Guru Gobind Singh: The word, the deed and the song
Dr. Darshan Singh Maini*
*The author is an Ex-Head, Department of English, Punjabi Univeristy Patiala. He is also an internationally renownedHenry James scholar.
In the world of religious and spiritual phenomena, one occasionally comes across certain teasing correspondences which seem to connect disparate and distant events in history. It is difficult to account for them in terms of reason or argument. How else can one explain the striking resemblance between two widely-separated Nativities? The Magi, who were drawn to Bethlehem with offerings for the infant Christ, had seen a beckoning star. So had, perhaps, a renowned Muslim saint, Syed Bhikhan Shah, who made his way to Patnain the year 1666 A.D. to bless the day-old Gobind and pronounce him divine. The Mark of Divinity in either case was compelling.
That the Patna birth was in the nature of a Command Performance may be judged from the account given by Guru Gobind Singh himself in his Vachitar Natak or “The Wondrous Drama” — a spiritual autobiography written in the fullness of his poetic and mystic powers. After sketching the lineal and temporal graph, the Guru goes on to speak of his prenatal existence, when his disembodied self was already a part of the Divine Consciousness, free from the coils of mortality. However, at the behest of the Great God of Creation, he came into the world again to fulfil his destiny.
Guru Gobind Singh’s childhood spent at Patna and in the Punjab countryside is characterised by an intense quest for readiness. Handsome in his aspect and stance, lithe and lissom of limb, he wrought his frame into an instrument of supreme will till the body itself grew luminous with thought. As a child, he is known to have been fond of fun and frolic, of riding and hunting, of archery and falconry, but all these exercises were only a prelude to the martial theme of his temporal raison d’etre. They were a kind of warming-up for the battles he was destined to fight. “The figure in the carpet” begins to show soon enough.
This was also the period of his scholastic education when he imbibed the ancient lore and wisdom of his forbears, for learning came to him as to the manner born. From the beginning, the Guru was contemptuous of cold and abstract theorising, of Brahminical casuistry and dry dialectics. His mind responded fully and richly to the colour, fragrance and music of life, and shrank from the bleached bones of Vedantic thought. One is, therefore, not surprised to find him elevated to the pontificate at the age of nine when his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, invested him with authority on the eve of his martyrdom. It was no ordinary office, but the young Gobind was no ordinary mortal either. Thereafter, the Guru’s thought is governed by two powerful urges: to vindicate his father’s martyrdom, and to redress his country’s wrongs. Henceforth, tyranny in all its forms, societal political, religious etc., is to be countered and annihilated. And there was to be no respite, no weakening of the hand till he had proved himself in action. As he pleads passionately with the Lord:
Now be pleased to grant me the boon I crave with clasped hands,
That when the end of my life cometh,
I may die fighting in a mighty battle!
And it did not take long for the moment of truth to arrive. The pack of hill rajas and Mughal satraps, grown green with jealousy at the Guru’s phenomenal success, started baying at his heels. However, nothing could stop that revolutionary spirit which now swept the Punjab countryside. The skirmishes and frays around Anandpur Sahib soon developed into cruel, long and desperate engagements. The battles of Bhangani and Nadaun which saw the enemy hosts mauled and petrified despite their superiority in numbers and arms served notice that the youthful and valiant Guru was not to be trifled with. This made even Emperor Aurangzeb sit up and think. He had failed to see that the power of the idea and of the word was more than a match for the massed might of princes and potentates. And when the word happened to be armed in steel, it was a fateful marriage of spirit and sword.
Though Guru Gobind Singh had soon enough established his spiritual sovereignty, all was not well with the Sikh House itself. The whole edifice raised with loving care and industry by the preceding Gurus had begun to lose something of its original impulse, though in reality, schismatic sects, family feuds and the parasitical priestly order of the masands were no more than mere hair-cracks. A discerning eye could still see the oceanic wash beneath the surface. The decision to evolve a new race of soldier-saints fully immersed in “the destructive element” was, then, the highest moment of a mind in search of new absolutes. Thus the commissioning of the great Congress of Sikhs at Anandpur Sahib in 1699 to initiate the order of the Khalsa amidst symbolic ceremonies and sacrifices was an event of profound significance. A purely religious body was now charged with political duties, and invested with insignia and authority. The politicising of the creed was not to be understood in terms of power and pelf, but as a doctrine of the armed spirit in perpetual engagement with the human reality. It was the Guru’s mandate from Heaven to shake that Empire of loot, lies and larceny. And even then, he resorted to force only when all other means had been of no avail. As he wrote in his Zafarnama or “The Epistle of Victory” addressed to Aurangzeb:
When all else hast proved futile,
Thou shalt rightfully lift the sword.
