What is a Martyr?

Accepting death by choice for a principle to make a political statement was unknown in India until the Sikh era.

I. Of Noble Death and Martyrdom

Martyr - Wikipedia: A martyr (Greek: μάρτυς, mártys, "witness"; stem μάρτυρ-, mártyr-) is somebody who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, or refusing to advocate a belief or cause as demanded by an external party.

The word martyr is bandied around a lot these days and used loosely to mean a noble, heroic or innocent death. Assassinated public figures, soldiers killed in line of duty and the victims of terrorism etc. are often labelled martyrs but the dictionary definition of the word is quite specific. It means someone who makes a conscious choice to lay down one's life for an idea or a principle.

While heroic death; such as death before dishonor as practiced by the Rajput men and women, was held in high regard in India, the concept of martyrdom; that is, accepting death by choice for an idea or principle to make a political statement was unknown in India until the advent of the Sikh era.

That specific concept of 'Shaheedi' or martyrdom was introduced in India by the Sikh Gurus, first through their writings and later by personal example so that martyrdom eventually became an inextricable part of the Sikh philosophy and lore.

The principle for which the Gurus suffered persecution and martyrdom, of course was the idea of equality of all mankind which was the foundational principle of the Sikh faith. The Gurus held that all humanity, nay the entire universe, was a manifestation of one God therefore dividing mankind into high or low castes or classes was against God's laws (Dharma). That concept itself was not new to India; Buddha in the ancient time and Bhagats like Kabir and Namdev in the medieval era had held identical beliefs. What was different however, was the fact that the Sikh Gurus took the concept from the realm of philosophy and put it into practice in everyday life. Thus, Guru Nanak not only preached equality, he established an egalitarian township of Kartarpur where people of all castes mixed and lived together as one community. Guru Amardas took it a step further and established a caste blind communal Langar. Guru Ramdas advanced the concept yet further and built a common place of worship and opened it to all four sides signifying the faith's openness to all faiths and castes.

Such egalitarianism was jarring for the elite of the time. The Mughal empire was a minority rule and Mughal India was a layered society that rested on its acceptance by the Hindu Rajput nobility which only did so because the empire stood behind them to guarantee their own continued dominance over all the rest. It was thus a symbiotic partnership among the elite that depended on the continuation of social inequalities, the very inequities that were an anathema to the Sikh way of life. The Sikh Gurus' attempts at social engineering and their insistence on living out the principals of their faith in their daily life thus created social and political tensions that threatened to destabilize not only the social but also the political structure of the region.

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The ever-vigilant Mughal state took notice and took preemptive action, twice in less than a century. In 1604 and in 1675 when first Guru Arjan Dev and later his grandson, Guru Teg Bahadur were executed after both were given the same Hobbesian choice; either reject your own creed and accept Islam or face martyrdom. Both accepted martyrdom; firming up the determination of their followers to defend the faith; militantly if need be.

Thus, the philosophical awakening among the small Sikh community led to a gradual change in their social practices which threatened the political leadership of the land without even meaning to do so. The Sikh Gurus had no political ambitions, yet their message of social justice was powerful enough to threaten an imperial system which fought back. The Mughal-Sikh conflict was thus more of an ideological rather than a theological conflict; nevertheless, it forced the Sikh community into militancy out of sheer necessity for the sake of self-preservation.

I. To Play the Game of Love

Things came to a head when the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh; impatient with the continuing caste discriminations among his followers decided to make a decisive social statement. On Baisakhi day 1699 he declared that henceforth all caste distinctions stood dissolved among his followers whom he then formally baptized into a common brotherhood; the brotherhood of Khalsa. It was a direct challenge to the existing elite; and had never been attempted in India before. Yet he took the challenge a step further when he declared all his followers would henceforth have a common last name; 'Singh'. It was a challenge to the Rajput nobility because the term 'Singh' was not just a last name; it was a kind of a title; reserved only for use for the Rajputs alone as a sign of their high caste status.

