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Holding Them Accountable:
Speaking Truth To Power




Hardly is there a Sikh who has not heard of the Zafarnamah that Guru Gobind Singh wrote in 1706 and sent to Emperor Aurangzeb.

Two of the first five Sikhs who became amritdhari, and are remembered as two of the Punj Piyaaray - Bhai Daya Singh and Bhai Dharam Singh - personally delivered the missive to the Mughal Emperor.

Even though it is in Farsi, parts of it are integrated into the collective consciousness of Sikh psyche, though most of whom are only marginally conversant with its language. 

The compound word Zafarnamah comes from the Arabic zafar, meaning 'victory' while in Farsi, namah, means 'letter', epistle or diary. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (Punjabi University, 1998) tells us that besides this pivotal document, three other writings bearing that title exist in Sikh history; two pertain to the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and one relates to Ahmed Shah Durrani’s first two invasions of Punjab and India. 

One purpose in my writing this today is to derive from the Zafarnamah of Guru Gobind Singh some modern notions of war and peace, and then to connect them to the very timely idea of confronting leaders and governments with the truth.

This Zafarnamah is the one that Sikhs and non-Sikhs, even those that know little about Sikhi, have heard about and long admired. 

In important ways, it is one of the defining documents of the Sikh world view.

Also, a modified version of this essay recently appeared in the form of an editorial in Nishaan, the illustrated quarterly journal from New Delhi, that dedicated a special issue to the Zafarnnamah.

Literally, this Epistle of Victory is a letter from Guru Gobind Singh to the Emperor, the tyrant Aurungzeb, after the Guru evacuated the Fort at Anandpur in December 1705.

This essay also takes note of a new and attractive rendering of the Zafarnamah in English by the Sikh-Indian diplomat, Navtej Singh Sarna - currently the Indian Ambassador to Israel. 

His translation comes across as the labor of love that it is. It brings out the commanding mastery of Farsi by the Guru, while highlighting the Guru’s uncommon, nay, unique philosophic depth and extraordinary, indeed superhuman, ability to transcend extreme suffering.

I need not dwell on the hurdles in translating documents from one language to another, particularly when the original was drafted over three centuries ago in a very different cultural context. Times have changed and the language has evolved in many ways. 

Also, a living tradition regards the document as its sacred heritage. It is not easy for a translator to move seamlessly across such barriers where even a minor slip can doom both the translator and the project.

Guru Gobind Singh penned it in wartime amidst uniquely chaotic circumstances; these were the most trying days for him. In abandoning Anandpur he was separated from his family. His two older sons had embraced martyrdom in battle; the two younger sons, aged 6 and 7, were walled up alive not long thereafter. 

As I sat down to write this, I wondered how to capture the mood and spirit of the Guru when he titled his letter to the emperor “An Epistle of Victory.”  If this is victory, what then is defeat?  What was the Guru thinking?

And then in an “aha” moment, I saw how I could in one sentence convey its essence in a nutshell. 

I would summarize it as “telling truth to power” that can only be done when one is in a somewhat uniquely cheerful and upbeat frame of mind, with calmness - sehaj - at the core.

This stands out most clearly when, in this missive, the Guru reminds the emperor: “So what if I have lost four sons when I have thousands more!” He was then referring to his Sikhs that were willing to fearlessly walk the extra mile with him.

“Telling truth to power” is a heady and intoxicating formula with clear-eyed courage at its base. Many speak of it but in the world of practical political reality - pragmatism - it is rarely seen. In life it is not so easy to practice. 

Even the best and bravest often flinch and fail. 

For Sikhi, speaking truth to power started with Guru Nanak when he addressed the conqueror, Babar, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, or other powerful satraps and minor rulers of the day, including the likes of Malik Bhago who were drunk with their own power and wealth - in late 15th and early 16th centuries. Guru Nanak’s writings in Guru Granth bear forthright and ample testimony. 

This was not an easy lesson to teach to a people who were on the fringes of society, repressed for centuries both by the Hindu caste system and political tyranny of the Muslim rulers of the day. Changing a mindset conditioned by centuries of slavery is not easy.

And telling truth to power became a permanent habit with Sikhs - as if coded in their DNA - as seen in the character of every Guru that followed, most notably Guru Arjan, Guru Hargobind, Guru Tegh Bahadar, and Guru Gobind Singh, as also his four sons and his mother. 

It has been lived by hundreds of thousands throughout Sikh history, and even those in the 20th century, and that includes our times today - all who have imbibed the message of Sikhi. It was self-evident during the Sikh struggle to reclaim control over their places of worship from the British-appointed managers in the 1920’s. It was equally unmistakable in the events of 1984 when so many did not slink away from telling truth to power even when their lives were on the line.

Zafarnamah is frank and honest. But it is much more than that. 

