This month, Sikhs celebrated the appointment of Guru Hargobind as the sixth Guru of the Sikhs in 1606, following the execution of the preceding Guru, Guru Arjun, by the Mughal emperor Jehangir for refusing to convert to Islam. Born to a prophecy that he would crush tyranny, Guru Hargobind represented a metamorphosis for the Sikh people — manifesting more than just spiritual practice but worldly practice as well. The commemoration of his ascension as Guru is a timely coincidence, for many of Guru Hargobind’s legacies are very relevant to our current times in the United States.
In November of each year, Sikhs around the world celebrate Bandi Chorrh Diwas (“Day of Release of Prisoners”), commemorating the release of Guru Hargobind from imprisonment by the Mughal emperor at the fort in Gwalior in India. His father already executed by the emperor, the Guru was imprisoned for several years due to growing concerns of the Guru’s popularity and of his declaration of temporal sovereignty of the Sikh people (indeed, the Sikhs referred to Guru Hargobind as Saccha Patshah — their “true king”).
When Jehangir was finally compelled to release him, the Guru only accepted on the condition that 52 imprisoned kings also be freed. Jehangir agreed, only allowing as many princes who could hold on to the Guru’s cloak to be released. Legend recounts that Guru Hargobind had a cloak with 52 trailing strands made, and with each prisoner taking a strand, the Guru walked out of the prison with all of the kings. Because of this act, Guru Hargobind, among several legacies, became known among Sikhs as the great liberator.
I have written about Bandi Chorrh Diwas several times throughout the years, and always around the date that it is commemorated in November. The event is celebrated at the same time that Hindus celebrate Diwali (the festival of lights; the Sikh commemoration of Bandi Chorrh Diwas is unique among Sikh celebrations in that it takes much in the same form as Diwali, but this came to be is not what I seek to address in this post). However, here at the end of June, I find myself considering Bandi Chorrh Diwas and its meaning for American Sikhs today due to recent events in this country.
This reflection is brought about by the detaining and imprisonment of innocent migrant children, women and men by the United States government, and the heinous separation of thousands of these children from their parents. The government has openly stated that this is to act as a deterrent to those who are arriving at the US border, and appears to be a negotiating ploy to further political agendas. As I wrote about last week, Sikhs have seen such a travesty occur in our history — one we have invoked for hundreds of years daily to this very day — to break the spirit of the Gurus and their followers, and as such, there is a personal investment in this cause. We are seeing our history repeat before us.
The history of Bandi Chorrh Diwas resonates with this imprisonment of thousands upon thousands of people (with a not insignificant number whom are actually migrant Sikhs) by the US government over, in effect, paperwork issues. We are observing a severe lack of compassion and empathy for those fleeing violence and persecution and instead we are seeing condemning and vitriolic rhetoric used for people of colour. These actions by this US government seems more political and a means to consolidate power, much — in certain respects — like the Mughal government in the 1600s.
Centuries later, one wonders where Guru Hargobind’s legacy as a liberator and as a revolutionary against tyrants sits in the present day: are those who count themselves among Guru Hargobind’s followers content to relegate his history to a one-day nominal acknowledgement (and as a reason to justify partaking in Diwali celebrations), or are we, as a “spirit-born people” (a phrase popularized by the Sikh author Professor Puran Singh), carrying forward the revolutionary spirit of our Guru?
If the latter, we should not quietly sit on the sidelines while innocent people are being subjected to oppressive policies and tactics: imprisonment, separation and loss of their children without any accountability or moral responsibility around the sanctity of family, and the demonizing of those who seek help and freedom. How we can address these policies is another question, but there are no shortages of ways to begin to help today — with our pocketbooks to supporting nonprofits, with our voices, and with our votes.
On Guru Hargobind’s seating as Guru of the Sikhs, he donned two swords, one representing miri (spiritual power) and one representing piri (temporal power), furthering the mission of the preceding five Gurus. Often, the two swords in the Sikh’s Nishan Sahib — the Sikh standard that flies outside every Gurdwara — is associated with these. Dr. Tarlochan Singh, in his essay “Miri and Piri: Religion and Politics in Sikhism with Special Reference to the Sikh Struggle,” writes:
The spirit of Miri and Piri (Bhakti and Shakti), the celestial and the worldly the spiritual and the secular, was evident in the lives and teachings of the previous Gurus. Though they did not launch a violent conflict, Miri-Piri manifested itself in the form of fearlessness and non-conformity against oppression and cruelty.
Today, may we Sikhs in the United States look upon the legacy of Guru Hargobind not as a keepsake, but as empowerment to aid innocent people who are being detained, imprisoned and subjected to oppressive and terrorizing policies in this country.
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