A brotherhood of brush and bangle and blade, a Hindu-Muslim mix; yak hair and turbans, gurus and martyrs, lions and saints.
This morning a bearded and turbaned professor of technology, Harijinder Singh Bhatia, came to introduce the Sikh way of life. Guru Nanak (1469-1538) was born to Hindu parents in a Muslim area, now in Pakistan, and saw the divisions caused by different names for God. At 30 years old he had a mystical experience and began uniting Hinduism and Islam. Like Hindus, Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, and they cremate their dead. Like Muslims, they believe in a single God with no equals or “sub-contractors”, their temples have no idols, and they reject the caste system. The Sikh Granth Sahib is the most inclusive of religious scriptures: it includes teachings not only from Sikh gurus but also from Hinduism, Islam, and other faiths.
As Guru Nanak lay dying, said Prof Singh, his followers quarrelled: the Muslims wanted to bury the body, the Hindus cremate it. He instructed that each group should lay a garland beside his body. After three days, the garland that remained unwilted would indicate his choice. When he died, both parties laid out their wreaths. Three days later, they lifted the shroud to find the body gone and only the flowers remained. The Muslims buried their flowers; the Hindus cremated theirs. Problem solved.
For many Indians, the spiritual ideal is solitary self-denial, living alone in the forest and begging for support. Guru Nanak, however, taught that true asceticism means not fleeing the world, but remaining pure amidst impurities. He believed the body was God’s temple, and that saints should stay in society, honourably earning their livelihood so they could help the needy. As a result, Sikh gurdwaras have huge kitchens that offer free food to all comers.
Rejecting the absolute nonviolence of Hindus and Jains, a Sikh must be both soldier and saint, as shown by the Sikh symbol of two single-edged swords crossed over a central double-edged blade, representing spiritual and temporal in balance. The British used Sikhs as guards and police through the Empire. They formed nearly 30% of the British Indian Army, and much of the Defence Force today.
Nine more gurus followed Nanak in succession. The earlier ones lived peacefully as the early Moghul rulers were tolerant of all religions, but Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was more fanatical, eager to enforce Sharia law and convert all his subjects to Islam. He beheaded the ninth Sikh guru and sent the head to the tenth, Guru Gobind, who was forced to declare war.
Because many Sikhs were defecting under persecution, he needed a test of loyalty. In 1699, Guru Gobind called an assembly of 80,000 followers, stood with a naked sword and demanded five heads for sacrifice. One after the other, five devoted men came forward and were taken to his tent. Each time he returned alone with a bloody sword. He then re-entered his tent and brought out all five alive – he had slain goats instead. The faithful five were turbaned and renamed Singh, meaning Lion, to remove caste distinctions – it’s now the surname of all Sikhs. With a sword Guru Gobind stirred sweet fruits in an iron bowl of water. He took the sweet nectar, sprinkled five drops on the heads of the five to awaken their knowledge, splashed their eyes to enlighten their vision, and gave them to drink, so their tongues would always remember God.
This was the baptism of the first five members of the inner Khalsa (from Persian for pure) brotherhood, who swore to live by the five “K”s or kakkars (emblems): leaving hair and beards unshorn (kesh), carrying a hair comb (kanga), wearing an iron bangle (kara) on the right wrist to symbolise courage and loose underwear (kaccha) for chastity; carrying a dagger or sword (kirpan).
That afternoon we bussed to his gurudwara (Sikh temple). It resembled a mosque with plain white, pointy domes but no minaret. A central inverse onion, lower inside, emphasises humility. After washing our hands and feet before entry, we knotted on headscarves – the poor man’s version of the Sikh turban which can be 5 to 7 m long, of any colour the wearer chooses. Some also bandage their beard, wrapping up chin and jaws as if they’ve just had serious dental surgery. No one took offence at my whiskers, so red beard entered free.
The Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, is revered as the gurus themselves. It lay open beneath a pagoda on a low dais covered in yellow cloth embroidered with gold, flanked by silver lamp stands with 11 tiers. Nearby was a duster of fine yak hair to brush its cover. In front of the railing stood jars of flowers; swords and arrows were crossed on the floor. Sikhs prostrated on the carpet and circled the book clockwise, dropping donations in a box at the front. In the corner, we saw the chamber where the sacred Scripture is kept at night.
The walls were adorned with paintings of the tortures, martyrdoms and glorious victories of the Sikhs under Aurangzeb. One painting showed the Sikh origins of the Red Cross. A labourer wanted to serve the guru but had no fighting skills, so he carried water to the battlefield and cared for the wounded, both friend and foe. Fellow Sikhs complained that he aided the enemy. He replied that whenever he hears a groaning man, he looks and sees only the Guru’s face. The Guru said well done, and continue to bandage them too.