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Kirpan literally means “Giver of Graceâ€. This “Giver of Grace†has been a source of conflict with government authorities ever since Sikhs were mandated to arm themselves during Guru Hargobind’s reign in the 17th century. So it should come as no surprise that the Kirpan is yet again the centre of a controversy.

As you all know, the issue this time revolves around 12 year old Gurbaj Singh, who has not been allowed to attend school since November 19th of last year. He is an amritdharee Sikh, who wears a small three-inch Kirpan under his shirt.

With this issue having become such a dramatic news story here in Montreal, and now across Canada, questions concerning the Kirpan have increased dramatically.

It does grow tedious answering the same questions about one’s appearance for so long as those of us who have grown up Sikh can attest to. One begins to form standard responses to these questions that are asked again and again, responses that grow so mechanical in nature that you don’t even think about what it is you are saying.

The one I’ve been using for years concerning the Kirpan is,

“No it’s not a knife. It’s a Kirpan, a ceremonial sword, and it is an essential part of my religion, which is Sikhism. It is a symbol of a Sikh’s duty to defend the helpless, the poor and the downtrodden. A symbol of our daily fight against injustice and tyranny.â€

This answer seemed to work well for years. It was one I was taught at countless Sikh youth camps and religious classes and with few variations it is one that many other Sikhs also use.

Reading this response now, the problems with it are so very apparent. The main one I see, and the one I will be addressing in this essay, is the issue of symbolism.

To illustrate this point, the school board, which is not allowing Gurbaj Singh to attend his classes, is using the following excuse as one of many to defend its position. The board points out how some Sikh children who are “amritdharee†wear only a small “symbolic†Kirpan around their necks, or even a smaller one in their hair. Some even consider the miniscule tiny piece of metal attached to some Kangas as enough of a Kirpan. The question asked by the school board, and by the media, is that if these small “symbolic†Kirpans are good enough for some Sikhs, then why must Gurbaj Singh wear a larger (hardly that large, his Kirpan is barely 3 inches) one.

And therein lies the root of the problem.

The Kirpan has become a symbol, nothing more, and symbols are interchangeable. They have no intrinsic worth in and of themselves. They only stand for something else, and therefore can be replaced, modified or even got rid of completely.

Why did we start calling the Kirpan a mere symbol? I think it has to do with a desire by Sikhs to fit in, to be politically correct and to not be viewed as savages by the wider non-Sikh community. We believe that society will fear and ostracize us if they were to know the true purpose and reason for the Kirpan.

What is even sadder than this blatant manipulation of our own ideology for the sake of convenience is that we ourselves have taken this definition to heart. All over the world Sikhs believe that their Kirpans are mere symbols, nothing more, and that the size, quality and shape of them has no significance or relevance. It speaks to our own insecurities and self hate that we cannot see or accept the true reason for the Kirpan that the Guru has blessed us with. Because of our lack of understanding, we come up with excuses to explain away what we view as a burden, not realizing it is a gift of love. For many Sikhs, the Kirpan does not seem to fit any purpose in their “modern†lives. How relevant and necessary can a weapon be in a liberal, western, developed, democracy like Canada.

If I ask myself, “Is the Kirpan a symbol?†I must answer,


When I look at Sikh history, tradition, ideology, and most importantly, the few authenticated writings of the Tenth Master that have survived, there is no choice but to acknowledge the fact that the Kirpan is a real sword, a weapon, and not a symbol. It is a tool of war that a Sikh is prescribed to keep on one’s self at all times.

It becomes clear that the Guru has put a lot of stress on the wearing of the Kirpan.


Why has so much importance been placed on this aspect of the Sikh form, throughout Sikh tradition and ideology?

To find the answer to the reason for this emphasis, let us look back to when Kirpans first became a formal part of Sikhism to Guru Hargobind’s time.

