What is Vaisakhi?
Let me begin with a story. The True King of the north has built a fortress in the mountains and is coming under attack from the southern King on the Peacock Throne. The nation’s in turmoil and the True King needs renewed loyalty from his banner-men to keep his people safe. He turns to his supporters and asks them to form a new band of the Pure Ones, promising to make these high sparrows strong enough to challenge a hawk, and calling them the Khalsa.
Now you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve given away spoilers to the new season of Game of Thrones, starting later this month. In fact, it’s the background to the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi, being celebrated around the world today.
In the late 17th century, Mughal India experienced great instability and many were persecuted by Emperor Aurangzeb. He saw Guru Gobind, known to Sikhs as the True King, as a direct political challenger. An attack was imminent, and the 10th Guru wanted to be prepared.
He summoned his Sikhs on the day of the spring harvest festival, Vaisakhi, in 1699 and created the Khalsa, the Pure Ones. It became the inner core of the faith. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor were treated equally as brothers and sisters of one big family. They were defenders of the faith as well as defenders of all faiths. Men took the surname ‘Singh’ or lion, and women ‘Kaur’ or princess.
The following century saw battles for survival, eventually leading to the golden era of the Sikh Empire under Ranjit Singh, as discussed on Radio 4’s In Our Time just last week.
In the present day, it’s easy to understand the unease with having a charismatic leader creating an armed force. Taken out of context, one can draw parallels with fantasy dramas or even the horrors of what’s happening in some parts of the world right now. Such parallels are, thankfully, superficial.
The Khalsa was established as a group willing to defend the rights of everyone to live in peace and harmony, regardless of their views and beliefs, and only fighting in battle as a last resort. That’s why Sikhs fought alongside British forces in the First and Second World Wars. That’s why Sikhs can be found alongside others feeding the street homeless in our towns and cities, helping flood victims in Yorkshire and Cumbria last winter, and travelling to Europe and beyond to assist with humanitarian relief efforts for the refugee crisis. To help the vulnerable, to re-instil human dignity, to provide comfort wherever necessary.
By marking the birthday of the Khalsa, Sikhs celebrate the birth of their faith as it exists today. It’s a beacon of hope to all and a means, in the words of Guru Gobind Singh, to ‘recognise the whole of humanity as one’.
Wishing everyone a very happy Vaisakhi.