Follow palashbiswaskl on Twitter

Sunday, July 31, 2011


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, Jul 31, 2011 at 3:00 AM

International Journal of Sikh Affairs Vol 21, No. 2, 1-11,-NOVEMBER 2011 ISSN 1481-5435Ó




[This paper was presented to the Guru Nanak University for publication in response to their invitation. It was not published because the University did not accept that Guru Nanak had political concerns. This was the primary objection. My view, strengthened by this episode, is that certain people in our universities are succumbing to the diktat of the permanent cultural majority to bring Sikhi within the ambit of previously prevailing culture. In my opinion this cultural aggression needs to be resisted]

It was Guru Nanak who laid down the basic rules that must govern the waging of war by his disciples. Besides pointing out the code of conduct in conflicts, he also spoke about the mental equipment, spiritual training and self discipline of a soldier. He is again the one who defines what makes conflict legitimate, the extent to which it is to be pursued by individual soldiers and armies and the purpose to be achieved by waging war. He talks of brave knights and martyrs being honoured at Akalpurakh's Court (tithe jodh mahabal soor). Bhai Gurdas, one of his earliest biographers, calls the Guru a 'roaring lion' and a 'conquering hero.' He goes on to commemorate him in a ballad composed in the form of a Vaar that is normally employed to eulogise knights and to immortalise battles and victories. The ideal human of Guru Arjun's concept is 'Akalpurakh's champion.' (haun gosain ka pehalwanra) The mental and physical training required of a spiritually developed person is aimed at imbibing the attributes of God which the Guru has revealed. The incessant striving to acquire these virtues and making them a part of individual character is defined as salvation. Thereafter, always standing up for the implementation of the Divine Will, as revealed in the Guru's word, is all that remains to make salvation an eternal reality. Of the greatest importance, perhaps, is also the method by which salvation is to be achieved as well as the nature of evil that was to be overcome in the process. It is possible to trace all this in the utterances of Guru Nanak. Succeeding Gurus and other holy persons (bhagta), whose word was accepted as part of the final Sikh scripture, appear to be in accord with the Guru's thought. Therefore it is pertinent recall the conduct of Sikh armies and soldiers engaged in actual warfare, with a view to knowing the extent to which the rules, so meticulously codified, were followed.

2.    In the opening verse of Guru Granth, Guru Nanak lays down, amongst others, the three most important attributes of the Creator that went a long way in motivating his followers' conduct during war. These are: 'The Ultimate Reality is 1,' S/He is fearless and has no enmity.' The use of the numeral is deliberate and is meant to convey absolute oneness. 'It is not my one God' that the Guru believed in but the only One for all creation. The effect of this belief translates into fearless combat in battlefield and humane treatment of the defeated. Guru Nanak's ideal devotee of the Divne is one who is so 'enthusiastic' about playing the 'game of love' that he is prepared to stake his life in the venture (to 'carry his head on the palm of his hand.') A person must think nothing of making the ultimate sacrifice while walking on the spiritual path. (je tau prem khelan ka chaou sir dhar tali gali mori aao). 

3.   The Guru expects his followers not to shirk battle for a worthy cause. The cause has been defined clearly. It is the Creator's Will that absolute justice should pervade all human institutions, that everyone must enjoy the freedom of worship and to preserve ones human dignity. This is the basis of the Sikh political thought in Guru Granth. Akalpurakh  disapproves of oppression (har jio hankar naa bhaaviee) born of impulse of aggression. In his Babarvani verses, Guru Nanak expounds the theory that it is necessary for a spiritually oriented person to physically resist evil-doers. He denounces the Lodhis who failed to protect the women of Hind and its culture. The conclusion is that the devotees who strive for spiritual progress must resist oppression to express their love for Him. Physical resistance to evil is therefore necessary for a person having spiritual aspirations. This is the 'righteous cause' that must be pursued 'to the point of courting martyrdom (mar se mansa sooria hak hai je hoe marahe parvano).' Defining the righteous cause more explicitly, Guru Arjun told Adit Soini, 'while engaged in battle, contemplate on Akalpurakh, Who destroys evil-doers; fight an ethical battle on behalf of the oppressed poor.'[i] The same idea is contained in the verses of Kabir included in the scripture. 'Truly brave is one who fights for the deprived,' says the Bhagat. (soora so pehchanie jo lare deen ke het). While engaged in this pious duty, the battlefield must never be abandoned. (purja purja kat marai kbhun na chhade khet).

