These are perhaps the most evocative lines from Zafarnama, the ‘Epistle of Victory’, written by Guru Gobind Singh to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, sometime in 1705. Besides the tone of fearless defiance, these are emblematic of the poetic power and philosophical underpinning that is so evident in the Zafarnama, like in all the writings of the prolific Tenth Guru of the Sikhs.
In their seminal essay, which was originally published in 2011, A. Walter Dorn and Stephen Gucciardi have written that to understand Sikh attitudes towards the use of arms, two quite distinct Sikh sacred texts were carefully examined: the Adi Granth, the most hallowed scripture of the Sikhs, and the Dasam Granth, the controversial scripture of the last human Gurū. But scriptural analysis is not sufficient since historical developments within the community have exerted a major influence on Sikh thought. Especially relevant episodes are highlighted, particularly the fight against oppressive Mughal rule, emergence of the Khālsā, the martyrdom of prominent Sikhs, the Sikh reform process and the rise and decline of the Khalistan movement, including the events surrounding storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian armed forces in 1984.
The martial aspect
From the time Sikhism became better known to the West from the nineteenth century, the martial aspect of Sikh identity has been a dominant feature in the public perception of the religion, and was globally made known during the British Raj in India. That the Sikhs were formidable fighters was repeatedly displayed during the Anglo-Sikh wars 1845-1846, 1848-1849 (being ‘betrayed’ by traitors in their midst, but not from their faith: Ed) and they then turned around to support the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which in fact was against the mercenary Purbia soldiers of the East India Company. Sikhs were deemed a ‘martial race’ and continued to fight with distinction during the First and Second World Wars. However, despite their loyalty to the Empire, Sikhs were at the forefront in movements for Indian independence, both peacefully and martially, at levels disproportionate to their population in numbers.
The Sikhs fell from Western public view in those countries without a diaspora after Indian independence in 1947, but re-emerged in the 1980s during the events surrounding the movement for an independent Sikh homeland (Khalistan), in particular the armed insurgency inspired by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Indian army’s storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984. The Sikhs appeared, to some members of the public, as if they were engaging in the same trend of religious nationalism as found in the 1979 Iranian revolution and the religiously-inspired mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Furthermore, the distinctly martial public face of the community, exemplified by the sharp-edged khanda as Sikhism’s primary representative symbol, contributed towards this perception. Though the might of the Indian state was ultimately successful in quelling the Punjab restlessness that increased in intensity following the Golden Temple attack, many questions remain unanswered: what gave Bhindranwale’s movement such resonance? Is a martial position intrinsic to what it means to be a Sikh? What is the lineage of this position, and how do Sikhs justify the resort to armed force?
Scriptures provide important strands of thought, so the Adi Granth and the Dasam Granth need to be reviewed. Possible interpretations of these sacred texts are offered, although it is not our intent to assert that these are the only ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ ones; some scholars and practitioners might prefer more literal or militant interpretations. The second section of this essay examines historical events that have impacted the Sikh community and its approach towards acceptable use of force. Included here is a discussion of Mughal rule, the birth of the Khālsā, martyrdom, Sikh reform, and the peasant (Jat) culture. This survey offers an overview of Sikh views on armed force within the context of both scripture and history, which are so intertwined in Sikh thought and deed.
As one of the world’s prime religions, Sikh belief is focussed on the single scripture as centre of religious life. The Adi Granth or the ‘first holy book’, occupies this reverential position for all Sikhs. Treated as the eleventh and eternal gurū (spiritual teacher) in a line including ten human beings, the Adi Granth is the guiding light for Sikhs in their search for God and liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Like the Bible, the Adi Granth is a compendium of the works of a variety of different writers. In addition to the writings of six of the ten human gurūs, this includes the teachings of saints from both Hindu and Islamic faiths (Bhagats), a variety of poets (Bhaṭṭas) and several other figures. Tradition maintains that this inclusive feature reflects the message contained within the scripture itself: egalitarianism in the sphere of spirituality and equal access for all to the divine. The linguistic territory of the holy text shares ground with Khari Boli, the predecessor of modern Hindi which historically was used in religious poetry. Some refer to the language of the Adi Granth as Gurmukhi, the script used for writing the Adi Granth.
The Adi Granth was first compiled under the watch of Gurū Arjan, the fifth Gurū, in 1604. The tenth and final human Gurū, Gobind Singh, transferred both the sanctity and the authority of the gurūship to the Adi Granth itself in 1708. Added were the hymns of the Ninth Gurū, Tegh Bahādur, his father, to the holy text. This transformation into its final form was marked by a change in religious terminology. The Adi Granth became the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the active leader of the Sikh community. Sikhs thus revere the book as if it is a human Gurū, prostrating themselves in front of it and avoiding all actions which may be construed as disrespectful when in its presence. It is consulted at the beginning of each day and during a wide variety of ceremonies. Though Sikhs acknowledge that the religious texts of other traditions may point towards God, the Gurū Granth Sāhib is believed to be the clearest and most focussed regarding the Divine. It is fundamental to Sikh religious life and is considered the ultimate authority for all theological and ethical questions. The extent to which it deals with practical ethics, particularly the use of armed force, is debatable, though many Sikhs refer to it for this purpose.
