Sikh Society: forged in the frontier


Before Samuel Huntington banalised the study of international relations with his Clash of Civilisations thesis, there was Halford Mackinder who attempted (unwittingly of course) to do the same with history – with his Geographical Pivot of History thesis. (I am perhaps being unfair to Mackinder with the comparison – more on this later.)

However, just like Huntington’s thesis despite being a flattening of history (similar to another forgotten intellectual’s attempts at flattening globalisation in its simplification of diversity of experiences – cultural for one, economic for the other) – in Mackinder’s Geographic Pivot there were glimmers of theoretical reasoning. The thesis was imperialist and reductionist but it has value if only in a literary sense. (This would appal Mackinder, since her built his ‘theory’ as a counter to literary historians of ideas.)

Mackinder’s foundational logic was – that geography provides a stage to men, or Man (as he would prefer) which determines the scope of their movements, entries and exits, in the various Acts (eras) in the long drama of History – was the core thesis that civilisations were either broken (and destroyed) by invasion or they were rejuvenated through resistance.

The European civilisational core, Mackinder said, a backwater in the western edge of the Eurasian peninsula after the fall of Rome, was rejuvenated by successive waves of resistance to Saracens (Arabs) and Turks, as raiders from the land, and Vikings, as raiders of the sea. The raiders of the land were especially important for this reading of history, as they came from the Heartland – the grand central steppe lands of Eurasia, riding grounds of the horselords of the World Island – who in successive waves of the turning of the wheel of time fell upon the marginal, or peninsular lands, of the Eurasian megacontinent.

The civilisations of Greece and Rome were shattered by them. China was forever changed, and only the turning of Kublai Khan to a symbiosis of Tengri-ism, Dharma and Sinicisation might have preserved a semblance of the past into posterity. India, too, was shattered by wave after wave of invasions out from the Heartland. India, too, survived. But to what extent? I will not even attempt to answer this!

I will restrict myself to a reading of history I proposed in a previous essay (Sangat and Society: the Sikh Remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere). I discussed how Guru Nanak’s founding of Kartarpur as a model Sikh-Sangatarian society was a response from below to the anarchy from above unleashed by Babur’s invasion of India. Guru Nanak had been eyewitness to the destruction caused by the internecine warfare of Turco-Mongolic Princes in Khurasan, or the wider edges of the Heartland where it transitioned into the Marginal lands (because on the peninsular margins of Eurasia.

Sangatarianism was a civilisational response of North Indian society to waves of invasions from the Heartland. This is, of course, the plainest reading of the Sikh idea of the Sangat. The Sikh Sangat was both a support structure for the unprotected and gradually a bulwark against invasion from ‘outside’ and rejuvenation from within.

These days Sikhs are gaining (well deserved) respect for the community’s response (especially through langar seva) as a civil society support structure in this time of crisis. This should not be surprising for those who know Sikh society was forged in crisis, and one could argue, as a response to it.

Sikhs know how to organise and respond in times such as these. Much of this is due to a spirit of ascendant existentialism (chad-di kala) rather than giving way to nihilism. Sikhs have been through many eras of persecution, but the spirit of ascendant existentialism has prevented the community from falling into chagrin. There is a proverb I will translate loosely, speaking of the persecutions of a Mughal provincial governor who had sanctioned Sikhs and proclaimed a reward of coins on Sikh heads. The persecuted Sikhs of the era, far from being cowed down made a song of this –

Manu is our scythe, we are his crop of wild weed,

The more he chops our heads, the more we grow indeed.

Ascendant Existentialism implies the acceptance of death, cultivating an attitude of readiness for death, but not allowing this to suppress the vital joy of life. This is crucial to the ethos of a frontier society.

Today, in a sense, the entire global community has become a frontier society – living precariously. For some people such as doctors and healthcare workers, even day to day. Maybe cultivating a spirit of ascendant existentialism can do us all some good.

Finally, to end this with my promise to ‘be fair’ to Mackinder. His view that external threat can sometimes revitalise civilisations is a solid proposition. To survive times of crisis, we need to draw on the best of ourselves. And if we do come out on the other side, it is, then, the best of us that survives. Now of course I’m not making some foolish survival of the fittest argument. The fittest is not necessarily the best, and vice versa. What, then, is our, as humanity, ‘best’ – at this stage in our civilisational history? We will find out on the other side, perhaps. Perhaps we already have.


Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere

[Author’s note: With the celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 550th Anniversary and the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor being in the news, this is an opportunity for discussing the importance of the Sikh message, not just from a religious perspective – for Sikhs – but for Indian history. This article places the founding of Kartarpur, and Guru Nanak’s message, in a historical context – juxtaposing it with Babur’s founding of the Mughal Empire.]

I. Turning of the Wheel: Baba Nanak and Babur

In 1519, Babur invaded India – ‘ever since coming to Kabul we had been thinking of a Hindustan campaign, but for one reason or another it had not been possible,’ he writes in the Baburnama (translated by William Thackston, see pp 270-280). For some time his armies had been campaigning on the frontiers of the Hindu Kush, but these campaigns had yielded ‘nothing of consequence to the soldiers’. So, he turned to Hindustan. In the next few months, despite dogged resistance by the Afghans, Gujjars and Jats of the upper reaches of the Jhelum and Chenab, northern Punjab was subjugated, and plundered, by Babur’s armies. Babur himself spent most of his days inebriated, contemplating the legacy of Timur and setting poems to rhythmic metres. While his next great invasion of Punjab would come few years from then, in this interregnum, Punjab burned.

Among the towns and villages devastated was the settlement of Sayyidpur.

It was not long after Babur’s march of death through Punjab that Guru Nanak returned home from his western voyages – to Mecca, through Baghdad, Masshad, Khurasan, to Kabul, Peshawar, and, finally, to Sayyidpur. To the house of a humble carpenter, Bhai Lalo (Janam Sakhi Parampara by Kirpal Singh, pp 138-140). Continue reading “Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere”