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Page 2

Return to Page One of Sikhism: The Path of the Masters.

How one views India depends on many things. It is a vast admixture of contradiction, enlightenment, deception, promise disappointment and fulfillment. The French world traveler Madeleine Biardeau has correctly pointed out that, "Westerners arrive on Indian soil in their hundreds more or less persuaded that they will find Enlightenment round the corner. Whereas in fact what they encounter is India, with its dirt, poverty, discomfort, and they never cease reciting what makes this country one of the most backward" (I 5) note 9..

The first Englishman to visit India (in 1579) was the Jesuit Father Thomas Stevens note 10.. He wrote a poem in the Konkani dialect entitled the Christian Purana, in which he unsuccessfully sought to convert Indians to his religion (LoI 27). Because of Stevens and two merchants, named Fitch and Newbery, who visited India in 1583, the English developed "a keener desire for trade and exploration in the East" (BI 23). In 1600 Queen Elizabeth granted charter to "certain adventurers for the trade of the East Indies" (SIT XV). They hoped to capture the Indian market and 'make proper Englishmen out of them.' This was the humble beginnings of 'British India' which, with the fall of the Moghul Empire, "brought, province by province, State by State, [India] under the control or under the indirect influence of the British Government" (LoI 394).

Most non-Indians therefore had (and have) unrealistic expectations of India and judge her from their own cultural biases. They generally seek to exploit the country and her people, and hence are disappointed. When one's vision is skewed by ethnocentrism and nationalism, it is impossible to understand another culture, or for that matter, to rightly understand one's own (GSK 24,25). India must be accepted on her own terms. One must allow India to be India, the most unique, ambiguous and seductive land on earth.

According to the fascinating research currently being done by David Frawley, "There is much ground for believing that ancient India was more central to the origins of civilizations than is presently considered, that it may be the source of civilization as we know it ... Though most Western scholars and the current view of history still see a Middle Eastern origin for civilization, much new information is coming out that may challenge this view (GSK 15).

Even Indians view India differently depending upon their cultural and religious projections. It has been said that, from a Western perspective, India should be viewed as the Europe of the East. It is a vastly divergent land with separate cultures and languages and yet is, for the most part, united (or at least related) by a common history of proximity and philosophy.

The Jains and other Indian religions, along with the many Hindu sub-religions, all had critiques to offer. Some viewed India as Bharata-Varsha note 11., their holy ancestral land, while others saw her as an ancient civilization fallen into degradation and religious harlotry.

For the Muslims, India was a land of polytheistic idol worship and henotheistic confusion. They felt it needed radical cultural and religious reform. If India was to become 'civilized' it needed to convert to Islam. Moreover, India was a land of vast riches and these were desirable to the largely nomadic Muslim rulers. Harmonious with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim invaders from Mahmood of Gazni note 12. in the eleventh century to the Moguls of the sixteenth believed that Indian conversion (and exploitation) would best be achieved peacefully, but if the sword was more efficient, so be it (PWB 445). In the Taj-ul-Ma'asir Hassn Nizam-i-Naishapuri related that when Qutb-ul-Din Aibak (1194-1210) conquered Meerat, "he demolished all the Hindu temples of the city and erected mosques on their sites. In the city of Aligarh, he converted Hindu inhabitants to Islam by the sword and beheaded all those who adhered to their own religion" (quoted in SR 11).

The Punjabis viewed India somewhat differently. They had received the brunt of both Muslim and Hindu aggression. When Guru Nanak began teaching, the Punjabi people were filled with hope that perhaps, at long last, there existed in India a place for them. As Guru Nanak looked at the India of his time (1469-1539) his observations, in brief, were as follows:

William Eerdmans says that despite this desire for universal brotherhood, in contemporary Punjabi Sikhism the caste system is still observed in many quarters (WR 199). Pramjit Singh disagrees with his assessment (P).

