“It is when I make sparrows fight hawks that I am called Gobind Singh. It is when I make lions out of wolves that I am called Gobind Singh. It is when I make the lowly rise that I am called Gobind Singh. It is when I make one fight a hundred thousand that I am called Gobind Singh.”
Every male born into the Sikh tradition is given the name Singh as a middle or last name. Women may also carry this name. Everyone's experience with their Sikh identity is a personal one. The animal imagery invoked by this name, combined with the Sikh warrior philosophy and martial tradition, leads one down the blood-filled pages of Sikh history. Three creatures are specifically used to represent the Khalsa (Sovereign who belongs to the Guru), which also stems directly from Guru Gobind Singh Sahib: Lions, Hawks, and the Snake. Harinder Singh of the Sikh Research Institute has thoroughly explained the Hawk's significance in Sikhi and its influence on the Sikh psyche. This article will examine the relationship of lions and the snake with the Sikhs and how these animals came to represent the Sikh people, intertwining the animal symbolism with the Sikh identity & ethos stemming from the Father of the Khalsa himself.
What’s In The Name?
The Sikh people are most commonly associated with Lions, a relationship cemented on 13 April 1699. The occasion of Baisakhi (also spelled Vaisakhi) marked the foundation of the Khalsa community by the tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. The Guru proclaimed all men and women initiated into the brotherhood to take on the names “Singh” and “Kaur,” respectively. This was followed by all, including the Guru (as the Guru changed his name from Guru Gobind Rai to Guru Gobind Singh) and Mata Sahib Kaur (today known as the mother of the Khalsa). This single act helped solidify the warrior ethos of those committed to the Guru.
“Singh” is of Sanskrit origin and is commonly translated as “lion” but can also mean “hero or distinguished individual.” “Kaur/Kour” is also etymologically derived from Sanskrit, evolving from the Rajput Kanwar/Kunwar (meaning “prince”), which was used to indicate individual status in society. Occasionally, Kaur is translated as “lioness,” or an altogether different word, “Singhni,” is used as a parallel to the male Singh. This is evident in the Sikh Ardas (supplication in the form of concluding prayer in both personal and public Sikh life; collective supplication) read daily:
Meditating on the achievement of the male and female members of the Khalsa who laid down their lives in the cause of Dharma (religion and righteousness), got their bodies dismembered bit by bit, got their skulls sawn off, got mounted on spiked wheels, got their bodies sawn, made sacrifices in the service of the shrines (Gurdwaras), did not betray their faith, sustained their adherence to the Sikh faith with unshorn hair uptill their last breath, say "Wondrous Destroyer of darkness", O Khalsa.i
Sikh Rehat Maryada Chapter 3 Article IV
Prominent Sikh scholar Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha (1861-1938) translates “Singh” as “tiger” in his Mahan Kosh while also employing “shardool” for “lion” (see image below). The Mahan Kosh is the most comprehensive dictionary of Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptural canon). Interestingly, the Pali variant of “singh” is “siha,” which is used to refer to a “lion,” a “woman like the lion,” an “epithet of the Buddha,” and even “lioness.” 
In the Guru Granth Sahib, ਸਿੰਘ (Singh) is mentioned many times. It is mentioned by Guru Nanak Sahib, Guru Amardas Sahib, Guru Ramdas Sahib, and Guru Arjan Sahib and Bhagats (devotees) Kabir ji, Namdev ji, Ravidas ji, Sadhna ji, and Bhatt (bard) Haribans ji. According to translations, it refers to a lion, tiger, or throne.
Bhai Gurdas (1559-1637), in his Vars (odes or ballads), mentions ਸਿੰਘ, which has been translated as lion or throne. He notably uses “Bagh” when referring to tigers. Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, the father of the Khalsa, has mentioned ਸਿੰਘ many times in his Bani (message/writings). It has been translated mostly as a lion, tiger, or throne.