There are two ways of interpreting the Guru period of Sikh history. One is to see the Gurus as common actors of human history, buffeted by forces out of their control. In this interpretation, the Guru’s actions are understood to be mere responses, plain old historical occurrences. The second method of interpretation, and one that I think is much more appropriate, is viewing the first 239 years of Guru Nanak’s life (from Guru Nanak’s birth in April 1469 to Guru Gobind Singh’s passing of his soul to the Guru Granth Sahib in October 1708) as one large lesson to us, the Sikhs. Every single action that the Guru’s performed in their time as Guru must be viewed in this light. They are the Guru, pure and complete humans, far beyond all other actors on this mundane plane, people free from the impact of the banal movements of historical action and response. The Sikh Guru exists in a sphere of His own creation, as a creature fully attuned to the Hukam of the Timeless One. The Guru’s life span must be RE-understood as one long well thought out lesson, a plan with a clearly defined end result. What is it that every teacher desires of the student? That one day, the teacher will be the student, and the student the teacher. And that is what the end result of Guru Nanak’s plan was, the creation of the Guru Khalsa Panth, before whom Guru Gobind Singh bowed. This historical event on March 28th or 29th, 1699 (see Pal Singh Purewal’s Nanakshahi calendar for more info on the actual date of the creation of the Khalsa: http://www.geocities.com/pspurewal/Purewal.html ) was the culmination of a 239 year long lesson. Guru Gobind Singh remained on this earth for 9 years more nurturing the fledgling Panth, and then let it free, to find its own destiny, with the guidance of his soul in the Guru Granth Sahib.

It can therefore be stated that all of the qualities found in the Khalsa can be traced back to Guru Nanak’s Guruship. This includes the martial tradition within the Sikhs. In fact, popular Sikh tradition, as well as old texts, state that Guru Nanak carried a Barsha (long stick with a spear head tied to the top, still carried by Nihang Singhs) on his travels

It is also a historical fact that Guru Angad started a wrestling camp, Akhara, to promote martial traditions in the fledgling community. And Guru Hargobind (6th Guru)’s own military training was not a random occurrence, or one with no precedence in Sikh history. It was Guru Arjun (5th Guru) himself who ensured that the next Guru would know how to fight in war, and lead troops on the battlefield. In fact, Guru Arjun himself must have had some sort of military training. Many of his compositions in the Guru Granth Sahib use warrior metaphors, hinting at an intimate knowledge of weapons, and there is also the famous story of Guru jee’s wedding with Mata Ganga jee. At his wedding, when he reached Mata Ganga’s village, her brothers and other male relatives complained that a simple Sadhu like Baba Arjun would not be able to care for their sister or her future children. They challenged the Guru to perform a difficult horse maneuver. Guru Arjun accepted the challenge, and proceeded to knock out a peg dug deep into the ground with a wooden lance while riding his horse at full speed. Such a feat would not have been possible without some prior training.

Here is an example of one of Guru jee’s shabads that uses military metaphors:

Guru Hargobind’s donning of arms and formal proclamation of sovereignty at the Takht Akal Bunga Sahib (Akal Takht Sahib) should not be seen as a response to Mughal aggression, but instead a natural outgrowth on the path of evolution to the Khalsa Panth.

Weapons have the ultimate power, the power to end another being’s life. This is a tremendous responsibility for a person to shoulder, and it is not something the Guru’s took lightly. Withouth first ensuring that it would not be abused, the Guru could not have just handed the Sikhs such power. That is just one of the reasons why the martial tradition in Sikhism could not be fully proclaimed right at the founding of the Panth by Guru Nanak in the late 15th century. You cannot give a child a weapon without any guidelines and rules, and expect them to be able to use it responsibly. A tool of war and destruction can only be entrusted on a person after they are taught some very hard lessons, lessons that they will not easily forget. From the time of Guru Nanak to Guru Arjun, small steps were taken to ensure that the Sikhs understood the sanctity and importance of human life. Concepts such as seva, egalitarianism, hard work, justice and the basic rights of all humans were all incorporated into the Sikh ideal.

On the road to the creation of the Khalsa, thousands of lessons were taught to the Sikhs. For purposes of brevity, we will only be looking at those events that directly impact on the topic at hand, the Kirpan and its role in Sikhism.

Before we begin, we must ask ourselves, what is the purpose of the Khalsa? What is the significance of enrolling oneself as a member in the Order of the Khalsa?

The creation of the Khalsa is, as Sardar Kapur Singh so eloquently puts it in his seminal work Parasaraprasna, the dawn of a new era in the history of humanity. The Khalsa is a new type of Human Being, one who is not tied to the old allegiances of nationality, religion, culture and region. A human being who views all divisions, such as one’s gender, race, caste, or any other distinction, as completely irrelevant. The Khalsa is a person who has made an oath to Guru/God to live as the true epitome of what a human being should and ought to be. To live as someone who is fully attuned to the universe. Who loves all, fully and truly. Someone who makes a pledge that their life is of no consequence, and that if such a situation should arise that requires their life be put on the line, would not hesitate in the least to do so. There is nothing more admirable and desirable for a Sikh than to give up this body in order to protect another’s.