The Adi Granth is focused around God and salvation. While conduct in this world plays a crucial role in whether or not one finds spiritual fulfillment, virtuous conduct relates more to participation in worship, especially by being constantly mindful of the divine, rather than following strict religious laws which regulate behaviour. General ethical and spiritual themes such as the value of kindness and mindfulness take precedence over specific prescriptions on what is and is not ‘holy’. The relationship between humans and the divine has less to do with the physical than with the mental and spiritual realm, as reflected by the central importance of the nām, or name. The nām takes on a variety of meanings, much like the Greek term logos. It can refer to God, God manifest or ‘the word’. Liberation is attained only through meditation on the nām, not blind ritual or other mandatory physical actions. Furthermore, there is no place for any form of soteriological restriction due to worldly factors; no one is barred from salvation due to caste, disability, ethnicity, gender or even religious creed. The focus of the sacred text therefore has little to do with strictly delineated regulations that would govern proper use of armed force.
Just Wars and the Adi Granth
Given these scriptural characteristics, it is hardly surprising that the Adi Granth contains nothing explicit on issues such as the ‘just war’ and the appropriate use of armed force. As mentioned, it instead deals with general ethical norms. Consider the following:
(4) Countless impose their will by force. Countless cut-throats and ruthless killers. Countless sinners who keep on sinning.
(25) This body is softened with the Word of the Gurū’s Bani; you shall find peace, doing seva (selfless service).
(662) The Qazi tells lies and eats filth; the Brahmin kills and then takes cleansing baths.
What emerges in these quotes and throughout the scripture is a general condemnation of ego-centrism, excessive violence and hypocrisy. Instead, one is urged to focus upon God, serve humanity and strive to attain peace. The writings in the Adi Granth of Bhagat Kabir, author of the final quote above, are often explicit in an aversion of violence, and what emerges leaves room for a theology which is strictly pacifist:
(1103) You kill living beings, and call it a righteous action. Tell me, brother, what would you call an unrighteous action? You call yourself the most excellent sage; then who would you call a butcher?
(1128) One who contemplates the essence of reality remains awake and aware. He kills his self-conceit, and does not kill anyone else.
(1375) Kabir, they oppress living beings and kill them, and call it proper. When the Lord calls for their account, what will their condition be? Kabir, it is tyranny to use force; the Lord shall call you to account. When your account is called for, your face and mouth shall be struck.
Another Bhagat, Fareed writes in a manner reminiscent to the New Testatement exhortation to ‘turn the other cheek’:
‘(1378) Fareed, do not turn around and strike those who strike you with their fists. Kiss their feet, and return to your own home.’
Despite this criticism of force in the Adi Granth, strict and explicit pacifism is the exception, not the rule. Violent imagery is found throughout the text. Though metaphorical interpretations may be more appropriate, this imagery often appears at first glance to endorse violent behaviour:
(146) When it pleases You [God], we wield the sword, and cut off the heads of our enemies. When it pleases You, we go out to foreign lands; hearing news of home, we come back again. When it pleases You, we are attuned to the Name…
(341) The warrior who fights on the battle-field should keep up and press on. He should not yield, and he should not retreat. Blessed is the coming of one who conquers the one and renounces the many.
(1105) The battle-drum beats in the sky of the mind; aim is taken, and the wound is inflicted. The spiritual warriors enter the field of battle; now is the time to fight! He alone is known as a spiritual hero, who fights in defence of religion. He may be cut apart, piece by piece, but he never leaves the field of battle.
(1364) Kabir, kill only that which, when killed, shall bring peace. Everyone shall call you good, very good, and no one shall think you are bad.
In each of the above quotes, there is room for multiple interpretations. For example, the term ‘battle’ may refer not to physical conflict, but to the mental, spiritual struggle and egocentrism. This often seems to be implied through context, particularly when coming after references to meditation on the nām. The first quote above which speaks of cutting off the heads of enemies may perhaps be interpreted as reflecting the high level of devotion felt by the devotee towards God as opposed to implying that God would endorse violent action. The final two quotes referenced were from Kabir. If one accepts his position as being strictly pacifistic, it follows that Kabir is not endorsing any form of violence against living beings. Peaceful interpretation is reinforced by the following:
(87) The Gurmukh has conquered his own mind, by applying the Touchstone of the Shabad [scripture]. He fights with his mind, he settles with his mind, and he is at peace with his mind.
(579-80) Death would not be called bad, O people, if one knew how to truly die. Serve your Almighty Lord and Master, and your path in the world hereafter will be easy… The death of brave heroes is blessed, if it is approved by God. They alone are proclaimed as brave warriors in the world hereafter, who receive true honour in the Court of the Lord.
(1237) He [the Lord] is not won over by music, songs or the Vedas…He is not won over by fighting and dying as a warrior in battle. He is not won over by becoming the dust of the masses. The account is written of the loves of the mind. O Nanak, the Lord is won over only by His Name.
Of primary importance in these quotes is spiritual struggle, not outward fighting and conflict. The scholar Louis Fenech points out that the hymn in the second quote above was sung on occasions of mourning, the message being that “a person’s passing should not be mourned, especially if that person piously meditated on the divine name…”
As a dynamic and complex text, the Adi Granth leaves room for a variety of interpretations. This has the effect of supporting the Sikh position that the written Gurū can function as the sole resource for those seeking guidance on moral and spiritual matters. Still, the major thrust of the text is one of spiritual, not physical force. There are few, if any, passages that directly discuss war or armed force.
By contrast, the Dasam Granth makes many more explicit references.
