DECODING BABARVANI THIS 550th

eaethee maar pee karalaanae thai(n) kee dharadh n aaeiaa

karathaa thoo(n) sabhanaa kaa soee

THE BACKDROP

Sikhs are celebrating the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak this coming November. It has so happened that this anniversary may be accompanied by a development that Sikhs had longed for several decades – facility for visa free travel to Kartarpur Sahib where Guru Nanak had spent his last 20 years and developed the prototype of the sangat, the foundational unit on which edifice of Sikh community has been formed.  

Guru Nanak envisioned Sikhi as an activist faith. Right from the beginning the Gurus preached for people to be engaged with the issues of the worldly life by taking righteous positions in the pervasive environment of conflict and strife. The Guru says that no one is free of conflict and strife[1]for conflict is the creation of God like fire, hunger and thirst.[2] Guru Nanak also, during his later years at Kartarpur, was witness to Babar’s invasions that ended up in changing the rule of Hindustan from Lodhis to Mughals. These were major happenings and the concomitant suffering of people touched the Guru deeply.

The Guru’s four compositions popularly known as ‘Babarvani’ give a glimpse of the sense that he makes of these cataclysmic events. These verses are not a historical account but a rendering of the events as the play of divine will and divine justice in a setting of deep agony and trauma with its mix of sin, blood and tragedy that jolts the conscious of the reader about the tearing effect of the conflict on the body fabric of a society.

THE SEARCH

With Babarvani text as the prime source, our endeavor would be to search for what Guru Nanak sees as the characteristics and characterizations of conflicts from the vantage of society bearing the brunt of fallout of conflict within the matrix of human limitations and bondage, the moral and ethical mores and related longing for divine justice.

There expectedly would be lessons to learn from this disambiguation that could guide us explore the areas of legislative, judicial and legal processes to identify where and how interventions by Sikh activism might benefit the cause of justice and equity in the societies we live in and satisfy our urge for seeking the good of one and all.

BABARVANI – A CLOSE, QUICK LOOK

A close look at the four Babarvani compositions suggested that the Verse in Asa on p. 360 offers the defining stratification of characteristics and characterization of conflict that Guru Nanak sees in the invasion of Babar. His enunciation flows out of the underlying narrative describing the fate of the ruling elite and people, particularly women, of Hindustan and hint of Babar’s motivation for the invasion. The other two Babarvani verses in Asa [p. 417/11, p. 417-8/12] elaborate upon the past and present of the vanquished princes, lay people, captive women, the latter pampered and protected, now exposed to the worst form of rapine molestation by the invaders. The verses, interspersed with deeply felt spiritual reflections, are narrated by the Guru through the prism of divine justice as determinant of the fate of all people, high or low, men or women, Muslim or Hindu. A gap in the narrative is closed by the verse in Tilang [p. 722].

THE EVENT – TEXTUAL EXTRACTS

Asa M I, p. 360

The Creator has chosen to dispatch Mughal horde as messenger of death to terrorize Hindustan. Did you not feel compassion hearing shrieks of victims of invaders oppression? and this priceless country has been laid to waste. O Creator Lord, You are the Master of all. If the powerful strike out against powerful, then it may not cause grief to any. But if a ravenous tiger attacks a flock of sheep and kills them, then its master must answer — One may give himself a great name, and revel in the pleasures of the mind, but in the eyes of the Lord, he is just a worm, for all the corn that he eats – khuraasaan khasamaanaa keeaa hi(n)dhusathaan ddaraaeiaa aapai dhos n dhaeee karathaa jam kar mugal charraaeiaa eaethee maar pee karalaanae thai(n) kee dharadh n aaeiaa karathaa thoo(n) sabhanaa kaa soee jae sakathaa sakathae ko maarae thaa man ros n hoee sakathaa seehu maarae pai vagai khasamai saa purasaaee — jae ko naao dhharaaeae vaddaa saadh karae man bhaanae khasamai nadharee keerraa aavai jaethae chugai dhaanae.

