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The Milieu

Prof. Niharranjan Ray the founder director of lndian Institute of Advance Studies, Shimla, explores and analyses the social history of the Sikhs and delves deeper into the facts and forces that went into making the Sikh society which, says Prof. Ray, on the one hand seems to be an integral part of the larger Hindu and Indo-Muslim society and yet on the other, is a definitely distinct and identifiable community of people with an integrity of their own.

Focusing assiduously on the three great turning points in the history of Sikhism, symbolized by the first Guru, the fifth Guru and the last Guru, Professor Ray in his work, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society gives exposition to the milieu, the message and the mission of Sikhism. While dealing with the Sikh Gurus, one is readily reminded that the period of the Guru is all but coterminous with the rise, growth and attainment of the peak of Mughal imperial power and glory.

To appreciate the accomplishments of Guru Nanak and his successor Guru Angad Dev, before we endeavour to analyse the social and religious situation under the impact of Hinduism, Islam and the Yogis of the time, it will not be improper to glance at the political anarchy and the disintegrating spirit already prevalent in the Northern India. Right from the 10th century onwards, hordes of invaders were pouring into Indian territories with no less an aim than of plundering, molesting and massacring the dumbfounded Indian masses. As many as sixty foreign invasions had taken place during these five hundred years up to the time of Guru Nanak.

The Delhi Sultanat (1206-1526) had lost its hold upon the provinces of lndia, and was struggling for the survival of its own self. The Tughlaks often acted so foolishly that they lost their hold everywhere in the country. In the closing years of the fourteenth century there were two rival Sultans, Nasiruddin Mohammad in Delhi and Nusrat Shah at Firozabad. Among the supporters of the latter were the 'Amirs' of the neighbouring areas in Punjab, but they were much more interested in furthering their own interests than those of their overlords. In such circumstances the government fell into anarchy; civil war raged everywhere and scenes were exhibited unheard of before of two kings in arms against each other residing in the same capital. Some of the governors of the provinces took little interest in these civil dissensions, hoping to take advantage of them by becoming independent in the end.

The situation mentioned above provided a nice opportunity for anybody having a strong will and valour to crush the crumbling Indian provinces. Besides the above situation prevalent, the rich temples of India and their wealth had always been an attraction for the outsiders. Punjab was the north-west gateway of lndia, always liable to get the first assault of any invasion and Taimur crossed the Indus in the last months of 1398 with an ambition of capturing Delhi. Punjab was completely ransacked and Delhi was also subdued by Taimur. Prof. A.C. Banerji maintains that there were about one lakh Hindu prisoners in Taimur's camp, and the conqueror proudly proclaimed throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners under him was to put them to death. Whosoever neglected to do so, should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the Ghazis of lslam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. The so-called infidels, numbering 100,000 were on that day slaughtered. The learned professor recalls in the words of Taimur himself, that Maulana Nasir-Ud-din Umar, 'a counsellor and a man of leaming, who in all his life had never killed a sparrow, now in the execution of my order slew with his sword fifteen idolater Hindus who were his captives'. Apart from this, an immense booty was collected in the shape of rubies, diamonds, pearls, gold and silver. Except the quarters of the Saiyads, the Ulema and the other Muslims, the whole city was sacked.

The weak rulers of small states of Punjab, Delhi and neighbouring areas could not recover from the losses sustained by them on account of the plunder mentioned above. For about fifty years following Taimur's invasion, Punjab had neither peace nor effective government. It was continuously facing foreign invasions and internal anarchy. The weakness of Delhi invited trouble in Punjab and due to want of adequate relief for the harassed province, lawlessness became a deep rooted malady. Neither the cultivator, nor the trader could carry on his work. The common people virtually deserted by their weak rulers, unorganised and untrained to defend themselves, succumbed to death and dishonour in a spirit of utter helplessness.

Muslims had already settled down in India before Guru Nanak. For many centuries before Guru Nanak, invaders had been pouring into Indian territories with different cultures and religions, but they somehow or the other, were all absorbed by Hinduism. Invaders used to come and go having the least intention of settling down here, but with Muslims it was a different case. They attacked India in order to subdue it, and after their victory, settled down here with all their cultural and religious ways of life. Their way of life was reasonably new to Indian masses and for a few centuries Hindus could not understand and adjust themselves to the new circumstances. When large scale forced conversions to Islam were going on, the Hindus became sternly defensive. Strict adherence to the codes of religion turned Hindus to be superstitious and orthodox which, on the one hand made the invaders more bigoted, and on the other, left the Hindu social and religious structure more chaotic.

