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WAR AND SIKHISM

August 19, 2021 | By

It is generally asserted that the first five Sikh Gurus, up to Guru Arjan (1563-1606), were opposed to individual participation in war, and to war as a measure of national policy, and that it was the persecution of Guru Arjan by the Mughal Emperor Jebangir which obliged the Sikh movement to diverge from its true doctrine of pacifism.

Mistaken Impression

Arnold Toynbee in his An Historian’s Approach to Religion. (Oxford, 1956), at page 110, says that Sikhism fell from its religious height into a political trough, because the Sikh Gurus, Har Gobind and Govind Singh … succumbed to the temptation to use force. He further adds that this ‘downfall’ of Sikhism was used by a clever militant Hindu reaction against the Mughal Empire, as its instrument (pp. 112-113, ibid.)

Both these impressions are as mistaken as they are generally current, even amongst the Sikhs themselves.

To appreciate this mistake it is necessary to understand the real Sikh doctrine 0n the use of force in human life, the doctrine of pacifism of Mahatma Gandhi and its apparent roots, the Hindu doctrine of ahIms, and the present-day political trend that the war should be renounced by the nations of the world, as well as the true Hindu doctrine on non-violence.

These four trends of thought are broadbased 0n basically different notions and they must not be confused with each other if the Sikh position is to be properly appreciated.

Gandhlan Argument
The Gandhian argument against war is that it is an embodiment of violence, himsia, and himsa being perse evil and morally wrong, the war is pennissible under no circumstances, whatever, on moral and religious grounds. According to this doctrine, if the choice is between annihilation and war, of war the perpetuation cJ. another moral wrong, it is the alternative other than the war which must be preferred, war being the greatest evil of all.

Gita’s Version

In the Bhagvad Gita, the cream of Hindu thought, war appears not as a means but as an end in itself, the pride, duty and glory ofthe ksatriya caste. In fact, any gain sought through war is thought to vitiate its merit; the soldier is not to concern himself with the result of the battle, but only how he conducts himself in the battle. This became the Rajput ideal in the centuries Lo corne against which the utilitarian Aurangzeb fretted and declared that ‘the Hindus are worse than worthless as soldiers, because with the obstinacy of the mule they refuse to acquiesce in a strategical retreat: It was this view of the matter, the Hindu doctrine of the final and once-for- all pitched battle, which cost the Hindus their disastrous defeats, one after the other from the 11th century to the 15th century, in the battlefields of Lamghan in Central Asia, and in the plains of the Northern India. It was only in the 18th centmy, when the sudra but shrewd Marathas abandoned this high and mighty ksatriya ideal, that the Hindu honour was retrieved in the battlefield.

In the earthy Arthasastra, war is mentioned as the last resort of a state, after the other means of diplomacy, perfidy, and threats (sam, dam (sam, dam, bheda) have failed. War here is essentially a means to an end, be prestige, power, stability of the state. The whole basis ofthis approach to the problem is essentially amoral. that is, all moral considerations are deemed as simply irrelevant.

Present Day Argument Against War

These two doctrines, the Gandbian and the truly Hindu, on war, must be contra-distinguished from the present day world trend of pacifist thought. The present-day argument against war is that continued tension and a series of crises will sooner or later produce war, that all wars are now likely to turn into nuclear wars, and that nuclear wars being mutually destructive, to the point of annihilation, cannot be safely considered as instruments of national policy. An implicit postulate of this argument is that surrender is preferable to annihilation, despite any moral issues that may underlie the threatened conflict.

The Sikh Doctrine

The Sikh doctrine on war is different from all these three approaches towards the problem. Firstly, Sikhism declares that war is a perfectly legitimate and permissible activity, both, as a measure of national policy and as an individual activity expressing itself in the use of force and employment of violence.

Force and violence are not perse evil. Guru Gobind Singh in his second epistle, the Zafamamah, made it plain that:

chun kar az hameh hilte darguzasht, halal ast burdan b-shmshir dast

Secondly, war and use of force are to be deemed as means and not ends in themselves. This dictum of Guru Gobind Singh, that ‘the hand may legitimately move to the hilt of the sword, only when all other peaceful means have failed’, clearly implicates this second point of distinction of the Sikh doctrine.

Thirdly, Sikhism discountenances the idea that war and violence are to be avoided at all costs and that even annihilation and surrender are preferable irrespective of the moral issues involved. Guru Nanak himself has declared that it is the privilege and right of the true man to fight for, and die in the cause of righteousness’: marna munsa surian hakk hai, jehoe marn parvano.

The Sikh position and the Sikh doctrine, therefore, must not be confused, either with the Gandhian thought, or the Ksatriya ideal, Christian pecifism, or the present day no-war mental trend.

The Sikh Way of life is a distinct, independent, and self- sufficient religion in its own right.


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