I chose “Martyrdom in Sikh tradition” as the theme for a talk in April to a mixed Sikh and non-Sikh audience, as we celebrate Khalsa Baisakhi. The presentation is summarised in this article (see acknowledgement at the end).
On the Baisakhi day in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, 10th Nanak, repeated Guru Nanak’s challenge to those aspiring to follow the Guru’s path:
Jau tau prem khelan ka chao. Sir dhar tali gali mori aao.
“If you wish to play the game of love, come my way, with your head on the palm of your hand.” (Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) p.1412)
Sikh martyrs are mentioned in daily Ardaas (supplication). Sikh martyrdom tradition is the first such tradition in India. The Semitic origin of the concept signifies moral and spiritual struggle. “Martyr” from Greek “martus” means “witness”. In Arabic, “Shahid” also means witness or one who provides testimony. A martyr, by supreme sacrifice for faith or a cause, bears witness to its truth, and to his or her allegiance to it, and is prepared to die for it rather than renounce own faith or ideal.
True love (prem) demands sacrifice (kurbani). Without true love for the Guru, the Dispeller of Darkness, it is not possible to reach the goal of this life: a state of blissful union with the Timeless Lord Creator Being. Therefore, as Dr J S Grewal, with reference to Bhai Jodh Singh, writes, “Guru Gobind Singh’s “Jin prem kio tin hi Prabh paayo” was an echo of Guru Nanak’s “Jau tau prem khelan ka chao...”.
Union with “God”, the Ultimate Reality, is only possible through true love “prem” by accepting His Will or Bhana, gratefully. After the two Guru martyrs, Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh’s whole life epitomised a true living martyr, ever ready to sacrifice his all for his Mittar Pyara (Waheguru, the Wondrous Enlightener) and for his spiritual family (“pariwara”), his children, the Khalsa. And so the children “marjeevray” (reborn) in the Father-Guru’s image, became the “Guru Khalsa”. The distinction between the Guru and his Khalsa was removed on that Baisakhi day in 1699.
Martyrdom is an integral part of the Sikh tradition. The consistency of this theme throughout the Sikh tradition is quite remarkable:-
“Death is not an evil, should one know how truly to die
The death of heroic men is holy
Should they lay down their lives for righteous cause.” (Guru Nanak GGS p 579)
“Be prepared to give your life before your Beloved” (Guru Angad GGS p 83)
“Know that man to be a true hero who fights in defence of the defenceless
Hacked limb by limb, he still flees not the field.” (Kabir, GGS p 1105)
In the works attributed to Guru Gobind Singh:
“May I ever direct my mind to chanting Thy praises
And when the end arrives
May I fall fighting squarely on the battlefield.”
The path of Sikhi is described by Guru Nanak as a difficult path,
it is like walking on the sharp edge of a double-edged sword (khandedhar) (GGS p 1028)
“Sharper than the edge of a double-edged sword and narrower than the width of a hair.
One has to sacrifice self (haomai) to follow this path.” (Guru Amardas GGS p 918)
“First, accept death, give up the desire to live [because death is inevitable], be humble and only then come to me” (Guru Arjan GGS p 1102)
“In the Holy Congregation, the Sikhs are absorbed in the Guru’s Word.
They drink from the cup of love, and accept all hardship in His Will.”
They bear the unbearable and tolerate the intolerable.
Bhai Gurdas, whose works are blessed by Fifth Nanak, Guru Ajan Sahib, as the “Key to Gurbani”, the Guru’s Word.
In later Sikh literature “cup of love” came to mean “martyrdom” (Shahidi da jaam or piala”)
Guru Arjan’s martyrdom was the first open challenge to state oppression. “Guru Arjan urged the claims of pluralism against imperialism, which stood for one single central rule in culture as well as power, religion and civil society, and political economy.”
“Guru Tegh Bahadur responded to another religion’s call to be saved”. Guru Tegh Bahadur may be seen as defending the freedom of conscience. His martyrdom was for the freedom to follow one’s chosen faith-path (Dharam het saka jin kia).
The martyrdoms of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur, and the institution of the Khalsa are linked with Guru Nanak’s conception of sacrifice in love for the Timeless Lord, The Creator Being and the desire to serve (social activism). In that sense martyrdom is equated to dying for the cause of faith.
Wrote Bhai Gurdas:
“This perishable human frame shall not last
Let man through sacrifice sail in the ship of glory
And thereby swim across the ocean of the world.
Becoming dead in life to serve the Guru” – Bhai Gurdas
Var 8 pauri 8 var 21 pauri 13
Readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Beloved Guru is also the central theme of Baisaki, the high point of Sikh tradition. Khalsa Baisakhi each April, reminds us of Guru Nanak’s challenge to the follower of His path. This is the path of truthful conduct, the path of dharam (doing one’s duty) in this “dharam-khand” ( life on earth), to reach the Holy Presence (Charan Kanwal) of the Beloved Lord. This objective is achievable in this life.
