Tag Archives: Sikhism

Martyring Freedom, Mourning Tigers, and Sikhing Indira

I visit gurdwaras and a Prime Minister’s shrine, compare Joan of Arc to black widows and find a hollow tiger.

I’ve entered two golden-domed Sikh gurudwaras in Delhi, one adjacent to my hotel (see my 2007 introduction to Sikhism here).  After removing shoes, washing hands and stepping through a shallow pool to rinse my feet, the matter of head coverings arose.  In one temple my sunhat was deemed satisfactory; in the other I was lent a headscarf.  In both I found a spot under a fan to sit on the carpet and observe.  Chanting of scriptures was accompanied by drums and accordion.  Worshippers circled the room while a priest fanned their sacred book.

Sikhs are known for distributing free food, and I saw a huge production line making bread: dough ripped into sections, rolled into balls, thrown to the far end of a long trestle for rolling out.  As in nursery stories of witches’ cauldrons, the simmering pots of curry and dhal could have boiled up several children with ease.

Unlike the Jains and Mahatma Gandhi who disavow all violence (see previous post), Sikhs are famed for their military prowess – they still form much of India’s army and police – and believe it’s right to wield arms in defence of their faith.  After reliving Mahatma Gandhi’s final days I moved to the house of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation), who ran aground on this faith.

I was surprised to find her memorial house far more crowded than Gandhi’s.  Busloads of Indian tourists were filing through the whitewashed bungalow, where security guards even banned water bottles.  It was like a pilgrimage temple, kept much as it was when she died.  Through glass walls you could see floor to ceiling bookcases, old leather armchairs, framed photos on side tables, and presents from around the world, like a Chinese dragon rug on the floor and an African mask on the wall.

indira-gandhi-houseI saw the same Royal Doulton Bunnykins china plates and bowls that I had as a child, and hundreds of photos, including Indira as a six-year-old girl with Gandhi, who knew the family well.  Her father Jawaharlal Nehru was frequently arrested during the independence struggle and he once telegrammed: GOING TO OTHER HOME.  I enjoyed this account from Indira’s aunt of their bookish upbringing, with its fateful premonition:

Perhaps the love of books all of us had and the well-stocked library at Anand Bhawan [their house in Allahabad] was as good a school as any.  From prison Jawaharlal would periodically order a number of books for Indira and she would read fairy tales, children’s editions of Shakespeare, Dickens, Shaw and many classics…  Indira had her favourites.  She was fascinated by stories about Joan of Arc…  One day I saw her standing at the balustrade of the veranda with outstretched arms – she said, “I’m practising being Joan of Arc.  I have been reading about her, and someday I’m going to lead my people to freedom just as Joan of Arc did.”

It seems Indira was devout like Joan of Arc.  In her Puja Room or prayer closet was a Virgin Mary with a halo of stars, a slim Thai Buddha, a vessel of Ganges water, a chain of prayer beads, and incense sticks in front of statuettes of Hindu gods.  On the shelf was a Bible, Koran, Hindu and Sikh Scriptures, and cassettes of devotional music.  Indira liked to light an oil lamp before the garlanded Mother India.

Her publicity machine portrayed her like Mother India herself, proclaiming “India is Indira and Indira is India”.  Many foreign accolades that she received were on display: the Dutch Order of the Golden Ark, the Lenin Prize, the Dag Hammarskjold award.  Countless newspaper clippings documented her great achievements, but I saw no mention of the Emergency rule she declared in 1975 – after being found guilty of electoral malpractice.  Joan of Arc may have led her people to freedom, but Indira threw thousands of opposition politicians into prison and gagged the free media (cutting off electricity to independent printing presses), while her son bulldozed slums and force-sterilised the poor.  All this led novelist Salman Rushdie to call her the “Black Widow” in his novel Midnight’s Children.  In her study was a photo of poet Rabindrath Tagore alongside a famous verse from his Nobel prize-winning Gitanjali (which I introduced here).  It echoed the noble Joan of Arc and after the Emergency seemed most ironic:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Maybe my view has been overly shaped by westernised liberals like Rushdie, because Indira was clearly respected here and the Emergency did have some positive effects.  Many socks were quickly pulled up.  Power cuts, strikes and inflation were curbed.  Trains ran on time and government workers actually came to work – there were not enough desks and chairs in many offices when all staff showed up.  It’s joked that queues were last spotted at a Delhi bus stop in February 1977, just before the Emergency ended.

Just as for Gandhi (see previous post) I followed Indira’s final steps outside.  Glass covers the footpath up to the spot where, as a sign said, she “fell martyr to the bullets of two assassins” in 1984, shot 30 times by her Sikh bodyguards.  Her blood-stained sari was on display.  Although it all recalled Gandhi’s memorial, she was hardly an innocent pacifist like him.  Her death followed her invasion of the holy of holies for Sikhs, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The museum also celebrated Indira’s son Rajiv, an engineer and pilot.  His first laptop was on display – a chunky 1980s Toshiba – and a radio he’d assembled, which reminded of my Dad.  He loved electronics and I’d often smell his soldering iron as a kid.   Rajiv was killed by a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1991.  The tattered remains of his shirt and sneakers hung in a glass case.

indira-gandhi-tigerOn the way out I caught a glimpse of an eco-conscious compassionate Indira.  A life-size statue of a glittery gold-striped tiger had a transparent belly, showing a stuffed toy tiger inside.  Between 1919 and 1972, tiger numbers in India dropped from 35,000 to 1872.  Alongside this plastic-looking beast was a typed letter from Indira to her son on September 7, 1965:

Darling Rajiv,
We have received a huge tiger’s skin.  The tiger was shot by the maharaja of Rewa only two months ago.  The skin is lying in the ballroom.  Every time I pass it I feel very sad that instead of lying here he might have been roaming and roaring in the jungle.  Our tigers are such beautiful creatures, so graceful.  You can see their muscles rippling under their skins.  Such a short time ago he must have been king of the jungle – striking terror in the hearts of the other animals.
I am so glad that nowadays more and more people prefer to go into the jungles with their cameras instead of guns.  It seems such a shame to deprive anything of the joy of living just for our pleasure.

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Swords and Salvation: the Spiritual Synthesis of Sikhism

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.