No wonder, in the scheme of things, he enunciated a philosophy of instant and purposive action. There was no be no hiatus between the hand and the heart. The generosity and the aristocracy of the impulse were to be respected. A committed soul could not but be a partisan of truth. And truth is strife. He thus moves away from the traditional Hindu idea of passivity and inaction. This is not, however, to say that he also moves away from “the still centre”; only he finds it inside, at the heart of the tempest, so to speak. He is “the new Gita of Indiain himself,” as Prof Puran Singh puts it.
If the consecrated sword is one aspect of his world-view, the idea of man’s equality at all human levels is that other aspect which has given the Sikh creed its distinctive mark and address. It may be pertinent to recall here that the Beloved Five who had offered their heads to the Guru’s flashing sword on the Initiation Day were drawn from different varnas and castes.The Guru’s word released the dormant energies of the lower orders comprising the peasant, the potter, the artisan, the sweeper, the scavenger and their like. They now broke bread with the Master himself, and were honoured citizens of a spiritual Commonwealth. The leonine aspect was symbolised in the rough exterior. The sparrow could now look the hawk in the eye! That was the paradox and its power.
But nothing great is ever born without pain and suffering. And few peoples in the world have known such sovereignty of suffering as the Sikhs. The Guru taught them to wear pain as the garment of the Lord. For tempered in the smithy of the soul, pain turned into spiritual gaiety. It’s thus that the idea of supreme sacrifice runs like a purple thread in the tapestry of Guru Gobind Singh’s life. The long and cruel siege of Anandpur Sahib and the Battle of Chamkaur were only a proving ground for his mettle.
Guru Gobind Singh, then, was a rare amalgam of spirit, action and poetry. In a way, all that he did was poetic in essence, for poetry is the inner and vital soul of things. However, he was also a great poet and a profound scholar in his own right. Vastly read in Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian literature, he brought a classical and composite awareness to bear upon his own splendid compositions. First at Paonta, where he presided over a court of 52 poets, later at Damdama, the Guru’s Kashi, he composed a large number of poems, and also undertook a recension of the Guru Granth. He had indeed an aesthetic sensibility of the highest order, and an imagination which at once comprehended the prophetic and the profane. He responded warmly to the overtures of life, but his best verse veers round the themes of Namand one’s submission to the Lord’s will. TheDasam Granth, which includes most of his writings, is a monumental work of heroic proportions.
The Guru’s philosophy, finally, is dialectical in the profoundest sense of the word. It is aimed at the enlargement of man’s estate to a point where thought and deed coalesced in complete accord, and thus nourished perpetually the humanist dream of life. In any case, it refused to be reduced to any dogma. Compassion, love, forgiveness are the corner-stones of such a philosophy. There are any number of stories about the Guru’s compassionate heart, and the most moving is about the Forty Followers who had renounced him in the hour of need and trial. When in retrospect, they yearn for the Master’s face, the Guru tears up the tragic disclaimer, and takes them back into his wide and warm bosom. And they die on the battlefield of Muktsar, writing their signatures afresh in blood.
And, finally, it’s his luminous image that compels the imagination, and holds it in wonder and awe. Mounted on his blue, prancing and spirited steed, sporting a white falcon on his gloved hand and an aigrette on his saffron turban, Guru Gobind Singh looked royal in person and aspect. That’s how the chromatic imagination of the painter seeks to capture the essence of his rich and puissant personality on the canvas again and again. There’s something in that mien which defies the brush, something that will never be quite translated into art. For the faithful, however, it will suffice. For who could understand the full aspect of the Master, or understanding it, render its full radiance. The outline alone overwhelms the mind.