In fact, erstwhile ruling classes were largely responsible for the precipitation of such confused situation in India in general and in Punjab in particular. Meanwhile a powerful generation of yogis had emerged from the ruins of Buddhism. On the one hand, the yogis were much dissatisfied with the Hindu way of life and on the other, they were afraid of being directly involved in the socio­ religious struggle between the dominating foreigners and the crumbling Hindu society. As a result, they often withdrew from the masses taking refuge in remote jungles or mountain caves. Such yogis were scattered all over India and they had their connections with one or the other organisation of their own. Some of them deeply influenced the common man with their spiritual attainments and miracles, and many of them had really achieved Tantric powers, through various cumbersome processes of concentration and control of vital breath.

The Indian subcontinent in the middle ages was inhabited by three types of people; these were fanatical Muslims, orthodox Hindus and awe-inspiring Hathayogis, who on the basis of their occult powers were very much prominent among the God-fearing Indian masses. Yogis had emerged on the ground of revolt against the stiff caste classification and orthodox attitude of society, but they too could not maintain any equality among themselves and with other fellow beings. Externally, the yogis struck at the caste system fiercely and rebuked the superiority derived out of it, but internally every follower of the yoga­marga, considered himself superior to the low creature of society. He pitied the extroversion of others, ridiculed them through many complex dialogues and hoped that the people should feel taken aback after seeing his magical feats. On the other hand, the devoted bhakta accepted wholeheartedly the four-fold classification of society, and its hierarchy. He obligingly felt himself as a drowning passenger in the world-ocean and repented grossly for the sins committed by him. He was, however, hopeful that the all-pervading God might listen to his cry one day and liberate him from the bondage of life. One was proud of his knowledge and the other of his own ignorance; one considered the body (pinda) as the universe-brahmanda, and for other the whole brahmanda was nothing but a pinda. One was confident of his own self, the other relied on Rama. One considered love as a weakness, the other considered 'knowledge' as harsh; one was yogi and the other was a bhakta.

These extremes were the fertile grounds for the suspicions and superstitions in society. People faced a spiritual and social loss and the result was not healthy. Two reactions of this were evident among the common men. A doubt was created in the heart of the devoted householder by the teachings of the yogis. The common man started thinking that maya is horrible, which in no way would free the mortals from bondage and the way of achievement is tedious; the man without yoga practice shall be led to tortures known only to God; God knows how long he would wander in the cycle of transmigration. The world-ocean is devouring us, illusions of maya are infinite and the way of practice (of yoga) is very rough and tough; the battalions of impediments are there obstructing the way and the lot of the poor householder is bound to be hopeless. On the other side, the bhakta had made the common man totally carefree. Even by mistake if anybody happened to recite Hari-nama, he need not do anything else; the gates of heaven are obliged to be opened if once the mark of Vishnu is put on the forehead; if somehow you get the Tulasi beads, your place in go/aka is reserved. Kaliyuga is the best of all the ages because mental sins breed no fruit in it, yet the mental sacrifices bring full harvest of happiness. Rama's name is greater than Rama himself; hence there is no cause for any worry. Yoga left the householder to be more suspicious than required whereas bhakti made him excessively optimistic. Tulasi Das is also annoyed when he says that Gorakh gave the call for Yoga and thus forced bhakti to run away.

Dwelling upon the socio-religious milieu of the medieval Punjab Prof. Niharanjan Ray says that 'One must however recognize that there was a cluster of small all but politically inconsequential States of Hindu chieftains, mainly of Rajput origin, sheltered in the Valleys of what was until recently known as the Punjab Himalayas. Away from the trial, turmoils and socio-political upheavals that have been shaking the plains down below from about the eleventh century onwards, these small hill states had become small feudal citadels of an ossified religion of Brahmanical Hinduism, of orthodoxy and obscurantism­ and all but oblivious of the challenges that Hinduism and Hindu society were facing below, in the plains'. Such challenges were the strongest and most acute in the plains of the Punjab than anywhere else in India.

Taking cognizance of the various invasions on India through north-western passes, the names of different groups of people could be enumerated who entered India to serve their own ulterior motives. Right from Alexander the great, the Parthians, Central Asian pastoral and nomadic people had moved towards India like avalanche and in wave after wave, beginning in the pre-Christian centuries. The conglomeration of the Shakas, Kushanas ending only with the Islamised Turks, Afghans and Mughals in the thirteenth to the sixteenth century had made ethnically and culturally, the Punjab a great laboratory where many ethnic types and cultures became eventually fused into one homogenous people and culture.