4.    We learn from literature other than the scripture that the succeeding Gurus blessed professional soldiers and encouraged them to develop the right kind of attitude towards warlike engagements. Guru Angad, the second Nanak, for instance, laid down an important rule of warfare when he told a military-man Mallu Shahi, 'do not initiate a quarrel with any one. If a battle is imposed upon you, do not give thought to whether you are well or ill equipped, enter the fray.'[ii] While wanton aggression is never justified, it is immoral to avoid war 'at any cost.' But even when engaged in battle, the all-important discipline to conform to is that there should be no violence at heart. Guru Arjun advised Tiloka Suhar, who was a soldier in the Mughal army, 'do not be violent at heart but remain steadfast in your profession of a soldier'.[iii] Guru Hargobind, the Sixth Nanak, fighting a 'to the finish duel' with the Mughal commander Painda Khan on the battlefield, would not strike first or in anger. Mohsin Fani recalls an incident in which the Guru warded off an attacker and while dealing him a fatal blow calmly observed, 'this is how the sword is wielded.' He did not forget his primary duty of a teacher even in those grim circumstances. The related injunction is also derived from the famous letter Zafarnamah (in Persian), supposedly written by the Tenth Guru to Aurangzeb. The oft quoted couplet is to the effect, that 'when all peaceful strivings is of no avail, righteousness it is then to grasp the sword'. These sermons, prescriptions and acts became the basis of the firm stipulation that weapons were not to be taken up in anger or with aggressive intent and only in the last resort. They are reflected in theRehatnamas put together by devoted Sikhs much later.[iv] In the Guru's eyes nothing makes the cause more worthy than the taking up of weapons only when every other possibility of getting justice is exhausted.

5.    This attitude to war also implies humane treatment of prisoners of war, the injured, those who give up confrontation, non-combatants and the slain. The Tenth Nanak, Gobind Singh specifically forbade the massacre of fleeing enemy. This injunction is based on the Sikh doctrine, that that there is no 'other' among humans, as all derive origin from the same divine entity, the common Father/Mother of all. (na ko bairi nahi begana sagal sang ham ko ban aiee: sab ko meet ham apna keena ham sabhna ke sajan). It further says that evil is the result of misconception and wrong orientation of the human mind. People are intrinsically good, not bad. Once they abandon evil ways or cease to support evil causes, they must not be molested. Qazi Nur Muhammad records, `they never kill a retreating foe.'[v] Karl Marx thinks that the Sikhs failed to consolidate their victory over the British at Mudki on December 21, 1945 because they would not attack a defeated foe.[vi]

6.    An application of the rule relating to prisoners of war is documented again and again. George Forester records that the Afghan Prisoners of War were compelled to clean the mess they created at the shrine at Amritsar. But, "the Sikhs – set bounds to impulse of revenge and though the Afghan massacre and persecution must have been deeply imprinted on their minds, they did not, -- destroy one prisoner in cold blood."[vii] Rattan Singh Bhangu's father Rai Singh participated in a battle against Jahan Khan, the Afghan Governor of Sarhind, 'in the middle of November 1763 CE.' Rattan Singh has constructed the incidents that happened on the battlefields on the information received from his father. He says, `the Singhs did not attack the enemy soldiers who abandoned their weapons. They sought no revenge for they were the personification of mercy.'[viii] When, after a duel with Guru Hagobind, Painda Khan, who was lying mortally wounded, repented, the merciful Guru took his head upon his lap and shielded the sun from his eyes saying, 'Painda it is time to repeat the 'kalmia.' Painda Khan was overwhelmed by the gesture. His last words were, 'now Guru, your sword has become my kalmia.' In a battle against the King of Kahlur in about 1711 CE, the Sikh commander in chief Banda Singh Bahadur, issued a military order, 'do not pursue a retreating soldier.' At the conclusion of the same battle, Sikh soldiers dug graves and buried the thirteen hundred dead since now they were beyond enmity.[ix]This tradition dates at least from the time of Guru Gobind Singh who ordered a decent burial for the dead enemy after the battle of Mukatsar. The Sikh Commonwealth faced the greatest danger from Maulvi Sayyid Ahmed Brailvi who, with the British support, led a Jehad against it (1831CE). His head was cut off by a Sikh soldier who presented it to Kanwar Sher Singh. He searched for the Sayyid's body, retrieved it from the battlefield, wrapped it in an expensive shawl and called a Maulvi to perform the last rites according to the Islamic custom. All his dead companions were honourably buried. Their leader received state honours.[x]  