In his commentary of the Tenth Master’s writings, Bhai Nand Lal (1633-1713) uses “Singh” only when referring to Guru Gobind Singh Sahib himself. As mentioned previously, the terms “Singh” & “Singhni” are used in the Ardas read daily by the Sikhs to refer to male and female members of the Khalsa Panth. “Singhni” (Gurmukhi: ਸਿੰਘਨੀ) is not mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib, Bhai Gurdas’s Vars, or Bhai Nand Lal’s ghazals, but it does make two appearances in the Bani of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. In both instances, “Singhni” refers to “lioness.”
According to the Sikh Rahit Maryada (Sikh code of conduct), it is clear that men are given the last name “Singh” and women “Kaur” upon the naming ceremony post-birth (when born in a Sikh household) and when undergoing Khande-ki-pahul (Sikh initiation ceremony). Still, the meaning of these names is not directly defined.
Thus, “Singh” was not always used with the specificity this article currently examines. As discussed previously, most linguistic experts translate “Singh” as “lion.” Whether “tiger” or “lion,” the imagery of a ferocious, strong, firm, fearless - apex warrior remains instilled in the Sikh community through its standardized naming conventions and ceremony of initiation. “Singh” and “Kaur” both represent royal titles for those initiated into the Khalsa Order, preserving individual sovereignty.
The significance of adding “Singh” and “Kaur” to the names of members of the Khalsa Panth had a profound impact on the psyche of the Sikhs. To understand this, one must understand the reason behind this action.
“Singh” is an ancient Sanskrit name used by the Hindu Kshatriya caste (the community of warrior aristocracy). The name “Singh” was commonly used among the Rajputs and other Hindu warriors. They added this title to their name, drawing inspiration from the Asiatic Lions and possibly the Bengal Tiger. Both of these beasts were native to Northwestern India (although an animal does not need to be native to an area to be significant to a respective culture).  Lions are globally known to represent military and regal symbolism, regardless of the culture.
To immaterialize the inequitable caste system, the 10th Sikh Guru conferred the name "Singh" on all initiated Sikh males irrespective of their caste background, as last names in India often represent caste. The act of taking up the name "Singh" by all male Khalsa Sikhs was an act of defiance against the caste system. This act presented to the outside world that in the Sikh paradigm, caste, family origin, or professional background did not matter.
Kaur is historically a masculine title. Just as the adoption of "Singh" was a sign of rebellion, "Kaur" was also a new identity given to rid the segregation of women by caste, family name, or profession. The adoption of masculine "Kaur" raised women to the same status as men, yet giving them a separate, sovereign identity, signifying their independence and ability to sustain without men. Throughout Indian society, inheritance was usually restricted to males in the majority of the cultures. Even today, the male family name moves forward after marriage as the bride usually changes her last name to adopt her husband's last name. "Kaur," the crown prince, invokes that the person is entitled to the same rights as men and can receive the endowment while independent of male supervision. "Kaur" announces to the world that under the Sikh vision, females now have equal status as men in all aspects of society. Under standard Sikh naming conventions, all biological men receive the name "Singh," and all biological women receive the name "Kaur." Both Singh and Kaur are mechanisms to fight against caste hierarchy and discrimination, and Kaur is also an uprising against chauvinism, sexism, and patriarchy.
However, the literal meaning of these names cannot be ignored. To do so would be ignoring the genius of the Guru, casting doubt on the perfect Emperor-Prophet. Lions are associated with various traits, and the similarity between a Sikh’s kes (unshorn hair) and a lion's mane is also striking. A Sikh man’s face with an uncut beard in full form resembles that of a male Lion’s, with his glorious flowing mane. This is reflected in artwork across the internet and Panjabi songs, where a Singh’s appearance is often paralleled with a male lion’s. Lions are the most social of the “big cats” and live in units called “pride,” and are extremely defensive when encroached upon. This lifestyle is very similar to that advocated by the Sikh Gurus. The Gurus advocated leading a householder/family life in place of becoming a Sadhu (ascetic), and many sabads (Infinite-Wisdom verses) in the Guru Granth Sahib highlight the importance of pursuing sangat (Sikh congregations). Guru Ramdas Sahib says:
Yoga - Union with the Divine - is not obtained by wearing religious robes; the One is found in the Sat Sangat, the True Congregation, and the Guru's Teachings. The humble Saints throw the doors wide open.1.ii
Guru Granth Sahib 1297
The Sikhs were also historically self-organized into misls (groups in the Sikh confederacy of the commonwealth) that united with each other in the face of foreign invasion and attacks.
