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The Matter of The Kirpan

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by IJSingh, May 7, 2010.

  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    Sep 24, 2004
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    The Matter of The Kirpan

    by I.J. SINGH

    Since Vaisakhi 1699 when Guru Gobid Singh, the Tenth Sikh Master, mandated it, a Kirpan (sword) has been one of the five articles of faith for a practicing Sikh who has been initiated into the Khalsa discipline. Its size often varies from a minimal three inches or less to one that may be 3 feet long. And it often has a sharp blade as any sword would.

    We know that many types of kirpans exist in the marketplace - from those with diamond studded hilts but incredibly dull blades that would likely not kill a cockroach, to others that are razor sharp.

    We have heard good scholars assert that a kirpan is not really a weapon, although it can be one. In history, it has been a dependable weapon in many battles. The word "kirpan", they tell us, comes from the juxtaposition of two ideas - "kirpa", meaning benevolence, kindness and grace, with "aan" that translates into honor and dignity.

    The kirpan then becomes the Sword of Mercy.

    So, to wear a kirpan means standing up for what is right and for impartiality; somewhat like being prepared for war if you want peace. The sharp blade that is useful in war also signifies the sharp edge of the intellect that cleaves knowledge from ignorance, justice from injustice.

    A historical parallel comes to mind: The sword - Curtana - of the English King, Edward the Confessor, who ruled in early 11th century, lacked a sharp point. It was known as the Sword of Mercy.

    When then is a "kirpan" acting true to the derivation of its name? When does it morph into a weapon to fight in the cause of defense and justice? Can it become an agent of offence? What if a Sikh carrying one misuses it? What is our responsibility when, as any other weapon might, it falls into the hands of a person who should not have it or a child who is not mature enough to understand the discipline associated with its meaning and its significance?

    There are also others - equally credible and responsible scholars - who assert that the kirpan is undoubtedly and only a weapon. But now, over three centuries later, times have changed. A kirpan, they claim, is an anachronism in this day and age.

    They are sure that brandishing a weapon like the kirpan, in any society in this age, marks us as a primitive people out of touch with the global realities in which we live.

    It is also undeniably and self-evidently true that if a kirpan were simply to be only a weapon and if the intent was to always be armed, then the kirpan would be better replaced by an Uzi, a Kalashnikov, or one of the many lesser known but more powerful and destructive weapons. Weapons must evolve with time.

    Such reasoning is not at odds with that of many Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike that I have come into contact.

    Even though the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution speaks to the rights of a free citizenry to bear arms, many assert that the needs of the nation are now not what they once were. We have a standing army and police. The average citizen would be better off with either no access to arms or restricted very strongly in the right to weapons. Ergo, minimally, the purchase or possessions of arms by the citizenry needs to be strictly regulated, controlled and enforced.

    The opponents of such a position are equally, if not more, insistent that such a governmental regulation would be unconstitutional and an unnecessary intrusion into the private lives of a free people.

    When someone buys a gun, would you want and expect that he or she have some training in its use? Would you want the buyer to be a balanced, even-tempered person not likely to fly into an uncontrollable rage at the least provocation?

    Would you hand a weapon to a child? When an event like the killings at Columbine (1999) occurs, it is natural that the police would focus on parental responsibility. How did the child get access to a gun? Was the gun secure? How did the child violate security? Clearly, such questions are paramount in determining parental culpability.

    So, when we hand a sharp kirpan to a school-going child, are we then aiding and abetting irresponsible, possibly even criminal, conduct. Don't forget that school-age kids get into disciplinary pranks and problems, some turn bullies or have to confront them. A kirpan is not the way to deal with disputes on the playground or in the classroom, but would a young child understand that?

    This then begs the question: At what age should a young Sikh become amritdhari and be bestowed with the right to wear a kirpan - an article of faith for Sikhs?

    If, on the other hand, a kirpan is not a weapon but is only the symbol of a shared heritage, then where is the need for the sharp edge? Could it then be modified so that it is no longer a functional weapon and, like Edward the Confessor's sword, have its point and edge dulled and blunted? Then, it would become strictly a sword of mercy dedicated to the ideas of justice, dignity, strength and assertiveness but not aggression.

    But would that not change the kirpan in a way that runs contrary to its history and role in Sikh psyche? It would then no longer remain what it was when it became an article of faith and through the subsequent centuries.

    We need to acknowledge, understand and emphasize that even when used as a weapon, a kirpan is to be unsheathed only in defense. This is the Sikh teaching. As Mai Harinder Kaur succinctly points out, "No one is ever attacked by a kirpan. When used thus, it ceases to be a kirpan and becomes a weapon. And the person who wields it ceases to be a Gursikh and becomes a common criminal, a thug. These thugs must be treated as the criminals that they are."

    Let's not forget that through our young history, the kirpan has been both a weapon and a symbol of strength and dignity - a true sword of mercy. These are truths that must not be swept aside.