Sanskrit was the official language of the intellectual elite and of Brahmanical Hinduism. In the pre-medieval period and medieval times there was hardly any scope for regional spoken languages and dialects of coming to the fore and making their impact felt. However, few non­brahminical protestant and esoteric sects such as Sahajayani and Tantrik Buddhists, Nathapanthis, Aghorapanthis, Avadhutas, Kapalikas etc. had started using dialects Or the people for delineating their respective ideologies. This was indeed a fairly long period of rapid growth of our regional languages. Kabir was accepted as the tallest leader of the medieval Sant tradition, who could say Sanskrit Kupjal and Bhakha bahata nir: Sanskrit is the water of closed well but the ever flowing fresh water is bhakha, the spoken language of the people.

The Social and the Religious Situation

By the time of Guru Nanak, Islam as a religion had settled in India. Mughals were yet to come to India to share the Jagir of their ancestors. In the hymns of Guru Nanak, the Guru expresses a lot of pity for his fellow-sufferers. He is moved by the pathetic condition of the country and its people. He draws a heart-rending scene in his Asa hymns:

The head, which are adorned with tresses and whose partings are filled with vermillion; those heads are shaven with scissors and ladies' throats are choked with dust. They lived in palaces but now they are not allowed even to sit near the palaces ......When they were married, their bridegrooms were handsome beside them. They came seated in palanquins, which were adorned with ivory.....The ropes are put round their necks and their strings of pearls are broken. Both wealth and youthful beauty, which afforded them pleasure, have now become their enemy. The rulers had lost their, conscience in merry making sensual spectacles and revelments. When Babar's rule was proclaimed, then no Pathan prince ate his food (GGS, 417).

Guru Nanak was deeply disturbed to see the revelries and merrymaking on the one side, and starved population reduced to the status of beggars on the other. Tears flowed out of his eyes when he thought of the misery of the Indian masses plundered by the hordes of bigots coming from distant lands. In the eyes of Guru Nanak, the Indians were a herd of cows and the invaders were lions, so the combat between the two was very unequal:

Having conquered Khurasan Babar has terrified Hindustan. The Creator takes not the blame on Himself, and has sent the Mughal as death's myrmidon. So much beating was inflicted that people shrieked. O God, did you not feel any compassion? You, O Maker, are the equal Master of all. If a mighty smites another mighty man, then the mind feels no anger. But if a powerful tiger falling on a herd kills it, then its master should show manliness. The dogs have spoiled and laid waste the priceless country. No one is going to pay heed to these dead ones (GGS, 360).

Guru Nanak portrays a vivid picture of the kings, courtiers and learned men of the time who by neglecting the welfare of the masses were busy in creating bitterness and vanity:

The officials who pose to be learned and clever lay trap only for their own class. But hereafter they find no refuge. He alone is learned, scholarly and wise who practises the Lord's Name. First, the tree develops its roots in the ground, then alone it spreads out its shade above. The kings are tigers and courtiers dogs; they go and harass the sitting and the sleeping ones. The king's servants inflict wound with their nails. The king's curs lick up the blood and bite the poor subjects. When, in the Lord's court these men are to be assayed, the noses of these untrustworthy ones shall be chopped off (GGS, 1288).

In such a condition how could the subjects be peaceful. No spiritual progress could be attained in such chaotic circumstances. It was a dark age in the political as well as social history of lndia, though prior to this age India had given birth to many systematic schools of philosophies. Guru Nanak speaks of the situation thus:

The dark age is the scalpel, the kings are butchers and righteousness has taken wings and flown. In this no moon­ night of falsehood, the moon of the truth is not seen to rise anywhere. In my search I have become bewildered. In darkness I find no path. By taking pride, mortals bewail in pride. Says Nanak, by what means can the mortals be delivered (GGS, 145).

