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Alleged Worship of Goddess Durga

The Order of Khalsa was inaugurated by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. It is believed by some scholars that before initiating the Order, the Guru invoked goddess Durga to bless him. Of all the scholars bearing such views, McLeod's remarks are the most striking because of their peculiarity. He states:

"Shivalik Hills have long been a stronghold of the Devi or Shakti cult…..The result of prolonged residence within the Shivaliks was, that elements of the hill culture eventually penetrated the Jat culture of the plains and introduced yet another stage in the evolution of the Panth.[1]

"In his (Guru's) writings and in those which were produced at his court, we find constant reference to the mighty exploits of the Mother Goddess, one of the most notable being his own Chandi Di Var.[2]

He then hastens to add another work of Chandi Chritar (Satasaya) from Markandeya Puran to the list and ends with the explication that as a result of the fusion of the two cultures, a new and powerful synthesis took shape; one which prepared the Panth for determinative role in the chaotic circumstances of the eighteenth century."[3]

The remarks of McLeod can be split into three parts for purpose of analysis and understanding.

  1. That the Guru had full faith in Shakti cult.
  2. That the influences of Hill culture which in his perception was predominantly Shakti culture was so pervading that it influenced and permeated the Sikh culture which in his opinion was a Jat culture, pre-eminently.
  3. Jat culture and Hill culture when interacted with each other, a new synthesis came into being which unleashed powerful forces which helped the Sikhs to tide over difficulties that came their way in the eighteenth century.

McLeod's remarks or for that matter those of the scholars of his ilk are frivolous. Religiously, empirically and ideologically, these cannot be justified.

The Shakti cult in different forms had been prevalent in India, especially in its North-Western region since the ancient times. The worship of Mother Goddess was probably widely practised in the Indus Valley region. During the Aryan period doubtlessly, male Gods were predominant, but the traces of Devi cult can be found in Vedic literature. In this connection references can be gleaned in ample from different texts of Aryans. For instance Dehi Sukta in Rig Veda which provided the basis for the cult of Chandi in Markandeya Puran as also to a Sukta in the Atharveda (VI, 38) in which Devi was worshipped as immanent in the entire creation. As Aryan settlements spread in different parts of India, the concept of Shakti received wider acceptance and assumed subtle ramifications. According to A.C. Bannerjee, "It developed in some of the Upnishads and Purans and particularly in the Tantras."[4] In the North-West, the Shakti cult found a prominent place in the Kashmir Saivism as also in the philosophy of Gorakh Nath which inspired the Yogis.

Although the Yogis were primarily devotees of Siva, they were subject to strong Tantric influence. The Aee-Panthis mentioned in the Japji (Canto-XXVIII) as also in a contemporary work Dabistan-i-Mazahib, worshipped a female disciple of Gorakh Nath named Bimla Devi who was called Mai, later on corrupted into Aee.

In the Hill region of the Punjab where Hinduism in its most archaic form existed, the people were worshippers of Devi or Mother goddess. In Kangra alone, there were numerous local Devis (goddesses) and 360 of them were assembled together at the founding of the Kangra temple.[5] Guru Nanak's teachings had no scope for recognition of any deity-male or female. Except the Transcendental Being who is one and the only one, Formless, Infinite, Self-existent, All effulgence, Sole Creator of all the creations of this world or of yonder Guru Nanak recognised no one else. He is Immanent in the sense that all creations emanated from Him. No part of His creation is autonomous in the sense that it is a unit apart from Transcendental Being. Everything is in control of God of Nanak. Goddess or any other deity did not have any separate entity not to speak of superiority to God of Nanak. Therefore Guru Nanak or for that matter other Gurus including Guru Gobind Singh and their disciples worshipped and obeyed God and not any deity, nor had Nanak or Guru Gobind Singh sought anything from any mortal, any god or goddess. But Guru Nanak had a direct encounter with God and had been commissioned by Him to spread Nam culture among people to improve upon their lot.[6]

There are no doubt references to Tantric philosophy and practices in Gurbani but these should not be interpreted as acceptance of traditional meanings. Instead these should be read as a part of the whole and explained with reference to the basic principles of the Sikh thought. For the founder of Sikhism, the ultimate stage of human experience in the spiritual world was Sahaj and it was not through mechanical Tantric practices that this blessed stage was to be reached. Not unoften two supporting statements are made to support that Guru Nanak had accepted the influence of Tantrics or Shakti cult. One of them relates to Canto XXX of Jap Ji: Eka Mai Jugat Viai Tin Chele Parwan. The second pertains to the following utterances of the Guru:

