When we go overboard with the Baba Deep Singh story

There is no disagreement on Baba Ji’s immense status in the Sikh Pantheon. However, there is disagreement on the suggestion that he fought with his head in his hands, writes DR GURNAM SINGH as he exposes the hypocrisy of parcharak Pinderpal Singh

Baba Deep Singh in Battle of Amritsar ~ 1757 – Source: Sikh Legends

By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

This is the period we remember the shaheedi (matrydom) commemoration of Baba Deep Singh. On 13 Nov 1757, he laid down his life in defence of the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, which had been desecrated by the Afghan army. He is revered among Sikhs for his sacrifice, scholarship and devotion to the teachings of Sikhi. Baba Ji was the first head of Misl Shaheedan Tarna Dal, an order of the Khalsa military established by Nawab Kapur Singh, the then head of Sharomani Panth Akali Buddha Dal.

Though there have been many thousands of Sikh martyrs through the course of history, Baba Deep Singh is particularly known for having fought even after his head was cut off by the enemy warrior. Moreover, he is remembered as the scribe of one of the oldest hand written versions of Guru Granth Sahib known as the Damdami Bir, which, was dictated to him by no other than Guru Gobind Singh.

There is no disagreement on Baba Ji’s immense status in the Sikh Pantheon. However, there is disagreement on the suggestion that he fought with his head in his hands. Those who question the veracity of this aspect of his story deploy scientific reason and logic to support their point of view. And those who totally accept the story as it has been popularised use the defence of sharda (faith).

Personally, because from each standpoint, both arguments have validity, I believe it is futile to even try to find a resolution. However, what I do find frustrating is when those who support the headless warrior narrative from a sharda perspective also try to argue it as if it were an indisputable scientific fact. They, as the saying goes, ‘want their cake and eat it!’

Much, perhaps most, of human history is recorded as folklore, which is powerful precisely because it is not constructed through empirical factual verified truths that might satisfy a judge in a court of law. Even with the modern technology we have today, people will have completely different accounts of the same events; truth telling is actually an almost impossible task and scientific truths themselves can overtime be overturned.

In the short video clip, which I ripped from a live discourse given by the Giani Pinderpal Singh in Amritsar, I spotted a classic strategy of ‘wanting your cake and eat it’ or appealing to both emotion on the one hand and reason on the other. Normally, I would not make much of this, as Sikh preachers regularly offer a mixture of half baked arguments, they end up confusing rather than educating the congregation. However, given Giani Pinderpal Singh’s status, on this occasion, I felt the need to comment, not least because I think he ends up undermining his own original assertion.

Whilst extolling the importance of faith in sustaining dharma, he then goes onto suggest reason and evidence are also important. Regarding the headless warrior narrative, he first appeals to evidence in the form of Giani Gian Singh’s widely quoted Panth Parkash, which narrates the story of Baba Deep Singh’s shaheedi in great detail. This is a beautiful uplifting story that is widely narrated by Sikh preachers of all hues, so no particular problems here.

However, his second appeal to evidence is an assertion that Baba Ji’s feat of fighting without his head is unprecedented in human history. The intention clearly here was to demonstrate the absolute uniqueness of this feat and thereby enhancing the stature of Baba Deep Singh. However, a simple cursory scan of world history and folklore will reveal that the ‘headless warrior’ folklore is pretty universal. A simple online search using the search terms ‘headless men’, ‘headless warriors’ and ‘headless horseman’ throws up thousands of such examples!

I think the moral is that we should avoid mixing folklore, where any number of miracle stories are possible, and logic and reason. Each has its place but when mixed together, they almost end up cancelling each other. And sadly, it does seem to me many Sikh parcharaks are trapped in this game.

Sikhi as a religion or faith requires NO logic or reasoning – it is sustained through simple faith in the three pillars, namely kirt karni (earning a honest living), vand shakna (sharing if one’s wealth) and naam japna (meditating or the name of the divine power) and routine worship at the Gurdwara. And, for some, perhaps many people, that is all that really matters. But, for those where Sikhi is understood as a philosophy for life, as a historical social and political movement, and as a practical technology for living and learning, it can and should be subject to reason, logic and critical scrutiny.

But, I definitely do not think there is any value in debating the veracity of folk stories, such as the one in question, precisely because their strength and appeal is not in some original factual event, but in the way the narrative takes hold in the imagination over time.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)

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