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A short introduction to Sikh historical texts


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This is a very brief introduction of Sikh historical texts, particualry for youngsters and also for those who have only ever relied on hearsay re the history of our faith.


Apart from the Adi Granth and the Dasam Granth, the main works of Sikh literature can be divided into devotional works, janam-sakhis (writings on the life of Guru Nanak), rahit-namas (manuals containing the Rahit), gur-bilas (hagiographic works concerning the 6th and 10th Gurus that stress their roles as warriors), historical works, scriptural commentaries, the contribution of Vir Singh (1872–1957), and a brief anthology consisting largely of quotations from the Sikh scriptures.

The devotional works of Bhai Gurdas (1551–1637) and Nand Lal (1633–1715) are the only texts aside from the Granths that can be recited in the gurdwaras. Their compositions are more than just devotional, including social and historical commentary. This was particularly true of the works of Bhai Gurdas, whose 40 lengthy poems, composed in Punjabi, remain popular. Their popularity is vastly greater than that of his 556 brief poems in Braj, a language little read in the Panth today. The compositions of Nand Lal, who wrote in Persian, are also not well known to members of the Panth, because of the language barrier. Nand Lal joined the retinue of Guru Gobind Singh, adopting the pen name Goya (“Eloquentâ€). His works were greatly admired, and such was the respect accorded to him that three rahit-namas were mistakenly attributed to him.

The principal janam-sakhis are the Bala, the Puratan, the Miharban, and the influential works of Santokh Singh (1787–1853), which were published in the first half of the 19th century. Santokh Singh's first contribution, completed in 1823, was Gur Nanak Prakash (“The Splendour of Guru Nanakâ€; also known as the Nanak Prakash), which treated the life of Guru Nanak and relied principally on the Bala tradition. In 1844 he published Gur Pratap Suray (“The Glorious Light of the Gurusâ€; widely known as the Suraj Prakash), which covered the lives of the remaining Gurus.

The earliest of the extant rahit-namas is the Nasihat-Nama (1718–19; “Manual of Instructionâ€), which was erroneously attributed to Nand Lal and wrongly titled the Tanakhah-Nama (“Manual of Penancesâ€). A much longer work dating from the middle of the 18th century and bearing witness to its Brahmanic origins is the Chaupa Singh Rahit-Nama (“The Rahit Manual of Chaupa Singhâ€). Another lengthy rahit-nama from later in the same century is the Prem Sumarag (“The Path of Loveâ€). The series of rahit-namas finally ended with the publication in 1950 by the Tat Khalsa of Sikh Rahit Marayada (“Sikh Custom Concerning the Rahitâ€), which was, unfortunately, little more than a pamphlet and poorly produced, though it remains an influential work in contemporary Sikhism.

The gur-bilas literature produced a style of hagiography that focused on the mighty deeds of the Gurus, particularly Hargobind and Gobind Singh. Unlike the janam-sakhis, the gur-bilas emphasized the destiny of the Gurus to fight against the forces of evil and their supreme courage in this struggle. The enemy against which they fought was, of course, the Mughal Empire. Some gur-bilas also attach great importance to the story of the goddess Devi as a preparation for the founding of the Khalsa. The tradition began with the writing of Bachitar Natak, which appears in the Dasam Granth. Later works include Sukkha Singh's Gur-Bilas Dasvin Patshahi, Koer Singh's Gur-Bilas Patshahi 10, and Sohan's Gur-Bilas Chhevin Patshahi. All gur-bilas predate the rise of the Tat Khalsa and, apart from Bachitar Natak, have received little attention. Their general message is, however, firmly fixed in the modern traditions of the Sikhs.

Among the many works that record the history of the Panth, four are particularly important. The first is Sainapati's Gur Sobha (1711; “Radiance of the Guruâ€), which provides a general account of Guru Gobind Singh's life as well as a description of the founding of the Khalsa. A second work, Ratan Singh Bhangu's Panth Prakash (later termed Prachin Panth Prakash to distinguish it from Gian Singh's work of the same name), was composed in 1809 and completed in 1841; it is notable for its description and high praise of the Khalsa. The two remaining works are Gian Singh's Panth Prakash and his lengthy Tavarikh Guru Khalsa, a labour finally concluded in 1919. These texts, however, cannot be described as works of history in the modern sense, and the works of Ratan Singh Bhangu and Gian Singh are similar to gur-bilas in their treatment of the heroic deeds of the warrior Gurus.

Several commentaries on the Adi Granth have appeared since the rise of the Tat Khalsa. The first, Faridkot Tika, was commissioned by Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot in response to Ernest Trumpp's translation into English of part of the Adi Granth, which Sikhs regarded as grievously insulting. Three volumes were issued during 1905–06, and a fourth volume followed some years later. This work failed to assume an important place among Sikh exegetical works. This, however, was not the fate of the four-volume Shabadarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, published between 1936 and 1941. Although published anonymously, it was mainly the work of Teja Singh. Vir Singh published seven volumes of commentary between 1958 and 1962 but left Santhya Sri Guru Granth Sahib unfinished. Another commentator, Sahib Singh, issued the 10-volume Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darapan between 1962 and 1964.

Among the most important and influential Sikh writers and theologians was Vir Singh, a leading member of the Tat Khalsa, who produced an extraordinary range of literary works in Punjabi prose and poetry. He first won wide popularity as a writer of novels such as Sundari (1943) and Vijay Singh (1899), which dealt with subjects such as the heroism and chivalry of the Sikhs in response to the oppression of Muslim rulers and the subservience of the Hindu masses. His novels also highlighted the excellence of the Sikh religion in comparison with all that surrounded it. Although his novels had lost their appeal by the early 21st century, they were eagerly read in their own time by a large number of Sikhs and set a useful example to other writers. Later in his career Vir Singh gave up writing novels and turned to scriptural commentary. He published a series of pamphlets through his Khalsa Tract Society and in his weekly newspaper (the Khalsa Samachar) and began work on his multivolume commentary on the Adi Granth. Meanwhile, he began to write poetry in Punjabi, including many short poems and also the longer Rana Surat Singh (1905) in blank verse. As always, the background was provided by the Sikh religion. He then turned to Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar (1935), a life of Guru Gobind Singh, followed by Sri Guru Nanak Chamatkar (1936), and later he produced Sri Asht Gur Chamatkar (1951; “The Marvel of the Eight [Other] Gurusâ€), complete only as far as Guru Arjan.

A final work is the polemical treatise Ham Hindu Nahin (“We Are Not Hindusâ€) by Kahn Singh Nabha. First issued in 1898, it was the author's answer to a publication by a Sanatan Sikh, Thakur Das, entitled Sikh Hindu Hain (“Sikhs Are Hindusâ€). Ham Hindu Nahin consists of a discussion between a Sikh and a Hindu and includes sacred Sikh texts on subjects such as the Vedas, gods and goddesses, and caste, among others. The title of the work became the slogan of the Tat Khalsa, and it remained in print throughout the 20th century.

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