8. Are Sikhs
8.1. The problem of Sikh identity
In most of the
contemporary literature, Sikhism is treated as a separate religion.
The questioning of this separateness by Hindus is usually only mentioned
in scornful tones, as a sign of “Hindu fundamentalist” sympathies.
Most non-specialist Western sources implicitly support Sikh separatism,
at least the religious, non-territorial variety. Thus, the cover
story on India in the non-political American monthly National Geographic
carries a picture of a typical-looking Sikh before the Hari Mandir in Amritsar,
with the caption: “The Golden Temple in Amritsar serves as the spiritual
centre for the world’s 20 million Sikhs. ‘From
Hindus and Muslims have I broken free’, said Arjan Dev Ji, the fifth Sikh
guru, in the 1590s. The faith holds all people equal in the eyes
of God.”1 Of these three sentences, two are
statements of support to Sikh separatism, and both are open to criticism.
The last sentence
highlights equality, obviously contrasting it with the “Hindu” caste system.
However, the now-popular claim that Sikhism is caste-free and that this
sets it apart from Hinduism (on the assumption that caste is intrinsic
to Hinduism), is simply untrue. Every Hindu knows that Sikhs have
not ceased practising caste, but for an authoritative refutation, we may
turn to a historian who scrutinized the record of Sikhism: “The acknowledgement
of caste identities was presumably acceptable to the Gurus, for the Gurus
themselves married their own children according to traditional caste prescriptions. The
anti-caste thrust of the Gurus’ teachings must be seen as a doctrine which
referred to spiritual deliverance and (…) a firm rejection of injustice
or hurtful discrimination based on caste status. What is not implied
is a total obliteration of caste identity.”2
Till today, Sikhs
marry with Hindus of the same caste, while they still avoid marriage with
Sikhs of different castes. Likewise, Sikh politics is largely divided
along caste lines, e.g. the Akali movement is one of Jat Sikhs, shunned
by low-caste Sikhs (who are called Mazhabi Sikhs, that is, Sikhs by religion
alone, e.g. former Congress minister Buta Singh) and by the higher Khatri
and Arora castes to which the Gurus belonged.
second sentence in the National Geographic caption, Guru Arjun’s
statement, is superficially a crystal-clear expression of Sikh separateness.3
Yet, it is not as straightforward as separatists might wish. No Sikh
Guru was ever a Muslim, ergo the half-sentence: “Of Muslims have I broken
free”, does not mean that he abandoned Islam. Therefore, the other
half need not be construed as a repudiation of Hinduism either. Rather,
it may be read as repudiating the whole “identity” business including the
division of mankind into Hindu and Muslim categories, on the Upanishadic
ground that the Self is beyond these superficial trappings (the Self being
neti neti, “not this, not that”)-but that is a typically Hindu and
decidedly un-Islamic position. To the Quran, group identity (being
a member of the Muslim ummah or not) is everything, is laden with
far-reaching consequences including an eternity in heaven or in hell.
To Hindu society, it is also undeniably important; but to Hindu spirituality,
it is not. Likewise, another verse of the same poem, “I will not
pray to idols nor say the Muslim prayer”, is more anti-Islamic than anti-Hindu:
it rejects a duty binding every single Muslim (prayer) and a practice common
among Hindus (idol-worship) but by no means obligatory.
is enough of a prima facie case that Sikhism is a Hindu sect pure
and simple. And effectively, some Sikhs do claim that they are Hindus.4
Of course, the Hindutva movement holds the same view: the Sikhs are just
one of the sects constituting the Hindu Commonwealth. Or no, not
“just” one: they are the “sword-arm” of Hinduism. The
Sikh Gurus Tegh Bahadur, beheaded by Aurangzeb in 1675 for refusing to
convert, and his son Govind Singh, who founded the military Khalsa order
and whose four sons were killed by the Moghul troops, are very popular
in Hindutva glorifications of “national heroes”.5 Their
pictures are routinely displayed at functions of the RSS and its affiliates,
and their holidays celebrated, e.g.: “Over 650 branches of Bharat Vikas
Parishad observe Guru Tegh Bahadur Martyrdom Day”.6
The Hindu identity
of the Sikhs which Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar simply assumed, Ram
Swarup and Arun Shourie have also tried to demonstrate, and we will consider
their argument here, juxtaposed with some observations by other Hindu Revivalists
and with the arguments given by the famous Sikh author Khushwant Singh,
who sometimes defends and sometimes dismisses the claims of Sikh separateness.
8.2. Are Sikhs Muslims?
If we accept the
historical definition of “Hindu” given by the Muslims, there is
simply no doubt about it: all Sikhs fall under the heading “Indian Pagans”,
for they are neither Muslims nor Christians, Jews or Parsis. So,
Sikhs are Hindus. Unless…
Unless Sikhs are
some kind of Muslims. Ram Swarup starts his survey of the genesis
of Sikh separatism with the discovery that T.P. Hughes’ Dictionary of
Islam, written in the British-Indian colonial context, devotes the
third-longest of its articles (after Muhammad and Qur’ân)
to the lemma Sikhism. According to Ram Swarup,
“it must be a strange sect of Islam where the word ‘Mohammed’ does not
occur even once in the writings of its founder, Nanak.”7
Nor did later Gurus include the praise of Mohammed in the Guru Granth.
admits at the outset that the readers may be surprised to find Sikhism
treated as a sect of Islam, but promises to show that “the
religion of Nanak was really intended as a compromise between Hinduism
and Muhammadanism, if it may not even be spoken of as the religion of a
Muhammadan sect”8. His endeavour is
significant for two trends affecting the Sikh position in India’s religious
spectrum: Sikh rapprochement with Islam for the sake of distinguishing
itself from Hinduism, and the British colonial policy (which also employed
scholars) of isolating the Sikh community and forging it into a privileged
collaborating enclave in native society.
To start with
the first point, it is a general rule that any enumeration of the distinctive
elements of Sikhism by proponents of Sikh separateness exclusively mentions
points which distinguish it from Hinduism and bring it closer to Islam.
Thus, Khushwant Singh names the crucial difference: “The revolt of Sikhism
was not against Hinduism but against its Brahminical form. It was
based on two things: the concept of God as unity, a God who was nirankâr
(formless). Therefore, Sikhism rejected the
worship of idols. It also rejected the caste system. It was,
as the cliché goes, an acceptance of the fatherhood of God and the
brotherhood of man.”9
said cliché is actually a self-formulation of Protestant Christianity;
in India, it was also enunciated by Keshub Chunder Sen of the Brahmo Samaj,
but there is nothing particularly Sikh about it.10 Khushwant
Singh also calls Sikhism “prophet-based” and “monotheistic”, both Biblical-Islamic
notions but now central items in Sikh separatist discourse.11
The question may
be asked whether the alleged non-polytheism of Guru Nanak really is the
same thing as the Biblical-Quranic worship of a “jealous God”. Sri
Aurobindo, for one, insisted on the radically different spirit in Sikhism
as compared with Islam: “Those ways of Indian cult which most resemble
a popular form of Theism, are still something more; for they do not exclude,
but admit the many aspects of God. (…) The later religious forms which
most felt the impress of the Islamic idea, like Nanak’s worship of the
timeless One, Akâla, and the reforming creeds of today, born
under the influence of the West, yet draw away from the limitations of
western or Semitic monotheism. Irresistibly
they turn from these infantile conceptions towards the fathomless truth
of Vedanta.”12 Just
as Christians in debate with Islam affirm: the fact that both your God
and my God are described as single and unique, does not imply that they
are the same.13
The most striking
point, however, is that none of the elements of Sikh doctrine mentioned
by Khushwant Singh sets Sikhism apart from Islam; he could have mentioned
the Sikh attachment to the taboo on cow-slaughter, but significantly overlooks
it. In militant Sikhism, we find a whole list of concepts and institutions
remoulded or newly created in the image of Islamic (or Christian) counterparts, e.g.
guru has become a synonym for rasûl, hukumnâma
for fatwa, dharmyuddh for jihâd, pîrî-mîrî
for khîlafat.14 And of course
Khâlistân (from Arabic khalîs, “unmixed”) is the
Sikh separatist equivalent for Pâkistân, both meaning “land
of the pure”.
In order to bolster
their separateness from Hinduism, Sikh separatists magnify the Islamic
element in Sikhism. An element of this tendency
is the replacement of Sanskrit-based terms with Persian terms, e.g. the
Hari Mandir, “Vishnu temple”, in Amritsar is preferably called Darbâr
Sâhib, “venerable court session (of the Timeless one)”.15
Another expression of this tendency is the induction of Muslim divines
into Sikh history, e.g. the by now widespread story that the foundation
stone of the Hari Mandir was laid by the Sufi pîr Mian Mir.
