What Sikhism did for the Sikhs?
It is an ever recurring truth that a reform in religion precedes the regeneration, physical as well as moral of any people as cause precedes effect. The religious teaching, when fresh, and has not yet become a mere routine work, seems to act upon the mind of man as a force that develops all his till then dormant faculties. The scattered tribes of Arabia, with no cohesion, whatever, living a wandering nomadic life, had no sooner beard the soul-stirring teaching of Mohammed, than were they transformed into a united nation and so great was the strength they got that in the course of a single century they conquered the greater part of Asia and Europe and shook Christendom to its very center. They themselves were astonished at the work they were able to accomplish and they could attribute their success to no external help but to the divine strength of their prophet's teachings.
This power of regeneration possessed by a religious awakening is no less strongly borne out by the rise of the Sikh nation. The peasantry of Punjab, weak as the surrounding people and not much more intelligent than they were, in the course of two and a half centuries, transformed into one of the most forward nations that India has seen. What was the cause for this transformation? Nothing, but the seed of religion or rather reform sown about the first quarter of the sixteenth century.
Nanack, the founder, dissatisfied with the corruption that was eating into the bowels of Hinduism and pained by the religious persecution of the Mohammedan, wandered all over Northern India, Arabia and Persia to hit at a reform which, while purged of the grossness of the popular Hinduism, should also calm the persecuting nature of the Mohammedan. His object in other words was to bring purity and fellowship into a land which internally sinking in corruption was being torn up by religious animosities. He soon returned and taught the people, 1. that there was no use in the worship of idols, 2. that one should try to lead a pure moral life and 3. that the religious views of every man should be tolerated. The whole teaching of Nanack has for its object no more than the enforcing of these three points.
He did not want to start a new religion, neither had he the remotest idea that the humble peasants would one day, by the power of his religion, become one of the most warlike nations in all India. Reformation and amelioration were his objects. Afraid lest his followers should become a class of narrow sectarians, he chose as his successor, not his son who showed recluse tendencies but Angad, one of his humble followers. Again it is to prevent them from becoming a narrow sect that the third Guru separates the Sikhs from the Oodasis a monastic sect founded by the son of Nanack. So far the tenor of Sikh life is purely religious and peaceful but with the advent of the fifth Guru Arjun, Sikhism sees the dawn of a new era.
Arjun with the object of closely knitting together the scattered and loosely cemented Sikhs, did three things. He built the sacred city of Amritsar, compiled the sayings of the previous Guru into a book called the 'Adigranth' and lastly organized the people politically by reducing into systematic payments the customary offerings, the Sikhs were wont to pay. The Sikhs had now therefore a central place where they could meet, a sacred book on which to base their belief and, finally a political organization which knit them to each other and to their Guru.
Up to this time there is no difference between the Sikhs and the other religious sects that abounded everywhere in Hindustan. With the advent of the next guru Harigovind we find that the Sikhs are being gradually separated more and more from the surrounding people. Military organization is being gradually introduced among them and the persecution, inflicted by the Mogul on their Gurus, Arjun, Harigovind and afterwards still more severely on Govind Singh and Banda, makes the Sikhs draw themselves more and more aloof from the hated Mohamedans. This tendency to separation us fully taken advantage of by the tenth and the last Guru, Govind Singh.
Smarting under the persecutions of the Mussalman and afraid that if the Sikhs were left without any external symbols and ceremonies, they might in course of time, be merged in the ocean of the Hindus, Govind wanted to so organize them that, instead of being lost in the other Hindu sects, they would fight with the hated Mussalman and either overthrow Islam or at least secure for themselves freedom of worship. Hereafter it is for their religions that they wage war with the persecuting Moslem and it is through these wars originating in religious differences and hatred that they finally achieve their political emancipation.
It is their last Guru that turned the current of Sikh enterprise and stamped on their religion a clear and unmistakable political character and as such his reforms demand a more than passing notice. Govind in his reforms had two ends in view (1) to separate the Sikhs, by external marks and social customs, from the inane and homogeneous mass of the Hindus and (2) to infuse into them a spirit of warlike opposition to the persecuting Mohammedan. To gain the first object he introduced the ceremony of initiation by which alone one could become a Sikh, gave them social customs, external marks and ceremonies different from those of the Hindus and finally abolished the caste distinction. So far, for the work of separation, but for attaining his second object he wanted to make the Sikhs a body of soldiers full of military spirit with religious zeal to direct it. Their name was changed from the humble appellation Sikh to Singh, the name of the monarch of the forest. Every Sikh now a Singh had to carry with him some weapon or other. Then follow the two teachings that influenced the Sikh religion most. It was declared that every Sikh family should furnish half of its male members to the army of the Khalsa, the common-wealth of the Sikh nation and that loss of life or property, incurred in the work of increasing and maintaining the glory of their religion, was not to be lamented. These various reforms, while separating on the one hand the Sikhs from the Hindus, and raising, on the other, a spirit of opposition to the Moslem, had also another effect no less important, viz., that of uniting the Sikhs one to the other by the closest bonds possible. It is this close tie that enabled the Sikh nation to survive and victoriously, the persecution that the Mogul could direct against it. The Sikhs, with Guru and without Guru, in the days of success as in those of defeat, stood together unflinchingly, a rock of granite to the surging waves that beat against it remorselessly which instead of itself breaking, broke, ultimately, the waves that lashed against it.
Thus Guru Govind converted the Sikhs into a warrior nation full of religious zeal. Matters were in this state when Banda took up the work.
He was a stern and moody warrior, who was not loved but respected for his military prowess. With a revenging spirit he fought the Mogul valiantly and long for eight years till in 1716 he was put to a cruel death by Feruk Seer.
Now the Sikhs were left without a guru or a leader, but the work for which a leader was necessary had been once for all accomplished by Guru Govind and Banda. They had stamped on the Sikh nation a character from which it never hereafter swerves. The nation henceforth has to proceed direct with shut eyes, it may be, to the goal pointed out to it by the last of their Gurus, and the result which the small nation achieved in a generation and a half from this time shows the manner in which it acquitted itself after the dispensation of the Guru stopped.
A body of humble peasants about 1500 A.D, when the reforming Nanack, the founder of their religion, came to them, then a sect of religious followers, undistinguishable from the thousand and one sects, that lifted up their heads in those troubled times, half a century later, - the Sikhs were finally converted into one of the greatest fighting nations. The zeal which their religion infused into them was such that in the course of a generation and a half, they achieved for themselves both political and religious emancipation. So great is the force and life which a vigorous religion infuses into its followers.
R. Lakshmi Narayana.