The book is a collection of papers presented at an International Seminar organized by the DSGMC to study the ‘contributions of Guru Arjan and legacy from different perspectives to make a wholesome study of the period’ [p. 17]. The seminar held at the Indian Habitat Center, New Delhi on September 27-28, 2006 received eighteen papers. The contributors include some of the very eminent in Sikh scholarship in India.
An anthology of this kind often has a lot of repetition of certain basic information and this book is no exception. The repetitive parts in the papers by different authors however are parts of well knit compositions though some careful editing might have added to the readability of the book.
The trigger for organizing the seminar was the 400th anniversary of martyrdom of Guru Arjan. The occasion prompted publication of at least three new titles on the life and work of Guru Arjan – by Pashaura Singh, published by Oxford; by Dr Balbir Singh, published by the SGPC and by Dr Dharam Singh, published by Panjabi University. This book is an addition to the corpus of literature spawned by the quad-centenary.
Six of the papers almost exclusively deal with the martyrdom of Guru Arjan. This could well be expected because even as the fact of the Guru’s martyrdom is viewed as an event that may have changed the course of Sikh history, circumstances surrounding it and the causes thereto have evaded consensus so far. That the martyrdom of the Guru was under the orders of Jahangir is well established and accepted. Jahangir’s personal account in Tuzak-i-jahangiri cites the Khusrau episode and the potentially debilitating effect of the Guru’s growing ministry on Islam. This however is seen at best as a partial explanation of a complex situation and speculation surrounds his motivation and the degree of influence that the Guru’s detractors like Chandu, Prithia, Muslim orthodoxy et al may have had on the Emperor in making his decision.
The story of Guru’s martyrdom has been subject of so many speculations and slants both in tradition and by different Sikh sources over the centuries. The paper in Punjabi by Harbans Kaur Sagoo captures the way the event has been reported by early sources to the recent times when uncovering of more evidence has helped better understanding of the factors in play. She has examined sources starting with Bhai Gurdas; a two line reference by Guru Gobind Singh in Bachitar Natak; Bhagat Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi Chhevin that places blame on Chandu with some role of Prithia; Kesar Singh Chhiber’s esoteric twist in Bansavalinaame that Prithia sought revenge because in an earlier birth he as a rabbit had been the victim of Arjan’s arrow; Saroop Das Bhalla’s Mehma Parkash saying that the entire scheme of torturing the Guru was the work of Chandu and in fact Jahangir was distraught on learning of it and expressed his deep sorrow at the happening; Santokh Singh in his Gurpartap Suraj Granth speculating that the Guru’s death was due to a curse by Kahne Bhagat since the Guru had rejected to include his composition in the Pothi Sahib and then on to Giani Gian Singh, Bhai Veer Singh, Ganda Singh and the evidence of Tuzak-i-Jehangiri. Her overview does provide an interesting insight into the dynamic of a changing understanding of the story over time.
Prithipal Singh Kapur tracing the history and various accounts concludes that ‘the orthodoxy of Hinduism, Islam and dissidents from within Sikhism coalesced to fight the rising tide of Sikhism.’ [p. 160] The anti Hindu views of Ahmad Sirhindi are also been mentioned by Mubarak Ali in his paper though not in reference to Guru Arjan’s episode. [p. 58]
The paper by Indu Banga critiques two recent studies on martyrdom of Guru Arjan – one by Louis Fenech and the other by Pashaura Singh – both associates of McLeod. She argues that even though Pashaura Singh has forcefully critiqued the Fenech inferences, some of his own conclusions do not stand the test of scrutiny. Her view is that Pashaura Singh has quoted Irfan Habib and Nonica Dutta out of context to ‘establish the economic plight and inferior social position of Jats’ and is “equally mistaken in assuming that the Mughal officials ‘ could indirectly maintain control over them’ by providing revenue-free grants to Guru Arjan in the Majha and Doaba areas.” [p. 177] She considers both the works not credible – Fenech because of his ignoring the tradition and thus losing touch with reality and Pashaura Singh for losing out on consistency by digressing into several directions to refute Fenech. [p. 178] The paper indicates the earnest interest in some of the scholars to take cognizance of the latest writings on the subject.
J S Grewal has made a brief comment in his keynote address saying that the Guru ‘appeared to have become important enough to be sought as a political supporter. The rebel prince Khusrau approached him, and Guru Arjan offered up prayers for him. At the instigation chiefly of Chandu, Jahangir summoned Guru Arjan to his presence, fined him and imprisoned him. The rigors of confinement hastened his death.’ A succinct summing up though not it cannot be said to be reflective of the totality of dark influences that seemed to be at work. [Pp. 19-20]
In the midst of variety of views expressed by historians and other sources, the re-interpreted version of martyrdom of Guru Arjan by the Sikh History Research Board of the SGPC, as articulated in their publication Sri Guru Arjan Dev by Dr Dalbir Singh [Amritsar, June 2006] says ‘neither the opposition of Brahmins nor the personal grudge of Chandu Shah may be regarded as major cause of the crisis, the real cause being furnished by the hostile attitude of Mohammedan orthodoxy headed by Mujaddids of Sirhind [p. 150] — we come to the conclusion Guru Arjan fell a victim to the bigotry of Jehangir, abetted by orthodox fanatics like Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi and Shaikh Farid Bukhari. Khusrau episode was only made a pretext tp capture Guru Arjan Dev.’ Editors of the book under review also seem to share the same assessment in their Introduction to the book.
