The Power of Sikh History – Securing the future by understanding the past

There are brilliant teachers of philosophy, and there are knowledgeable professors of Sikh theology, but there are very few teachers of Sikh Dharma.  Sikhism, by its very nature, is difficult to teach.  Sikh Dharma is a way of life, not a dogmatic religion, and is rooted in a personal relationship between the Sikh and his Guru that is continually evolving and growing.  As a teacher you can guide people in the process of delving into that relationship, but you can’t explore it for them.  It is a path that each Sikh walks alone. 

When Guru Gobind Singh ji left this earth, he vested the leadership of the Sikh nation in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, and the Guru Khalsa Panth – a perfect union of divine wisdom, and inspired action.  He left us the Rahit Maryada, the rules and traditions which define the Sikh way of life.  However, he did not write these “do’s and don’ts” himself.  Rather, he let the heroic aspects his life be the living document of how to be a Sikh.  Many times since the late 17th century the rahit has been written by saintly and inspired souls.  But you’ll find that in all cases, these documents are dated to the time and circumstances of the period in which they were written.  An aspect of Sikh Dharma is certainly defined by the Rahit Maryada, but Sikh Dharma is also a consciousness, the Sukhsam Rahit, that is transmitted through living example or through the stories of the saints and heroes of Sikh history.

 Guru Gobind Singh told his Sikhs to remember their history, to tell the stories of the Sikh Gurus, and to keep this alive in their communities.  The stories of the lives of the Gurus are heroic and timeless – always applicable and never outdated.  The ten Sikh Gurus were not gods incarnated on the earth; these were men with Godly natures.  They were human, and they dealt with the pain and challenges that all human beings face. Their lives were filled with challenges, sacrifices, victory and exaltation. By remembering the history of the Sikhs, we learn how to be a Sikh and by telling these stories, we teach this consciousness to others. 

Learning Sikh history is in itself a journey and a challenge.  The first writer of Sikh history was the great Bhai Gurdas ji.   Bhai Gurdas Ji was born in 1551 in Goindwal, and was a devoted Sikh of the third Sikh Guru, Guru Amar Das ji from a very early age.  He studied Sanskrit, Brijbhasha, Persian and Gurmukhi, and grew to become a brilliant teacher of Sikhism. Bhai Gurdas served as the personal scribe of Guru Arjan Dev Ji when he compiled the bani of the Adi Granth.  It was Bhai Gurdas Ji who diligently wrote while Guru Arjan Dev ji dictated the verses that were later to become the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.   Bhai Gurdas Ji wrote his own bani on the Sikh way of life and the spiritual nature of the human existence.  In his work, Varan Bhai Gurdas, he tells us briefly about the first six Gurus, the only first-hand written account that exists.

After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikhs faced over one hundred years of dire persecution. To live openly as a Sikh was to invite certain death.  The Mughal Empire was fading in India, but their intolerance of Sikh Dharma had never been more brutal.  During this time, women maintained the farms while the men lived in the woods and jungles, the saddle of their horses being their only true home.  Because of dangerous environment they lived in, very little written text has survived from this period describing the history of the Sikhs.  By the time life became less tenuous and more stable for the Sikhs, several generations had lived and died in the jungles and the opportunity to write first-hand accounts was gone.


However, the history of the Sikhs survived this time through the stories that were passed from father to son and mother to daughter.  Faithfully learned and religiously recited, the glorious history of the Sikh Gurus, the saints and martyrs, were told around smoky campfires and warm hearths.  Inspiring stories of Sikh heroes sustained the hearts of the Sikh nation during their time of trial and oppression.  Great Sikhs such as Bhai Taru Singh would prepare langar for the bands of Singhs who lived in the forest, always on the move to avoid the punishing patrols of the mughal governor.  While they ate, he would lighten their hearts and lift their spirits to a high state of Cherdi Kala with stories of heroism and devotion. When the mughal governor heard of this, he arrested Bhai Taru Singh, and offered to grant him amnesty if he would cut his hair and renounce his faith.  Bhai Taru Singh refused and the cruel governor had Bhai Sahib’s entire scalp removed from his head.  To this day, we remember the spirit of Bhai Taru Singh in our daily prayer as one who “gave his scalp, but not his hair.”


