Life Stories of Community Role Models – His Story, History; My Story, Mystery!


By Gurmukh Singh | Opinion |

“What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.” – (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What we are says much more about us than anything we say about ourselves. Only basic goodness in a person makes an impact on others.

We have our role-models in Sikh history who made a massive contribution to the progress of the revolutionary Sikh movement founded by Guru Nanak Sahib. Most did not write autobiographies but others did write about them when the real, positive or negative, impact of their actions became known in due course of history. We remember some as our role models – the Guru-persons and the great Sikhs in history. Sometimes we come across such humble sewadars who leave their impress on our lives.

We also read about those who betrayed community interests at critical times in history. In our own life-time, we try and follow and associate with those we believe to be well-positioned to serve the Panth. Sadly, over the years, some remind us of the Gurbani Panktis:

ਮੈ ਜਾਨਿਆ ਵਡ ਹੰਸੁ ਹੈ ਤਾ ਮੈ ਕੀਆ ਸੰਗੁ ॥

I thought he was a great swan so I associated with him.

ਜੇ ਜਾਣਾ ਬਗੁ ਬਪੁੜਾ ਤ ਜਨਮਿ ਨ ਦੇਦੀ ਅੰਗੁ ॥੨॥

Had I known that he was only a wretched heron from birth, I would have avoided his company. ||2|| (SGGS Ank 585)

Life stories of community role models inspire next generations. I hesitate to use the word leader because the Sikhi concept of true leadership in Guru tradition and Sikh history, is very different from that generally understood. For example, Bhai Lehna (later Guru Angad Sahib) and, amongst the great Sikhs, Kapur Singh (later Nawab) were recognised as role models of Sikhi sewa in humility. They were not leaders as such who claimed some sort of hereditary right to lead or due to their privileged positions of influence with the establishment. In fact, those like Babas Prithi Chand, Ram Rai or Dhir Mal, who did gain influence in the Mughal darbar by promoting themselves or misrepresenting Sikhi, were rejected by the Gurus and the Sikhs.

Humble role models like Nawab Kapur Singh, strengthened the jathebandi (organisation) of the Panth. They recognised and promoted skills and potential and, through succession planning, they produced hundreds like themselves. They set the bar high for Sikhs writing autobiographies. They secured the unity and victory of the Khalsa Panth in the peoples war of liberation in the 18th century.

Thus, like many other Sikh word concepts, leadership in the Sikh tradition is re-defined and needs to be understood using Sikhi-sewa criteria.  

Life stories of role models are recorded by historians as biographies. As such, they are an important source of our history and heritage. However, in recent times, the trend is to write own life stories as autobiographies presented in various forms. It takes much humility to talk about own weaknesses, mistakes, missed opportunities and lessons learnt.

Most ambitious individuals with some talent, who single-mindedly maneuver themselves into influential positions with the establishment, are often unaware of the great harm they might have done to the future of the community at critical times. Sadly, there are many such examples in pre and post Indian independence Sikh history. Self-centred individuals exaggerate own successes and limited contribution and blame others for own failures. And so, such a story about self, or My Story, becomes a bit of a mystery to be solved by the discerning reader and future historians.

However, over the years, I have also come across many educational personal accounts. Probably Sachi Sakhi by Sirdar Kapur Singh is one. Another is Soldiers’ Contribution to Indian Independence by late General Mohan Singh of the Indian National Army. Both have been my constant sources of reference in the context of the true story of Indian independence, politics and Brahmanic hegemony.

Neither biographies nor autobiographies should be confused with family heritage and records preserved from generation to generation. There is a wealth of information in old family records and images left by earlier generations. I am still in the process of sorting out my own family documents and images going back well over a hundred years. It is a humbling spiritual experience to be able to look back in time and relate to own family continuum. Family records should be preserved as family treasure so that:    

ਪੀਊ ਦਾਦੇ ਕਾ ਖੋਲਿ ਡਿਠਾ ਖਜਾਨਾ ॥

When I opened and looked at the treasure [my family heritage] left by my ancestors,

ਤਾ ਮੇਰੈ ਮਨਿ ਭਇਆ ਨਿਧਾਨਾ ॥੧॥

Then my mind was filled with [spiritual] joy. ||1|| (SGGS Ank 186)

It is a humbling experience and an essential process of orientation in own family and community history.

A biography of a person is his story (history) told by another and not my story (a mystery!) to be read between the lines for the truth. It is an objective account based on independent evidence.

Because, individual performance against the broader historical background, can only be assessed by a trained historiographer, usually when  a person is no longer around. In most cases, it is the “true story”!

We should welcome good biographies as part of Sikh history but receive self-promoting autobiographies with caution. In any case, what one is, is generally known and speaks louder than words!

Gurmukh Singh OBE, a retired UK senior civil servant, chairs the Advisory Board of The Sikh Missionary Society UK. Email: Click here for more details on the author.

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


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