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SIKH TRADITION (HISTORIOGRAPHY) begins with Janam Sakhis, the life stories of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). There is hardly any evidence of the tradition of history writing in ancient India, though in modern times attempts have been made at different levels to show the existence of somewhat vague historio graphic elements particularly in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: but religious, mythological and allegorical legends and stories are so mixed up with the Indian religious thought and philosophy in them that it is extremely difficult to discern in them a pure hislorio graphical tradition. Similarly, the Puranas contain mostly mythological elements with a semblance of history.

Pali and Prakrit literature, too, is predominantly religious. Bana`s Harsha Charitra (7th century) and Kalhana`s Rajatarangim (12th century) are rare exceptions to show that, generally speaking, liistoriography was not the vogue until recent times. The art of historiography came to India with the Arabs soon after their conquest of Sindh. They brought a fully developed art of history-writing with a deep understanding of the Islamic polity, religious institutions and sociological issues. Also, they possessed a keen chronological sense, and their historical narratives begin year wise instead of the regnal years of the kings.

The Arabic language was for a short while the vehicle of their expressions, but when Arabic replaced Persian, Indo-Muslim historians adopted Persian as their medium. Under the influence of Persian Renaissance, the Persian norms of history-writing became their models. While the Arab historiographers were rarely official, the early Indo-Muslim historians, depended on the Sultans whose patronage they sought. In methodology and technique Indo-Muslim historiography is based on the prophetic traditional method (hadis), which precludes a critical estimate of events and persons and lays stress on the true concept of an Islamic state. It is biographical in nature.

The early Sikh historical tradition which begins during the latter half of the sixteenth century is also in the form of biography. The Janam Sakhis of Guru Nanak are not historiography in the true sense of the term because these accounts rely mostly on oral tradition, without distinguishing fact from fiction. Myths, legends and allegorical stories are interwoven in their narratives ; their lack of historical perspective, however, is counterbalanced by their faithful record of the current Sikh religious tradition. These Janam Sakhis, the most important source of information on the life and mission of Guru Nanak and for constructing the early history of Sikhism, represent the early Sikh historical and religious traditions.

Among the important Janam Sakhis are : a collection called the Ad; Sakhian, Puratan Janam Sakhi, Miharban Janam Sakhi, BalaJanam Sakhi, Gyan Ratnavali or Bhai Mani Singh Janam Sakhi, and the named B40 Janam Sakhi. The first two are commonly believed to belong to late sixteenth, the next two definitely to seventeenth century, while the last ones belong to early eighteenth century. Of these, the Miharban tradition leans heavily on discourse and exegesis. Next come Vars and Kabitts by Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636). Written in elegant verse, Bhai Gurdas` Vars are vigorous in thrust and constitute a work of very high order on the mission of Guru Nanak and his five successors, but they contain very little biographical information.

A unique example of early Sikh historiography is Guru Gobind Singh`s Bachitra Natak. Autobiographical in style, the work traces the history of Bedi and Sodhi clans and relates the major events of the Guru`s life up to the year 1696. Var, a genre of indigenous Punjabi origin, became very popular. It gave birth to semi-historical, poetically inspired ballads on mundane themes, and Jangnamas (accounts of wars and battles). Prominent Var writers are : Daya Singh (Fatahnama), Qadir Yar (VarHan Singh Nalva), Shah Muhammad (Angrezan te Singhan di Lara T), and Pir Bakhsh (Chatthian di Var). TheJangnamas are poetical narratives on events, persons and places.

TheJarignamas of Anandpur, Lahore, Multan and Delhi are especially interesting study. Of a differnent category are the chronicles written by local historiographers in the Punjabi language. These may be termed as semi-historical, for modern norms of historiography cannot be applied to them. Amongst them are Kripal Das Bhalla`s Mahima Prakash Vartak (prose) and Sarup Das Bhalla`s versified Mahima Prakash. These are anceedotal in style and provide glimpses of the lives of the Ten Gurus. Then there are fuller and connected biographical accounts in verse known as the Gurbilases. The first example of the gurbilas style is Sri Gur Sobha related to the life of Guru Gobind Singh. It was written by Sainapati, who enjoyed the patronage of the Guru, and was completed in 1711.