Singhnis were no less striking in their valor and spirit, for there is a reason we remember Mata Sahib Kaur, Mata Bhag Kaur, Rani Sada Kaur, and Sophia Duleep Singh to this day. It would be unjust to say that these Kaur-ageous beings were any less than lions, as they captured the true Sikh-Singhni spirit while preserving the sovereign female identity. The bravery and military prowess of Sikhs were such that in the World Wars, they became known as the “Black Lions.”
Across cultures, the image of a lion echoes power, bravery, aristocracy, intelligence, strength, fierceness, and regality. Often presented as “kings of the jungle,” lions, powerful and noble, also symbolize royal status. Sikhs show pride in a positive sense. Sikh people take pride in their community's power and shared ethics. They know they are strongest when they come together around their Guru and safeguard each other. Sometimes, too much pride can become a negative trait and cause lions to behave rashly. Lions may be portrayed as egotistical creatures, thinking they are above everything and everyone else. Occasionally, this “bravery” is a misnomer for irrationality. Then there’s also the adjective “lionhearted” in English, which means brave and courageous. Guru Granth Sahib also shares how these negative qualities and glutinous behavior can cloud our judgment and lifestyle. No matter how glorious, rich, or high-status one is, there is no excuse for behavior driven by ego, lust, or greed. Guru Granth Sahib makes this clear: to be a lion is to be “high-minded,” grounded by contentment, daya (compassion), and humility, driven by alignment and love for the One.
The Essence of Thy Name
Essentially, the Singh-Lion does not denote inherited or ingrained valor. Nor does it mean to “live life king-sized” or extend the claim that “Singh is King.” It actually stands for a state of mind and being loyal supporters of the Guru. We can all be Singhs/Singhnis if we work hard every day and strive to be the most high-minded and the bravest version of ourselves. Brave enough to battle against injustice, brave enough to provide food and protection for all in need, and fight brutality and persecution in the face of all odds. This includes being brave enough to take the morally right action, even in the face of all other human impulses that may sway one away from being truly brave. In his Japu, Guru Nanak Sahib reminds us,
Good deeds and bad deeds - the record is read out in the court of the One. According to their own actions, some are drawn closer, and some are driven farther away. Nanak says those who have meditated on the Nam (Divine Identification) and departed after having worked by the sweat of their brows, their faces are radiant in the Court of the Divine, and many are saved along with them!.1.iii
Guru Granth Sahib 8
The Coiled Snake
In 1705, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib sent the Emperor of India, Aurangzeb, a letter written in Persian from Dina, Panjab. This letter responded to the emperor's betrayal after he had promised safe passage to the Tenth Sikh Guru and his devotees. The elder two sons of the Guru, Sahibzadas (Sovereign’s children) Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh chose to give their lives for the Guru in Chamkaur. Despite a Mughal military victory in Chamkaur, which left the Sikhs and their Guru scattered and in disarray, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib claimed victory over Aurangzeb. This was based on the fact that the Mughal forces failed to capture or kill the Sikh Guru and that Emperor Aurangzeb had broken the oath he had sworn on the Holy Quran (the central scripture of Islam) to provide safe passage to the Sikh Guru and his people. Hence, the letter was named Zafarnama (Epistle of Victory).
In this letter addressed to the Emperor, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib refers to his loyal followers, notjust as a serpent but as a coiled serpent in the singular. “مار” (pronounced maar) means “snake” in Persian. This presents some interesting imagery for the Khalsa. This symbolism has been recorded by dhadis (bards) and Panjabi folk singer Harbhajan Maan in his song “Bir Khalsa.” It remains popular in the circles of Akali-Nihang Singhs. Even the popular term “Bhujangi” means “child-snake.” Perhaps the snake is a description of the strength of Guru’s army at the time or of the unified Khalsa Panth.