The Dasam Granth, named in full the Dasve Pātśāh dā Granth (book of the tenth emperor), is a collection of writings traditionally attributed to the Tenth Sikh gurū, Gurū Gobind Singh. Even though the Dasam Granth was mostly written in the Gurmukhi script, only a small amount of material was written in language similar to that used in the Adi Granth. The rest is mostly in Braj, the language used in many medieval North Indian writings. Tradition states that the Tenth Gurū chose to compose many of the works contained within so as to inspire Sikhs to take up arms in defence of their religion and of righteousness. As a result, violent imagery is extremely commonplace, especially with respect to the sword and other weapons. Also present is a variety of mythological tales from the Hindu purāṇas, each of which stresses the destructive aspect of God when dealing with those who defy truth and righteousness.
By the time the Dasam Granth was completed in the eighteenth century, the Sikh community had already undergone significant change, beginning with the martyrdom of the fifth gurū, Gurū Arjan, in 1606. According to tradition, this act of violence by the ruling Mughals forced the next gurū, Gurū Hargobind, to reinforce and expand the role of the Gurū as leader of the community. He chose to symbolise this by wearing two swords, one symbolising his spiritual authority, pīrī, and the other his temporal authority, mīrī. He also built the Akāl Takht at Amritsar (part of the Golden Temple complex) as a centre of military planning and poetic recitation of heroic deeds.
Gurū Gobind Singh built upon Hargobind’s example and made it his goal to ensure that the Sikh community would be able to defend itself. In 1699 he created the Khālsā, a sacred order of Sikhs who promised to abide by rules of conduct and defend religion and righteousness whenever necessary. This action explicitly formalised the changes which had occurred in the community. For the Khālsā Sikh, being a follower of the Gurū extends beyond personal worship into the realm of righteous action on the physical plane of existence. These Sikhs have a role to play in vanquishing those who challenge truth and righteousness, a role endorsed by God himself. The Dasam Granth certainly bolsters this approach.
As mentioned, the Dasam Granth is a collection of various writings of different genres, many with direct relevance to the proper use of force. The Jāp Sāhib, the first text, describes God as the punisher of wrongdoers and upholder of righteousness. The next text, the Akāl Ustat, highlights the image of a Goddess of destruction, as does the Gyān Prabodh, which also provides a discussion of proper conduct in politics. The battles of the Hindu Goddess Caṇḍī are featured in the Caṇḍī Caritr, Caṇḍī Caritr II and Caṇḍī dī vār. Other Hindu deities, Viṣṇu, Brahmā and Śiva, also have their own sections: Caubīs Avatār, Brahmā Avatār and Rudra Avatār, respectively. Scholar J.S. Grewal argues that these sections on the Hindu Gods and Goddesses serve the purpose of highlighting how force can be used righteously if it is on divine behalf.
Another part of the Dasam Granth, the Savaīye describes both God and the Khālsā, and is followed by the Khālse dī Mehimā, in which Gurū Gobind Singh praises the Khālsā and speaks of it as being at the root of his success. Particularly militant imagery is found in the Śastar Nām Mālā where the focus is on God as protector of his followers. The majority of the work is a listing of various weapons, many of which are identified with God. The Kabayo Bāc Bentī Caupaī deals with God’s role in the protection of devotees and is recited by the majority of Sikhs who perform evening prayers. The last section that needs to be highlighted is the Zafarnāma, the letter written in Persian to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by Gurū Gobind Singh. He criticises the Emperor for his army’s ill conduct and directly endorses the use of violence as a last resort.
The Caritropakhyāṇ and the Hikāyats, have a strong bearing on the current debate about the legitimacy of the Dasam Granth, though the two texts are rarely consulted by Sikhs. They may not have religious significance for most believers, but current events have brought them into the consciousness of a section of the Sikh community.
The present article will not take a stance on the historical and scriptural legitimacy of the Dasam Granth in the Sikh faith, a frequently-debated issue in the twenty-first century. Regardless, the reader should keep in mind that opinions amongst Sikhs range from complete acceptance to total rejection. While supporters of the text consider it fundamental to Sikh religion and identity, those opposed consider it further proof of the blurred borders between the Sikh and Hindu religions in the eighteenth century. What needs to be explored here is the role it has played in the Sikh community and how it has affected Sikh attitudes regarding war and violence.
It would be faulty to claim that the verses of the Dasam Granth have been the primary contributors in developing said attitudes towards armed force. Instead, the work embodies the spirit and goals traditionally attributed to Gurū Gobind Singh, which culminated with the creation of the Khālsā. The existence of the Khālsā and the image of the sant sipahi (saint-soldier), which built up around the tenth gurū, have been the driving force in the Sikh concept of the dharamyuddh, or war of dharam (righteousness). Both theologically and in practice, at least amongst the majority of Sikhs, the work as a whole does not equal to the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the literal head of the community. That is not to say that the Dasam Granth is of no importance as portions are recited during prayer on a daily basis and it does reflect Sikh attitudes towards the use of armed force. Furthermore, its verses have long inspired those looking to scripture for support in times of conflict, including Bhindranwale during his struggle for Sikh aspirations.
Imagery in the Dasam Granth
Violent imagery pervades the whole of the Dasam Granth (2010), reflective of the trying circumstances in which its components were written. In describing God, various qualities and opposing actions are used, including thus:
(5, L2 – Jāp Sāhib) Salutation to Thee O All-loving Lord! Salutation to Thee O All-destroying Lord!
(36, L12 – Akāl Ustat) Somewhere Thou givest inexhaustible gifts to emperors and somewhere Thou deprivest the emperors of their kingdoms.