According to the Sikhs and most other historians, Muslim rule of India was fierce. As stated above note 15., for the Muslims, peaceful conversion was preferable, but in India the sword proved more effective. They therefore slaughtered men, women and children without mercy, plundering their homes and destroying their temples. According to G.T. Garratt, "The [Muslim] conquest introduced a period of ruthless oppression which went on unmitigated from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, until the ascendancy of the emperor Akbar" (LoI 371). It was during the reign of Akbar and his successors that Sikhism emerged. In order to understand the Sikh religion, a basic understanding of the Moghul period is essential as the drama of those days had tremendous influence on the Gurus and their teachings.


At the height of their power (1500s to 1600s), the Mogulsnote 16. ruled about 150 million people. Their empire stretched across present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The harshness of Moghul rule created an environment in which Bhakti, religious devotion, flourished. According to G.T. Garratt, Moghul oppression encouraged the blossoming of all types of Bhakti. The Hindu sect Vaishnavism established a much deeper hold on Indian religious life. One of the greatest Vaishnava revivalists was in fact a contemporary of Guru Nanak, Shree Krishna-Caitanya (1486-1533). He inaugurated the tradition of the gosvamins (EDY 71). His life and teachings are chronicled in the Shree Caitanya-Caritamrita of Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami. According to that Bengali text, Shree Caitanya was the fully independent, supreme Personality of Godhead ("svatantra ishvara") Shree Krishna Himself (CC Antya-lila, 12:84). He is accepted by millions of Vaishnavas as the foremost exponent of bhakti-yoga, the Way of Devotion, for our age (CC Madhya-lila 9:41-46; EDY 71). Also in Bengal the ecstatic Baul sect was growing in numbers at about the same, singing their transcendental songs about the 'man in the heart' (EDY 46).

The great Kabir (1440-1518) was born a Muslim but converted to Hinduism through the wisdom of Ramananda (1440-1470). His path was eclectic and included Sufism and various Hindu sects, but he was clearly a Bhakti at heart (EDY 164). Some of Kabir's hymns are even contained in the Guru Granth Sahib. Some have suggested that Kabir may have even been Guru Nanak's Guru. According to W. Owen Cole, that idea is not so far fetched (GiS 8). The Miharban Janam Sakhi records a conversation between the two masters which is interesting. From this conversation it may appear that while Kabir was greatly respected, he was not Nanak's Guru. This may be too hasty however. Based on the following discourse, Kabir could still have been his Guru. Nanak may have simply A) used this wording to show respect and/or B) been distinguishing between the man and the 'True Guru' within him, 'the Perfect Guru is illumined by God.' For our purposes here, I simply wish to demonstrate the connection between them.

Kabir: Good God, please be seated. I am not so great that a man of your eminence should stand up to receive me.
Nanak: When a god comes, how can one remain seated?
Kabir: No. No. You are a jagat Guru (world/universal Guru) and I am your slave.
Nanak: Blessed am I that I have met you.
Kabir: You have been sent to save the world, O Nanak.
Nanak: I am not worried about the world. All I wish is that I may not forget God.
Kabir: Yet the world will acknowledge you as a supreme prophet.
Nanak: O Kabir, you serve God. Your deeds are truthful. Your mind is one with Pure Being ('niranjan').
Kabir: From whom did you receive the divine light ['Jot']? Who is your Guru?
Nanak: I met the Perfect Being, the Supreme Person, the Embodiment of Truth, and have received enlightenment from him. It is only the Perfect Guru, illumined by God, who can save the world (GiS 9).

In 1520 Guru Nanak founded Kartarpur, an ideal village established upon his teachings. He lived in Kartarpur until his death (GiS 23).

The Vishnu avatar Rama in the north, and Vishnu/Krishna in the south, became very popular among the common people, as did the worship of Lord Shiva in the Tamil country. Garrett says that it was at this same time that Daivism adopted the Vaishnava doctrine of Bhakti note 17.. This rise in devotionalism occurred throughout the Moghul empire and paved the way for Guru Nanak (LoI 370-372).

Babur (1483-1530) conquered Delhi in 1526. In 1530 he was succeeded by his son Humayun (1508-1556), and in 1556 Akbar the Great became emperor of the Moghul Empire. He is generally considered the greatest Moghul ruler.

Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) was enthroned in 1556. He was a free thinking Muslim who longed for religious as well as political unity. Mike Edwards, in an article entitled When the Moguls Ruled India, seeks to put a more human face on the ancient Moghul rulers. Of Akbar he writes, If you invited him to a cocktail party "Akbar would question you about your religion and might incorporate its tenets into one he was fashioning. As he discoursed on diverse subjects, it would never occur to you that he could not read" (NG 468). His reign mitigated the atrocities of previous rulers. For instance, Akbar rescinded the pilgrimage tax in 1563. The previous rulers believed that Hindu pilgrimages were based on a false religion, i.e. they were non-Muslim, and therefore should be taxed. When Akbar found out about this tax while hunting near Mathura (the traditional home of Shree Krishna), he demanded it be stopped immediately. According to W. Owen Cole, Guru Amar Das met with Akbar and persuaded him to abolish the tax (GiS 25). As a result of the good faith shown by Akbar, the Sikhs, from this time, "became increasingly linked with those of the Moghul Empire." At first relations between the Punjabi Sikhs and the empire were good. After reading the Guru Granth 'thoroughly' note 18., Akbar made large financial contributions to Guru Arjan to help the Sikh cause In an even bolder move, the next year he abolished the Indian jizya, a tax demanded by the Qur'an for all non-Muslim residents ('dhimmis') of Islamic countries (GM 82). By these actions Akbar announced that henceforth all citizens of the kingdom were to be viewed as equal under the law, at least in theory. Admittedly his motives may have been political considering that the previous emperors had had constant problems with the Hindu majority; but when one considers the powerful role of Islam in his early government, such moves must be regarded with respect, regardless of what prompted them.

Akbar was certainly more than a shrewd politician however. His father was Sunni, while his mother was Shi'a note 19.. He was born in Hindustan, in the land of Sufism, at the home of a Hindu. One (at least) of his teachers, Mir Abdul Latif, was devoted to sulh-i-kull, religious toleration. Akbar also suffered personally from religious discrimination. In Persia he was persecuted because he was a Sunni, while in India he was mistrusted for being Shi'a (GM 82). Throughout Akbar's life one finds examples of his religious questing and tolerance.

This does not mean, of course, that all was peaceful. Under Akbar the Moguls continued to consolidate their power throughout the subcontinent. Violent uprisings continued. Under his reign the main trouble spots were Bihar and Bengal, and in the west, Afghanistan, especially around Kabul, and the Punjab. In 1575 Bihar and Bengal were formally conquered and brought into the empire. Almost constant fighting was required to maintain imperial control of Bengal however. Much of his opposition came from local Afghan's who resented Moghul ruler ship (they were previous ruled by the Afghan Sher Shah in Delhi). In the Afghan city of Kabul the climax came in 1580. The Punjab became the scene of violent fighting. At the end, Akbar controlled the entire Punjab and established the Peacock Throne in the city of Sikri (which he built). His government was there until Shah Jahan moved it back to Delhi in 1648.

Akbar's fascination with religion drove him to create the ibadat-khana or 'House of Worship' in 1575. His intention for this building was to promote religious discussion. He was especially interested in the more mystical aspects such as Islamic Sufism, Hindu Bhakti (devotionalism) and the now emerging Sikhism. This building (which no longer exists) was built within the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri as an extension of an old hermit's cell. Akbar began his considerations with Muslims only. After Friday prayers, he would meet with Islamic scholars for these discussions. They did not go well however. Akbar was constantly disappointed as the religious thinkers fought over sitting places and other incidentals. The discourses often turned into shouting matches with charges of "Fool!" and "Heretic!" The participants "became very Jews and Egyptians for their hatred of each other" (GM 110). This religious animosity made Akbar doubt that any truth existed within Islam. As a result, he reorganized the meetings and invited Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews, Jesuits and Sikhs. He was particularly fond of three Jesuits, whom he called 'Nazarene sages.' It is said however that Akbar "laughingly preferred his three hundred wives to the Christian ideal of monogamy" (SIT 1).

