Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guru Tegh Bahadur – Mission, Martyrdom and Message

The following article appeared in the publication Guru Nanak Foundation, ND, Quarterly, 'Studies in Sikhism & Comparative Religion' Vol.XXX No.1, Jan-June 2011

The martyrdom, 335 years ago, of Guru Tegh Bahadur (April 1, 1621 - November 11, 1675) in the complex of Chandani Chowk – literally the moon lit square, the pleasure market in the evening of the royalty and aristocracy - facing the massive Red Fort and not far from the majestic Jama Masjid, both reflecting the might and splendor of, Shah Jehanbad, the new capital of the Mughal Empire at its zenith, has become the most defining moment in the history of not only India but the entire human civilization. Here lies the consecrated spot of an extraordinary example of the supreme sacrifice of life by the Ninth Guru - the most exalted teacher - of the then nascent but the popular integrating faith which had been bestowed the ‘Pothi’ - the Book, by his grand father, who had been martyred six decades earlier in Lahore.

The unique distinction of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur is underlined by the much larger issue at stake - the freedom of conscience and right of an individual to profess the faith of his choice. Guru Tegh Bahadur had stood up to defend the persecuted people of India who were not even the followers the faith enunciated by the great predecessor of Guru. This self sought martyrdom for the fundamental human right of the freedom to profess any religion was a path breaking idea which culminated into a resounding echo in the adoption on December 18, 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations Organization and represents the heart beat of the Constitution of Independent India.

To understand the spiritual background of the transformation of Sikhism, it would indeed be revealing and rewarding to refer to the Bachittar Natak - Stanza 444 - where Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth and the Last Guru - points out that the two significant forces represented respectively by the First Guru, Baba Nanak (1469-1539) and Zahir-ud-Deen Babar (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire and their successors were created by God around the same time. The former represented the benign spiritual power and the latter, physical temporal power. Guru Nanak came into contact with Babur whose name finds mention in his verses in context of, "reproaching the Almighty - the Shepherd obliged to protect His innocent flock - for letting loose on them the lion - conqueror from Khurasan, bringing death and destruction on Hindustan." It is recorded in Sikh chronicles that Guru Angad Dev (1504-1552) had been contacted by Babur’s son, Humayun; Guru Amar Das (1479-1574) and Guru Ram Das (1534—1581) were paid cordial visits by Emperor Akbar; Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606) had also interacted with Akbar and but Jehangir had him martyred for his faith, and the allegation that the Guru had sheltered rebel Prince Khosrow. Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) had also faced the wrath of Jehangir and Shah Jehan; Guru Har Rai(1630-1661), Guru Har Krishan (1656-1664), Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) were all contemporaries of Aurangzeb (1618-1707). It may be pointed out that the rampant intrigues and conspiracies among the Mughal princes for succession in the wake of the passing away of liberal and farsighted Akbar combined with the sharp controversies of sects of Islam led by Sheikh Ahmad Sarhandi of the hard line Naqashbandi order created an atmosphere of distrust and confrontations with Sikh Gurus. When Sheikh Ahmed’s son Muhammad Masum, predicting Aurangzeb’s victory in the war of succession, became his mentor, an era of intolerance and fanaticism in enforcing the strict Sunni tenets of Islam became the order of the day during Aurangzeb’s long reign for a half century.

It is instructive to go into the details of the life of Guru Tegh Bahadur and understand the circumstances faced by Community of Sikh people during this period. Born in the early hours of April1, 1621 in Amritsar, the youngest of the five sons of sixth Guru Hargobind, Tegh Bahadur, as per the instructions of his father, was trained to be a rider and marksman and was also taught the various classics. He was, however, noticed to be of mystical temperament with disposition towards prolonged spells of contemplation and was even known as Tyag Mal-the Master of Renunciation. But his bravery in the battle of Kartarpur in April 1635 earned him the name Tegh Bahadur-the hero of the sword- from his father with whom stayed in Kiratpur for the next nine years. He was married, as per the practice, to Gujari on Feb.4, 1631. As desired by his father, he and his mother Nanaki and wife Gujari (1624-1705) made Bakala, a prosperous town not far from Amritsar, as their residence for the next two decades. He was engaged all these years in the spiritual studies and undertaking pilgrimages. Then came the call of destiny when the Eighth Guru Hari Kishan, before his untimely demise on March 30, 1664, pointedly indicated that the his successor-the next Guru- was to be found in Bakala. The emergence of many impostors –Sodhis of Lahore / Amritsar and descendants of Suraj Mal / Dhir Mal of Kartar Pur created a big commotion in Bakala for many months. The Sikh references profusely detail how a devotee, Makhan Shah Vanjara, a trader from Muzaffarabad, Kashmir announced from the house top on October 7-Guru Ladho Re-Guru has been found-proclaiming Tegh Bahadur as the Ninth Guru in the line of Nanak,
to the congregation gathered for Diwali.