What, if you have killed my four sons, the hooded cobra still sits coiled up.78.iv
Dasam Granth 1389
A coiled snake is a global image, and its usage transcends cultures. For example, in Ben Franklin’s Join or Die cartoon and the Gadsden Flag, it represents liberty, unforgiving resistance, and political/physical unity. A version of this snake was used on the first Navy Jack of the US Navy and is still featured on the seal and the emblem of the United States Department of the Army. Many hooded, multi-headed snakes are depicted in stone sculptures around the Buddhist temples in Cambodia, iconifying the tale of Mucalinda and the Buddha. Please note that the coiled snake mentioned here is not the same and does not 100% hold the same meaning as the one mentioned by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib.
Snakes are often represented as powerful protectors. When certain snakes are threatened, they will maintain their territory and act to fortify their position. This occurs in a sequence, beginning with the theatrics of a threatening display, followed by aggressive behavior, leading to fighting. Thus, snakes are seen as natural defenders who cannot easily be displaced and often fight to protect themselves. According to animal behavioral science, “Coiling does increase the distance that a snake can strike but seeing a coiled snake doesn't mean it's ready to strike. Snakes are often coiled up because it's a safer body position. Being stretched out leaves them more vulnerable to predators.”
The term “snake,” “serpent,” and “cobra” are all mentioned in Guru Granth Sahib by Guru Nanak Sahib, Guru Angad Sahib, Guru Amardas Sahib, Guru Ramdas Sahib, Guru Arjan Sahib, Bhagats Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, Trilochan, Bhai Satta and Balvand, Bhatts Kal, Kall Sahaar, and Gayandh. In Bhai Gurdas’s vars, many references are made to “snake,” “serpent,” and “cobra.” The Bani of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib also mentions “snake,” “serpent,” “cobra,” and even “viper.” Bhai Nand Lal’s ghazals and vars mention “snake” once.
Terrifying and life-threatening, snakes have also culturally come to stand for fertility and deep insight. In the West, snakes are often understood and portrayed as cunning, devious, disloyal, dishonest, and unfaithful. Serpents have been repeatedly associated with reproduction and lust. In ancient Egypt, the uraeus was a symbol of authority and high status. Egyptian people also saw the snake as stimulating and vitalizing. Snakes have the ability to shed their skin, and this is symbolic of rebirth. Snake venom can be used as a toxic poison or a medication. This interconnectedness bridges the duality of fatality and revenge vs. survival and creation, thus presenting Oneness. Depending on the culture, serpents have been known to connect to both the masculine and feminine. The Rod of Asclepius, the symbol of modern healthcare and medicine, incorporates a winding snake. Serpents can be very unforgiving animals and are closely linked to intelligence. They often deal lethal bites in the absence of warning once they feel intimidated. Across the globe, serpents are usually dreaded and loathed. This culturally-recurring duality of "good" and "bad" is merely an illusion, just as Guru Granth Sahib (perfection beyond prophets) reveals to us:
A person calls others bad and good, as long as they are in duality. The Gurmukh understands the One and Only Creator; they are absorbed in the One Divine.7.v
Guru Granth Sahib 756
The Tenth Nanak & His Imagery
While both the lion and the snake are mentioned early in Sikh literature, their association with the Sikhs was cemented with the 10th Guru, much like the establishment of the Khalsa identity itself. Thus the question arises, how can lions become a snake: the Guru told his Khalsa to be Singhs/Kaurs/Singhnis. Why would the Guru call those loyal enough to lead lives by his wishes and, if needed, lay down those very lives, lions, onlyto publicly address them as a snake (in the collective)? Lions cannot magically turn into snakes. Perhaps it is because Sikhs formed jathas (organized Sikh bands) and misls like lions form prides. The misls disagreed with each other on many things, and the various jathebandis (groups) still do (for example: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Akhand Kirtani Jatha (AKJ), Damdami Taksal, Buddha Dal). Hence, lions can ascertain ideological differences from one another.
