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THE BIRTH OF THE KHALSA: A FEMINIST RE-MEMORY OF SIKH IDENTITY

Reviewed by Laurie Bolger

THE BIRTH OF THE KHALSA: A FEMINIST RE-MEMORY OF SIKH IDENTITY by
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005.
224 pages. Price: $ 25.95



In her Introduction, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Colby College, touchingly describes how she has been inspired throughout her life by her late father, the eminent Sikh scholar Harbans Singh. She reminisces how a visit, shortly after his death, to Anandpur Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, caused her to reflect upon the meaning of this pivotal moment in Sikh history, and prompted her desire to explore its vital, but overlooked, female dimension. Although it was indisputably instrumental in creating a unique identity for the entire Sikh community, it is an event that has been recorded only by men.

Her book is aimed at constructing a "re-memory" of this moment from the perspective of Sikh women, whom she characterizes as "passive and silent objects of centuries-old cultural burdens," and "victims of hypermasculine attitudes and practices." In her opinion, focusing a feminist eye on the androcentric manner in which the birth of the Khalsa has been traditionally studied is essential to restructuring our views of this event, making it the true liberation for all Sikhs that Guru Gobind Singh intended. She believes that recasting the Tenth Master as the Mother of the Khalsa -- rather than as the Lord of the Khalsa -- will allow us to experience the full force and joy of the Khalsa's birth.

She begins with discussing the "conception" of the Khalsa in Guru Gobind Singh's "creative womb." Through the "sonogram" of Bicitra Natak, which she describes as the Guru's "self-portrait," his values and emotions become the nutrients of the "gestation process," shaping the physique and psyche of the "embryonic Khalsa." Confining ourselves to superficial interpretations of this text prevents us from discovering the "thealogical" vision in the Guru's metaphysics. His Sword, for example, is not solely an intimidating sign of male power, as shown in the masculine khanda and kharag, but is also an inspiring symbol of motherly creation when taken in the sense of the feminine kirpan, tegh or bhagauti.

According to the author, recollections of the birth of the Khalsa have been submerged in "malestream" historical memory, and distorted to reproduce traditionally male structures of domination and authority. Women remain forgotten in both the symbolic and practical dimensions of the Khalsa's "labor and delivery." The sweetness of the Patasas poured by Mata Jitoji, the Guru's wife, into the life-giving "mother's milk" of Amrit has not reached the entire Sikh community's bloodstream. Guru Gobind Singh's ideal of Raj Karega Khalsa has been allowed to represent patriarchal dominance over a territory or people, rather than the fostering of growth, autonomy and responsibility in women as well as men. By exclusive reliance on images of the Tenth Master as a king or warrior, the initiation of Amrit has been construed as a hypermasculine event -- by men, for men and through men -- a militaristic action, not a spiritual transformation of all members of the Khalsa family.

As Mother of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh lovingly clothed both his newborn sons and daughters with the Five Kakkars. These "public symbols with socially significant meanings," as the author characterizes them, were meant to define the Khalsa's physical and psychological identity and promote the crystallization of the Sikh community. However, they have been viewed entirely in masculine terms, markers of male Sikh identity that serve only to separate Sikh men from men of other faiths. Drowning in the "malestream," the one-half of the Sikh people who are not turbaned and bearded remain invisible and forgotten.

The author explains how the 5K's are seen as a typical military uniform that celebrates maleness and virility. Kesha is limited to "the uncut hair of the Sikh male," a symbol of holiness for men which excludes female vital energies. The Kangha remains unacknowledged as a female accessory that promotes the healthy growth of the Kesha, rather than simply controlling it. The Kirpan is solely a manly weapon of conquest and dominance, instead of an instrument for cultivating divine knowledge and the virtue of compassion. The Kara becomes an insignia of restraint and self-defense, not a reminder of the potential for sanctity inherent in all our actions. The Kacchera is only seen as a "release from feminine submissiveness," and a device for cushioning and controlling the male genitals during vigorous activity.

Just as Guru Gobind Singh adorned his newborn Khalsa with the Five Kakkars, it was also endowed with the Bani of the Five Hymns. By refraining from including "female configurations in the vision of the Formless One," the author argues that male Sikh theologians have made the monotheistic religion of the Gurus into an "androtheistic" one. Although the sacred scriptures are the means for the "procreation" of the Khalsa, public worship is dominated by men. The historical place of women in the late 17th century, when the Khalsa was founded, made it impossible for them to stand up and present themselves at the Guru's "call for a head," the author explains. While the first five volunteers during the Vaisakhi of 1699 were all male, this was not Guru Gobind Singh's explicit request. However, this has led to women being tacitly barred from participating as members of the Panj Pyare during the Amrit ceremony. While they may be born into the Khalsa, they are forbidden from becoming agents of its reproduction.

In her Conclusion, the author expresses two wishes. The first is that Western society becomes more familiar with the Sikhs. Whatever little is known by many people in the West is stereotypically male, such as the traditional British concept of the "martial race." The second is that the Sikh community, in thoughtful self-reflection, rediscovers the "feminist genes" in Guru Gobind Singh's construction of Sikh identity. Its radically egalitarian vision is far from being realized. As the evils of female feticide, physical and psychological abuse of women, and even "honor killings" and "dowry deaths" continue to infest the Sikh community, the need for a "re-memory" of the emancipation engendered by the birth of the Khalsa remains urgent.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh has succeeded to a great degree in her objective of bringing to light refreshingly innovative views, through a feminist lens, of Guru Gobind Singh, Mother of the Khalsa, and the Sikh nation to which he gave birth. Throughout the book, she accumulates highly convincing evidence that, by overlooking or suppressing Sikhi's inherent egalitarianism, conventional "malestream" interpretations of the Khalsa have led to the reintroduction of the exclusionary patriarchal institutions that the faith was created to abolish. It is regrettable that this work, so painstakingly researched and solidly constructed, may not be considered "user-friendly" by many readers. Its undeniably important message is often couched in the largely impenetrable jargon of academia, which holds limited appeal for a general audience. It is indeed unfortunate that many people who would undoubtedly greatly benefit from this book's illuminating ideas may be hesitant to approach it. However, intrepid seekers of knowledge who manage to nimbly navigate its pages will find their efforts amply rewarded.

 

Photo Courtesy Dave Getzschman

Conversation about this article

1: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (Española, New Mexico, USA), March 21, 2007, 11:09 AM.

This is a nice article and the book seems to do justice to forgotten ideals of the Khalsa, such as equal reverence to all. If the author wants to see more than just a memory, but the living legend of Guru Gobind Singh's Khalsa, she should make a trip to a small town in Northern New Mexico, where all the women wear the crown gifted to the Khalsa. Here, the women are distinguished and respected for being leaders in every aspect of our community. Women outnumber men at nearly every function and event, and are usually in roles of leadership. Some might consider our community to lean in the other direcation, female dominant. However, we simply have a larger female population and we are actually living the ideal of gender equality. My only comment is: the terminology of Guru Gobind Singh Ji as the Mother of the Khalsa might negate the role of Mata Sahib Kaur Ji. The terminology fits the constructed analogy perfectly. However, ultimately Guru Gobind Singh is the Father of the Khalsa, and Mata Sahib Kaur the Mother.

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