Others in the chronological order are Gurbilas Chhevin Patshahi (1718), usually attributed to a poet called Sohan; Kuir Singh`s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 (1751) ; Kesar Singh Chibbar`s Bansavalinama Dasan Patshahian Ka (1769); and Sukha Singh`s Gurbilas Dasvin Patshahi (1797). These writings in verse fall under the old Janam Sakhi tradition for their mixing of fact with fiction but do not follow the anecdotal style of the latter. Both were, however, panegyrical rather than analytical in their treatment. Towards the middle of the nineteenth centurey, a new comparatively modern trend in Sikh historiography took birth with Ratan Singh Bhangu`s Sri Gur Panth Prakash better know as Prachin Panth Prakash, completed in 1841

Unlike the Janam Sakhi and Gurbilas traditions which dealt with the lives of the Gurus, the focus of Bhangu`s book is on the Khalsa, `the community of initiated Sikhs created by Guru Gobind Singh on the Baisakhi of 1699. Ratan Singh Bharigu took up the project with a definite aim which was political rather than theological or panegyrical. He cared more for truthful record of facts than for poetical finesse. As he himself states in the beginning , the British when they occupied Delhi in 1803 were given to understand by the nominal Mughal emperor that the Sikhs were his subjects in rebellion, and had nolegal title over the lands they had occupied.

A British officer, named Murray, asked Ratan Singh, "Tell me how the Singhs acquired the ruling power and which king gave them the authority to rule." Ratan Singh replied, "The True King, (Guru) Nanak, gave the rulership to the Singhs." Murray further asked, "But Nanak was a faquir; what did he know about okingships ?" Ratan Singh explains the origin and development of the Sikhs under the first nine Gurus, their tranformation into the Khalsa commonwealth under the Tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, their struggles and vicissitudes until they realized their destiny. The Khalsa, he maintains, was created to rule, and all who acknowledge its discipline must be prepared to assert the right.

For Ratan Singh this was no mere doctrine but was an existential fact. Another work in the line of authentic history is `Umdatut Twankh in four parts by Sohan Lal Suri, official diarist of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Barring the first part (origin and rise of the Sikhs up to the close of eighteenth century) which is based on traditional accounts, `Umdatut Twankh is daytoday record of the Sikh rule in the Punjab. Ratan Singh Bhangu`s example was, however, not followed immediately. Bhal Santokh Singh`s celebrated works Sri Guru Nanak Prakash and Sri Gur Pratap Suryodaya, commonly known as Suraj Prakash (1841), marked a reversion to earlier forms and interest, although this did nothing to deprive the works of their enormous and continuing influence.

Giani Gian Singh`s Panth Prakash in verse (1880) and his Twarikh Guru Khalsa in prose (in several volumes published between 1891 and 1919), although appearing to be popular history of the Panth, carry a large measure of the old Janam SakhiGurbilas tradition including a substantial doctrinal content and anecdotal material. Meanwhile, under the impact of the western rule and western education a new trend of writing authentic and critical history based on scientific research was making its appearance. Joseph Davey Cunningham`s A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej (1849) may be regarded as the first such book as far as Sikh history is concerned.

The next important work in this line was Syad Muhammad Latif`s History of the Punjab from the Remote Antiquity to the Present Time (1891). These works by nonSikh authors, however, cannot be claimed as belonging to Sikh tradition in historiography. The first Sikh to adopt modern scientific research as a basis for historiography was Sardar Karam Singh (1884-1930), commonly remembered as Karam Singh Historian on account of his zeal for this discipline. His pioneering efforts resulted in several short books and articles on Sikh history and doctrine. Khazan Singh`s The History and Philosophy of Sikh Religion, published in two volumes in 1914, was another pioneering work

With the establishment in December 1929 of the Sikh Historical Society and a department of historical research in Khalsa College, Amritsar, Sikh historiography entered, as it were, its adulthood. Many able researchers and historians have since been studying, reinterpreting and rewriting Sikh history, more eminent among them being Ganda Singh and Khushwant Singh. The contribution of Hari Ram Gupta is no less significant.

References :

1. Bhangu, Ratan Singh, Prachin Panth Prakash. Amritsar, 1914
2. Fauja Singh, ed., Historians and Historiography of the Sikhs. Dellii, 1978
3. Khurana, Gianeshwar, British Historiography on the Sikh Power in Punjab. Delhi, 1985
4. Darshan Singh, Western Prospective on the Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1991
5. Grewal,J.S., From Guru Nanak to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Amritsar, 1972

 

 

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