When I was assigned to teach a history class at a Sikh youth camp this Summer, I was nervous.
For years, I’ve been trying to focus on learning and teaching gurmat, so the idea of going back to memorizing names and dates was intimidating. But after dusting off a few books and re-learning about our 18th century heroes – Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, Bhai Mani Singh, Bhai Taru Singh, and so many more…I was captivated. And although part of me re-read history with the same excitement and curiosity as a child, another part of me read it through the lens of our current day challenges.
As far back as I can remember, I would teach Sikh history with an immense sense of pride…perhaps even with a touch of entitlement. I would speak about how honor and valor were traits we inherited directly from our Guru and all of the shaheeds that followed. I would speak of the lineage of bravery and courage that we came from, where our ancestors stood up to the most heinous of oppressors. I spoke about Sikh history as though heroism ran through our blood. As though by growing up in a Sikh family, we’ve inherited a trait of fearlessness that somehow made us more special.
These days…I’m not so sure. Reflecting on the Khalsa of the 18th century has given me pause.
From living day to day with a price on your head, from surviving life in the jungles with nothing, to sleeping on horseback – all while fighting tyranny and remaining in a state of chardi kalaa…it’s overwhelming. After the vada ghalugara, where historians quote one-third to nearly half of the Sikh population was completely wiped out, it would only be a matter of months before the Khalsa would capture Sirhind, then Amritsar, and ultimately Lahore, all while carrying out campaigns to free thousands of men & women from slavery. Even in our most difficult of times with the most limited of resources, we were defending the defenseless. I am fascinated by their resilience.
If we look at the lives and sacrifices of Bhai Taru Singh, Baba Deep Singh, Mai Bhago, and so many others, it is clear to me – they earned their right to be in the pages of Sikh history.
They earned their right to be displayed on the walls of our gurdwaras and homes of Sikhs all over the world for centuries.
They earned the right to have their lives memorialized in bedtime stories for every Sikh child.
They earned it.
I, however, have earned nothing.
I believe that our shaheeds did not give their lives so hundreds of years later we could bask in their glory, instead, they gave their lives so we can create our own glory…today.
And today, when I read sad and depressing news, I often think, ”What would the Khalsa do?” I don’t know for sure…but history tells me they would be at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline
History tells me they would be on the ground in Aleppo
History tells me they would be aiding refugees stranded across Europe.
History tells me they would be arm in arm with #BlackLivesMatter protestors throughout the US
…and so many more struggles, the worst of them, which will never make international headlines. If there’s one thing I’m convinced of, it’s that the world needs the Khalsa now more than ever.
When teaching Sikh history, I focus heavily on the time Sikhs organized themselves in misls, made tough decisions and resolved conflict through Sarbat Khalsa. And how the commitment to Guru Granth & Guru Panth moved us forward as a nation. This is a time where we seemed invincible. I often refer to it as the “glory days.”
But I wonder, how long will I have to keep bringing up slides of 18th century Sikhs to talk about how spirited we were?
A hundred years from now, I hope my great-great-grand children are not pointing at those same slides that I do today. Instead, I want them to talk about the early 21st century Sikhs and how they transformed the panth. I want them to say…
They were the generation that wiped out drugs in Punjab
They were the generation who stood side by side with minority communities in protest all throughout the US
They were the ones who freed all the Sikh Political prisoners
They were the ones who showed up first when natural disaster struck
They were the generation that ended farmer suicides
They were the generation who opened their homes to refugees when the rest of the world turned them away
They were the generation that re-instituted the Sarbat Khalsa
They were the generation that made gender equality in Sikhi more than a principle, but a practice, the way Guru Sahib intended
They were the ones who put the architects of the 1984 pogroms in jail
They were the ones who ended the global water crisis
They were the ones who ended the ban on women doing keertan and seva at Darbar Sahib
They were the generation that reminded us…that we were sovereign
…those first few decades of the 21st century were an inflection point for the Sikh qaum, and the Sikhs of that generation answered the call. Those were the glory days.
When I shared these thoughts with my class and asked, “what it’s going to take for us to be the generation that turned things around?“…a hand went up, and the answer was “We need to educate!” And for the first time ever, I said that answer was wrong. Truth is…it’s going to take more than education. It is going to take more than awareness. For Sikhs to rise to the challenges that stand before us, both as a qaum and to solve broader problems in the world…we need ideas, we need creativity, we need action, we need grit, and most of all…we need to hold one another accountable. We may not have inherited courage and bravery from our heroes and sheroes of the past, but our Gurus and champions of Sikh history surely set an example. They have cleared a path for us…now all we need to do is walk it.