Infinite Courage: Sikhs as Warriors
by I.J. Singh
If anyone knows anything at all about Sikhs it is their martial antecedents. It is usually the first
and often the only topic that Sikhs and non-Sikhs touch upon when the subject is Sikhs or Sikhi.
Their narrative of courage and as warriors is awesome, with few parallels in the annals of
mankind; there exist many scholarly and erudite descriptions and analyses of it.
Remember that human and Indian histories are old with origins lost in antiquity; there really is
no day one to them. But Sikh history is barely 500 years old; the founder of Sikhi, Guru Nanak,
was born only in 1469.
I will not dwell in any detail on the many events of Indian history that might have turned
out painfully different but for the sacrifice and martyrdom of Sikhs, even though they never
amounted to more than two percent of the burgeoning Indian population.
Here is a small sampling of a few “For instances” that are the stuff of memories and history:
India became independent only in 1947. In its protracted struggle for freedom over two thirds of
all Indians who were sentenced to death, imprisonment for life or exile were Sikh.
India’s army, whether under the British or post independence had always been dominated by
Sikh soldiers; indeed its officer corps was better than 40 percent Sikh. The two great World Wars
claimed over a million Sikh lives in defense of freedom; cemeteries in France, Belgium and Italy
bear ample testimony to their courage and sacrifice.
Their awards and haul of the Victoria Crosses and other tributes to courage are larger than that
of any other people of similar numbers. In their heyday the British recognized Sikhs as a martial
race even though anthropologically they are not and never were a separate race.
Modern India also experienced the indomitable Sikh courage in fighting the British in the 1840’s
and in 1920’s for control of their gurduaras; and fighting different enemies in 1947 and in 1984.
Many of these are contemporary matters that come with rich antecedents that shaped a people.
But I leave them to another day. Each demands and deserves a special chapter.
A map of the Indian subcontinent reveals interesting political geography. Its northern border
is the Himalayan mountain range, as good a natural and impenetrable barrier as nature could
design, and reinforced by India’s triangular rim guarded by the sea. This left only a murky and
risky passage through the Khyber Pass into northwest India – connecting Afghanistan and the
Middle East with Punjab, the homeland of the Sikhs.
And until the Continental Europeans and the British came in larger numbers by the sea, it was
the Khyber Pass that was the inlet for the myriad invaders of India, from the Caucasian-Aryans
to the Greeks under Alexander the Great, Mongols, Persians, Afghans, Egyptians Arabs and
sundry tribals from the Middle East; they came to conquer and stay, plunder and return or perish.
As Islam entered the mix, a hefty dose of religious tension, friction, fanaticism and intolerance
was added to the heady brew of invasions.
Thus invasions of India through the Khyber Pass became, for millennia, an annually recurring
theme until Sikhs finally put a stop to it in the early 18th century. I also acknowledge that during
the 16th and 17th centuries the Mughal Empire largely curtailed such “across the border” raids.
My thoughts go the oft-chanted cry “Remember the Alamo” that is now embedded in American
ethos and history. There are so many incidents like that in Sikh history – like the siege of
Anandpur in the 17th century and the battle of Saragarhi in the 20th. I can do no better than to
cite Gary Brecher, a commentator on military tradition, that “Sikh military history is so packed
with glorious last stands that George Armstrong Custer would be a smalltime footnote if he'd
worn a big turban ...”
Poets and balladeers still sing of infinite courage and nobility of Sikhs in battle even when stakes
were high and ground realities against them. Their foes, even when demeaning them as “dogs”
wrote that Sikhs did not loot civilians or abduct their women; they fought honorably, ministered
a fallen foe; and readily negotiated peace even in the midst of the most horrendous battle. As
General Eisenhower reputedly said “What matters in a fight is not the size of the dog but the size
of the fight in the dog.” This is courage.
History often turns on a dime.
While we celebrate Sikh heroism amidst unimaginable adversity we often forget that this Sikh
military tradition is of relatively recent vintage – less than half a millennium old. If it now
appears to be inseparably embedded in their DNA, was it always so?