A snake is long, unified, and moving toward a single, common goal, just as the Khalsa collective is to remain ever-focused on their Guru. The snake's body moves in unison when responding to the intellectual capital of its body (the brain). Aside from the physical and political symbolism of the snake, the loyal Khalsa warriors must unite as one, moving in unison in response to the glorious intellect of the Guru. When threatened, the whole Khalsa Panth should not hesitate to put aside differences and “coil upon itself.” Sikhs are often besmirched like serpents are misapprehended right from the beginning. Snakes shed skin and are capable of transformation, just as individuals can transform their personal & political paradigms upon aligning with the Guru and accepting, upholding, and living with the Gurbani (Infinite Wisdom in the Guru Granth Sahib) and Rahit (lifestyle) in their personal journey through Sikhi. Just as the Panth has historically changed direction, often after pivotal times in its history, via Sarbat Khalsa deliberations and collective decisions to undergo struggles, the Panth should continually strive to unite to allow it to progress & thrive, not just to survive.
i ਜਿਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਸਿੰਘਾਂ ਸਿੰਘਣੀਆਂ ਨੇ ਧਰਮ ਹੇਤ ਸੀਸ ਦਿਤੇ ਬੰਦ ਬੰਦ ਕਟਾਏ ਖੋਪਰੀਆਂ ਲੁਹਾਈਆਂ ਚਰਖੀਆਂ ਤੇ ਚੜ੍ਹੇ ਆਰਿਆਂ ਨਾਲ ਚਿਰਾਏ ਗਏ ਗੁਰਦੁਆਰਿਆਂ ਦੀ ਸੇਵਾ ਲਈ ਕੁਰਬਾਨੀਆਂ ਕੀਤੀਆਂ ਧਰਮ ਨਹੀਂ ਹਾਰਿਆ ਸਿੱਖੀ ਕੇਸਾਂ ਸੁਆਸਾਂ ਨਾਲ ਨਿਭਾਹੀ ਤਿਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਦੀ ਕਮਾਈ ਦਾ ਧਿਆਨ ਧਰ ਕੇ ਖ਼ਾਲਸਾ ਜੀ ਬੋਲੋ ਜੀ ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ ॥
ii ਕਰਿ ਭੇਖ ਨ ਪਾਈਐ ਹਰਿ ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਜੋਗੁ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਈਐ ਸਤਸੰਗਤੀ ਉਪਦੇਸਿ ਗੁਰੂ ਗੁਰ ਸੰਤ ਜਨਾ ਖੋਲਿ ਖੋਲਿ ਕਪਾਟ ॥੧॥
iii ਚੰਗਿਆਈਆ ਬੁਰਿਆਈਆ ਵਾਚੈ ਧਰਮੁ ਹਦੂਰਿ ॥ ਕਰਮੀ ਆਪੋ ਆਪਣੀ ਕੇ ਨੇੜੈ ਕੇ ਦੂਰਿ ॥ ਜਿਨੀ ਨਾਮੁ ਧਿਆਇਆ ਗਏ ਮਸਕਤਿ ਘਾਲਿ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਤੇ ਮੁਖ ਉਜਲੇ ਕੇਤੀ ਛੁਟੀ ਨਾਲਿ ॥੧॥
iv ਚਿਹਾ ਸ਼ੁਦ ਕਿ ਚੂੰ ਬੱਚਗਾ ਕੁਸ਼ਤਹ ਚਾਰ ॥ ਕਿ ਬਾਕੀ ਬਿਮਾਦਅਸਤੁ ਪੇਚੀਦਹ ਮਾਰ ॥੭੮॥
v ਬੁਰਾ ਭਲਾ ਤਿਚਰੁ ਆਖਦਾ ਜਿਚਰੁ ਹੈ ਦੁਹੁ ਮਾਹਿ ॥ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਏਕੋ ਬੁਝਿਆ ਏਕਸੁ ਮਾਹਿ ਸਮਾਇ ॥੭॥
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