by Patwant Singh


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Five hundred years ago, Guru Nanak founded the Sikh faith in India. The Sikhs defied the caste system; rejected the authority of Hindu priests; forbade magic and idolatry; and promoted the equality of men and women — beliefs that incurred the wrath of both Hindus and Muslims. In the centuries that followed, three of Nanak's nine successors met violent ends, and his people continued to battle hostile regimes. The conflict has raged into our own time: in 1984 the Golden Temple of Amritsar — the holy shrine of the Sikhs—was destroyed by the Indian Army. In retaliation, Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Now, Patwant Singh gives us the compelling story of the Sikhs — their origins, traditions and beliefs, and more recent history. He shows how a movement based on tenets of compassion and humaneness transformed itself, of necessity, into a community that values bravery and military prowess as well as spirituality. We learn how Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Guru, welded the Sikhs into a brotherhood, with each man bearing the surname Singh, or "Lion," and abiding by a distinctive code of dress and conduct. He tells of Banda the Brave's daring conquests, which sowed the seeds of a Sikh state, and how the enlightened ruler Ranjit Singh fulfilled this promise by founding a Sikh empire.

The author examines how, through the centuries, the Sikh soldier became an exemplar of discipline and courage and explains how Sikhs — now numbering nearly 20 million worldwide — have come to be known for their commitment to education, their business acumen, and their enterprising spirit.

Finally, Singh concludes that it would be a grave error to alienate an energetic and vital community like the Sikhs if modern India is to realize its full potential. He urges India's leaders to learn from the past and to "honour the social contract with Indians of every background and persuasion."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385502061
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/17/2001
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 789,132
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Patwant Singh's books and articles on India, international affairs, the environment, and the arts have been published in India, Europe, and North America. He has broadcast frequently on television and radio in many countries, and has travelled and lectured all over the world, often as the guest of governments. From 1957 to 1988, he was editor and publisher of the international magazine Design. He lives in New Delhi.

Read an Excerpt


The Gurus of the Faith 1469-1708

It was a time of turmoil and terror, and of conquests, cruelties and despair, with the constant spectre of more calamities ahead. If fifteenth-century Hindustan had already seen centuries of invasions and indignities, it had also been moved—even if peripherally—by the mystical outpourings of Sufi scholars who presented the humane side of Islam's unpredictable and capricious rulers. The Afghans Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammed of Ghor, Tamerlane of Samarkand, and other invaders from the north-west had destroyed cities, towns and temples and plundered their immense wealth. But the five hundred years from the tenth to the fifteenth century were witness to surprising self-certainties as well, which found expression in two appealing movements of spiritual quest and humanitarian concerns.

Each was rooted in the great religions of Hinduism and Islam which were on a collision course in Hindustan. Whilst the Bhakti movement evolved from its Hindu origins, the Sufis were Muslim. The doctrine of Bhakti, or devotion to a personal deity, originated in southern India in the thirteenth century and was further propagated in the next by a new sect in Benares, which made no distinction of caste or creed. A more extreme version of it was evolved by a Muslim weaver named Kabir, who ridiculed all institutional religion, ceremony, asceticism and learning, addressing his teaching to the most humble people. Sufism, a school of Islamic mysticism which reached the climax of its development in the eleventh century ad, included among its adherents many of the finest Persian poets. Enthused by the mystical and philosophic content of Hinduism and Islam respectively, and preferring a liberal, humane and broad-minded interpretation of them, Bhaktism and Sufism drew inspiration from each other without sacrificing their identities or loyalty to their parent faith. Each was in thrall to the divine being, not to the rituals and symbols of religious power. The two movements were enthusiastically received in Punjab—gateway to India and the land of five legendary rivers*—whose people had paid such a punishing price in the continuing clash of arms on their soil. The region's key city—the seat of power—was Lahore, for whoever ruled Punjab did so from here.

The founder of the Sikh religion, Nanak, was born in the village of Talwandi near Lahore, on 15 April 1469. The fifteenth century was a time of comparative peace in northern India, of respite between the barbarous invasion of Tamerlane at the end of the fourteenth century and the conquest by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, in the next. Rare stability at the time of Nanak's birth was provided by the rule of the Afghan nobleman Bahlol Khan, founder of the Lodhi dynasty (1450-1526).

* The Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas.

The word "Mughal" or "Mogul," a corruption of "Mongol," was loosely applied to Muslims of Central Asian origin in India, and designates the Emperors of Delhi descended from Tamerlane, beginning with Babur (1526-30).

Nanak's destiny was shaped as much by his own extraordinary qualities of head and heart as by those eventful times. The very location of Talwandi, on the direct route of invading armies which kept pouring in through the majestic mountains of the Hindu Kush, toughened its inhabitants and made them remarkably resilient; just as often as their village was razed to the ground, they rebuilt it. To move away was unacceptable. Another inescapable fact of life was the mutually destructive struggle for supremacy between warring Hindu kingdoms, clans and castes, which was largely responsible for Hindustan's dominance by outsiders. Their internecine warfare had also led to the country's increasing colonization by Muhammadans, not that that prevented other Muslim adventurers, lured by the subcontinent's riches, from invading India. Nanak's awareness of the prevailing religious, political and social forces was shaped by this welter of violence. And by the conciliatory promise of the Sufi and Bhakti movements, although in his own spiritual quest, and its final achievement, he would go far beyond their confines.

Nanak's father, Kalyan Chand, of a Hindu family of the Bedi branch of the Kshatriyas, kept revenue records for a prosperous landlord and Rajput convert to Islam named Rai Buler. In Talwandi, where Hindus and Muslims lived side by side, a Muslim midwife brought Nanak into the world. Since the birth of a son called for much rejoicing, Kalyan Chand's friends gathered to celebrate the joyful event at which both Pandit Hardyal, the family's Brahmin priest, and the midwife agreed that the child had an exceptional aura. The horoscope prepared by Hardyal predicted that Hindus and Muslims alike would acknowledge Nanak as a philosopher-teacher and that he in turn would make no distinction between them. So not very surprisingly one of Nanak's earliest observations:

There is no Hindu There is no Mussalman guru granth sahib rag bhairon, p. 1136

whilst acknowledging the distinctive beliefs and nature of each, stressed the fact that in the eyes of the divine being all are equal, and that appreciation of this central truth was important if humanity was to surmount the barriers that divide people.

These insights, extraordinary for one so young, were greatly helped by the happy household in which Nanak grew up. His mother Tripta and sister Nanaki doted on him, whilst his father quietly nursed high hopes for a prosperous future in business for him. But when he took his son to the village school at the age of seven, the teacher soon realized he had a very unusual pupil on his hands. Within days of starting school Nanak would write verse on his slate tablet, and not only was the structure of his poems impressive, but their content possessed a sensitive feel for nature and its many moods. And Nanak had a mind also given to probing the metaphysical.

But his father worried. He couldn't understand his son's lack of interest in business. A change of teachers didn't help either, although Nanak did learn Sanskrit from his second instructor and Arabic and Persian from the third. In the chronicles of his life, the Meharban Janamsakhi, his second instructor is quoted as saying: "He is a blessed one . . . he grasps instantly what he hears once." Both instructors saw in his contemplative nature and inquiring mind, which included a facility with languages, a potential for scholarship and spiritual quest. Even more astonishing was his tendency to question the logic of traditional practices.

This he did at eleven, an age when boys of the twice-born castes have to don the janeu, or sacred thread of the Hindus, consisting of strands of cotton woven into a thin cord which is looped from the left shoulder around the right hip. Nanak stunned the family's friends and relations gathered for his initiation by refusing to wear the thread, and asking the presiding Brahmin priest to explain the difference a thread could make. Shouldn't deeds, merits and actions, he asked, differentiate one man from another? Since he was unconvinced that the janeu created any true distinction, he preferred not to wear it.

As if this weren't enough, Nanak recited his own composition to a thoroughly baffled Pandit Hardyal and his father's guests:

Out of the cotton of compassion Spin the thread of contentment, Tie the knot of continence, and the twist of virtue; Make such a sacred thread, O Pundit, for your inner self. guru granth sahib asa, p. 471

His spirited stand against an unacceptable practice set Nanak apart, and marked him for an unusual journey through life; what preoccupied him was far removed from the pranks of his boyhood friends. When grazing his father's cattle he was given to spending hours on end listening to the mystics, saints and spiritualists who have always been a part of India's human mosaic, leading lives of self-denial and introspection, and expounding the virtues of their own faith. Nanak heard them with rapt attention, but drew entirely different conclusions—in verse—on tenets long accepted without question. He questioned most of them:

Pilgrimages, penances, compassion and alms-giving Bring a little merit, the size of a sesame seed. But he who hears and believes and loves the Name Shall bathe and be made clean In a place of pilgrimage within him. guru granth sahib japji, p. 4

He assessed Islamic practices too with the same analytical mind and the same sharp eye for empty rituals and customs, neither challenging nor deriding prevalent beliefs, but posing questions and presenting his own convictions:

