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Tagore’s view of the faith of a Sikh

January 26, 2015 | By

[Some who hold Sirdar Kapur Singh in high esteem, got together to institute a commemorative annual lecture in the Punjabi University, Patiala to revisit his contribution to history, philosophy, theology, politics and literature. Two lectures went very well because the guests were invited in consultation with the Trust. The third one was somewhat tolerable. The one that should have been held last year (2014) was a disaster. The faculty insisted on inviting Amiya Dev, a former Vice-Chancellor of the Vidyasagar University, West Bengal, who knew nothing about the Sirdar, nothing about Sikh history or ethos and very little about Rabinder Nath Tagore’s motivation for venturing into the field of Sikh theology and history. Fortunately someone went through the lecture that had been printed by the concerned department. He found it woven around conjured up ideas and images. An immediate hue and cry was raised just before the lecture was scheduled to be delivered the next morning.

I had also received a copy of the lecture printed by the University I was appalled at the insensitivity of the author and tired to get in touch with the Vice Chancellor. Our high dignitaries maintain their ‘highness’ by remaining inaccessible to ordinary people. I did not succeed.

I did the next best thing within my power. I decided to register my disagreement by appropriate analysis of the talk and Tagore’s understanding of Sikh history and religion. I prepared a short and a comprehensive critique of sorts for the occasion. I was relieved to know the next morning that the talk had been ‘postponed’. My relief was abruptly terminated when I came to know that Amiya Dev was invited to deliver the same lecture to the faculty of Sociology on the same day in the same University.

Encouraged by the alternate invitation, the author thought that the lecture also deserved publication. Fortunately theMainstream, published its much abridged and partly sanitised version in its issue of October 19, 2014, pp. 10-12. It went unnoticed by scholars. After much weighing of pros and cons, I decided to publish my reaction and the full text of the lecture, for Dev’s article is bound to reappear somewhere again. At least the other point of view will be available to the reader. This will also serve to bring out the insensitivity of our academic institutions, for which mocking the Guru and his celebrated Sikhs is just a matter of putting words and sentences together. -Author ]

Many years ago I felt the need to go to the roots of Indian political leaders’ anti Sikh policy.

I needed to know why there was a palpable strong undercurrent of hostility for the Sikh culture in Indian mind despite the earth-shaking sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur, and in view of the fact that the Sikhs created the first indigenous empire after about 900 years of abject slavery during which no one else made such a bid. Despite the fact that Hindu India reaped most of the benefit of the Sikh movement, there still existed an enormous amount of prejudice against the Sikhs. The prejudice was so strong that it made them refuse exchange of population suggested by Jinnah in 1947, knowing that the refusal would decimate the Sikh people. Prejudice and contempt for the Sikh religion, the Guru, in particular the Sikh rahit and the Sikh people was displayed vociferously by MK Gandhi in his prayer meetings. In due course it embedded itself into the constitutional document.

The first clue was that MK Gandhi was promoted as the prophet of non-violence after he swore loyalty to the British empire in writing and published it in the periodical he was editing. The second was that he accepted RN Tagore as gurudev(divine teacher). The third was that both of them had striven hard to prevent (violent) overthrow of the British empire. In common parlance they would be accused of collaborating with imperial power ruling their country. The fourth was that the ‘insights’ provided by Tagore and Gandhi alone were uppermost in the minds of the coterie of Brahmins and Kayasths who framed the constitutional document the authorship of which they would ascribe to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar to dupe and win over the dalits.

I went through the Collected Works of MK Gandhi. I went through the so called Sikh writings of Rabinder Nath Tagore. I found that both of them illogically and erroneously, even maliciously ascribed wanton violence to the Sikh movement. Both had strong objection to the acceptance of the Guru Granth as eternal Sikh Guru. Both could not digest the Khalsa rahitprescribed by the Tenth Nanak. Both of them insisted in denying the ‘One spirit ten bodies’ concept of Guruship – a fundamental doctrine of the Sikh faith. Eventually both of them showed a tendency to dismantle the Sikh edifice, presumably to project their own faith in favourable light in comparison.

MK Gandhi explicitly, and Tagore implicitly, were both against the propagation of Punjabi in the gurmukhi script. From them these cultivated prejudices travelled to certain Bengali historians – prominent among whom were JN Sarkar and IB Banerji.

In his translation of the small portion of the Sikh scripture, I found Tagore neglecting to use the original. It is almost as if he took translation as a ritual to be performed. I found that he paid more attention to Bhagatbani – many versions of which were current and automatic escape route in case of faulty translation was inbuilt. I found that his interest in the Guru’s word was superficial. Tagore had no idea of Sikh history or any sympathy for it. Then why did he want to write on Sikh themes?

Then I went to his Sikh poems. I cannot say how they sound in Bangla but in translation they were listless. As listless as his Geetanjali is. ‘Bandi Bir’ is highly derogatory to the first indigenous sovereign in 800 years: one who created the Peoples’ Republic based on the Sikh idea of polity, almost a century before the French Revolution.

He concocts a story contrary to facts to depict Banda as a compulsively violent person, willing to kill his own son just to satisfy his blood letting lust. Banda had defied every Mughal diktat and at that moment in history had an ephemeral existence. He was no more than a small step short of execution. He had no obligation to kill his son on the asking of his enemies: the baseless story defies common sense. It is contrary to Banda’s conduct as a true knight and highly motivated Sikh. Banda had been blinded before being brought a prisoner to Delhi. The story serves only to inspire revulsion and disgust against Banda and the faith for which he became a martyr. It grossly misrepresents the concept of Sikh martyrdom. It appears to be more a poem written by a butcher of Trilokpuri than by a sensitive poet.

The poem on Taru Singh makes more sense to a degree but none in the context of facts and of Sikh spiritual ethos. Taru Singh had ensured that his tormentor perished before he died. He clung to the divine gift of life even after he was scalped, but RN Tagore depicts him as eager for death. He ascribes ritual death wish to the young, exuberant revolutionary Taru Singh just out of his teens.

The last days of Taru Singh are well recorded and there is no element of ‘Gift Beyond Prayer’ in his conduct. Taru Singh was a conscious part of insurgency against the Afghan empire that then ruled over the Punjab.

