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Sep 24, 2004
History and Her-Story

Our local gurdwara has spawned a nascent and energetic Sikh Women's Association. Recently, they hosted a program to celebrate the life of Mata Sahib Kaur.

For those on unfamiliar territory, Sahib Kaur, nee Sahib Devan, had a brief but telling part to play when the first amrit ceremony was held by Guru Gobind Rai in 1699. This event marked the beginning of the Khalsa institution.

In a dramatic gesture, the Guru had demanded a head from the followers. After considerable reluctance, one man offered his head. The Guru repeated his call, brandishing a blood-stained sword until he had five volunteers. He then appeared with the five, alive and well, nobly attired, and proclaimed them the first Khalsa. He then knelt before them and asked the Five to initiate him in turn. He then became Gobind Singh.

From this dramatic beginning, a nation was created; these were the final touches to the message of Guru Nanak that matured under the tutelage of the nine Gurus that followed him. Gobind Singh was the tenth in that line. And, at this rite in 1699, Sahib Devan added sugar puffs (patashas) to the bowl of amrit.

From that day, initiated Sikhs (Khalsa) look to Guru Gobind Singh as their spiritual father, and Sahib Kaur as their spiritual mother. (Matais an honorific indicating "mother".)

When I got the call to speak about her, sure enough, like any "ten o'clock scholar", I hurried to my modest library for a spot of research. Can you imagine my surprise at the paucity of available information? The classic reference work in Punjabi on Sikhism - Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha's Mahaan Kosh - carried barely a three-inch column on her. The other authoritative work, edited by Dr. Harbans Singh, the 4-volumeEncyclopaedia of Sikhismin English, had just one column (half a page) entry.

We have the names of her parents, but not her date of birth. The two sources even clash on when she appeared at Anandpur where the institution of the Khalsa was founded - in 1699 or 1700. If the later date is correct, as suggested by the Encyclopaedia, what does it do our belief that she added patashas to the amrit at the First Ceremony?

She outlived Guru Gobind Singh, and communicated with the far-flung Sikh community via letters and directives. She died sometime between 1734, the date on her last missive to Sikhs, and 1747. A memorial to her stands at Bala Sahib Gurdwara in New Delhi.

She may have spent her last years in Delhi, which was, at that time, under rulers absolutely and despotically against Sikhs. And that makes me wonder!

My purpose here is not to cavil at historical details; it is to point out that every year we unfailingly honor this woman as the mother of the Khalsa, and yet her known bio is so skimpy.

We all live and die. What lessons can we draw? How little do we know of our pioneering women? How do I look at her and others like her?

The magic, the meaning and the measure of a life - indeed of history - are found not in the celebration of an individual or an event, but in the interpretation.

History is a narrative. What does it tell us about the time that Guru Nanak trod this earth, particularly about the place of women?

In the traditional Hindu society, scriptures were not open to women, female infanticide was not uncommon, and widow remarriage was not permitted. It was best for a widow to commit sati and perish by submitting to being burnt at the pyre of her dead husband.

Society operated by the edicts of the Hindu law-giver, Manu. The essence of his teachings on women can be summarized in one sentence: a woman is subject to her father's will before marriage, to her husband's thereafter.

There were only two major religions in India at that time: Hinduism and Islam. The lives of Muslim women were not much better, except that Islam was then the politically dominant religion in India.

We all know that Sikhism's founder, Guru Nanak, spoke eloquently about women. He clearly rejected the restricted space of women in Indian life. Kabir, too, rhetorically asked, "If circumcision makes a Muslim, what are we to do with a woman? Won't she remain a non-Muslim?"

Yes, one can preach a message of gender equality, one can exhort people to think, and one can even legislate equal rights, but it is like taking a horse to water: there is no easy way to make it drink.

To make reality of a recommendation or even of legislation requires a revolutionary change in the mindset. A cultural paradigm shift is necessary. Such a life-altering modification does not happen in an hour, a day, a year or even a lifetime.

I offer some unrelated, but not irrelevant, examples to drive the point home. In the United States, women won the right to vote only in 1920, but now, 87 years later, we are still debating if the country is ready for a woman president. This country lived through the painful reality of a civil war in 1860, but a hundred years later in 1965, a voting rights bill was necessary. And racial discrimination still continues to fester.

