I chance upon a folded newspaper supplement in Mohanji’s house in Dharamshala. The image of an imposing soldier in blue dressed in full military gear catches my eye. I pick it up and hear Mohanji behind me, “Yes. Read the article. See the kind of personal stoic courage that can move mountains. Think of what a disciple can do with that inner power.” These words hook me and I devour the article quickly. It’s about one of the most famous Sikh generals, Banda Singh Bahadur and, particularly, his sordid and torturous end and how he faced it with stoicism and serenity (more on this later). I am left speechless. I read it a few more times and was in complete awe which, at the same time, was tinged with guilt.
I am amazed by stories of people – revolutionaries, spies, soldiers and, most importantly, saints and Masters – who have endured unspeakable pain and torture and yet stuck steadfastly to their higher purpose without yielding an inch from those lofty heights. I feel guilty of neither being endowed with that enduring faculty nor a purpose so self-consuming that even excruciating pain or torture cannot weaken the indomitable resolve to achieve and hold on to it. Masters take this concept to a completely different level. Unlike the rest who suffer from enemies, a Master is reviled and attacked by the very people that he helps. They go through the agony to show the world, through their sacrifice, an example of loving against all odds.
The story of Jesus immediately comes to mind. His life is described succinctly in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, “Nearly two thousand years ago, one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” Though he only wished for and worked to give the best to the society, his reward was humiliation, torture and the intense physical suffering of crucifixion. In response, his prayer for his tormentors was, “Forgive them for they know not what they are doing!” And he knew the power at his disposal for he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Twelve legions of angels could kick every Roman and Philistine ass a million times over and still not break a sweat. Then why go through it all? In his words, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me. But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so? Not my will, but Yours be done.” He went through the ordeal to fulfil the purpose of his incarnation as ordained by the will of His Father.
Like Jesus, I’d like to share some of these stories of extreme courage and strength of character against all odds that have fascinated me over the years. I start with the story of the Sikh general, Banda Singh Bahadur. Born Lachman Dev, he was proficient in horse riding, martial arts, archery and hunting from a very young age. Having hunted a pregnant deer, he witnessed the writhing pain of her dying offsprings which impacted him so much that he left home to become a wandering ascetic. Known by the name of Madho Das, he became a powerful tantric (practitioner of occult arts) in a couple of decades, setup his ashram and had a huge following. He became arrogant and used his powers to insult saints and spiritually advanced souls.
Once Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last human Guru of Sikhism, along with his disciples reached the ashram of Madho Das while he was away. The Guru asked his disciples to slaughter a few goats and cook them over the ceremonial sacrificial fire in the ashram. Since the Guru was had his retinue, none of Madho Das’s disciples dared to interfere. When Madho Das returned, his disciples told him what transpired. Incensed at the sacrilege, Madho Das used all of his occult powers to attack the Guru. But nothing worked.
Crestfallen, he approached the Guru with due respect, knelt down and asked, “Who are you?” The Guru replied, “I am Guru Gobind Singh. Who are you?” With folded hands, Madho Das fell at the Guru’s feet asking for forgiveness and replied, “I am your banda (slave).” The Guru replied,” If you are a banda (also means good human being), act like one.” The Guru forgave him on the condition that he forsake his occult practices. Madho Singh was baptised by the Guru and named Gurbaksh (the one forgiven by the Guru) Singh. Yet, he became famous by the name that he gave himself - Banda Singh Bahadur (courageous). Banda stayed with the Guru for a few months imbibing as much as he could.
Guru Gobind Singh had hoped that the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah, would fulfil his promise and end the persecution in Punjab and punish the Governor, Nawab Wazir Khan and his accomplices, for their crimes against common people including the deaths of his mother and his two young sons aged six and eight who were bricked alive. Finding him reluctant, the Guru appointed Banda Singh Bahadur as his military lieutenant and invested him with full political and military authority as his deputy to lead the campaign in the Punjab to end the Mughal tyranny there. Banda Singh Bahadur was given the Guru’s own sword, five gold tipped arrows from the Guru’s quiver, his battle drum, a letter of authority in the Guru’s handwriting as well as five of his trusted Sikhs to bear witness and attest to the Guru’s appointment of Banda as his nominee to lead the campaign in the Punjab.
En route to Punjab, Banda Singh Bahadur heard the news of Guru Gobind’s death due to injuries sustained in a failed assassination attempt by the Mughals. This steeled his resolve further. On reaching Punjab, he sent the Guru’s message to all the Sikhs around the land. In a short time, he amassed a cavalry of four thousand horsemen and an infantry of seven thousand soldiers which in time grew to an army of forty thousand. Under his able leadership, he attacked city after city, looted treasuries, punished the wicked nobility and formed a Sikh state managed by people of calibre. In the main battle of Chappar Chhiri, Banda defeated an army much superior to his own that was supported by professional artillery. He avenged the deaths of the Guru’s family by killing the much reviled governor, Wazir Khan. Thus, he shattered the belief of the invincibility of the Mughal empire.
He established a democratic rule in the Sikh state. He was an able administrator who introduced meritocracy in the government hierarchy. He did away with hereditary land grants and distributed the land among the peasants. Whatever was looted was shared among the soldiers and the needy which made him very popular among his subjects. He built forts, a mint and setup a strong administration and intelligence to manage the state. He dispensed quick justice and particularly ensured the death penalty for crimes against women.
