Sikhs, at least Sikh men, are conspicuous among Indians by their ever-present turbans and their less noticeable but similarly ever-present daggers. Mistaken for, and sometimes attached as Aghani Muslims after 9/11, they can also be misunderstood in their native India, mocked as dim-wits in the Sardarji jokes and, followingt the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard, targeted by state-sponsored propaganda and violence. Sikhism itself is, to non-adherents, obscure relative to Hinduism or Buddhism.
As a result, the question whether religion is a birthright or a burden has serious social and political dimensions for the Sikh community. That it can be a means to the exploration of one’s spiritual identity as shaped by one’s ancestors finds beautiful expression in Sarbpreet Singh’s book The Story of the Sikhs: 1469-1708, based on his podcast of same name. He has produced an enchanting narrative about the origins of Sikhism in medieval India and its origins as intertwined with the presence of the Mughals, its institutions, and its message of fearlessness in the face of tyranny, intertwined with Singh’s own origins as well:
I distinctly remember my twenty-year-old self being beset by the jejune mockery of Sikhs — rampant in popular Indian culture — on the one hand, and the relentless anti-Sikh propaganda of Indian officialdom in the age of 1984 on the other! Small wonder then, that when I arrived in America in my early twenties, my connection to my faith and identity was, to put it mildly, tenuous…While this book has not been written for a specific readership, I would like to express a hope. Decades ago, as a young man seeking both my roots and a sense of identity, I started a journey that was to enrich my life immensely. I am hoping that this work will serve as an entry point for other seekers who might be in the early stages of their own journeys.
Singh movingly narrates “the story of the sikhs” as a storyteller rather than as a historian, albeit with generous references to archives from the medieval period including travellers’ accounts, the Janam Sakhis or the accounts of the lives of the saints, sacred and secular poetry and debates among scholars studying Sikh history. One major takeaway that transcends an interest in Sikhism per se is the presentation of Mughal history from the point of view of the ten Gurus of Sikhism; the Mughals and the Gurus were almost exact contemporaries. At a time when the Mughals are generally invoked in the context of animosity between the Hindus and the Muslims in South Asia, Singh provides a new lens, both beautiful and brutal, for this history.
The book opens with Guru Nanak, the first Guru and the founder of Sikhism, challenging the massacre engendered by Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, and his army at Sayyidpur, now known as Eminabad in what is today Pakistan:
Kings are hungry lions
Their servants rabid dogs
Foes of soothing restful sleep
The mindless servile cogs
The lackeys of the evil king,
Waving talone and claw
The prey on common gentlefolk;
Their tender flesh they gnaw
Babur was superstitious and didn’t want to be cursed by holy men. When he met Nanak, he received the Guru’s blessings and the prophecy that if his clan “shrinks from justice”, a blight would come upon its rule. Some Gurus paid with their lives as the prophecy of the blight began to come true.
Singh’s translations are evocative as are his narrations of different episodes from the period. Here is one that describes Mughal Emperor Akbar’s visit to the third Guru, Amar Das. Akbar walks barefoot towards the Guru:
When the Sikhs understood his intention, they hastened to lay down sheets of fine silk and velvet on the ground to ensure that the Emperor’s show of humility would be as comfortable as possible. Before the Emperor walked one of his attendants, carrying an ornate golden staff with which he periodically struck the ground. The Emperor looked at the silken sheets spread before him and then bent to move them aside with his own hands. He then started to walk barefoot on the rough path. The Emperor presented a resplendent sight in his regal attire… The mighty Emperor Akbar, before whom the entire world bowed, humbly saluted the Guru. Then, gathering his limbs about him, he sat on the ground before him. ‘Did you eat in the Langar?’ the Guru asked the Emperor. ‘Oh, what shall I eat?’ Akbar asked. ‘Today in the Langar we have unsalted porridge,’ said Guru Amar Das. ‘Then that is what I shall eat, too.’
With Akbar’s son Jahangir and great grandson Aurangzeb, the relationship between the House of Akbar and the House of Akbar, as Singh puts it, took a violent turn. With Jahangir’s execution of the Fifth Guru, Arjan Dev and Aurangzeb having the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur beheaded, the story in Singh’s narration acquires epic overtones. The two Mughals saw the following and the power the Gurus came to acquire as a threat to their existence. Also, they couldn’t grasp the new religion and its ethos—one can trace influences from both Hinduism and Islam—which was inclusive, challenged caste hierarchy, encouraged communal dining, fed people three times a day from a community kitchen supported by the funds from the community and run thanks to volunteer efforts, and encouraged honest labor, and sharing the fruits of that labor.
To be clear, there is a lot more than the presence of the Mughals to Singh’s story. The compilation of the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the acquisition of swords as weapons of self defence and as a means of defending the weak while refusing to bow down to tyranny find equal space in Singh’s narrative with their own interesting legends and debates.
True to the objective of writing a story that introduces seekers to the origins of their religion, Singh is at his best when discussing the metaphysics of the miracles performed by the Gurus. One story involves Nanak’s visit to Mecca—he sat with his feet towards the Kaaba. The indignant custodian of the mosque kicked Nanak’s feet away from the direction of the Kaaba. Those witnessing the scene gasped for they found the Kaaba had moved to the direction where Nanak’s feet now pointed! Nanak came to be revered by the Muslims of Mecca thanks to this “miracle” and the subsequent interactions with the Imam of Mecca. He came to be known as Nanak Pir Wali Hind, or the holy man from India. Indeed, as Sarbpreet Singh points out, a mosque dedicated to him was built about half a mile away from the Grand Mosque. Nanak left his staff and sandals behind when asked for a keepsake by the Muslims.
Early in the book, Singh talks about his rationale for including these apocryphal stories in his mega-story:
Some are wondrous tales of miracles that Nanak wrought, others are thinly disguised appropriations from Hindu mythology, and some based on historical fact documents and propagated through the generations. Nanak was, above all else, a very rational and practical man, who spent his whole life debunking ritualism and pouring scorn on superstition. It is ironic that the legacy of a man who mercilessly exposed charlatans claiming miraculous spiritual powers, now swirls with fantastic tales! … I have struggled with my approach to these stories. I have come to accept them as parables, because without doubt many of them illuminate important truths and principles.
Singh’s story about the medieval times is made more poignant by the ramifications it has for the present. The Rababis, the descendants of the earliest professional musicians who would sing of the Almighty for and with the Gurus, were Muslims. With the 1947 Partition, they left for Pakistan where their art died. Singh also refers to the act of kindness shown by Nawab Sher Muhammad Khan in attempting to stop Aurangzeb from killing Guru Gobind Singh’s sons. While Khan was ignored at that time, his:
… moment of honour and compassion was to pay great dividends, generations later. There is a strong belief among the residents of Malerkotla that the haa da naara or cry of protest of Nawab Sher Muhammad Khan in 1704, and Guru Gobind Singh’s subsequent blessing, was directly responsible for the peace that prevailed in teh town in 1947. It seems almost miraculous that while the rest of the Punjab was racked by the fury and bloodletting that accompanied the partition of India and Pakistan, the Muslim residents of Malerkotla emerged unscatheed, despite being hemmed in by a hostile Sikh and Hindu population.
Despite the author’s claim that it’s a story or a personal approach rather than a proper history, The Story of the Sikhs is a well-researched document and an inspiration to Sikhs as well as believers of other religions to find their own spiritual anchorings by examining their communities’ pasts and their relationships with the present times.