After this story was repeated again and again in his weekly column by Khushwant
Singh, Sita Ram Goel wrote a detailed survey of the oldest and modernst
sources pertaining to the construction of the Hari Mandir, found no trace
of Mian Mir there, and concluded: “I request you
to (…) stop propping up a blatant forgery simply because it has become
popular and is being patronised by those who control the neo-Sikh establishment.”16
Khushwant Singh never mentioned Mian Mir again.
position is that modern Sikh self-historiography is full of concoction,
starting with insertions and changes in 19th-century editions of older
texts, all of it in unsubtle appropriation of the latest ideological fashions.
He argues that Sikh history was magnified both by Anglo-secularist authors
(Sikhism as a “proto-secular” religion of “Hindu-Muslim synthesis” free
of “Brahminical superstition”) and by Hindu nationalists (Sikhism as the
“sword-arm of Hinduism”) simply because the Sikhs were a privileged and
prosperous community. As often, the present
power equation determines the relative importance of individuals and groups
in the history books.17 In Goel’s view, Guru
Nanak was by no means greater than other Sants like Garibdas (to whose
panth Goel’s own family belonged), he only has the benefit of an
assertive constituency of followers in the present.
Singh, a Sikh anti-separatist author and regular contributor to the RSS
weekly Panchjanya, claims that even (not to say especially)
the key moments of Sikh history are often concoctions. Thus,
the founding of the martial Khalsa order by Guru Govind Singh in 1699,
with the beard as part of its dress code, is put in doubt by a post-1699
painting of a clean-shaven Govind Singh.18
He also points out that many stories about the lives of the Gurus are obvious
calks on Puranic or Islamic stories.
Neither Goel nor
Rajendra Singh has so far worked out these arguments in writing, so I will
not pursue this line of debate here. Yet, my impression from the
available literature is that a close verification of the now-popular version
of Sikh history is indeed called for.
Khushwant Singh relates about the martyrdom of the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev:
“Among his tormentors was a Hindu banker whose daughter’s hand Arjun had
refused to accept for his son.”19 In the
main text, he relates this story as a fact, but in footnote, he adds that
“there is nothing contemporary on record to indicate that the Hindu
banker, Chandu Shah, was in any way personally vindictive towards the captive
Guru”, then justifies the inclusion of the story with reference to colonial
historian Max Arthur Macauliffe.20 And that
is one case where he explicitates the conflict between the assurance given
by his most important secondary source (Macauliffe) and the silence of
the “contemporary records” consulted by himself; in numerous cases, however,
he follows Macauliffe without conveying what the original record has to
Most things in
Sikhism can be traced either to Hindu origins or to borrowings from Islam.
But for centuries, one thing which put the Sikhs firmly in the Hindu camp
was the continuous hostility with the Islamic Empire of the Moghuls and
with the Muslim Afghans. After Partition, there were practically
no Muslims left in East Panjab, and the contrast with Hinduism could now
receive the full emphasis for the first time. In that context, separatist
Sikhs resorted to highlighting existing or introducing new elements borrowed
from Islam. It is typical that in his overview
of the elements which make up Sikh identity, Khushwant Singh overlooks
specific Sikh commandments which set Sikhism apart from Islam, e.g. the
prohibition on marrying Muslim women and on eating halâl meat.21 In
his case, I have no reason to surmise any bad faith: if he conveys this
politically sanitized reading of Sikh identity, it is because that happens
to be the received wisdom now.22
To the extent
that Sikhism leans towards Islam, it does undeniably set itself apart from
Hinduism. The anti-separatist argument will therefore necessarily
consist in branding the Islamic elements in Sikhism as late and disingenuous
borrowings, or as mere externalities not affecting the essentially Hindu
core of Sikhism. They should at any rate be viewed in their historical
context: by Guru Nanak’s time, Panjab had been under Muslim rule for five
centuries, and a number of Muslim customs had passed into common use among
Hindus, as lamented by Nanak himself. Likewise, much Persian and
Muslim terminology seeped into the language of Panjabi Hindus.
8.3. Hinduism as a boa constrictor
Ram Swarup relates
how the British had been disappointed with the conclusions of the first
scholar who investigated and translated Sikh Scriptures, the German Indologist
and missionary Dr. E. Trumpp, who had found Guru
Nanak a “thorough Hindu” and his religion “a Pantheism derived directly
from Hindu sources”.23 This was not long
after the 1857 Mutiny, when the Sikhs had fought on the British side, and
the British were systematically turning the Sikhs into one of the privileged
enclaves in native society with whose help they wanted to make governing
India easier for themselves.
to Ram Swarup, other scholars were put to work to rewrite Sikh history
in the sense desired by the British: “Max Arthur Macauliffe, a highly placed
British administrator (…) told the Sikhs that Hinduism was like a ‘boa
constrictor of the Indian forest’ which ‘winds its opponent and finally
causes it to disappear in its capacious interior’. The Sikhs ‘may
go that way’, he warned. He was pained to see that the Sikhs regarded
themselves as Hindus which was ‘in direct opposition to the teachings of
the Gurus’. (…) The influence of scholarship is
silent, subtle and long-range. Macauliffe and others provided categories
which became the thought-equipment of subsequent Sikh intellectuals.”24
“boa constrictor” account is repeated by Khushwant Singh, who is very attached
to “Sikh separate identity which we are trying to, and perhaps will go
on trying to maintain”.25
He is worried
by Hindu open-mindedness: “Hinduism has this enormous capacity of taking
everything in its embrace: you can be an idol worshipper, you can be an
idol breaker; you can believe in one god, you can believe in a thousand
gods; you can have a caste system, you can deny the caste system; you can
be an agnostic, atheist, or whatever else you like, and remain a Hindu.
What can you do about it? It is this power
of absorption of Hinduism, that it is even willing to recognize Prophet
Mohammed as an Avatar of Vishnu, that poses the real challenge to other
statement contains exaggerations (idol breaker, Mohammed as avatar?!)27
, but we get the message: Hinduism’s accommodation of different spiritual
approaches is a problem for separatists.
This is yet another
instance of how Hindus are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t”: had
they been intolerant, this would of course be held against them, but even
when they are found to be tolerant and accommodating, it is still interpreted
as an evil design. When Hinduism integrates
new elements, it is not proof of broad-mindedness, but of a strategy of
swallowing the minorities.”28 As Arun Shourie
remarks, after describing some examples of how Hindu tradition has integrated
“Dravidian” and “Aryan” elements: “Why is it that
(…) for our columnists and our communists that decision is yet another
instance of the devious devices by which Hinduism has been ‘swallowing
up’ other traditions?”29
In the case of
Sikhism, at any rate, the boa metaphor does not really fit the case: Sikhism
has sprung from Hinduism, and it is not as if the two were strangers who
met one day and then the one decided to swallow up the other. But
it may be said that in the 19th century, Hinduism was reabsorbing
Sikhism, and that it may yet complete this process in the future.
8.4. Sikhs were Hindus
That the Sikhs
“regarded themselves as Hindus” is confirmed by Khushwant Singh, who concedes
that three centuries of Sikh history after Nanak, including the creation
of the Khalsa as a Sikh martial vanguard by Guru Govind Singh, were not
enough to make Sikhism into a separate religion: “However, what is worthwhile
to bear in mind is that, despite these innovations, this new community,
the Khalsa Panth, remained an integral part of the Hindu social and religious
system. It is significant that when Tegh Bahadur was summoned to
Delhi, he went as a representative of the Hindus. He was executed
in the year 1675. His son who succeeded him
as guru later described his father’s martyrdom as in the cause of the Hindu
faith, ‘to preserve their caste marks and their sacred thread did he perform
the supreme sacrifice’. The guru himself looked upon his community
as an integral part of the Hindu social system.”30
martyrdom is usually interpreted as an act of self-sacrifice for the sake
of the Kashmiri Pandits threatened with forced conversion. As
such, it is a classic Hindutva proof of the Hinduness of Sikhism, though
it is also a classic neo-Sikh proof of the “secularism” of Sikhism (“showing
concern even for people of a different religion, viz. Hinduism”).31
However, this whole debate may well rest upon a simple misunderstanding.
In most indo-Aryan
languages, the oft-used honorific mode of the singular is expressed by
the same pronoun as the plural (e.g. Hindi unkâ, “his” or
“their”, as opposed to the non-honorific singular uskâ), and
vice-versa; by contrast, the singular form only indicates a singular subject.
