As Sikhs all over the world prepare to celebrate Vaisakhi and the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, the tenth Sikh master, the author offers a reflection on one of his most beloved compositions.
Each time I get to this particular moment in my Nitnem (prayers, part of daily Sikh religious practice), my head starts to fill with fleeting images, even as I savor the cadence of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s divine poetry. Bhai Sahib Dharm Singh Zakhmi, in his inimitably eloquent manner, likens the Bani (writings) of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji to a clear and sparkling stream, bursting forth from the heart of a mountain in the pristine wilderness.
The powerful torrent of words conjures up images, no less powerful. Whinnying stallions, fleet of foot, galloping like the wind. Richly caparisoned elephants, swaying majestically. Hordes of brave warriors with arms of steel, capable of laying waste to impregnable forts. And then, all of this magnificence magically morphing into a single point of infinite calm and peace.
The words alone are enough to energize and uplift. The inherent drum beat of the poetry is so insistent that it pervades your being. The rich images create tremendous excitement and anticipation. And yet, he tells us that the trappings of power and wealth are but an illusion. As he strips the illusion away, all that is left is pure love. And peace.
I speak of the Tav Prasad Savvaiye, also known as the Sudha Savvaiye, a collection of ten verses that appears in Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s sublime work, Akal Ustat.
I start wondering. Why these particular words? Why these images? Surely there is much else in the world that is illusory! Why these particular examples?
One of the elements of traditional Sikh scholarship is ‘Uthanka’ or historical context, which provides a contextual understanding of a particular Shabad (hymn) or Bani. By far the most widely drawn upon work for this contextual understanding of Sikh scripture is the work titled Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth by Santokh Singh, popularly known as Suraj Partap.
The few traditional contextual sources I could find for the Tav Prasad Savvaiye point to Guru Gobind Singh’s interaction with a groups of Kings as the backdrop for the composing of the Savvaiye. There seems to be general agreement that the words in this Bani clearly address temporal leaders, to help them understand the ephemeral nature of their power, undoubtedly a source of great pride to them. I feel that the Savviye have great relevance to our lives in the modern world as well; while we may not be surrounded by powerful despots thirsty for conquest in the traditional sense, it is rather easy to recognize the modern avatars of the kings with their stallions and elephants and armies and forts!
Before sharing the stories of these Kings and their interactions with Guru Gobind Singh Ji, I would like to offer a translation of the Savvaiye, with the caution that my insipid translation can never even attempt to capture the magnificence and raw power of this hymn. All that it will provide is some context.
Tav Prasad Savvaiye
Holy men of many stripes have I encountered in my wanderings
Warriors, demons and demigods; ‘saints’ of various orders
Many countries have I seen, but none is truly His
Without the Lord’s blessing, all these are utterly worthless
Tall, richly caparisoned and bejeweled elephants, swaying majestically
Countless horses, faster than the wind, prancing like deer
Kings, strong of arm; saluted by all; their power incomprehensible
Of what consequence these trappings? For they too depart barefoot from this world
Triumphant they march through many lands; kettle drums extolling their glory
To the cacophonous trumpeting of their elephants and the neighing of their horses
Countless proud kings there are have been and will be
Unmindful of the Lord, they go to their final resting place, these trappings, left behind
Pilgrimages, ablutions, restraint, charity and mercy
The diligent study of the Hindu and Muslim holy texts
Abstinence from food; celibacy; all this I have seen
Without contemplating the Lord, all this is futile
Brave warriors, clad in shining armor who crush their enemies
Proud and steadfast; even more than the mountains
Shattering their enemies; crushing rebels; humbling elephants
Bereft of His grace, they too shall depart from the world
Multitudes of fearless heroes, who face steel unhesitatingly
Conquer nations and crush rebels, subduing proud elephants
With threats alone, cause impregnable forts everywhere to surrender
They too are naught but beggars at His doorstep
Demons, demigods, serpents and ghosts; forever have and will submit to God
As will all creatures in sea and land that He created in the twinkling of an eye
And thus will their good deeds multiply and their sins will be erased
The holy will roam the world in ecstasy and their enemies will be subdued
Powerful kings of men and demigods, with powerful elephants in their command
Men who perform ritual ablutions, believe in charity and have many splendid weddings
They too, along with the Gods of the Hindu Pantheon, shall not escape death
But those that are truly aligned with Him, shall escape the cycle of rebirth
Pointless it is to shut your eyes and meditate silently as if you were a crane
To wander seeking holy places to bathe at, rather than contemplating the Lord
Or to waste one’s life in the pursuit of pleasure
God can be obtained only by loving Him and his creation
Some venerate and worship stones; others are attached to idols (like Shivalingams)
Some seek him in the South (Dwarka); others in the West (Mecca)
Some fools worship idols and others pray at gravestones
The world is tangled in pointless ritual; none have fathomed the inscrutable Lord
So who were these Kings then? That might have elicited such a response from Guru Gobind Singh Ji?