Several authors have referred to the great faith of Guru Arjan in the divine will – bhana – best summed up by J S Neki when he says ‘If we advert to the way he quit this world, we marvel at the moral steadfastness with which he endured unexpressible torture leading to his death with utter equanimity and calm submission to the will of God.’ [p. 45]
The other connected issue that has been deliberated upon is about the Guru’s martyrdom being the catalyst for setting a continuing tradition of martyrdom in Sikhs. Dharam Singh has examined this aspect in detail and in his paper defines martyr as ‘one, who by courting martyrdom bears witness to the truth of his faith and to his own unswerving commitment and allegiance to it.’ [p. 138] Relating it to the Sikh context he says ‘[in Sikhism] one is required to give up all cowardice, be brave and courageous enough to stand up against all kinds of injustice, oppression and high handedness. One must be willing to suffer privation and even meet death fighting against these and such other evils, with no personal motive or interest attached to that fight. In fact, true martyrdom, in Sikhism, lies in the willingness to suffer without flinching.’ [p. 143] For a very well written paper, this may leave the reader with the sense that all Sikhs are ‘required’ to be ready to court martyrdom or suffer privations to fight all injustices and oppressive measures right, with no personal motive attached. This explanation of Sikh position tends to lower the moral threshold for the Sikhs to make the ultimate sacrifice – an impression not likely intended.
Quite a few of the papers in the book touch upon Adi Granth, compiled and edited by the Guru. Setting of almost all the compositions to music and its continued rendition through the tradition of kirtan, the poetic rhyme and metaphor as well as its interfaith character in that compositions of believers in other faiths were included in the Granth, find laudatory mention. Mohinder Singh’s paper is on Conserving Guru Granth Sahib Manuscripts – an activity that he is associated with and has given impetus to. Sashi Bala has written a thoughtful commentary on Sukhmani Sahib, a composition by Guru Arjan. She considers it to be ‘the most sublime devotional composition in the Indian Spiritual Tradition which marks a paradigm shift from the prevalent methods of spiritual realization. Unlike the Indian tradition, the Sukhmani recommends a path of naam simran which is universal and goes beyond categorization, with its emphasis on the inner transformation rather than on the outward observance of rites and rituals.’ J S Grewal in his keynote address also has dwelt at length on the Guru’s take on several terms like shabad, hukam, nadar, sangat, ardas, amrit sarover as evidenced from his writings in Guru Granth Sahib. He avers that the ideal of society that the Guru envisioned did in fact come to being and says ‘there is hardly any doubt that halemi raj refers to the entire dispensation headed by Guru Arjan.’ [p. 32]
Participation of Hindu and Muslim scholars in the seminar gives it an inter faith character in keeping with the ethos of respect for all faiths and universal concern for well being of one and all so ardently expressed by the Gurus. Even though Sikhs consider all Gurus as a continuum of a single divine light, we do tend to look at their individual ministries and contributions separately, though as a part of the whole. Such individual separateness of each Guru was essentially canonized by the Gurus and recognized by the Sikhs. The evidence is the way their compositions have been identified in the Granth as well as the texts of bhat swayyai. Having thus cleared my conscience, I may venture to add that I would have liked some more informed discussion on the legacy of the Guru – there is so much more. The institutional structures he left had enough strength and resilience to grow and transform as Sikh history unfolded. Much of the transmitted Sikh religious life and their spiritual quest as we witness to day can be traced back to the Guru’s time and the guiding paradigm he gave us. His compositions help us to grasp his diverse strengths, his deeo sense of piety, his mission, his vision, his response to temporal anxieties and the resoluteness of his spiritual beliefs and the way all these came together to reflect in his life and his quality of leadership.
The initiative by the DSGMC to convene such a seminar is indeed praise worthy. The joint publishing model of Singh Brothers and DSGMC offers the possibility of broader distribution for the book because of retail networks of both the agencies. With the problems of distribution greatly inhibiting Sikh publishing, such collaborative models should be explored by all publishing houses to enable wider availability of new titles.
The response in terms of number of papers, credentials and diversity of presenters, should have been encouraging to the organizers and one would have hoped that more such initiatives would have followed in the last three years and possibly led to active pursuit of educational and research activities under the auspices of the DSGMC. If that were to happen it could be a pace setter for other Sikh organizations also to launch similar initiatives.
A readable anthology, that does expose one to a variety of insights and may also encourage some to delve deeper into the subject.