Tegh Bahadur had to face continued hostility from the pretenders who created obstacles for him to enter the Hari Mandir and refused to respect the desire of the followers to hand over to him the Pothi prepared by Guru Arjan. After spending some time in Kiratpur, Tegh Bahadur, following the tradition of the Gurus’ house, founded a new township, and called it Chak Nanaki, on June 19,1665 - later to be known Anandpur - in the hill state of Bilaspur. He set out soon on missionary tours, accompanied by his mother and wife and a few devout disciples. Travelling to the south eastern region of Punjab, he got wells dug up at places of scarcity of water, inspired people to work honestly, weaning them away from tobacco and other intoxicants. He also visited Kurukshetra, Agra, Ittawa, and Prayag. Benaras,Gaya, and finally reached Patna. He resolutely refused to perform rituals at the various temples on the way saying,” He who trusts in God and makes an honest living to share with others and injures no one…need perform no other rituals…And, as for the ancestors, they gather the reward of what they themselves have sown and no one can bless or curse them after they are gone.” He proceeded further on tour of Kamrup (Assam) via Dhaka and preached there for about two years. He is also mentioned to have brought about a compromise in 1670 between forces of Raja Ram Singh, a general of Aurangzeb, and the local King. It is believed that he might have heard the news of his son’s birth on December 22, 1666 at Patna during his eastern tours which began in the middle of that year. He spent about three years in Patna after his return, taking special care to arrange instruction of his young son not only in Sikh religious lore but also in Persian and Sanskrit as well as in traditional sports including riding, hunting and swordsmanship, as testified by Guru Gobind Singh in Bachittar Natak.

It was during 1671-73 that the Guru returned to Anandpur, preaching all the way back to the devotees. He found that the condition of non-Muslims under the rule of Aurangzeb had worsened as never before. In a general order of April 1669, Aurangzeb called upon, "all governors of provinces to destroy with a willing hand the schools and temples of infidels; and they are strictly enjoined to put a stop to the teaching and practicing of idolatrous forms of worship". The celebration of festivals like Diwali and Holi had been forbidden and there were wholesale demolition of temples in the country. It was in the background of such crushing situation that a deputation of Kashmiri Brahmins led by Pandit Kirpa Ram Dutt of Mattan visited Guru Tegh Bahadur on May 25, 1675 at Anandpur and narrated their tragic tales. The Sikh chroniclers narrate that the Guru, after a thoughtful pause, advised them, "Tell the Mughal Viceroy that the Brahmins will embrace Islam if Tegh Bahadur, whom we revere as our Guru, is persuaded to do so." The wheels of the Mughal state moved fast; the Guru and his three companions namely Mati Das,Sati Das and Dayal Das were taken into custody at Malikpur, Pargana Ghanaula on July 12, 1675 and were sent to Sirhind where they were kept for about four months. They were eventually taken to Delhi on November 5, 1675 under formal orders from Aurangzeb. After the formality of trial, the Guru was made to witness the killing of his three companions in the most brutal manner- and was beheaded the next day, on November 11, 1675. The Sikh narrations detail how Guru’s body was cremated in Raisina area by Lakhi Shah Vanjara who put his house on fire to prevent detection by the authorities. The head was carried all the way to Kirtpur on November 16 by Bhai Jaita and his two companions and it was cremated the next day at Anandpur by his son, Gobind Rai.

