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Evolving trends in pre-nineteenth century Sikh Historiography.
The primary sphere of reverence, in Sikh academia, is the Adi Guru Granth Sahib Ji with second and tertiary accompaniments being the Dasam Granth and the compositions of Bhai Nand Lal. The latter are noteworthy in many respects. They establish a timeless connection between the reader and writer across several milieus, yet offer only tantalizing glimpses into the lives of the Gurus.' Fluidly focusing upon the Gurus' message, the aforementioned texts lack a cohesive narrative detailing who they where. To ameliorate just such a situation the Sikhs, as a whole, had to parent several distinct genres of literature which would not only detail the birth of their ethos, but also of their evolution under the sacrosanct Gurus. The primary corpus of these genres would not focus upon the tenets, and tutorials, of the faith but upon the lives of the promulgators of the faith itself! Not only would these genres have to incorporate the nuanced orthodoxy of the faith, Per se, but also define the Sikhs as a faith, and holistic force in light of their association with the Gurus. To this end three new literary models were born. The initial Janamsaakhi tradition, followed by the multi-faceted Gurbilas series and the ever-evolving Rehitnamas.
The Janamsaakhis' (or tales of birth) incorporate a triumvirate design. They solely concentrate upon the life of Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539) via specifying it in three general Parochial's. Birth, voyages and settlement. Janamsaakhis,' it seems, were written with three broad intentions. One, to provide an emulative biography of the Guru. Two, to grant Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike a literary darsan (glimpse) of the Guru. And three, to provide an exegetical source of Gurbani via incorporating contextual and environmental influences. The bibliography of these Saakhis consist of oral folklore prevalent in the Guru-era Punjab. Mcleod notes that despite the significant time lapses, prevalent between the writing of each Saakhi, the genre carries an authentic ring to it (1). Significant exegetical evolutions, and re-telling's penultimately catalysed in notable differences in each Saakhi. Plausibly nowhere is the latter more evident, than in the hierarchical number of Saakhis' which presently exist.
The Bhai Bala Janamsaakhi claims to be the foremost manuscript of the genre. It's claims are evidenced by the fact that it has become a traditional component of many Sikh orders. The schismatic Meharbaan Janamsaakhi can be said to be the second oldest, but has been discarded due to it's perceived unorthodox content; whilst the Bhai Mani Singh Janamsaakhi is categorised as being the third oldest and authoritarian. Other Janamsaakhis' also exist with the most mooted being the recent B40 Janamsaakhi. Yet as Surjit Singh Hans and W. Owen Cole elucidate each Saakhi should be analysed carefully for veracity and authenticity. Cole is at pains to highlight that no scriptural, or preliminary, Sikh text mentions the existence of Bhai Bala. The fact that the latter's Saakhi eulogizes Baba Hindal, and Bhagat Kabir, at the expense of Guru Nanak Dev Ji makes it's relevance questionable. The Meharbaan Saakhi presents a coloured vision of events, especially in light of the fact that the author's father was opposed to the orthodox lineage of Guruship. Summarily, the criteria for essaying each Janamsaakhi might vary from manuscript to manuscript, but the genre represents the earliest pivotal point in Sikh literature.
The Gurbilas series shows a poetic, and structural, strain derived from the Janamsaakhis but radically differs in many respects. A majority of the genre focuses on the life of one individual, although Kesar Singh Chibber's Bansavalinama Dasan Patshian Ka, runs as an anomaly to the genre's Status quo. The primary cataloguing point for this diverse genre hinges on the mythological, and political, content of each manuscript. Chibber's Brahmin ancestry stood him in an instrumental stead to utilise ancient Puranic, and mythological texts, in order to construct a magnetic genealogy of the Gurus.'
Yet even his work is without bias. Reaching out to the dominant Hindu majority he rues the over-dominance of stratified Jatts, and Dalits, in the Khalsa whilst exposing Islam to a microscopic scrutiny. Simultaneously he mentions Akali-Nihung Guru Gobind Singh Ji as having manifested Kalika, for military aide, and the Gurus' being honorific avatars of Vishnu. With the commencement of the Sikh Reformative era, it's no wonder his work fell out of use. But Chibber's work is profoundly prolific. In 2,564 stanzas, and 14 chapters, he relates significant events from the lives of the ten Gurus', Banda Singh Bahadur, Ajit Singh (adopted son of Mata Sundar Kaur), and the life of the matriarchal Mata herself. Later Gurbilas additions would follow an emulative course, although fundamental differences would become significant in each serial generation.