Both these poems show that RN Tagore never understood the Sikh concept of martyrdom. Source material for studying it was ample and available at arm’s length. He had no will no inclination and may be even, no intention to study it. He was just eager grab an opportunity to denigrate the Sikh movement. In retrospect, we know that he was writing at a time when the Bengal was in ferment from the leaven provided by the Sikh Ghadarites. He was under an obligation to shield the British Empire from being overthrown by the Bengali and Punjabi revolutionaries.

In his poem on Guru Gobind Singh and his essay, translation of which was published in 1911, RN Tagore has depicted him as fully out of tune with the Sikh movement. That constitutes a blasphemy in theological terms. The Sikhs recognise only one Guru who is Nanak, he is Hargobind, and is also Gobind Singh. The sensitive poet thought nothing of slighting the faith of a large number of his countrymen. In this exercise can be discerned the complete blueprint for destroying the Sikh faith. The act appears to have been performed on behalf of a culture likely to inherit the British political power when and if it decided to fold up in India.

RN Tagore’s ‘Nishphal Uphaar,’ though essentially barren as he puts it, is once again somewhat tolerable but ‘Shesh Shikhsha’ is atrocious and makes no sense to a rational being. It is also contrary to facts as known to history. The Pathan who killed the Guru was a hired assassin, commissioned by Wazir Khan the governor of Sarhind who apprehended danger to his political existence from the rapprochement between Guru and the emperor. Universal human welfare was Guru’s concern and not personal political power. The Guru was not a failure, his life was not a waste, but paved the path of spiritual and political liberation of humankind for ever. According to some chronicles, the Pathan who assassinated the Guru was the grandson of Painda Khan. The Guru never struck a blow in anger as Tagore alleges. He was always conscious of his role as instructor of humankind. Mohsan Fani, a contemporary, had known him and testifies to it. The Pathan general challenged him to a duel on the field of battle. The Guru accepted his challenge. He warded off Painda Khan’s sword blow and before striking him a fatal one, said in the Guru mode, ‘like this must you wield the sword.’ He then dismounted to perform his divine function of showering Akalpurakh’s mercy on all beings. Taking the dying Khan’s head on his lap, he screened his face from the burning sun with his battle shield and said lovingly, ‘Khan the end is near; repeat the Kalima.’ The overwhelmed Khan’s last words were, ‘O! Merciful! your sword is now my kalima.’ The Guru had no enmity. Being a conscious part of the Akalpurakh he worshipped, he was nivair, just as He was. ‘Shesh Shikhsa’ is simply deplorable.

It is clear as daylight that RN Tagore has written every word of his so called Sikh writings to malign the Sikh faith and to evoke abhorrence in the minds of his readers. It is not the authentic function of an honest intellectual. A prostitute misuses the body and writers like him misuse their intellect to serve illegitimate purposes.

I have written a critique of Tagore’s essay on Maratha and Sikh history. It was published at least a decade and a half earlier. After agreeing to publish it in toto, and in a breach of trust, The Sikh Review of Calcutta also published about two-thirds of it about five years ago. In that essay I tried to understand how the Nobel Prize for literature has been dispensed in recent times. It is a sordid tale. That the Prize was probably procured for RN Tagore by his colonial masters to serve imperial purposes is the possible conclusion. The distress of patriotic Bengali writers over conferment of the Prize upon him is known to history. Tagore was not the only undeserving recipient. There is a long line of such authors extending to the present times.

Immediately after receiving it, he was despatched to California to convince our Ghadrites that loyalty to the British was the best policy for them to pursue. They spurned him effectively, were arrested for attempt to murder him and had to undergo incarceration. Like Gandhi before him he also made an exhibition of his loyalty to the colonial power ruling his country by composing the Jan Gan Man eulogising the colonial head as master of India’s destiny. The song is now the national anthem of India. He also obliged the British by running the California errand for them. That it did not have the desired effect is quite another matter.

Some of us would have driven down from Chandigarh to participate in the annual Sirdar Kapur Singh Memorial Lecture, had it been held. We hoped to hear a word about the Sirdar, or a discussion about his major concerns, his patriotic fervour, his love of philosophy, his monumental contribution to both history and theology with which he grappled all his life. His unique lifelong struggle to restore the glory of his faith is a saga that needed telling. Of all that we would not have heard a word. We would have been terribly disappointed.

On the morning of the scheduled lecture, the Guru’s Vaak from the Gurdarbar at Amritsar was enlightening as always. The Third Nanak said: ‘reading, studying remains a worldly chore undertaken for mere material benefits if lust and corruption dwell within one. For it to become liberating and ennobling force, you must contemplate serenely on the divine virtues and must pursue the Truth.’ [M3; p.650] That is the job of a seeker, a true poet, a genuine intellectual or a free thinker. Presumably RN Tagore like his acolyte MK Gandhi, was neither one nor the other, nor anything significant. In the final analysis, his saintly beard and full length hair notwithstanding, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing out to devour an ameliorating faith for imagined partisan gains. He appears to have garnered the Nobel Prize by selling his soul, by conniving to prolong the misery of enslaved India and thereby betraying millions of his countrymen.

In the Punjab we despise such persons. When a commemorative train to celebrate the 150th year of Tagore’s birth (flagged off from Kolkata on May 9, 2010) reached Amritsar on March 2, 2011, virtually no one turned up to see the exhibition it brought. Fakes are discovered more readily here. There is no use of dinning their hollow, sectarian propaganda into our ears. We are pledged to eternity to love Nanak, his blue war horse, his resplendent aigrette and his liberating, clean sweeping sword that cuts as precisely as his pure elevating doctrine. We love and admire Taru Singh, Banda Singh Bahadur and all those who love the Guru.

(Another article on Tagore by Gurtej Singh is also on the blog archives of September 2010)

[TAGORE AND SIKHISM
AMIYA DEV
Emeritus Professor of  Comparative Literature
Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

The fourth Sirdar Kapoor Singh Memorial Lecture, 2014.
Sirdar Kapoor Singh Foundation
Punjabi University, Patiala.

