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Kara: The Iron Bracelet

Dr. Trilochan Singh

A Sikh Kara
The word kara is derived from the Sanskrit word katak, which means a bracelet of gold, a ring serving a bridal bit. According to Sukumar Sen’s Etymological Dictionary, kara is described as a ring or wristlet, made of clay or lac, still worn in Bengal by a bride at the time of marriage ceremony. Kara thus came to mean throughout North India, a ring worn on the wrist or on the ankles. Two things are clear about it. It is a feminine ornamental symbol of love, devotion and unbreakable ties. These bangles are worn by woman of all faiths, and when a Hindu woman becomes a widow, she either breaks her bangles, or puts them off as a sign of widowhood. Thus the bangle in Indian tradition was a symbol of being protected and loved by the Beloved who gave them.

We notice that out of the five fundamental ingredients of Sikh baptism, one came as an offering of the Holy Mother, and it was sugar-pellets. All other symbols represented the manly virtues of life. At the request of High Priest Ram Koer, the Holy Mother added her share, and her choice was sugar pellets; the sweetness, humility and grace of the Spirit of Motherhood. It is quite obvious that out of the five K’s, which the Guru gave to the Sikhs, four were to reflect Man’s personality and character, and there was to be one emblem, the fifth one, symbolizing the participation of the Mother consciousness. This fifth emblem was chosen to be the Iron Bracelet. If women were to carry even such a thing as the Sword, and be manly and equal with men in society and the battlefield, men were to carry at least one symbol of the noblest virtue in women, that is loyalty, devotion and unbreakable pledge of love. As the sword was to be of steel, this bracelet was also to be of steel, and both men and women were to wear it.

As the sword was to be wielded by the right hand, this bracelet was also to be worn on the right wrist. As sugar was poured into baptismal water to sweeten it and make the fiery and blazing sharpness of the Two-Edged Sword savoury and sweet nectar, so also the iron bracelet was worn by the same hand that wielded the sword, to balance the piercing sharpness of the sword with restraint, faith, tolerance and compassionate love, symbolized by the bracelet. The bracelet must guide the hand, which holds the sword, with a passion for justice and freedom. In other words, the sword of Guru Gobind Singh can be correctly used only by the hand that wears understandingly the bracelet of Guru Gobind Singh, a gift from the Holy Mother.

A ring or a bracelet has, all over the world, been used as symbol of moderation, self-control, equanimity and modesty. These are the virtues which balance gallantry, prowess, doughtiness, knightliness and manfulness. Without these restraining virtues of the bracelet, the sword could indulge in rashness, imprudence and indiscretion. Of all the things in the world, the use of the sword requires the noblest virtues of the heart, and these virtues are symbolized by the bracelet, which the Sikhs wear.

A ring or bracelet is generally considered to be the symbol of completeness and protection. St. Gregory says, “By a ring is designated the Omnipotence of Divine Power. For, when it keeps us from being seized by temptations, it encircles around and holds firm in wondrous ways, the snares of the ancient enemy.”1

At the Ordination of the Archbishop in the Roman Cathoic Church a ring is given to the Bishop. We are told that the ring is a symbol that the Bishop is wedded to the Church. The rite underlines the fact that he must be faithful to the responsibilities, he is undertaking. When one sees the Iron Bracelet round the right wrist of any Sikh, man or woman, it indicates that he is wedded to the Sikh Church, and he carries with him the feeling of loyalty, in the sense of lasting commitments to the ideals of Guru Nanak-Guru Gobind Singh.

A Sikh is the Bride of God in the realm of mysticism. He is also a warrior Knight of God, fighting against oppression in the arena of human society and civilization. A Sikh is repeatedly told in the Scriptures, “thakuru ek'u sabai nan. God is the one Person, all human beings, men and women are his brides.”2 Sirdar Kapur Singh in his scholarly work, Parasaraprasna: Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh, gives the following four meanings of the bracelet:

(1) “The iron bangle symbolizes that a Sikh must ever remain mindful of his double role of a spiritual aspirant and a useful citizen. No default on one side or the other of the discipline is permissible.

(2) “A circle, a chakra, is a perfect figure, all inclusive in its circumference and without a beginning, without an end in its structure. So a Sikh must aim to be with the whole creation, as the objective of his compassion and activities.

(3) “Since it is par-excellence, symbolic of the dharma, the Supreme Law, it is symbolic of faith, without which religious life is inconceivable. A Sikh must lead a life guided and supported by faith in God.

(4) “Lastly, iron, the world over, is commonly taboo in evil spirits and prevents spells from taking effect. A Sikh remains well protected against the inharmonious influences on his way of life by virtue of holding fast to God and the Dharma.”3

While the first three suggestions of the learned scholar, Sirdar Kapur Singh, are profoundly erudite and meaningful, I find it difficult to accept the fourth argument for warding off evil spirits with iron bracelet. The whole ethics of Sikh faith as the translations of Rehitnamas reveal, is based on utter disbelief and disregard of the superstition of evil spirits hounding man, and the necessity of talisman for it. It is superstition of the Romans and the Hindus, which is not accepted even remotely by Sikh history, tradition and theosophy. Taking this line of thought, many people explain away by saying that it is a protection against lightning. Commenting on this suggestion Prof. Puran Singh says, “I heard a stupid Sikh preacher the other day who was convincing a mass gathering of the Sikhs that the iron ring of the Guru, worn on the wrist, is a protection against lightning. He said as large buildings are made safe against lightning by a rod of iron, so the Guru has saved man from the stroke of lightning. He was hopelessly flinging his arms up and down together some straw of reason to prove the rationale of the iron ring, the Guru gave as a gift, and His blessings. Fie on our manners that we argue over and over about it. He loved me. He made me His own. The sword is the mind where the Guru lives. The iron ring is the sign of His remembrance. We have to wear the ring which is his gift, and we are the prisoners of His infinite Love. These are the fetters of love, the price of our freedom. Each Sikh wears hair and the beard of Guru Gobind Singh. We are moulded in His image. Those who do not have that personal love for the Guru are still out of His court. But our freedom is in Him and not anywhere without Him. Do not talk to us in that strain of the Sikh preacher. They are the signs of our being ‘wedded women’. They are the wedding gifts from the Bridegroom. He gave all those to us, and they are sacred.”4 Dharam Anant Singh suggests that the “iron bangle (Kara) appears to be the emblem of Justice”. Justice in the sense, used by Plato in his writings.5

References and Notes

(1) St. Gregory, Morals in the Book of Job, vol. iii, p. 575.

(2) (i) Adi Guru Granth, Guru Nanak, Raga Ramkali, 933

(ii) Ibid., p.983.

(iii) Ibid., p.527.

(3) Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna: The Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh, pp. 142-43.

(4) Puran Sirigh, The Spirit Born People, pp. 139-40.

(5) Dharam Anant Sirigh, Plato and the True Enlightener of Soul, p. 169.

Source – The Turban and the Sword of the Sikhs by Dr. Trilochan Singh