The greatest social revolution
Himmat Singh Gill

Percussions of History
Jagjit Singh.
The Nanakshahi Trust, SAS Nagar
Pages 377. Rs 595.

Percussions of HistoryJust as Prof Mohan Singh’s soulful poetry and Giani Gurdit Singh’s masterly description of village life in Punjab in Mera Pind have become literary classics in their time, eminent Sikh scholar Jagjit Singh’s reissue of Percussions, which houses his twosome of The Sikh Revolution and In The Caravan of Revolutions, should also rate as one of the major works in a critical yet fair analysis of the Sikh ethos, way of life and religious and political perspectives.

Only Jagjit Singh, co-founder of the Institute of Sikh Studies, could have thought of fusing the mission statement of the Sikh Gurus with the commoner’s down to earth approach in leading a dignified and fruitful life. This indeed is the true Sikh philosophy. The joining of the two has produced a readable and easy to follow account that would appeal to all youth, both Sikhs and non-Sikh.

The discourse, that tabulates the ills of earlier society, is direct, though non-confrontational. Jagjit quotes Muir, Manu, Max Weber et al, interspersed with his own thesis. Speaking of the caste system, which the Sikh Gurus opposed, he calls the Brahmins "the kingpins" of this system that required Buddhism to be "dethroned" and "mixing of Aryan and non-Aryan blood" to be arrested.

This Gordian knot of "social reaction" had to be taken care of by "liberal force aiming at social progress. The Gurus did what the radical Bhaktas could not: create a society outside the caste-based society, the egalitarian Sikh Panth, where everyone stood equal in every respect. In this "real and meaningful" world, Moksha was irrelevant.

The Gurus laid stress on social service (sewa). Guru Nanak, after his travels around the world, took to farming, from where he would send the grain to the common kitchen. Guru Arjan Dev established a leper asylum at Tarn Taran, which runs even to this day. While Buddhism and Jainism eschewed the use of force and Brahmanism sanctioned it only for "upholding the caste order", under the Sikh thesis, armed resistance to tyranny was a religious duty.

Guru Gobind Singh "institutionalised his ideal of defending dharma by creating the Khalsa". The Sikh Gurus condemned idol worship, ceremonialism and ritualism. What was needed was a separate identity, for the Gurus realised that "it was imperative to build a social system and organise the people outside the caste-society". The instrument of the Khalsa was created to "capture political power for a plebeian mission". Historian Hari Ram Gupta writes about the persecution of the Sikhs at the hands of the Mughals: "Majha, the homeland of the Sikhs was completely ruined. A wonderful and terrible trial indeed, from which the weak came out strong, from which the strong came out sublime." The masses joined the revolution because the Sikh Gurus were always in the forefront making supreme sacrifices for the right cause.

Jagjit just quotes from religious texts or writings of learned writers and translators and leaves the reader to make up his own mind. When 700 Sikhs were taken prisoner along with Banda Bahadur and faced execution unless they converted to Islam, Irvine writes: "Although life was promised to those who became Muhammadans, not one prisoner proved false to his faith."

Jagjit says that the Sikh movement is, quality wise, probably the greatest social revolution, considering how the untouchables, subjected to the lowest level of human inequality and repulsiveness, were incorporated into the Khalsa.

Comparing the Sikh revolution with the revolutions in France and America, Jagjit highlights that class interests and racial aversion took a long time to be banished there, unlike the Sikhs’ surgical transformation of its followers on the grounds of fraternity, liberty and equality. Also, the Sikh revolution took place at a difficult time, in a caste-ridden society and under a fanatical foreign rule, when contemporary historians called the Sikhs by uncharitable names. The Sikh Revolution was social and political in nature, secular in kind and driven by religious inspiration. Had there been no Guru Gobind Singh and his call to arms, Sufi saint Bulleh Shah writes that the entire population would have been either circumcised or converted.

Jagjit’s has not hesitated to show some of the failings of the movement; thus, his analysis of the Sikh revolution is both fair and objective.