    These days kirpan is often seen as posing a security problem and then it comes up against the might of the law at airports. Amritdhari Sikhs then acquiesce to these concerns by removing it for the flight or wherever else the needs of security trump religious freedom. Many of us then take comfort in the small, less than an inch long, replica of a kirpan embedded in our kangha, or a miniature harmless version worn as a pendant on a chain.

    But the struggle continues for us to be able wear all the articles of our faith openly in this society. It will not be an easy trek but is being ably led by the Sikh Coalition, SALDEF and United Sikhs.

    These days the kirpan has attracted critical and negative attention both within our Sikh community and outside of it, particularly for its inappropriate use in gurdwaras - in election disputes and other controversies.

    Of the many possible examples, we cite only one: the recent stabbing of a lawyer - Manjit Singh Mangat -- outside the Sikh Lehar gurdwara in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. The assailants that have been arrested are Sikh men who attacked Mangat because they apparently differed with him on some Sikh doctrinal matters.The details of the differences are not pertinent here. The assailants and others of that ilk claim to be acting to preserve the pristine purity and dignity of Sikh doctrine.

    Not to be paranoid but it is also possible that some Sikh-baiter - and we know they exist - could without much trouble pose as a Sikh and wreak havoc with his kirpan. All he needs to do is to grow out his hair and get a turban for the day.

    It also undeniably true that there are many lethal tools and objects around everyone in home or at work that, in the wrong hands, can kill.

    Such abuse of a revered article of faith then sets up calls and clamor that kirpans be legally banned. We cannot support such a blanket indictment of a respected faith tradition.

    But the Sikhs, individually and collectively, do need to aggressively and unequivocally assert that the misuse of the kirpan would find absolutely no defense by hiding behind religious teaching or the sanctity of the symbol. This is gross and inappropriate misuse of a kirpan that must to be treated as the crime that it is - condemned and tried according to the fullest extent of the law.

    To my mind, a more fundamental issue remains untouched: Is it via kirpan or similar weapons that we resolve our differences? Even a cursory exploration of the life and writings of the Gurus provides some revealing lessons.

    Look, for instance, at Guru Nanak. He wrote against the emperor of the day (Babur) just as fearlessly as he addressed both Hindu and Muslim clergy. Sure, he spent time in Babur's jail. And then he stood in the Ganges splashing water in a direction contrary to that approved by the clergy; he also publicly cooked meat at a major Hindu festival. All these examples and many more would be sins in the eye of the Hindu clergy. The Gurus were also equally unforgiving of many Muslim practices.

    But it is also undeniable and hugely significant that, even though some called Nanak crazy or Satan incarnate, no one physically attacked him. No riots broke out wherever he traveled or preached his message.There were no widespread calls for his head by those who did not like his message. Of course, it makes us marvel at the force of the personality of Guru Nanak. Doesn't it make one think about what kind of man he was? And how far we seem to have fallen!

    Does this mean people were more cultured, civilized and self-restrained 500 years ago than they are today? Does it mean that we have regressed? We seem to have learned that we have the right to disagree, but not learned to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

    Even if some fool speaks or acts in a manner unworthy of the Guru, we need to remember that the Guru is not lessened or diminished by the antics of irresponsible people. Some of our people do not seem to realize that silencing a man is not the same thing as convincing him. And the kirpan was never meant to abridge another's freedom to speak.

    Surely we need to develop a system of justice, for resolution of internal conflicts that are seen in every living tradition. The Gurus gave us one to nurture and develop. We seem to have driven it down into a dysfunctional state and an untimely coma. And finally what we achieve by our intemperate behavior with the kirpan is to put in doubt our maturity with a black mark against an article of our faith.

    If we continue to misuse it, the kirpan will no longer remain a repository of the values of justice and resolve, but come to represent terror and injustice - something that needs and deserves to be shunned or banned.

    It is such a weighty matter then, why is this essay so short? Because our purpose is not to posit answers etched in stone but to set the stage for an ongoing conversation.

    I refer readers to the book, Sword & Turban of the Sikhs, by Trilochan Singh, for a scholarly historical perspective, and to two recent columns here on sikhchic.com: On April 9, 2010 by Manjit Singh (Montreal) and on April 24, 2010 by Bhupinder Singh Mahal for initiating this conversation on this site.

    Some of the questions that I am trying to posit today lie at the core of our belief and our sense of self. They cannot - rather, must not - be wished away. Answers will emerge only in time. The process of exploration is all important.

    Clearly, as a community we need to think about such matters. It's time we did. We have started the process; now let's carry it forward in a gentle, consistent, insistent and determined fashion.

    May 3, 2010

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  3. findingmyway

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    What is the consensus about the function of a kirpan today?

    I have one friend who carries a hunter's knife instead as he feels it is a weapon and should always be available as such for self defence. Another friend carries a small blunt kirpan as she feels it is now only symbolic. Another friend argues it is unnecessary as the potential for misuse by a troublemaker and the damage it would cause to all other Sikhs is immense. I am still undecided on the issue and would appreciate the thoughts of the sangat..........
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