When the sword replaced the sacred thread

Topics BOOK REVIEW

Credits: Amazon.in
J S Grewal’s book titled Guru Gobind Singh: Master of the White Hawk details the life and times of Sikhism’s last guru. The book is a scholarly account with references to multiple sources to describe the same events encapsulating the life of Guru Gobind Singh. For those (including many young Sikhs) who revere the last Sikh guru for his martial skills and as founder of the warrior community called Khalsa, Mr Grewal’s book is of immense value to understand other little-known facets of Guru Gobind Singh’s life. 

One of the biggest achievements of Mr Grewal’s book is its vivid description of the literary achievements in the court of Guru Gobind Singh. He writes, “Guru Gobind Singh emerged as a great patron of literature. In some cases, the Guru himself invited poets to join his court. Some poets were uncomfortable at the Mughal court due to the religious attitude of Aurangzeb. There was no safer place than the Anandpur of Guru Gobind Singh for poets who were either oppressed or had fallen out of favour or were simply looking for a location to sell their wares.”

The book extensively details works of the Sikh faith produced during the last guru’s time. Much of the focus is on the Dasam Granth — a compilation of not just Guru Gobind Singh’s own works but also many poets who thronged his court. It has heavy spiritual and philosophical undertones dealing with the meaning of god, purpose of existence, human equality and religious conduct. The author also explains how the Dasam Granth is an invocation of the martial spirit and not just philosophical or religious treatises. One of the compositions lucidly explained by the author and believed to have been written by Guru Gobind Singh himself invokes Durga — the goddess of destruction. It details the epic battle of Durga with the demon-king Mahikhasur and how her victory to help Indra regain his throne was the use of “physical force sanctified in a righteous war.” There is also a special emphasis on the Bachittar Natak — a 14-chapter composition written by the last Sikh guru, which forms an integral part of the Dasam Granth

Mr Grewal describes the sixth chapter of Bachittar Natak as the “most important for Guru Gobind Singh’s conception of his mission.” The book mentions that the realisation of his spiritual purpose dawned on Guru Gobind Singh after meditating in the Sapt-sring mountains (present day Hemkunt Sahib in Uttarakhand). After his spiritual awakening the guru proclaims, “Anyone who calls me the Supreme Lord shall fall into the pit of hell. Call me his slave and make no mistake in this matter. The divine guru has sent me for the sake of dharam, to spread dharam everywhere and to destroy the wicked enemies.”

While literary pursuits form a memorable part of Mr Grewal’s book, it also captures the diplomacy and political skills of Guru Gobind Singh — especially after he founded the Khalsa. The book details the many battles of Guru Gobind Singh with the hill kings of the Punjab region and his confrontations with Aurangzeb’s commanders. Aurangzeb was the Mughal emperor who had beheaded Guru Gobind Singh’s father for resisting his religious agenda. The book details the events leading to Guru Gobind Singh and the starved Sikhs being forced out of Anandpur by the hill kings supported by Mughals. It depicts the guru’s desire to negotiate with Aurangzeb and his proximity to Bahadur Shah — the last Mughal emperor. Mr Grewal doesn’t shed light on attempts made by Guru Gobind Singh to establish a Khalsa Raj in the Punjab region after he retired to Nanded (in present day Maharashtra) following failed negotiations with Bahadur Shah.  But then the mission was led by his commander Banda Singh Bahadur; and any emphasis on that would have taken away from the book’s pure focus on the last Sikh guru. 

Perhaps the most exciting part of this scholarly book is the chapter titled “The Baisakhi of 1699” which details the day Guru Gobind Singh formed the Khalsa. Every Sikh (and those interested in the religion) would probably know this by heart. But Mr Grewal’s meticulous research and extensive cross referencing to multiple sources makes it a delight to read for anyone interested in understanding the formation of the Khalsa and the spiritual moorings of this warrior clan. Mr Grewal while quoting another scholar describing the Khalsa Panth writes, “Hindus and Turks were opposed to each other. Whenever a critical situation developed in their affairs, God sent an avatar to redress the balance between the wicked and the saintly. Turks became overwhelmingly powerful and Hindu dharma was on the verge of extinction. The Khalsa Panth was created to uproot the Turks. To this end, Guru Gobind Singh has been sent to the world. The sacred thread was replaced by the sword.”   

Guru Gobind Singh: Master of the White Hawk
J.S Grewal
Oxford University Press 
Rs 1,100; 296 pages


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