Let compassion be your mosque, Let faith be your prayer mat, Let honest living be your Koran, Let modesty be the rules of observance, Let piety be the fasts you keep; In such wisdom try to become a Muslim: Right conduct the Ka'ba; Truth the Prophet; Good deeds your prayer; Submission to the Lord's Will your rosary; Nanak, if this you do, the Lord will be your Protector. guru granth sahib asa, p. 141

Around the age of sixteen Nanak set out for the town of Sultanpur—a hundred miles or so away to the east of the Ravi and the Beas—at the invitation of Nanaki and her husband Jairam. After her marriage his sister had moved there with her husband who worked for Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi, a relation of Delhi's ruler, Bahlol, and governor of the region. Daulat Khan was an exceptional man, a powerful official of the Lodhis, builder of fine buildings and superb gardens, and patron of scholars and theologians who were increasingly drawn to him by his interest in their work. He made Sultanpur a great centre of learning.

Jairam was held in high esteem by the nawab, who received him graciously when he took Nanak to meet him. As others had done who had met Nanak, Daulat Khan too took a liking to him, and offered him a job. Notwithstanding his indifference to occupations without a goal, Nanak gratefully accepted, as he was reluctant to impose himself on his sister and brother-in-law for too long. His diligence impressed the nawab, as it did the never-ending stream of people who came to pay their taxes in kind, or draw part of their salaries in kind. Even in the modikhana (the granary and stores), despite the earnestness he brought to his work, his thoughts were never far from the Divine Being. Professor Harbans Singh tells this story: "While weighing out rations one day, [Nanak] was so entranced with the utterance of the figure tera, or thirteen, which is also the Punjabi equivalent of the word 'thine,' that he kept repeating it—tera, tera (Thine, Thine, all is Thine, O Lord!)—and dealing out the provisions."

In the midst of his mundane responsibilities, his mind remained focused on the Creator:

God has His seat everywhere, His treasure houses are in all places. guru granth sahib japji, p. 5


If I remember Him I live, If I forget Him I die . . . guru granth sahib rehras, p. 9

Slowly and intuitively, as he looked for the elusive truth, his unceasing inner search was helping him to develop his unusual mind, on which he preferred to depend more than on tomes written by others:

One may read for years and for years, And spend every month of the year in reading only; And thus read all one's life, Right up to one's last breath. Of all things, a contemplative life Is really what matters; All else is the fret and fever of egoistic minds. guru granth sahib asa, p. 467

An increasing number of men and women were beginning to gravitate towards him. In a rented house near his place of work, where he lived with two boyhood companions, people congregated for recitations, prayers and contemplation. To Nanaki, an ardent admirer of her gifted brother, this was, however, only one side of his life. The other side, she felt, was incomplete without a wife and children. And since Nanak too believed that "the secret of religion lay in living in the world without being overcome by it," he was persuaded. Through Jairam's initiative a match was arranged with Sulakhni, the daughter of a Kshatriya named Mulchand, from the village of Pakhoke near Batala, and Nanak was married at the age of nineteen.

During the next eight years he spent in Sultanpur, his two sons, Srichand and Lakhmidas, were born. Alongside the nawab's growing respect and confidence, his circle of loving disciples also grew, coming from distant places as news of him spread far and wide. But a restlessness was building up in Nanak, an urge to discover the nature of the world he lived in, to meet and understand different people and their beliefs, to find out what they looked for in their faith. He knew he had to travel far to get the answers. Hard as it was to leave those whose love had sustained him, he had to go if his mission in life was to succeed. He had already established the parameters of his faith.

There is but one God. He is all that is. He is the Creator of all things and He is all-pervasive. He is without fear and without enmity. He is timeless, unborn and self-existent. He is the Enlightener And can be realized by his grace alone. He was in the beginning; He was in all ages. The True One is, was, O Nanak, and shall forever be. guru granth sahib japji, p. 1

If he could apply his integrating genius to making the concept of "one god" a reality, he could harness it to serve a strife-torn society, erase divisions and despair, and help people overcome their prejudices and mindless preoccupations. This concept would become central to the Sikh faith.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
List of Mapsxi
1.The Gurus of the Faith, 1469-170816
2.Retribution and Consolidation, 1708-179967
3.Empire of the Sikhs, 1801-183995
4.Grievous Betrayals, 1839-1849132
5.From Annexation to Partition, 1849-1947163
6.Violence and Venality, 1947 to the Present199
Further Reading261

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Sikhs 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Layed on the floor, bored.