COMMENT: 400 years of Guru Granth Sahib —Ishtiaq Ahmed
From a sociological point of view, we find Guru Gobind Singh to be one of the earliest leaders of peasant rebellions in South Asia. His followers began to be called sardars (chiefs) and wore a turban. Under the prevailing norms of society only the upper classes or castes could wear a turban or ride a horse. Ordinary people had to walk and go bareheaded
The Sikhs are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the compilation and installation of their holy book, the Adi Granth at Amritsar in 1604 by their fifth Guru, Arjan (1563-1606). The Adi Granth was later modified slightly to include hymns by Guru Teg Bahadur and Guru Gobind Rai, the last Guru. The later, inclusive version became known as Guru Granth Sahib. It contains, besides the works of the Sikh Gurus, writings of several Hindu and Muslim sages and holy men. Altogether there are 3,384 hymns of which nearly 1,000 are attributed to non-Sikhs. Among the Muslim saints whose contribution to the Guru Granth Sahib stands out clearly is Shaikh Farid. This way Sikhism is an eclectic rather than an exclusive creed. This breadth of vision truly captures the essence of the spiritual and humanist traditions of South Asia.
The hymns included were originally composed in several languages including Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian but have been made accessible to the Punjabi readers in the Gurmukhi script in which the Guru Granth is written. Recently it has been rendered into the Persian or ‘Shahmukhi’ script which should make it easier for people in Pakistan to read it.
The founder of Sikhism, Nanak Chand (1469-1539), was born into a Khatri family at Talwandi (now called Nankana Sahib) in the present-day Sheikhupura district, about 55 kilometres from Lahore. He was influenced by various contemporaneous reformist movements of which three need special mention.
One, the Bhakti movement that originated among Hindus in South India but found eager disciples in northern India from Islamic background such as the great Bhagat Kabir (1398-1448); two, the Sant tradition of wandering sages that was prevalent in north India; and three, Sufi Islam. Guru Nanak, as he came to be known, stressed the worship of one God and the brotherhood and equality of man. Sikhism accepted the system of rebirth or transmigration of the soul but not the idea of gods taking human form.
Nanak ran into trouble many times for chiding the Muslim and Hindu religious and political establishments for their corrupt ways. However, he never preached violence. He advised his disciples to actively participate in practical life with a view to achieving salvation through hard work and piety rather than by hermetic withdrawal and solitary meditation. To provide a practical example of collective welfare, Nanak founded a system of free community kitchens (Langar). He was able to persuade his followers who came largely, though not exclusively, from Hindu ranks to eat together and thus reject untouchability. Among his disciples was the Muslim musician Bhai Mardana who accompanied him wherever he went, but never felt compelled to change his religion.
Before his death, Guru Nanak nominated one of his trusted disciples, Angad (1504-52), as his successor. This was resented by some of his followers who instead proclaimed Nanak’s eldest son, Sri Chand, as their guru and founded the Udasi sect. The succession of most of the later Gurus was also challenged by contenders and pretenders. The Gurus claimed neither to be the incarnation of God, as was the case of Hindu gods, nor prophets receiving direct revelation from God as in the Islamic tradition. They made the modest claim of being spiritual guides who were not to be worshipped or considered infallible. However, their followers gradually hallowed much of their spoken words and deeds, thus creating a Sikh dogma and orthodoxy.
Sikhism made headway largely among the agricultural and artisan castes of Punjab. Among them, the Jats were the most numerous and became the backbone of the Sikh movement. It remained a peaceful reformist sect during the time of the first four Gurus. The Emperor Akbar was impressed by the learning of Guru Arjun and honoured him with expensive presents and grants in land and revenue. But the rise of Sikh power in north western India was looked upon with concern by the later Mughul emperors who ordered military action against the succeeding Sikh Gurus.
The tenth and last Guru of orthodox Sikhs, Gobind Rai (1666-1708), abandoned the conciliatory policy which had characterised the attitude of his predecessors. He maintained a well-trained and disciplined army. In 1699, Gobind Rai summoned his followers to Anandpur in northern Punjab. At this gathering he decided to organise the Sikhs along distinctive lines and instituted the system of baptism. Five men, a Brahmin, a Khatri and three men from the lower castes were chosen to drink Amrit (nectar) out of one bowl to signify their initiation into the fraternity of the Khalsa (literally, the pure). They were given one family name: Singh, which means a lion. Further, five emblems were introduced: hair and the beard were to be worn unshorn all the time (kes); a comb was to be carried (kangha); knee-length pair of breaches were to be worn all the time (kach); a steel bracelet was to be worn on the right hand (kara); and a sabre was to be carried all the time (kirpan). Gobind Singh declared that there was to be no other Guru after him. The Granth Sahib was to be the ever-present Guru from where the Sikhs were to seek guidance.
From a sociological point of view, we find Guru Gobind Singh to be one of the earliest leaders of peasant rebellions in South Asia. His followers began to be called sardars (chiefs) and wore a turban. Under the prevailing norms of society only the upper classes or castes could wear a turban or ride a horse. Ordinary people had to walk and go bareheaded.
Unfortunately Sikhism did not succeed in eliminating caste prejudices. Most Jat Sikhs look down upon the inferior castes and the former untouchable ranks, known as Mazhabi Sikhs. Still the egalitarian message of Sikhism is undeniable. A visit to East Punjab can easily confirm that.
Perhaps the most outstanding contribution of the Sikh movement to the service of humanity has been the daily free and open kitchen that serves all irrespective of caste and religious considerations. Nobody needs to starve in East Punjab no matter what the circumstances. All Punjabis can be proud of the welfare idea Guru Nanak gave the world.
The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se