The Gurus were around at a time when monarchy was most definitely the political norm. However, we must recognise that new “kingdoms” were still being created around the globe even into the nineteenth century, and royal elites in Ranjit Singh’s day were continually trying to assert themselves in a multitude of ways – a fact that perhaps conflicts with modern, popular understandings of that century as an era in which nation-states and democracy were becoming the order of the day.
Take Europe, where new states headed by royal dynasties were created throughout the nineteenth century, even as demands for constitutional reforms of monarchies were growing louder and revolutions were taking place. Examples include the kingdoms of Greece, Belgium, Bulgaria and unified Italy.
This period also saw monarchical rule extended into other parts of the world now controlled by European empires. In 1815, Brazil was created as a kingdom ruled over by the Portuguese royal family; perhaps most intriguingly, in 1822, Mexicans asked for the Spanish king to remain as their head of state, despite having just defeated the Spanish imperial army in a bid to secure independence.
The same was true of India, where from the seventeenth century onwards, a vast number of new “kingdoms” both big and small emerged on independent terms out of the ashes of the Mughal Empire – many of them would live on as “princely states” until a short while after the end of the British Raj in 1947.
In 1858, the British Crown replaced the East India Company at the head of the Indian Empire, itself laying claim to the mantle of the last Mughal Emperor. Royalty would continue to occupy an important place in the governance and rituals of South Asian political life well into the twentieth century, despite the disruptive impact of British colonialism and the rise of Indian nationalism, which largely came to favour democratic, republican rule. As I have argued elsewhere, all of this shows that monarchies and royal cultures remained an important part of society and politics well beyond the time of the Sikh Gurus.
It is high time that we set Ranjit Singh and his predecessors among the Gurus and misls within this context. The Sikhs were clearly not the only people in India who overthrew their erstwhile rulers and charted their own path to power, and admittedly the “Sikh Empire” was relatively short-lived by comparison with many of the other “kingdoms” mentioned earlier, lasting for only fifty years.
Yet the fact that Sikhs, too, were deeply interested in ideas of kingship shines a light not only on Sikh politics, but also to an extent on an exciting regional or even global era, filled with people trying to do new and intriguing things with royal culture.
What Ranjit Singh’s family did so successfully in the Punjab, and the partial origins of those ideas within Sikh culture and history, are elements of a much broader story of empire-building, experimentation and public image-shaping, as rulers sought to justify or entrench their hold on power in a competitive and changing world. Within the Indian subcontinent alone, the Sikhs have been witness (and partly contributors) to the passing of three empires created by external conquerors: the Lodis, the Mughals and the British.
The experiences of the Gurus and their people during the making and breaking of the first two not only shaped their political ideas of kingship, but also helped create an important sense of confidence within Sikh philosophy more generally: that worldly power could always be subject to challenge and resistance, if called for. This became a compelling factor that arguably empowered eighteenth-century Sikh sardars , including Ranjit Singh’s forefathers, allowing them to aspire to royalty in their own right.
This is why, to understand the rise and fall of the Sikh Empire, we must first turn to the Gurus, and the new sort of society that took shape from their ideas in early modern Punjab. Although the Sikh Gurus criticised emperors and other ruling elites repeatedly in their writings and throughout their lifetimes, it is significant that they did not directly advocate the abolition of the monarchy at any time.
It was accepted as the contemporary political idiom and the institutional form of local rulership. Nevertheless, the Gurus took monarchy as a trope, along with the trappings of royal culture, as useful symbols for a creative and subversive critique of the successive rulers that the Sikhs were exposed to over the course of ten guruships and approximately two-and-a-half centuries. From these writings one gets the sense that the role of the king in and of itself is the most morally testing position a human can ever find themselves in.
With such absolute power comes the greatest opportunity of all to indulge in the five core temptations and egocentric failings that the Gurus warned against: lust, greed, attachment, anger and pride. To judge by the Gurus, then, it would seem that more was expected of a king than of anyone else, in terms of upright conduct within the world of the everyday. This moral (or immoral) conduct of kings was clearly something that the Gurus observed up close and reflected on deeply.
During the 1520s, Guru Nanak himself witnessed first-hand the invasion of Punjab and Hindustan by the army of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur, and the overthrow of the former Lodi dynasty. He wrote about these events in his moving Baburvani verses, which subsequently became a part of the Sikh holy teachings, the Guru Granth Sahib.
This poetry powerfully brings to life the trauma that the conquering soldiers unleashed on the people of Punjab – rich and poor alike. From his verses, we can see that the first Guru felt the suffering and plight of women most keenly: he focuses repeatedly on describing, in explicit terms, how they are brutally attacked within their own homes.
His stanzas about the shocking treatment meted out to royal women are especially evocative in illuminating how the social order of the from insult or harm:
jin siri sohani patia mangi pai sandhur,
se sir kati munian gal vicu avai dhur
mahala andari hodia hun bahani na milani hadur.
Who once had luxuriant braids,
Adorned with auspicious vermilion,
Their hair lies hacked off with scissors;
… Their throats choke with dust.
Who once enjoyed the sanctum of palaces,
Cannot even find a spot in public…
The fate of these women echoes that of their princes, as the Guru narrates how the Lodi rulers are themselves “trampled in dust” after losing in battle to the Mughals. He touches repeatedly on the fact that tragedy befalls the lives of everyone in the region, whether Hindu or Muslim, yet the Mughals remain miraculously uninjured. He concludes that such is the “sport” of the creator, who enables such events to take place in the world.
Guru Nanak’s words thereby contain a universal warning for earthly kings like the fallen Lodis: one can be “consumed by wealth and ultimately wasted by wealth”, but even the greatest of riches will not save you when the Divine decides it is time for your demise.
As the first Guru tells it, the Creator is the “True Sovereign”, for whom it is a matter of play to bring down kings and make new ones; the power of a worldly ruler can do nothing to stop this, no matter how much pride they might have in their treasure chests, armies or personal strength.
We can see in the Baburvani verses that this “sahib” or “lord” evoked both awe and anger in Guru Nanak: for being able to make such momentous events happen, but equally because he felt that the Creator had been unjust in wreaking havoc upon the lives of innocent, defenceless people, rather than simply between two equally strong armies.
Interestingly, it is not Emperor Babur that the Guru tries to call to account, but the Sovereign Creator – declaring that the Divine, like any king, should not neglect treating all of his subjects with fairness. The Guru was in a complex position, however: the narrative triangulation between him, Babur and God varies if we look at different accounts of Sikh history.
One later Sikh scholar called Rattan Singh Bhangu, writing long after Guru Nanak’s time in the early years of Ranjit Singh’s reign, suggested that the first Guru and Babur had a personal meeting, in which the Guru actually agreed to bless the invading Mughal with sovereignty (padshahi ) over Hindustan.
According to this account, which blends mythology with history, Guru Nanak had far-reaching spiritual (and political) power, acting as a blessed representative of the Creator on Earth. Bhangu portrays his Guru as the supreme spiritual sovereign of Hindustan, over and above the Prophet Muhammad:
Babur pleaded to be blessed with sovereignty over India, So that his writ might run over the twenty-two Indian provinces. Instantly did Prophet Muhammad reject Babur’s plea with a remark, That He had no divine sanction for granting sovereignty over India. [This] being the sole prerogative of Guru Nanak, Babur should have no expectations from his prophet about it.
Excerpted with permission from Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire, Priya Atwal, HarperCollins India.