Khat(u) Mat(u) Dehi Man Bairagi

Surat Sabd Dhun Antar Jagi.[7]

There is no denying the fact that some terminology prevailing in Tantric cult has been used in various hymns composed by the Gurus as is evident from the preceding examples. Two explanations warrant serious considerations. Firstly; these terms were not used in the same meanings and connotations as used in Tantric cult. For example, Mai is not used in the sense of a creator, rather as an agent of God or as an instrument of a process ordained by Him. The exact translation of the Canto XXX rendered by Gurbachan Singh Talib, a famous exegete of Sikh scriptures is as follows:

"The universal Mother is what in Vedanta is known as Maya. She is progenitor of all, through the creative process ordained in the universe. This Maya generates not through union with God, but only through a 'process' ordained for her."

Likewise Anhat Dhuni et al. have no Tantric connotation. Anhat Dhuni in Sikh scripture means the experience of revelation when Light of God is revealed in the soul.[8]

In Sri Rag, Guru Nanak says:

"Throwing one's doubts aside when one meets the Guru, one hears the melodious Anhad Shabad. When one hears it, one's Haumai (egoism or pride) is destroyed."[9]

Secondly; some terms as used in Tantric sense were misleading to those who had not yet been able to get over the hang of their original faith. This was impinging on their psyche and causing confusion. Guru ji gave their meaning in consonance with the Sikh philosophy.

The attempt to associate Sikhism with Tantra becomes more pronounced in regard to Guru Gobind Singh. He has been described as a protagonist of Shakti cult whose inter­pretation of Tantric philosophy teaches man a new way of obtaining salvation through war. To appraise the Guru as such is to misinterpret or distort Guru's mission and approach. The Shakti cult has many elaborate rituals. Guru Gobind did not subscribe to that philosophy nor did he accept these rituals as necessary adjuncts of the spiritual discipline. He did not recognise pilgrimages, almsgiving, penances or austerities as legitimate means for spiritual elevation. In this perspective, the Guru cannot be described as a protagonist or a prophet of Shakti cult. Nor did he enjoin a new mode of salvation through war. Salvation according to the Guru was full realisation of the unicity of God which is possible through proper discipline. War for Guru was never an end in itself rather a sacred duty in certain circumstances, the purpose being not to win salvation but elimination of injustice and oppression even by resorting to force, of course, as a last resort. The Guru uttered,

"Whoever decides to abide in the Khalsa should not fear the clash of arms, be ever ready for the combat and the defence of his faith.[10]

The emphasis on formless is in full conformity with the old Sikh Tradition. Guru Gobind Singh says:

"Take the broom of Divine knowledge in thy hand and sweep away the filth of timidity."[11]

Timidity in Sikh ideology has been considered as a bar to spiritual advancement as also to the proper performance of temporal duties. In Guru Gobind Singh's scheme of regeneration, these two aspects of life are closely linked. The Guru prays to Sarb Loh (All Steel)

"May both my Kitchen and my Sword prevail in this world."

The Guru’s cardinal concern was with the Kitchen and the Sword, the one, the emblem of service to the poor and helpless and the other, the emblem of power to resist and extirpate the tyrants.

Some writings of Dasam Granth such as Chandi Charitar and Chandi Di Var are often quoted in support of the thesis that the Guru had faith in goddess Durga. It is, however, naive to draw such conclusion on the basis of these works. In the first instance, these are translations from Markandeya Puran and can by no stretch suggest Guru's faith in Devi or Avtars. Secondly, the internal evidence shows that Chandi Charitar was written not for the exposition of Guru's faith, but to instill the sentiment of anger and courage. The author himself says, "Chandi Charitar has been rendered into Bhakha verse for the sole purpose of suffusing the moral rage and courage."[12] The entire personality of Chandi has been described in unique metaphors. The story of seven hundred sloks has been completed by the poet to show daring exploits. In the epilogue, the Guru thanked Kirpa Sindh (Ocean of Compassion) and not Devi for helping him in rendering the story of Chandika in vars. The Guru was categorical that reposing faith in gods, goddess including Durga, Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva was futile. Only faith in the singularity of God and endeavours in the light of His attributive will would uplift humankind at individual and social levels. He writes, "I do not at the outset propitiate Ganesh. I never meditate on Krishan and Vishnu. I have heard of them but I know them not. It is only God's feet I love.[13]

Chandi Di Var too was written not to worship goddess Durga but to show the ultimate triumph of righteousness over the evil forces.