Obviously, the laws change many minds; that's their intent and that's why they are enacted. But many of us continue to cling to outmoded views.

Nevertheless, Guru Nanak's message did resonate with people. Under the tutelage of the third Guru, Amardas, the heinous custom of sati was rejected, widows remarried instead of being banished from life, and many women were appointed to positions of authority to preach the message of Nanak. But you should note that this occurred three generations after Guru Nanak.

Paradigm shift occurs, but slowly and haltingly.

Sikh history and culture have effectively sidelined and marginalized women. Look at how little we know of our pioneering women. Our culture also sidelines young people, but I save that for another time.

We have effectively written young people and women out of our own history.

I offer you another example, but from the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Master.

History tells us that at a difficult time, in December 1705, in the midst of a battle against overwhelming odds, forty Sikhs chose to walk out and desert their Guru. History also tells us that when they reached their homes, one woman - Mai Bhago, aka Bhag Kaur - shamed them and challenged them by drawing a line in the sand. To a man, they rose to the occasion. She led the band of forty back to the Guru and into battle, where they each earned martyrdom. They have etched a place in our hearts, and for the past three hundred years, Sikhs worldwide have remembered them every day in their daily prayers as the Blessed Forty.

But what do we know of their intrepid leader, Mai Bhago? Not much more than the two lines I have penned here.

Clearly, she was no ordinary housewife. She must have been adept at the use of weapons, excellent on horseback, and unmatched in leadership skills. The forty battle-hardened veterans would not have followed a lesser leader. And these are not skills that one can learn overnight.

Mai Bhago's story tells me that in the more than two centuries from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, the roles of Sikh women had changed. They had become equal in many ways. There was a meritocracy at play here, not gender-determined destiny.

Yet, what does history tell us about their personal stories? Close to zilch. And they lived nine generations after Guru Nanak, until the further liberation on the First Vaisakhi Day.

When we read about the events of 1699, young people often ask why were there no women in the first Five who accepted the Guru's challenge. And, why was no Guru a woman?

History is a narrative rooted in culture and time. When we read history, we need to look at the events and the people, and judge them by the perceptions, not of today, but of the standards of that time and the values of that culture. Context is all-important. If the context is lost, the interpretation will not stand.

History tells us that in 1699, heeding the Guru's call, about 80,000 people came to Anandpur; surely many, if not almost half, must have been women. Surely, no public address sound system existed at that time; perhaps many women were busy with infants clambering all over them, and they never heard the call for a head. If 80,000 attendees had to be fed, who do you think prepared the langar? Even today, those cooking the langar in gurdwaras are predominantly women.

Also, keep in mind that, in Indian/Punjabi culture, one assumption remains paramount, and you can easily see shades of it even today. It is that a woman will follow the religion, lifestyle and culture of the husband's family.

Such a pattern of expectation may have evolved from the need to preserve landholdings in a joint family, where the arable acreage determined economic well-being. Lives were such then. Things are different now, but our old habits are slow to shed. Progress is not always evident, and never is it linear.

Look at the Durbar Sahib in Amritsar, the premier Sikh place of worship, where women may not sing the liturgy. Some years ago, a one-time exception was made for a group of visiting American converts to Sikhism. But the ban on women remains.

I rest my case with one more example. Some months ago, in the middle of an unbearably hot summer, I had to make a quick one-week trip to India. I had not been to Amritsar for 28 years, and decided that this was a "must" stop. I reached there very late in the evening, at a time when the Guru Granth, ensconced in a palanquin, is ceremonially escorted to the adjoining building of the Akaal Takht for the night. People stand in long lines for the opportunity to participate in this service. Women are not allowed to do so.

Tired as I was, unthinkingly I walked to the head of the line. The man in charge realized that I was perhaps ignorant of the ways, and invited me to put my shoulder to the palanquin.

But then, I quickly saw a group of women standing quietly by the side. Always a little brash, I pointed out to the man that these women were waiting well before me, and deserved a chance. His answer was simple: "Women are not permitted to perform this service". All I could do was politely say, "In that case, I would gratefully stand alongside them".