Asa M I, p. 417/11

They, who wore beautiful tresses, their braided heads were shaved and ropes put around their necks [to be dragged]. Their wealth and youthful beauty, source of much pleasure, now became their enemies. The order was given to the soldiers, who dishonored them, and carried them away. If one focuses on the Lord beforehand, then why would he be punished? The kings had lost higher consciousness, reveling in pleasure and sensuality. With Babar’s rule proclaimed, even the princes have no food to eat:  jin sir sohan patteeaa maa(n)gee paae sa(n)dhhoor sae sir kaathee mu(n)neeanih gal vich aavai dhhoorr— dhhan joban dhue vairee hoeae jinhee rakhae ra(n)g laae dhoothaa no furamaaeiaa lai chalae path gavaae — ago dhae jae chaetheeai thaa(n) kaaeith milai sajaae  — saahaa(n) surath gavaaeeaa ra(n)g thamaasai chaae baabaravaani fir gee kueir n rottee khaae.

Asa M I, p. 417-8/12

Men whose letters were torn in the Lord’s Court were destined to die. Women – Hindu, Muslim, Bhatti, Thakur – had their robes shredded away. Husbands of others did not return home. They came to dwell in the cremation ground – how did they pass their night —For the sake of wealth, so many were ruined and so many have been disgraced. It was not gathered without sin, and it does not go along with the dead. Those, whom the Creator Lord would destroy – He strips them of virtue first–  jinh kee cheeree dharageh paattee thinhaa maranaa bhaaee eik hi(n)dhavaanee avar thurakaanee bhattiaanee t(h)akuraanee eikanhaa paeran sir khur paattae eikanhaa vaas masaanee jinh kae ba(n)kae gharee n aaeiaa thinh kio rain vihaanee — eis jar kaaran ghanee viguthee ein jar ghanee khuaaee paapaa baajhahu hovai naahee mueiaa saathh n jaaee jis no aap khuaaeae karathaa khus leae cha(n)giaaee.

VIEWING THE EVENT FOR DEFINING FEATURES

The Guru adduces that God willed Mughal invasion to terrorize and punish Hindustan. Lodhis had lost their higher conscious reveling in pleasure and sensuality, fought a desultory battle with a matched adversary and were punished for their misdeeds. The Babarvani verses do not betray any sense of [ros] resentment, anger or injustice at what happened to the Lodhi ruling elite, the Guru only says that even the princes had no food to eat under Babar’s dispensation.

The Mughals on the other hand killed wantonly like a ravenous tiger mauling a flock of sheep and indulged in rapine at the instance of their master. So even as Mughals acted as agents of the divine Will, their oppression and dishonoring of women remained an unresolved conundrum on fitting divine response. The ‘master’ of invaders needed to be held accountable for his ambition and demonstrated disregard for human dignity.

With the above characteristics defining the conflict, the characterization of conflict from vantage of the relative power of the two sides flows almost naturally. Guru Nanak has set it out in a short, pithy couplet: jae sakathaa sakathae ko maarae thaa man ros n hoee, sakathaa seehu maarae pai vagai khasamai saa purasaaee. The Guru envisions two clear cut situations – the second may be a more political objective as evident from the note below on the term sakta.[3]

REASON WELLS UP: FAITH ANSWERS

The Guru sees, feels the pain and his enquiring mind raises many questions on the events playing out. He wonders that when tragic events hit the suffering humanity why the One who created and attached mortals to pleasures, sits alone, and watches it play out.

That does not look right and he chides God asking did He not feel any compassion hearing the screams of people being slaughtered? Nanak wonders if ‘the Creator Himself acts, and causes others to act. He issues the commands, and is pleased with them [then] what is the mankind to do? To whom should they complain? To whom should they go and cry?’

And he answers: We receive what is written in our destiny. Pleasure and pain come by His will — The Lord and Master is true, and true is His justice.

That hope of receiving His justice must not be belied – that is the question Babarvani has yet to answer fully.