From the above, it can be safely assumed that the Guru did not worship goddess Durga or had any faith in Shakti cult. Nor is it correct that synthesis of Jat culture and Hill culture helped the Panth to play a determinative role in its affairs in the eighteenth century; for, it is common knowledge that Jat culture and Hill culture had nothing intrinsically fine to offer, the former being non-existent as a separate entity, primitive and tribal, the latter being based on Jati and mired in feudal values and unmeaning superstitions.

But how did the story of Devi worship germinate and gain currency on such a large scale? For a satisfactory answer to this question we will have to cast a glance over the historical literature.

The most important work in Sikh annals pertaining to the time of the tenth Master is Sri Gursobha by Sainapat, one of the court poet of Guru Gobind Singh. The work gives a detailed and realistic account of creation of the Khalsa on the Baisakhi day and other events of the life of the Guru. It does not make a mention of the worship of any goddess. Had it been a part of the event, Sainapat would not have missed it; rather he would have flashed it. McLeod, purposely or out of conviction, states that the work was not contemporary and he assigns 1711 A.D., as the date of its compilation. But he is wrong because the date given in the manuscript is clearly 1701[14] which proves beyond any doubt that Sainapat was a contemporary and his was an eye witness's account.

Apart from negative evidence of the complete absence of the story of Devi worship or Hom, Sainapat gives a positive statement indicating that "Devi, like other Avtars only indulged in egoist self-praise for her own worship and not that of God, the creator." At another place in Sri Gursobha, he avers, "Thousand like Dhruva, thousands like Vishnu, many like Rama, the kings, many goddesses, many Gorakhs offer their lives at his (Guru Gobind Singh's) feet." The Mughal news- writer reporting on the occasion of the Khalsa noted that the Guru urged his followers, "Not to adore incarnation such as Ram, Krishna, Brahma and Durga; but to believe in Guru Nanak and the other Sikh Gurus."

Sujan Rai who wrote his Khulastut Twarikh between 1695 and 1698 does not refer to any Hom in his account of Guru Gobind Singh. If the Guru had in any manner been connected with Hom even for demonstrating its futility, this writer would certainly have mentioned it.

Parchi Patshahi Dasvin Ki by Sewa Das Udasi (A.D. 1741/BK. 1798) and Mahima Prakash (Vartak) by Kirpal Dayal Singh (1798 BK/A.D. 1741) make a mention of Hom at the time of the initiation of Khalsa in a very casual way. For instance Mahima Prakash (Vartak) says:

"Once Guru called Pandas from Kashi, got the Hom done by them and initiated the Khalsa Panth."[15] The reference to Hom seems to suggest some sort of the ceremonial ritual in the nature of initial ceremony. It does not convey at all that the worship of goddess Durga was undertaken. Even the fact of the performance of the Hom as mentioned in the alluded works seemed to be more a fiction or imagination than a reality; for, firstly, the contemporary works are silent about it and secondly, it is too much, to expect that the Guru would compromise on his principles for whose sake he had done so much and his father had courted martyrdom.

Among the chronicles, Koer Singh's Gurbilas Patshahi 10, gives the account of Devi worship. This work was completed in 1751 A.D. According to Koer Singh, the ritual to appease Devi was started in 1742 BK 1687 AD and continued till 1689 AD. During this period, Guru Gobind Singh was at Paonta and not at Anandpur. The author forgetting this fact makes bold attempt of making the Devi appear atop Naina Hills. Apart from making chronological mistakes, Koer Singh seems not to be careful enough to avoid contradictions in his narrative. For instance he writes that the Guru wanted every person to be treated equally but later concludes by suggesting that Brahmins should be given preferential treatment. All this makes the work of Koer Singh altogether unreliable.