Thus, I declined the opportunity of a lifetime. What made the difference to me was that many women smiled approvingly at me, as did some men.

A movement cannot progress, cannot flourish, if we leave half the people - women - out of the reckoning, and if their lives go unrecorded. But that is exactly what we have done.

I look at Mata Sahib Devan, Mai Bhag Kaur, and innumerable others as mileposts in our slow and tortuous journey for human rights, equality in gender issues and justice. We tend to remember the people, and not the causes they lived for, or their lessons.

And here we are today. The message was carried forward from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh. Have we been true to the message, or have we regressed?

From every life, we need to draw some lessons.

Mata Sahib Kaur, Mai Bhag Kaur, and many others - stalwart pioneers, all - who made Sikhism possible, were living, breathing women with full lives, not just adjuncts to men. In our historical narrative, we have reduced them to two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.

Our pioneering women were important voices and a significant presence in our journey forward that was started by Guru Nanak, to create an egalitarian society without gender inequality. But look at the management of our institutions and activities therein; one cannot escape the conclusion that our women are the invisible half.

Our onus is to see where we are now - at what point in that journey. The journey never ends.

Mata Sahib Kaur's story, like that of Mai Bhag Kaur and many others, is really every woman's story.

December 2, 2007

Harry Haller

Panga Master
Jan 31, 2011
We have the names of her parents, but not her date of birth. The two sources even clash on when she appeared at Anandpur where the institution of the Khalsa was founded - in 1699 or 1700. If the later date is correct, as suggested by the Encyclopaedia, what does it do our belief that she added patashas to the amrit at the First Ceremony?

The trouble with our history is that none of it actually makes much sense, none of the sakhis, none of the miracles, nothing actually makes much sense, nothing is consistent, we preach a message, and then overturn it shortly afterwards with an action.

I am afraid there is a huge social and traditional aspect to Sikhism that I personally have fully rejected, It is Akal Purakh, and the way in which our actions and thoughts reflect the connection with Akal Purakh that defines Sikhism for me, everything else, the clergy, hierarchy, even the history, is largely irrelevant,.

Read the quote carefully, its a wonderful cosy story of how patashas were added to amrit to ensure Sikhs had a sweet nature. This intimates that the tenth master clearly had no idea what he was doing, and needed assistance to cover a point that he had not contemplated, what if Mataji had not been there, would Sikhs not be as sweet natured as they are now?, Would Guruji be sitting in his tent hours later, and then muse that he should have added something sweet in hindsight? It does rather sully the view that the Gurus were perfect specimens of humankind completely in consonance with Akal Purakh, and that my friends is the danger of our history, it has been bent and shaped to suit agenda, and like sheep, we tend to accept and never question


Jan 9, 2011
London UK
Respected I J Singh Ji,

Beautifully written document ! As always, thoroughly enjoyed the read. I too, along with other commentators agree wholly solely that Sikh History ought to become a priority amongst the academic community.

No society could possibly survive without knowledge of its own past. The need to rewrite Sikh History in a scholarly method is becoming increasingly important now than ever before. Number of reasons spring to mind, the chief of which, in my opinion is its universal message.

This enterprise would certainly help to explain why right back to the earliest writings, long before the development of History as a discipline, various writers preoccupied themselves with preserving and recounting stories of past activities of the Sikh Gurus. Fact and fiction are so interwoven in their life stories that it is virtually impossible to separate the two. What they provided was an attempt to describe the past as they saw and witnessed. And, not necessarily its rational interpretation as would be from a discipline persective. If any credible literature is to be endorsed and accepted as good history, it has to be the vars of Bhai Gurdas Ji. The authenticity found in his writings on the life of Guru Nanak seems plausible to probable where his main focus has been on the teachings of Guru Nanak rather than his biographical account. It would appear necessary for this type of historical literature to be preserved for the continuity and the progress of Sikh Society as a whole. If history is necessary in this way, then it would seem sensible in complex modern day societies at any rate for the history to be as accurate, as scholarly and as disciplined as possible; as you've rightly observed.

Your article above is a qualifier with the views and virtues of modern day Sikhism. And, this I sincerely hope will prompt a more fertile and competent mind to supersede past historians to produce quality Literature.

