The most important problem that has faced the Sikhs since their
inception is that of identity and survival as a distinct community separate from
the Hindus. Most Sikhs were converts from Hinduism, governed by Hindu
law, inter-married with the Hindus, observed Hindu fasts and festivals, and
when they abandoned the external symbols of the Khalsa tradition (the
unshaven hair and beards) did in fact become Hindus believing in Sikhism.
Arjun, the fifth Guru, proclaimed : ‘We are neither Hindus nor Mussal-
mans". Gobind Singh, the last Guru, gave them a distinct look, a community
name and started traditions which would make his following into a distinct
people with an ethos of their own. The gurus had perhaps not reckoned with
Hinduism’s remarkable capacity to accept all variations of the religious theme.
Hindus acclaimed Sikhism as a militant aspect of their own faith. Within a
few years of the death of Guru Gobind, leadership of the Sikhs was in the hands
of a Hindu bairagi, Banda Singh Bahadur. And by the time the Sikhs came to
dominate the Punjab, Sikh ruling class had been thoroughly brain-washed by their
mentors; they wore sacred threads, were married to the chanting of Vedic
mantras, went on pilgrimage to Hardwar and Banaras, forced their widows to
perform sati. Such was the state of affairs during the reign of the superstitious
Brahmin- ridden Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839).
With the collapse of the Sikh Kingdom in 1849, it seemed to many that
Sikhism had run its course and would soon become an episodic chapter in the
history of Hinduism. Lord Dalhousie, The Governor-General, who annexed the
Punjab was of the opinion that within a few years the Sikhs would cease to be.
However, it was he more than anyone else who took measures to prevent a
whole-sale sliding back of Sikhs into Hinduism. He made the observance of
Khalsa traditions (long hair and beard) compulsory for Sikh soldiery. Every
unit had a granthi (scripture reader) attached to it and attendance at gurdwara
was made obligatory.
The Sikh intelligentsia responded to the government gestures. Literature
extolling the teachings of the Gurus and the heroism of the Khalsa began to
be published in Gurumukhi, a script which came to be almost entirely used by
the Sikhs. Separate ritual for birth, baptism, marriage and death was
established. ‘Ham Hindu nahin hain-We are not Hindus" became the
slogan. The Sikh separatist movement was helped by the resurgence of
Hinduism under the Arya Samaj. In order to reclaim Sikhs as Hindus,
Samajists had to emphasise the superiority of Hinduism over the teachings of
the Gurus. Sikhs retaliated by denigrating the Arya Samaj. In the battle
for survival two more fronts were opened-one against Christian missions who
had begun to gain converts from the lower castes of Sikhs and the other
against the Muslims who began to question the Sikhs over representation in
services and grants of land. Out of this maelstorm were generated the Singh
Sabha and its more aggressive successor the Akali Movement. And these two
movements moulded the Sikhs’ separate identity.
Of all periods the most neglected by scholars are the years between the
fall of the Sikh Kingdom (1849) and introduction of democratic reforms (1909).
N. Gerald Barrier fills this gap. His work is pioneering, painstaking and
thorough. He has compiled a most valuable catalogue of source material for
those who wish to fill the blank pages of Sikh history.
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