A community, like a nation, must develop a comprehensive and clear view of how to deal with the outrages that visit upon it periodically. To counter them, a code of conduct must emerge; for Sikhs it has to be from the lives of our Guru-Founders, what documentary material they have left us as their legacy, and from our unbroken tradition that has translated these habits of the spirit, teachings and guidelines into defining the Sikh lifestyle. 

This is how we evolve a coherent philosophy on issues critical to our sense of self and survival; in this case it was of war - when it is just and when it is not. For Sikhs, the rules of warfare and dedication to a cause larger than life emerge unmistakably from Zafarnamah, when set in juxtaposition with the conduct of the Gurus in war and peace.

This Zafarnamah, though a dramatic document, is without doubt a lineal descendent of the world view and polity expounded, laid out, and lived by the earlier Gurus, starting with Guru Nanak. It is not a deviation from the theme expounded by any of the earlier nine Gurus.

There are important questions at stake here. What expectations and behavior are appropriate in war? How and when is war justified? Is preemptive war alright? How and when should one pursue peace? What goals justify war - conquest of a people or their properties? How to negotiate peace while in the midst of war? How, in the interest of peace, to rise above the grave injustice done by the enemy?

Both Gurus Hargobind and Gobind Singh demonstrated that.

How to treat prisoners of war and those who have surrendered? How best to treat a fallen enemy? As Bhai Ghanaiyya did with compassion and aid, and Guru Gobind Singh approved? Or by quickly dispatching the vanquished enemy to the nether world?

Revenge and Avenge are two words that sound so similar but in meaning are polar opposites with a world of difference. How do we parse them precisely? One has to do with justice, the other does not. How do we think of them in life?

These are age-old questions and have been around as long as war has, and that is as long as humans have been around, and even longer. The post 9/11 world today has encountered these questions anew and finds no easy answers. 

Human history teaches us that even though we might someday be able to ban nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction, it would only change the nature of the weaponry of war; it will not banish war from our hearts or from our lives. For that we need another arsenal and very different habits of the mind. 

These matters deserve careful and continuing scrutiny.

Western philosophic perspectives on theories of war and peace usually start and end with Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The questions that engaged them are the same questions that the Gurus, particularly Guru Hargobind and  Guru Gobind Singh explored and laid to rest by their conduct and in Zafarnamah.

These matters of justice and injustice, war and peace continue to vex mankind even today. At this time in our world, Zafarnamah holds a particular relevance; it informs Sikh reasoning about such matters.

History is also clear that Sikhs have rightly earned respect for their determination, skill, discipline, chivalry and valor in war. At the same time, Guru Granth, the repository of Sikh spiritual heritage, remains both a testament to the longings for peace that stir in the human heart, as well as to the Sikh determination to speak truth to power, and defend the universal human right to do so, even in the face of brutality and war that sometimes call for martyrdom.

Yet, as many veterans of wars across time and space have observed, no one is more repelled by war than the old soldier who has lived war’s depravity and its ever-present evil. Zafarnamah is the most potent reminder of that spirit and of the fact that Sikhs in their centuries’ old history have seen only brief periods of respite.

The fact that Guru Gobind Singh was ready to travel to the far ends of the subcontinent to negotiate peace with the Emperor Aurungzeb who had wreaked much havoc on the Guru, his family and his Sikhs, tells us that, in order to move forward, one must learn to forgive - but not forget.

To me these lessons are equally valid today when a rising crescendo of voices from India conflates forgiveness and forgetting in the events of 1984. 

It can’t be denied that forgiveness liberates both the doer of evil as well as the victim but mixing the two - forgiveness and forgetting - does not serve the cause of peace and reconciliation.

To forgive is a necessary prerequisite for moving forward as demanded and driven by justice, changing realities and the great healer that is Father Time.

To forget is just plain asinine.

October 31, 2011                              


Conversation about this article

1: Inder  (Canada), October 31, 2011, 10:30 AM.

Just earlier today, my cousin had told to me in a sense to forget what had happened in 1984 and I felt very hurt by the comment. Reading this reiterated my own feelings towards the comment, that events that occurred during that time impacted masses of people who experienced it, witnessed it and even those who pursued the propaganda and it shouldn't be forgotten. True: "In order to move forward, one must learn to forgive - but not forget" and "It can't be denied that forgiveness liberates both the doer of evil as well as the victim but mixing the two - forgiveness and forgetting - does not serve the cause of peace and reconciliation". NEVER FORGET 1984

2: N. Singh (Canada), October 31, 2011, 12:18 PM.

Bravo! From a personal perspective it still raises the question - how does one forgive? Does one wake up one morning and suddenly the pain is gone? When justice has been denied, how does one move on? Interestingly enough I find it easier to 'forgive' the direct perpetrators of the crimes because I know that divine justice will be done and they and/or their offspring will have to pay for the pain they have caused but how does one forgive the thousands upon thousands who stood by and said nothing, who secretly gloated in the murder of innocent Sikhs?