His exploits drew the attention of the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, who immediately dispatched a large army and forced Banda Singh Bahadur and his Sikh army to retreat into the hills. On the death of the Mughal Emperor, there was a fight over succession among his sons for over a year. Banda Singh used the opportunity to reclaim most of the erstwhile Sikh state and ruled for a few years. Eventually, the new Mughal Emperor rallied all the forces in North India against the Sikh state with orders to take Banda Singh Bahadur dead or alive. After several battles, the Sikh army made a final stand at the mud fortress of Gurdas Nangal. Although the Sikh army initially inflicted heavy losses on the Mughals, reinforcements came in swiftly for the Mughal army and the Sikhs were outnumbered twenty five to one.
In spite of the huge force of a hundred thousand, the Mughals did not dare attack the fort to avoid heavy losses and, instead, laid siege to it, cutting off all supplies from the outside. There were rumors in the Mughal camp that Banda Singh Bahadur had magical powers and most commanders were afraid to face him in battle. Towards the end, a difference arose between Banda Singh and one of his trusted advisors. Banda Singh wanted to fight to the last man while the dissenters wanted to evacuate the fortress and live to fight another day.. When the differences grew beyond a point, Banda allowed the dissenters to leave. Banda’s army was now reduced to a fifth of its size. The dissenters led the charge at night and escaped from the fortress suffering many casualties.
For eight months, the Sikh garrison resisted the siege. The situation slowly became dire as rations were quickly used up. They survived on tree leaves, tree bark, their horses, bones, grass and leather and whatever they could get from raiding their besiegers at times. Many died of disease and hunger weakened the rest. Finally, the Mughals charged and captured the fort. Two hundred Sikhs were killed on the spot and Banda Singh and the rest of the Sikh army were taken prisoner. The governor felt that this number was too small a gift for the Emperor so he ordered the local chieftains to murder a few thousand Sikhs from the neighboring villages.
To terrorise the population, the Sikhs were brought to Delhi in a procession with around eight hundred Sikh prisoners, two thousand Sikh heads impaled on spears, and seven hundred cartloads of heads of slaughtered Sikhs. After a sham trial, the Sikh prisoners were given a choice to convert to Islam or die. Not a single one renounced his faith. They were executed in batches of hundred for over a week. Finally, it was the turn of Banda Singh Bahadur and his close confidantes. Banda Singh was dressed in mock clothes like an emperor, chained in an iron cage and paraded on an elephant. His close confidantes marched behind the elephant through the streets of Delhi in chains until they reached the city square. The confidantes were given the same choice - convert or die. They all chose death. All his confidantes were tortured and executed before his eyes. Their heads were placed in a circle around Banda Singh Bahadur who was now squatting on the ground in full view of the public.
The governor asked Banda Singh Bahadur why he was suffering this fate if he was a man of virtue. He replied, “God sends people like me to end tyranny. Being human, we sometimes overstep the laws of justice. For that, I am paying the penalty right here. God is not being unjust to me in any way.” Banda Singh Bahadur was given the option to convert or die. When he chose death, his five year old son was placed in front of him and he was given a dagger to kill him. He sat unperturbed. The executioner plunged the dagger into the young child and his still beating heart and entrails were thrust into Banda Singh Bahadur’s face and mouth. Banda Singh Bahadur sat through all of this calmly without a hint of emotion. The executioner then proceeded to gouge out his eyes, cut off his limbs one after another, take out his flesh with red hot pincers and finally sever his head. Until he became unconscious, Banda Singh Bahadur bore all this barbarism without any emotion or uttering a sound.
Thus ended the life of a great hero both in life and in death. His valor on the battlefield is far overshadowed by his conduct before his death. His belief in the purpose entrusted to him by his Guru became his raison d'être. His tormentors may have ravaged his body, but he vanquished them with the mettle of his spirit and the steel of his will. In his final moments more than in life did he set an example that made the world sit up and notice. Hundreds and thousands of Sikhs took up his mantle to end the tyranny of the Mughals and establish the Sikh Kingdom of Punjab.
Banda Singh Bahadur was a worldly man until the chance meeting with his Guru. In one fell swoop, the Guru decimated his pride and ego and made him realize his higher purpose. The Guru’s touch transformed the powerful tantric Madho Das who lived only for himself to Banda Singh Bahadur, a selfless incomparable warrior for justice. In a short while, the Guru left. But that brief association with the Guru was enough to spark that fiery sense of purpose that made him devote the rest of his life to achieve the Guru’s sankalpam (intent). And he set the world on fire with his actions and invincible spirit that inspired and will continue to inspire generations that followed.
It behooves us to focus our gaze inward and look at what drives us. What is our higher purpose? Are we wasting our life focussed on our self and our family, doing the usual - eat, work, sleep, procreate, survive and eventually die. Are we giving back to earth more than we are taking? Is our life purposeful adding value, in our own capacity, to the world we live in? Is the world a better place because we exist?
Let us awaken the Banda in us to live more than what we are living today, doing more than what we can do and being more than what we can be.
Article: Rajesh Kamath