Those who accepted Guru Nanak’s challenge to “play the game of love” became his first Sikhs. And that tradition continued as the Guru’s Light (Jot) passed through nine human forms after Guru Nanak, and now resides in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture, the Shabad or Word Guru. “Guru”, the Dispeller of darkess, therefore, is a singular concept in Sikhism. Ultimately there is only One Guru, the Waheguru, the Wondrous Dispeller of darkness, Whose Light is present in everyone and in everything.
Dr J S Grewal, in his brilliant essay “Martyrdom in Sikh History and Literature” refers to Peter Brown’s “Cult of the Saints”, in which the latter mentions the joining of Heaven and Earth in the Christian tradition. Christian martyrs enjoyed close intimacy with God. Therefore, the belief in their ability to intercede for and protect fellow mortals. The death of a martyr “was vibrant with a miraculous suppression of suffering” and “celebration of the memory of a martyr is a reassurance that good power overcomes evil power.” Therefore, martyrdom is “linked with ideology, metaphysics and social function.” That is true in the Sikh tradition also.
To follow the Guru’s path is to carry your head on the palm of your hand at all times. To “become dead” in life is the Sikh way to serve the Guru. It is symbolic of total detachment and becoming indifferent to death (asa wich nirasa), while living an active life in the service of God. This state of a Sikh martyr’s mind, distinguishes Sikh martyrdom tradition from its Semitic origin.
Over the centuries, martyrs have provided “Inspiration, Strength and Self generative force” to their respective beliefs. During the most difficult periods in Sikh history, martyrdoms provided the main inspiration for the Sikh nation, next only to Gubani, the Guru’s Word received in its original form in the Sikh Holy Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib.
Whilst both, a hero and a martyr demonstrate great courage, “a Martyr’s courage is more deep rooted and moral and born out of spiritual conviction.” A martyr or “shahid”, “provides testimony to injustice, witnessing to the truth with his blood”, peacefully or in battle. Unlike the hero or the soldier, a martyr’s aim is not to be stronger than the “other”, but to be stronger than self by detaching self from pain and suffering by meditating on his or her own “ideal”, or object of “prem” or love. That total focus on the “beloved” makes a true martyr oblivious to pain and suffering inflicted.
Such a person becomes “amar” or invincible and unconquerable. Guru Gobind Singh , the 10th Nanak, had such a martyr in mind when he writes, “Sava lakh se ek laraun” [“My one shall take on sava lakh (125,000)”, symbolic of the invincibility of a martyr-warrior taking on impossible odds].
There is another interesting link between Christian and Sikh martyrdom concepts. Sikh thought agrees with Christian ideology that physical death is not essential to martyrdom. “Spotless service of a devout mind is itself a daily martyrdom” (Saint Jerome AD c. 340-420). “Martyrdom consists in the right endurance of suffering unjustly inflicted” (Saint Thomas Aquinas).
Guru Gobind Singh himself was a true living martyr all his life. He gave his all, parents, children and all that he possessed, for his “Mittar Piyara” (Beloved Friend, Waheguru, the Wondorous Enlightener ), and for his beloved Khalsa Panth, the Order of the Khalsa. He gave his Khalsa the gift of “chardhi kalla” – remaining in positive spirit in the Lord’s Will (Bhana) and never accepting defeat under any circumstances. The Khalsa was the mar-jivra (reborn) living martyr ever ready to serve and to face oppression and evil; so that in 1782 George Forster wrote, “an invincible perseverance” of the Sikhs enabled them to rise superior in a contest with the most potent prince of his age.”
The idea of martyrdom is implicit in Gurbani. Not only that Guru Nanak Sahib was well aware of the Semitic shahidi tradition and uses the word shahid in his Bani (GGS p.26), but that the language he uses is that of the martyrdom tradition. In the oft quoted lines starting “Jau tau prem khelan ka chao....”, to quote Dr Grewal, “The smooth transition from a metaphysical to a literal meaning is evident from the use of the words “prem khelan ka chau” (keenness to play the game of love), “sir dhar tali” (having placed the head on the palm) and “sir dijae” in later Sikh literature for actual martyrdom.”
From Guru Nanak’s challenge to the follower of his path, martyrdom is a consistent theme in the Sikh tradition. Guru Nanak preached a life of action in the service and Will (Bhana) of God, Who is All Love.
For instituting the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh invoked the principle of sacrifice in love. Khalsa was revealed as the mar-jeevra, the reborn, or the living martyr ever ready to sacrifice everything for the righteous cause.
(Acknowledgement: For this presentation, I relied very much on Dr J S Grewal essay on “Martyrdom in Sikh History and Lierature” – 3rd essay in “The Sikhs: Ideology, Institutions and Identity” Oxford University Press 2009. I had the pleasure of meeting him on 17 November last year when he also gave me his latest publication “A Study of Guru Granth Sahib”.)
Gurmukh Singh (UK)
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