The basic idea of the Sikh religion having a martial component in addition to the spiritual is quite well-known in modern discourse to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. However, more often than not, this component is relegated to the historical realm, and is considered a temporary, time-bound, part of Sikh belief that has context solely within a particular historical time period. Another popular treatment, particularly for Western Sikhs, is the symbolic — rendering Sikh militaristic notions into various political Western idioms of “revolution”, “freedom”, “peace” “social justice”, “equality”, and so forth.
While there is certainly a good amount of healthy debate to be had about the best way to manifest Sikh warrior spirit in the modern day, it may be useful to take a break from the more abstracted-away explanations for the Sikh martial ethos, and go into the corpus of Sikh scripture and historical literature to see on what terms this belief system first developed. Arming ourselves with knowledge from primary Sikh sources, directly from Sikh history, can help Sikhs understand their faith on their own terms and then use modern language as a means to describe that and implement it in their personal lives.
The Revolutionary Gurbani of Nanak
The seeds for this ideology were arguably originally laid by the original Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, in his compositions found in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.
The first basic mention we can find we can perhaps trace to the foundational Sikh recitation, Jap, generally accepted to be the Gurus’ first composition. In it, multiple times, warriors are mentioned as a particular group of devotees among many others, such as Yogis, ascetics, and householders. The purpose here is to poetically describe the vastness of Akāl Purakh and describe the diversity of His worshippers; but the mention of warriors in a sense of a natural, normal part of a spiritual society deserves mention nonetheless.
The “warrior” is used as a spiritual metaphor multiple times within the Guru Granth Sahib as well. The shabad “Surah So Pehchanye” by Bhagat Kabir is the most well-known example of this (as it often accompanies inspirational Sikh pop-songs and image macros about martial valor), but this was not an isolated metaphor — many of the Gurus used it often themselves within the Guru Granth Sahib, as seen here when Guru Nanak uses it in a composition of his in Raag Vadhans.
Another layer to add onto this is that of Guru Nanak’s sociopolitical commentary, which is often interlaced with deep spiritual writings, with imagery of blood-sucking, cruel rulers who have lost their hold on righteousness.
Perhaps the most profound sociopolitical commentary by Guru Nanak can be found in Baburbani, which was written by the Guru in response to the extremely violent invasion of Hindustan by the first Mughal Emperor Babur. One of the more lengthy shabads in this collection provides an in-depth description to the atrocities committed and the torment of the Indian people upon the invasion, to make a broader spiritual point about the nature of hukam, and how all is ultimately ordained by the will of Akāl Purakh. However, the Guru makes an interesting observation regarding the state of the many religious bodies in India at the time, how they responded to the crisis in failure, and how the only real response was given by Lodi Pathan soldiers serving the Delhi Sultanate who would then fall in battle to the Turkic Mughals.
Some take-away points may include:
- The Guru’s normalization of the warrior as a standard part of life (and not shunned as being spiritually wrong)
- The Guru’s extreme discontent with the present polity as being unrighteous
- The Guru’s observation that the present body of saints, who focused on passive action through praying for miracles or relying for curses on the Mughals, were basically entirely useless in their aim to stop tyranny and cruelty
We know that Guru Nanak and the following four Gurus started forming Sikh institutions such as the Manji system and dharamsalas (Gurdwaras), and formed establishments such as the settlements in Kartarpur Sahib, Goindval, and Ramdaspur (Amritsar) which expanded the Gurus’ dominion from the spiritual to the social and arguably political domain. Guru Angad Dev Ji even initialized a tradition of physical fitness with the mall-akhara system. However, a large transformative event occured in the Sikh Panth with the ascent of the 6th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind Ji.
The Warrior-Guru, Hargobind
Guru Hargobind was the first of the Sikh Gurus to outright militarize, by introducing the idea of Miri-Piri (represented by dual swords) — the duty of Sikhs to be involved in temporal and political affairs (Miri), as well as spiritual (Piri). Naturally, this militarization was associated with major lifestyle changes for the Panth — Guru Hargobind’s darbar had an increased political presence, as seen by his entanglements with the Mughal Empire. Guru Hargobind took to the practice of adorning weapons, learning the art of war, and hunting, and would regularly interact with others who would aid him or join him in these endeavors. What’s often unknown is that these activities caused quite a stir among quietist Sikhs who felt uncomfortable with the additional roles that the Guru was taking on in addition to being a spiritual leader. Bhai Gurdas, a devout Sikh theologian, scribe, and close associate of the Gurus who scribed the first bir of the Adi Granth, explains and describes the concerns of some of this sangat in his vaaran.