The phrase commonly translated as “the Lord preserved their tilak and sacred
thread” (tilak-janjû râkhâ Prabh tâ-kâ),
referring to unnamed outsiders assumed to be the Kashmiri Pandits, literally
means that He “preserved b is tilak and sacred thread”, meaning Tegh Bahadur’s;
it is already unusual poetic liberty to render “their
tilak and sacred thread” this way, and even if that were intended, there
is still no mention of the Kashmiri Pandits in the story.32 This
is confirmed by one of the following lines in Govind’s poem about his father’s
martyrdom: “He suffered martyrdom for the sake of his faith.”33
in any case, the story of forced massed conversions in Kashmir by the Moghul
emperor Aurangzeb is not supported by the detailed record of his
reign by Muslim chronicles who narrate many accounts of his biogorty.
Govind Singh is considered as the founder of the Khalsa order (1699) who
“gave his Sikhs an outward form distinct from the Hindus”34,
he too did things which Sikh separatists would dismiss as “brahminical”. As
Khushwant Singh notes, “Gobind selected five of the most scholarly of his
disciples and sent them to Benares to learn Sanskrit and the Hindu religious
texts, to be better able to interpret the writings of the gurus, which
were full of allusions to Hindu mythology and philosophy.”35 Arun
Shourie quotes Govind Singh as declaring: “Let the path of the pure [khâlsâ
panth] prevail all over the world, let the Hindu dharma dawn and all
delusion disappear. (…) May I spread dharma and prestige of the Veda in
the world and erase from it the sin of cow-slaughter.”36
notes with a certain disappointment that even when the Sikhs carved out
a state for themselves, they did not separate from Hinduism: “The Sikhs
triumphed and we had Ranjit Singh. You may feel that here at long
last we had a Sikh monarch, and the Khalsa would come into their own.
Nothing of the sort happened. (…) Instead of taking
Sikhism in its pristine form, he accepted Hinduism in its brahminical form.
He paid homage to Brahmins. He made cow-killing a capital offence”37
Further, he donated
three times more gold to the newly built makeshift Vishvanath temple in
Varanasi than to the Hari Mandir in Amritsar. He also threatened
the Amirs of Sindh with an invasion if they didn’t stop persecuting the
Hindus. Even more embarrassing for those who
propagate the progressive non-Hindu image of Sikhism: one of the last and
greatest royal self-immolations of widows ever performed in India took
place in 1839 when Ranjit Singh was accompanied on his funeral pyre by
four of his wives and seven maids and concubines.38
By any standard,
Ranjit Singh was a Hindu ruler: “He worshipped as much in Hindu temples
as he did in gurudwaras. When he was sick and about to die, he gave
away cows for charity. What did he do with the diamond Kohi-noor?
He did not want to give it to the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar which he built
in marble and gold, but to Jagannath Puri as his farewell gift. When
he had the Afghans at his mercy and wrested Kashmir from them, he wanted
the gates of the temple of Somnath back from them. Why should he
be making all these Hindu demands? Whatever
the breakaway that had been achieved from Hinduism, this greatest of our
monarchs bridged in 40 years.”39
A few years after
Ranjit Singh’s death, the British annexed his kingdom. Khushwant
Singh describes how Sikh (more precisely, Khalsa) identity was fast disappearing
when the British occupied Panjab. To Hindu Revivalists, this development
was perfectly natural: Sikh identity was not religious but functional,
and it disappeared when its circumstantial raison d’être disappeared. Sikhism
was thrown up by Hindu society as part of the centuries-long “Hindu response
to the Islamic onslaught”40, and now that
the Pax Brittanica made an end to the Hindu-Muslim struggle, it
was natural that Sikhism was gradually reabsorbed.
8.5. Sikh identity and the British
It is the established
Hindu Revivalist position that Sikhism as a separate religion is a British
artefact. Khushwant Singh confirms this much, that the British came
to the rescue of the dwindling Khalsa by setting up Sikh regiments to which
only observant Khalsa Sikhs were allowed. This
worked as “a kind of hot-house protection” to Sikh identity, and “by World
War 1, a third of the British Indian Army were bearded Khalsa Sikhs”.41 This
number may be exaggerated: Ram Swarup counts “19.2% in 1914”, falling to
“13.58% in 1930” (because by then, “the Government was less sure of their
unquestioning loyalty”).42 All
the same, to Sikh identity the Army recruitment was crucial, and our Sikh
historian candidly admits: “So the first statutory guarantee of the continuation
of the Khalsa came from a foreign power.”43
A look at the
census figures may be useful here. In 1881, ca. 41% of the Panjabis
classified themselves as Hindus, only 5.5% as Sikhs; by the time of Partition,
the percentage of “Hindus” had decreased to 26%, that of “Sikhs” increased
to 13%. This had of course nothing to do with conversion, merely
with the pressure on the Sahajdharis to become Kesadharis and assume an
identity distinct from the Hindus. On the downside, however, the
polarization imposed by the Khalsa pushed one of the branches of Sikhism
in Sindh, the Amil Nanakpanthis, to rejecting Sikhism as a separate religion
and casting their lot wholesale with Hinduism. Among them the family
of L.K. Advani, who nonetheless calls himself “still spiritually a Sikh”.
But even at the
stage of the British rewards for Sikh distinctness, the separation of the
Sikhs from Hindu society had not fully succeeded: “To start with, Hindus
did not find this much of a problem. The Hindu
who wanted to join the army simply stopped shaving and cutting his hair.
(…) Nihal Chand became Nihal Singh and went into the British Army as a
Sikh soldier.”44 According
to Hindus, this was natural: Hindus did not see “becoming a Sikh” as conversion.
The point was made very clearly by a non-political Hindu leader from Varanasi,
who told me: “If the Sikhs don’t want to call themselves Hindus, I will
gladly call myself a Sikh.”45
According to Khushwant
Singh, the loss of these privileges in 1947 undermined Sikh identity by
taking its tangible benefits away: “Sikhs lost their minority privileges
because there were going to be no minority privileges in a secular state
(…) Their number in the Army started to dwindle. Their number in
the Civil Service also began to come down. (…) The younger [generation]
did not understand why they must grow their hair and beard, when they got
no economic benefits for doing so. (…) When a Sikh
father is asked: ‘What do I get out of it ?’, he can no longer say: ‘I
can get you a job in the army if you have your hair and beard.’”46
In a non-Sikh
state and society, Sikh identity would probably get dissolved in the long
run, so the Khalsa leadership saw salvation in a separate state: “External
props to the Khalsa separatism started crumbling. Leaders of the
community felt that their flock was facing extinction and they must preserve
it by whatever means they can. The only answer
Akali leaders could think of-they are not used to thinking very deeply-was
to have political power in their homeland.”47
It was to safeguard their identity by means of physical separation that
some Akali factions started a movement of armed separatism.
8.6. Sikhism as the sword-arm
Ram Swarup adds
a psychological reason for the recent Sikh attempt to sever the ties with
Hindu society and the Indian state: “‘You have been our defenders’, Hindus
tell the Sikhs. But in the present psychology,
the compliment wins only contempt-and I believe rightly. For self-despisement
is the surest way of losing a friend or even a brother. It also gives
the Sikhs an exaggerated self-assessment.”48
Ram Swarup hints
at the question of the historicity of the belief that “Sikhism is
the sword-arm of Hinduism”, widespread among Hindus. It
is well-known that the Sikhs were the most combative in fighting Muslims
during the Partition massacres, and that they were also singled out by
Muslims for slaughter.49 The image of Sikhs
as the most fearsome among the Infidels still lingers in the Muslim mind;
it is apparently for this reason that Saudi Arabia excludes Sikhs (like
Jews) from employment within its borders. Yet, the story for the
earlier period is not that clear-cut. Given the centrality of the
image of Sikhism as the “sword-arm of Hinduism”, it is well worth our while
to verify the record of Sikh struggles against Islam.
In the Guru lineage,
we don’t see much physical fighting for Hinduism. Guru Nanak was
a poet and a genuine saint, but not a warrior. His successors were
poets, not all of them saintly, and made a living with regular occupations
such as horse-trading. Guru Arjun’s martyrdom was not due to any
anti-Muslim rebellion but to the suspicion by Moghul Emperor Jahangir that
he had supported a failed rebellion by Jahangir’s son Khusrau, i.e. a Muslim
palace revolution aimed at continuing the Moghul Empire but with someone
else sitting on the throne. Arjun refused to pay the fine which Jahangir
imposed on him, not as an act of defiance against Moghul sovereignty but
because he denied the charges (which amounted to pleading his loyalty to
Jahangir); it was then that Jahangir ordered a tougher punishment. At
any rate, Arjun was never accused of raising the sword against Jahangir,
merely of giving temporary shelter to Khusrau.50
martyrdom in 1675 was of course in the service of Hinduism, in that it
was an act of opposing Aurangzeb’s policy of forcible conversion.
An arrest warrant against him had been issued on non-religious and nonpolitical
charges, and he was found out after having gone into hiding; Aurangzeb
gave him a chance to escape his punishment by converting to Islam.