7.    Guru Gobind Singh, encouraged medical treatment of the injured enemy, even in the field of battle. He went to the extent of organising a volunteer force headed by Bhai Kanheyia, in the closing years of the 17th century to pursue this injunction. A section of the Sikhs who continue with Bhai Kanheya's work of serving others, are organized today as Sewapanthis.

8.    In the above mentioned battle "Jahan Khan himself took to flight. All his camp equipage, relatives and dependants fell into the hands of the Sikhs. 'But as the Sikhs of old would not lay their hands on women,' says Ali-ud-Din, 'they sent them safely to Jammu.'[xi] The wife of Jahan Khan was amongst the captured and it was on her wish that safe journey to Jammu was arranged. A little later, Sarbuland Khan the military commander of Rohtas was defeated and captured by Sardar Charhat Singh. "He was – treated with respect—as a highly placed Afghan official and as an uncle of Ahmed Shah. He was so pleased with the kindness he received at the hands of the Sardar, that he offered to serve under him as a governor if Charhat Singh were to proclaim himself a king. [Charat Singh informed him] 'kingship is already bestowed upon us by the Guru.' [The prisoner was] allowed to return to his country."[xii]

9.    Ideally from the Sikh point of view, warfare is a voluntary activity born of intense personal conviction. It is in this context that the war cry of 'jo bole so nhal, sat siri akal,' ('every felicity is to him who volunteers to join up on hearing the cry of battle being waged for the cause of the Deathless') becomes meaningful. Nothing illustrates this point better than the history of celebrated martyrs like Bhai Tara Singh Wan, Gurbaksh Singh Nihang and others. According to Rattan Singh Bhangu, before the final battle in which death was assured, Tara Singh told his companions that those who wanted to escape could do so. Several went away. He also wrote to those who had promised to share with him their last moments on earth of which, at least three came, joined him and eventually died along with him the next day. Shah Muhammad, recording the happenings relating to a crucial battle of the Anglo-Sikh war, recalls the resolve of the Khalsa army to the effect, 'now it is the privilege of the Khalsa to lead a frontal attack. Let not the poor (those who have joined the army for earning livelihood,) be pushed to the front.' (kalghidhar de khalse hun hon moohre, agge hor garib na dhakkanai jee). In many other situations similar conduct of the Sikh soldiers has been noted. In his last battle with the Indian army, Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa in his characteristically humorous way, told those around him, 'it appears that at dawn we must make the last sortie. Death is assured. Those who desire to live are welcome to escape. Don't say afterwards that this saadh propelled us into the jaws of death (pher na akhio es saadh ne sanoo marva ditta).' Those who wanted to go were allowed to depart amicably. The writer of these lines has met at least four persons who had escaped after this pronouncement.

10.   'Totally devoted ones boldly face battle but the uninitiated run away from conflict,' says the Guru Granth. (daage hoe so ran meh joojhai bin dage bhag jaee). This sentiment is echoed in the Rehatnamas, is prominent in the conduct of Sikh soldiers and has been mentioned by historians throughout the ages.[xiii] That the Sikh soldier took his spiritual commitment seriously is also borne out by accounts of the Anglo—Sikh wars.[xiv]

