I have always loved listening to saakhis.
All kinds…from stories about the Guru’s childhood and their travels, to the tales of courage and bravery of the Khalsa on the battlefield – there is nothing I loved more than to be transported to the era of my Gurus and the heroes of our faith.
Whether it was at home, the Khalsa School, or Gurmat camp, I would take every opportunity I could to listen to a saakhi about Sikh history…my history.
Much of that enthusiasm carried through my childhood, but as an adolescent, I started listening with a more critical ear. I remember once at camp, a teacher shared with us the story of Vaisakhi.
I’d heard the story hundreds of times, but it was one my favourites, so I listened attentively. As he told us about the Guru’s call to the crowd that day and finally one man standing and offering his head, he said that Guru Sahib then “brought him in to an enclosed tent and returned minutes later with a sword dripping in blood.”
Wait!…What? Sword dripping in blood? Where did this come from? I immediately raised my hand, and the instructor explained that Guru Sahib had slaughtered a goat behind the tent. I never heard this before. Why would Guru Sahib need to fool the crowd in this way? Weren’t they shocked enough that he was asking for a head in the first place? Why did this saakhi have to be unnecessarily embellished? I wondered how many other different “versions” of the saakhi were out there.
After much debate on this saakhi with the instructor and friends, I started re-thinking many of the saakhis I grew up with. Unlike gurbani, many of these stories have been passed down generations through oral tradition and have only recently been documented in the last hundred or so years, so how do we know what is fact and what is fiction?
Especially those that border the realm of logic…the ones I was always amazed by. Did Baba Deep Singh really fight in battle with his head in his hand? In Mecca, did the Kaaba really move to the direction of Guru Nanak’s feet?
I remember a student asking me at Gurmat camp once why Guru Nanak stopped a boulder with his bare hand if the Gurus were averse to using “magical powers.”
Although I started to doubt many of the saakhis I grew up with, it did not shake my faith. In fact, what inspired me most of the Guru’s lives were some of their worldly accomplishments – they were artists, poets, soldiers, human rights activists, environmentalists, city planners, architects, businessmen – all while living a productive family life.
The fact that Guru Sahib took a stand against the caste system at age 9 by refusing to wear the Hindu janeeo…this is what amazes me! The fact my Guru directly challenged oppressors like Babar during his brutal invasion and called him out as a tyrant…this to me is the magic of Guru Nanak!
Furthermore, some of these “super-hero” like saakhis that defy reality can be harmful too. Why would we want to make the Gurus larger than life and further distance ourselves from them? Maybe this is why people have resorted to babas and other intermediaries because we have made the Guru so “off-limits.” After much thought on this, I stayed away from these “questionable” saakhis at camps and retreats and focused on those that were more logical or could be supported through bani.
Many years have passed and as I’ve started telling saakhis to my own children, I find myself with a dilemma. Part of me wants to tell the same stories I was told as a kid, so I can see their eyes light up in enthusiasm and amazement, the same way mine did…even if the stories are a bit exaggerated.
Although I’ve decided to share only those saakhis that seem more realistic and practical, I still tend to “leave a little room.” As I’ve discovered on my journey of Sikhi, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t there when Guru Sahib squeezed milk from Bhai Laalo’s bread and blood from Malik Bhago’s. I wasn’t there when he stopped the boulder with his hand. I wasn’t there when Guru Sahib asked that his feet be moved away from the direction of the Kaaba…so perhaps I shouldn’t let my parameters of logic restrict my understanding of history.
Maybe through simran, further reflection, and learning…my parameters will also change.
We come from a rich and proud history. And as we individually connect with the events through our story-telling tradition, there is likely to be variation in the ways our stories are told. What is more important is that we are able to extract the central message – whether it is equality, truth, justice, or compassion.
I hope that saakhis continue to inspire generations to come and the eyes of Sikh children (and adults) continue to light up with these tales of compassion, courage and heroism.
Because when a saakhi from our history is conveyed with enthusiasm, emotion, and love…it is nothing short of magic!