FOREWORD

In TAGORE AND SIKHISM, Professor Amiya Dev, a distinguished scholar of comparative literature, delineates the discursive features of Indian theological and literary tradition with special reference to the reaction and response of one of the most eminent poet-scholar of the Indian subcontinent. In this essay, we encounter the extremely lucid commentary on the inter-religious and inter-philosophical undercurrents which have been the hallmark of our humanity and our quest for the universal Truth that goes beyond the usual boundaries of never ending theological disputes. In Tagore, there is sublime incision and perception of Truth and Transcendence of the Sikh Gurus which brought about a philosophical revolution in the centuries old tradition of our country.

Jaspal Singh
Vice-Chancellor,
Punjabi University, Patiala.

TAGORE AND SIKHISM

Amiya Dev

When I was at school a poem I would often recite at a gathering was Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Bandī Bīr’ (Prisoner Hero) celebrating Sikh heroism and martyrdom. Some of its lines I still remember, especially the ones at the beginning: ‘pañcanadīr tīre / benī pākāiyā śire / dekhite dekhite gurur mantre / jāgiyā utheche Sikh– / nirmam nirbhīk’ (By banks of five rivers / with hair tied in braids / in no time did Sikhs wake up / in Guru’s name– / unrelenting and fearless). Their wake-up slogans were ‘Alakh Niranjan’ and ‘Victory to the Guru’. And

A day came
when millions knew no fear
nor had debts to any.
Life and death were mere footmen,
and heart free of worries.
By the ten banks of five rivers
such a day did come.

With this awakening in the background, the poem goes on into the Mughal offensive out of envy and fear, and the heroic battle put up by the Sikhs until their fort at Gurudaspur falls with the leader Banda [Bahadur] taken prisoner. Carnage follows. In seven days seven hundred Sikhs are beheaded their spirit of martyrdom contesting for places of priority in the beheading. Then the worst comes. One of Banda’s infant sons is thrown into his lap with the express order of killing him. This involves both father and son in martyrdom. The poem narrates how Banda quells his son’s fear by whispering the magic spell of martyrdom to his ears, ‘Victory to the Guru’. Yes, it is with ‘Victory to the Guru’ on his lips that the young martyr readies himself for his martyr father’s dagger. The act of most dastardly infanticide is most lovingly done throwing waves of silence and shock through the executioners’ court. Banda follows suit with hot pincers tearing his body apart. Across these sixty-five years I still remember the emotion in my voice in spelling out the last words of the poem: ‘darśakjan mudilo nayan, / sabhā holo nistabdha’ (The spectators shut their eyes, and the court / went dead silent).

The date these fourteen lyric stanzas comprising the narrative poem ‘Bandī Bīr’ were composed, was November 1899. The poem was part of a book of poems called Kathā (Tales: 1899) containing narrative poems on ancient and medieval Indian material. Its prefatory note was: ‘The Buddhist tales narrated in this book are taken from Rajendralal Mitra’s collection in English of Buddhist literature of Nepal. The Rajput stories have been found in Todd’s Rajasthan and the Sikh narratives in one or two English Sikh histories. I have got the Vaishnava tales from Bhaktamāl. Some difference from the original sources will be noted in these poems—I hope in accordance with common literary practice I shall not be held punishable for such change.’ In other words, in a mild way Tagore is saying that his narratives are not versified history but depiction of experience derived from history. And the purpose is not edification but appreciation.

There are two other ‘Sikh’ poems in Kathā, one on Bhai Taru Singh’s martyrdom, ‘Prārthanātīta Dān’ (Gift beyond Prayer), and the other ‘Śesh Śikshā’ (Last Lesson) on Guru Gobind Singh’s self-sought retribution cum death. This second I shall take up with the two other Guru Gobind Singh poems he had written earlier in 1888. ‘Prārthanātīta Dān’ is short enough to be quoted whole:

Gift beyond Prayer (Prārthanātīta Dān)
For a Sikh cutting his braided hair is as bad as giving up religion.
When the Pathans brought
the Sikh prisoners in chains
Suhridganj’s soil
went blood-red.
Nawab said, ‘Listen, Toru Singh,
I wish to pardon you.’
Toru Singh said, ‘why
this dishonour to me?’
Nawab replied, ‘You are a great warrior,
I am not angry with you,
all I ask for is that you
cut your braid for me.’
Toru Singh said, ‘Your kindness
is imprinted on my heart
I shall give you more than you have asked,
my head with the braid.’

This came in close heels of ‘Bandī Bīr’ (only a Rajput poem intervening) in November 1899. Its history is scanty, may even be inexact, yet it bears the essence of Sikh martyrdom. It concerns the first of the five K’s of Khalsa Panth, keś which being a gift of God is inseparable from the head. To cut it is to disown the head. Indeed Toru Singh’s repartee hits the bull’s eye. And surely the Nawab knew it. In apparent innocence he is asking a Sikh to give up his faith. Is he testing him, to see if he sells his faith in order to save his head? But isn’t there a contradiction in terms here in the Khalsa perspective—how can you save your head by sacrificing what grows on it? (It may be an idle comparison with Hebrew Samson, yet it strikes one. Sikh religious historians may tell us better.) So martyrs are those that offer to die to defend the purity of their faith, to save it from any doubts or innuendos. The Nawab’s ‘request’ conceals a call to heresy, or contrarily, without his knowing it, to martyrdom. Fallen among vengeful enemies a Sikh leader is by definition a martyr. The Nawab is only a factor.

There are in all three Guru Gobind Singh poems, two written earlier and the third within a few days of the Taru Singh poem. The earlier poems occur in Tagore’s first major book of poems containing a whole variety of themes, Mānasī (Lady of the Mind: 1890). Written on consecutive days, in 1888, they are built around Guru Gobind Singh’s sādhanā. The first one, named ‘Guru Gobinda’, is a long dialogue Guru Gobind Singh has with his disciples—he speaking and they listening. They have come to take him back to the land of the five rivers from his seclusion (‘ “Friends, go back, / it is not time yet”—/ night ending, on Jamuna’s banks / of low hills, and a dense forest; / Guru Gobinda said aloud / to his six disciples.’) Laid out in twenty-five lyric stanzas, it is a narrative poem of the kind Tagore would later develop in Kathā. Guru Gobind Singh is fully aware of the pull—the many tasks awaiting his leadership—in fact he has a full vision of them. The poet is doing justice to history but in his own way, through a set of dreams as it were. But Guru Gobind Singh wakes up, for his sādhanā is not yet over.

I must still be in the world of imagination,
and have my seat in the forest
still I need only quiet contemplation,
lonely meditation without action,
night and day to listen sedentarily
to my soul’s voice. …

Twelve years have thus passed,
how longer do I have to go
by acquiring eternal life
drop by drop from all sides
when in myself shall I see
my Self in all fullness?

When I shall open my heart and say
‘I have attained my end.
You all follow me,
The Guru is calling you …’

The second Guru Gobind Singh poem, ‘Nishphal Upahār’ (Fruitless Gift), is complementary to the first, depicting the Guru’s composure in the midst of his sādhanā not swayed by any nostalgic dreams of the future. His portrait is perfect: no eddies in his heart as in the river below where the scene is laid for the poem. It is Jamuna as in the first, and its banks are as hilly and full of shingles. A classical motif for such sādhanā to be tested out is temptation, which often comes in the form of some greed-evoking possession, whether a nymph or riches. Tagore seemed so touched by its theme that he wrote the poem twice on the same day, with slight variations in the metre, the rhyme scheme remaining the same, aabb. Here are some lines from its twelve stanzas (I am quoting from the second version):

When Raghunah arrived
the Sikh Guru was reading a life of the Lord.
Touching his feet Raghu said,
‘master, the servant has brought you a small gift.’ …

Two golden bangles inlaid with gems
Raghu placed at the Guru’s feet with folded hands.

Picking them up from the ground
the master looked them over with moving fingers. …

Smiling a little the Guru put them aside,
and went back to the book he was reading.
Suddenly one bangle from the rock it was on
rolled down into Jamuna’s stream.

Raghunath with shouts of ‘alas oh alas’
jumped into the water with outstretched hands, …

Not once did the Guru raise his face,
so intense was his joy of reading. …

Daylight faded out with the day,
nothing was found scuttling up Jamuna.
In wet clothes, empty hands, tired with bent head
Raghunath came back to the Guru.

‘I can still retrieve it,’ he begged with folded hands,
‘if you show me where it is lying.’
By flinging the second bangle into water
the Guru said, ‘there it is on the riverbed.’

The third Guru Gobind Singh poem, ‘Śesh Śikshā’ (Last Lesson), is a narrative of a different order. The Guru is at the end of his career and is not fully sure that his dreams have come true. The Bhārat he had looked forward to is now ‘narrow, split-up, doubt-ridden’. ‘Has he been wrong then, / his life a failure?’ The poem begins with a pensive Guru in the throes of despair. The turn of events that follows—the Pathan from whom he had bought a horse claiming payment, he deferring, the Pathan calling him names, he in a fit of rage beheading the Pathan—despairs him further: ‘I can see / my time is up. My sinful sword / has belied its ideals / by shedding blood for nothing. In my arm / I have no more any faith. / I must wash up this sin and shame–/ from today let that be my life’s last task.’ Expiation begins. He raises the Pathan’s son as his own, showers on him love and care, instructs him in both scriptures and arms—all to the amazement and apprehension of his followers. ‘What is this, master, what are you doing? / We fear the consequence.’ But his expiation has given him back his self-confidence: he has become the ‘Bīr (Heroic) Guru’ again. He knows what he is doing, raising a worthy avenger of his father. As to the Pathan boy, he becomes a son to him, ‘loves him / like life—is ever by his side, / as if he is his right hand.’ All his own sons having died in battle, this boy fills up the vacuum in his heart. Tagore uses an image here. The Guru is like a thunder-struck banyan that has had a seed brought by wind from outside into its hollow, growing into a tree itself that covers the old banyan with its own branches.

Once the Pathan boy’s instruction is over, he begs leave of his foster father to go out into the world to prove his worth. The Guru tells him that there is one more lesson left. It is the lesson that he has been all these years waiting to give his foster son, the retribution that he owes for his utterly mindless and bloody act committed years ago. The son must avenge his father. One evening he takes the boy with him leaving behind his followers, to the spot where he had killed the father. It is by a river. ‘The fading day’s burnt-out crimson light / casting a long shadow like a bat’s wings / is flying to the western wilderness / in the silent sky.’ The Guru tells the boy to dig in the sand. A reddened stone is found the red of which is identified as the boy’s father’s blood. ‘The day is come … by killing your father’s killer / in hot blood quench / his thirsty soul.’ The boy has an instantaneous reaction, but the next moment he throws himself at the Guru’s feet saying, ‘do not play / this devilish game. God knows / I have forgotten my father’s murder; you / I have known as father, guru and friend / all this time. Let that love fill up the mind, / and let rage wither under it.’ Since then the Pathan boy avoids the Guru’s intimate company, until at a chess game he is confronted with him. The boy keeps losing and the game lingers into the night. They are alone now and with his head bent the boy thinks up moves. Suddenly the Guru flings a chessman at him and roaring with laughter says, ‘How can such a coward win / who plays with his father’s killer?’ Provoked into murderous rage the boy instantly unsheathes his dagger and plunges it into the Guru’s breast, and the Guru says smilingly, ‘At last you have learnt / to avenge injustice. / This was your last lesson—the last time today / I bless you, my son.’

The three Guru Gobind Singh poems are of three different tempers. The first shows him eager to finish his gestation and become the Guru he is to be. That future seems to be pulling him though he does not mean any compromise with his remaining sādhanā. But it surely lacks the unruffledness of the second poem. There the sādhanā is as it were in its essence while in the first it is put in perspective. The third is expiatory. And as in all expiations it is preceded by a fall and ends on a rise. But it is an expiation that his followers cannot quite comprehend. At the end of his life Guru Gobind Singh also proves to be an ideal individual. Perhaps in advance this answers some of the doubt Tagore is going to raise in an essay on him in 1910 in contradistinction with Shivaji and, especially, in the background of the Nanak Panth.

Tagore has a sixth ‘Sikh’ poem, but written much later, in 1935. A variation on ‘Bandī Bīr’ it reiterates his admiration for Sikh heroism and martyrdom. And by being an utterance in the last decade of his life it has an abiding significance. But before getting to it let us recall his series of three historical essays written as early as 1885 for Bālak (Boy), a magazine meant for the younger members of the Jorasanko household. They were ‘Kājer Lok Ke’ (Who is a Worthy Person?), ‘Bīr Guru’ (Heroic Guru) and ‘Sikh-Svādhinatā’ (Sikh Independence). They deal respectively with Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, and Banda Bahadur and later. His main source was J.D. Cunningham’s A History of the Sikhs (1849). He might have also looked at W.L. M’Gregor’s The History of the Sikhs (1846)—might have, for there is no evidence as such though he did hint at more than one English Sikh history in his preface to Kathā from which we quoted three poems. The first essay is about the two worlds of Nanak’s father and Nanak. Nanak’s father was materially minded and wanted his son to have equal materiality. But Nanak had immaterial longings. Tagore quoted the khara sauda episode that proved their difference of values. The Sultanpur episode didn’t mean a tilt, for though he worked at the granaries his mind was elsewhere. And then he had that epiphany in the Muslim fakir admonishing him upon which he left home. His udasi is taken up in some detail: ‘… Nanak travelled to many places and countries, doing as much good as he could to people and preaching the religious truth to all. He loved both Hindus and Muslims. But he pointed out whatever was wrong with Hinduism. He also pointed out whatever was wrong with Islam. Yet both Hindus and Muslims were devoted to him.’ Back home he gave spiritual advice to everyone. ‘He told them to worship one God, be religious, forgive others’ sins, and love all.’ Tagore ends his essay with a lesson for his juvenile readers: ‘Now judge if it was Kalu [Bedi] or Kalu’s son Nanak who was worthier. The Sikhs you see today whose handsome built, noble countenance, great strength and unlimited courage astonish you, this people are Nanak’s śishya. There were no Sikhs before Nanak. Such a noble race has been born out of Nanak’s noble thought and religiosity. … The money made by Kalu had filled up his own stomach, and the religious riches earned by Nanak have been feeding men for four hundred years. Who then was worthier?’

The very title of the second essay, ‘Heroic Guru’, implies its subject, Guru Gobind Singh. ‘The nobleness with which Nanak was born did not extinguish with his death. The religious hymns he sang, the songs of joy and hope, went on reverberating. Newer and newer Gurus came up to lead the Sikhs to greatness.’ Tagore raises the curtain on Mughal hostility to the Sikhs and tells his juvenile readers of the Ninth Guru Tegbahadur’s sacrifice at Aurangzeb’s court to keep the secrecy of the Sikh doctrine. His son Gobind, the Tenth Guru, pledged Sikh consolidation, but he went through a twenty-year intense sādhanā for that (the subject of the first Mānasī poem we quoted). He abolished caste among Sikhs and conferred a common surname, Singh, on the males. To illustrate his utter disregard for riches, Tagore tells the story of Guru Gobind’s refusal to accept a pair of expensive bangles from a rich disciple (the subject of the second Mānasī poem). His continuous struggles to establish Sikh supremacy and battles against Muslims are given in some detail. A correspondence with Aurangzeb is quoted in which he accused the Mughals of atrocities against the Sikhs and added: ‘My sons have been killed; all my ties to the world are snapped; I am waiting for death; I don’t fear anyone, I only fear the sole emperor of the world, the king of all kings. The prayer of the poor to God does not go unanswered; one day you shall have to account for all your oppression and cruelties.’ Anyway his worth was finally recognized in the Mughal court. But Guru Gobind Singh died under strange circumstances, at the hands of a Pathan whose father he had impetuously killed, and whom he had raised as his son giving all training so that he could one day avenge his father’s death on him. It is this that Tagore later develops into the poem ‘Last Lesson’. Tagore’s conclusion on the ‘Heroic Guru’ for his juvenile readers is: ‘Though Guru Gobind did not succeed in fulfilling the resolution to which he had dedicated his life, yet it was chiefly he who turned the Sikhs into a martial people. After his death the Sikhs one day attained their independence; but it was he who had opened the door to that independence.’

Tagore’s third essay picks up the thread from the second and deals with the eventual fulfilment of Guru Gobind Singh’s pledge of ‘freeing his people from the foreign oppressors’. The crucial role was played here by Guru Gobind’s immediate successor, Banda [Bahadur]. Some of his exploits are quoted taking the region by storm. Finally the decisive battle of Gurudaspur is narrated around which gravitate those resonant stanzas of ‘Bandī Bīr’. The Sikhs lost and the Mughals won. But the history was like a seesaw, defeats were followed by victories. Again some defeats were as ghastly as that of Gurudaspur demanding martyrdom. The tale of Torusingh comes in here, lying at Suhidganj, Lahore who had refused to cut his long hair (forbidden in Sikhism) and instead offered his head with it—subject of the short poem we quoted. Seesawing further, history rolls on. And Tagore ends the essay with—‘After all that long the Sikhs were fully independent. Guru Gobind’s purpose was partly attained. Then rose Ranjit Singh. Afterward roared the British lion. And after that gradually all India went red. Ranjit Singh’s famous prophecy came true.’

II

These three instructive essays and five narrative poems presuppose an admiration for Sikhism which goes back to Tagore’s visit to Amritsar at eleven in 1873. He had just had his sacred thread ceremony and was on his way to the Himalayas with his father, Maharshi Debendranath, at the latter’s instance. They stopped at Amritsar for a month. His father had been to Amritsar before and stayed there for a couple of months, in fact before the poet’s birth, and was immersed in the Nanak Panth like his contemporaries in the Bengal Brahmo circles. In Jībansmriti (1912: My Reminiscences) Tagore recalls the boy Rabindranath’s sense of wonder at the Golden Temple:

I remember the Gurudarbar at Amritsar like a dream. Many days with father I walked to that Sikh temple in the middle of a lake. Prayers were being said there all the time. My father would sit among those Sikh worshippers and would suddenly join in the prayer singing; on hearing these songs of devotion from an outsider they would be impressed and honour him. … Once he had a singer from the Gurudarbar come to our house and sing bhajans for him.

But Debendranath had gone through all this before, especially the joining in the Sikh prayer singing at the Gurudarbar, when he had been at Amritsar some years ago. In fact it was then that he had collected the famous sabad of Nanak’s

gagan mai thālu ravi-candu dīpak bane
tārikāmandal janak motī
dhūpu malaānlo pavanu cavaro kare
sagal banarāi phūlanta jotī
kaisī āratī hai
bhavakhandanā terī āratī
anahatā sabad bājanta bherī

He had it printed in the periodical Dharmatattva in 1872. Its Bengali translation, presumably by Debendranath himself, was repeatedly printed in Tattvabodhinī Patrikā in 1873 and 1875. Whoever had set that translation to music, whether Debendranath himself or his son Jyotirindranath, one of Rabindranath’s elder brothers, it was Jyotirindranath who set itotirindranathdranath to score. Rabindranath must have sung it in Brahmo festivals—it did appear in his book of songs. Anyway, the Bengali text isy him:

gaganer thāle ravi chandra dīpak jvale,
tārakāmandal camake motī re.
dhūp malayānil, pavan cāmar kare,
sakal banarāji phulanta jyoti re.
keman ārati, he bhavakhandana, tava ārati
anāhata śabda bājanta bherī re.

The ‘ārati’ motif in this bhajan may remind us of a song Tagore was going to write in 1884, ‘tānhāre ārati kare candra tapan’:

Him the moon and sun do ārati, to His feet bow gods and men,
seated is that refuge of universe in His worldly shrine.
Time without beginning and skies without end are filled with that boundless splendour
where waves rise from the depths what joy oh joy
while bearing the six seasons in hand the earth pours flowers at His feet,
of many colours, of much fragrance of many tunes and rhythms.
The sky fills up with birds’ singing—sing clouds sings ocean—
big winds go rushing in mirth, tune up in mountain caves.
How many hundreds of devotees are gazing joyously, and singing songs—
in holy light blooms love, and all illusions shatter.

(Vivekananda was said to have been fond of this song.) Some of Tagore’s songs of the time, the so-called brahma-samgit, might not have been out of tune with Guru Nanak’s songs. Let me quote two samples from the two successive years, 1885 and 1886:

How go on with this sojourn here!
Live through such doubt and heartache and mourning!
Who will save us in sorrow-fear-and-anxiety
there is none so dear, alas, in this wilderness.
(1885)885he boy Rabindranath sining)

Give light to the blind, give life to the dead
you are kindness-nectar’s ocean, give a drop of your kindness.
Dry is my heart like a hard stone,
water my dried-up eyes in love’s shower.
Him who doesn’t call out to you, you keep calling in.
Him who goes away from you, you keep pulling in.
The thirsty that goes about your ambrosia-ocean’s shores
you soothe in sprays of affection, and feed ambrosia.
I had once found you, but then lost you in neglect,
I fell asleep, and see darkness around my eyes.
Whom do I tell my viraha, who will console me,
year passes after year, your loving face I don’t see
show me your self, oh show me, my dying heart is crying out.
(1886)

The second song might have had a special power of sustenance to the poet, for some thirty-six years later he was once heard humming it all through a late night. The witness was young Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, a close associate (later famed as the founder director of Indian Statistical Institute) who had arrived late on a festive eve at Santiniketan and was given for lack of accommodation a cot in Tagore’s room only a few feet from Tagore’s own cot.

We recall that it was in 1885 that he wrote those three instructive ‘Sikh’ essays. 1888 and 1899 were again dates for his five ‘Sikh’ poems. The next dates were 1909, 1910 and 1914—the first for the translation of a Sikh bhajan, the second for a critique of Guru Gobind Singh, and the third for the translation of a second Sikh bhajan. The first Sikh bhajan is:

bādoi bādoi ramyabīnā bādoi.
amal kamal bic
ujal rajanī bic
kājar ghana bic
niśa ādhiyārā bic
bīna ranan sunāye.
bādoi bādoi ramyabīnā bādoi.

Tagore’s Bengali is:

bāje bāje ramyabīnā bāje
amalkamalmājhe, jyotsnārajanīmājhe,
kājalghana-mājhe, niśi-āndhār-mājhe,
kusumsurabhi-mājhe bināranan śuni je
preme preme bāje.

He has departed a little by adding ‘kusumsurabhi-mājhe’ (in the fragrance of flowers) and changing the last line’s ‘ramyabīnā’ into ‘preme preme’ (in love). However, in his Bengali song developed from this he has two more stanzas, one beginning ‘nāce nāce ramyatāle nāce’ (dances in a lovely beat) and the other, ‘sāje sāje ramyabeśe sāje’ (dresses in a lovely attire). In his final classification of songs this one comes under ‘Pūjā: Ānanda’ (Devotion: Joy). The second Sikh bhajan which he translated and published in 1914 comes under general devotion and prayer. The original text is:

e Hari sundar e Hari sundar
tero caranpar sir nāveñ.
sevak janke seva seva par
premī janāñke prem prem par
duhkī janāñke bedan bedan
sukhī janāñke ānanda e.
banā-banāmeñ sāñval sāñval
giri-girimeñ unnita unnita
salitā-salitā cañcal cañcal
sāgar-sāgar gambhīr e.
candra sūraj baroi niramal dīpā
tero jagamandir ujār e.

The Bengali is very close, beginning exactly as the original (‘e Hari sundar, e Hari sundar’), only the ‘mastak nami taba caran-’pare’ (‘tero caranpar sir nāveñ’) is added three additional times as the refrain. As to how these two Sikh bhajans reached Tagore, the first must have come from the famous Santiniketan medievalist Kshitimohan Sen’s collection (whose Kabir he would soon use for his translations) even if his niece, Indira Devi might have acted as some kind of a catalyst. The path of the second one has not yet been traced. Did his other niece, elder sister’s daughter, Sarala Devi who was in the Punjab by marriage, get it for him? For lack of evidence we can only conjecture. All we know is that its translation by Tagore was published in the periodical Prabāsi in 1914 with the note that this ‘ārati’ had come from Amritsar’s Gurudarbar.

If we take a look at the songs he was composing at the time of ‘bāje bāje ramyabīnā bāje’, we are struck by their closeness to it. Not that they are all of the same temper: there is variation on the joy or wonder, or that again is taken over by doubt or even anxiety. The song that immediately precedes it is:

Look, how beautifully this joyous evening is spread!
In a gentle breeze in the upper air
floats a melancholy and expectant sweetness.
In silenced skies the planets and stars
quietly pour the nectar of light-rays’ music.
My heart and mind fill slowly up with relish,
and body thrilled with unbound pleasure, look.