11.   Steadfastness in battle became the hallmark of the Sikh soldier. Sikh religious discipline prescribes that when he is fighting for Truth as he knows it, there is not an inch of the field that he can yield. (purja purja kat marai kabhoon na chhade khet). This was the tradition. Gurbaksh Singh Nihang faced the whole army of Ahmed Shah Abdali with just thirty companions. Of him and his companions, Bhangu says that they all died while advancing towards the enemy. He says the same of the forty martyrs of Muktsar who all fell while advancing in defence of the Guru. After the battle, the Guru assigned them honour after counting the steps that they had advanced from the central point of battle. Karl Marx instinctively knew that in the Khalsa armies, the British people were facing a different kind of a soldier. He thinks the British commander-in-chief's "asinine stupidity" was responsible for the defeat of the British forces at Pherushahar. "Gough imagined he could do anything to the Sikhs, in the same way as to the easily frightened Hindus of the South, by charging them with bayonets."[xv] J. D. Cunningham who was present on the battlefield during the Anglo-Sikh wars observed about the British cavalry charge, "nor was it until the mass had been three times ridden through that the Sikhs dispersed. The charge was timely and bold; but the ground was more thickly strewn with the bodies of victorious horsemen than of the beaten infantry. The true Sikh was not easily cowed."[xvi]

12.   The earliest time to which the existence of a fully developed Sikh war code is traceable is the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Bhai Santokh Singh, who did a considerable amount of research to write his popularly known Suraj Prakash, is certain that there existed a written code of conduct for the Sikhs participating in war. He refers to it as gurshastra. He specifically refers to one of its provisions, namely, that women were not to be molested under any circumstances. In this context, and as a measure particularly relevant to wartime situation, members of the Order of the Khalsa were forbidden to have intercourse with Muslim women as Muslims were the main enemies they were fighting at that time and their women were most likely to fall into the hands of the Khalsa. A conversation on the question of the ban is reported to have taken place between Guru Gobind Singh and a group of Sikhs. 'All the Sikhs assembled together to ask the 'source of all values'. Their question was: 'the Turks routinely rape women of Hind. Sikhs would be doing well to avenge this. Why does the Guru's code (gurshastra) prohibit molestation of women? Then, at that time, the True Guru spoke thus; I want thepanth to scale (new moral) heights. I will not condemn it to depths of degradation.' It appears that these precepts were duly formally codified and strict adherence to them was stipulated as the Guru's wish – the strongest of all sanctions for a believing Sikh. Bhangu mentions that Banda Bahadur, appointed commander-in-chief of the Sikh forces by the Guru, used to repeat his general orders on the battlefield by the beat of drums everyday. One order that was repeated daily was, 'nobody is to touch ornaments on the person of a woman. Similarly, no man is to be divested of the clothes worn by him. More particularly, a person's turban was not to be removed.'[xvii] Of course, it all started with Guru Nanak's deep anguish and distress over the rape of the women of Hind by the invading armies of the Mughal Babur as depicted in thebabarvani verses. (paap ki janj lai kabulon dhaiya jori mange daan ve Lalo).

13.   There is another reference, which in spite of scepticism, suggests that a compendium of the Sikh war code perhaps existed at the time of Ranjit Singh. "—The Darbar under the guidance of Ranjit Singh framed certain regulations for the army. What these regulations were we cannot surmise; they have not outlived their authors, nor is it probable that they were ever recorded; but judging from the discipline of the Khalsa we may be inclined to think favourably of them."[xviii]

14.   There are several independent observers who have noticed the strict code of warfare followed by the Sikhs throughout the centuries. Qazi Nur Muhammad notes of the Sikhs that 'they do not rob a woman of her gold and ornaments, may she be a queen or a slave-girl. Adultery also does not exist among—."[xix] Griffin noted in hisRajas of the Punjab, "There are few stories in Sikh History of outrage to women and torture to men such as stain the pages of South Indian History with cruelty and blood."[xx]

15.   Inspired by the Guru's injunctions, the Sikh soldiers were always moved by the plight of women and recorded incidents depict them as travelling hundreds of miles, courting danger and fighting bloody battles to rescue women in distress. Baghel Singh once rode to Lohari with his army on such a mission. Lohari was within an arms length of Delhi where the Mughal king still ruled. He rescued the woman, punished her tormentors and had her rehabilitated with the consent of her clan. His entire army donated cash to give her a parting present because she had by the act of being rescued by them, become the 'daughter of the entire panth.'

