Virtues in Sikhi | 5. Courage



Courage is a central virtue in the ethics of the Sikhs. It may easily be recognised that a man devoid of courage is a man without authenticity.

Courage is a complex virtue. It embodies both fortitude as well as valour and although these two are grouped under one character they involve different responses to the situation.

Historically in Sikhism fortitude appears earlier, but it is recognised that to be of any ethical significance it must have the potency for the second, namely valour.

However, before the transition or recourse to the second, a person has to ensure that a valour-response is the necessity of the situation:

In the absence of such a moral regulation the person may respond rather violently to a situation under the influence of irascible passion and then rationalise it as an instance of courage, or he may mistakenly regard it as an act of courage.

It is worthy of being remembered that courage tempered with poise is the proper moral response.

But without the moral capacity of valour the one professing fortitude in appearance may only be indicative of a recreant person. We propose to examine both of these aspects, that is, fortitude as well as valour.

Historically, in Sikhism, the accent on valour is somewhat more prominent after the martyrdom of the 5th Guru. It is a strange, and perhaps also meaningful, coincidence because he comes almost in the midway of the ten Gurus.

However, the two aspects fortitude and valour are not mutually exclusive and we find a comingling of the two in Sikhism, from the beginning till the 10th and last human Guru.

The terms used for courageous and brave person in the Ādi Granth are sūrā, surbīr, nidar, and nirbhau.

In the oft-quoted couplet of the Ādi Granth it is proclaimed by Kabīr that

“the battle drum is beat in the sky and lo, the target is pierced.
The hero has descended upon battle field.
Now is the time to combat.
The hero is he who fights for the faith,
and though battered into bits, he abandons not the faith,
and though battered into bits, he abandons not the fight.”

In order to understand the sense in which Kabīr uses the term sūrā, we may examine the historical evidence:

Kabīr, a Muslim saint under the influence of a devotional cult, set out on blazing the trail of a new faith, the one which proclaimed that there is only one God for all persons, whether they are Muslims, Hindus or others.

And while he was welcomed by some, there were others who spurned him and regarded him as an outcast. Kabīr, however, was not discouraged in his views.

Now, in the passage cited above, he is exalting the virtue of suffering for the faith unflinchingly which is an example of what fortitude stands for in Sikhism.

On the same page of the Ādi Granth we again find Kabīr rebuking those who desert the faith:

He reminds any such deserter that human life is not merely for filling the belly like quadruped, but it is for facing the struggle.

Similarly, we find Guru Amar Das narrating the legend of Bhagat Prahlāda and saying, Prahlāda’s father locked up Prahlāda in a cell, “but the child was not afraid saying, ‘within me is God’.”

The narration refers to rare fortitude displayed by Prahlāda in facing, unflinchingly, persecution for what he believed to be true.

In the passage cited above, and some others as well, the concept of fortitude is reinforced by the belief that God is with the righteous and that divine courage is infused in the person displaying fortitude.

We have the historical evidence of the 5th Guru, Arjan Dev, facing persecution with a smile:

A scholar of the Christian ethics calls it “infused supernatural fortitude” and advises

“giving up of one’s life, rather than commit a moral evil, as St. Thomas More did in accepting martyrdom rather than consent to Henry VIII’s acting as the head of the Church which Christ founded.”

It is this ability to suffer for one’s word and belief that is referred to by Guru Arjan Dev, the martyr, when he refers to the saints as “men of word, chivalrous are they.”

In Sikhism also this virtue is sometimes referred to as “infused spiritual courage.” Guru Arjan Dev in this sense says, “God is fearless. He dwelleth with thee, why fearest thou then?

Guru Nānak also refers to the spiritually attuned person as one who “fears naught, nor is he ever drowned.

God-inspired, confidence and courage are also indicated by Guru Arjan Dev when he remarks, “God has protected me... and becoming fearless, I now enjoy the state of eternal bliss.”

In this manner we see that courage ought to be accompanied by composure, as the example of the Guru indicates.

In the writings of most of the Gurus the Absolute is described as fearless.
The lead is given by Guru Nānak and other Gurus also follow him.

It may, however, be possible that at times the Gurus are using nirbhau in respect of the Absolute to indicate its non-duality, since fear comes only when there is another which one may be afraid of.

Thus when the Absolute is called nirbhau it may mean that it is One and there is no duality.

This apart, the Absolute is also called the destroyer of fear which being the sense in which it is being discussed here; the Spiritual may be taken to infuse fortitude and valour.

Guru Gobind Singh, in whom one notices the manifestation of both of the aspects of courage, also calls the Absolute, fearless, in the tradition of the earlier Gurus.

We may now refer to the accent on valour, which culminated in the era of Guru Gobind Singh, though it is also unmistakenly manifest in the Gurus who came before him:

This culmination is sometimes described as a transition or what some scholars prefer to describe as ‘call to arms.’

The moral justification for the accent on valour is offered by Guru Gobind Singh in the composition entitled Zafarnāma (Epistle of Victory), sent to Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor:

In it Guru Gobind Singh, after citing various circumstances of a particular combat, proclaims, “When the situation is past all remedies, it is righteousness to take to sword.”