Gurbilas Patshai Chevin (sixth) orbits the life of Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji. It encapsulates the latter's birth, father's life, marriage, battles and other impactive events which shaped the subject's life. Despite chronological errors, the work is a well-grounded piece authentically narrating the important events in the life of the Guru. Koer Singh's Gurbilas Patshai Dasvin (tenth) completed in 1751 C.E. (the author was a confidant of Akali-Nihung Mani Singh Ji) is categorised as being the most inauthentic of the series. The author makes no avid distinction between myth, parable and reality in his narrative. He perpetually misplaces dates and implies (insubstantially) that the tenth Guru undertook a journey to Ayodhya. Sukkha Singh's emulative text, of the same name, is solely concerned with the Guru's battles and the ethics orbiting the latter's political mindset. All 31 Cantos of his work carry a scholarly ring and avoid the ardent mythologising found in initial texts of the genre.
The most aberrant text, in the entire series, is that of Bhai Sobha Ram. His Gurbilas Bhai Sahib Singh Ji Bedi does not draw upon preliminary sources such as the Dasam Granth, and other contemporaneous accounts; but instead focuses on his own observance of Baba Sahib Singh Ji Bedi. The latter was an eighteenth century descendant of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and an avid player in the politics of Lahore. Ram implies him to be the temporal emulation of Akali-Nihung Guru Gobind Singh Ji, dispatched to coronate Ranjit Singh as the emperor of Punjab. The latter makes evident the political appeal of the work, and one cannot help but wonder if the latter was the sole inspiration for the text's birth.
The Rehitnamas are the most divergent of the three genres. They are not exegetical accounts, such as the Janamsaakhis', or even biographical sketches such as the Gurbilas series. They are more de imitatione Gurui, aiming to emulate the conduct of the Gurus' via an indirect mimesis. The Janamsaakhi, and Gurbilas, genres provide a literary darsan of the Gurus' but the Rehitnamas tend to rationalize, and interpret, their actions for the disciple's emulation. The Rehitnamas depict a direct strain of evolution, the genre has a Herculean amount of offshoots and each and every one of the latter depict changing political, and social, trends. Purnima Dhavan notes that the era from 1715-1748 A.D. was important in the evolution of the Rehitnamas.
The Khalsa decided to cement an unique and ubiquitous identity, and the Rehitnamas became pivotal judge of it's social and political conduct. She provides an interesting example of this evolution orbiting military service for the Khalsa in the eighteenth century. Prahlaad Singh's Rehitnama warns, '...that the Sikh who bows his head to one who adorns a skull-cap (Muslim) will dwell in hell, but the Sikh who worships the Akal-Purakh will carry the benefits of his entire clan.' (2) Simultaneous Rehitnamas' also carry a similar tone, leading one to conclude that the eighteenth century ascension of the Khalsa polity played an unique role in the formation of each Rehitnama. The writers forewarned against the events which they witnessed, i.e. Khalsa adherents becoming mercenaries for Islamic rulers (Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and Adina Beg). The latter was construed as being a grievous trespass. Especially in an era where the Khalsa was warring for political autonomy from radical Islam.
The Chaupa Singh Rehitnama represents another facet of the genre. The separation of Khalsa socialism, and political precepts, from that of the contemporaneous Islamic polity. 'The rulers of the world should serve as lights, yet nowhere had a lamp been lit, nowhere could a light be seen. And so these rulers were driven out in order that the panth might rule in their place. He bestowed authority on the panth in order that it might take revenge on the alien Muslims (maleccha), ending their rule once and for all.' (3) The latter carries an impertinent warning for Khalsa rulers. Just as Islamic tyranny was brought to heel, so would the Khalsa state if it emulated the latter.
One can easily conclude that no Rehitnama is definite. Whereas the genre, in the eighteenth century, concentrated on martial pursuits and politics; it's modern counterpart is more concerned with spirituality and day-to-day conduct. Thus, they reflect the periodical psyche of the Khalsa as it slowly evolves. They offer no firm insight into the perpetual, non-changing, psyche of the Khalsa because the latter does not exist. Unlike the Gurbilas genre however, they do tend to draw material from Gurbani and are often at pains to pinpoint their relevance to the latter. Whereas the Janamsaakhis, and the Gurbilas, are reminiscent of the past; the Rehitnama is a continuing genre ever-changing from milieu to milieu.
Sources:
(1) Fenech, E. L; Singh P. (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies.Oxford University Press, NY, USA, pg. 183.
(2) Dhavan P. (2011) When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition. Oxford University Press, NY, USA, pg. 78.
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