Being a devout Muslim, Aurangzeb calculated that the conversion of this
Hindu sect leader would encourage his followers to convert along with him.
The Guru was tortured and beheaded when he refused the offer to accept
Islam, and one of his companions was sawed in two for having said that
Islam should be destroyed.
any rate, he stood firm as a Hindu, telling Aurangzeb that he loved
his Hindu Dharma and that Hindu Dharma would never die,-a statement conveniently
overlooked in most neo-Sikh accounts.51 He
was not a Sikh defending Hinduism, but a Hindu of the Nanakpanth defending
his own Hindu religion. However, even Tegh Bahadur never was a warrior
against the Moghul empire; indeed, the birth of his son Govind in the eastern
city of Patna was a souvenir of his own enlistment in the party of a Moghul
general on a military expedition to Assam.
son and successor, Govind Singh, only fought the Moghul army when he was
forced to, and it was hardly to protect Hinduism. His
men had been plundering the domains of the semi-independent Hindu Rajas
in the hills of northeastern Panjab, who had given him asylum after
his father’s execution.52 Pro-Govind accounts
in the Hindutva camp equate Govind’s plundering with the Chauth
tax which Shivaji imposed to finance his fight against the Moghuls; they
allege that the Rajas were selfishly attached to their wealth while Govind
was risking his life for the Hindu cause. The Rajas, after failed
attempts to restore law and order, appealed to their Moghul suzerain for
help, or at least to the nearest Moghul governor. So, a confrontation
ensued, not because Govind Singh had defied the mighty Moghul Empire, but
because the Moghul Empire discharged its feudal duties toward its vassals,
i.c. to punish what to them was an ungrateful guest turned robber.
Govind was defeated
and his two eldest sons killed in battle; many Sikhs left him in anger
at his foolhardy tactics. During Govind Singh’s
flight, a Brahmin family concealed Govind’s two remaining sons (Hindus
protecting Sikhs, not the other way around), but they were found out and
the boys were killed.53
The death of Govind’s
sons provides yet another demythologizing insight about Govind Singh through
its obvious connection with his abolition of the Guru lineage. A
believer may, of course, assume that it was because of some divine instruction
that Govind replaced the living Guru lineage with the Granth, a mere book
(a replacement of the Hindu institution of gurudom with the Book-centred
model of Islam). However, a more down-to-earth
hypothesis which takes care of all the facts is that after the death of
all his sons, Govind Singh simply could not conceive of the Guru lineage
as not continuing within his own family.54
After his defeat
and escape (made possible by the self-sacrifice of a disciple who impersonated
the Guru), Govind Singh in his turn became a loyal subject of the Moghul
Empire. He felt he had been treated unfairly by the local governor,
Wazir Khan, so he did what aggrieved vassals do: he wrote a letter of complaint
to his suzerain, not through the hierarchical channels but straight to
the Padeshah. In spite of its title and its sometimes defiant wording,
this “victory letter” (Zafar Nâma) to Aurangzeb is fundamentally
submissive. Among other things, Govind assures
Aurangzeb that he is just as much an idol-breaker as the Padeshah himself:
“I am the destroyer of turbulent hillmen, since they are idolators and
I am the breaker of idols.”55 Aurangzeb was
sufficiently pleased with the correspondence (possibly several letters)
he received from the Guru, for he ordered Wazir Khan not to trouble Govind
death in 1707, Govind tried to curry favour with the heir-apparent and
effective successor, Bahadur Shah, and supported him militarily in the
war of succession: his fight was for one of the Moghul factions and against
the rival Moghul faction, not for Hinduism and against the Moghul Empire
as such. In fact, one of the battles he fought on Bahadur Shah’s
side was against rebellious Rajputs. As a reward for his services,
the new Padeshah gave Govind a fief in Nanded on the Godavari river in
the south, far from his natural constituency in Panjab. To acquaint
himself with his new property, he followed Bahadur Shah on an expedition
to the south (leaving his wives in Delhi under Moghul protection), but
there he himself was stabbed by two Pathan assassins (possibly sent by
Wazir Khan, who feared Govind Singh’s influence on Bahadur Shah) in 1708.
His death had nothing to do with any fight against the Moghuls or for Hinduism.
So far, it is
hard to see where the Sikhs have acted as the sword-arm of Hinduism against
Islam. If secularism means staying on reasonable terms with both
Hindus and Muslims, we could concede that the Gurus generally did steer
a “secular” course. Not that this is shameful: in the circumstances,
taking on the Moghul Empire would have been suicidal.
In his last months,
Govind Singh had become friends with the Hindu renunciate Banda Bairagi.
This Banda went to Panjab and rallied the Sikhs around himself. At
long last, it was he as a non-Sikh who took the initiative to wage an all-out
offensive against the Moghul Empire. It was a long-drawn-out and
no-holds-barred confrontation which ended in general defeat and the execution
of Banda and his lieutenants (1716). Once more, the Sikhs became vassals
of the Moghuls for several decades until the -Marathas broke the back of
the Moghul empire in the mid-18th century. Only then, in the wake
of the Maratha expansion, did the Sikhs score some lasting victories against
Moghul and Pathan power. They established an empire of sorts including
most of the North-West, but as we already saw, its greatest monarch Ranjit
Singh was a conscious and committed Hindu by any definition.
We may conclude
that Ram Swarup has a point when he questions the Hindu attitude of self-depreciation
and gratefulness towards the Sikh “sword-arm”. Sikh history has its
moments of heroism, but not particularly more than that of the Marathas
or Rajputs. And like the Rajputs and Marathas, Sikhism also has a
history of collaboration with the Moghul throne. Those who insist
on glorifying Sikh or Rajput history, ought rather to reflect on the merits
(for Hinduism) of collaboration with an unbeatable enemy: when Moghul power
was at its strongest, collaboration by Hindu princes
meant in practice that large parts of India were only under indirect Muslim
control, so that Hindu culture could be preserved there.56
But of course, in the rhetoric of heroism dear to nationalist movements,
the compromise aspect of history is not that inspiring, and we should not
expect to hear neo-Sikhs glorify “the wise collaborator Govind Singh”.
8.7. Hindu role in estranging
The attitude of
cringing Hindu gratitude to the “sword-arm” is not the only nor even the
most important reason for the contempt which some Khalsa Sikhs developed
toward everything Hindu during the past century. The British policy
of privileging the Sikhs is probably the decisive factor, but we should
not ignore the role which Hindus themselves have played in the estrangement
of the Sikhs with their own type of contempt.
The Arya Samaj,
as a genuinely fundamentalist movement, distinguished between “authentic”
(Vedic) Hinduism and “degenerate” (defined as post-Vedic) forms of Hinduism. By
campaigning for the Shuddhi (“purification”, effectively conversion) of
Sikhs, it implicitly declared the Sikhs to be either degenerate Hindus
or non-Hindus.57 Khushwant
Singh describes the adverse effect of the Arya Samaj’s campaign: “Fortunately
for the Sikhs, Dayanand Saraswati was also very offensive in the language
he used. He did not realize that he was treading on soft ground when
he described guru Nanak as a dambi, an impostor.58
(…) The Sikhs rejected Dayanand and the Samaj, and
set up Singh Sabhas and the chief Khalsa Diwan to counteract Dayanand’s
movement. Kahan Singh of Nabha published a book entitled
Hindu nahin hain’59 It
was a categorical statement of rejection of Hinduism. The Arya Samaj
can take the credit for driving Sikhs away from Hinduism.”60
In the Arya Samaj
version, Sikh pro-British “toadyism” versus Arya nationalism was a more
decisive factor in their mutual estrangement. After independence,
Sikhs started arguing that their own contribution to the Freedom struggle
had been the greatest given the high proportion of Sikhs among the martyrs.
