Guru Gobind Singh (1661-1708) was the last of the Sikhs Gurus. From a young age he was brought up in accordance with the heroic tradition of his grandfather Guru Hargobind who had successfully defied the oppressive Mughal regime. His grandmother Mata Nanaki often remarked how, "like his grandfather he will be a great fearless powerful warrior" (Gian Singh, Twarikh Guru Khalsa, 1:769). Earlier, Guru Hargobind had made his intentions clear in his first battle over a royal hawk. The hawk, being a symbol of royal authority had been provocatively captured by the Sikhs; in the battle that ensued, the Guru split the Mughal general's head open with a double-edged 'Khanda' (sword):
"I do not fear war the slightest. You shout out [give us our], hawk, hawk; I want your crown as well. I do not care for numerous enemies. I kill enemies and hang them. You, O friend, filled with arrogance because of your [large] army; I ask only for the power of the immortal one 'Akal' (the supreme being) [and the 'Adi Shakti' (Chandi)]."
(Kavi Kankan, Das Gurkatha, mns. Stanza 72)
Guru Gobind Singh possessed the same spirit as his warrior grandfather and very much intended to overthrow the oppressive Turk regime; in doing so he would liberate Hindu India. He prayed to the Hindu guardian of Dharma – 'Chandi' (also known as Bhawani), the primordial power of the immortal one 'Akal' (as represented by the curved sword):
"May the Dharma of the Hindus awaken, breaking the teeth of the Turks.....Only you, O Bhawani, can grant me this desire in the world. Snatching the royal umbrella of the Mughals, may they be speedily annihilated. From all 'Hind' (Hindu world) may I destroy the 'dusht' (evil) Turks….Give me this permission, may I get hold of Turks and destroy them. May I stop the suffering of cows in the world. May I, snatching the royal umbrella and throne, kill and cast aside the Mughals; then shall sound the trumpets of Dharma, sounding victory in the world. At your door the servant pleads (O Chandi), annihilate the Turks, and ruin them in the world. Only then will the songs of victory I sing. Thus on contemplating You, I efface all my suffering."
("Ugrdanti" Bhagvati Shand, 1 & 5)
From a young age, the Guru was brought up as a warrior. His father had attained his name 'Tegh Bahadur' (brave with the sword) due to his great skills with a sword in the thick of battle. The ninth Guru had commissioned child-sized weapons especially for his son (see WH McLeod, The Chaupa Singh Rahit-Nama. New Zealand: University of Otago Press (1987), verse 158, 79).
From a young age, the child Guru trained and worshipped bows, arrows, matchlock guns, daggers, swords, spears, leather shields, and other weapons. These are traditionally considered as representatives of 'Mahakal' and 'Chandi', the guardians of Sanatan Dharma. An ancient text recounts:
"[Weapons] were all worshipped with great wafts of burning incense. Bowing his head before the weapons, he circumvented them and seated himself."
(Koer Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10,(1751), ed. Shamsher Singh Ashok. Patiala: Publication Bureau Punjabi University (1986), 32)
At Anandpur, his martial training was intensified under the watchful eye of Akali Baba Bajar Singh(see Bhatt Vahi Moharanvali, 92; quoted in Piara Singh Padam, Gobind Sagar, (Patiala: Kalam Mandir ), 205). At the age of twelve, the ninth Guru had instructed Baba Bajar Singh to teach his son the art of horse whispering(see Guru kia Sakhia, ed. Piara Singh Padam, (Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 1999) 78). In training with the Akalis, Gobind Das imbibed the ancient traditions of the Kshatriya warrior-kings in early childhood. History recalls that he practiced special disarming techniques using a curved dagger known as "baank" each day, trained in 'patta' (swordsmanship) and 'platha' (unarmed techniques), as well as archery and the use of muskets (see H.W. McLeod, The Chaupa Singh Rahit-Nama, verse 158, 79).
"The Guru regularly hunted "various kinds of animals in the forests and killed bears, 'nilgai' (blue bulls), and elks."
