Though written centuries ago, the Babarvani hymns possess the sensitivity of contemporary scholars. Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod urges us to “examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves...We do not stand outside the world, looking out to this sea of poor benighted people...we are part of that world”. Arising out of his deep reflection and immediacy of experience, Guru Nanak prepares us for our own cause of social justice and equality today.

Women are at the centre of Babarvani. The marginalised objects of medieval Indian society become very significant subjects of Guru Nanak’s thought.

It is intriguing that a discourse on war would give so much narrative space to the women’s condition. We hear his nuanced critique of regressive customs of purdah (veiling of women), sati (self- immolation) and widowhood from a woman-centred perspective. With a profoundly feminist consciousness,

Guru Nanak describes the gruesome ripping off of the veils of Muslim women from head to foot (“kina peran sir khur pate”). Many women continue to wear the veil, and those who do not still live as though they were encaged – excluded from the public sphere, and from political and economic processes and interactions. The First Sikh makes us revisit the cloistered and claustrophobic life women continue to lead across religions and ethnicities with enormous empathy. He incites us to see through the physical, psychological and social coverings imposed on girls and women all over the world.

He also reports on the tragedy of Hindu women who “make their homes a crematorium – ikkna vasu masani”.

This most likely is a reference to the upper-caste women who were obligated to immolate themselves. Battling against foreign invaders, Hindu men were killed, so their widowed wives gave themselves up to the lapping flames.

Through sati, which literally means “good wife”, a woman performed her morality by consummating her life of devotion to her husband. This self-sacrifice was renowned throughout the world, and in 30 CE, a Roman author extolled the Indian wife for her exemplary bravery: “She flings herself on top of her husband’s funeral pyre, and she is burned alive on it beside her husband’s body, as if she were the happiest of women.” Widowhood was an expression of adharma (immorality), a wife’s failure in her supreme duty to her husband (pativrata).

Despite the fact that the practice of sati has been illegal since the early nineteenth century, violence against widows is still rampant. The Women’s Media Centre, Delhi, reports an estimated 40 million widows living in a state of “social death”. The First Sikh graphically reports:

Jin sir sohan patian mangi pai sindhur 
se sir kati munian gal vich avai dhuri

[Those who once had luxuriant braids lined with auspicious vermilion 
Their heads are shaved off, their throats choke with ash]

Having lost their husbands to Babar’s men, the wives lose their basic human rights.

When we hear the First Sikh in medieval India voice the shame inflicted on widows, we today are put to shame. How could we remain so negligent? How could we allow any culture or religion to sanction such inhumanity towards women?

A common abuse I heard growing up in the Punjab, “husband-eater” (khasama nun khani), for the reason that Indian women from time immemorial have been accused of being responsible for their husband’s death. It is her bad karma that brings death to the husband and bad luck to his family is the stereotypical thinking.

Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film Water exposes how widows are forced to have their heads shaved; every ornament, colourful outfit and tasty food is usurped from them. However young they may be, they cannot remarry. Viewed as inauspicious, widows are shunned by society. Even their shadow is considered bad luck. In the making of her film, Mehta faced many challenges. Her movie set was ransacked and Mehta’s effigy was burned. She ended up making the film in Sri Lanka and has been successful in raising global awareness. On 5 July 2007, CNN reported:

Ostracised by society, thousands of India’s widows flock to the holy city of Vrindavan waiting to die. They are found on side streets, hunched over with walking canes, their heads shaved and their pain etched by hundreds of deep wrinkles in their faces.

In their haunting tone, the First Sikh’s two short lines (cited above) report an awful lot. Their tiny syntactic units, perfectly structured parallels, are amazingly powerful. Each reading generates a new insight. They show us the rapidity of the grisly transformation brought on the wives of Indian warriors who died fighting against Babar.

Psychologically, the women can barely digest the tragic news, and they are physically stripped.

Gone is the crimson in the parting of their hair (mangi pae sindhur). Invested at her wedding by her husband, sindhur is a marker of women’s sacredness, auspiciousness, joy and sexuality. The Guru’s visual camera reveals the suddenness of the widows’ heart-wrenching condition: those beautiful braids (sohan patian) are sheared off (se sir kati), their heads are shaved (munian). Their bodies are violated, their physicality taken away.

Furthermore, the First Sikh movingly recounts “their throats being choked with dust – gal vich avai dhuri”. We know that renunciates smear themselves with ash as a mark of giving up their sexuality and worldly aspirations, so the Guru here is recounting the tragic circumstance of widows being coerced into an ash-smeared, “de-sexed” condition. His diction compellingly divulges the widow’s utter voicelessness as well.

Their throats are choked, what can they utter? How much burning can they bear? Reduced to cinders, widows have no voice, no identity, no social status, no life. Such Nanakian verses hit us viscerally and make us question the complex norms involving the patriarchal control of female sexuality from a global perspective.

The First Sikh

Excerpted with permission from The First Sikh: The Life And Legacy Of Guru Nanak, Nicky-Guninder Kaur Sing, Penguin Viking.