Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Sacred Sword, by Hindol Sengupta

The Sacred Sword: The Legend of Guru Gobind Singh, by Hindol Sengupta

he pressing need to bring history alive and make it interesting finds more than adequate fulfillment in Hindol's short but engaging account of the last of the ten gurus of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh.

Guru Gobind Singh's childhood was thrust into suddenn adulthood by the death of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur. The ninth guru of the Sikhs was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal king, Aurangzeb. Guru Tegh Bahadur had taken up the cause of Kashmiri Pandits, who were being persecuted mercilessly by Aurangzeb's governor, and given two choices - to convert or die. The Guru dared Aurangzeb to convert him instead. If the Guru converted, so would every Kashmiri Pandit. Aurangzeb failed, and Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded, but not before Bhai Mati Das was sawed in half by Aurangzeb's soldiers and Bhai Dayala boiled alive in oil.
Thus begins the book. Guru Tegh Bahadur's severed head is retrieved from where it lay in Chandni Chowk in Delhi, and Jaitha Rangretta brings it to Gobind Rai in Anandpur. The boy of nine becomes Guru Gobind Rai, and later Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last guru of the Sikhs.

The first battle the Guru fought also cemented the legend of his arrow, his aim, and his prowess. In the battle against Raja Hari Chand, it was his arrow that pierced the Raja with unerring aim and unmatched power. It was also the Guru's abiding belief in his strength that was his undoing. Recovering from a murderous attempt on his life by Wazir Khan's assassins, he bent an unbendable bow, rupturing his stitches.

Each chapter in the book is short and devotes itself to one event from Guru Gobind Singh's life. Perhaps the most striking is chapter 5, titled, "The Sparrow and the Hawk". It relives the meeting between Guru Gobind and Pir Nur-ud-Din, and the encounter between the Pir's hawk and two pigeons. It illustrates an abiding philosophy of Sikhism, and which were enunciated by the Guru himself thus:
"Chidhiya naal mai baaz ladaawan
Geedadan toh main sher banawaan
Sawa lakh se ek ladawan
Tabe Gobind Singh naam kahaawan!"
[I shall make sparrows fight the hawk
I shall make lions out of jackals
I will teach one man to fight 1.25 lakh
Only then will I be called Gobind Singh]
And truly did the Sikh Guru inspire in the people the courage to take on the might of the Mughal empire. It was Maharana Ranjit Singh who established control over the city of Lahore in 1799, marking out the Sikhs as the most hated foes of the Muslim rulers. Indeed, during the post-Partition riots and killings that took place, the Sikhs in the Punjab that was in Pakistan bore the brunt of the attacks.

It was at Anandpur that the Guru decided that it would be the Guru Granth that would become the holy book of the Sikhs. He added the wisdom of Tegh Bahadur, his father and the ninth Guru, to the Granth Sahib, and it became the guru of the Sikhs. The guru knew better than anyone else that there had always been "many conspirators for the name of the guru." Upon hearing that the Mughal king, Aurangzeb, had ordered the grand temple of Dera Kesu Rai in Mathura to be destroyed, a mosque built at its site, the idols taken to Agra and "placed beneath the steps that lead to the mosque of Qudsia Begum", the Guru ordered his five chosen followers to go to Kashi and learn from the wisest of the pundits in that holy city. They would come back and write about what they had learned. They would be known as nirmalas. It was at the festival of Baisakhi that the Guru gave the Sikhs their battle-cry - 'Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal.' This is also the war-cry of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army.

The book ends with the Guru mandating Madho Das to rise against the atrocities of the Mughals. Thus did Madho Das become Banda Bahadur.

Each chapter in the book is short, written in an engaging style, and backed with impeccable research. Hindol provides references to details about the events mentioned in the book, like the folklore about Gobind's hawk, his interactions with the Rajas and the battle of Bhangani, Prithi Chand's actions against the gurus, the blockade of Anandpur, the battles against Painda Khan, Wazir Khan, and the death of his sons. Two of the Guru's sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, were bricked alive on the Mughal governor, Wazir Khan's (Mirza Askari) orders. Try as he might, Guru Gobind could not get Wazir Khan to face justice for these murders. It was left to Banda Bahadur Singh to avenge the Sikhs and his Guru. Waazir Khan was 'beheaded by the Sikh army led by Banda Singh Bahadur outside the Sirhind city in the Battle of Chappar Chiri in May 1710'.

The book's narration is stylized and the dialogues are the author's imagination, but the events are real, as are the characters. History jumps from the pages of the book, coming alive in a way that etches itself on the minds of the reader. No longer is the import of battles abstract, characters mere names, or dates a disorganized coagulation of numbers. I recommend this book highly.

Disclosure: this review is based on a paperback copy of the book provided by Penguin India.

This review was first published in OpIndia on Dec 6th, 2017.
Book ISBN-10: 0143440195,  ISBN-13: 978-0143440192
Buy from: Amazon IN, Kindle INKindle US, Flipkart

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.