Popular tradition holds that the Tav Prasad Savvaiye were composed when the Guru was at Anandpur Sahib. Max Arthur Macauliffe, in Volume V of his monumental work, The Sikh religion, its gurus, sacred writings and authors tells the story of a visitor that the young Guru Gobind Singh Ji received at Anandpur, where he then resided. Raja Ram Rai of Assam, had become a follower of Guru Tegh Bahadur Jis, many years ago, when Guru Tegh Bahadur had traveled to the East. Then childless, he asked for Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji’;s blessing and in due course, a son was born to him, who was named Ratan Rai. Macauliffe’s account is largely based on the traditional work Gur Bilas Patshahi Dasvin, written by Bhai Sukha Singh as well as the work Suraj Prakash, cited earlier.
When Ratan Rai attained the age of twelve, he felt an inclination to see the son of the Guru by whose mediation he had been born. He accordingly, with his mother and several of his ministers, proceeded to Anandpur. He took with him as an offering five horses with golden trappings, a very small but sagacious elephant, a weapon out of which five sorts of arms could be made — first a pistol, then by pressing a spring a sword, then a lance, then a dagger, and finally a club — a throne from which, by pressing a spring, puppets emerged and played chaupar, a drinking cup of great value, and several costly and beautiful jewels and raiment.
The Raja was received in great state. He offered his presents, prayed the Guru to grant him the Sikh faith and sincerity, so that his love might be ever centered in the Guru's feet. The Guru granted all his desires. The Raja exhibited the excellence and advantages of all his presents. He showed how five weapons could be made out of one, he unloosened the puppets from the throne and set them playing chaupar. He caused the elephant to wipe the Guru's shoes and place them in order for him. The Guru at the Raja's suggestion discharged an arrow. The elephant went and fetched it. The animal held a jug of water from which the Guru's feet were washed, and then wiped them with a towel. At word of command he took a chauri and waved it over the Guru. At night he took two lighted torches in his trunk, and showed the Guru and the Raja their homeward ways. In due time the Raja bade farewell to the Guru, and on his departure requested him never to let the elephant out of his possession.
The elephant was called ‘Prasadi Hathi’ and was greatly celebrated in the Guru’s court.
Anandpur at that time lay in the kingdom of Bilaspur, which was ruled by Raja Bhim Chand of the Kheloorea clan of Chandravanshi Rajputs. Bilaspur lay in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of Sutlej River. It was founded by Raja Bir Chand in 697 AD when his father Raja Harihar Chand was killed by the then Raja of Kangra. Bir Chand, the oldest of four brothers decided not to go back home and established a small fort at Kot-Kahloor in the low lying area below the peak of Shri Naina Devi, around which he carved out a kingdom. Raja Bhim Chand was a proud king, whose family had ruled for a thousand years before he ascended to the throne of Bilaspur.
In his work Twarikh Guru Khalsa, Volume 10, Gyani Gian Singh colorfully describes that period in Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s life. Religious persecution by the Mughal administration was on the rise and may flocked to Guru Gobind Singh’s protection to avoid forcible conversion to Islam. The young Guru got his followers engaged in martial pursuits, teaching them how to use weapons, ride and drill, perhaps very cognizant of the struggles that lay ahead. His growing power, in the proud Raja Bhim Chand’s backyard inevitably led to conflict.
Another excerpt from Macauliffe’s work :
Several men went to the Guru for enlistment, and his army rapidly increased. He now set about the construction of a big drum, without which he deemed his equipment would be incomplete. When the masands (Sikh community leaders) found that it was nearly ready they said that when Bhim Chand, the king of the country, heard it, he would be wroth, and not suffer the Guru and his Sikhs to abide in the locality.The Guru celebrated with prayers and the distribution of sacred food the completion of the big drum, which he called Ranjit, or victorious on the battle-field. When it was beaten, the men and women of the city went forth to behold it, and there was great rejoicing.
The Guru and his men, in full panoply, went hunting the same day. When the party arrived near Bilaspur, the capital of Kahlur, the Guru's drummer beat the drum with much energy and ostentation. It sounded like thunder to the hillmen, who at once apprehended that some potentate had come to take possession of their country. Raja Bhim Chand consulted his prime minister who said, ' It is Guru Gobind Rai, the tenth Guru in succession to Guru Nanak, who hath arrived. His father purchased some land at the base of the Tung mountain, and built a village thereon. Thousands of worshippers come to him from great distances. It is only recently that the Raja of Assam came to visit him and presented him large offerings. He hath constructed a drum and come shooting here. My advice is to keep on good terms with him. In the first place, he is worthy of worship, secondly, he maintaineth a large army and is greatly feared. Thirdly, he is very brave, and such men are sometimes useful as allies.'