By baptizing the Khalsa and calling all of them Singhs, the Guru at one stroke not only abolished caste discriminations among his followers, he elevated them to a social rank on par with the nobility. He clearly understood what he was doing and knew that a reaction would come, so he took steps to ensure his Khalsa was ready when that happened; he asked them to be armed henceforth. Two hundred years before him Guru Nanak had written 'Those who seek to play the game of love, must be ready to carry their heads on the palm of their hands'. That Baisakhi day, Guru Gobind Singh dramatically asked for the heads of his followers to impress upon them that the meaning of those words. In hindsight, it is apparent that he was teaching them the concept of the word martyrdom.

The reaction did not take long in coming; within months of the founding of the Khalsa the local Rajput chiefs banded together and besieged the Sikh stronghold at Anandpur Sahib. Unfortunately for them, the revolutionary fervor of the new converts was more than enough to overcome their numerical advantage and the Sikhs held the attackers at bay for years despite repeated attempts to dislodge them. In desperation, the Rajput chiefs appealed to the Mughal emperor who sent the imperial forces led by the provincial military governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan to their aid.

Suddenly the entire dimension and the scope of the conflict changed. What had started as an incremental social reform movement now found itself engaged in a life and death struggle against the Mughal empire, the largest and one of the most powerful on earth. The Mughals themselves were not very dogmatic to begin with. Persian historical sources tell us that the instructions from emperor Aurangzeb to Wazir Khan were to prevail upon 'The leader of the Nanak-Panthis' (Guru Gobind Singh) to simply 'go back to preaching like his predecessors and desist from any social meddling' failing which; Wazir Khan was instructed to destroy the new Khalsa order.

Perhaps based on such evidence many lay people and even some historians mistakenly believe that it was Guru Gobind Singh's advocacy of militancy that led to a clash with the mighty Mughals and that in doing so Guru Gobind Singh deviated from the Nanakian philosophy.

Such beliefs are inaccurate.

For over two centuries Sikh Gurus and Bhagats had taught two things. They had preached the concept of the brotherhood of mankind under one God and they had exhorted their followers to be unyielding in their beliefs. 'Death is not an evil, should one know how truly to die. The death of heroic men is holy; should they lay down their lives for righteous cause,' wrote Guru Nanak (GGS p 579) and 'Be prepared to give your life before your Beloved' wrote his successor Guru Angad (GGS p 83). Guru Arjan Dev too wrote in the similar vein. He included other such writings in the final compilation of the Adi Granth like Bhagat Kabir's verses 'Gagan Damama Bajeo'. In them Kabir dared the spiritual warrior to not shy away from battle saying; 'now is the time to fight! He alone is known as a spiritual hero, who fights in defense of an ideal. He may be cut apart, piece by piece, but he never leaves the field of battle'. (SGGS 1105). Two previous Gurus had given their lives for the sake of principles. Their successor could not now compromise. Thus, even if the Mughals had offered Guru Gobind Singh a choice; two hundred years of Sikh history and Sikh tradition meant that there was still only one path open before him. He had no interest in power or politics but he could not simply 'go back to preaching' and abandon his beliefs in practice. As far as the Guru was concerned, it was up to the Mughals to decide what they wanted to do next.

And so, the die was cast and in the year 1704 CE, the small Sikh community was marked for annihilation by the mighty Mughals.

II. The Road to Chamkaur

Most Sikhs are at least vaguely familiar with what followed next even if they are hazy on the details. What followed next was a war of extermination waged with ruthlessly intensity by the Mughals and martyrdom galore by the Sikhs. The scholars Arthur Droge and James Taylor suggest in their book titled A noble death; five characteristics of martyrdom: a response to "situations of opposition and persecution"; a view of freely chosen death as heroic; a willingness to die; a belief in otherworldly rewards and finally, the conviction that one's death will procure benefits in this world. All those conditions were met in December 1704 at Anandpur and many of those who are commemorated daily in the Sikh Ardaas such as the Punj Payare, the Chaali Mukte' the Chaar Sahibzade etc. accepted martyrdom willingly and unflinchingly.