These extracts and others speak to the theological conception of a deity who is omnipotent and, to an extent, beyond the complete understanding of devotees. The deity is not beyond being partial and impartial to specific groups of human beings, however:
(21, L3 – Jāp Sāhib) That Thou Protectest the devotees. That Thou punishest the evil-doers.
(24, L7 – Jāp Sāhib) Salutation to Thee O Destroyer of Tyrants Lord! Salutation to Thee O Companion of all Lord!
(339, L9-10 – Gyān Prabodh) He is the remover of darkness, the masher of the tyrants, perisher of the egoists and idlers, He is described as the destroyer of people full of vices. Whom should we worship except the Lord who is the Vanquisher of the Conquerors, giver of the Glory of conquest and who shoots miraculous arrows from His bow.
(345, L10 – Gyān Prabodh) The clique of tyrants is suppressed; such is the glamour of Thy metropolis (world).
God clearly is perceived to be fundamentally concerned with justice. The penultimate extract listed above demonstrates God’s political connection to his devotees, (as those who) invaded Punjab in the eighteenth century and came up against strong Sikh resistance.
The extent to which militant qualities are described in the Dasam Granth is much greater than in the Adi Granth. The poetry of the Dasam Granth draws immediate connections between God and weapons, even characterising the divine with them. Even when not explicitly mentioned, a connection is drawn between divine strength and the power of arms:
(94, L11 – Bacitra Nāṭak) I salute the glorious sword with all my heart’s affection.
(102, L2 – Bacitra Nāṭak) He, who wields the sword in his hand, he is the remover of millions of sins.
(L9) The sword appears impressive in his hand, seeing which the sins run away.
(1356, L6-8 – Shastar Nām Mālā) O Lord! Protect us by creating saang, sarohi, saif (sword), as, teer (arrow), tupak (gun), talwaar (sword), and other weapons and armours for destruction of the enemies.
O Lord! Create As, Kirpan (sword), Dharaddhari, Sail, Soof, Jamaadh, Tegh (sabre), Teer (arrow), Talwaar (sword) causing the destruction of armours and enemies.
As, Kirpan (sword), Khanda, Khadag (sword), Tupak (gun), Tabar (hatchet), Teer (arrow), Saif (sword), Sarohi and Saihathi, all these are our adorable allies.
Apart from establishing a link between God and weapons, most of the material in the Dasam Granth recounts various tales from earlier mythology, connecting God to well-established myths already present in the cultural framework of India at the time of composition. Included are the ferocious Goddess figures, a variety of avatāras (earthly manifestations of the divine) and Yudhiṣṭhira of the Mahābhārata epic:
(14, L5 – Caritropakhyāṇ) With you the dread of war increases. The great rulers pray to you and, with the swords and arrows, annihilate their armies.
Guising as Narsing, the Sphinx, you smashed Harnakash.
And incarnating as Varah in the form of a boar, You bore the weight of the earth.
195, L6 (Caṇḍī Caritr) The mighty goddess manifested herself and in great rage, she engrossed her mind in thoughts of war.
(379, L7-8 – Gyān Prabodh) On the other side Yudhishtar was bound by Kshatriya discipline,
and was performing wonderful and holy Karmas.
441, L1 (Caubīs Avatār) All warriors appeared absorbed in warfare in the battlefield, and Vishnu caused the death and fall of the enemy.
The text’s connection between God and militant figures reinforces a powerful societal norm and demonstrates the militant concerns behind the text’s composition. The text has much to say about the violent actions of human beings:
(19-20, L47 – Caritropakhyāṇ) …In the Kal-age one can only depend on the sword, the faculty and self determination.
(125, L6 – Bacitra Nāṭak)… All the fighters engaged in war against their enemies, ultimately fell as martyrs.
(273, L12-13-Caṇḍī Caritr)With the use of weapons and arms, the winsome armours were being cut;
And the warriors performed their religious duties in great manner.
(18-19, L45-50 – Hikāyats) ‘He treads upon the enemy eliminating him in the dust. ‘He remains alert throughout the battle, And uses hands and feet to throw arrows and shoots guns. ‘To do the justice, he always girds up his [loins], And remains meek in the company of the meek. ‘Neither he depicts any hesitation during the war, Nor he gets scared while facing gigantic enemies. ‘If there has been such a dauntless person, Who remains prepared for war remaining domesticated, ‘And his operations are approved by people, He is revered as the saviour king.’
The above quotes demonstrate the perception that at least some military actions have divine sanction. Not only is martyrdom a glorified reality (as in the second quote above), but fighting in battle is described as a religious duty. The sword is listed alongside ‘the faculty’ (probably intellectual ability) and self-determination. This implies that force is permissible, but by no means as a first resort. Since God is just, humans are expected to uphold a sense of justice too; the extract from the Hikāyats (last of the quote above) describes an ideal king who subscribes to a moral code but is always ready to go to battle, so long as his subjects consent to the operation’s legitimacy.
Further elaboration can be found in the sections of the Dasam Granth written in the first person from the perspective of Gurū Gobind Singh:
(138, L10-14 – Bacitra Nāṭak) The Lord asked me to spread Dharma, and vanquish the tyrants and evil-minded persons. I have taken birth of this purpose, the saints should comprehend this in their minds. (I have been born) to spread Dharma, and protect saints, and root out tyrants and evil-minded persons. All the earlier incarnations caused only their names to be remembered. They did not strike the tyrants and did not make them follow the path of Dharma.
