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The Nature of Power and Gurbani's Advice


Since time immemorial, no stone has been left unturned in contending that Guru Nanak was a maverick renunciate who emphasized that the entire world be renounced for soulful liberation. The Saakhi of Samarth Ramdas evinces that this misperception was something which even subsequent Gurus confronted. The tempestuous sage Samarth Ramdas was petrified at witnessing Guru Hargobind, the sixth successor to Nanak, returning from a hunt and then ordering his Sikh warriors to prepare the kill for Langar. The sage acerbically remarked that he had assumed the progenitor Guru to have renounced the world yet his declared successors were indulging in worldly ways i.e. hunting, politics and warfare. The incumbent Guru refused to take the bait and good naturedly remarked without breaking stride that Guru Nanak had discarded the ways of the world but not the world itself and it would be prudent for the Sage to comprehend Sikhi before forming assumptions. The chastised Ramdas beat an apologetic retreat.

The Issue:​

Subsequent and willful misassumptions have led over time to the dichotomy that Guru Nanak emphasized the creation of a Shabad Guru, the Guru Granth, which renders the listener pacified and unable to proactively utilize force. This latter problem was finally rectified by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Nanak, who composed the Dasam Granth as a repository of martial and sociopolitical wisdom. Leaving aside the contentious hair-splitting over the authenticity of the Dasam Granth, one is left perplexed as to how the sixth and seventh Gurus could wage war themselves and direct their Sikhs accordingly given their sole emphasis on the Guru Granth? Could it be that Guru Nanak did not retain enough foresight to prepare his Sikhs for battle even though knowing his ideology would invite trouble and his successors would be forced to rely upon exterior influences to militarize his Sikhs? The issue, speaking broadly, is not as much about what the Gurus could/could not do but one of what they imparted us. Is the Gurbani of the Guru Granth truly ultra-pacifist and unable to ignite passions?


While the aim of this particular exposition is not to concentrically underscore the position of force in the Sikh ideology, suffice it to say Guru Nanak was well aware of its value and mandated the Sikhs use it to their advantage whenever necessary. This, after all, was the reason why Guru Hargobind articulated to Samarth Ramdas the subtle difference between renouncing ever-changing worldly ways and the world itself. In Guru Nanak’s envisioning, man was not divorced from nature and nor nature from man’s sociopolitical endeavors. Both were inextricably intertwined with nature being man’s foremost tutor. To this end, just as force was nature’s primary tool to wrought change so too was man to use it to alter existing circumstances. Force by no means was limited to verbalism but could also evolve into an armed response when necessitated.

Militarism In The Guru Granth:​

The Brahminical polemist Kesar Singh Chibber would be the first to argue that the Guru Granth was unable to fuel any revolutionary zeal to alter the sociopolitical paradigm of the day. Irrespective of Chibber’s proximity to the tenth Guru, like much of the intellectuals deified by the so-called traditionalist Sikhs he was unwilling to comprehend the ideological dynamism rooted within the Guru Granth. Guru Nanak, himself, was an avid favorer of the militant verse. His most universalized verse on Ang. 1412 has become synonymous with the Sikh martial heritage, particularly in the modern military.

ਜਉ ਤਉ ਪ੍ਰੇਮ ਖੇਲਣ ਕਾ ਚਾਉ ॥

ਸਿਰੁ ਧਰਿ ਤਲੀ ਗਲੀ ਮੇਰੀ ਆਉ ॥

ਇਤੁ ਮਾਰਗਿ ਪੈਰੁ ਧਰੀਜੈ ॥

ਸਿਰੁ ਦੀਜੈ ਕਾਣਿ ਨ ਕੀਜੈ ॥੨੦॥

“Whosoever desires to play this game of life, (I) invite them to place their heads on their palms and tread through my alley. Once on this path, give your head but concede not on ground.”

-Guru Granth, 1412.

The Pujari argues that this verse is spiritual in nature; yet hypocritically asserts that Dip Singh Shahid (1682-1757) warred without his head in the field of battle. If the verse is indeed spiritual in nature and emphasizes renunciation which, in turn, is argued leads to soulful liberation then what reason was there for such an astute Gurmukh as Dip Singh to enter into warfare? If the verse’s spiritual context applies to everyone than why the exception for Dip Singh?

The reality is that the verse advises an alternative form of spirituality in which the ways of the world i.e. ways born out of human individuation are rejected and one conforms to the ultimate reality, Hukam. This Hukam is the Creator’s and the Creator makes no exceptions irrespective of whichever school of spirituality one follows or whatever level is obtained therein. Following this Hukam is indeed akin to battling with one’s own self and societal atrophy. The Sikh who conforms to Hukam follows a disciplined-almost militaristic- path where they place their heads (their individuation) on their palms and march forward on the path of Hukam i.e. bettering themselves and bettering the world even at the expense of their own life. Nothing could be more clearer than this verse that Guru Nanak established the framework for Sikh militarism.