Now, how could such a lesson have been taught to the Sikhs? How can a teacher explain to their student that the student must lose all attachment to their body, and be ready to lay down their life in the fight for freedom and justice? Well the answer lies in the old adage that the generals who command the most loyalty are the ones that lead their troops into battle, putting their own lives on the line. A teacher can only really lead by example, and so if the Guru’s expected their Sikhs to view their own bodies as being of no consequence, then the Gurus had to show that they themselves had no attachment to this mortal frame.

And that is just what Guru Arjun did. He gave one of the most important lessons in the history of the Khalsa. His martyrdom is a foundation stone of the Khalsa Panth. Guru Arjun’s body was brutally tortured, but his resolve did not waver in the slightest. Through three days of what would be unimaginable pain, he flinched not once, retaining the calm disposition of a man who is completely in tune with the God within us all. If Sikhs want to learn how to face death they need not look further than their Fifth Master. His shaheedi is a shining example that will never lose its relevance with the passage of time. Guru Arjun gave to his Sikhs their fearlessness, fearlessness in the face of insurmountable odds and hardships. He taught us how to deal with the most painful of situations and circumstances with complete grace and dignity, and how it is a Sikh should view this body we have been given.

Lesson numbers two and three in the development of the Kirpan would be Guru Hargobind’s formal militarization of the Sikh nation. His pronouncement from the newly built Takht Akal Bunga Sahib that all Sikhs must from now on carry weapons of war on their person heralded a major step on the path to the Khalsa.

It is here that we begin to understand why governments will always have problems with the Kirpan, regardless of how tolerant they may claim to be.

A quote by Sardar Kapur Singh would be appropriate,

“… (the sword) is by ancient tradition and association, a typical weapon of offence and defense and, hence, a fundamental right of the free man, the sovereign individual to wear it. All governments and rulers, whether ancient or modern, have insisted and do insist on their right to control and curtail the right of a citizen to wear arms. Indeed, in the final analysis, a government or the State is sustained and supported by organized power and the exclusive right of possession or arms, a citizen’s right to wear arms being conceded as only a permissive and licensed character. It follows from this that the measure of freedom to posses and wear arms by an individual is the precise measure of his freedom and sovereignty.â€

Sardar Kapur Singh, from Parasaraprsna, pp.107-108

As Sardar states, a state’s power comes through its ability to limit the use of weapons by its subjects. The right to carry weapons is one that is solely open to the state, and to state authorities. Citizens that wish to carry arms, are either not allowed to at all, or are severely restricted in this right, and forced to carry licenses, have to fulfill strict requirements, have severe restrictions placed on the type of weapons they may own, and are limited in how they may go about carrying their weapons. Without this right, a state loses its legitimacy, and its right to govern. And it is here that the true revolutionary aspect of wearing a Kirpan comes to the fore.

The wearing of swords by Sikhs was a direct affront to the Mughal regime. It was an open challenge to the state authorities. And that open challenge has lost none of its fervor or importance four hundred years later. The Sikhs have been promised independence from the Guru. It is our birth right as the Khalsa.

As Guru Gobind Singh says,

The Kirpan is our way of showing to the world that we as Sikhs will never bow down to any state authority. The Sikhs of the Guru recognize only one authority, and that is God. We recognize only one throne, and that is the Eternal Throne of the Timeless one, the Takht Akal Bunga Sahib. Our Kirpans are our passports of freedom.

The Kirpan is a tool of sovereignty. This can be best understood by the following quote of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib,

Religion is the key to life. Sovereignty is the key to religion, and as Guru jee states quite clearly, weapons are the key to sovereignty. Without weapons you can have no sovereignty, without sovereignty, religion cannot flourish, without religion, all is destroyed.

The second lesson Guru Hargobind imparted to his Sikhs concerning the Kirpan is of a more practical concern.

