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The Incomparable Guru Gobind Singh

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In his autobiographical account, Bichitra Natak or "Wondrous Play," we learn that Guru Gobind Singh, whose 346th birthday we celebrate today, viewed his earthly sojourn as a duty to fulfill a divinely ordained purpose -- that of fulfilling the mission of Guru Nanak, who had established the Sikh religion a little more than two centuries earlier.

The earthly stop for Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Nanak, was a brief 42 years, but what an eventful one!

Sikhs view Guru Gobind Singh in different ways. The more devout among them might even object to referring to Gobind Singh as a mere man, no matter how remarkable. They see him as divine. Calling him a god, on the other hand, might not please the Guru himself, for he explicitly forbade any such reference to him. He was, in his own words, just a slave to the One Almighty.

How, then, shall we talk about him?

Guru Gobind Singh is an iconic presence in Sikh life. Images from his life are indelibly etched in the collective consciousness of the Sikhs. Together, they tell a remarkable story.

He is Guru, and a father figure (Dashmesh Pita), who lost his own father, the ninth Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadar, at the age of 9 -- executed on orders of the Emperor Aurangzeb. His severed head was smuggled out of Delhi and brought to Anandpur, where the boy Gobind Rai performed the last rites.

Guru Gobind Singh appears as a King riding his blue charger (Neela), a royal plume adorning his turban, a sword on his side and a hawk perched on one hand -- all symbols of sovereignty that he gave his Sikhs credit for.

To Sikhs, he is also a fearless warrior, reckless in his bravery. He rode alongside his Sikhs, taking the measure of the well-known hill chief, Hari Chand, and the Mughal general Painde Khan in one-on-one combat.

Then there he goes, alone and forlorn in the jungle of Machhiwara, without food and shelter, on the run from searching Mughal patrols. No complaint escapes his lips; instead he composes the heart-rending verse, Mittar Piare nu:

"Go tell my Beloved friend

the condition of his followers

Without Him, the comfort of soft silken quilts is like the plague

Without Him, life is a butchers knife itself."

Here we see him as a father, in deep prayer, offering thanks to God for letting him render unto Him what belonged to Him. Guru Gobind Singh had just learned that all four of his sons had been killed -- two in battle and two bricked alive. His mother had died of the shock.

He had lost everything. A conciliatory invite from the Emperor Aurangzeb asking Guru Gobind Singh for a meeting evoked a defiant Zafarnama (Epistle of Victory), which indicted the Emperor for the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of his rule.

A sublime poet, his literary output is as long as it is impressive and includes: Jaap Sahib, invoking the many attributive names of the Divine; Sawaiyyas (quatrains); Akal Ustat (Lauding the Timeless); Chandi Ki Var, a ballad depicting the eternal contest between good and evil; and Zafarnama (Epistle of Victory), a defiant letter to the Mughal Emperor.

Mystic, poet, warrior, polymath Guru Gobind Singh was truly a Renaissance man, a man nonpareil.

But perhaps the sharpest image, one that conveys Guru Gobind Singh's crowning achievement, is that of the Vaisakhi of 1699.

That year, like they had done in years past, Sikhs from all over India converged on the town of Anandpur, or Blissful City, to celebrate Vaisakhi, an ancient springtime harvest festival, and to mark the beginning of a New Year -- generally conforming to mid-April.

But more significantly, Sikhs had always looked forward to the annual trip to Anandpur for darsan (literally, "to see") of their beloved Guru Gobind Singh. The notion of darsan -- an important and old practice in India -- involves the belief that beholding the divine in an image or a revered person can be transformational.

And so it was that on that memorable Vaisakhi day in 1699, the 80,000 or so Sikhs who had assembled in Anandpur, had darsan of Guru Gobind Singh.

And were forever transformed.

The Guru appeared before the assembled Sikhs brandishing a sword and demanding a head. It had a chilling effect on the assembled Sikhs, some shuffled out of the enclosure.
After a slight hesitation, a Sikh offered himself up. The Guru whisked him away only to return shortly with his sword dripping in blood. He demanded another head.

The process continued until five Sikhs had volunteered their heads.

The Guru returned shortly with the five Sikhs, miraculously alive. Armed and redolent in their new attire that consisted of turbans and swords, these men came to be called the Panj Pyare, or the Five Beloved.

The lesson they learned was a reiteration of the message of Nanak, who had, more than two centuries earlier, similarly asked for a head as a pre-condition for the playing the game of love (life). Handing over one's head implied overcoming the most primal of fears and the root of our existential angst -- death.

Guru Gobind Singh had taught Sikhs to eliminate fear itself, to become fearless, one of the divine virtues that Nanak taught his Sikhs to assimilate.

A baptism ceremony called Khande Ka Pahul (baptism of the double edged sword) followed. It required the Five Beloved to drink Amriṯ (the nectar of immortality) prepared by stirring the double-edged sword in a steel bowl filled with water and sugar to the accompaniment of verses from Sikh sacred writings.

The baptism transformed the Five Beloved, Panj Paiarey, into the first initiates of the Order of the Khalsa or Pure. The ambrosia they had just imbibed signified sweetness and steely resolve -- qualities that the Khalsa would imbibe.

The baptism also required each initiate to renounce past affiliations of caste, creed and ritual. Henceforth, the appellation Singh (meaning lion) would be attached to every member of the brotherhood and they would be required to wear a uniform that had to include the so-called five Ks: Kesh (unshorn hair); Kanga (a wooden comb tucked under the hair); Kara (a steel bracelet); Kachera (shorts to enable riding and soldering); and Kirpan (a sword). Each Singh was to be the equal of 125,000.

The Khalsa was a mystical rebirth for the Five Beloved into a new familial brotherhood of sant-sipahis, (saint-warriors), embodying in their person a confluence of saintly virtue and martial prowess.

The names of the Five Beloved signify the common belief, purpose and values that binds the Khalsa together: Daya (compassion/sympathy); Dharam (truth/righteousness); Himmat (strength/courage); Mokham (resolve/fortitude); and Sahib (Royalty and nobility).

Almost three centuries later, Sikhs continue to learn this lesson in their own individual ways. I learned it first hand in the days after 9/11.

Like many of my fellow Sikhs, I was a bit edgy because my turban and beard made me stand out; worse, it made resemble (at least to the uninitiated) the images that were being flashed across television screens. I felt as though all eyes were on me, scrutinizing my appearance suspiciously.

In a moment of fear and despair, I turned my thoughts to Guru Gobind Singh, and looked askance at the Khalsa brotherhood he launched and the five K requirements.

Why me, I wondered? Why do we (Sikhs) have to bear the brunt? Why couldn't we just look like everyone else and fit right in? Could I be less conspicuous, perhaps?

Just then, almost instantaneously, an epiphany revealed itself to me.

My mind raced back to the Vaisakhi of 1699. The realization that I was heir to the noble and brave tradition of the Khalsa magically caused all fear to evaporate and filled me with pride - not to mention that it also put a swagger in my gait.

As a Khalsa, I was meant to standout, not hide.

Such is the electrifying effect that Guru Gobind Singh has on his Sikhs even today.