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Amritsar & Lahore

by ARNOLD TOYNBEE

 

The following is a chapter from East to West  -  A Journey Round the World, by Arnold Toynbee, the greatest historian/philosopher of the twentieth century. Toynbee was also the author of the monumental A Study of History. 

 

Minnesotan reader, imagine, if you can, that the perversity of human nature has split your splendid state in two, by driving an international frontier in between Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

Imagine that every Catholic in the United States, north-west of that outrageous line, has had to flee for his life, leaving home, job and professions behind him, and cross the line to live the wretched life of a "displaced person" on the safe side of it. 

Imagine that every Protestant south-east of the line has had to make the same tragic migration, in the opposite direction. 

And, then imagine that the road traffic across the new frontier has been entirely cut off (there is a no-man's land, two miles broad, that is forbidden ground for cars traveling in either direction).  Railroad traffic still survives, but it has been reduced to a single train a day.  The armed guards on board it change, as the fearsome border is crossed. 

Imagine all this, and you will have pictured to yourself what has happened in real life to that unfortunate country, the Panjab, and its historic twin cities, Amritsar and Lahore.

Amritsar is a creation of the Sikh religion. 

The Golden Temple was planted in the wilds, and a secular city grew up around it.  But, till the deadly partition in 1947, a Sikh who lived in Amritsar never dreamed that he might be debarred from carrying on his profession in Lahore, while a Muslim who lived in Lahore never dreamed that he might be debarred from owning and cultivating a field in the district of Amritsar.  Lahore was the Sikhs' and Muslims' common capital; the broad Panjab countryside was the common source of their livelihood.

Why has the rankling memory of an ancient feud impelled these once-intermingled communities to sort themselves out at such a dreadful cost to both of them? 

The fate that they have brought on themselves seems ironic to the foreign inquirer who feels sympathy for both alike; for, as it appears to the outsider, the Sikh faith and Islam have a close affinity with one another.  The atmosphere of Amritsar strikes a Western observer as being decidedly Islamic and, indeed, almost Protestant. 

Hindu worship is a casual, disorderly affair; Sikh worship is as precise and as highly disciplined as the proceedings in a mosque or in a Calvinist church.  The Granth Sahib, which is the Sikh Khalsa's holy scripture, is an anthology in which selections from the works of Kabir and other Muslim mystics find a place beside the works of Guru Nanak, the father of the Sikh faith.  And the veneration paid to the Granth Sahib goes beyond the furthest extremes of Protestant Christian bibliolatry. 

Why could not Sikhs and Muslims - and, for that matter, Hindus as well - go on living side by side in an unpartitioned Panjab?  The perversity of human nature is the greatest of the mysteries of human life.

We took that international train and arrived at Lahore, without incident, in advance of the scheduled time.  How strange to see Ranjit Singh's tomb shouldering its way between fort and mosque.  It was certainly a provocative act to plant the Sikh warlord's sculpture at the most sensitive spot in the Muslim quarters of Lahore. 

But then, who built that magnificently austere imperial masjid, whose courtyard is bigger than that of any other mosque in the sub-continent?  The builder was Aurangzeb. 

And who committed the provocative act of razing the principal Hindu temple in Benares and planting a mosque in its place?  Aurangzeb, again.  Who else could it be? 

And so, the tale of wrong and counter-wrong stretches back through a long chain of generations.

As a result of Partition, Lahore has gained in political importance.  It is no longer the capital of a unitary Panjab, but it has now become the capital of a unitary Western Pakistan.  Yet it is no longer what it was when Kim clambered over the famous cannon (which still stands in its place) in a city that was then still a common home for the followers of three faiths. 

Amritsar has a surer future, for it will remain the religious centre of the Sikhs so long as the Khalsa endures; and the Sikhs, in losing the Panjab, have gained the world.  Today, they are established all over India (above the wheel of every second bus and taxi, you spy that unmistakable bearded and turbaned head).  And they have not kept within India's frontiers.  They have made their way eastwards, through Burma and Singapore and Hong Kong, to the Pacific slope of Canada. 

They are the burliest men on the face of the planet  -  tough and capable and slightly grim.  If human life survives the present chapter of Man's history, the Sikhs, for sure, will still be on the map.

 

[From East to West  -  A Journey Round the World, by Arnold Toynbee. Oxford University Press, London, 1958, pp. 121-23.]

February 11, 2008

 

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Banglore, India), February 12, 2008, 7:36 AM.

Sikhs now feature in every profession imaginable: scientists, engineers and doctors; notable Sikhs include nuclear scientist Professor Piara Singh Gill who worked on the Manhattan project; fiber optics scientist ("the father of fibre optics") Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany; physicist and science writer/broadcaster Simon Singh and agricultural scientist, Professor Baldev Singh Dhillon. And so on and so forth ...

2: Prem Singh (London, England), February 12, 2008, 10:38 AM.

"Slightly grim"? Strange to read how others perceive you, isn't it?

3: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), February 14, 2008, 5:52 AM.

No wonder Guruji had given a premonition many centuries ago when they wrote "Lahore shehr zeher keher". Pakistan has now become the centre of global terror. And, in the next line, Guruji writes: "Amritsar sifti da ghar" - Amritsar is a blessed city.

4: I.J. Singh (New York, USA), February 14, 2008, 4:45 PM.

One comment by Toynbee should make us sit up and take notice. He says, "And the veneration paid to the Granth Sahib goes beyond the furthest extremes of Protestant Christian bibliolatry." Yes, this is exactly what we do when we are unable or unwilling to engage the Guru by reading the Guru Granth, but are content to worship it by lamps, air conditioning, ornate rumallas, incense and aarti. This tells us how far we have departed from the message of Sikhi. A telling comment by an astute observer; now, the onus is ours.

5: Harjinder Singh (AjeetGarh, Punjab), August 15, 2009, 5:15 AM.

Arnold Toynbee refers to "Real Sikhs": Those who call themselves Sikhs, get up early in the morning and do Naam Simran; take ishnaan (bath) ...

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