In 1582 Akbar announced the formation of a new religion, which he hoped would unite all of India, the din-i-Ilahi or 'Religion of God.' Needless to say, this new religion, "its main distinguishing feature being a vague nimbus of divinity around his own person," did not catch on (GM 115). His egotism was further expressed in a way which outraged the Muslim community. On the official coins he added the inscription: Allahu akbar. Since the word akbar means 'great,' and since his name was Akbar, the inscription could either mean 'God is great' or 'Akbar is great' (GM 117). Abul Fazl's biography attributes several miracles to Akbar, including rain-making (GM 118).

From the Punjabi city of Lahore we get a sardonic account which reflects the religious tensions of the day. Akbar appointed Husain Khan, in whose service he had spent his early years, as governor of Lahore. One day a stranger approached his court and, assuming the man was Muslim, Khan gave the traditional Muslim greeting. Thereafter he discovered that the visitor was Hindu. He was so embarrassed by this incident that he ordered all Hindus to wear a patch on their sleeves identifying their religion (GM 116).

What Akbar personally believed is uncertain. Christians say he died a Muslim, Muslims say he died a Hindu. Perhaps this uncertainty is best, for it seems to reflect his own eclectic beliefs nicely.

Akbar died in 1605, a year before the end of Guru Arjan's life. He was succeeded by his son Jahangir (1569-1627). He too was interested in religion, but preferred the arts. He also enjoyed watching men being frayed alive! He further relished watching men fight animals, especially when the animals won. Nothing so invigorated Jahangir as watching a lion slowly devour someone. His violent streak knew no limits. As for Islam, he frequently ate pork in public and refused to fast during the month of Ramadan. As emperor he considered himself equal to, if not greater than, Allah (PT 41).

After taking reign on October 24, 1605, his egocentric personality lead him to alcoholism and opium addiction. Unlike his father, Jahangir had no use for Sikhs. He had Guru Arjan arrested, accusing him of supporting Khusrau, the other claimant to the throne. Arjan was drowned by his jailers while being transported to prison. The Moghul officials claimed his death was either an accident or suicide, but Sikhs reject this claim. They regard him as the first Sikh martyr. (GiS 26). Guru Arjan was succeeded by his son, Har Govind. He too was imprisoned by the Moguls, though he was released after two years. It is said that he obtained freedom for fifty-two Hindu rajas (GiS 26). Historians do not think well of Jahangir (GM 131; PT 39,40).

In 1627 Jahangir's son Shah Jahan (1592-1666) became emperor. It was said that "His pride is such as may teach Lucifer" (PT 52). On June 7, 1631 Shah Jahan's Queen, Arjumand Banu, better known as Mumtaz Mahal ('Chosen One of the Palace') passed away while giving birth to her fourteenth child. Moved by grief, he built the internationally acclaimed Taj Mahal note 20. as her mausoleum (PT 106). After building this amazing monument, the emperor had his hand in many other fine buildings and monuments throughout India.

In 1657 false rumors of Shah Jahan's death led to war between his sons. It was Shah Jahan's desire that his son Dara Shikoh succeed him. He however was not a military strategist nor even a good soldier. One thing he did have however, was an eclectic attitude which would not alienate the Hindu majority. He shared Akbar's sense of justice, respect and fair play. Had he become emperor, the Indian rebellions which, in part, eventually destroyed the empire might never have occurred. In May of 1658 two of Dara's brothers, Shuja and Murad, each proclaimed themselves successors to Shah Jahan. Another brother, Aurangzeb, who was a great but sinister strategist, waited ominously. When the time was right he struck and after fierce fighting, Aurangzeb (1618-1707) usurped the throne July 21, 1658. Thereupon, due to his father's opposition, he confined Shah Jahan to the palace. Of this emperor's reign it has been said that "No scheming Medici, no Spanish Inquisition, no Byzantine plot of poisoned Eucharist wafers to kill kneeling popes in church, no aspect of world history ever excelled the nastiness and cupidity of Mogul intrigue" (PT 281). Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, was martyred during Aurangzeb's reign. Sikhs say he died defending the rights of Hindus to practice their religion (GiS 27; P).

