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Hundreds walking in a parade, behind a bus with a temple-like structure atop and several  men in front of it, holding saffron-color flags.
A Khalsa Day parade in Toronto, a celebration of Baisakhi held in April 2015. Colin McConnell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Why Sikhs celebrate the festival of Baisakhi

On the festival of Baisakhi, celebrated usually on April 13, Sikhs the world over will joyously wear yellow saffron colors, symbolizing spring harvest and the solar new year, when the Sun enters the constellation Aries.

In gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, they will sing hymns in congregational singing, or “kirtan,” and eat communal meals, or “langar.” They will also recall some of the tenets of their faith that revolve around “seva,” or serving fellow human beings and seeking to build a just society while living a simple life.

The Sikh religion, with its line of 10 gurus, is traced back to the time of Guru Nanak, the first guru. Born in a village in present-day Pakistan in the northern state of Punjab in 1469, Nanak believed in the oneness of God, the timeless Supreme Being, or “Akālpurukh,” and looked at the universe as steeped in divine light.

He rejected the prevalent unequal caste system, which fixed the status of people by birth. Instead, he looked upon humanity as one. He encouraged his followers not to take the path of renunciation but to work hard and perform acts of charity.

As a scholar of Punjab and Sikh studies, I want to draw attention to the importance of Baisakhi celebrations. According to Sikh tradition, the tenth Guru, Gobind Rai, the last in the line of 10 human Gurus, established the Khalsa order on this day in 1699. In a remarkable event that transformed forever the future of the Sikh community, the Guru created the elite martial group of the Khalsa, who would remain a role model for the Sikhs for ages to come.

The Khalsa ideal

The dramatic creation story of the Khalsa relates that the guru demanded sacrifice of life from his loyal followers who came to his abode in Anandpur in Punjab to celebrate Baisakhi and the beneficence of the harvest. Five brave-hearts offered their heads.

The guru took them inside a tent one by one, emerging each time with a bloodied sword in front of an awestruck audience. Finally, the guru revealed the five unharmed followers; he had beheaded goats.

His five beloved disciples, known as the “Pañj Piāre,” were in the Sikh tradition the first initiates into the new order of the Khalsa, meaning the pure. They were baptized through the “khanḍe-dī-pāhul” ceremony, an initiation in which a double-edged sword, or “khaṅḍā,” was used to stir sweetened water in an iron cauldron – the “amrit” or ambrosia. The guru then administered the “amrit” to the five, who in turn initiated the guru.

The guru is said to have pronounced that henceforth his Khalsa will be called lions, or “singh,” and they would maintain five symbols on their person that would set them apart from ordinary Sikhs and burnish their martial demeanor. These “pañjkakār,” or five K’s, were unshorn hair, or “keś;” a comb, or “kangha;” long breeches, or “kachh;” a steel bangle, or “kara;” and a dagger, or “kirpan.” Above all, the Khalsa were to fight for creating a just world.

Five men with turbans and flowing beards, dressed in long orange shirts and white scarfs, holding swords in their hands.
Sikh ‘Pañj Piāre,’ or swordsmen, take part in the Baisakhi ceremony during the second annual Sikh parade on May 28, 2017, in Denver, Colo. Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The need for the Khalsa

To understand the need for the Khalsa, it is important to step back into history. For over 300 years, starting in 1526, large parts of India were ruled by the powerful Mughal dynasty of Central Asian origins. While the early Sikh gurus had cordial relations with the Mughals, hostilities emerged in later years with their growing popularity and following. The fifth guru, Arjan Dev, was said to have been tortured and executed for spreading “false religion” during the time of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

Under his son and successor, the sixth guru, Hargobind, the pacifist Sikh community began to turn militaristic. Guru Hargobind symbolically wore two swords that underscored his secular power along with spiritual authority.

The tenth, Gobind Singh, became guru at age nine. This was after the execution of his father, the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur, in 1675 by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, a sign of increased hostilities. For the Sikhs, the issue at stake was the freedom to practice one’s religion while exercising legitimate political autonomy in an overarching Mughal empire. According to the Sikhs, that would allow the flourishing of the Sikh culture and the ability to provide social and political patronage to the guru’s followers.

The martial Khalsa was considered to be a political necessity during these times, which they perceived as being tyrannical. The Khalsa also embodied self-discipline to inspire the guru’s Sikhs, the ordinary followers who did not become Khalsa.

An egalitarian stance

Though social and caste differences persisted among the Sikhs, the gurus actively worked to address them.

The life of the first guru, Nanak, is relayed in hagiographies called “Janam-sakhi.” These portray him in the company of the Muslims and Hindus preaching harmony and respecting those placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.

For the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, the Khalsa were the ideal for others to emulate. His beloved five, who had been willing to sacrifice their lives for him, further demonstrated the importance of social equality. Belonging to different caste groups, they represented the values of compassion, duty, firmness, honor and effort. Together, they formed the first core of the Khalsa. Not all Sikhs, however, adopted Khalsa tenets and practice.

The Khalsa under colonialism

By the late 19th century, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims living in the north Indian state of Punjab were grappling with British colonial rule.

Social and religious reform movements among Punjab’s inhabitants, including the Sikhs, tried to overcome the humiliation of colonial rule by rethinking the relevance of social and cultural practice that the British criticized. Customs such as early marriage and practices around widowhood that oppressed women, and caste discrimination that affected all, were reassessed. The gurus’ strong censure of these practices was reemphasized. For Sikh intellectuals, rejuvenating the egalitarian spirit of the Khalsa at this time seemed urgent. Gender and caste inequities, they believed, could be combated by reviving Khalsa norms.

A woman, dressed in a bright pink and white shirt, holds a broom as she sweeps the street, accompanied by a man in a blue turban behind her, who is also holding a broom.
Sikh volunteers clean the street during a procession in the Esquiline district of Rome on the occasion of Baisakhi. Marcello Valeri/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The spirit of Baisakhi for Sikhs is reminiscent of the ideals of the gurus. As they partake the bounties of the spring harvest, sing in congregations and eat consecrated food in gurdwaras, they will also reflect on the vision of a humane world where Khalsa Sikhs fight for justice for all in the ever-evolving world, suffused with the spirit of optimism.

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