Gurpreet Singh: Vaisakhi in 1699 launched a road to revolution
The annual Vaisakhi carnival of the Sikhs, which is being celebrated in Surrey this weekend, is not just about parades and free food. The harvest festival that has been commemorated across India for centuries has a special significance in Sikh history.
The real message behind a new revolution—started on Vaisakhi by the tenth master of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh—often gets eclipsed by controversies and enthusiasm generated by the festivities.
Guru Gobind Singh, who was the last of the 10 Gurus of the Sikhs, laid the foundation of the Khalsa in 1699 at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, India in the foothills of the Himalayas. The birth of the Khalsa, an army of the pure, not only gave Sikhs a distinct identity, but also challenged the age-old caste discrimination practised in orthodox Hindu society.
It was divided into four caste groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (food growers) and Shudras (menial workers).
In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh asked for the heads of brave Sikh men to raise an army to fight against oppressive Islamist invaders, who were persecuting Hindus. Due to a lack of unity among castes, Hindus were virtually helpless in defending themselves against this repression.
One by one, five brave men came forward to offer their heads to Guru Gobind Singh in response to his request. They succeeded in their test. At least three belonged to the so-called lowest castes not allowed in Hindu temples to perform even menial jobs.
They were then baptized by Guru Gobind Singh and given a new surname of Singh (lion). Guru Gobind Singh himself had been known as Gobind Rai before this. His new identity came only after he was baptized by these men, who came to be known as Punj Piaras (five beloved ones).
Since this time, a baptized Sikh is supposed to sport what are known as the five Ks: Kesh (long hair), Kangha (comb), Kirpan (sword), Kachehra (breeches), and Karah (iron wristlet). The common surname of Singh symbolized elimination of casteism.
In fact, casteism had been challenged in the Sikh religion since the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhism who died in 1539. It’s a separate matter that all the Gurus belonged to the Kshatriyas caste.
The practice of langar (community kitchen) allowed everyone to dine together. The four gates of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, greet people from all four caste groups of India in open defiance of casteism.
Hymns of "Untouchable" saints, who were denounced by Hindu priests, were included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh asked Sikhs to follow Guru Granth Sahib as their guiding light after his death. Since then, devout Sikhs have considered Guru Granth Sahib as their living Guru.
The birth of the Khalsa was not only a challenge to ruthless Islamist rulers but also to Hindu orthodoxy. Guru Gobind Singh fought battles with Islamic rulers and with Hindu kings. The latter group opposed his reliance on an army comprised of people belonging to "low-caste" groups.
He also had allies among Muslims. His struggle was not therefore just against Islam or purely for the defence of the Hindus, but against all state oppression.
Though all the Sikh Gurus opposed casteism, the Sikh community has been divided along caste lines. The Dalits, or "Untouchables", who were Sikhs, have been treated unfairly in Punjab.
Sikh priests and the leadership put more emphasis on a separate Sikh identity; fundamentalist groups use Vaisakhi festival to stress the need for a Sikh homeland.
The issue of caste-based discrimination, therefore, still remains unaddressed. This subject is often ignored by organizers of the Vaisakhi parades, even in a multicultural Canadian society.
On March 21 this year when the whole world was celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, several Dalit Sikhs from the Lower Mainland gathered in Burnaby, where speaker after speaker related stories of caste-based discrimination at the hands of the Sikh priests in Punjab.
They insisted that such prejudice exists even in Vancouver. As a result, they endure double discrimination, both at the hands of the mainstream due to the colour of their skin and also on account of their caste from some Indo-Canadians.
Due to the arrogance of the Sikh leadership, many Dalits are turning to sects led by living Gurus, who are locked in a tussle with Sikh fundamentalists. This has partly contributed to the problem of Sikh militancy in Punjab.
The Sikh leadership should openly discuss these challenges and highlight the progressive aspect of Vaisakhi. This would help end ongoing social injustice both within and outside the South Asian community.
The revolutionary mission of Guru Gobind Singh can only be achieved by eliminating casteism instead of indulging only in ritualism and crowding the streets. Guru Gobind Singh tried to achieve his mission practically instead of relying on any spiritual power.
He lost his father at the age of nine—Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded by Islamist rulers in Delhi when he came to the help of the Hindus, who were being forced to embrace Islam.
In addition, Guru Gobind Singh lost his four sons in the war against oppression. Two died in the battlefield, while two were executed. His mother, Mata Gujri, died of shock after receiving news of their execution. Guru Gobind Singh himself succumbed to his injuries following an assassination attempt.
It is not surprising that Guru Gobind Singh's ideology impressed Bhagat Singh, a towering leftist revolutionary and freedom fighter of India who was hanged for killing a British police officer in 1931.
In one of his essays, Bhagat Singh, who died as an atheist, described Dalits as the "backbone" of Guru Gobind Singh. Karl Marx also briefly mentioned Guru Gobind Singh's military power in his notes on Indian history.
Related article: Remembering the bloody side of Vaisakhi
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.