Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

Contemporary historian J.S. Grewal has argued that if Sikhs did not constitute a state within the larger Mughal state by 1600, they at least positioned themselves as a parallel dispensation to the rule from Delhi. The mainstream Sikh community did not accept the authority of Mughal rule in the 1600s, though sectarian groups sought and received state patronage.

The ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur (1621-1675, whose name means "brave sword wielder"), maneuvered with local chieftains around his home in Makhoval, in the Punjab hills. After Guru Teg Bahadur's execution in Mughal custody in 1675, his son, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), took up his father's mission and established himself the ruler of a Sikh kingdom in the Punjab.

Several foundational religious values drove Sikh polity in the pre-modern period. Literature from Guru Gobind Singh's period clearly articulates that the Sikhs saw themselves as the rightful authority from Kartar (the divine Creator) to rule. They were the "third path," the new political order on the scene; the other two religious communities (Hindus and Muslims) had forfeited their right to rule. Sikhs justified their goal of Khalsa Raj ("Dominion of the sovereign Sikh community") by declaring the Hindu and Muslim elites to be corrupt, and promising to replace the old guard with Kartar's own laws. The idea of Sarbat Da Bhalla ("the welfare of all") was underscored by the dual mission of the statement Deg-Teg Fateh ("Victory of the cauldron and sword").

The machinations of rival chieftains around the area of Anandpur led to a full-fledged Mughal siege of the city. This trouble with the Mughals culminated in the Guru's departure from Anandpur in December of 1705. However, the weakening of the Mughal Empire led to opportunities for Sikh aims. At the time of his death in 1707, Emperor Aurangzeb left behind a bulky, fractured empire with political unrest at its peripheries. Aurangzeb's successor, the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah, met with Guru Gobind Singh in July of 1707 and presented a robe of honor, as the Guru had lent military support to Bahadur Shah's battle for succession. While, traveling with the new emperor's army, Guru Gobind Singh was assassinated in 1708 in the Deccan peninsula.

The tenth Guru left no heirs or personal successor; his sons had all been killed in battles or in Mughal custody. After his death, Sikhs organized themselves around the dual principles of Guru Granth and Guru Panth. That is to say, in the absence of the office of personal Guru-ship, Sikhs rallied around their tradition's teachings enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib (GG), and also vested religious and political decision-making authority in themselves as a community. The Khalsa shared the office of the Guru with Sikh scripture. The ideal was that as Sikhs applied the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib to their lives, they could better govern themselves, having been inspired by the divine Word.

Remnants of the Mughal Empire, Afghan invaders, and Sikh chiefs wrestled for control of the Punjab in the half-century or so after the tenth Guru's death. By 1765, Sikh rulers laid claim to the very important Mughal town of Lahore, raised the Sikh flag there, and struck coins in the names of Gurus. During the first half of the 19th century, Sikh polity was dominated by a charismatic political leader named Ranjit Singh. Unifying disparate factions, Ranjit Singh was able to conquer lands all around the Punjab from Kabul to Kashmir and took the title Maharajah ("great emperor").

Ranjit Singh's period of a unified Sikh state in the first half of the 19th century was followed by a century of British colonialism, until the independence of South Asia from colonial rule in 1947. Interestingly, Sikhs never mixed proselytizing and conquest. The people living under Sikh rule practiced whatever religion they wanted, and this ideal can be traced back to Guru Nanak's original message that left intact the sanctity of the others' religion while only criticizing the wrongful practice of it. Therefore, when the British began to put democratic and population-based quotas into place, the Sikhs were shocked to realize that they were in such a minority position (about 10 percent of the Punjab's population) after having ruled the area for forty years.

Study Questions:
1.     Describe two of the religious values that drove Sikh polity in the pre-modern period.
2.     What was Guru Gobind Singh doing when he was assassinated in 1708?
3.     How did Sikhs organize themselves after the death of Guru Gobind Singh?
4.     Why did Sikhs not proselytize in the period during their periods of conquest?

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