THE ANSWER

So, the answer needed is divine accountability of the master for excesses by troops under his command. Tilang, M I, p. 722 helps us here. Guru Nanak addressing Lalo, says that the Divine word as revealed to him indicts Babar’s invading horde as a party of sin descended from Kabul forcibly demanding control over this land. So in God’s reckoning the punishers He sent turned vandals and rapists and their master needed to be held accountable.

Before announcing the punishment to the master, Guru Nanak goes on to say that Hindustan will remember his words when its body-fabric is torn to shreds and predicts that coming in seventy-eight (1521 A.D.), Mughals will lose their rule and be made to depart in ninety-seven (1540), as another disciple of man will rise to enforce this divine will – jaisee mai aavai khasam kee baanee thaisarraa karee giaan vae laalo paap ki janj lai kaabulon dhhaya joree mangai daan ve lalo— kaaeiaa kaparr ttuk ttuk hosee hidhusathaan samaalasee bola —  aavan at(h)atharai jaan sathaanavai hor bhee out(h)asee maradh kaa chaelaa.

He ends on a reassuring note ‘true is the Master and true is His justice and He issues His commands as He deems just – sachaa so saahib sach thapaavas sacharraa niaao karaeg masolaa.

It happened! Eight months into the passing of Guru Nanak, on 17 May, 1540, Sher Shah Suri decisively defeated Humayon and he had to flee with not a soldier on his side. God did respond to the cries of victims and the chide by Guru Nanak to deliver fitting divine justice!

My imagination tells me Guru Nanak was greeted in divine court by the comment meri baandi bhagat chhadaavae, bandhi bhagat n chhootae mohae – Namdev, p. 1252

OTHER COMMENTS ON BABARVANI

Babarvani is a unique text in many ways. It is based on actual happenings of epic proportion but the Guru very kept it brief. It presents the traumatic effects of the rapine let loose by the soldiery on the women of vanquished people and concomitant killing of defending soldiers that also most intimately affected women, with great poetic irony. One senses their trauma and the empathy of the Guru – khoon kae sohilae gaaveeahi naanak.  Who all could have put it so poignantly?

The Guru identified the accountability of the master of group as key in a situation where troops are used to chasten or control unarmed civilians, more especially, women. This incidentally is a more widely occurring mode in the aid to civil power situations, which are commonplace in the developing societies, and where often the armed forces have been alleged to have used excessive force or the conduct of some in the force has been questioned. Most societies have reported cases of hate crimes by individuals and acts of violence like lynching or molestation by a gang or a mob. The provision for culpability of leaders, if found instigating violence, could be asked to be put on legislative agenda by judicial activists. Such legislation could have a deterrent effect and help reduce its incidences. 

Guru Nanak was concerned that God took Khurasan under protection and sent Mughal to punish and terrorize Hindustan. The Guru also characterized his prediction about Mughals being driven out as divine justice. His poignant lament: Lāhour sahar jahar kahar savā pahar – the city of Lahore suffered terrible destruction for four hours [p. 1412] is also said to be linked to Babar’s excesses. The Guru obviously loved Hindustan. He loved Lahore and he was deeply pained by suffering of all the victims – Muslims or Hindus, high or low, men or women. He was a truly inclusive lover of Hindustan.

SIKH THOUGHT LINKED TO CONFLICT

Guru Nanak in the very vast canvas of his writings has touched variously on conflict in society of his time. Babarvani however breaks new ground in understanding the dynamic of conflict in the matrix of life. Guru Hargobind institutionalized the Sikh imperative of righteous response to provocation – a call to aachaar with veechaar.

Guru Gobind Singh refined it further. He clarified that veechaar needed a trigger to turn aachaar  and the trigger was ros.He has written that when edge of the arrow touched my body, it kindled my resentment’[4]and the Guru joined the battle actively.