However, most of these fell during the Jallianwala Bagh shooting in Amritsar
(1919), started as a peaceful gathering of people who had no intention
of giving up their lives (the responsible officer was removed from his
post, for the useless and unprovoked massacre totally deviated from British
policy). The proportion of Sikhs who chose
to wage their lives for Freedom was quite small; the one community which
was heavily “overrepresented” among the freedom fighters executed or otherwise
punished by the British was the much-maligned Brahmin caste.61
It is a well-attested historical fact that the Sikh community as such was
firmly loyalist (see Khushwant Singh, above, on the Sikhs in the British
Army), even after the emotional estrangement from the British which followed
the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. By contrast, the Arya Samaj can claim
to have stood by the cause of Freedom, though it certainly has a history
of compromise as well.
for Dayananda’s allegation that Guru Nanak was a pretender, Arya Samaj
authors Pandit Lekh Ram (then) and Kshitish Vedalankar (recently) have
defended it, arguing that Nanak could not read Sanskrit and was therefore
not qualified to speak out on the Vedas and the Puranas.62
Modernists may sympathize with this irreverent and down-to-earth critique
of a venerated saint, but it has a price, viz. the hostility of the saint’s
8.8. The Hindi-Panjabi controversy
and probably Sikhs in general, resented it when Hindus in Panjab registered
Hindi as their mother-tongue in the 1951 and 1961 census. The
Sikh plan was to carve out a Sikh-majority state under a linguistic cover,
viz. as a Panjabi Suba, a Panjabi-speaking province: “in demanding a Punjabi-speaking
state, they were in fact demanding a Sikh-majority state. They were
giving a linguistic sugar coating to a basically communal demand.”63
In the 1950s, many provincial boundaries had been redrawn with the object
of creating linguistically homogeneous states. Nehru had been opposed
to this principle, but his hand was forced in 1952-53 by the fast unto
death (ending in actual death, followed by widespread violence on government
property) of Potti Sri Ramulu in support of the demand for a Telugu-speaking
state. After states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra had been
created on a linguistic basis, the Sikhs were dismayed that the Government
kept on opposing the creation of a Panjabi-speaking state.
The 1961 census,
and in particular its item on language, became a crucial event in the campaign
for the Panjabi Suba. Since language was used
as a code for religion, Hindus joined the game: “Punjabi Hindus were persuaded
to declare their language to be Hindi, which it is not, and not Punjabi,
which it is.”64 This
way, “they played into the hands of Sikh communalists: ‘How can you trust
this community? They are even willing to deny their mother tongue’,
The Sikhs got
their Panjabi Suba anyway, as a reward for their sterling loyalty to India
in spite of Pakistani overtures during the 1965 war. But
twenty years later, Arya Samaj polemicist Kshitish Vedalankar still defended
the claim of the Panjabi Hindus that their mother tongue is Hindi: “What
we call Panjabi today is only a wing of Hindi--Pashchimi [= ‘Western’]
Hindi.”66 The difference between language
and dialect is indeed not always clear-cut, and the separate status of
Panjabi is more a matter of politics than of linguistics (somewhat like
the recent decision of the Croats and Bosnian Muslims to develop their
own dialects of Serbo-Croat into separate languages).
What might clinch
the issue is that the Gurus themselves also used and encouraged non-Panjabi
styles of Hindi: “Because of this association of
Hindi with the masses, the Gurus found it proper to encourage Hindi poets
and to popularise Hindi poetry. They themselves adopted Brajbhasha
as the vehicle of their views.”67 By now,
however, the development of Panjabi as a separate language has gone quite
far, the Panjabi Suba is an accomplished fact, and this debate has lost
its relevance. In Panjab and in Delhi, the BJP is now a great promoter
of Panjabi, if only to humour its numerous Sikh constituents.
8.9. The message of Sikhism
describes the fact that most outsiders are not aware of anything constituting
Sikh “identity” apart from beards and turbans, as a serious problem: “Most
regard them as no more than a sect of bearded Hindus. It
is a real problem and in some ways it does sum up the Sikh dilemma from
the very beginning. (…) Any new religious community which breaks away from
its parent body has to establish a separateness from the parent body.”68
To Hindu Revivalists,
this is a false problem: identity is merely the accidental outcome of historical
processes or indeed of religious practices, but it is not a thing in itself,
worth cultivating. Thus, if Jain monks want to wear handkerchiefs
on their mouths and sweep the ground in front of their feet in order not
to kill any tiny animals, that may be a fine application of their concept
of non-violence, but it would be absurd if Jains started doing this for
no other reason than to affirm Jain identity. It is alright if youth
gangs impose on themselves artificial identities with distinguishing marks
and signs and rituals, but that is a passing phase. Identity for
the sake of identity is a concern of puberty, not more. “Identitarianism”
is but one of the many fashionable ways to misunderstand and misrepresent
Hindu revivalism: the Hindu problem is not with identity, it is precisely
the anti-Hindu separatists in Sikhism, Jainism etc., who make an
issue of identity.69
It reflects favourably
on Khushwant Singh’s intellectual honesty that, while a staunch advocate
of separate Sikh identity, he mentions some facts that seriously undermine
the Sikh claim to a separate identity: “Sikhism did not evolve a distinct
theology of its own like Jainism or Buddhism. It accepted a form of Vaishnavite
Hinduism, giving it a new emphasis. Basically the gurus’ teachings
were Vedantic. Therefore there was not the same kind of breach from
Hinduism as in the cases of Jainism and Buddhism. Sikhism
accepted the Hindu code of conduct, its theory of the origin of the world,
the purpose of life, the purpose of religion, samsara, the theory of birth-death-rebirth-these
were taken in their entirety from Hinduism.”70
That, then, is
precisely the point argued by Hindu Revivalists: “Not only does the Adi
Granth reproduce hundreds of passages from the older scriptures, but like
the rest of the Sant literature it also follows the lead of the Upanishads
and the Gita and the Yoga Vasishtha in all doctrinal points. Its theology
and cosmology, its God-view and world-view, its conception of deity and
man and his salvation, its ethics, philosophy and praxis and Yoga-all derive
from that source. It believes in Brahma-vada,
in Advaita, in So-ham, in Maya, in Karma, in rebirth, in Mukti and Nirvana,
in the Middle Path (in its yogic sense)”.71 This
is a far cry from recent Sikh self-presentation, when apologists describe
Sikhism as “prophetic and monotheist”, or as “rationaliStl”72, or
as “secular”73, but certainly not as “taken
in its entirety from Hinduism”.
8.10. Sikh distinctiveness
the Arya Samajist author of one of the rare post-Independence anti-Sikh
tracts (mainly focusing on Sikh collaboration with the British), starts
out by emphasizing that Guru Nanak “called himself a Hindu. According
to Janamsâkhî, he wore a sacred thread (yajñopavît)
and had a lock of hair (chotî) on his head. After
him till the fifth Guru, each had his sacred thread ceremony performed,
were married according to Vedic rites, used to apply tilak and used
to hear tales from Vedas and Puranas.”74
But there we already
get a hint of an early separation: only until the fifth Guru did the Sikhs
follow Vedic rites. As Khushwant Singh points
out, the Sikhs have gradually introduced separate rituals: “The third guru,
Amar Das (…) introduced new rituals, new ceremonies to be performed at
birth, marriage and death.”75 It seems that
Sikh separateness does have a pre-British origin. Or at least, it
seems that early on, the Sikhs developed a certain distinctiveness.
But then, so many Hindu sects have their distinctive customs, dress codes
and other externals. The Sikhs have their
own Scripture, their own sacred city, their own chief temple, their own
priesthood, but almost by definition, every Hindu panth has some
such material things of its own.76 Kashi
is the city of Shiva, Vrindavan is dedicated to Krishna, Ayodhya to Rama,
Kanchipuram to Kamakshi, and they are all Hindu sacred cities.
founded by sants like Kabir, Chaitanya, Ravidas, give a special place to
the writings of their founder, but not an exclusive place. The
Guru Granth equally contains writings of some non-Sikh bhakti poets including
Kabir, and thousands of references to such Hindu concepts and characters
as Rama, Krishna, Veda, Omkara, Amrit.77 Sikh
names are full of Hindu elements: Hari (= Vishnu), Rama, Krishna and his
epithets (Har-kishan, Har-govina), Arjun, the Vedic god Indra (Yog-indr,
Sur-indr).78 The Hari Mandir, dedicated
to Hari/Vishnu, is as sacred to Vaishnavas as any of their non-Sikh temples;
its tank was already an old Hindu place of pilgrimage, where Maharana Ikshvaku
is said to have performed yajnas. (The 1875 edition of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica says in its entry on Amritsar that it has sacred tank with
a temple dedicated to Vishnu in the middle).
And so on: sects
may and do distinguish themselves by a lineage of gurus, physical marks,
specially dedicated places of pilgrimage, and nobody is disputing the right
of the Sikhs to do the same things, but that does not put them outside
the Hindu fold.
8.11. No Hindu, no Muslim
final and decisive argument for the non-Hindu identity of Sikhism is this:
“Guru Nanak did start a new religion. He said so clearly in the year
1500 or thereabouts, when he had his mystical experience. He went
to bathe in a stream and was missing for three days. His first statement
as he came out was: ‘Na koi Hindu, na koi Mussalman’. You
can interpret that statement in many ways. But you cannot deny that
what he intended to imply was that he was introducing a new system of ethics
Ethics and metaphysics
are serious subjects; three days is a short time if you want to free yourself
from your acquired notions of ethics and metaphysics, and start a whole
new religion. in fact, for all we know, Guru Nanak continued the practices
of the Bhakti saints that had come before him, starting with the mental
or oral repetition of the Divine Name, Râma nâma.
