This weekend Sikhs are celebrating the 351st anniversary of the birth of Guru Gobind Singh.
The tenth master of the Sikh faith was born in Patna in what is now the Indian state of Bihar in 1666. His father Teg Bahadar was the ninth Guru of the Sikh religion, which was founded by Guru Nanak to challenge caste-based oppression in Hinduism, ritualism, and blind faith, as well as the tyranny of the Mogul Empire that ruled India.
All ten Gurus taught their followers the principles of equality and justice, and encouraged them to raise their voice against repression.
Guru Teg Bahadar was executed in 1675 when his son, born as Gobind Rai, was only nine. Guru Teg Bahadar laid down his life in defence of Hindus who were being forced to embrace Islam.
Young Gobind Rai followed him as the next Guru and established the Khalsa—a force of dedicated Sikh warriors who were expected to keep unshorn hair and be ready to fight against injustice.
He raised his army from among oppressed caste groups who were never allowed to keep weapons or even worship by Hindu priests and rulers.
The idea was to not only end caste barriers once and for all, but also to empower those considered weak and untouchable. From then onward those in the Khalsa were directed to use Singh—which means lion—as a common last name and shun using casteist surnames.
Gobind Rai himself came to be known as Guru Gobind Singh with the formation of the Khalsa in 1699.
This enraged the caste bigots who saw the Khalsa as direct threat to their supremacy.
They instigated the Mogul Empire against him. This resulted in Guru Gobind Singh fighting both against the Hindu kings and the Mogul rulers, facing many hardships because of this.
Two of his sons, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, died in the battlefield, while two of his young sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, were bricked alive after being arrested.
Since Guru Gobind Singh’s fight wasn’t against Islam, many Muslims helped him in his struggle against state violence, while many Hindus sided with the Mogul Empire—with one deceiving his younger sons and his mother, Mata Gujri, to have them arrested.
Mata Gujri died in prison after hearing about the execution of her younger grandsons.
Sikh Gurus had a big following in both the Muslim and Hindu communities. While in Bihar, young Gobind Rai was admired by Hindus and Sikhs alike. In fact, some Muslims helped Guru Gobind Singh in his escape from the dragnet of the Mogul soldiers who wanted to capture him alive.
Whereas Guru Gobind Singh’s tumultuous life remained full of difficulties, he devoted peaceful moments to compile literature and more importantly, the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the holy scripture of the Sikhs.
It contain hymns of both Hindu and Muslim saints. Some of the saints whose verses were included in the Granth Sahib were treated as untouchables by Hindu clergy.
Guru Gobind Singh spent the final years of his life in what is now the western Indian state of Maharashtra. There, he attracted a disciple, guerrilla fighter Banda Singh Bahadar, who was sent to Punjab to reorganize Sikhs and fulfill the uncompleted mission of the Guru.
Banda Singh Bahadar established a Sikh kingdom that introduced land reforms. In accordance with the Sikh traditions, this kingdom remained secular in character.
In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh died after succumbing to injuries sustained in an attack by mercenaries. They were sent on an assassination mission by a Mogul governor who was responsible for the killings of his younger sons.
Near the end of his life, Guru Gobind Singh ordered Sikhs to follow the Guru Granth Sahib as their guiding light in the future and never follow any living guru.
Guru Gobind Singh’s story will always be relevant in the contemporary world where oppression of religious minorities and those marginalized continues.
It’s a shame that the Hindutva forces who currently rule India and desire to turn it into an exclusionist Hindu theocracy have been trying to appropriate Guru Gobind Singh for their narrow ends.
They frequently portray him as a defender of the Hindu religion and an opponent of Muslims, which is a complete distortion of the historical facts.
So much so, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an ultra-Hindu nationalist body of which the governing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is a part, continues to misguide the younger generation about Guru Gobind Singh’s participation in the efforts to liberate the Hindu Ram temple in Ayodhya.
It is the same place where at the behest of the BJP, Hindu fanatics demolished the ancient Babri Mosque in 1992.
The BJP claims that the Islamist king Babur had built the mosque after destroying a temple built at the birthplace of Hindu God Lord Ram.
If this were not enough, BJP apologists within the Sikh community tried to misguide their own people by announcing December 25 as the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh in keeping with a conservative Hindu calendar.
Sikhs have, by and large, rejected this and have vowed to celebrate his birth anniversary ever January 5, a date on which there is a general consensus on the basis of a calendar designed by using scientific method.
Although it seems symbolic, it still reflects an ideological conflict between the RSS and the Sikhs.
Even as the RSS consider Islam and Christianity as foreign religions and Sikhism and Buddhism as part of the Hindu fold, Sikh and Buddhist activists have always resisted such assimilationist thoughts.
Meanwhile, Sikh fundamentalists have deviated from the path shown by Guru Gobind Singh. They have been targeting migratory labourers coming to the northwestern Indian state of Punjab from Bihar for their livelihood by insisting that Punjab remain Sikh-dominated.
How can one be so hateful toward people among whom Guru Gobind Singh had spent his childhood? The Sikh leadership also needs to look into the mirror and address caste system that is also practised by many within the Sikh community.
On this important occasion, when violence against minorities has grown and there are attempts by the BJP to divide Sikhs and Muslims, we need to be vigilant about such divisive politics and defeat the nefarious designs of the Hindutva think tanks.
If Guru Gobind Singh were to be born again, he would rather fight against the present-day government for the very reasons he established the Khalsa, especially in the light of constant attacks on Dalits (the so-called untouchables).