And the song that comes one song after is:

From where rings this love’s sensation!
Is it my beloved friend stepping
to my heart’s darkened yard?
Throw out all your pettiness, you,
and wake up happy, Oh life.
Light all your lamps, light all
and in an eager voice call, ‘come my dearest’.

In other words, what I am saying is that the Sikh bhajan, as rewritten by Tagore, fits in with the songs he was writing at the time. And though the second bhajan, ‘e Hari sundar e Hari sundar’, has the temper of a brahma-samgit, it does not seem utterly out of place among the songs that precede and follow it. The one immediately preceding is non-ceremonial but not un-Nanak-like:

It is for you and me to crown our love that light fills up the sky.
It is for you and me to crown our love that the green earth bursts into blooms.
It is for you and me to crown our love
that night wakes with the world in lap,
and dawn comes to open the eastern door full of voices.
The love-hope-boat has been floating on eternal streams.
Endless time’s flowers overflow their baskets.
It is for you and me to crown our love
that age after age in this universe
my heart goes in bride’s dress self-seeking its consort.

But the one before two songs may keep our bhajan better company:

I shall sing your tune give me that vīnā,
I shall hear your words give me that undying spell.
I shall serve you give me that great strength,
I shall gaze at your face give me that firm devotion.
I shall bear your blows give me that immense patience,
I shall carry your flag give me that unflinching steadiness.
I shall claim all earth give me that roaring life,
I shall make myself pauper give me that love’s gift.
I shall go with you give me that right hand,
I shall fight in your battle give me that weapon of yours,
I shall wake up in your truth give me that call.
I shall give up happiness’ slavery give Oh give me goodness.

1909 to 1914, in fact somewhat earlier than 1909 to somewhat later than 1914, was a period in Tagore’s career as a composer when the spirit of Nanak, and Kabir, and of a number of other Sants from medieval India seemed to have fit into his creative psyche. We recall that in 1914 he brought out, with assistance from Evelyn Underhill, One Hundred Poems of Kabir. Notwithstanding the scholarly doubt about the full authenticity of his Kabir sources, his regard for Kabir cannot be denied. But some of his western admirers’ putting Kabir and him on the same scale and preferring Kabir to him was misjudgement, for Kabir was primarily a Sant whose poetry, oral, was only an effective medium. Tagore on the other hand was primarily a poet and composer (Sant Tagore would indeed be a travesty) fully conscious of his craft, though experiencing a degree of devotion in the period we are talking of. Obviously the same distinction applies to Guru Nanak and Tagore, Sant and poet. (Perhaps we would understand this distinction better if we place Tagore by someone nearer home, Ramakrishna whose words were as full of faith as wisdom and who by all means was a saint.) To Tagore Kabir and Nanak were true propagators of what he meant by dharma; and what he meant by it would perhaps be clear from the following excerpts from his essay, ‘The Simple Ideals of Dharma’ in 1903:

If I have to light a lamp at home, I have to make much effort—I have to depend on so many people. I have to keep track of where mustard is sown, where oil is pressed from it, the whereabouts of the oil market, and then there is all the going about dressing up a lamp—after such elaborations what meagre light do I get? My immediate purpose may be served, but it only doubles the dense darkness outside.
To get the world-revealing morning light I don’t have to depend on anyone—don’t have to manufacture it; all I have to do is wake up. As I open my eyes and unbar my door that light floods in which no one can stop. …
As this great light is, so is dharma. It too is immense, it too is simple. It is God gifting Himself—it is timeless, it is boundless; by surrounding us, by overlapping our inner and outer selves, it holds itself up. To have it, we only need to ask for it, to open our hearts. As getting a sky-full of daylight by making an extra effort is not getting it, so finding our eternal life’s refuge, dharma by making special arrangements would never materialize.
What we get to manufacture ourselves becomes complicated. Our society is complicated, our corporate life is complicated, and our everyday living is complicated. This complication, by its show of many-sided variety and by pretending to be big and mighty, often overpowers our confused self. Our unknowing mind ascribes great scholarship to the philosophical treatise that is most roundabout, and is struck with wonder. The civilization whose processes are difficult and confusing, whose factories and arrangements cum materials are far-flung, overwhelms our unsophisticated mind. But the philosopher who can present philosophy in simple clarity is truly worthy and intelligent; the civilization that can put its system in simple order and is in every way amenable is truly advanced. Whatever the outward look, complication as such is hollowness, proof of failure; fullness is simplicity. Dharma is the most perfect instance of that fullness, hence of simplicity. …
Let me give an example. Home is necessary to us, our habitation. The open sky is not habitable to us like that. But to keep this open sky open is absolutely necessary to us. By maintaining an untrammelled link between the open sky and the spaces inside our home is how we can save our home from being our prison or our grave. But if we say, ‘we shall make the sky our own like our home’, if we keep raising walls into the sky, then our home alone has its extension, the open sky moves further and further away.

It is in the above perspective that we may now look up his essay ‘Shivaji o Guru Gobindasingha’ written in 1910 as the preface to Sarat Kumar Roy’s (a teacher at his school at Santiniketan) book Sikh Guru o Sikh Jāti. Unlike his three earlier essays it was not addressed to juvenile readers; he was not instructing, he was trying to make a serious reflection on the Sikh Panth as moulded away from Guru Nanak’s message of universal love. He opens by distinguishing Maratha history under Shivaji which was political, committed to setting up a Hindu kingdom throughout India. On the other hand, Sikh history at the outset was religious. ‘The freedom that Baba Nanak had felt was not political freedom; his sense of dharma was not constricted by the worship of deities that was limited to a certain country’s or people’s imagination and habit, and did not accommodate the universal human heart, on the contrary restrained it; his heart was free from the bonds of these narrow mythological religions and he dedicated his life to preaching that freedom to all.’ ‘But come to be oppressed by the Mughals the disciples of Nanak turned into a community of their own, and for that reason their prime effort became defending themselves from harassment and surviving, rather than preaching religion all around. Thus from outside pressure the Sikhs became a closely knit race. Their last Guru was especially devoted to this task. … It really was not a religious preacher’s task; it was mainly an army general and politician’s task. Guru Gobind had that quality. He was a warrior that could muster his followers with a singular determination and overpower the enemy. … Guru Gobind wavered in keeping to the sense of freedom that Guru Nanak had taken to be greater than everything else.’ This is the thrust of Tagore’s argument. He sums it up in the following words. ‘Nanak gave a call to his disciples to be free from selfishness, religious bigotry and spiritual inertia—he wanted their humanness to have a great success. Guru Gobind bound the Sikhs to a particular necessity, and so that they are never forgetful of it he imprinted it in their hearts by name, attire, ritual and several other means.’ Tagore does take up Maharaja Ranjit Singh but as the very opposite of Guru Nanak, as a flaming comet that burned only for a while. He bemoans the outcome of Sikh history. Like a river it had issued from a snowy mountain top. But instead of making its way towards the ocean it is meandering in the sand.