I understand the biological dictum of “hybrid vigor.” Were the Punjabis of northwest India so
fearless because the invaders and their religions met and collided in that part of the world? The
seed of courage may have existed in the Punjabi Indian but when, for centuries, marauding
invaders succeeded so well in debasing India, even then they were dealing with the same Indians
– the same stock -- from which the Sikhs later emerged.
Modern biology tells us that not every gene expresses itself fully, automatically or immediately
and not every seed flowers or bears fruit that’s of any use.
A nurturing ambiance is equally necessary. And that was the unique contribution of Sikhism.
Not just by theoretically teaching was this achieved but by living purposefully was a people
taught how to live and die with dignity. And that, to me, is the quintessential message of
In the celebration of the awesome Sikh heroism we also overlook the larger meaning of courage
– the most fundamental and visible trait of the warrior.
Life asks us to fight many battles. An oft quoted line sometimes ascribed to Guru Gobind Singh
goes “man mai(n) har chit mai(n) judh bichharay,” recommending the name of God on the lips
and thoughts of war in the heart. To me, it doesn’t promote duplicity in motive or glorification
of war; the battlefield recommended here is that of the mind that remains the foremost, never
ending battle; I see similarly the exhortation that the Khalsa should fight everyday (…karay nit
jung). One only needs to juxtapose these lines with another from Guru Granth that says “Man
jeetay jag jeet.” The coward dies a thousand deaths; the brave dies but once. Aisee marni jo
maray bahur na marna hoye is the boon to ask and to live so that in the battle of life to never
abandon the field (purza purza cut maray kabhoo na chhaday khet).
The idea of empowering people started with Guru Nanak. Keep in mind that at that time most
Indians were Hindu by religion while the politically dominant were Muslims. Hindu society was
divided along rigidly defined lines of caste that allowed no upward mobility and virtually created
a whole population of low caste slaves. Islam had, by its military prowess, turned increasingly
intolerant and fanatic; simply stated it had become: “Convert to Islam or die.”
How does one create a paradigm shift? How to empower such a disenfranchised people? What
is the meaning then of hope, dignity and courage. The times demanded transformation of the
individual and nation-building.
Guru Nanak laid the seeds of the revolution of the mind by showing how to speak truth to
authority and dedication to truth. And, quite expectedly, he spent time in jail for it.
A century later, the citadels of power in the Muslim and the Hindu worlds saw their hegemony
threatened by Guru Nanak’s message; as a result Guru Arjan was martyred then and another
hundred years later Guru Tegh Bahadur. When in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh demanded a headReference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/sikh-sikhi-sikhism/38482-infinite-courage-sikhs-as-warriors.html
five Sikhs stood up as evidence of the cultural sea change that had resulted from Guru Nanak’s
message and subsequent Sikh history.
By that time transparency, accountability, participatory self-governance had been learned; the
gene of courage had found expression. Metaphorically, the modest flame of courage had become
a never-ending roaring fire.
It is not that one sheds all fear, the lesson is in how to transcend it.Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=38482
Today, I see a growing interest in the ethos of courage, sacrifice and martial spirit, especially
in the diaspora. Amandeep Singh Madra and Paramjit Singh, both U.K. based, authored a
handsome well-written narrative “Warrior Saints: Three Centuries of the Sikh Military Tradition.
A Canadian Sikh, Sandeep Singh Brar, developed a virtual museum (Sikhmuseum.com) on many
aspects of Sikh life and tradition including their military history.
We often overlook one great lesson of Sikh military history and the Gurus: “No one abhors war
more than the soldier who has lived its depravity and cruelty.”
Courage: The more we remember it the more it grows like wild flowers. If it is like a fire it is
only by history that we continue to fan it. And then courage becomes infinite. firstname.lastname@example.org
May 7, 2012
(This is a slightly modified version of an essay that appeared as an editorial in the quarterly