Thank you


May 9, 2006
Have any of Mata Ji's letters been preserved?

I was Skyping with an amritdhari bhainji recently, who was lamenting the fact that she indeed knows her spiritual father, but has a dysfunctional relationship with her spiritual Mata Ji. What was life like for our great Sikh aunties? What was their day-to-day? What thorough models do Sikh women have to walk in their footsteps?


May 9, 2006
Apparently this is one of her Hukamnamas. Can any learned person here translate, please?

Edit: My apologies, this hukamnama is apparently Mata Sundari Ji's.


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Apr 8, 2015
The trouble with our history is that none of it actually makes much sense, none of the sakhis, none of the miracles, nothing actually makes much sense, nothing is consistent, we preach a message, and then overturn it shortly afterwards with an action.

I am sorry but I have to disagree with this. Sikh history is not limited to the Janam Sakhis. The Sakhis themselves comprise a very small portion of the literature a student of Sikh history would study through formal education in any Sikh studies class. Even within the Sakhis themselves you have a large quantity of material which has nothing to do with miracles but is valuable information on the lives of the Gurus, to the extent that even 'western' scholars with a critical approach to Sikh history accept and utilize them in their research. This is probably true for most Sakhis, tbh.

Addressing the OP now, I think one of the biggest problems with our community is we spend way too much time living in the past. Be it romanticizing the period of the Gurus, forgetting all the hardship the Gurus and their Sikhs faced and that the Guru is STILL here with us today. Be it romanticizing the period of the "Sikh Empire", forgetting that Maharaja Ranjit Singh's time was also when Brahmanical influences started creeping into Sikh institutions. And now romanticizing women (and men too) like Mata Sahib Kaur and Mai Bhaggo, forgetting that they were normal human beings too and that the only reason they had such a huge impact on history is because they were 100% sincere when they said they were giving their head to the Guru. And all of us can still do that today and be exactly like them.

There's nothing wrong with celebrating our past heroes. But I would love to see Sikh women in particular go from just reading and hearing stories about Mai Bhaggo and Mata Sahib Kaur to saying "you know what, 100 years from now I want Sikh girls to be looking back at me with just as much admiration and inspiration as I look back on Mai Bhaggo and Mata Sahib Kaur."

Brother Onam

Jul 11, 2012
Waheguru ji ka Khalsa Waheguru ji ki Fateh!
I would like to personally extend my thanks to the honourable I.J.Singh ji for such a bold and well-composed writing. I think shining a light into this lacuna is a crucial first step. We're sometimes reluctant to rock the boat with impertinent observations, but there is a glaring issue in our history regarding the position of females.
I sincerely hope that as we draw attention to the discrepancy between our teachings of full male/female equality and the actual practice of same, we compel ourselves to rise to a divine balance in these things so as not to necessitate a 'woman's lib'-type uprising. Of course this task falls to both men and women to bring about. A woman is complicit in her relative invisibility when she 'goes with the flow' and settles for mediocrity in everyday spiritual life, and likewise men must consciously break free from patterns that perpetuate male dominance and that relegate females to traditional, secondary roles. That's why I was so pleased to read of the small insurrection Mr. Singh ji cited in the incident of the carrying of Guru at Amritsar.
We can be a stubborn lot. I was once visiting a rice farmer in Amritsar. As we sat in his nice living room, a young, brown-skinned lady was cleaning up around the house. I asked the family "Is she a Hindu girl?", and they said "No, she's a low-caste Sikh!". I replied "but as Sikhs we don't recognize caste." The whole family looked at me bewildered. It was so woven into their traditional culture, that the familiar ways of doing things utterly trumped any teachings we might espouse. And I think this is often how it goes to defining what place females tend to occupy in our everyday realities; we go with what we know.
I personally would love to see an upswell of Sikh girls taking up martial arts and pursuing music and performance in a way that would foster strength, power, assertiveness, confidence. This would be a net gain for the whole Sangat. If Sikh community wants to radiate the singular Light of Nanak that we've been uniquely blessed with, we have to shake up the established orders we've settled into.
When the kaurs come into their own, that's twice the holiness we have to wield, and that's a good thing in these times!
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