(Dasam Guru Granth Sahib, "Bachittar Natak", part 8, verse 1)
In this way he grew to be a strong, handsome and highly skilled warrior. He was also adept at hunting:
"Once, while engaging in the traditional pastime of hunting, the Guru and the Hindu Hill Rajas encountered an unusually large and powerful lion. Seated atop elephants, the hunting party surrounded the mighty beast and the Guru stated he wanted someone to kill it face to face in single combat, rather than being shot. King Fateh Shah exclaimed the lion was too large and powerful to be killed in such a manner. When no one came forth to answer the challenge, the young 24 year old Guru had his elephant lower him down. Placing his bow, he took up a sword and shield. Bhai Nand Lal, and his uncle Kirpal Chand asked the Guru to desist in engaging with such a dangerous lion. The King of Nahan also pleaded, but he was determined to engage the beast and prove his courage and skill to all. As the Guru approached the lion it crouched low but did not pounce; the Guru called it a coward and neared it. The lion stood up in anger with blood shot eyes. It roared shaking its mane. Then as the lion pounced, the Guru put his shield in front. On saving himself from his jaws, the Guru delicately shifting to the side, and wielded his sword dexterously; before the lion could turn and attack again, with strength and struck the [lion's] waist. The sword cut through as if wire through soap. Its rear legs fell away. The lion lay dead cleaved in two. This sight astonished all. The courage and skill of the young Guru was unmistakable; none had seen or heard of such a large lion being ever felled by a single warrior in hand-to-hand combat."
(Kavi Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash, ed. Bhai Vir Singh, 11: 4692-4695)
It was on such daily hunting jaunts that the Guru, in the thick of the jungle, would set up his martial training camps:
"The life of the world (i.e., the Guru) would go hunting with many warriors, all-armed with various weapons. The Guru would pit warriors armed with swords and shields against each other. Warriors of varied skill would practise with the 'katar' (punch dagger) by themselves. One Singh, taking a musket, with fear and respect in his heart, would seek out a tiger. This is how the compassionate charitable [Guru] would set up his 'Yudh Akhara' (martial training school) in the jungle."
(Sukha Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10, ed. Dr. Gursharan Kaur Jaggi, (Bhasha Vibhag Punjab, 1989), 94)
Martial training and hunting were integral to an ancient Indian warrior's way of life. In India, it was accepted that there was no better way of testing a warrior's skill and courage than facing dangerous wild beasts such as tigers, lions, elephants or bears; fighting for their very survival in a duel. Alongside archery and marksmanship, equestrian pursuits were also incorporated with martial training and hunting. A vital component of mastering the horse was the mounted chase. As well as hunting, the Guru ensured his warriors hunted herds of antelopes where targeting such nifty, agile, cunning and alert animals perfected the art of horsemanship for war. This practice also developed qualities of patience, tracking and surrounding prey, laying ambushes, and aided novices into developing blood lust. This is an essential attribute required to overcome the natural human aversion to spilling blood and taking life. Even this type of hunting was fraught with danger; one wrong turn or uncalculated move on horseback at high speed could result in serious injury, or even death, for both rider and horse:
"Mounting horses they ride out and hunt with joy. Chasing the antelope they tire them out and surround them for the kill. Some kill by firing guns, [others] kill by learning to strike with weapons. Some kill with swords, some strike with spears. With shikra and jurra hawks and hunting dogs [the Guru and his warriors] hunted at length. [By chasing antelopes] they learnt the art of turning horses. They charged and pounced upon them. They made [their horses] take great leaps, and controlled them with verbal commands. They made sharp turns, and turned their horses quickly. Like a weaver weaving cotton thread, they cleverly dextrously manoeuvred their horses. Every day, the Guru greatly enjoyed himself. Seeing this, the Sikh congregation thought 'he has adopted the ways of his grandfather'. He adopted all the ways of war. He trained hard in this way to wage war against the enemy. In Ayudh [Shastar] Vidiya, he remained vigilant."
(Kavi Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash, ed. Vir Singh, 11:4569)
Whereas the Guru trained in Sanatan Shastar Vidiya, he and his Sikhs further expressed their deep devotion to the art by ritual worship of the physical representatives of Shiva's (by proxy Mahakal's) power, the primordial energy, the 'Adi Shakti) (i.e., Chandi/Kalika), the weapons:
"Placing all the weapons upon a high platform, all material for worshipping was brought. All began to worship during the nine days of 'Naurateh' [dedicated in Hindu India by Kshatriya races to] mother Chandi Kalika. Daily the 'charitter' (ballad) of Chandi was read in Sanskrit and the vernacular. Incense, lamps, sandalwood, and many garlands of flowers were brought. Waving the whisk made of cow's tail hair for a good while, the Master [Guru Gobind Singh] himself recited the verses and conducted the worship. She who whose light shines in the world, her many names were contemplated.....All one hundred and seven thousand names [of the goddess Chandi] were contemplated by the Khalsa before the True Guru."