Moreover, isn’t it strange that the statement which founds a whole new
separate religion does not even mention this new religion? If Guru
Nanak’s discovery, “neither Hindu nor Muslim”, had meant the founding of
a new religion, he might have added a positive conclusion: “Neither Hindu
nor Muslim, but Sikh!”
At any rate, the
insight with which he came back from his three days’ retreat, as quoted
by Khushwant Singh, was entirely within the Hindu tradition. “There
is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” (for that is the literal translation,
and it makes a difference) does not mean “I, Nanak, am neither Hindu nor
Muslim”, it means a wholesale rejection of the Hindu and Muslim identities
valid for all self-described Hindus and Muslims as well. It means
that the Self (Atman, the timeless indweller, the object-subject
of his “mystical experience”) is beyond worldly divisions like those between
different religions and sects. The Self is neither black nor white,
neither big nor small, neither Hindu nor Muslim, neither this nor that;
neti neti, in the Upanishadic phrase. This insight is as typically
Hindu as you can get.
The Self, the
objectless self-contained consciousness, is nirguna, beyond the
qualities that make for difference between human beings. As a contemporary
Hindu spiritual teacher said: “What is Self-realization? By what
does a ‘realized’ person distinguish himself? Very
simple, the special thing about him is this: one who is ‘realized’, realizes
that he is the same as everybody else.”80
The Self has no separate identity, neither individual nor communal.
When we get to
this conceptual level, we can see that communal identity in Hindu-Sikh
tradition is a superficial reality, relatively acceptable and inevitable
in the temporal world, but unreal from the angle of the timeless and colourless
Self. By contrast, it has an absolute value in Islam, which decides
on eternal heaven and eternal hell on the basis of communal identity: as
per the Quran, all “unbelievers” (Sikhs as much as Hindus) carry a one-way
ticket to hell. At the fundamental level, for all its adoption of
external elements following Islamic models, Sikhism is not a middling position
between Hinduism and Islam. Sikhism has never
repudiated the doctrine of the Self, which is entirely non-Islamic and
a bit of Sikh scripture and the arguments put forward by Hindu and Sikh
authors about the roots of Sikhism, it is now my considered opinion that
the profoundly Hindu character of basic Sikh doctrine is undeniable.
So far, Ram Swarup and his school are right. However, Sikhism hasn’t
stopped developing with Guru Nanak’s Hindu utterances, and it has just
as undeniably adopted some Islamic elements and attitudes at the expense
of some of its Hindu identity. Today, it would therefore be too simplistic
to just affirm that “Sikhs are Hindus”. For Hindu nationalists, that
presents a problem which cannot be resolved with debates on definitions.
The only solution which could satisfy them is that Sikhs themselves make
a choice to go back to the original inspiration of Guru Nanak and shrug
off the superficial but ever-hardening separateness which has developed
after Nanak had gone, and particularly after British policy set Sikhs against
8.12. The Khalistani failure
To quite an extent,
the feeling that “Sikhs are Hindus” is mutual. Till today, though
on a lesser scale than in the past centuries, Sikh caste groups continue
to intermarry with Hindu non-Sikh members of the same castes rather than
with Sikh members of other castes. A more specifically religious
indication is that Master Tara Singh, the acknowledged leader of the Sikhs
since at least the eve of Partition, was a cofounder of the Vishva Hindu
Parishad in 1964.
evidence for Hindu-Sikh unity is certainly the fact that no matter how
hard the Khalistani separatists of the 1980s tried, they could not get
Hindu-Sikh riots going. Though Hindus became wary of Sikhs, they
never responded to the Khalistanis’ selective massacres of Hindus with
attacks on Sikhs, nor did ordinary Sikhs ever start the kind of attacks
on Hindus commonly witnessed as the opening scene of Hindu-Muslim riots. The
Khalistani episode was a confrontation between Sikh separatists and the
police and army of the secular Indian state, not one between Sikhs and
Hindus. The surprising fact is that “there were no communal riots
in Punjab even in the worst days of terrorism”.82
The massacre of
Sikhs by activists of the secularist Congress Party in Delhi after Indira
Gandhi’s murder by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 was not a Hindu-Sikh riot,
in spite of secularist efforts to “rationalize” it as one. Even Khushwant
Singh admitted that RSS and BJP activists had saved many Sikhs while Congress
secularists were killing them: “It was the Congress leaders who instigated
mobs in 1984 and got more than 3000 people killed. I
must give due credit to RSS and the BJP for showing courage and protecting
helpless Sikhs during those difficult days. No less a person than
Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself intervened at a couple of places to help poor
this very reason, Khushwant Singh himself advised Delhi Sikhs to vote for
BJP candidate L.K. Advani in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.84
And so they did. In the 1991 and 1996 Lok Sabha elections and in
the 1993 Vidhan Sabha elections in Delhi, the Sikh vote largely went to
the BJP. In 1996, the Akali Dal faction in the newly elected Lok
Sabha was one of a few small parties willing to support the 13-day BJP
Government led by A.B. Vajpayee. An alliance of the BJP and the moderate
Sikh party Akali Dal (Badal) swept the Panjab Vidhan Sabha elections of
1997, and made new progress in the Lok Sabha elections of 1998. Only
in the last few years, when the memory of the massacres started to recede,
did Sikhs in Delhi relax their collective pro-BJP and anti-Congress position.
The BJP, for its
part, is full of gestures towards its Sikh constituency, e.g. one of the
first things the BJP did after coming to power in Delhi (union territory),
was to declare Panjabi an official language, so that many signboards in
Delhi are now quadrilingual: English-Hindi-Urdu-Panjabi. With regret,
a Sikh supporter of the United Front notes how the BJP is attracting the
Sikh vote: “The BJP, on its part, has accommodated Sikhs in several states
and even at the central level. Gurjant Singh Brar in Rajasthan, Jaspal
Singh in Gujarat and Harcharan Singh Balli are Cabinet rank Ministers in
these BJP-ruled states. The short-lived Vajpayee
Government had a Sikh Minister, Sartaj Singh from Hoshangabad (Madhya Pradesh).
(…) By taking strong action against the guilty persons of 1984 riots, the
BJP has won over the sympathy of the Sikhs.”85
The VHP and other
Hindu organizations have adopted a Sikh innovation (perhaps a truly original
contribution of Sikhism), viz. Kar Seva, “hand service”, meaning
the collective participation of ordinary Hindus in the building of temples.
Thus, the unskilled labour in the construction of the Swaminarayan temple
in Neasden (London, 1995) was performed by Hindu doctors, accountants,
shopkeepers and other amateurs. The VHP has the same plans for its
projected Rama-Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya. Hindu-Sikh unity celebrations
are organized both in India and abroad, where small numbers in a foreign
society force Hindus and Sikhs to remember their common roots, e.g. in
“The gala event
started with chanting of mantras followed by Vande Mataram.
The speakers emphasized the age-old relationship and similarities that
bind Hindus and Sikhs together. They mentioned the fact that Lord
Rama’s name appears thousands of times in the Guru Granth Sahib and that
the original name of Golden Temple is Hari Mandir Sahib. Sardar
Jagjit Singh Lamba said that Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh were
the descendants of Lav [c.q.] Kush, both sons of Lord Rama.”86
After the defeat
of Khalistani militancy, there has indeed been a remarkable rapprochement
between Hindus and Sikhs. Whether this will lead to a full reabsorption
of the Sikh community by Hinduism remains to be seen.
In theory, the
case for the basic Hindu identity of Sikhism is overwhelming. Unlike
Jainism and Buddhism, Sikhism has gone through all the developments of
Hinduism until the Moghul period. It has no separate theology or
philosophy, no separate ethics or social structure. It has borrowed
elements from Islam, but not the decisive ones: belief in a notion of a
true God versus false gods, hence in iconoclasm, and belief in a monopolistic
prophethood. There is nothing in Sikhism at which a Hindu should
In practice, however,
Sikh separatism has scored important victories. Most Sikhs would
object to their inclusion in the Hindu category. In this separatist
endeavour, they are encouraged by the non-Hindus and the secularists, whose
attitude to religious issues is always one of crass superficialism.
Looking at the matter superficially, the mere existence of the labels “Hindu”
and “Sikh” is enough to prove the existence of two distinct entities going
by these names. Any subtler understanding which sees the profound
rootedness of Sikhism in Hinduism is routinely blackened as a Hindu conspiracy
of the “boa constrictor” type.
And yet, such
deeper understanding is the only way forwards. It is ignoble and
below the dignity of human intelligence to remain stuck in the prevailing
situation where a religion is defined as separate on no better grounds
than externalities like turbans and beards.
