Across the border

From Guru Hargobind to Guru Gobind Singh: How the Sikh community militarised to take on the Mughals

Guru Arjan’s execution in 1606 by Emperor Jahangir was a watershed moment for the nascent Sikh community.

When Guru Arjan was summoned to Lahore by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the fifth Sikh Guru possibly suspected that he might never return. Thus before leaving for Lahore, he appointed his son Hargobind as his spiritual successor on May 25, 1606. The 11-year-old became the sixth Sikh Guru.

Various narratives explain Guru Arjan’s execution at the hands of the Mughals. Jahangir had taken over as emperor barely seven months earlier, in November 1605. Some suggest that Guru Arjan’s execution was the result of the bigotry of the new emperor who was insecure and was also moving away from the syncretic tradition of his father, Emperor Akbar.

Others lay the blame on a Lahore-based Mughal official, Chandu Shah. According to this narrative, Shah had reached out to Guru Arjan to arrange the marriage of his daughter with Hargobind, but this proposal was turned down. Humiliated, the Mughal official wanted to avenge his insult and thus orchestrated Guru Arjan’s imprisonment and subsequent execution. There are other narratives that find Guru Arjan’s elder brother, Prithi Chand, responsible for his death. Their father Guru Ram Das had picked Guru Arjan to be the fourth Sikh guru over two of his older brothers. This narrative says that Prithi Chand connived with Mughal authorities to have his brother murdered to clear the way for his ascent as the head of the Sikh community.

Some historians say that Guru Arjan was executed by Jahangir because the emperor was threatened by the growing power of the Sikh community. By the time of Guru Arjan, the community had become a force to be reckoned with. Not only did the Guru control a vast tract of property, he also received a considerable amount in offerings through a network of officials known as Masand. These officials – a bureaucratic hierarchy within the Sikh community – were representatives of the Guru in different parts of the region and were responsible for collecting offerings from the Guru’s devotees. Some historians also point out that the Guru had a little group of armed devotees too.

Another narrative is that since Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne after his father ruled for close to half a century, the Mughal court was divided at the time of his ascent. Many powerful nobles felt that the new emperor was unsuitable to rule the vast Mughal Empire given his tendency to consume wine and opium in excess. Jahangir was therefore looking to stamp his authority, perhaps using the execution of Guru Arjan to shore up his credentials as a Sunni Muslim ruler.

In Jahangir’s own words, Guru Arjan’s execution was justified as punishment for his support to Prince Khusrau, the emperor’s eldest son, who had led a rebellion against the throne soon after Jahangir took over. During this time, Khusrau is believed to have met Guru Arjan who, in Jahangir’s own words, put a tikka on his forehead. After Jahangir captured Khusrau, his supporters were executed while he was blinded and imprisoned. Many historians believe that Guru Arjan became a victim of this Mughal conflict.

Whatever the reason, Guru Arjan’s execution was a watershed moment for the nascent Sikh community within which there were several reactions to the event. Some suggested that the community should completely distance itself from politics and engage in just spiritual activities. On the other extreme were those who believed that this was the time to stand up to oppression and exert a Sikh identity. According to this camp, the Sikh community should not remain passive but should militarise instead to protect itself from any future acts of aggression. They argued that the Sikh community was on the crossroads of extinction if nothing was done.

The militarisation of Sikhs

On July 24, 1606, more than a month after the execution of Guru Arjan, Guru Hargobind presented himself before his devotees for the first time. It was clear which group had prevailed. Guru Hargobind wore a saffron gown and churidar pyjama. On his head was a beautiful turban with an aigrette fixed on it. He wore a necklace of precious stones around his neck. Guru Hargobind sat on the Akal Takht or the Eternal Throne, which he had instituted opposite the Harmandir Sahib. Two swords dangled from his waist.

The swords symbolised the philosophy of miri-piri. The first sword, miri, represented temporal power, while the second sword, piri, represented spiritual prowess. A saffron flag, representing a united Sikh community, was hoisted next to the throne. This eventually became the Nishan Sahib, the triangular flag found at the entrance of most gurdwaras today. A large drum called the nagar, which was usually kept by rulers to summon their subjects, was made for the Guru. A hawk was chosen as his pet. Guru Hargobind completely redefined the attire of the Guru, from a spiritual leader to a warrior-ruler. He is believed to have said, “My rosary shall be the sword belt and on my turban, I shall wear the emblem of royalty.” Guru Hargobind became the first Guru after Guru Nanak who was not a poet. The tradition of a Guru-poet returned when his son, Guru Tegh Bahadur, became the ninth Sikh Guru.

While it was the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, who institutionalised the Sikh identity through the formation of the Khalsa, it was Guru Hargobind – who led the Sikh community for over 37 years – who laid the foundations of this new identity. Militarisation of the community became an important aspect of his agenda. He was always accompanied by 52 bodyguards. Along with that, he also raised an Army that was given the title of Sant Sipahi or the Saint soldiers. An akhara was constructed in front of the Akal Takht where the soldiers trained, while war exercises became a regular feature of the Guru’s camp. The Guru gave special instructions to his devotees that they should offer him arms and horses instead of money as part of their tributes.

Even the nature of devotional music, which had been an essential part of Sikhism since Guru Nanak, changed under Guru Hargobind. Var or epic battle songs came to dominate his court. The execution of Guru Arjan was exemplified as a symbol of sacrifice for the truth. Sikh devotees were instructed to follow the example of Guru Arjan. Guru Hargobind told them it was un-Sikh like to bear oppression.

While the relationship between Guru Hargobind and Emperor Jahangir eventually improved, Mughal-Sikh relations deteriorated once again when Shah Jahan took over as emperor in 1628. Guru Hargobind fought three battles against Mughal forces during the reign of Shah Jahan. In all of them, his modest Sikh Army humbled the mighty Mughal forces. The Sikh guru had attained an aura of invincibility, and the community began to see itself as favoured by God.

The sword of Guru Hargobind became the prized possession of Guru Tegh Bahadur. When Emperor Aurangzeb summoned the ninth Sikh Guru to Delhi and executed him, the sword was given to his son, Guru Gobind Singh. Like Guru Hargobind, the 10th Sikh Guru became the head of the Sikh community at a tumultuous moment. And like his grandfather, Guru Gobind Singh proved he was more than fit for the role. The sword of Guru Hargobind had found a worthy owner.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva, A White Trail.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.