The relative stability of the 19th Century produced several monumental works of Sikh history.  Most notably the, Siri Guru Pratap Suraj Granth by Bhai Santok Singh in 1843.  Written entirely in poetic verse in the language of Barjbhasa, the literary Hindi of the time, this enormous book covers the lives of the ten Gurus and Baba Banda Singh Bahadur in great detail.  It is a treasure of information, but a difficult resource for modern scholars to access because of the archaic language of the verse.  In a great service to the panth, Bhai Vir Singh annotated the entire granth, creating a massive fourteen volume masterpiece which was published in 1926-37.  Even today, most major gurdwaras will have katha, or lectures given on Sikh history, from this source.  However the language and the verse remains a serious obstacle for anyone but the most studious scholar.


In the later part of the 19th century, Max Arthur MaCauliffe undertook the monumental task of writing the history of the Sikhs in English.  After twenty years in the Indian Civil Service, Max MaCauliffe retired as an honorable judge in the Punjab.  He was a gifted linguist, and his understanding of Urdu, Panjabi and Barjbhasa gave him a view into Sikhism that very few other westerners have ever earned.  Relying upon the original sources of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the Siri Guru Pratap Suraj Granth, the Varan Bhai Gurdas, and other old texts, MaCauliffe spent 40 years reading, understanding and translating these holy words.  Equally important, he did an exhaustive exploration of the aural tradition of the Khalsa, gathering stories and piecing together the Sikh chronology into six volumes entitled The Sikh Religion, which was published in 1909.  Although scholars will find fault with some of the details, it remains the single most valuable resource on Sikh history for the English speaking world.


Throughout the chaotic years of the 20th century and the independence of India from Great Britain, the preservation of Sikh history retreated from home and hearth to the University.  While important scholarly work continued at Khalsa College in Amritsar and Punjabi University in Patiala, the aural tradition of the Sikhs disappeared from the family unit except among the most devote.  The pressure of the family to be prosperous in the marketplace stripped the time for storytelling and within a few generations the preservation of history from parent to child began to dissolve.  For many Sikhs, the rich and awe-inspiring history of their forefathers became a buried treasure that was now unknown and inaccessible.  And true to the words of Guru Gobind Singh, as we forgot our history, it became more difficult to live as Sikhs in the modern world


Today the stories of Sikh history are emerging again, revived by the power of their own experience.  The Sikh youth, both in the East and the West, are hungry for answers to their questions and are shocked and amazed when they find these answer come in the form of Sikh history.  Bloody war and heart-squeezing beauty; treacherous betrayal and undying love; stories that are fantastic in their magnitude and astounding in their depth make up the panorama of the history that is ours.  Thanks to recent works of translation, bani such as Varan Bhai Gurdas, and the Dasam Granth of Guru Gobind Singh are now available for the English-speaking student to read and study, making transparent that which was once mysterious. 


As each one of us starts the process of discovering our magnificent history, it is important to remember that these stories were meant not only to be read, but to be told.  It is through the telling, that the spirit and energy of the Guru flows through the teller. This “rus”, or nectar, ignites the heart of the listener and brings the seeker to a new level of awareness.  The telling of Sikh history is not reserved for the experts or the saints, it is the privilege of all Sikhs, and the duty of every Khalsa mother and father.


This is how Sikhism is taught.  This is how Sikhism is learned.


  • Rushikesh

    Milwaukee,Wisconsin: According to aa0a0news Bhai Punjab Singh, a learned Sikh peracher who was critically wounded during the shootings at Wisconsin’s Oak Creek Gurdwara Sahib in August has been discharged from the Froedtert Hospital. The attack had claimed lives of seven people and left four in critical condition. Punjab Singh, a student of Damdami Taksal was […] Go to Source

  • Kanwal Kaur

    Very beautifully written…I felt so connected with each word….thanks much!!

  • stephanie soukup

    Thank You for being

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