THE SHAHIDI DIVAS

Reminiscences & the Calendar in Play

INTRODUCTORY

My purpose is to talk today in the context of our present and share some thoughts on some things that are happening. We have strengths but we also have vulnerabilities. We are small in numbers and fragmented. Straws in the wind point in many directions. We cannot divine what is to come but my optimistic self gives the encouragement that we will find the right way forward as we always have done. My attempt will be to make us think things through – hopefully constructively.

Before I go to that part let me share with you that when Iqbal ji and I had talked about this conversation, he had mentioned that its timing is scheduled close to the shahidi divas of Guru Arjan. I had then speculated that I might start with some remembrance of the great Guru and then lead on to share my rambling notions. This intent of mine became a resolve when a few days later the controversy about the date of shahidi celebration broke.

You are an informed group and I have no illusions about my ability to say anything profound or to influence your mature understanding. I would consider this evening well spent if we can take some little thing from our shared search and in time catalyze a chain of little ideas to blossom.

REMINISCENCES

Guru Arjan’s ministry was from 1581 to 1606 – a period of 25 years; the longest till then for successor Gurus. It started 42 years from the passing of Guru Nanak when Guru Arjun was 19. He was born into and grew up in guru-ghar, the youngest son of Guru-father Ramdas.  

The Guru thought of visions sublime. He ached for a world without hate – a world in which no one was excluded; where all lived in peace and harmony. His hymns give a message of universal fraternity – na ko bairee neh bigana sagal sang ham ko ban aaee – Kanra M V, p. 1299. He reiterated Sikhi as a path above the bondage of ritual beliefs and praxis – it was a quest in which believers were not Hindus nor Muslims but beings whose limbs and life belonged to AlehRaam, the one divine source of us all – na ham hindu n musalaman aleh raam kae pindd pran – Bhairo M V, p. 1136. He proclaimed that the search for connecting with the divine was not for seeking power over men or for the gift of liberation, it had to be to seek sublime fulfillment of love for the lotus feet of Akal Purkh – raaj neh chahoon mukat neh chahoon mun preet charan kamla re. A seeker had to be inspired by love divine to relate to others in peace and harmony.

At the collective level, he presented two visions. He picked be-gam pura sehr kau nau – a dream town of Bhagat Ravidas where all could pray to their deity without fear, walk around freely and co-citizens lived and loved the fraternity. In a similar though a far more definitive strain Guru wrote his mini epic poem in Sri Rag that talks of halemi raj saying: hun hukam hoa mihrvan da. pai koay na kisai ranjandaa. sabh sukhalee vutheea ih hoa halaymee raj jio – the Mehrvaan has now commanded: no one shall cause harm to anyone. All will abide in peace. Let the rule by benevolent, humble and modest– halemi raj – prevail.

Guru explains – sun gala gur peh aya — naam daan isnaan dirhaya – I heard of the Guru, and so I came to him. I fell at his feet to please and appease him. The true Guru was kind to instill in me the virtues of Naam, charity and inner cleansing to subdue the panch doot within me.

That done – mai badhee sach dharam sal hai. gursikha lahda bhal kai. pair dhova pakha fayrda tis niv niv laga paey jio – I have created dharmsal rooted in truth. I seek out Guru’s Sikhs, and bring them into it. I wash their feet, wave fan over them and bowing low, I kneel before them.

Societies rise or fall by the quality of leadership that they have. In Guru’s vision, a leader has to show proof of demonstrated internal purity and his role is to find the exemplars who share his vision of humility and modesty. The leader serves the exemplars so that they can lead the rest through the process of societal transformation unhindered – a vision far removed from the grievously corrupt and oppressive dispensations that people often endure. It is leading by and through seva – a vision of leadership not found in management books or in the manuals of so designated public service elite!