The final climactic round started around the first week of December 1704. As the third battle of Anandpur raged on the Sikhs grimly hung on to the fortress of Anandpur, even as the supplies and moral was running low. The number of defenders were slowly dwindling due to death and desertions. Most notable of the deserters were the group of forty Majha Sikhs who publicly declared their break with the Guru before walking out on him (more on them later). The besieging Mughals and Rajputs were getting frustrated as well; they were unable to secure a clear victory. To break the deadlock, Wazir Khan sent an offer of a safe passage to Guru Gobind Singh provided he left Anandpur. The Guru was skeptical but his beleaguered followers prevailed upon him to take up the offer.

After some deliberation and initial hesitation, a small Sikh contingent of some five hundred men, women and children finally rode out of the fort on the evening of December 4th. Once it became clear that the Sikhs had indeed left the safety of the fort, the Mughals promptly broke their pledge and attacked them from behind. What followed next was a series of heroic running battles; small groups of warriors desperately fought rearguard to hold the pursuers back while the main body tried to make way to safety. After more than thirty hours of constant mobile warfare, they reached the bank of the Sirsa; a mountain stream that had swollen into a raging river after several days of rain. The river crossing took further toll on the Sikhs. Several in the party escaped the enemy arrows only to be swept away by the rushing waters. By accident or design, the Guru's family was separated into small groups there. While the surviving warriors, the Guru himself and the older two boys made it across to the other side, his two younger sons along with his mother, Mata Gujri were entrusted to faithful retainers and headed towards Morinda.

By December 7th, the exhausted main body of the Sikhs reached a small mud fortress at Chamkaur but after barely a few hours of rest found themselves besieged again; the pursuing forces had caught up with them and the battle started once again. Over the next twenty-four hours another desperate hand to hand combat ensued. The 18-year-old Sahibzada Ajit Singh fell fighting by late afternoon and by nightfall, his 14-year-old brother Jujhar Singh too had fallen, as had most other Sikh warriors. Around midnight, when there was a little pause in the battle, the remaining Sikhs insisted that Guru Gobind Singh should get away to keep the cause alive while the rest would hold the fort to distract the enemy. Accordingly, Bhai Himmat Singh, Bhai Mokham Singh and Bhai Sangat Singh held back, (the later donned the Guru's Kalgi to fool the enemy). They all died fighting the next day while Guru Gobind Singh along with Bhai Daya Singh and Bhai Dharam Singh escaped under the cover of darkness.

By December 8th, when the jubilant Mughals entered the deathly silent fortress of Chamkaur, they had reasons to rejoice. Most historians seem not to appreciate how tenuous the Sikh enterprise appeared at that point in time. Over the period of less than a week the fortress of Anandpur had fallen, the Sikh force of several hundred had been destroyed or scattered and the Guru and his family was either dead or missing. The Sikh cause seem to be hopeless at that point, but it was not yet dead. Henry Kissinger had once famously remarked that a conventional army loses if it fails to win while a guerilla wins if he does not lose. The Khalsa were down but not out. While most of the fighting force had been destroyed; three crucial members remained alive; Guru Gobind Singh himself and his two younger sons; Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, aged nine and seven, respectively.

III. The Resistors and the Tyrant

After breaking off from the main Sikh party during the chaotic river crossing the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh, Sahibzada Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh regrouped with their 80-year old grandmother and the three trekked all day and ended up in Morinda where they were initially offered protection by an old family retainer who later betrayed them. Motivated either by fear or greed, perhaps a bit of both, the retainer, Gangu the cook, as he was known, quickly handed the defenseless trio over to the local Mughal constables at Ropar.

Wazir Khan's triumph now seemed complete; the Khalsa had seemingly been crushed and the surviving children of their leader were in his grasp. He wanted to relish his victory. After leaving the sad trio to suffer in a cold tower overnight to break their spirit, Khan had the boys 'presented' to him in a public gathering. He appeared to be in a good mood and offered them lenient terms under the age-old Mughal custom; the boys were assured a generous treatment but were expected to denounce their faith and embrace Islam. What followed next upset Wazir Khan's carefully scripted spectacle. The two boys; not only turned down the offer; they refused to acknowledge any generosity in an offer that promised life only in exchange of faith. Wazir Khan saw in their defiance an affront to his authority. His mood turned sour and he next threatened the two boys with torture and death. The threats remained equally ineffectual and the two young boys still refused to budge.