The Chosen Ones:​

The Gursikh who conforms to Hukam and has placed their individuation on their palms do not retreat from the world. Rather, they involve themselves wholly in the world. Such a Sikh cultivates enough wisdom to become Panch or chosen. The Panch is neither utopian, aware that perfection is an immortal journey and nor is Panch some holder of five virtues as the Pujari would have us believe. Instead, the term Panch is a shortened expression of the epithet Parpanch derived from Sanskrit which refers to those selected from within Parpanchta or more simply: from within the phenomenal world. Those who cultivate virtue and rise about the ever-altering ways of the phenomenal world, they become Creation’s guardians forever battling aggrandizement in all its forms.

ਪੰਚ ਪਰਵਾਣ ਪੰਚ ਪਰਧਾਨੁ ॥

ਪੰਚੇ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਦਰਗਹਿ ਮਾਨੁ ॥

ਪੰਚੇ ਸੋਹਹਿ ਦਰਿ ਰਾਜਾਨੁ ॥

ਪੰਚਾ ਕਾ ਗੁਰੁ ਏਕੁ ਧਿਆਨੁ ॥

“Those who cultivate virtue (the Panch) they are acceptable (to their Maker); they are the (deserving) leaders. In their Maker’s court, they are endlessly honored. They are the true befitting rulers. All such individuals are single-mindedly focused on the Guru.”

-Guru Granth, Japji.

While it seems paradoxical that Gurbani emphasizes aloofness from worldly ways but not the world itself, the key to comprehending this enigma lies within the verse and the Japji composition itself. ਦਰਗਹਿ or the Maker’s court is no otherworldly element but this world itself:

ਰਾਤੀ ਰੁਤੀ ਥਿਤੀ ਵਾਰ ॥

ਪਵਣ ਪਾਣੀ ਅਗਨੀ ਪਾਤਾਲ ॥

ਤਿਸੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਧਰਤੀ ਥਾਪਿ ਰਖੀ ਧਰਮ ਸਾਲ ॥

ਤਿਸੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਜੀਅ ਜੁਗਤਿ ਕੇ ਰੰਗ ॥

ਤਿਨ ਕੇ ਨਾਮ ਅਨੇਕ ਅਨੰਤ ॥

ਕਰਮੀ ਕਰਮੀ ਹੋਇ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥

ਸਚਾ ਆਪਿ ਸਚਾ ਦਰਬਾਰੁ ॥

ਤਿਥੈ ਸੋਹਨਿ ਪੰਚ ਪਰਵਾਣੁ ॥

ਨਦਰੀ ਕਰਮਿ ਪਵੈ ਨੀਸਾਣੁ ॥

“Days, nights, seasons and other measurements of time; wind, water, flame and sky; within such a system is (what we call) the earth which has been made the abode of righteousness. Countless species exist thereon and countless are their names. It is thereon that deeds are committed and studied. True is (this) Court and true its Maker. Within this court sit the Panch, upon them are the marks of their Maker’s grace.”

-Guru Granth, Japji.

The Nature Of Power:​

The Panch make themselves the Chosen Ones through cultivation of wisdom, dedication and effort. They remain untouched by the base intricacies of unenlightened humans but nor do they remain ignorant of them. As the true wielders of power, they are required to keep themselves informed about the nature of the element they wield and the potential consequences of it falling into the wrong hands. More profoundly, Guru Nanak in the Asa Di Vaar forewarns them against allowing the very power they utilize to corrupt them. In a lengthy verse the Guru observes the nature of betrayal for power, the consequences of abusing power and the fruits of wielding it justly. Prior to this verse, the second Guru contextualizes it in relation to the masses:

ਨਾਉ ਫਕੀਰੈ ਪਾਤਿਸਾਹੁ ਮੂਰਖ ਪੰਡਿਤੁ ਨਾਉ ॥

ਅੰਧੇ ਕਾ ਨਾਉ ਪਾਰਖੂ ਏਵੈ ਕਰੇ ਗੁਆਉ ॥

ਇਲਤਿ ਕਾ ਨਾਉ ਚਉਧਰੀ ਕੂੜੀ ਪੂਰੇ ਥਾਉ ॥

ਨਾਨਕ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਜਾਣੀਐ ਕਲਿ ਕਾ ਏਹੁ ਨਿਆਉ ॥੧॥

“The beggar is called the Emperor and the fool a wise scholar. The blind are made seers, this is how the masses bear witness. The instigator is made leader and the fraud honored highly. Nanak, the Gurmukhs know that in this (so-called) dark age such is justice.”

-Guru Granth, 1288.

The masses elect/select a leader based on their day-to-day fickle wants rather than with any long-term foresight. The second Guru, Guru Angad, is not deriding the political sphere but rather forewarning that it is treacherous ground. One cannot rely on the masses but only on oneself even if they are aiming to provide justice to these very same masses. This is borne out by various instances in Sikh history with the most prominent being Nawab Kapur Singh’s streamlining of the institute of Sarbatt Khalsa or the Khalsa referendum under the Khalsa Misls or confederacies. Though collating opinions even at the village level, the ultimate formulation of policy was done by the Misl Sirdars and their Presidential Jathedar while keeping their own consul as to what was best for their subjects rather than what the subjects deemed best. While only quasi-democratic by today’s standards, the system historically allowed an almost universal consensus on critical matters confronting the Khalsa and its territorial state in the Punjab.