(148, L3 – Bacitra Nāṭak) He aimed and shot the second arrow towards me, the Lord protected me, his arrow only grazed my ear.
(L14) I gained victory through the favour of the Eternal Lord.
(1355, L8-9 – Khālse dī Mehimā) By the kindness of these Sikhs, I have conquered in wars and also by their kindness, I have bestowed charities; by their kindness the clusters on sins have been destroyed and by their kindness my house is full of wealth and materials;
(1467, L14 – Kabayo Bāc Bentī Caupaī) O Lord! keep me now under Thy protection; protect my disciples and destroy my enemies;
(1471, L8 – Zafarnāma) When all other methods fail, it is proper to hold the sword in hand.
(1477, L6 – Zafarnāma) When one man is attacked by lakhs the Generous Lord gives him protection.
Two important dimensions arise from these extracts. Firstly, Gurū Gobind Singh highlights his own unique role as the Gurū who has come to inspire change in the Sikh panth (community). He has come to combat injustice and spread dharma (‘dharam’ in Punjabi), roughly defined as righteous or proper conduct. The Gurū states that he has the favour of God and is under God’s protection. He appeals to God so that his followers may succeed and his enemies may perish. Secondly, he makes explicit statements about the use of force. The second-last quote, often cited, asserts that force should be a last resort. He decries dishonourable tactics on the battlefield, God himself finding such actions repugnant. The author has forged space not only for the unique position of Gurū Gobind Singh, but for distinct regulations imbued with human and divine backing.
The Dasam Granth is therefore quite distinct in its message when compared with the Adi Granth. It is worldlier in its coverage, dealing with subjects such as political relationships between human beings and the use of physical weapons. It reflects developments which have continued throughout Sikh history.
History and Community
Contemporary Sikh notions of armed force and violence have been strongly shaped by historical developments. Various schools of thought have come, clashed and gone over time. About four centuries after Gurū Nanak (1469-1539) began to preach, the Singh Sabha movement achieved an ideological victory over Sanātan Sikhs. This early twentieth century development had a significant impact in fostering ‘Sikhism’ as a static, codified and defined system of beliefs. The status of being an amritdhari (initiated) Khālsā Sikh became the standard life goal. Martyrdom was widely idealised alongside martial concepts such as the dharamyuddh, and Sikh history came to be viewed from a new emboldened perspective. ‘Hindu’ influences and practices were identified and purged as much as possible.
Interpretation of the Adi Granth has, for many, settled on literal readings of the passages containing violent imagery. This is a direct consequence of the modern views of martyrs and the sant sipāhī (saint soldier) ideal. The large majority see a clear place for righteous violence within religious boundaries even if it is not explicitly endorsed in the principal scripture. Historical examples and precedents set by figures using armed force have had a clear impact on the approach many take to their scripture.
In the two centuries between Gurū Gobind Singh’s passing in 1708 and the success of the reform movement in the early 20th century, Sikhism lacked a single group which dominated ideologically or defined a prevailing Orthodoxy. According to scholar Harjot Oberoi, the borders of Sikhism became especially blurred during the early 19th century, coinciding with the creation of the multiethnic and pluralistic Punjabi state of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). Political pragmatism meant that Khālsā and non-Khālsā Sikhs aligned with one another rather than debated theological differences. At the folk level, Punjabis continued to pay reverence to a variety of Hindu and Muslim saints. Nature spirits and various ghosts also played a prominent role in popular religion, as did caste-based discrimination. Many modern Sikhs look back at this period of history as a time of religious degradation and doctrinal laxity.
As an educated Sikh middle class began to grow in the Punjab at the time of the British colonial administration, Sikhs began to reflect increasingly on their religion’s development. Many were not happy with the course Sikhism had taken since the passing of Gurū Gobind Singh. The ‘Singh Sabhas’ were local organisations comprised of educated Sikhs who worked towards the study of Sikhism and the advancement of Sikh interests. Two of the most notable include the Amritsar and the Lahore Singh Sabhas-the former adhering to the nineteenth century Sikh worldview (Sanātan Sikhism, or ‘eternal Sikhism’), and the latter engaged in the developing unrest against Hindu, Muslim and popular religious influences. The latter called themselves the Tatt (true) Khālsā.
The ideological tug-of-war between the Sanātan Sikhs and the Tatt Khālsā gradually moved towards the side of the latter. That group was successful for a variety of reasons, notably the re-evaluation and promotion of Sikh history. Strong rhetoric emerged surrounding the Khālsā and the history of Sikh martyrdom. Those who had died to uphold the Sikh faith were posited as being true, ideal Sikhs who put their lives on the line to uphold religious integrity. The martyrdom rhetoric was used to inspire Sikhs to reject ‘Hindu’ influences which had crept into Sikhism and to emulate the fervour of the warrior Sikhs of the past. The early decades of the twentieth century saw the dominance of the Tatt Khālsā ideology as other forms of Sikhism fell out of the new sphere of orthodoxy.