Bhai Gurdas dismisses these concerns offhand, and provides a beautiful crop of metaphors explaining the Gurus’ actions from a philosophical point of view.
The philosophical argument given by Bhai Gurdas here is very interesting and does not find much mention in contemporary popular Sikh culture as other metaphors often do. Unlike other historic belief-systems with a martial component, such as the shakti worship performed by Rajputs or the militant interpretations of jihad by some Islamic schools, Bhai Gurdas does not ascribe an explicitly spiritual aspect to the military aspects Guru Hargobind brings into the Panth — but describes their importance nonetheless for protecting the philosophy of Sikhi. Guru Hargobind also started the much-exalted dhadi tradition, where singers would proudly sing rousing war ballads.
The innovations that Guru Hargobind brought into the Sikh community carried on in the following Gurus. There is a modern perception that Guru Tegh Bahadur (whose name ironically means, brave-with-the-sword) represented a departure from this custom, perhaps due to him spending substantive time meditating alone and his peaceful protest to the conversion of Kashmiri Pandits by sacrificing his own life. However, accounts from the time note how Guru Tegh Bahadur maintained the small standing army, and was well-involved in politics at the time. Contrary to modern paintings which show him in clothes of a saint, the 9th Guru wore military regalia typical of his predecessors and his next-in-line.
Guru Gobind Singh and the Birth of the Khalsa
The second biggest innovation in the Sikh Panth came with the advent of Guru Gobind Rai, who was himself deeply steeped in the martial arts since childhood, and was further trained in the ancient Kshatriya art of warfare, Shastar Vidiya, by his Rajput associate Bajjar Singh Rathore. At his time, the military innovations by his predecessors were still in place in the form of the standing army — we see, though, that a good portion of this, other than certain Sikhs who were especially close to the Guru, was a paid army, and certainly did not represent a bulk or even a significant portion of Sikh worshippers.
This explains why, in the Battle of Bhangani initiated by the Pahari Rajas, the Guru’s army was a coalition force of the Udasis led by Mahant Kirpal Ram, his Rajput allies, the soldiers of Pir Budhu Shah (who are said to have made up for the paid Pathan force who had deserted), and the Gurus own paid forces. After the Sikh victory, the Guru awarded his own soldiers as such:
According to the historical records, although Gobind Rai himself was comfortably steeped in the martial tradition without doubts from followers like the 6th Guru, he noted a disconnect from many Sikhs’ still-quietist, pacifist, practice of the faith and the martial ideals established by Guru Hargobind. As he felt the servile attitude of many Sikhs was unbefitting for the martial principles he lived by, he decided to infuse the martial ethos more directly into Sikh thought and praxis:
Although the Khalsa was in many ways a culmination of many other Sikh ideals as well, the martial aspect took a forefront. Guru Gobind Rai himself led by example by initiating himself into the Khalsa and adopting the name Gobind Singh.
In addition to establishing the Khalsa as an institution itself, the Guru and his kavi-darbar (assortment of poets) produced a variety of poetic literature, primarily in the Braj language, extolling martial valor and the warrior spirit. One common theme of such literature was how the warrior spirit was represented in already-existing traditions in India at the time. One particularly prominent motif was the veneration of the primordial warrior spirit in the dual-form of the sword and the warrior goddess Chandi. Compositions in her honor would flow with rich imagery of the battlefield, and praise Chandi for her warrior exploits in defeating demons and evil-doers.
This literature was not limited to the ancient Hindu tradition; Guru Gobind Singh drew upon historical Persian epics and Islamic concepts to write his defiant Zafarnama to Aurangzeb. In it, we see a similar extolling of an ancient warrior tradition, and a philosophical link to the one that Guru Gobind Singh had established with the Khalsa.
In addition to creating symbolic inspiration from various mythos, Guru Gobind Singh created a tradition inspired from the practical instruments of war. One such composition attributed to the tenth Guru is the Shastar-Naam-Mala (the rosary of weapon-names). In this composition, a variety of weapons are praised in in a highly poetic sense.
We see here that the tenth Guru praises a vast array of weaponry, including the tupak (musket or rifle). The Guru was himself well-trained in weapons other than his sword and bow-arrow, and would use an assortment of weapons on the battlefield as was needed.
What we see here, is contra to modern PR which casts the kirpan as being solely a symbol of peace/justice/freedom/righteousness, the historic interpretation very well seems to be that the kirpan (sword, although some texts also note that a karad, or dagger, was seen as acceptable as well) was seen as a bare minimum weapon (and that too, an actual weapon, not a symbol of one) that members of the Khalsa had to at the least keep on their person and know how to use.
