Of soldier-saints and French hijabs
Happy Vaisakhi folks!
For those of you unfamiliar with this festival, a primer. Vaisakhi, or Baisakhi, is a harvest festival celebrated in Punjab over the ages. It also marks the beginning of a new solar year, an event that is concomitantly marked across India in its various avatars: Ugadi in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Pohela Boishakh in Bengal, Navreh in Kashmir ...
Since a large number of Indians have switched from agrarian to urban lifestyle, the festival today has got reduced to a public holiday and a desultory greeting. Some folks, not all Sikhs, do venture forth to a Gurudwara, the Sikh place of worship, to celebrate. That is because Vaisakhi holds a special place in the Sikh faith.
In 1699, it was on this day that the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, created a casteless community, the Khalsa or the pure. He prescribed five emblems for them. They were to wear their hair and beard unshorn (kes); carry a comb (kangha) in the hair to keep it tidy; wear a knee-length pair of breeches (kach) worn by soldiers of the times; wear a steel bracelet (kara) on their right wrist; and they were to be armed with a sabre (kirpan). The Guru, in turn, submitted to the Khalsa - each was beholden to the other, there was no superior in this relationship.
With that baptismal ceremony the Guru changed the complexion of the Sikh faith from the pacifist one initiated by Nanak to one of soldier-saints who would wield arms only in a righteous cause. The emblems were complimentary to the new vocation. Ascetics in India have a long tradition of unshorn hair while the other four emblems were drawn from soldiering.
Early eighteenth century was a time of turbulence in India: Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was a bigot who had overturned the relatively peaceful relationship with his subjects by imposing a tax on the infidels which was called jaziya. A young Gobind’s acquaintance, however, was more personal – as a nine-year-old he had witnessed his father’s execution by the Mughal emperor. The creation of the Khalsa was an attempt to fight religious persecution, to “take the broom of divine knowledge and sweep away the filth of timidity”.
A visit to the Gurudwara therefore is a time to reflect on the values of Khalsa and what they mean today. There is an interesting debate currently on in France where a ban on the hijab has become effective. In a twist of irony, in the land of liberte, egalite, fraternite, women are being told how to dress. The country that birthed that rallying cry has on previous occasions banned the Sikh turban as well.
Which brings me to the central question of what it means to be a Sikh today, what Khalsa stands for in the current environment, and where the five K’s fit within the contemporary challenges.
Typically over the years there is one K – Kara, the steel bracelet – that Sikhs have adhered to, even as they’ve shed the others. While most Sikh men continue to be distinguished by their turbans, a steady number have shorn their hair. Suspicions cast on Sikhs post 9/11 have not helped – the Sikh diaspora has had to challenge assumptions that they’re Muslims.
I remember the time when my younger brother cut his hair. He was studying medicine and my mother refused to talk to him for days. What surprised me, however, was my father’s reaction. He was a liberal, a scotch-imbibing secular, the type derided by fundamentalists who had become rather vocal in Punjab during a tumultuous period in the eighties. A criminal lawyer, he worked pro bono on the cases of young men accused of being militants and was simultaneously vociferous in his denunciation of Bhindranwale– a rabid preacher leading the Sikh communal charge.
Religion to him was incidental, and yet, I saw him distressed with my brother’s behaviour. What difference does it make, I quizzed him? He patted my head, his brown eyes mellow as he probed his carefully-trimmed beard: Faith comes to us via nurture and becomes nature. Which is why battling it so tough. My father never took scissors to his beard, I never though of cutting my hair … my son has gone a step further.
In the least, faith is a complicated thing, I learnt from my father. And as we tussle with its multiple strands in one lifetime, there are days when we need to be reminded of what it stood for when it started. Those values are the beacon – everything else comes second.
In the evening we’ll go the Gurudwara that is a short walk from our home. The low-slung blue-painted century-old house of worship will be strung with lights and the waft of karha parshad will snuff traffic fumes as we wait at the traffic signal across. My eight-year-old will relish the semolina halva and we’ll enjoy listening to the shabad. I’ll hope to catch one of my favourite prayers, Khalsa mero roop hai Khaas, which celebrates our essential humanity.
And as always I will ignore the framed portrait of Bhindranwale at its entrance. Friends have asked me what I feel about it. I have no truck with those who have declared him a martyr.
We have a Punjabi phrase – jey aapan donve rus gaye ta, manau kaun vey – oft used in a tiff, the idea being that both people cannot afford to sulk if the argument is to be resolved.
These are questions that the faithful must wrestle with and answer as the faith evolves. Meanwhile, in order to continue the debate one has to stay seated at the table.
And to get you into the spirit, here's a song that celebrates Vaisakhi in true Hindi film ishtyle: O Jatta aayi Vaisakhi!