16.   The most spectacular example of this chivalrous conduct at the mass level is the rescue of thousands of Maratha women being carried captive by Ahmed Shah Abdali after the Third Battle of Panipat in January 1761. The earliest historians who recorded it include Ram Sukh Rao the official historian of the ruling Ahluwalia family. It is mentioned by James Brown in his History of the Origin and Progress of the Sikhs, published in 1881.[xxi] After their rescue, they were escorted to their homes in Maharashtra and restored to their families in a soul stirring gesture depicting rare moral grandeur of monumental magnitude.

17.   In the recent (1971) war against Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh, the Sikh soldiers came across women kept as sex slaves by Yahya Khan's army. They were often found without clothes (a measure to deter escape?). It is recorded that the Sikh soldiers of the invading victorious army, took off their turbans in a befitting tribute to human dignity, to cover the naked women. The tradition launched by the gurshastrahas come down to the present day. 

18.   Sikh conventions appear also to have contained a provision that other non-combatants besides women were to be considered inviolable. "On December 10, 1710, (the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah 1707-12) issued a royal edict to all the faujdars(military commanders) of Shahjahanabad (Delhi) and its neighbourhood to put to the sword the worshippers of Nanak –the Sikhs- where ever found." (Nanak-prastan ra har ja kih ba-aband, ba-qatl rasanad)[xxii] The Sikh reply to this order of general massacre of Sikhs is recorded by the royal news-writer who informed the Emperor on April 28, 1711, "that Banda Singh – -encamped at Kalanaur – had declared that he was in no way opposed to the Muslims and that they had the fullest liberty to recite their sermons and prayers – khutba-o-namaz. – -The result of this was, the report continued, that as many as five thousand Muslims had joined the Sikh army."[xxiii]

19.   Sikhs appear to have been instructed by the Guru to have a measure of reverence for the places considered holy by any tradition. They meticulously followed the instructions, although the Afghans and the Mughals had often destroyed Sikh shrines during the period of their political ascendancy. The holiest Sikh shrine at Amritsar was pulled down twice and defiled many times more. Yet when the first great Sikh upheaval under Banda Bahadur took place in around 1710 CE the Sikhs destroyed no place of worship. The Sikh armies gathered at Fatehgarh Sahib, the place where the younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh had been bricked alive, for the final assault on Sirhind. They were within a few hundred yards of the mausoleum of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhandi who had been the implacable foe of the Sikhs. Ideology emanating with him was responsible for the execution of two Gurus, the persecution of four and the execution of the Guru's sons.[xxiv] Shaikh Ahmed called himself the 'prophet of the second millennium' and received homage as such. Many princes of Afghanistan lie buried at the graveyard attached to his shrine. The Sikhs never thought of destroying or even despoiling his grave or the graves of their sworn enemies whom they knew to be despoilers of their land. Sirhind was destroyed totally and the land on which it stood was ploughed in revenge for the execution of little princes, the sons of Guru Gobind Singh, aged seven and nine years. It was cosidered to have forfeited the right to exist. The Shaikh's mausoleum stands fully intact even today.

20.   It is also pretty clear that the destruction of common heritage of humankind, such as libraries, is not sanctioned by the Sikh war code. In 1834, the Sikh forces were poised to attack Peshawar. Ranjit Singh gave emphatic written instructions to the invading General Hari Singh Nalwa that the famous library of the Akhunzadas of Chamkani was to be meticulously saved from harm.[xxv] The position may be contrasted with that of the Romans the most civilised of the ancient world, who burnt the priceless manuscripts at Alexandria, or with that of the Medieval Muslims who destroyed the rich library at Constantinople in 1453 and with that of the modern Indian state that burnt the Sikh Reference Library at Amritsar in 1984.


Much has been written about the exploits of Sikh warriors. Historical accounts of battles and wars are abundant but there is woefully little research by way of discovering the war code which Sikhs followed. There are similarities in the conduct of Sikh soldiers throughout the centuries of warfare, that tell us that there existed a body of injunctions having the effect of law on the minds of soldiers who took their faith seriously. It is possible to say that it had spiritual discipline for its basis and was eventually derived from the Guru Granth. From Qazi Nur Muhammad to the press reporters chronicling the war for Bangladesh, a similarity of conduct on certain basic issues is noticed. It is challenging to trace the origin of instructions which are universally respected and have commanded spontaneous adherence in all ages.