The verse is followed by Guru Nanak’s which exclusively focuses on power as an element.

ਹਰਣਾਂ ਬਾਜਾਂ ਤੈ ਸਿਕਦਾਰਾਂ ਏਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਾ ਪੜ੍ਹ੍ਹਿਆ ਨਾਉ ॥

ਫਾਂਧੀ ਲਗੀ ਜਾਤਿ ਫਹਾਇਨਿ ਅਗੈ ਨਾਹੀ ਥਾਉ ॥

ਸੋ ਪੜਿਆ ਸੋ ਪੰਡਿਤੁ ਬੀਨਾ ਜਿਨ੍ਹ੍ਹੀ ਕਮਾਣਾ ਨਾਉ ॥

ਪਹਿਲੋ ਦੇ ਜੜ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਜੰਮੈ ਤਾ ਉਪਰਿ ਹੋਵੈ ਛਾਂਉ ॥

ਰਾਜੇ ਸੀਹ ਮੁਕਦਮ ਕੁਤੇ ॥

ਜਾਇ ਜਗਾਇਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ਬੈਠੇ ਸੁਤੇ ॥

ਚਾਕਰ ਨਹਦਾ ਪਾਇਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ਘਾਉ ॥

ਰਤੁ ਪਿਤੁ ਕੁਤਿਹੋ ਚਟਿ ਜਾਹੁ ॥

ਜਿਥੈ ਜੀਆਂ ਹੋਸੀ ਸਾਰ ॥

ਨਕੀ ਵਢੀ ਲਾਇਤਬਾਰ ॥੨॥

“Deer, falcons and political officials are trained and intelligently set after their own kind. Traps are set and they are dispatched to trap their own kind. Yet for all their effort, they find no solace in the present or the future. Only they can be called wise and intelligent who imbibe and imbue wisdom. True leaders are like the tree which suffers the sun’s rays but provides shade as a result. The kings are tigers and their courtiers are dogs. They run out to awaken the slumbering masses and torment them. They tear apart their prey and the courtiers lick up the resultant blood. But they are judged in their Maker’s court and then their noses are cut off.”

-Guru Granth, ibid.

Essentially, the holders of power are forever devising clever traps to expand their prowess. Just like the hunter turns deer and falcons against their own kind to lure in unsuspecting members of their species, so too powerful humans utilize insipid and less able underlings to do likewise. Such turncoats, for want of a better expression, are never given their just dues and removed by their Masters who perceive them as liabilities. They forfeit honor in the present and the future with their legacy being one of treachery. Are they intelligent? The Guru observes no, they are not. True intelligence is discerned in character and deed. Intelligent individuals engineer their rise to the top and are compared to trees which bear intolerable heat to provide shade. Intelligent leaders bear multiple trials and tribulations to provide for the masses. The yardstick to measure their intent is the result of their endeavors i.e. what legacy do they impart?

The nature of the masses is one of obliviousness or figurative slumber. Just as darkness rises and does not fall, so too does tyranny arise from among the masses and then rudely disturbs their slumber. With their obliviousness shattered, the masses are cowed down by a whole edifice of tyranny which subjugates their very dignity. The tyranny emulates the hunter in establishing an infrastructure dedicated to preserving its hold on power. However, as is the nature of such events, impartial and unbridled intelligence is realized by revolutionary elements among the masses. This enlightenment allows a counter-leadership to arise and war for the oppressed masses. When liberty triumphs tyranny, then a final indictment is provided against the tyranny’s footsoldiers. Such, the Guru bears witness, is the nature of power and the lot of those who seek it.

From History:​

Guru Nanak envisioned his Sikhs as powerbrokers and powerholders. They were not to worship power for power’s sake but rather to use it impel change in the sociopolitical paradigm. At the same time, the Sikh is to remember to cultivate virtue to continually better themselves without let-up. Power, in the Nanakian paradigm, is the foremost tool for alteration and defense. Never for oppression in the fundamental sense of the term. Power for Guru Nanak was never utopian. Rather it was a means to initiate/deescalate conflict. The nature of power, though, is such that it even corrupts the Sikhs. Out of a handful of Sikh political leaders, only three have managed to successfully shield themselves against treachery:

-Nawab Kapur Singh.

-Jassa Singh Alhuwalia.

-Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

Others such as Baba Banda Singh Bahadur were treacherously betrayed by fellow Sikhs for material gains. This is not to say that the betrayed were less astute or less intelligent in the ways of power. But rather leadership and wielding power is a lonely job where the greatest consul is one’s own and not that of others. In the current scenario, if the Sikhs wish to wield power than they must hearken to and conform with the priceless observations of Gurbani on the nature of power. Otherwise, history bears witness that the Sikhs set precedent after heightened precedent in which leader after leader rises only to be nullified by their own companions and underlings.


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