Over the next few nights, Sikhs all over the world will be heading to their Gurdwaras or joining in sangat to remember the lives, bravery, and martyrdom of the chotay sahibzadey. In our household, this has taken on extra meaning this year, as the recent blockbuster film Chaar Sahibzaadey has brought the personality of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s sons to life and inspired us all. I have closely followed the discussion of the film and even some of the debate…in particular, the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji. Now this is not a critique of the film, but an attempt to engage in a broader dialogue.
Over the years teaching Sikh history to children, I’ve struggled with the story of Mata Guri Ji. When I read history, I see Mata Gujri Ji along with Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib as the ones who shaped young Gobind Rai, the warrior-poet, who would ultimately become the father of the Khalsa. And even with the difficult circumstances after Guru Tegh Bahadur’s shaheedi, Mata Gujri Ji played a critical role in managing affairs of the panth and inspired the soldiers at the Battle of Bhangani. She also played an instrumental role in the training and upbringing of her grandsons. And when Mata Gujri Ji and the chotay sahibzadey were held captive in the thanda burj for days, it was she who recited baani for them and inspired them through stories of their grandfather, father, and gurus before them. It was she who motivated them to remain firm in their faith, so much so that when the entire fate of the khalsa panth rested on their shoulders – a 7 and 9 year old – they responded fearlessly, with such courage and bravery that they continue to inspire the Sikh nation 300 years later. So when the worried Mata Gujri Ji, upon learning of the execution of her grandsons, is so overcome with emotion that she faints and dies…it gives me pause.
There is a part of me that appreciates the movie’s portrayal of Mata Gurji Ji. After all, she was a human being who suffered incredible losses. Humans are complex and it’s perfectly reasonable that she can be the stoic matriarch, yet still feel pain and sadness. But there’s also a part of me that thinks something else…maybe we have it wrong.
In one of the debates over Facebook on the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji in the film, a friend said “You have to know true Gursikhs in order to portray them.” This thought resonated with me and made me reflect. As human beings, our perceptions of things are bounded by our knowledge. And more so than our knowledge…our experiences. Sikh history is no different; we can connect with it only as far as our boundaries will take us. So perhaps as educators, storytellers, and filmmakers…our experiences have limited us.
In my pre-teen years, when I was exposed to the rehat maryada for the first time, I couldn’t imagine Sikhs actually living this discipline “to the letter.” I could only picture images in my head of the “puratan singhs” who lived like this. And so I would dismiss the rehat, calling it “outdated” and more of a “guideline” than a code. But then I ventured out of my circle, and I met Gursikhs who lived this discipline – to the letter – from waking up at amritvela, engrossed in simran, reciting baani, and interacting with others with such love that you knew you were in the company of guru-centered Sikhs. After this experience, this “ideal” image of the Sikh all of a sudden didn’t feel so distant. Sometimes I reflect on the torture of Bhai Sati Daas, Bhai Mati Das and Bhai Dayala Ji at the hands of Aurangzeb and it’s incomprehensible. But after speaking to Singhs who withstood horrific torture by the hands of the Indian State in the 80’s and 90’s, my perspective sharpens and I look at stories of shaheedi throughout our history with a different lens. It all feels much closer. And when I listen to the accounts of mothers throughout the 80’s and 90’s whose fathers, husbands, and sons were taken or murdered before their eyes and they live on to speak with courage and remain in the chardi kalaa, I think to myself…that is Mata Gujri Ji.
So the lesson I’ve taken from this is simple, in fact it’s one my Guru tells me multiple times a day…be in the company of Gursikhs. It will expand my boundaries. It will not only help me connect with my Guru, but also connect me with my history in a way I never have before.