(Kavi Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash, ed. Vir Singh, 11:5337-5338)
There is particularly poignant incident documented in Sikh history which demonstrates how the Guru attributed his great martial skills and hard training; not to supernatural or miraculous powers:
"Once a Mughal commander Wazir Khan, along with the Hindu Hill Rajas Bhimchand, Poopchand, etc. on besieging the Guru with their armies, were sitting quite a distance away from Anandpur on a bedstead playing the 'Chaupad' (a traditional Indian board game). From a distance, from his high vantage point in Anandpur, the Guru glimpsed them. He got hold of a powerful bow and took out a 'khapar' (a sharp, broad-tipped arrow). Spying the Wazir, the Guru notching an arrow, pulling the bow string to his ear, aiming near him, let it fly. As the arrow came and hit the bedstead leg next to the Mughal commander, he and the Hill Rajas were thrown into a commotion. They instantly recognised the gold tipped arrow of the Guru. Knowing the Guru to be in Anandpur, they were astonished. They concluded, "no human has such strength of body [to shoot an arrow so far] - it is a supernatural deed". They pulled out a telescope and spied the Guru sitting with a bow in hand. Then, as his enemies were still discussing the wonder they had beheld, a second arrow came and landed midst them. With this arrow was a note: "You wise people have probably assumed this feat is supernatural, a miracle," wrote the Guru, "but it is all a feat of training. If you train daily you will achieve this."
In tandem with his martial training, the Guru embarked on a prolific literary career. Composing verses which encapsulated his teachings, he uncovered the full range of human emotions—the 'nau ras' (nine moods) - worthy of a poet. In 1677, at the age of 16, he composed the devotional 'Jaap Sahib'. The verse utilises a potent mix of Braj, Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, and is based on the pattern of 'Vishnu Sahasar Naam' (Vishnu's thousand names), a text of popular recitations (see Chaupa Singh Rehitnama, Rehtnameh, ed. Piara Singh Padam, 102; Macauliffe, Sikh Religion, 5:261). The dramatic opening verse of 'Jaap Sahib' contemplates the nature of the all-pervasive immortal one 'Akal Purakh', the divine and infinite 'Brahm' (creator):
"Without contours or marks, colour, caste or lineage; no form, no complexion, no outline. No costume, none can, in anyway, describe You. Immovable, fearless, luminous and measureless in might. King of Kings, the lord of millions of Indras (referring to the King of Hindu demigods). Sovereign of the three worlds, demigods, men and demons, the jungles and dales declare You as indescribable. Who can describe all Your names? The wise relate Your names according to Your deeds."
(Jaap Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh)
The 'Akal Ustat' (praises of the Immortal Infinite One) is interspersed with praises of the personified 'Mahakal', an aspect of Shiva and his primordial power 'Adi shakti' (i.e., Chandi). In this is explained the essence of Dharma and the meaning of life. The Guru's advice to the devotee in pursuit of the truly spiritual path, whether Hindu or Muslim, prince or pauper, is to eschew the hypocrisy bred from religious fanaticism. In confronting all tyranny, and loving the infinite 'Brahm' (creator) who comes in all forms and shapes, one achieves a higher state of being.
His travels did not extend much beyond the beautiful mountain region surrounding Anandpur, yet the Guru was fully aware of the multifaceted nature of contemporary society in Hindustan (India) and beyond. He admired the spirituality of the people at the foot hills of the Himalayas, Persians, French, Arabs, Marathas, Biharis, Bengalis, Ghurkhas, Chinese, and Tibetans etc. alike (see Dasam Guru Granth Sahib, "Akal Ustat," verse 254-255). The Guru wrote:
"Whether Hindu or Turk (Muslim), or Sunni or Shia the caste (race) of all mankind is one. The one that is merciful to all is the One. The One that feeds all is the same. There is no distinction [between human races] it is just a misconception. Let all serve the One, the Master of all is the One. All are the form of the One; know in all is the same life-giving light. Hindu place of worship, the Muslim place of worship, [in essence] is the same; the Hindu mode of prayer and Muslim mode [in essence] is the same. All humans are one, but superfluous misunderstandings are many... The same eyes, the same ears, the same body and the same voice; all are made the same way of the five elements. Allah is 'Apekh' (the Hindu unseen 'Brahm') and Apekh is Allah. In the Koran is He, and in the 'Puraan' (Hindu holy texts) is He. All are of one form and all are the creation of the One"
(Ibid, verse 15:85-16:86).
Guru Gobind Singh's ideal of a religiously tolerant, free, harmonious, pluralistic society contrasted sharply, however, with the Mughal regime. The emperor Aurangzeb dreamt of a Sunni Islamic state. Obsessed with creating a two-tier society of 'believers' (Sunni Muslims) and 'unbelievers' (non-Sunni Muslims), he had martyred the Guru Tegh Bahadur who opposed the persecution of Hindus in 1675. Later, in 1679 Aurangzeb re-introduced the 'Jziya' (State poll tax) for 'unbelievers' which had been abolished a hundred years earlier by the more liberal Emperor Akbar who deemed it repressive. A contemporary Italian observer wrote:
"Many Hindus who were unable to pay turned Muhammadan, to obtain relief from the insults of the collectors... Aurangzib rejoices."
(Manucci quoted in Sarkar, History of Aurangzib, 3:275)
After the martyrdom of his father, the tenth Guru galvanised the handful of warriors to overthrow the oppressive Mughal regime. On evoking the primordial power the 'Adi shakti' (i.e., Chandi) to empower his followers he instituted the Sikh martial order the Singh Khalsa in 1699; their aim was to uphold Dharma. (see Kavi Kankan, Das Gurkatha, mns 1699). According to the earliest contemporary account of this incident, on cremating his father's head, the Guru exclaimed to his followers:
"Worship the 'Devi' (goddess Chandi, i.e., the sword and practice Shastar Vidiya) and take my father's revenge. I will establish my own 'Panth' (spiritual path / nation); you know this to be true. I will establish such a Panth that the entire world will know. It will rankle in the eyes of [Mughal-collaborating] Hindus and [Mughal] Muslims. It will rankle so that they will both not be able to sleep at night. [Mughal-collaborating] Hindus and [Mughal] Muslims will not find peace. He, who be a Sikh of the Guru; it will not cause him any pain. The man who contemplates 'Raam' ['Brahm', the creator who resides in all] (i.e., eschews bigotry), he will remain in comfort (i.e., remain safe)."
(Ibid, Stanza 193-196)
History was in essence, replayed:
"As had the earlier bands of Shivite Akharas developed their own rituals and fighting methods, which may be traced to the Kaplikas, while having in common a devotion to Shiva. (The early Vijayanagar rajas were Kapalikas.) They were frequently found in the forces of the Indian Rajas serving as shock troops in assaults until the British controlled their more militaristic tendencies, though the Akharas still teach martial arts. It was entirely in this tradition that in 1699, the tenth and last of the Sikh Gurus instituted the Khalsa, an order possessing a religious foundation and a military discipline."
(Robert Elgood, Hindu Arms and Ritual, Arms and Armour from India 1400-1865, 44)
In his short life, Guru Gobind Singh with his Singh Khalsa was not entirely successful in achieving his goal; an astute English man observed:
It was the heroic legacy of courage and personal sacrifice, including the martyrdom of his parents and four young sons, which inspired his followers after him. His phenomenal literary martial masterpieces such as the 'Dasam Guru Granth Sahib' and 'Sarbloh Guru Granth Sahib' provided further momentum to the Sikhs. It would take almost half a century of sacrifice to overthrow the oppressive Mughal regime. In doing so, they would continue on and defeat the Mughal-collaborating Hindu hill Rajas and Afghan invaders enabling the establishment of their own egalitarian Sikh kingdoms. The Akali Nihang Baba Darbara Singh Sanatan Suraj Bansia Shastar Vidiya Shiv Akhara is the last surviving martial legacy of those ancient Sikh warriors. It is the only place in the world where the martial skills as gifted by the Guru have been kept intact and alive.
"In the character of this reformer of the Sikhs, it is impossible not to recognise many of those features which have distinguished the most celebrated founders of political communities. The object he attempted was great and laudable. It was the emancipation of his tribe from oppression and persecution; and the means which he adopted, were such as a comprehensive mind could alone have suggested......His efforts to establish that temporal power in his own person, of which he laid foundation for his tribe, were daring and successful in as great a degree as circumstances would admit; but it was not possible he could create means, in a few years, to oppose, with success, the force of one of the greatest empires in the universe."
(Malcolm, Sketch Of The Sikhs; A Singular Nation, Who Inhabit the Provinces of the Penjab, Situated Between the Rivers Jumna and Indus. London: John Murray (1812), 73 & 75)