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Over the next few days, a standoff of a sort ensued. The two Sahibzade were prisoners but they held the high moral ground of innocence and purity. Wazir Khan's power came from his capacity to instill a fear of torture and death which they negated by refusing to be afraid. As the news of their defiance leaked out, an unexpected wave of admiration and sympathy started building up for them within the city as well as in the countryside. Frustrated, and angry, and fearing more loss of face Wazir Khan sentenced the two boys to death by being bricked alive.

That this was an unusually harsh and unprecedented sentence even by Mughal standards can be judged from the fact that another governor, Nawab Sher Khan of Malerkotla; a close ally of Wazir Khan who had no love lost for Guru Gobind Singh, refused to be a party of that decision and left Sirhind in disgust. Wazir Khan however, remained adamant. On December 12th, 1704, he went ahead and did the unthinkable; he had the two children executed.

The news of that wanton act spread quickly all over Punjab. Guru Gobind heard the news calmly from a distraught messenger. Satisfied that his sons laid their lives valiantly, he asked if anyone had protested their sentencing. He was told the Sher Khan of Malerkotla had. 'Then his progeny shall flourish' said the Guru. What he did next has also been misinterpreted by some historians who believe took an oath and swore revenge. He did nothing of that sort; it was never his style. Having understood that Wazir Khan's act was likely to come back to haunt the Mughals, he pulled a shrub from the ground and said, 'The Mughal empire is going to end up thus, uprooted from the ground in the years to come.

Those were prophetic words.

IV. Khalsa Resurrection

The martyrdom of the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh on Wazir Khan's orders instantly changed the dynamic of the Sikh struggle; a fact that was immediately grasped by his suzerain, Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was far away in the Deccan, fighting another rebellion when he heard the news but was shrewd enough to realize that by martyring the two innocents Wazir Khan had revived the Sikh cause. In his book on the Mughal historical documents from the Persian sources, Grewal cites a letter written by the emperor to Wazir Khan, in which he acknowledged having heard of the drastic act but then immediately instructed Wazir Khan to send a conciliatory messenger to Guru Gobind Singh and to ensure a safe passage for the Guru so that he could meet the emperor. To impress upon Wazir Khan the seriousness of his intentions the emperor sent a high official and a mace bearer along with the letter carrying his instructions.

Guru Gobind Singh too, like Aurangzeb understood the political significance of the martyrdom of his sons. He knew they had given a new life to the Khalsa cause. In his letter to Aurangzeb, titled the Zafarnama, (epistle of victory) he wrote his own account of the events. He laid out the differences between a battlefield victory versus a moral one; and the political impact of each. After acknowledging the loss of his sons and his army, he pointed out the impetus the sacrifices of his followers had given to his cause. The battlefield victory was meaningless, he wrote because like a coiled snake the Khalsa still survived. 'What wisdom was it to put out four sparks (his sons)' he asked rhetorically 'and yet fan the flames of a roaring fire'?

Guru Gobind Singh's assessment was spot on.

The emperor may have been serious in his instructions to Wazir Khan but it was too little and too late. By the time these messages went back and forth, a shock wave of disgust and revulsion had already gripped the towns and countryside of Punjab. People who were previously uncommitted or had given up on the Guru's cause came flooding back to his side. Writing of that reaction in his composition called the 'Lakhi Jungle Khalsa' Guru Gobind Singh compared the Sikhs streaming to his side to the hordes of parched wild bison coming towards water. When asked by his wife about the fate of their sons, the Guru remarked; what if four are gone; look around you, these tens of thousands (sons) still live.