Aurangzeb moved his troops expertly, if harshly. The Punjab remained in the hands of Dara's supporters, and Aurangzeb wanted it. Rather than unite with his brothers and the other enemies of Aurangzeb, Dara went it alone. Waldemar Hansen describes Dara's every move as 'curiously suicidal' (PT 281). Reading the accounts of the War of Succession it does appear that Dara missed many opportunities to defeat Aurangzeb and regain the empire. Being forced from his stronghold at Samugarh, Dara headed south to Delhi and arrived June 5, 1658. Once in the city, Aurangzeb boxed them in. Shah Jahan sent word that his loyalists must move on Delhi to aid Dara. He even opened the treasury and sanctioned all available war materiel sent to Delhi. Despite Shah Jahan's attempts however, in desperation Dara and his forces, now grown to about ten thousand men, retreated north into the Punjab pursued by enemy forces. This refuge was short lived and Dara subsequently again fled (PT 297). The war was lost.

Aurangzeb was, for his unorthodox family, an unusually devout Muslim (PT 95). This orthodoxy was used to justify the genocide which he wrought on his brothers and their supporters, especially his brother Dara, who was said to be "all too reminiscent of Akbar" in his tolerance and free-thinking (GM 227). Throughout his reign religious bigotry ruled supreme. In 1679 he reimposed the jizya note 21. for instance. Although he claimed to oppose it, racial and religious discrimination was the rule of the day. His lack of tolerance and diplomacy created a litany of problems for the empire. His son Ajmer even rebelled against him and sought his death. Through a long chain of events, Aurangzeb was finally forced southward, away from the Punjab, and "the entire center of gravity of the empire was altered, with disastrous results, and the emperor himself reverted from the sumptuous stability of court life at Delhi or Agra to the unproductive nomadic existence, on permanent campaign, of one of his Mongol ancestors" (GM 229). With this, "The eighteenth century, India's period of 'The Great Anarchy' had begun."

Of the eight Moghul emperors who succeeded Aurangzeb (their combined reign lasted only 52 years), four were murdered, one deposed, and only three died peacefully on the throne.

On December 27, 1738 the Persian ruler Nadir Shah invaded India and on March 20, 1739, he sat on the throne at Delhi. His looting of Delhi was so successful that he remitted taxes in Persia for the next three years. Then, later that same fateful year, Persian invaders carried off the Great Peacock Throne, the symbol of Moghul authority (PT 103). Due to minor opposition from the natives of the city, Nadir Shah massacred everyone, men, women and children. In one day over thirty thousand people were killed. Delhi and the Moghul empire lay in ruins. Throughout the empire provinces seceded and declared their independence. Among these were the Sikhs and Rajputs. Some offered lip service to the emperor, but most did not even do this. Moghul India was no more (PT 488,489).

There seems to be little doubt that the Sikh community, as Islam, considered religion and politics to be non-different. What impact this had on the development of Sikhism, in relation to the Moghul Empire, is uncertain, but it seems obvious that it did exist (GiS 27).

Calcutta was founded by an agent of the English East India Company in 1616. In 1757 England gained control of Bengal and by the late eighteenth century the Company was well on its way to ruling the subcontinent. It turned its attention to the only serious competition, the French East India Company.

By 1818 all effective Indian resistance was stopped (SIT XV). In 1858 the Company was replaced by the British Crown which was, thanks to the efforts of people like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Neru, replaced by the present government in 1947.

In 1834 an American Presbyterian missionary arrived in the Punjab and developed the Ludhiana Mission. Soon the Punjab was annexed by Britain. In 1853 Maharaja Dalip Singh became a Christian; a Christian school was established in Amritsar, and missionaries were everywhere "competing with one another for converts. "Sikh leaders grew concerned. Many were converting to Christianity while others, through intermarriage with Hindus, were reverting to Hinduism. Only a sixth of the Punjab remained Sikh by this time.

