The permanence of Punjabiat

On the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev-ji, F. S. Aijazuddin hails two of Punjab’s great Sikh leaders whose cultural and spiritual legacies live on, even in an age beset by division

One wonders what might have happened had both Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh empire in the early 19th century, been born at the same time. Would Guru Nanak have used Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s essentially secular style of governance as a practical demonstration of the universality he preached?  Would Maharaja Ranjit Singh have regarded Guru Nanak as a sant, a living conscience but one best kept away from his raucous, rumbustious court?

Four centuries of history separated these two sons of the same Punjabi soil. Yet they are linked posthumously as twin examples of two aspects of Punjabiat – the spiritual in Guru Nanak Dev and the secular in Ranjit Singh.

Guru Nanak Dev’s strength came from the power of meditation. He distilled his experiences of other faiths – particularly Hinduism and Islam – into a potent reaffirmation of the universality of mankind. Legend speaks of his premature self-confidence, his questioning mind, the incipient awareness that he would one day lead people to God. The revelation – if one may call it that – that commanded him to undertake his lonely mission came to him – like Buddha and Muhammad – after he had established himself as a responsible husband, father and householder.

Like them, as a mature adult, he renounced the mortal, temporal world. He set out to imbue others with his own conviction on the oneness of God, travelling, teaching, living the new faith. With him as companions he had a Muslim Mardana and a Hindu musician, Bala. His years of travelling are said to have ended by the year 1521, when he settled on a tract of land at Kartarpur, donated to him by a rich follower. There, according to one biographer, he developed ‘a simple spiritual and moral discipline that had the capacity of reproducing itself’.

Even a truncated Punjab has an enduring identity

That spiritual amoeba reproduced itself, split into a number of facsimiles, until it has now extended across a world Guru Nanak had heard about, read about but whose limits were beyond his comprehension.  Ironically, in this, the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth, his beloved seat of Kartarpur has itself, like his beloved Punjab, been bifurcated – the original site being on the Pakistan side and the later version of Kartarpur on the Indian side of the River Ravi. The flowing waters that had once filled his drinking bowl now touch the lips of two countries that are becoming symbols of state-sponsored Islam and Hinduism – the two religions he sought in his lifetime to conciliate.

By contrast, Maharaja Ranjit Singh received no revelation, had no premonition of his potential greatness, no ordained mission to execute.  Political and social happenstances moulded his career, supremacy and survival became his goals.  He came to prominence in his teens, and before he was 30 (the age that Guru Nanak received his revelation), Ranjit Singh had made himself the undisputed leader of his kingdom, the first nation-state of the Punjab.

The admixture of religions and nationalities at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was not the result of any premeditated policy. It was born of expediency. The talent available to him could have been better, had he a wider sea in which to cast his net. Instead he took whoever was best in his field. He used them, assessed their worth and then gave them his abiding loyalty. His price?  Their reciprocation. How else does one explain why courtiers such as a Dogra Raja Dhian Singh, a Muslim Fakir Azizuddin, and a Hindu Dina Nath, should have remained in his service until his death?

Such loyalty is a younger cousin of spiritual devotion.  Whatever darker motives these and other functionaries at Ranjit Singh’s court may have had to enrich themselves – the Sikh darbar was a veritable cornucopia of wealth – they shared a bond (however uneasy at the time) of brotherhood.

If Guru Nanak gave spiritual voice to the Punjab, Ranjit Singh gave it a temporal identity. Guru Nanak had no battalions to command, no legions at his behest. Yet his army of followers now constitute a powerful force that has produced, among other luminaries, a prime minister of India. Ranjit Singh’s, army, by contrast broke into fragments within a decade of his death. There is no one alive who can claim a right to his legacy, no successor in interest to the throne of Lahore. He came as a shooting star, lit the Punjab during his lifetime and then sank below the horizon of history. Guru Nanak, by comparison, is a constellation.

Today, the Punjab they knew and loved had been vivisected – first in 1947, and again when Indian Punjab was further carved into the states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and the Union territory of Chandigarh.  What is left of the Punjab is dominated today by the principality of Patiala, just as it was during Ranjit Singh’s time, when it was the largest of the Cis-Sutlej states that lay in British-controlled territory.  History has swallowed its tail.

If there is any message that Guru Nanak and Ranjit Singh can offer us today, it is that religion is too sacred to be a weapon, that secularism should not be a slogan, and that even a truncated Punjab has an enduring identity. Go anywhere in California, New York, Canada, the United Kingdom, East Africa, or Australia, and wherever you hear the syllables of Punjabi, you will receive an affirmation that Punjabiat is still alive.  That identity is not the self-conscious one delineated for themselves by the Welsh. It is not the irascible one woven into a tartan by the Scots, or the amorphous one that gypsies carry with themselves. Nor is it the Jewishness that is trying to reclaim its home in the Holy Land.

Punjabiat is more than a linguistic, provincial tradition. It is the legacy of a cultural persona, of linguistic roots, of a tradition of tolerance that spiritual and temporal leaders like Guru Nanak and Ranjit Singh have bequeathed to us. Had we the eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts spacious enough to accommodate.

F. S. Aijazuddin is an internationally recognised art-historian and author of more than a dozen books, including two on the history of Lahore and one on Dr Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971

This article was initially published in The Week magazine on 2 November 2019


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