Wazir Khan's folly became apparent just weeks later when a contingent of his troops clashed with a small party of forty Sikhs on December the 28th at Khidrana. These forty were former deserters from Anandpur who had now come back to fight at the Guru's side after hearing of the atrocity at Sirhind. Though all forty were killed or mortally wounded in the clash, their ferocity and determination stunned the Mughals and won the Guru's admiration. The Guru publicly forgave them their earlier lapse and they became a part of the Sikh legend as the forty 'Mukte' or the pardoned ones.

The Mughals, for their part, sensing another much stronger Sikh force aggregating nearby, beat a hasty retreat. They would never again return and trouble the Guru.

The wheel had come a full circle but more was yet to come.

Five years later, the countryside erupted once again in a mass uprising under Banda and extracted a full measure of vengeance; something that Guru Gobind Singh himself had resisted with remarkable fortitude. Like a tidal wave in fury they carried the battle back to the Mughals and swept aside Wazir Khan and his troops like a fly and then reduced Sirhind to rubble. Though much more fighting and bloodshed was still to come the Khalsa never looked back. Martyrdoms went on inspiring and creating more martyrs till over the course of next sixty years they methodically took apart the entire Mughal superstructure from rivers Yamuna to the mighty Indus.

Two centuries later, a poet wrote thus of Banda and his companions:

...For today is the day that the Punjab roars
“Alakh Niranjan!”
A day such as this has never been seen
A million hearts know not what fear means
Nor feel that they owe another.
Life and death are but servants at one’s call,
The soul worries about nothing at all.
By the ten banks of the five great streams
Such a day has only been seen in dreams.....

(From Bandi Bir, a poem on Banda's rebellion by the poet Laureate and Nobel prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore)

Today the Mughals are no more but twenty-two million strong Khalsa descendants inhabit all continents of the globe. Everywhere they go, they faithfully recite after their daily prayers the names of all those who gave their all so that the faith may live on. 'Wahe Guru ji ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru ji ki Fateh….Panj payare, Char Sahibzade, Chaali Mukte….' goes the Sikh Ardaas, in a daily acknowledgement of the men and mere boys who became legends and as legends created history. The daily Ardaas also relives the events of those four fateful weeks; the March from Anandpur; the night crossing of Sirsa; Chamkaur Sahib and Khidrana; and Sirhind.

Especially Sirhind; where the two small boys resurrected a lost cause because they refused to surrender their conscience and bend their knee before insolent might!

A 20th century Punjabi Muslim poet, Allah Yaar Khan Jogi said it best in his poem Shahidan-E-Wafa when he wrote the following lines of homage to the two young Sahibzade martyrs:

 ਹਮ ਜਾਨ ਦੇ ਕੇ ਔਰੌਂ ਕੀ ਜਾਨੇਂ ਬਚਾ ਚਲੇ । ਸਿੱਖੀ ਕੀ ਨੀਂਵ ਹਮ ਹੈਂ ਸਰੋਂ ਪਰ ਉਠਾ ਚਲੇ ।
ਗੁਰਿਆਈ ਕਾ ਹੈਂ ਕਿੱਸਾ ਜਹਾਂ ਮੇਂ ਬਨਾ ਚਲੇ । ਸਿੰਘੋਂ ਕੀ ਸਲਤਨਤ ਕਾ ਹੈਂ ਪੌਦਾ ਲਗਾ ਚਲੇ ।
ਗੱਦੀ ਸੇ ਤਾਜ-ਓ-ਤਖ਼ਤ ਬਸ ਅਬ ਕੌਮ ਪਾਏਗੀ ।ਦੁਨੀਯਾ ਸੇ ਜ਼ਾਲਿਮੋਂ ਕਾ ਨਿਸ਼ਾਂ ਤਕ ਮਿਟਾਏਗੀ ।

(We gave our lives for others; we carried the foundation of Sikhi on our heads.
We created legends of Gurudom in the World, we plant the seed of the Sikh empire.
Our people will now inherit the Throne and Crown; and vanquish evil from the world…)

Rupinder Singh Brar

Personal interests include, outside medicine are English and Punjabi literature as well as history, culture and anthropology.

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