On hearing this Raja Bhim Chand determined to go to meet the Guru, and dispatched his prime minister to arrange for the interview. The minister informed the Guru that his master, who was the head of all the hill chiefs, desired to meet him, and it would be well for the Guru to be on good terms with him. Bhai Kripal, the Guru's uncle, at a nod from the Guru replied, ' This is the Guru's castle. As any one treateth him, so shall he be treated.
Raja Bhim Chand was received in darbar with great honour by the Guru, who invited him to tell him the whole circumstances of the hill chiefs. Bhim Chand gave him the desired information, and then prayed the Guru to let him see the presents from the king of Assam. The Guru at that interview showed him all the presents, except the elephant. Next morning the Guru had a costly tent erected which had been sent him from Kabul by an enthusiastic Sikh named Duni Chand, and prepared to receive Bhim Chand in it at the second interview. With the Guru were his relations, courtiers, and principal wrestlers and warriors. When Bhim Chand saw the Kabuli tent he was astonished at its magnificence. In reply to his inquiry he was told that it had cost two and a half lakhs of rupees, and that it was the offering of a pious Sikh. During this conversation the elephant, beautifully decorated, was led forward. Bhim Chand expressed his unbounded admiration of all that he had seen and heard. On his homeward journey his mind burned with envy of the Guru's state and wealth, and he considered how he could take possession of all his valuables. On reflection, however, he came to the conclusion that he would be satisfied with the elephant, and he determined to have the animal whether by force or stratagem.
On his arrival in his capital he unfolded his design to his courtiers, and asked them to suggest how possession of the elephant could be obtained. After some discussion it was agreed that a message should be sent to the Guru to the effect that an embassy was coming from Srinagar in the present British Garhwal district, with the object of betrothing the daughter of its Raja, Fatah Shah, to Bhim Chand's son; and Bhim Chand desired to borrow the elephant so as to make a display of wealth to his guests. It was accordingly decided that the Guru should be requested to lend the elephant for the purpose. When the Guru received this message he knew that it was simply a trick to obtain permanent possession of the animal. He thought to himself, ' If I refuse the elephant, it means war, and if I send him it also means war, as I must resort to force for his recovery. He accordingly replied to Bhim Chand's message, The raja who presented me with the elephant requested me not to let the animal go out of my possession ; and it is a principle of the Guru's house to comply with such requests. I have another elephant, and should Raja Bhim Chand require him he may take him. The messenger seeing that there was no chance of obtaining the desired elephant hastened to return to Bilaspur.
The Guru's message was delivered with the addition that he did not seem afraid of any of the hill chiefs. Raja Bhim Chand, much incensed, consulted his prime minister, who advised him not to provoke a quarrel with the Guru. Bhim Chand angrily retorted, and charged his minister with age and cowardice. The Guru had shown contempt for him, and was he to calmly endure it? If he give me not the elephant by peaceable means, I will take the animal by force. The Guru is already on bad terms with the Emperor, and, if he fall out with me also, he cannot abide here. He is still a mere boy; arms are new to his hands. When I show him what I can do, he will know who I am and renounce his pride.
Thus were sown the seeds of strife between Raja Bhim Chand and Guru Gobind Singh, which led to the Battle of Bhangani, in which a large host, under the command of many Hindu Rajas, led personally by Bhim Chand was soundly defeated by a much smaller Sikh army. The stirring story of the Battle of Bhangani will have to wait for another day.
Eventually, Raja Bhim Chand sought Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s forgiveness, which was generously given. Sikh tradition says that the Guru addressed the Tav Prasad Savvaiye to Raja Bhim Chand in order to help him understand the limits of temporal power and its insignificance, when compared with the power of the Divine.
To mark the coming of Vaisakhi, I would like to share a a couple of recordings:
Sarbpreet Singh is a playwright, commentator and poet, who has been writing while pursuing a career in technology for several years. He is the author of Kultar’s Mime, a poem about the 1984 Sikh Genocide. His commentary has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and Worldview, The Boston Herald, The Providence Journal, The Milwaukee Journal and several other newspapers and magazines. He is the founder and director of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional Sikh music and serves on the boards of various non-profits focused on service and social justice. He is very active in Boston Interfaith circles and serves as a spiritual advisor at Northeastern University. @sarbpreetsingh