It may be stated that a lot of scholarship has been invested in defining and elaborating the tradition of 'martyrdom' in the history of all the faiths of humanity. Originating from the Greek word, 'maryr', meaning 'witness', it has come to signify, 'willingness to die rather than renounce one’s beliefs or principles'; 'supreme self- sacrifice for faith bearing witness to its truth' and, in its purest form, martyrdom is a voluntary, conscious, and altruistic readiness to suffer and offer one’s life for a cause. In Western society, the death of Socrates (399 B.C.E), described in Plato’s Phaedo is an early example of a martyrdom that defended ideas. Jewish tradition assigns the honor of martyrdom not only to those who affirm the faith against threat, but also to victims such as those of the Holocaust, who were not given the choice. The persecution of Christians by Romans towards the end of the third century produced many early martyrs. In Islam, Shahid - the word for martyr - also means witness and it is in Hadith literature that the figure of the martyr is delineated in great detail as a unique person set apart from all other Muslims. The classical period witnessed the development of distinct proto-Sunni, proto-Shiite traditions - the martyrdoms of Ali while praying , unarmed ,in a mosque in Kufa; the Prophets grand sons, Hasan who was poisoned by an agent of enemy and Husayn who was slain in 680 C.E at Karbala have become central to Shiite Islam observance. The Sikh tradition pioneered by the twin supreme martyrdoms of Guru Arjan Dev( 1606) and Guru Tegh Bahadur certainly provided a unique vitality and spiritual strength to the suffering people to be ready to die for a life of honor following their faith. The uniqueness of the two martyrs lies in the authentically ample sacred verses for their followers to reflect upon and incorporate in their way of living.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, apart from his other remarkable qualities of head and heart, was a blessed poet with profound imagination and insight. The poetic composition of the Guru preserved in the Adi Granth-in the form of hymns (59) and Shlokas i.e. couplets (57), exquisitely set to 15 Ragas - musical modes - of Indian classical music, and is believed to be only a fraction of his work. According to Sikh sources, while proceeding to Delhi under the summons from Aurangzeb, the Guru experienced a spontaneous flow of poetry which was speedily scribed in Persian script by Sati Das - it was, however, seized by unscrupulous authorities branding it as charms. The language of the compositions of the Guru is main stream Hindi, popular in Uttar Pradesh ,Bihar and areas beyond where Guru had a sizable following. The concept of Vairagya-detachment - finds a dominant note in his verses-the whole world is ephemeral: ‘like the shade of cloud’; ‘false like a mirage’; ‘like a dream destroyed in no time’; ‘like a mountain of smoke’. The implicit point driven home is that a person should aspire for an honest nobler life detaching himself from greed, pride, luxury, sensuality. It is an enormous challenge to follow the right path in a world full of vices and blemishes - ‘the pleasures of Maya-Illusion - are unstable like the wall of sand.’ The solution offered by Guru is quite clear,’ Childhood, youth and old age are three stages of life, but without the remembrance of Hari - the Righteous One, all the three are futile.’ The weakness of body and flesh, fickleness of mind, agony of desire, emptiness of pleasures and the ultimate reality of Death are explained in deeply haunting similes and metaphors used by the Guru in his verses.

Guru Tegh Bahadur’s verses, hailed as the Divine Songs of Nirvana, indeed epitomize ultimate values of the spiritual heritage of not only India but entire humanity. We listen to the deeply lyrical and powerful voice of a poet-prophet who celebrates spirit of human freedom and Divine wisdom, keeping it all so simple and steeped in the fragrance of the purity of his own soul. The scholars of music of India have been fascinated by the patterns of the musicality of the Guru’s verses and the selection of Ragas reflecting most appropriately a special mood during the time of the day and the mystical nuances in the hymn. The hymns begin with Gaudi Raga, origin attributed to Gauda-east Bengal, and other Ragas including Asa and Asavari, Maru Ragini, Bilawal, Dhanasari, Devgandhari, Bihagda, etc have been befittingly employed. He is the only Guru to write hymns in Jayjavanti Raga, having the tonality of vigor, tenderness, prayer and aspiration. Interestingly, it is mentioned that Siranda, a modified variety of Sarangi, an invention of Guru Arjan, was a favorite instrument of the Darbar of Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh.

To sum up, it may be stated that Guru Tegh Bahadur who assumed the responsibilities to lead his people in the most trying circumstances - personal feuds in the extended family and increasingly oppressive regime of Aurangzeb - was quite clear and focused on his mission and the message and he set out to accomplish both with classical restraint and dignity. According to Professor K.R. Srinivas Iyengar, the two historical Shlokas-Guru Tegh Bahadur’s address to his son, "All human power has failed. / humanity groans in chains;... Lord, save them... as Thou didst save / The elephant that prayed." and Gobind’s reply, "All power is mine with Thy Grace, / The fetters of bondage are broken, For Liberty of Truth, everything is possible, / Lord, everything is in Thy Hands." – between them embrace the whole mystical tremendum, the passion and the tragedy of human despair, and the martyrdom that was the guarantee of the resurrection and rehabilitation. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom in the heart of the mythological city personifying the heart of Hindustan and his message in the exquisite poetry in the language of his people will indeed continue to inspire eternally all those subjected to suffer under tyranny and injustice. He is verily the Chaddar - protecting shield - of the people of Hind, and beyond!