But the Guru had his detractors. Prithi Chand, his brother was aggrieved at his choice as the successor Guru by Guru Ramdas and made it into a personal vendetta. Then there were those

Who filed a complaint to Akbar that the Granth under compilation had verses derogatory to Muslims and Hindus. The Guru sent Baba Budha and Bhai Gurdas to answer any questions. Akbar was satisfied and the complaint was dismissed.

Towards end of Akbar’s rule influential Muslim clerics like Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi started advocating control of spread of Sikhi before it became a threat to Islam. Jahangir recorded in Tuzk i Jahangiri that ‘a Hindu named Arjun had captured many simple-hearted Hindus and even ignorant and foolish Muslims — having handed over his houses, dwelling places, and children to Murtaza Khan and having confiscated his property I ordered that he should be put to death with tortures.’

Despondent – oooon – he resolves the riddle – kiaa keheeai kis aakh sunaaeeai j kehanaa s prabh jee paas sabh kishh keethaa teraa varathai sadhaa sadhaa teree aas: What shall I say, unto whom shall I speak, asks the Guru? He answers saying when faced with who to talk of your inner turmoil and what to say, turn to God, say what you have to. All that happens is by His will and I, always and every time, lean on Him – Asa M V, p. 382.

Ever inspired, the Guru goes through the inhuman tortures with blissful fortitude with only words expressing tranquil acceptance of divine will on his silent lips ‘tera bhana meetha laagey, har naam padarath nanak mangey.’ 

This was the shahidi that last month was made to fall on two dates 5th and 16th eleven days apart, not because it happened twice but because our leadership in their pursuit of political points, decided that a public display of the relative strength of two differing groups was in order, no matter if it in some manners may reflect poorly on us and our professed love and respect for the Guru. It even created a diplomatic situation when Pakistanis refused visa to the jatha sponsored by the SGPC on the plea that the PSGPC was celebrating the shahidi divas on the 16th – but why worry – so karta chinta karai jin upaya jug.

I have to admit that this episode did influence my choice of Nanakshahi Calendar as the issue for our conversation today.  The few topics that I have picked have all been in the news in the last month or two. They are indicators of some of our contemporary or emerging tensions, even if they may lie just at the periphery of our core concerns, and need to be spoken about and discussed. I hope you find them worthy of consideration.

CALENDAR SYSTEMS

Calendar is a method to categorize time into periods such as days, weeks, months, years, etc. A Solar day is determined by the daily rotation of earth and a solar year by earth`s revolution around the sun. A Lunar month is reckoned by moon`s revolution around the earth. Year, day and lunar month are called natural divisions of time. The hour, week and the civil months are conventional divisions.

Western/Christian Calendar

Circa 50 BCE Julius Caesar had asked Pagan priests in Rome to design a calendar that was more accurate than the ones which were in use at the time. This calendar came to be known as Julian calendar. During Christian era, the calendar was adjusted so that birthday of Jesus Christ in the year 1 BCE fell on Dec 25.

Julian calendar was long by about one day every 128 years and by the late 16th century this error had accumulated to 10 days. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a study to correct it and prevent drifting in the future. The solution was to make only century years divisible by 400 (e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400 etc.) to be leap years. Roman Catholic countries corrected the calendar by making Oct 15 follow Oct 4 in 1582. This corrected calendar is known as the Gregorian calendar. England converted to Gregorian calendar in 1752 and Greece in 1923 though most Eastern Orthodox Churches continue to use Julian calendar and currently celebrate Christmas on Jan 7 and New Year’s Day on January 14.

 The Jewish calendar is moon-based. An additional month is added every third or fourth year. Thus, their year is of 354 to 385 days in duration. The calendar is based on Jewish belief that the universe was created in 3761 BCE.

The Mayan calendar uses a complex five number format. e.g. 6.19.18.1.5. The first number represents Baktun, an interval of 144,000 days, almost 400 years. The second set of numbers indicates Katun (generations) of 7200 days, almost 20 years; the next set is Tun (years) of 360 days; then Uinal (month) of 20 days and finally Kin (days). The example is for a total of 1,007,305 days from inception in 3114 BCE when they believed Venus was born. Their anticipated end of the world is 2012-DEC-21 or 13.0.0.0.0 in their notation.