One may refer to a similar declaration made by Śrī Kṛṣṇa in the Bhāgavad gītā while exhorting Arjuna to take up the sword. It is an excellent example of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s views about the sense of duty.

According to Guru Gobind Singh the only consideration to be made before deciding to resort to such recourse is to see that it is absolutely necessary and that all other avenues of rectifying the wrong have been tried out to their fullest extent.

In the absence of such a control the above moral precept might lead to dangerous consequences and, instead of qualifying as a virtuous conduct, it may mistakenly provide a pretext for vengeance and violence which certainly would be immoral according to Guru Gobind Singh.

Historically, the accent on the need for displaying valour in a combat, was started by the 6th Guru, Hargobind, and has continued ever since - the 10th Guru and various Rehatnāmas in the post-Gobind Singh period.

In between, however, we still find the instance of the 9th Guru, Tegh Bahadur, accepting martyrdom without recourse to arms, thereby manifesting fortitude which may be taken to testify to the non-exclusiveness of fortitude and valour.

The importance of courage as a moral virtue in Sikhism appears to have increased manifold during and after Guru Gobind Singh, as indicated in Rehatnāmas. It has played a significant role in determining whether a particular person accepts the Sikh ethics or not.

Thus we find that in the code, Tankhanāma of Nand Lai, it is said that the qualities of the Khalsa, among others, consist of “fighting in the forefront, wearing of arms, or fighting resolutely.

Another code of life rules by Bhai Chopa Singh, enjoins upon a Sikh “not to desert from the battlefield,” however fierce the struggle may be, and also to wear arms.

It may be interesting to observe that Bhai Sukha Singh, in his Gurubilās (Bikrami era 1854), composed in a period later than the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh,

shows the traces of development in terms of the accent on valour and has even cited a sermon of the 5th Guru. According to Gurubilās, the 5th Guru addressed Kalesi, the warrior, on the excellence of the virtue of fighting for righteousness.

He is further reported to have extolled the role of an armed warrior who fights and never deserts. Such a person is able to conquer and rule the earth and, on death, attains salvation.

In fact, this report of the sermon is marked by the spirit of post-Gobind Singh era.

It is under the influence of this temper that the sense prior to the 6th Guru is sought to be reconstructed by scholars and charged eminently with the spirit of combat and valour.

Regarding Guru Gobind Singh himself, he declares courage to be a virtue of the very high order. According to him, the brave and benevolent attain honour in the world.

Guru Gobind Singh committed all the Sikhs to the exercise of arms, pledged them never to turn their backs upon the enemy in time of battle and never to surrender.

Heroic poetry became the vehicle of thought and spirit. Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed,

“Sword, that smites in a flash,
that scatters the armies of the wicked in the great battlefield,
O thou symbol of the brave.
Thine arm is irresistible, thy brightness shines forth,
the blaze of the splendour dazzling like the sun.
Sword, thou art the protector of the saint,
thou art the scourge of the wicked;
O scatterer of the sinners, I take refuge in thee.
Hail to the Creator, Saviour and Sustainer,
Hail to thee - Sword supreme.”

 It is during Guru Gobind Singh’s period that the suffix, after the name of the members, of the institutionalised brotherhood of the Khalsa, was introduced as Singh (lion) for men and Kaur for the women (Kaur is sometimes traced to lioness but it was also used for the princesses among the Rajputs).

The wearing of sword was made one of the organisational duties and the baptism itself was now to be prepared by stirring the sacramental water with a double-edged dagger.

All this is indicative of the accentuated interest and stress on valour but, so far as Guru Gobind Singh is concerned, he has manifested in his character both fortitude as well as valour,

though the former is very often overlooked by some people, thereby presenting a somewhat distorted and unbalanced picture of Guru Gobind Singh and Sikhism.

The scholars very often also overlook the spiritual metaphorical meanings of sword as conveyed by Guru Gobind Singh.

We may, however, note also other important characteristics of courage as manifested by Guru Gobind Singh:

First, the noteworthy factor is that militancy in courage was not directed towards any religion or community and the Hindus, Muslims as well as Sikhs fought together under his command.

Courage in the battlefield was devoid of any hatred or enmity. Guru Gobind Singh has proclaimed, “Fearlessly I will declare the spiritual truth but without enmity to anyone.

Second, this manifestation of valour was accompanied by Guru Gobind Singh’s propagation of such cardinal moral principles as equality, righteousness and universal brotherhood which he resolved to proclaim without fear of men.

The Guru reiterated that he was human and a servant of God. He condemned those who might call him God.

The humanistic content in this declaration is clearly visible:

The stress on the necessity to re-awaken in oneself authenticity and fearlessness, conjoined with refusal to put up with evil and sloth forever, is par excellence a humanistic approach.

Here may be the place to point out that with Guru Gobind Singh the tradition, initiated by Guru Nānak, fructified into a nation - a fully institutionalised nation.

The virtue of courage, as cultivated by its members, was to promulgate as well as preserve this fruition of Sikhism.

Courage as a virtue must, in the ultimate analysis, transcend beyond the frontiers of groups and nations, and must be indicated in a concern for the whole of mankind.