Guru Gobind Singh also defined the principles for joining the conflict. He says in Zafarnama[5] to Aurangzeb that it is not chivalry that in war countless hosts pounce upon just a few on opposing side. (41) At that stage one can join battle to fight the aggressors, (21) or if situation is past every other remedy it is righteous to unsheathe the sword to defend and to dispel the aggressor. (22) if the situation is otherwise, have nothing to do with the battle. (23)

The following verses of Zafarnama would resonate with Babarvani text, witness: Do not hurt or molest those who had not aggressed against you. (28) Bravery does not consist in putting out a few sparks and in the process stir up a fire to rage all the more! (79) God could not have wished for a King to create strife but instead to promote peace, harmony and tranquility among the people. (65) Nor should the ruler use his strength, power and resources to harass, suppress or deprive the weak. This will only weaken the society, erode his ability to rule effectively and make the State unsafe. (109) He should not recklessly shed blood of others lest heaven’s rage should befall him. (69)        

It would be evident that Guru Nanak defined the foundational concept of ethics and justice in conflict. Gurus Hargobind and Gobind Singh laid the related operating procedures.

FAST FORWARD – CONTEMPORARY SCENE & CONCLUSION

The talk in the world about peace and societal harmony has increased astronomically but at the same time 20th century is said to have been the bloodiest century in human history. We are now on the cusp of completing the first two decades of the 21st century and are observing the walls of protective nationalism being re-erected with the dream of an integrated global society with broad sharing of concerns for human well being and freedom of choice seeming to have receded almost irretrievably.

While the research into types of conflict and peace studies is afoot in most societies, we seem to be at a stage when new modes of pursuing conflict are outpacing the development of strategies to manage their known causes. The fundamental twin typology that was talked of by Guru Nanak is still the same, though the variants in each have multiplied.

There is significant Sikh involvement in peace and societal harmony related initiatives by variety of interfaith and multicultural groups in the Western Diaspora. I found a great deal of interest in the audiences but our institutional involvement and backup happens to be inadequate. This would in time change and our engagement would perhaps also motivate us to research our own tradition and its potential contribution to refine and moderate change, including legislative.[6]     

Sikhs, as a community, do have to cope with situations of unequal power or clout against the mainstream agencies and organs of power elite in all societies because of limited resource pool. We, in our own interest, should be propagating the wise counsel of Guru Nanak that if powerful adversary pulverizes the weak and vulnerable, the master of the offending group must be held accountable for abetting the crime in addition to perpetrators – 1984 Sikh carnage is not the only case waiting for such accountability; in India mob violence, rape and hate crimes are everyday occurrences, but the masters roam free.

Guru sees that there are situations in life when conflict cannot be avoided or may be a preferred choice to contain one ill. The paradox is that any uncontrolled force can turn into an evil, worse than the force it contained. So use of force must be carefully calibrated for it takes little time for the wardens to turn rapists and killers.

Such is life and its bondage. But endeavor we must and help usher changes in our societies so that our successors are less burdened with anxieties of disruption of peace and harmony and are not destined to live through 1947 & 1984. The Guru be with you all. Happy 550th!

ooo0ooo

Nirmal Singh

Orlando, FL

Camp, New Delhi

29 July, 2019


[1] Bin bāḏ biroḏẖėh ko▫ī nāhī -– Maru M I, p. 1025

[2] Agan upā▫ī vāḏ bẖukẖ ṯihā▫i▫ā  – Var Malar ki, M I, p. 1282

[3] The term sakta has been used by Guru Nanak only in the SGGS. Of the four usages, in one the term has been used for God saying Āpe sakṯā āpe surṯā sakṯī jagaṯ paroveh – You Yourself are all-powerful, and You Yourself are the intuitive knower, by whose power the whole world is strung.

Derived from the term shakti, sakta is the one who has shakti or is powerful on his own or is in position to unleash power over others. It has been used twice in conjunction with sinh – tiger – which could be interpreted to refer to the base instinct of the tiger to kill to assert power rather than satisfy hunger. In our context it could imply Babar’s egotistical use of power not to subdue but to terrorize populace of Hindustan.

[4]Jabai baan laagyo  Tabai ros jaagyo  – Dasam Granth, p. 148

[5] The numbers in parenthesis are verse numbers of the Zafarnama text – original in Persian.

[6] For a more comprehensive treatment, read Author’s book, Interfaith Engagement – full text of the book can be accessed at https://www.sikhsandsociety.org/Interfaith%20Engagement%20Text.pdf

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