Popular Sikh opinion on violence correspondingly underwent a clear shift. With the promotion of the Khālsā and the martyr figures as ideals, violence to defend against tyranny (particularly that of the despot Mughals) was thoroughly endorsed. This viewpoint extends beyond persecution of the Sikhs to humanity on the whole–Sikhs are to be the guardians of righteousness and goodness in this world, though they are to use military force only when absolutely necessary. The traditional account attributing the ninth Gurū Tegh Bahadur’s death to his support for Hindu (religious) freedom served as the ideal example of the Sikh’s role as protector of all humans, not just other Sikhs. One theological concept illustrating this point is that of Degh and Tegh, the fusion of spiritual living and ethically-informed physical prowess. Scholar Harbans Singh offers an analysis of tegh as a symbol of justice and freedom. Meaning sword, weapon, ray or beam in Persian, tegh represents Gurū Gobind Singh’s defiance of the Mughals in support of justice for all (ibid.: 112). Singh also identifies the sword with true knowledge, it being the means by which one can destroy ignorance. The necessity of its fusion with degh is of prime importance, also reflected by the aforementioned sant sipāhī concept.
Tatt Khālsā Sikhs were not ‘inventing’ a new tradition per se. As devoted members of the Sikh tradition, they were simply laying stress on those dimensions of the large tapestry making up the Sikh identity at the time which they considered to be of crucial and prime importance. As shown, Sikh militancy was not a nineteenth century phenomenon – the Khālsā had been an organisation involved in armed resistance against the Mughals and Afghans in the eighteenth century, and these strains in the Sikh community can be traced back to Gurū Hargobind (1595-1644). The British also recognised the martial qualities of the Khālsā identity in initial encounters with the Sikhs, and extensively recruited them into the military whilst promoting Khālsā initiation.
Historical examples of Sikh militant concerns can be found in rahitnāmā literature written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These are basic manuals of conduct which often reiterate the vigorous themes of the Dasam Granth and wider Khālsā narrative. Rahitnāmās are not considered ‘scripture’, nor do they treat violence and armed force in a way any more systematic than in the Zafarnāma of the Dasam Granth. This is in stark contrast to their detailed instructions on religious ceremonies, proper preparation of meat and many other topics. The most prominent modern successor of the rahitnāmās is the ‘Sikh Reht Maryada’, which details proper modes of worship and how to perform ceremonial functions. No mention is made of the ethics surrounding the use of armed force, and killing is only explicitly mentioned in the condemnation of female infanticide. Thus, the rahitnāmā genre of literature omits a detailed discussion of armed force. And its passages hold far less theological importance than the Adi Granth and Dasam Granth, though it does provide insight into the historical development of the Sikh community.
One prominent scholar of Sikhism suggests that that militancy within the Sikh community was initially connected with Jatt culture, the Jatts always having been an independent and rural ethnic group. Though the Jatts make up the majority of the panth (community of believers) today, this was not the case in early Sikh history. Jatt cultural traits continue to exert a great deal of influence on the minds of many in the Punjab, regardless of religious affiliation. Izzat, a shared cultural sense of honour, interacts intensively with religious sentiments. When one Sikh sect leader committed acts deemed religiously offensive, members of the wider community protested vigorously. Lionel Baixas and Charlène Simon attribute this response to izzat: “this notion of izzat … not only implies a number of concerns such as power, reciprocity, protection of one’s social status but also a constant judgment from the other members of the Sikh community. Thus, when Sikh individuals were called by members of their relational networks to join the demonstration in order to defend the Sikh sense of honour, they had no other choice but to get involved, in order to preserve their own social status. In this case, the izzat worked all the more as a driving force for the protesters as it was not only a matter of preserving the honour of one’s family but also to restore the honour of the entire Sikh community.”
Balbinder Singh Bhogal challenges the assumptions underlying the above reading of Sikh history, namely the implication that the Sikh community was transformed from a largely pacifistic group at the time of Nanak into a martial one later on. He argues that both the Gurū Granth Sāhib (Adi Granth) and the Dasam Granth allow for militant and religious interpretations, the dichotomy between ‘love’ and violence having roots in Western-biased readings of the Sikh tradition.
Whatever the source of militant attitudes within the community, the justified use of force, the dharamyuddh, emerged as a cornerstone of Sikh identity. This impact extended into the realm of scriptural interpretation. For example, with propensity of the Khālsā and Gurū Gobind Singh’s martial image, the Dasam Granth came under renewed scrutiny. On the one hand, it was said to be the work of the tenth Gurū himself, someone who had taken on a new and powerful role for Sikhs everywhere. Conversely, parts of the works contained within it are clearly laced with rewritings from mythological Hindu literature, causing clear friction with those reformists discussed above who reject such influences. The issue is complicated by the fact that some passages of the Dasam Granth are recited in daily prayers whilst others have been used historically to rouse the fighting spirit before battle. These factors combined led to the emergence of a plethora of viewpoints regarding which sections of the text can be understood as legitimate. Some accept the Dasam Granth in its entirety; some accept only the portions not drawn from Hindu mythological literature; others reject the book altogether. The controversy over the authenticity of the work continues into the modern day. The Akāl Takht (the political centre of the Sikh community) itself has repeatedly ordered an end to the debate for the good of the community.
Interpretation of the Adi Granth
Not only was the Dasam Granth re-evaluated but passages from the Adi Granth (Gurū Granth Sāhib) were interpreted as applying to outer battle and martyrdom. Consider the following:
(1412) …If you desire to play this game of love with Me, then step onto My path with your head in hand.When you place your feet on this path, Give Me your head, and do not pay any attention to public opinion.
This passage quote is central to those Sikhs who believe it refers to martyrdom. Stepping onto the path with ‘head in hand’ is taken to signify the necessity for a willingness to go to the extreme of death for religion, if necessary.