The case for Sikh
separateness is based on nothing more than, firstly, a handful of ambiguous
sentences in the Sikh canon, as against thousands which unambiguously put
Sikhism inside the Hindu fold; and secondly, puerile loud-mouthing and
violence. Of all the borderline cases considered in this book, Sikhism
is next to Ramakrishnaism by far the clearest: apart from separatism, its
contents are entirely part of Hinduism even if the latter is narrowly defined.
Geographic, May 1997, p.54.
McLeod: Who is a Sikh?, p.21. The pan-Sikh last names Singh,
“lion”, and Kaur, “princess”, do not replace but merely conceal
the caste titles (Khattri, Arora etc.) which are the real last names.
It is a recent development that Singhs have replaced their caste surnames
with the names of their villages, e.g. Badal, Barnala, etc.
verse, from the Guru Granth Bhairav is quoted in extenso by Gurdarshan
Singh Dhillon: “Perspective on Sikh identity”, Indian Express, 21-5-1991,
and in Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol.1, p.62. A similar
verse was included by Guru Arjun in the Granth (54:5) but originally written
by Kabir: “I am neither Hindu nor Muslim; body and life belong to Allah-Rama”,
see Duncan Greenlees: The Gospel of the Guru Granth Sahib, p. 211.
Rajendra Singh Nirala: Ham Hindû Hain (Hindi, itself a translation
from the Panjabi original: “We are Hindus”), 1989; Ham Hindû Kyon
(“Why we are Hindus”), 1990, both published by Voice of India. These
hooks were written at the height of Khalistani terrorism and publishing
them was a matter of great personal courage.
e.g. the RSS publication by Ram Prakash: Tegh Babadur.
in Organiser, 21-12-1997. Bhârat Vikâs Parishad: “Indian
Development Council”, yet another RSS front.
Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.12.
Hughes: Dictionary of Islam, p.583.
Singh: Many Faces, p.4,
forego discussion of the apparent contradiction between Gods’s “fatherhood”
(a specific god-form) and His “formlessness”.
“Monotheism (..) culminated in Guru Nanak’s religious thought”, according
to Shashi Bala: The Concept of Monotheism, p.vii. An explicit claim
that Guru Nanak was a prophet receiving divine revelations is made in D.
Greenlees: Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib, p.clxxi ff.
Aurobindo: Foundations of Indian Culture, p.135.
e.g. Dr. Robert Morey: The Islamic Invasion, esp. Ch.3: “The God
of Islam: Allah and the God of the Bible”, e.g. p.65: “Many Westerners
assume that Allah is just another name for God. This is due to their
ignorance of the difference between the Allah of the Quran and the God
of the Bible land to] the present popularity of religious relativism”.
“prophet”. Pîrî-mîrî, from Persian pîr,
Sufi saint, and Arabic (a)mîr, “commander”, means “spiritual-cum-worldly
authority”, proclaimed as his prerogative by Guru Hargovind in ca. 1630
(or so modern Sikh authors claim), and symbolized by the two swords in
the Sikh emblem (as Islam described the Khalifas as Amir-ul-mominin
and never as a pîr, it never spawned anything like the two-sword
symbol which adorned the pope two-three contries earlier). Hukumnâma,
“ordering letter”, is a written judgment by the Akâl Takht,
the “timeless throne”, the highest collective authority of the Sikh community.
Dharm-yuddh, “religious war”, originally not in the sense of jihâd,
“war against the unbelievers”, but in the sense of: warfare conducted within
the limits of a chivalrous code of honour.
Sikh terminology, the Arabic-derived term sâhib, “companion
[of the Prophet]”, hence an honorific for white people (formerly Turks,
then Europeans), serves as a general honorific (like Hindi shrî
or -jî), e.g. Gurû Granth Sâhib, Anandpûr
Goel: “Only the truth is sacred”. Sunday Observer, 2-4-1995.
Delhi, December 1997.
Singh (not to be confused with RSS supremo Prof. Rajendra Singh),
interview, Delhi, November 1993; relaying a finding of his mentor, Sikh
author Rajendra Singh Nirala.
Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.60.
Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.60-61, n. 29, referring to
M.A. Macauliffe: The Sikh Religion (Oxford 1909), vol.3, p.72-75
and p.8990. As we shall see below, Ch.8.3, Macauliffe’s bona fides
has been questioned. At any rate, the near-contemporary accounts
of Arjun Dev’s martyrdom, including Jahangir’s autobiography (which refers
to the Guru as a Hindu), conflict with the now-approved version, vide Louis
E. Fenech: “Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition”, Journal of the American
Oriental Society, 1997/4, p.623-642
in the case of meat, means that the animal was slaughtered according to
ritual prescriptions borrowed from Judaism (the term is roughly equivalent
to Hebrew kosher), esp. in such a way that the blood drips out as
completely as possible.
from having read a considerable part of Khushwant Singh’s work, I have
also met him in informal circumstances (on the airplane, ca. February
1993), and I was struck by his capacity to take a laugh at himself, a rare
quality among contemporary intellectuals, particularly those who have made
it to the top. A typical example of standard neo-Sikh historiography
is Gurmit Singh: History of the Sikh Struggles.
from E. Trumpp: Translation of the Adi Granth, p.ci, in T.P. Hughes:
Dictionary of Islam, p.583, and in Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship,
Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.12-13. Indeed, “Macauliffe’s
works (…) were reissued in the sixties. More recent Sikh scholars
wrote histories of the Sikhs which were variations on the same theme.”
Singh: Many Faces, p. 5.
Singh: Many Faces, p.4.
is equated with Vishnu’s tenth incarnation Kalki in the Khojâ
Vrittânta scripture of the Ismaili Khojas in Gujarat (M.A. Jinnah’s
community), a kind of inculturation tactic to woo Gujarati Banias into
Islam. However, the doctrine of incarnation (avatârvâd)
is deeply offensive to Islam, which sees shirk, “association (of
other beings with God)” as its worst enemy. Classically, shirk
has the general sense of “polytheism”, but originally it meant very specifically
the “association” of a freshly decoded prominent human individual with
a deity (parallel to what the Greeks called apotheosis), the way
Krishna got “associated” with Vishnu (i.e. posthumously recognized as partaking
of the essence of that deity); see, for examples of the shirk of Ugaritic
kings with god Ilu (Hebrew El/Eloha, Arabic al-Ilâb,=
Allâh), J.C. De Moor: The Rise of Yahwism, p.330-331.
partisan studies criticizing Hindu “inclusivism” as a manifestation of
their intolerance, vide e.g. W. Halbfass: India and Europe, Ch.22,
or G. Oberhammer, ed.: Inklusivismus, eine indische Denkform.
Shourie: Secular Agenda, p. 16-17.
Singh: Many Faces, p.6.
Bhatia (“Secularisation of a martyrdom”, Organiser, 11-1-1998) takes offence
at the Times of India’s claim (11-11-1997) that Tegh Bahadur “died
for other people’s rights”, thus epitomizing “empathy for fellow human
beings, cutting across communal, religious and political barriers”.
He objects to the “misleading secularist sting”, viz. the suggestion that
Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs belong to two distinct religions.
the Kashmiri Pandits are not mentioned in the contemporaneous accounts
is confirmed by Khushwant Singh’s translation of the whole poem (History
of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.74-75, from Govind Singh’s Bachitar Nâtak);
and tentatively also by Louis E. Fenech: “Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition”,
Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1997/4, p.623-642. The
Kashmiri Pandits may have been brought into the account because the history
of mass forced conversion in Kashmir was well-known, even proverbial.
The Pandits, or at least some of them, escaped by bravery, compromise,
bribery, dissimulation or emigration (hence the presence of the Saraswat
Brahmin community in the Konkan region), but all other communities in Kashmir
were islamized; see e.g. Narender Sehgal: Converted Kashmir, p.107-177.
However, this forced mass conversion took place under Sikander Butshikan,
centuries before Aurangzeb; I am not aware of any original accounts of
such a policy concerning the Pandits under Aurangzeb, whose known persecutions
may have been projected onto the Kashmiri situation and conflated with
in Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.75.
Singh and Kuldip Nayar: Tragedy of Punjab, p.20-21, quoted by V.P.
Bhatia: “Secularisation of a Martyrdom”, Organiser, 11-11998. Bhatia
merely quotes it for the sake of contrast, to highlight the Hindu commitment
which even these two prominent secularists concede to Govind Singh: “Guru
Govind Singh (…) sought inspiration from the deeds of martial Hindu deities
like goddesses Chandi, Sri and Bhagwati.(…) the dividing line between Hindus
and Sikhs remained extremely thin. (…) Many Hindu families brought up one
of their sons as a kesadhari Sikh and Hindus and, Sikhs in urban areas
continued to give their children in marriage to each other.” Kesadhârî:
“one who keeps his hair”, a Khalsa Sikh.
Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.80.
Shourie: Secular Agenda, p.11.
Singh: Many Faces, p.8.
Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p. 289.
Singh: Many Faces, p.8.
Goel: introduction to Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.2.
Singh: Many Faces, p.9.
Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p. 18.
Singh: Many Faces, p.9.
Singh: Many Faces, p.9.
Veer Bhadra Mishra, Mahant of Sankat Mochan Mandir, Varanasi, talking to
me in 1989.
Singh: Many Faces, p.12.
Singh: Many Faces, p.12.
Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p. 19.
Hindutva writings (e.g. in Jeevan Kulkarni’s Writ Petition no. 587 of 1989),
there is frequent reference to a telegram allegedly sent by the Pakistani
raiders to their military headquarters during the invasion of Kashmir in
1948: “All women raped, all Sikhs killed.”
this is according to Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol.1,
Bahadur’s Hindi reply to Aurangzeb is reproduced in full in Kshitish: Storm
in Punjab, p.178. In pro-separatist publications, it is strategically
omitted, e.g. in D. Greenlees: Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib, p.xcvii.
the modern anti-Hindu variety of Sikh history, this becomes: “the Guru
was forced into resistance by the incessant attacks of jealous Hill Rgjas,
who could not tolerate the rise of Sikhism beside them”, according to Duncan
Greenlees: Gospel of the Guru-Granth Sahib, p.xcix.
neo-Sikh historiography, which has a strong anti-Brahmin bias (e.g. systematically
concealing the presence of Brahmin officiants at the Gurus’ weddings),
the capture of the two boys is explained with the undocumented allegation
that these Brahmins who protected them had “betrayed” them, e.g. Khushwant
Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.92.
here again there is an Islamic parallel: Mohammed himself admitted that
he would not have been the final prophet if Ibrahim, his son by his Coptic
wife Mary, had lived.
by Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol.1, p.87. Pâdeshâh:
“sovereign”, official title of the Moghul Emperor.
mention only Sikhs and Rajputs as wise collaborators, for the Marathas,
who had stood tip to the Moghuls at a time when all the others felt compelled
to collaborate, ended up collaborating with the Moghul throne at a time
when the said justification had disappeared: given their military superiority
in the 1770s and 80s, the Marathas could have replaced Moghul sovereignty
(pâdeshâhî) with native sovereignty, but somehow
they dragged their feet and continued to act as loyal vassals of a Moghul
who had lost all military power and was about to accept a pension from
the British East India Company (which continued the same pretence of respecting
Moghul sovereignty until 1857).
the first years of Arya Samaj activity (and on a smaller scale even well
into the 20th century), by contrast, there had been plenty of cooperation
with the Sikhs, both being aware of the common ground between them as Hindu
reform movements, see Kshitish Vedalankar: Storm in Punjab, p. 166-170.
allegation that Nanak was a well-intentioned man who wrongly pretended
to be a Vedic scholar is made by Swami Dayananda Saraswati: Light of
Truth, p.442-445, though the exact word “impostor” (dambhî
should at any rate be translated more precisely as “pretender”) is not
used there. Dayananda attributed to Nanak some sentences disparaging
the Vedas which are there in the Sikh canon but not uttered by Nanak himself.
Nonetheless, he appreciated it in Nanak that he “saved some persons from
embracing Mohammedanism” and that he remained a householder instead of
becoming a Sadhu, family life being a Vedic duty. He also praised
Govind Singh for fighting Islam.
are not Hindus”, 1898. Kahan Singh was royal tutor in the princely
state of Nabha and, in Ram Swarup’s description, “a pakkâ
[impeccable] loyalist” (Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.14). He was also
a disciple of M.A. Macauliffe, who bequeathed the royalties of his books
Singh: Many Faces, p. 10
to Meenakshi Jain (“The Plight of Brahmins”, Indian Express, 18-9-1990,
included in H.P. Lohia, ed.: Political Vandalism, p.56), Brahmins
constituted 70% of the freedom fighters executed by the British; any list
of pre-Independence Congress office-bearers confirms that among non-violent
freedom fighters too, Brahmins, from B.G. Tilak and G.K. Gokhale to C.
Rajagopalachari, were enormously over-represented. The Brahmin initiative
in Hindu nationalism (Savarkar, Hedgewar) is also part of this phenomenon.
Storm in Punjab, p. 174.
Singh: Many Faces, p. 13.
Singh: Many Faces, p. 13.
Singh: Many Faces, p. 13.
Storm in Punjab, p. 179.
Vedalankar: Storm in Punjab, p.181, quoting observations to this effect
by E. Trumpp, G.A. Grierson and S.K. Chatterji (see also Chatterji: Indo-Aryan
and Hindi, p.188, enumerating the Hindi dialects including Panjabi).
Braja-bhâshâ was the then dominant Hindi dialect of
the Yamuna region and the lingua franca of northern India from Panjab
Singh: Many Faces, p. 2.
demolishing the Communist rhetoric about the RSS being “fascist”, Gérard
Heuzé (Où va l’Inde moderne?, p.123) wonders whether
“the invention of a category of ‘Third-World mass identitarianism’
would not be more pertinent than the never-ending references to fascism”.
Singh: Many Faces, p.4. This point is dramatized in his joke: Sikh
scholars sat down to take Hinduism out of the Granth Sahib. They
took it out page by page. In the end, however, they were left holding
the binding cover in their hands.
Swarup: “Hindu Roots of Sikhism”, Indian Express, 24-4-1991. Brahma-vâda:
“doctrine of the Absolute”; Mâyâ: “the power to create
delusions”, hence “the world as a delusion created by this power of the
Divine”; So-’ham: “Him am I”, statement of monistic oneness of individual
and divine consciousness; Advaita: “non-duality”; Karma:
“law of cause and effect spanning across incarnations”: Mukti: “liberation”;
Nirvâna: “blowing out”, hence “ego annihilation”.
Gurnam Kaur: Reason and Revelation in Sikhism.
V.R. Bhattacharya: Secular Thoughts of the Sikh Gurus, honoured
with a foreword by Giani Zail Singh, President of India.
Storm in Punjab, p.19. Janamsâkhî is a biography of
Singh: Many Faces, p.6. The separate Sikh wedding ritual was consolidated
by the Anand Marriage Act 1909.
Panth (from Sanskrit patha, “path”) or its synonym sampradaya, I
might have used the term “sect”, but in recent decades this term has been
identified with “sectarian” phenomena to the extent of making it purely
pejorative; so I have retained the Hindi term.
near-exact count is given in K.P. Agrawala: Adi Shrî Gurû
Granth Sâhib kî Mahimâ (Hindi: “The greatness of
the original sacred Guru scripture”), p.2, and in Ram Swarup: “Hindu roots
of Sikhism”, Indian Express, 24-4-1991. Examples: ca. 8,300
times Hari (630 times by Nanak alone), 2,400 times Râma (the
god-name whose constant remembrance leads to Liberation), 550 times Parabrahman
(the Absolute), 400 times Omkâra (the primeval sound Om).
Sikh devotion to Ram, see Rajendra Singh: Sikkha Itihâsa mein
Singh: Many Faces, p. 5.
Pukh Raj Sharma of the Ram-Rukmini Institute, Jodhpur, speaking in Mechelen
(Belgium), May 1988.
Mohammed Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan, did develop a concept
of khudî, “selfhood”, but he opposed it to Sufi notions of
fanâ (ego-extinction and the absorption in God, equivalent
to and possibly evolved from the Buddhist notion of Nirvâna,
and similar to the Upanishadic true impersonal Self); his non-mystic al
khudî is more akin to modern psychological notions of “self-actualization”
and the like, perhaps best approaching the Hindu concept of swadharma,
“one’s own duty”, but more individualistic.
Chatterjee: “The BJP: Political Mobilization for Hindutva”, South Asia
Bulletin, p. 17.
Singh: “Congress (I) is the Most Communal Party”, Publik Asia, 16-11-1989.
In Delhi, taxi drivers are typically Sikhs.
26-11-1989: “Veteran journalist Khushwant Singh has gone public with his
support for (…) L.K. Advani. At considerable personal expense.”
Bahadur Singh (editor of the Sher-i-Panjâb weekly): “Cabinet
berth for a Sikh”, Indian Express, 31-5-1996. His point is
that to counter BJP influence, the then United Front Government led by
Deve Gowda should court the Sikhs by inducting a Sikh as Minister.
Note how this communal demand (viz. for inducting someone on the basis
of his communal identity) is justified: “The UF should gain confidence
of millions of secular-minded Sikhs in India and abroad by inducting
a Sikh in its Cabinet. Secularism is a factor in India’s unity
and integrity. The Sikhs with glorious secular traditions
have thus a right to their representation in the Front’s new Cabinet.”
Singh Sawhney and Narain Kataria: “Hindu-Sikh Unity Celebration in America”,
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