurudwara or the people frequenting the holy shrine. There is absolutely no distinction made on the basis of caste, color, gender or social status.
The 1984 Pogrom & The Scenario Thereafter
In modern times, the spirit of servitude remains in the hearts of most Sikhs but unfortunately, history has never been kind to these brave hearts & while everyone dreamed of a better, freer future in post – independence India, this community was crippled by disastrous events like the tensions of the 1980s in the region of Punjab, the destruction of the Akal Takht (Holiest shrine of the Sikhs where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept) during Operation Blue Star in 1984 & the Anti-Sikh Pogrom that erupted across the country post the assassination of the then PM of India, Smt Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body-guards. Thousands of Sikhs lost their lives as the country suddenly became a burning pyre for the very community that so bravely protected it’s people throughout history. But the Sikhs gathered their inherent courage yet again, & against all odds, not only managed to revive their dwindled spirits, but re-established their lost homes & businesses to become a flourishing community once again.
The Drug Menace & Conclusion
Modern day Punjab, is in the shackles of an unchecked drug – menace, a by product of political corruption & an attempt to weaken one of the most courageous & enterprising communities of the country. It is time for the real lions of India to reclaim their lost glory & once again, rise to prove that it doesn’t matter who stands against them, they can outnumber the enemy not in numbers, but in the magnanimity of the spirit of Khalsa.
It is also time now, for the country to give them their dues long past & their fellow citizens to help & heal their spirits, heal Punjab & offer the respect they deserve.