3: Ari Singh (Sofis, Bulgaria), October 31, 2011, 12:32 PM.

Very interesting article. Although Guru Gobind Singh was unique and one of the most gifted leaders in history, yet he remains mostly unknown outside the Sikh community! And even most Indians remain ignorant about things Sikh - from our values and teachings to our history and heroes. Who do we hold accountable for this?

4: I. J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), October 31, 2011, 1:28 PM.

N. Singh ji: I, too, have also often wondered about forgiving and forgetting. I think forgiving those that wrong us liberates us and allows us to heal, otherwise we are constantly eaten and undermined from within. Not forgetting makes us stronger and more self-aware - almost a changed person. The two become complementary to each other in defining our sense of self.

5: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), October 31, 2011, 4:20 PM.

Dr. I.J. Singh ji, you are right for holding them accountable and for promoting the speaking of Truth to the powerful. There is a major difference between Guru Gobind Singh's holding Aurangzzeb accountable, and the case of the 1984 pogroms. Upon losing his family, Guru Sahib reminded the world that he had a larger family. But in the case of 1984, many of us untouched by tragedy - many because they were insulated because of wealth or political power - failed to treat the victims as family members of the Sikh panth and offer them help and support.

6: Raj (Canada), October 31, 2011, 8:25 PM.

One can only forgive those who ask for and deserve forgiveness. But to forget? Impossible.

7: Lou (Iowa, U.S.A.), November 01, 2011, 4:09 AM.

Thank you, I.J. Singh, for a great article.

8: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), November 03, 2011, 8:27 PM.

The sangat around Guru Gobind Singh, when he arrived at village Dina (Ferozepur district), pleaded to him that it is Aurangzeb who is causing the wars, tyrannies and atrocities; that. Aurangzeb should be taken to task and killed. Guru Nanak's hymn [GGS"1242]:" Kal ho-ee kutay muhee khaj ho-aa murdaar" - 'Bad times have become like the mouth of dog eating carrion.' The argument was that when Aurangzeb would be killed, then his followers would fade into oblivion. Then, Guru Sahib advised the sangat that there are two ways to kill Aurangzeb, one through direct battle and the other through Zafarnama ('epistle of victory'). The sangat, tired of wars and cognizant of the fact that Aurangzeb was now in the distant south, voted in favor of the Zafarnama. Guru Sahib pointed out that all the good that Aurangzeb had done in his past existence had been wiped out because of his actions in this existence, that the Zafarnama was the route to go. It was delivered to Aurangzeb.(From book by Amir Singh and Kirpal Singh on the reasons behind the Zafarnama.)

9: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 06, 2011, 5:32 AM.

Ajit Singh ji: I am not aware of the book by Amir Singh & Kirpal Singh and what evidence, if any, they might have cited. I will have to hunt this book down. But the event from the book that you relate does not seem to have made into the acceptabe and reputable books and accounts of Sikh history. I don't know if this is another example where a small kernal of historical truth gets amplified by tradition, lore, frailty and human imagination. It seems like an interesting story though that requires a historian's careful parsing.

10: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), November 06, 2011, 11:43 AM.

I.j.Singh ji: The book is "ZafarNaamah Steek". Its translators are: Amir Singh and Kirpal Singh. The translation is into Punjabi. The publisher: Bhai Jawahar Singh Kirpal Singh and Co., PustakaA(n) Wale, Bazaar Mai SevaA(n), Amritsar, Punjab. The Book last published in FebRUARY, 1973. P.S. If you give me your address, I will mail you my copy, since I'm done with it.

11: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 07, 2011, 5:22 PM.

Ajit Batra ji: Thank you very much for the trouble you have taken. The page that you sent me speaks under what circumstances the Zafarnama might have been written. Again, as I said, history texts do not speak of the incident that you cite. One line in your note fascinated me: the claim that "it would be easy to kill Aurungzeb now." I wonder! The Guru's forces had suffered huge casualties in a long siege, all 4 sons had been martyred, along with his own mother. And the emperor was down south, thousands of miles away. To me this does not speak of it being "easier to kill at this time." Where was the opportunity to kill? The Guru would not have sent an assassin in disguise - that would not be the Sikh way. This page that you have sent tells the story but it remains hard to find supporting documentation for it. And I am not a historian but merely a Sikh looking for meaning and answers in our tradition and history. Nevertheless, I was not arguing the veracity of this nugget of possible history. It deserves research; that may or may not support the contention that two alternatives were considered. My goal was not at all to posit why and under what circumstances the Zafarnama was written but what exactly is its content and its meaning. I think it was to clearly declare that "we Sikhs are still here." It was to say many may have died but many more live and will challenge the emperor. It was to speak truth to power - and that is a very modern idea.

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