The Proud Martial Culture of the Khalsa
Therefore, we can see that weaponry is in fact central to the Khalsa ethos; from the initiation ceremony featuring khanda, to the reverence of weapons as humare peer (our dear friends), to the regular practice of engaging and training in multiple types of weapons by Khalsa Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh himself cultivated a culture where weaponry and being prepared for battle was a means to justice and freedom, not just a mere symbol of it. The modern Sikh language seems to suggest this teaching has been lost or is not fully appreciated; the modern term often used to refer to one who has been initiated via khande di pahul is Amritdhari, or, “one who has taken Amrit”. Historically, this term was not used much in favor of various others, including the term Shastardhari — one who adorns weapons. Within historical Gurdwaras, and many modern ones, an entire layout of weaponry is displayed before the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh reinterpreted traditional Indic holidays like Holi (renamed to Holā), Diwali, and Dussehra within the Khalsa Panth to also be opportunities for sportsmanship and war-games.
So far, we’ve traced the evolution of the martial element of the Sikh faith through three large developments:
- The first seeds were laid by Guru Nanak, in his bani normalizing the warrior lifestyle (as opposed to seeing it as something unspiritual, morally wrong, or to be rejected) through metaphor and real-world example. The following 4 Gurus added incremental steps to this, by continuing the spiritual metaphor of the warrior, or implementing physical fitness regimes into Sikh institutions (the mall-akhara).
- Guru Hargobind took to actually training himself in the arts of war and introducing real militaristic elements into the Panth, despite initial opposition to it. The following three Gurus continued this trend, quelling such discontent and leading to more acceptance of such elements among the bulk of the the still-civilian Sikh community.
- Guru Gobind Singh spread this mindset to the broader Sikh Panth by composing and assembling a literary canon (most of which were compiled in a volume that is today known as the Dasam Granth) that focused on extolling the spirit of the warrior and the importance of shastars, as well as installing a warrior ethos, both symbolically and practically, into the heart of the ultimate Sikh institution of the Khalsa.
Coming back to the powerful analogy of the thorn and the rose found in Bhai Gurdas’ work, we can say that Guru Gobind Singh ensured Khalsa institutions would forever be a powerful thornbush that would ensure the everlasting and universal message of Sikhi enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib would forever stay protected.
Answering Guru Nanak — Seeking Justice in Kaljug
As a last stop, it is perhaps worth visiting a sakhi recounting a meeting between Guru Gobind Singh and a man named Jait who was a devout Dadupanthi. The Dadupanthis were followers of Sant Dadu, who was himself a devout Gujarati follower of Bhagat Kabir at around the time of the third Sikh Guru. The Dadupanthis, despite having a common thread of reverence for Kabir’s philosophy in their tradition, were strict pacifists unlike the Khalsa-Sikhs (the question of what Kabir himself was is an interesting query that perhaps requires more research, although it should be noted that any such strongly-pacifist verses that may be written by him were not included by the 5th Guru when he compiled the first bir of the Adi Granth).
Despite this philosophical difference, there was mutual respect between the Sikh Guru and the Dadupanthi Sant and they got into a philosophical conversation. Jait recounted his own personal religious beliefs:
The idea of “turning the other cheek” is a popular modern belief, which in the West is often heralded as a core teaching of Jesus in Christianity, and within India was especially popularized by the 20th century Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi (also from Gujarat, and known by many as Mahatma) in his doctrine of ahimsa. Prior to Sikhi, such pacifism was also crucial to the Buddhist, Jain, and various Hindu traditions.
In any case, Guru Gobind Singh is said to have respectfully responded to Jait as such:
It should be noted that the idea of retribution/revenge isn’t culturally alien to the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the Northwestern regions of Punjab where many tribes like the Jatts and Pashtuns have an informal code of conduct that predominantly features badla, or the idea of violent, honor-based retribution for personal insult or harm.
The non-pacifist concept that Guru Gobind Singh develops here, however, is quite different as it is on a much higher philosophical plane and is informed by all the developments previously discussed. In fact, it is a direct answer to the questions Guru Nanak poses in his bani about how to deal with the unrighteousness found in Kaljug. Finally, it’s interesting to note how Guru Gobind Singh ensured that Guru Nanak’s observation of how sants in India failed to do anything about cruelty and butchery, would not be a problem for his Khalsa sant-sipahis. As Khande-Di-Pahul would represent a commitment to become a warrior, protect the Sikh faith, destroy evil, and usher in a new age of dharam.