In 1877 Swami Dayananda Saraswati and his Hindu reform movement, the Arya Samaj (founded 1875 in Bombay), came to the Punjab with its message. More Sikhs left the Khalsa, believing him to be a great unifier of the people and opponent of Christianity and Islam, which was threatening to destroy Indian culture and tradition. He later wrote that Guru Nanak was a dambhi or hypocrite, and rejected the Guru Granth Sahib. As a result, Sikh leaders were forced to unite with Christians and Muslims to counter his attacks on their three religions.

Once the Arya Samaj threat was gone, a revival of Sikh fundamentalism occurred. The Sikhs strengthened the Khalsas, which, with the end of the Moghul threat, had all but disintegrated. They began to purge Sikhism of all vestiges of Hinduism. If the Sant Mat was to survive, they reasoned, it would have to cut off all ties with Hinduism and establish itself as an independent world religion. It was not until 1925 that Sikhism gained full government recognition as an independent religion (GiS 83).

This then was the India in which Sikhism was born and developed. Guru Nanak was fifty-seven years old when Babur conquered Delhi and established the Moghul government. Guru Gobind Singh, the final Sikh Guru, died one year after Aurangzeb's death.

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Notes on Page Two

  • Note 9: India is about 3,287,590 square kilometers. There are over 746 million people with an annual growth rate of 1.9-2.1%. About 80% are Hindu, 11% Muslim, 2.6% Christian and 2% are Sikh. There are also smaller numbers of Jains, Buddhists, Parsis (Zoroastrians) etc. The average life-span is 50-54 years. The literacy rate is 25-36% (ICS xx,xxi).Return
  • Note 10 There is also Sighelmus who, during the reign of Alfred, went on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Thomas at Mailapur but this is not verifiable (PS 414; LoI 27). Return
  • Note 11: Bharata-Varsha (India) was named after the Pandava Princes of Mahabharata fame. They were descendents of King Bharata. It was divided into nine khandas or parts: Indra-dweepa, Kaserumat, Tamra-varna, Gabhastimat, Naga-dweepa, Saumya, Gandharva and Varuna (HM 47). See footnote # 9. Return
  • Note 12: At the beginning of the eighth century the Arabians conquered the Sind. Two hundred and fifty years later Muhammadan Turks gathered around the north-west mountains of Afghanistan. Ghazni was occupied in 862 and Mahmud, the Sultan of Gazni Afghanistan, made fifteen raids on India, especially Lahore, from 997-1026 (HBI 10). Return
  • Note 13: Murtis are visible manifestations of divine beings which are worshipped or meditated upon. They 'channel'the divine presence. Return
  • Note 14: It appears that the conjecture is that murtis had never existed in India prior to the birth of Buddhism. This seems untenable. As Danielou explains: However far we reach into the history of Hindu thought we find a coherent use of images to represent abstractions" (GoI 363). It is more likely that the murtis had been removed during Buddhist control of the country and were now being re-installed. Return
  • Note 15: See above. Return
  • Note 16: The Moghuls were the descendents of the Mongol Genghis Khan. 'Moghul' is the Indian form of Mongol. Return
  • Note 17: It is worth noting that although bhakti was originally a Vaishnava doctrine, in its technical sense the word bhakti is first found in the Shvetashvatara-Upanishad, a primarily Saivite Scripture of the fourth century B.C.E. (ToE 51,52). Return
  • Note 18: According to tradition, Akbar was illiterate. It may be that Bhai Gur Das and Bhai Buddha read it to him (GiS 26). Return
  • Note 19: Shortly after Mohammad's death Ali ibn abi Talib was elected khalif or successor. He was assassinated in 661. His Syrian killer, Muawiya became khalif. Ali's supporters are known as the Shi'a, Muawiya's followers are the Sunni. 90% of all Muslims today are Sunni (WR 331). Return
  • Note 20: The Taj was completed in 1653. Return
  • Note 21: The jizya was the Qur'anic tax imposed on non-Muslims. See above. Return