Anyway, the Devi episode was dealt in greater details in subsequent works: Mahima Prakash by Sarup Das Bhalla (1831 BK/1774 AD), Gurpratap Suraj Granth by Bhai Santokh Singh (AD 1843) et al. even as these later writers do not agree in details. Possibly the configuration of the story was determined by the fancies of individual writers. One thing, however, is irrefutable that the story originated with Gurbilas Patshahi 10 by Koer Singh to which later on many alterations were made. This work was written four decades after the writing of Sri Gursobha during which period the Sikhs were engaged in a life and death struggle against the state and order on permanent basis had been issued that Nanak Panthis (Sikhs) should be decapitated unless they forsake their religion. In that crucial period, the Sikhs had no time to look after their spiritual heritage and only Hindu outsiders were left to indulge in it who because of their Brahmanical leanings introduced Devi in the Khalsa account partly to give credibility to their Hindu beliefs; and partly to dissociate themselves from Sikhism at least in the eyes of Muslims since being a Sikh in those days was to invite trouble.

The most decisive evidence in favour of total rejection of the story is found in the Guru's ideology as it is embodied in his own writings. He had a total commitment to the concept of Ik Onkar and shared the vision of transcendence with Guru Nanak. He, therefore, could not worship any god or goddess. He says,

"O man, worship none but God, not a thing made by Him. Know that He who was in the beginning, unborn, invincible and indestructible is God.”

Again without the support of the one Name "Deem all religious ceremonies as superstitions."[16] Guru Gobind Singh was an uncompromising monotheist. So he cannot be said to have worshiped Devi much less on the occasion of the initiation of the Khalsa order, for which he had been ordained by God himself.[17]

Some confusion has arisen from the Guru's use of the name Bhagauti by which goddess Durga has often been called. But the Guru uses it in the sense of God or of sword which is identified with God. In the invocatory lines to Chandi Di Var, Guru Gobind Singh remembers the Transcendental one by the term Bhagauti—Pratham Bhagauti Simer Kei. Here the word for the One is Bhagauti which means sword and God. Worship of Bhagauti could not, therefore, mean worship of Durga. In the Bachittar Natak, the Guru uses Mahakal Kalika which, as he says, he worshipped in his previous birth. Some writers in their haste to prove that the Guru worshipped goddess have considered Maha Kal Kalika as the name of goddess Durga. Such people have tried to interpret the term out of context. Maha Kal Kalika, in fact, is single expression meaning God and not a combination of two terms....Maha Kal (God) and Kalika (Durga).

In this context Dr. Madanjit Kaur's discovery is very significant. According to her, "Guru Gobind Singh did not stand in need of invoking Devi as is clear from the fact that his grandfather, Guru Hargobind, had already employed sword and fought battles with the aggressive rulers. Even Guru Gobind Singh had himself fought battles successfully at Nadaun and Bhangani to chastise the evil mongers. He therefore, did not need any new sanction from any god or goddess to sanctify or legitimise his act of the creation of Khalsa.

The brief discussion leads to the conclusion that the story of Hom/Devi had no historical basis. Guru Gobind Singh had nothing to do with Shakti cult, as it is in direct opposition to the Sikh creed whose axis mundi is one and the only one Transcendental and Formless God. The pronouncement of McLeod that a new synthesis came into being when Jat culture and Hill culture mingled in each other has no basis whatsoever. The story of Devi worship/Hom was only an invention of later Brahmanical-minded chroniclers or of the people who intended to justify their own degradation from the lofty principles proclaimed by the Guru to please their idolatrous neighbours.... or to ponder to their own petty interests.

Notes and References

[1] W.H. McLeod, The Evolution of the Sikh Community, p. 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A.C. Banerjee, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Religion, p. 300.

[5] H.A. Rose, Glossary of Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province, p. 318.

[6] Puratan Janam Sakhi.

[7] SGGS, p. 903.

[8] Trilochan Singh, Hymns of Guru Tegh Bahadur, p. 37.

[9] SGGS, p. 18.

[10] M.A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, Vol. V, p. 223.

[11] Ibid., p. 167.

[12] Dasam Katha Bhagaut ki Bhakha Kar Banae, Avar Basna Nahl Prabh Dharam Yudh ke Chae. {Krishna Avtar)

[13] M.A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, Vol. V, pp. 310-311. This excerpt is from 'Krishna Avtar' in Dasam Granth.

[14] Sammat Satrah Sai Bhai Barakh Athavan Bit Bhadoh Sudi Pahdras Bhai Rachi Kathd Kar Prit. (Sri Gursobha, Chapter 1, p. 10)

[15] Mahima Prakash (Vartak), Sakhi I, as quoted by Bhai Vir Singh, Devi Pujan Partal, p. 55.

[16] M.A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, Vol. V, p. 325.

[17] Pragatio Khalsa Parmatam kl Mauj.