Tagore does make a difference between Guru Gobind and Shivaji’s aims, but cannot ignore the eventual failure of Maratha history as well, the reasons not simply being Shivaji’s incompetent successors but also Shivaji’s own disregard of the leaks in Hindu society without mending which no salvage was possible. In conclusion he says: ‘Anyway, by comparing the rise and fall of Marathas and Sikhs it can be said, that the Sikhs were once united by the call of a great thought—they had heard the message of a truth that was not confined to the perpetual practice at a certain place and did not rise from the excitement of a certain time—that belonged to all time and all men, that broadened the scope of both the small and the big, released the mind, and accepting which was for everyone to realize the fullest glory of humanness. Answering this call of Nanak’s generous religion, the Sikhs through centuries grew up while bearing many hardships. By the glory of this religiosity and hardships the Sikhs had an invisible unity founded among them.’ Guru Gobind reoriented this unity from thought to action and achieved a temporary goal, but at the cost of permanence. Nanak was confined to a book.

We know that this reading of Sikh history did not go down well with intellectuals and historians, Sikh or non-Sikh, except for Jadunath Sarkar whose appreciation even made him publish an English translation of the piece in The Modern Review in 1911. But what is of more immediate interest is what caused Tagore’s shift from his earlier admiration of Guru Gobind Singh. How did he wake up to the bloody character of his karma, and to its limiting outcome? Or was he apprehensive of karma as such carried out at a national scale feeding on hatred? Yet as late as 1904 he had celebrated Shivaji in an encomium for the impending Shivaji Festival. His disillusion with karma bereft of dharma must have come from the excesses and the communally exclusive nature of the Swadeshi and Boycott movements keeping the Bengal Muslims at bay and causing Hindu-Muslim riots. He had initially been part of these novements but soon withdrew. The ground was getting ready for his first political novel Ghare-Bāire (1916: The Home and the World) which would draw no less fleck perhaps than the essay on Sikh history. It was a coincidence, yet perhaps no coincidence, that he would write his Nationalism lectures the same year in Japan that were not without any bearing on nationalism or nationalisms in India.

III

Jallianwala Bagh might have been anywhere in India and Tagore would have protested, but its being in Amritsar might have had a special association for him. Similarly, a friend reminds me, the second line of janaganamana to begin with Panjab (‘Panjab Sindhu Gujarat Maratha Dravid Utkal Banga’) may be suggestive of special affection. Yet the estrangement caused by the essay we just discussed went on for over two decades. Eventually during his visit to Lahore in early 1935 things cleared up: Tagore addressed the Fifth Punjabi Students’ Conference, read his poetry at the Y.M.C.A, and had a warm reception from the local Sikh leaders. On return he wrote a poem, his sixth ‘Sikh’ poem. It was included as Poem 33 in Śesh Saptak (Last Septet), a book of prose poems printed in 1935. The same year a slightly different version of the poem came out in the periodical Prabāsi under the title ‘Sikh’. Here is Śesh Saptak 33:

Emperor’s order—
with forces came Afrasayeb Khan, Muzaffar Khan,
Muhammad Amin Khan,
and with them came King Gopal Singh Bhadauria,
Uidat Singh Bundela.

The Mughal army laid a siege to Gurudaspur.
The Sikhs were inside the fort,
Banda Singh their leader.
Supplies have been cut off,
All outside exits shut.
Cannon balls come pelting from time to time
bounding over the walls,
to the horizon on four sides
the night sky is red with flaming torches.

No wheat is left in the stores, no rye,
no maize either;
the firewood too has exhausted.
In unbearable hunger they are eating raw meat,
some even eat slices cut from their own thighs.
Grounding barks and branches from trees,
they dough their bread.

Eight months passed in this hellish suffering,
then to Mughals fell
the Gurudaspur fort.
Death’s court fills up to neck with blood,
the prisoners cry out
‘Wahi Guru, Wahi Guru’,
and Sikhs’ heads keep rolling
day after day.

Boy Nehal Singh;
in his clear young and gentle face
blooms an inner light.
In his eyes seems held
the morning pilgrims’ song.
A lissome bright body,
the divine sculptor has fashioned out
with lightning’s chisel.
Age eighteen or nineteen.
a sal tree’s sapling,
risen straight up,
can still sway in the southern breeze.
Life’s abundance is
in body and mind
full to the brim.

He was brought in chains.
All court’s eyes
gazed at his face in wonder and pity.
For an instant
the executioner’s sword seemed reluctant.
At that moment a messenger came from the capital,
with the release-order in hand
signed by Syed Abdulla Khan.

When his hand-clasps were untied,
the boy asked, ‘Why this special judgement to me?’
Was told, his widowed mother had informed
her son was not Sikh by religion,
that, the Sikhs had by force
kept him captive.

In anger and shame went red
the boy’s face.
He shouted out, ‘I don’t want life by a lie,
in truth is my final liberation,
I am Sikh.’

Is Nehal Singh grown up from Banda’s infant son, a martyr in the making? And have I come full circle to ‘Bandī Bīr’?

__________________

All translations above are by the Author.

Acknowledgements: Himadri Banerjee, Gautam Bhattacharya, Pranab Biswas, Ranjit Dev Goswami, Arun Dey, Sankha Ghosh, Sujit Kumar Mondal, Bijay Mukherjee.]



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