(1105) …The battle-drum beats in the sky of the mind; aim is taken, and the wound is inflicted.The spiritual warriors enter the field of battle; now is the time to fight! He alone is known as a spiritual hero, who fights in defence of religion. He may be cut apart, piece by piece, but he never leaves the field of battle.
This passage, also discussed above, is commonly used in relation to martyrdom. Though the passage begins with a reference to the mind, the battlefield and the fight are frequently interpreted as physical.
(338) …O people, O victims of this Maya, abandon your doubts and dance out in the open. What sort of a hero is one who is afraid to face the battle? …
Now that you have taken up the challenge of death, let yourself burn and die, and attain perfection…
The possible metaphor for spiritual or mental struggle has been used in discussions of martyrdom in ‘taking up the challenge of death’.
(579) …death would not be called bad, O’ people, if one knew how to truly die. The death of brave heroes is blessed, if it is approved by God. They alone are proclaimed as brave warriors in the world hereafter, who receive true honor in the Court of the Lord.
Though Louis Fenech’s previously-discussed analysis of the quote above demonstrates that it is to be interpreted as a hymn of mourning, to many it is a blatant endorsement of martyrdom.
Martyrdom and Hardship
Historical martyrs feature prominently in modern Sikhism, acting as inspirational figures and reminders of the armed struggles faced by Sikhs throughout history. Amongst these martyrs are several of the ten Gurūs and their family members, as well as famous heroes from the battlefield. Ordinary Sikhs who are victims of persecution are also included. Those who died for their faith and the hardships which they had endured are acknowledged in the Ardās, the Sikh invocation-prayer recited at regular intervals. The recognition of martyrdom is not without a political dimension; sections of the community consider as martyrs Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and those associated with the Punjab insurgency in the last two decades of the 20th century.
The first Sikh martyr is also one of the most important. Gurū Arjan, the fifth Gurū, was brutally killed by the Mughal government for refusing to renounce his religion. Remembrance of his sacrifice is therefore especially important to those who are facing religious persecution or under pressure to renounce aspects of their faith. A key feature of martyr examples, like Gurū Arjan, is explicit mention of the painful ways in which they died. Gurū Arjan is said to have been forced to sit on a burning hot plate before hot sand and water were poured over his body. He then died due to the blisters on his body when entering a river to bathe. The ninth Gurū, Tegh Bahadur, also features as an important martyr, as he was publically beheaded for standing up for the religious rights of Kashmiri Hindus. His sacrifice features in Sikh discussions of the religion’s open nature and its defence of egalitarianism. His son, Gurū Gobind Singh, is also considered a martyr, assassinated on the order of a regional Mughal leader. His four sons were martyred even before his death; the eldest two were killed in battle against the Mughals whilst the youngest were captured, bricked alive to the shoulders and beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Three of the ten Sikh Gurūs therefore feature as martyrs, as well as four members of the tenth Gurū’s family. The profound respect held by Sikhs for their religious leaders ensures that the stories of their martyrdom are particularly resonant, demonstrating the virtue of holding to one’s religious convictions and protecting the rights of others who wish to do the same.
Perhaps the most potent example in Sikh history of the importance of life-risking devotion to one’s personal faith can be found in the traditional story of the founding of the Khālsā. Gathered at Anandpur Sahib in 1699, Gurū Gobind Singh asked his crowd of followers which of them would be willing to die for their faith. Disappearing into his tent with a man who volunteered, he re-emerged with a blood-soaked sword and asked for a second volunteer. This continued until five men had disappeared into his tent, the implication to his crowd of followers being that each had died. Finally, they all exited the tent perfectly alive and Gurū Gobind Singh announced the founding of the Khālsā. The men were baptised and said to have adopted the ‘Five K’s’, marks of membership which begin with K in the Punjabi. These are unshorn hair, a small comb, a loose pair of shorts worn under the trousers, a steel bracelet, and a sword (kirpān). The meaning of these symbols is open to interpretation and flexible, though many agree that the kirpān is symbolic of the Sikh’s constant vigilance against tyranny and willingness to stand up for the innocent. Many baptized Sikh men consider it their duty to carry the kirpān and the other articles of faith at all times. Sikhs today who are baptised into the Khālsā are done so by the ‘Panj Piare’, or five beloved ones, patterning after those who stood up for their beliefs in 1699.
Warrior-heroes who died fighting tyranny are also treated with reverence by many Sikhs. Banda Singh Bahadur was a military commander who played an important role in leading anti-Mughal resistance, beginning after he met with Gurū Gobind Singh shortly before the Gurū’s death. In 1710 he successfully sacked Sirhind, the capital of the Mughals in Punjab, and briefly set up state mechanisms. Captured during further combat with the empire, he was put to death by means of torture, his body parts removed one after the other and his body being cut up into pieces. Another revered hero is Baba Deep Singh, who led a raid against Afghans who had earlier invaded Punjab and destroyed the Golden Temple. Whilst fighting, it is said that Baba Deep Singh was decapitated, picked up his head and continued to fight before collapsing upon reaching the temple. These two figures, amongst many others, inspire Sikhs to maintain the courage and commitment which is demanded of members of the Khālsā.