The traditional Zoroastrian calendar had 12 months of 30 days. Later 5 gatha days were added to the final month to make a 365 day year. The base year for the calendar is coronation of the last Zoroastriaa King in 631 CE. Initially, an additional month of 30 days was added once every 120 years to make up the difference between a calendar year and solar year. The Zoroastrians in India stopped adding one month in 1129 CE and their New Year has been gradually moving earlier from its original date in mid-March to the July/August now. A new system following Gregorian calendar with New Year permanently fixed on MAR-21 is now used by Zoroastrians around the world, except India.

Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar that repeats itself every 30 years. Each month begins with the visible sighting of the crescent of the new moon. A month is often delayed from the time that astronomical calculations would predict by a day. It is based upon 622 CE when Prophet Muhammad had to flee from Mecca to Medina.

The Bahá’í calendar is a solar calendar, at present synchronized to the Gregorian calendar, with regular years of 365 days, and leap years of 366 days. Years are composed of 19 months of 19 days each, (361 days) plus an extra period of “Intercalary Days” (4 in regular and 5 in leap years). Years in the calendar begin at the vernal equinox, and are counted with the date notation of BE (Bahá’í Era), with 21 March 1844 CE being the first day of the first year.

Two widely used Indian calendars today are the Vikrama [Bikrami] calendar followed in Western and Northern India and Shalivahana or Saka calendar followed in South India, Maharashtra and Goa. The zero year in Vikrama calendar corresponds to 58 BCE and in the Saka calendar to 78 CE. Reckoning chronology or dates of events in Sikh history was generally based on the Bikrami Sammat though Muslim chronicles and historical records used the Hijri system. Since the advent of British, the Western calendar has mostly been used.

Bikrami calendar follows solar tropical year of twelve lunar months. Thus the lunar year is of 354/355 days as against 365/366 days in the solar year. An extra month therefore is added every 2/3 years to bring the year in line. Traditional week is seven days [vaar] and divisions of a day are pahir [3 hr], ghari [1/8 pahir or 22.5 min] and pal [l/60th of a ghari or 22.5 sec].

THE SIKH PRACTICE

Most Sikh festivals such as birth, installation and death of the Gurus were indicated by lunar dates termed tithi or thit. Sikhs also observe the first day of each month as sangrand festival. Baisakhi and Maghi are celebrated on sangrand day of these months. Karam Singh wrote in his “Gurpurb Nirnay” [1912, Patiala] that the exact dates of Guruprbs can be found by solar calculation only and had worked out the birth, succession and death dates of the Gurus, correlated to the common calendar. Professor Sahib Singh had suggested delinking from lunar calendar since its use had induced belief in tithis, not commended in Gurmat [1948].

Gregorian solar year is shorter than the Indian solar year by 23 minutes and 44 seconds. This difference causes the Christian year to advance by one day over the Bikrami era every 60 or 61 years. Added to this the adjustment of 11 days due to change over from Julian to Gregorian made in 1753, the date of Baisakhi in 1699 fell on 30th March that year.

A Sikh calendar based on the start of the Khalsa Era in 1699 with year beginning on Baisakhi and following the Bikrami system except for reckoning the years had started some time back. This has been replaced by Nanakshahi calendar, a solar calendar with year length the same as the Western calendar developed by Pal Singh Purewal, a computer engineer, from Edmonton, Canada. Both Nanakshahi and Khalsa eras are exclusively Sikh in origin and closely follow the Bikrami calendar except that their annual sequence starts from the birth of Guru Nanak and the Khalsa respectively.