Guru Hargobind was Guru for longer than any other, besides Guru Nanak of course. While he is mostly remembered in the minds of Sikhs as the warrior Guru, in actuality, he fought only four battles, all of them relatively minor in scope and early in his Guruship (their relevance to Sikh history and philosophy however are huge). After these battles were done with Guru Hargobind Sahib founded the city of Kiratpur Sahib, far off in Eastern Punjab in the Shivalik Hills, in the area now on the border between Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. This was a secluded area, far from the center of power in Punjab, Lahore, which his previous capital of Chak Ramdaspur (Amritsar) was extremely close to. This was a place free from threat and outside intervention and so, many Sikhs asked the Guru why Kirpans were still necessary to carry at all times?

Guru Hargobind told his trusted Sikh, the eminent Bhai Gurdas to answer the Sikhs’ queries for him. Bhai Gurdas gave three simple examples in the way of an answer. Here is one of them,

“When your house catches fire, do you go out and start digging a well, making a bucket, and fetching the water? Or do you make the well before hand, have everything ready and prepared, and therefore in case a fire does occur, you can easily go fetch water and put the flames out.â€

Bhai Sahib’s answer could not be more clear. You need to be ready to fight at any second. A threat is always imminent. Sikhs have a warrior culture and promote their warrior ideals in order to keep that ideal alive every generation. Even if Sikhs grow used to peace, which we never really do, since its only a matter of time until we face persecution again, we must be reminded that we are warriors, so that when a threat to freedom arises, we will be ready and prepared to strike it down quickly.

More importantly there are threats everyday to our selves and to those around us. To help protect against them, the Sikh must always be prepared. Thus making the Kirpan essential.

The most common criticism of the Kirpan is that it has outlived its usefulness in the modern world. Many people claim that one can do little with a small Kirpan, and so why bother carrying one at all, especially when the police is just a quick three-digit phone call away. Or if one must, why not carry a gun, or some other more “useful†weapon.

Let us break down this argument along two lines. The first concerns the usefulness of a sword in a peaceful, largely law-abiding society. Those that claim a Kirpan is a complete waste and can do nothing, need to think about how useful a Kirpan of a decent size and of good quality can be. With proper training, it can be very useful, and can be the only factor between life and death.

Another point is that as a real last-resort self-defense tool, the Kirpan should be of a certain length. How large? Shaheed Baba Jarnail Singh states that a nine inch Kirpan is the bare minimum of personal defense. This seems reasonable, for a weapon any smaller would be hard to use without excellent training. For an even clearer injunction and one that carries more authority and weight, a little known Hukamnama from Takht Sachkhand Sri Hazur Sahib at Nanded, Maharastra is very useful. This Hukamnama was written in response to the British administration in the sub-continent banning the Kirpan in 1913.

Guru Gobind Singh, the Master of the universe, since the day of revelation of the Khalsa Panth, issued a command to Sikhs to wear the Kirpan at all times, which has been a part of the Khalsa since that point. Now, for some time a few Sikhs in Punjab have begun wearing very small Kirpans. Several Sikhs have requested the Takht Sahib to issue an injunction as to what should be the minimum size of the Kirpan. So, it is the verdict of the Takht that the Kirpan that is to be carried in the sword belt, (gatra or kamarkasa) be no less than one foot (30 centimeters) in length.

Dated: 20 Assu, 444 Nanakshahi calendar (September 1913)

Signed: Sohee Hari Singh Pujari, Ram Singh, Prem Singh Dhupeeyai, Master Sda Singh, Nihang Granthi Hazura Singh, Granthi Man Singh, Sodhi Karam Singh Rasaldar and Nambardar and Nanu Singh lawyer of the Gurudwuara Sahib.

Guru Hargobind gave to us two key lessons in the development of the Kirpan: sovereignty and the warrior ideal. Both of these explanations of the Kirpan must be kept close to mind and heart. Our Kirpan is a tool of protection, both of one’s self and more importantly, the protection of others, but it is also a tool of achieving and maintaining our sovereignty, and it is sign of freedom from all mundane earthly institutions.

Up this point in Sikh history, to sum up, the Gurus have created a people who are fearless in the face of death and are fully armed and prepared for battle at all times. This combination could have proven disastrous. What would stop a fearless battle ready people from going out and taking whatever they wished. They could run completely amok, destroying all, subjugating innocents to their rule, and expanding their power in a never ending thirst for control. To firmly and resolutely ensure that such an abuse of power would never occur, the Guru’s gave us the fourth major lesson that allowed us to wear our Kirpans. It is perhaps the most important.