Though such was the general atmosphere, it will be incorrect to assume that Islam had taken very deep roots in India. Somehow, Indians had started adjusting themselves to new circumstances. The two obvious results of this were, the cultivation of a spirit of toleration for the foreign religion and the move towards greater orthodoxy in order to save the Hindu identity. Hinduism, in fact was already obliged to be orthodox after the expulsion of Buddhism. Now, this second wave of different foreign concepts concerning religious life, led them further towards it. The orthodox became more orthodox; a natural growth of thoughts and their implementation suffered a serious setback. As a result, the contradiction between the ideals and the actions became immense. Safety of life and property became the primary concern and not the safety and propagation of humanitarian values. Hindus got few high offices in the royal courts; when they did so, it was due to their diplomacy and duplicity and not due to their learning and scholarship. Guru Nanak has ridiculed such vain persons who had lost moral courage:

You charge tax for the cow and the Brahmin. The cow dung will not save you. You wearing a loin cloth, put frontal mark, carry a rosary and eat the Muslim's provisions. O brother, within, you perform worship; outside you read Muslim books and adopt Muslim way of life. Lay aside the hypocrisy. By taking God’s name you shall swim across (GGS, 470)

No religion teaches bigotry if the followers are discreet and honest to their respective faiths and do not tum out to be selfish. But the period prior to Guru Nanak badly suffered from communalism, fanaticism and a zeal for the imposition of ideas and faiths. The universal values of religion had touched their lowest ebb. No doubt that Indian rulers in earlier ages were also predominantly seeking a religious sanction for every deed executed, but in this era of anarchy, due to selfish motives of both the classes i.e. the ruled and the ruler, the situation had turned to be the worst. Avers Guru Nanak:

'Modesty and righteousness both have vanished and falsehood marches as head 0Lalo. The function of Qazis and Brahmins is over and Satan now performs the marriage rites. The Muslim women read the Quran and in suffering call upon God O Lalo. The Hindu women of high caste and low caste also do the same thing. Says Nanak, O Lalo, the peans of murder are sung and saffron of blood is sprinkled (GGS, 722-23).

The caste system had become more stiff. Untouchability prevailed and the lower classes were kept away from the common wells and temples by the so called upper classes. Ramanand, Kabir denounced this situation in their verses. Namdev also protested against this second­ rate treatment for the poor and the so-called untouchables by the upper strata of society. These saints had themselves suffered at the bigoted hands of the Hindus and Muslims. Kabir was defamed by so many stories regarding his birth and parentage and Namdev was also expelled from a temple, a fact he admits with a touch of pain in his heart. He is sorry for his birth in a family of calicoprinters and recollects the happening:

'In a laughing and sportive mood I came to the temple, 0 Lord. While Nama was worshipping he was caught hold of and driven away. A low caste is mine 0 Lord, the king of Yadavas. Why was I born a calicoprinter (GGS, 1164).

To oppose such injustices, the yogis spread themselves all over India along with many other reformers. But the malady was so deep-rooted that the yogis themselves could not escape the desire of being considered higher than the worldly creatures. By the 14th century these yogis became organised in many different sects and harassed and allured the masses to follow them. People afraid of curses and troubles gave undue regard to these wandering ascetics. Theses yogis were free from all worries of earning, labour and social obligations, and yet they were revolutionary in the sense that they propagated the idea of social equality. But most often the nothingness of the world and hence their own supreme position became their greatest concern. J.D. Cunningham summarises candidly the religious and social situation in the 16th century in a very terse style:

Thus in the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Hindu mind was no longer stagnant or retrogressive; it had been leavened with Muhammadanism, and changed and quickened for a new development. Ramanand and Gorakh had preached religious equality, and Chaitanya had repeated that faith, levelled caste. Kabir had denounced images and appealed to the people in their own tongue, and Vallabh had brought that effectual devotion which was compatible with the ordinary duties of the world. But these good and able men appear to have been so much impressed with nothingness of this life that they deemed the amelioration of Man's social condition to be unworthy of thought. They aimed chiefly at emancipation from priest-craft or from the grossness of idolatry and polytheism. They formed pious associations of contented quietists, or they gave themselves up to the contemplation of futurity in the hope of approaching bliss, rather than called upon their fellow creatures to throw aside every social as well as religious trammel, and to arise a new people free from the debasing corruption of ages. They perfected forms of dissent rather than planted the germs of nations.

It was left for Guru Nanak, Guru Angad Dev and other Gurus to rise to the occasion and infuse a spirit of sacrifice of personal attachments for the cause of multitudes; to make people themselves the custodians of the common interest, irrespective of caste, colour or creed, to talk to the people of the duplicity of their way of life; to denounce boldly the wrong-doer whether he was Babar or Qazi or Pandit. They did not feel satisfied with mere travels and discourses with the leaders of different sects and creeds, they laid a very deep and firm foundation of a way of life which became a target of attraction for the rulers and the ruled in the centuries to come.