NANAKSHAHI CALENDAR SETS OFF DISSENT

SGPC initially implemented the Nanakshahi calendar in December 1999, despite an Akal Takht directive to wait till a general consensus within the Sikh community emerged on the issue. Later SGPC backed down but it finally implemented the calendar with the consent of leading Sikh organizations in March 2003.

Resistance to the calendar by some groups however continued. In Jan 2010, Akal Takht announced changes that diluted the intent of the calendar to fix the dates of important days. The Calendar as approved in 2003 had three moveable dates that will continue to be observed per the Vikrami calendar. These were:

  1. Parkash Guru Nanak on Kattak full moon day
  2. Diwali or Bandi Chhor Divas on Kattak amavas
  3. Hola Mohalla on full moon day

In the changes to Nanakshahi calendar approved by the executive committee of SGPC and announced by Giani Gurbachan Singh, jathedar of Akal Takht in January 2010, the birth and martyrdom day of Guru Gobind Singh, death anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev, Gurta Gaddi Diwas of Guru Granth Sahib and sangrand would be observed as per Bikrami calendar.

The Jathedar claimed that the amendments had been made on the recommendations of a two-member team comprising SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar and chief of Gurmat Sidhant Parcharak Sant Samaj Harnam Singh Khalsa on the suggestion of an 11-member committee.

There was widespread disagreement with the way the matter was handled and it came to a head preceding the celebration of Shahidi Divas of Guru Arjan in 2011 when SGPC and Akal Takht announced Jun 5th as the date and DSGMC stuck to Jun 16th per 2003 Nanakshahi calendar. PSGPC & AGPC decided to go along with the 16th.

In one of the Gurdwaras  in Edmonton, the shahidi day was celebrated on June 5th. Tejinder Singh Lamba visiting Edmonton talked to Pal Singh Purewal who explained that this Gurdwara has to follow Akal Takht directives per their constitution but the other Gurdwara was going by the 2003 calendar.

SOME DISCUSSION

Let me explain that most of the Diaspora Gurdwaras actually celebrate most festivals on a weekend close to the date though many Gurdwaras have special evening service on Diwali and New Year’s Eve. Sikhs actually only would like one of the festivals to fall on a day close to Christmas so that the kids do not feel left out of the pervasive festive spirit that they see all round.

Sikhs are quite used to the edicts of Akal Takht being flouted by segments of the sangat. The problem is less with the dissent than with the choice of calendar as a test case and the mode of dissent. Two things seem important. One that choice of any method of protest that places memory and respect for the Gurus at stake is not right. It was not unexpected that Pakistan could deny visa to pilgrims in the circumstances but that it did happen, only shows how bad the situation was allowed to get.  

Those picking 5th of June talked of Akal Takht advice whereas those picking the 16th were emphatic about allegiance to Akal Takht but argued that Jathedar is not Akal Takht! They claimed that the Jathedar had caved in to political pressure. Possibly yes, but then the pity is that Gurus had created, not a speaking Takht but an institution that has to be managed by men with all their attendant potential for committing mistakes!

If this episode has any lesson, it is the recognition that while Sant Samaj could get mired in tradition and prone to promote Vedantic slants, Akal Takht Jathedar could be amenable to the pressures of politicians and our new breed of cross cultural intellectuals who are plentifully present on all sides of the divide may also be not above promoting their own pet themes in the name of cleansing understanding of Sikh thought and praxis. Examples are plentiful and in the main they suggest a mixture of ideological struggle between orthodoxy, identity versus scientific and rationality related world views trying to assert their influence over Sikh thought and praxis.

I may mention that some sects celebrate important festivals on different dates due to differing historical perspectives. In such cases developing consensus has been a drawn out process. As example the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC succeeded in developing a consensus on the date of Easter only in 1997.

In our case we are creating differences in the process of resolving them. I do not think that SGPC or DSGMC and least of all AGPC were intended to be our new sects. Let us not lose our sense of proportion. If we look at it dispassionately, the calendar is only a sanitation issue and should not be used to create permanent schism.

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