The lesson is that act of singular courage when Guru Tegh Bahadur gave up his head in the streets of Delhi for the cause of freedom. When Guru Tegh Bahadur laid down his life for the Freedom of Choice, Thought and Expression, he set up a failsafe that ensured for all time that his Sikhs would never abuse the human rights of others. We might be fearless and carry weapons, but Sikhs have never been known to take away the rights of minority groups, to wage war on innocents, to oppress others, or in any way not allow people their basic human freedoms. Quite the opposite is true in fact. This tradition can be traced back to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s very clear lesson to us. Even if you disagree with the choice another people make, as the Gurus did disagree with the basic tenants of Hinduism, a Sikh still has the duty to put their life on the line so that others can make those choices, just as Guru Tegh Bahadur did for the Hindus. The choices made by these people might be “bad†or “wrong†in our eyes, but every human being has that freedom to choose their own destiny. As long as what they chose does not harm those around them they should be free to do what they wish.

It is in defense of human rights that Guru Gobind Singh exhorted his Sikhs to turn to the sword, and by extension to war. This option is to be taken where the situation is a life and death one and there exits no longer any other viable alternative. This idea is explained in Guru Gobind Singh’s letter of victory to Aurangzeb,

When we go out into the world and explain to people why it is we wear our Kirpans, we must be able to let them know what its true reason and purpose is. We have a duty to all those who died for its creation, and for our right to wear it over the centuries. From Guru Arjun up to today, all that blood spilt. We must have the courage to say that, no this is not just a symbol of ours, this is a tool to be used in the battle for human rights, this is a weapon of self defense, this is a sign of our sovereignty as the Khalsa Panth, and this is what gives us the right to call ourselves the Guru Khalsa Panth.

In the end, however, this Kirpan will always mean different things to us all. The explanation in the small but eloquently written pamphlet, “We are not Symbols†is the most beautiful to me. The author of the short story explains that this is not a symbol, but a gift. A gift of love from a mother to her child, from one close friend to another, from a Guru to his Sikh. And as a gift of love, those of us blessed to have received this gift will have our own explanation for it. We can look back at Sikh history and ideology for guidance, but it is a personal thing. The Kirpan, as with all the other Kakkars, are very intimate signs of a bond between ourselves and our infinitely loving Guru. This Kirpan of ours can never be devalued. Those who made it determine its worth. This is the Kirpan for which Guru Nanak made the mold, Guru Arjun started the fire, Guru Hargobind poured the steel, and Guru Gobind Singh cooled and perfected. This is the Kirpan of our Guru’s. And we should be awed and honoured that they found us fit to carry it.

Let us not let them down.

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i only read half of the article... but from what i've read, it's brilliant! it highlights the underlying insecurities our community has as it panders for acceptance from the perceived superior white man.

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i only read half of the article... but from what i've read, it's brilliant! it highlights the underlying insecurities our community has as it panders for acceptance from the perceived superior white man.

I haven't read the whole article as of yet, but I just wanted to comment on the bold...You live in the white man's country..the issue of the kirpan is a very delicate one with them...not as black and white for them...but it's still their country, catch my drift...you can't move to a foreign country, and expect them to adapt all their laws to suit a minority right away...over time changes will occur

just my thoughts.

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I haven't read the whole article as of yet, but I just wanted to comment on the bold...You live in the white man's country..the issue of the kirpan is a very delicate one with them...not as black and white for them...but it's still their country, catch my drift...you can't move to a foreign country, and expect them to adapt all their laws to suit a minority right away...over time changes will occur

just my thoughts.

Seems to say: just hold on a bit longer, it'll all work itself out (no evidence that it will). And what about Sikhs who were born outside India, or white people taking up Sikhism? Sikhism belongs to humanity without borders, so it's a simple matter of religious rights.

Also, the white man isn't perceived as superior. No good passing that assertion off as fact.

Not that I care one way or another. When the time comes when kirpan is fully accepted throughout the land 100% credit will go to Amrik Singh of Sikh Federation whether he deserves it or not.

Bhang Paneer

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  • 1 year later...


As Guru Gobind Singh says,

The Kirpan is our way of showing to the world that we as Sikhs will never bow down to any state authority.

Im sorry but I dont believe he said this. I believe Guru Ji forth for righteousness for everyones rights, against oppression not authority. This would make us look lawless otherwise. This is why some hindus think that Guru Gobind Singh Ji was insane, but I beg to differ.

I agree that the Kirpan is a shastar though.

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