In addition to the persecution suffered by their Gurūs and warrior ancestors, Sikhs are keenly aware of the hardships endured by the community as a whole throughout history. The eighteenth century was particularly difficult for the Sikhs as they dealt with both the Mughals and the Afghans. A particularly ruthless governor in the Punjab, Mir Mannu, who served under both, is described as having made a particular effort to target the Sikhs. Men, women and children were all massacred and forced to retreat into the countryside to escape persecution. Many women were made prisoners or forced workers. In addition to this, tradition maintains that babies were killed, mutilated and made into garlands which were forced around their mothers’ necks. Though this period was particularly brutal, there is more immediate emotional investment in the events surrounding the contemporary life and death of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Punjab insurgency which ran into the 1990s.
To recall, Bhindranwale was a preacher who built up a large following in Punjab from the 1970s into the early 1980s by preaching a simple, orthodox version of Sikhism with the brave Khālsā warrior as the ideal. Many Punjabis had grievances with the central Indian government for failing to follow through with the commitments made to Sikhs and the state, some of these extending back to before the creation of the present Pakistan and India in 1947. Bhindranwale’s movement adopted both religious and political dimensions due to the communal nature of Indian politics. As his followers armed themselves, they took up residence in the Golden Temple complex of Amritsar, also the location of the Akāl Takht. Fearing a complete revolt against the government and the declaration of an independent ‘Khalistan’, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the army into the complex to root out the militants and Bhindranwale himself. This military action was codenamed ‘Operation Bluestar’.
The attack began on the night of 5 June 1984, after the period of commemoration of Gurū Arjan’s martyrdom. For this reason, many remaining pilgrims were killed in the battle between Bhindranwale’s followers and the military. By morning, Bhindranwale had been killed, the Akāl Takht critically damaged and thousands had died, including civilians, militants and members of the military. The outcry by Sikhs around the world was immediate; their most holy shrine had been defiled and partially destroyed and the community felt as if it were under personal attack by the Indian government. Matters were made worse when Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards, followed by a genocide, and the killing of innocent Sikhs, most notably in Delhi.
The combined shock of these events heavily impacted the Sikhs, made powerfully aware for the first time in recent history that their status as a minority community made them highly vulnerable. The movement for an independent Khalistan was heavily reinforced by the Indian government’s violent actions. Though ideological support came from some members of the world diaspora, violent resistance against the state took place almost exclusively in Punjab itself. To combat this insurgency, the government heavily backed the Punjab police force, headed by K.P.S. Gill. Numerous human rights abuses by the police have been documented during this period, including torture, rape and ‘false encounters’ in which the police executed prisoners after falsely reporting an engagement in armed combat. The severity of this crackdown and growing resentment by Punjabi villagers against violent militants meant that the movement lost its mass appeal by the mid-1990s. The Indian government also engaged in a series of measures aimed at reconciliation. The situation in the twenty-first century is one of mere ideological support of separatism by certain members of the diaspora, but negligible support within India itself. Sikh participation in active militant groups working towards the goal of independence is almost non-existent.
Those who continue to support the movement for Khalistan are vocal in their identification of key members of the movement as martyrs. Bhindranwale himself continues to enjoy a high level of appeal, even amongst some who are not supporters of Khalistan. The assassins of Indira Gandhi are also popular within some circles, many viewing their actions as being justified by the Prime Minister’s decision to attack Sikhism’s most sacred shrine on a holy day with many civilians present. The ‘rhetoric of martyrdom’, to quote Louis Fenech, is almost inseparable at times from Sikh politics in its modern context. It has the effect of extending a passionate level of religious legitimacy to those involved in a modern political struggle, such as the Khalistan movement of Bhindranwale and others.
Rich tradition and historical precedence
Sikh stances on war and violence are heavily reverential towards martyrs. The community’s self-perception relies on the ideal of Sikhs as self-sacrificing defenders as well as caregivers in the world, two of the concepts around which any theory of Sikh military ethics would revolve. Scriptural interpretation has also come under the influence of martial factors, as demonstrated by the recitation of certain passages in violent contexts. However, support of Bhindranwale’s militant actions and the Khalistan movement is by no means universal within the Sikh community, both today and even during the period in which the above events were unfolding. Those who do support these figures legitimise the violent action in part through use of scripture, but primarily through association with historical martyrs and the rhetoric surrounding the duties of members of the Khālsā. The historical dimension of this justification is crucial, demonstrating that an analysis of scripture is inadequate in explaining Sikh views on violence, as scriptural interpretation has long been coloured by external factors. Historical precedence, especially regarding martyrdom, has had a profound influence on Sikh views of the utility of armed force.
Despite the modern importance of armed force to the Sikhs, with its foundation in both scripture and history, there has been no codified approach to its proper application as a dharamyuddh, i.e., ethical or righteous war. Surprisingly, the code of behaviour published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the authoritative voice from Amritsar, makes no mention of the justified uses of force. Furthermore, no theological works were found that provide an in-depth discussion, as can be found in the just war writings of Christian figures such as Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and others. The present authors have attempted to compare just war theory with Sikh perspectives in other work but there is a dearth of such scholarship by Sikh studies scholars and by Sikh writers themselves. One exception is Kanwarjit Singh’s work (1989) on the political philosophy of the Sikhs. He postulated eleven ‘laws of war’ by combining historical precedent with the Zafarnama and general moral trends made evident in scripture. Unfortunately, his treatment of these ideas is brief; a detailed investigation remains to be conducted and cannot occur until the Sikh community itself begins to elaborate upon those themes.
The Sikhs have a rich tradition with much historical precedence, and important sacred texts on which to build a theory for the justified use of armed force and for military ethics more generally.
Originally published in the
‘Journal of Military Ethics’ Vol 10 (2011)