The ultimate sanction behind exemplary conduct, expected of a soldier, was spiritual. A Sikh soldier was consciously playing the role of Akalpurakh in human affairs. For that he had to be imbued with the qualities which the gurbani reveals to be His attributes. A Sikh's salvation depended upon implementing the Divine Will in the world. Its operative part dealt with removing human suffering by seeking to establish justice and by banishing oppression from human affairs. This is the meaning of the assertion that 'he is to be considered a brave knight who fights for the downtrodden' (deen). (Guru Granth, 1356). The very opening verse of the Guru Granth states that the Ultimate Reality is 'fearless' and is 'without enmity.' While a soldier expected himself to be attuned to these concepts in daily life, he knew that in adversity and in war, the only measure of his conduct was living up to them. That was especially important for his spiritual self esteem. It constituted salvation itself. Until the coming into existence of the Sikh states, the Sikh armies were totally voluntary forces. Even after that a significant part of the army remained voluntary and unpaid. That had something to do with the war code voluntarily observed as a part of the strict spiritual discipline.  

Most of original Sikh literature and history books written by the Sikhs has been destroyed. It was the first target of all their proselytising enemies. The process was started by Lakhpat Rai a satrap of Shah Nawaz, the Mughal Governor of Lahore in mid eighteenth century. He is reputed to have filled up wells with books on Sikh theology and history. The latest example of such wanton destruction was in 1984 when the invading Indian armies set fire to the Sikh Reference Library and burnt up thousands of invaluable manuscripts, some dating back to the early seventeenth century. It is noteworthy that the library in the Darbar Sahib complex was burnt deliberately after the conflict with the militant defenders had come to a close with the death of all of them on June 6, 1984.

Any study of the Sikh War Code will be incomplete without an in depth study of the Guru's concept of 'open diplomacy.' Of Helvetians, Julius Caesar observed, "The tradition in which they had been schooled by their forebears was to fight like men and not to rely on cunning or stratagem."[xxvi] The same appears to have been true of the Sikhs and squares with the concept of 'open diplomacy' strictly enjoined upon the Khalsa by the Guru. The British were perceived to be morally degraded deceiving strategists. Several accounts of the Anglo-Sikh wars depict that the ordinary Sikh soldier was full of contempt for their unethical behaviour. Earlier Ranjit Singh had told reverend Wolff, a German missionary, who said he had brought civilising tidings to the Punjab, 'why don't you go and preach in Calcutta? The Governor General and his cohorts are the only uncivilised people in India.'

Engaging in warfare is not the only activity the Khalsa is created for. The war without is to take place as a last resort measure. It is the war within that is to occupy a person most of his life. It is as unrelenting as the physical warfare. The five vices, desire, anger, greed, attachment and arrogance are to be completely subdued. It is a total war – to the very finish. Human birth is a rare opportunity. (manas janam dulambh hai hoe na baram bar). It cannot be wasted (is pauri te jo nar chookai aai jai dukh paida). Just, like the battle without, there is a code of conduct for the battle within. There is also the discipline which is basically symbolised by the five symbols of faith bestowed upon the Khalsa by the compassionate Guru. With such equipment, the Khalsa must contend within and renew themselves like the bird of paradise with the help of the Guru's transforming touch. (pasu prethon dev kare poorai satgut ki vadiai). It is this that theRehatnamas advocate while prescribing 'he alone is Khalsa who mounts a charger (in this case the human body) and is ever engaged in warfare.' (Khalsa sou jo charhe turang, Khalsa sou jo kare nit jang). At that plane, the only other worthwhile activity recommended to a seeker is sewa or selfless service to humankind in its myriad forms. 


Posted by: Dr Awatar Singh Sekhon (Machaki), Editor in Chief, International Journal of Sikh Affairs ISSN 1481-5435  

Recent Activity:
Related links : ;



Palash Biswas
Pl Read:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Website counter


Blog Archive