The Three R’s

Resistance, Rebellion & Revolution

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The following is an edited version of a lecture delivered by the author at an interfaith forum titled “Resistance, Rebellion & Revolution”, hosted by the Sikh Research Institute at San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A., on July 7, 2011 .
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I had always thought of the 3-R’s as “Reading, ‘Riting & ‘Rithmetic.”

Today they come to us with a new twist as Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution.

In a 1957 essay, Albert Camus had some pungent comments on Resistance, Rebellion & Death. A writer, he said, “cannot serve today those who make history; he must serve those who are subject to it.”

Is such distinction meaningful?

There are those who make history, and then there are those, usually the victors, who shape and record it.

“With rebellion awareness is born,” continues Camus, “Absolute freedom mocks at justice. Absolute justice denies freedom. To be fruitful, the two ideas must find their limits in each other.”

History tells us that all modern revolutions have ended in increased power of the State. I offer you the Russian, Cuban, Chinese and American revolutions as examples. We wait to see what happens next in Egypt and Libya.

Is revolution always violent?

We often attach the values of violence to revolution and peaceful non-violence to resistance. Such labels may be misleading.

My initial gut reaction was bafflement with the title “Resistance, Rebellion, Revolution.” Is that the natural order of progression? To me it is like the perennial dilemma of what comes first – the chicken or the egg?

Much as you don’t hand car keys to someone who lacks driving skills and license, or a bankbook to a toddler; similarly, one may not hand a loaded gun to someone not mature enough to handle it – except perhaps in some states of the union.

The language of suffering, sacrifice and martyrdom needs to be learned and accepted before one picks up a weapon. A revolution of the mind and spirit has to occur before one even dreams of resistance and rebellion.

Revolution in the mind drives resistance to injustice and rebellion both. Rebellion that upsets the existing order and stands it on its head becomes the last step. Our desperate lives drive us to rebellion. If it succeeds, the existing government falls and the power structure changes. If it fails, then it is treason.

Western notions of war emerge from the views of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. Three elegant phrases in Latin capture war’s ugly reality:  Jus ad bellum,  Jus in bello  and  Jus post bellum  – the cause, conduct and consequence of war. Ultimately, matters boil down to three imperatives: Is the cause just and the authority declaring the war competent to do so? And finally, non-combatant civilians must not be targeted and prisoners humanely treated.

Competent authority is either God himself, such as when he directed Abraham to kill his son, or those that are appointed or elected by human institutions. By this reasoning Vietnam and Iraq wars that were declared by a duly elected President were, therefore, legitimate. But was there an overriding national interest that would make them just?

What if a duly elected President declares war based on faulty intelligence, as in Iraq?

Quite clearly then, the 9/11 Al Qaeda attack on America was not a just act of war. But how does one see the aerial dropping of cluster bombs or napalm as we did in Vietnam, a rain of death that fails to differentiate between combatants and civilians?

Or, for that matter, how do we justify the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Perhaps the rationale was that they shortened the war and thus saved more lives than they cost.

Legitimate authority, as reasoned here, clearly means that then there can never be any way to justify guerrilla war since there is no single competent authority for it. But a ‘surgical’ strike to take out an enemy, like the one that eliminated Osama bin Laden, would be justified since the action was precisely focused to take out a target.

Let’s now turn our attention to Sikh tradition.

For over a hundred years, from Guru Nanak to Guru Arjan, the practice was totally non-violent.

Yet the time was spent working on a revolution of values and expectations – indeed of a life-style, even learning the art of sacrifice for a cause bigger than the self, that becomes martyrdom.

Guru Nanak spent time in jail; his crime: “Telling truth to power.”

Guru Amardas protested the tax that Hindus paid to get to their places of pilgrimage, even though the Guru was not a Hindu. Guru Arjan was martyred in the most horrendous fashion but his protest remained absolutely non-violent; he did not call on his followers to take up arms.

Why? Because the meaning of his sacrifice had to work into the marrow of a people so that they would be appalled at the injustice done to them and moved to action.

A blueprint for spiritual and inner revolution is first necessary and that took five generations of spiritual masters and Gurbani – from Guru Nanak to Guru Arjan. Hence the idea that a moral revolution has to precede resistance and rebellion. Only then can one honestly issue a call to the people to pick up arms because all other means have failed.

Dignity demands it.

The sixth Guru, Hargobind, raised a militia, and every succeeding Guru, including the tenth and last, Guru Gobind Singh, maintained one. But they didn’t deploy it lightly or whimsically; the sixth and tenth Gurus fought many battles but only because war was thrust upon them.

The ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadar, whose life and writings are the epitome of reason, calm, stoic and peaceful nature, in fact, earned laurels in battle as a young lad. Born Tyag Mull, in war he earned his new name Tegh Bahadar – the master of the sword. But as Guru, he fought no battles, even though he had an armed militia at his beck and call. Instead, like Guru Arjan before him, he chose martyrdom for a cause that was not his but that of the Hindus – the downtrodden majority at that time. In essence he died for a basic right, the free expression of religion for all people.

Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, was tested in battle four times. Yet, when the emperor Jehangir, on whose orders Guru Arjan was martyred, made overtures for peace, Guru Hargobind responded most positively. Even though Guru Hargobind fought his battles against tyrants who were Muslims, he built a mosque for Muslims that still stands today. He also ordered that enemy soldiers that fell in battle be buried according to Muslim rites.

The tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, had many battles thrust upon him by both Hindu and Muslim tyrants. He fought them valiantly. His four sons were martyred. Yet when the emperor of the day, Aurungzeb, put out feelers for peace, the Guru traveled to the other end of the subcontinent to meet him; unfortunately the emperor died before they got to meet.

This history of the Guru period that I have summarized, along with Guru Gobind Singh’s life, provide a clear model for the Sikh view of what’s a just war and how to fight one.

How is one to treat a defeated enemy?

Combatants and non-combatants alike carry endless emotional baggage in war. Discarding it is not always a simple matter, but it is central to how one treats a fallen enemy. The simple answer from Sikh history is “with dignity.” The classic example is from the time of Guru Gobind Singh when in the midst of battle, Sikh soldiers complained to the Guru that one Sikh, Bhai Ghannaiyya,” was aiding and abetting the enemy by supplying drinking water to injured enemy soldiers. When summoned to explain, Ghannaiyya said that in the face of each fallen soldier, all he saw was an injured human being, not a friend, not an enemy. The Guru commended him and asked that in future he provide balm for their wounds as well.

At an extremely trying time when his two older sons had been killed in battle and the younger two, barely seven and nine years of age, walled up alive by the enemy, Guru Gobind Singh wrote a letter in Persian,  Zafarnamah  (The Epistle of Victory) to the emperor Aurungzeb on the principles of war and peace, and the duties of rulers. A most widely quoted couplet from it bluntly states that when all other means have failed, it is just and rightful to take to the sword (“choon kar az hamaa heeltay dar guzesht; halal ast burdan ba shamsheer dast.”)

Keep in mind the operative words here: “When all other means have failed.”

“I see no enemy” is the key to Sikh thinking – “na ko bairy nahi bigaana” [GGS:1299].

Justice and atonement are central to Sikh teaching. Avenging injustice is critical; revenge has no place in Sikh doctrine. “Avenge” and “revenge” are similar-sounding words but with a world of difference in meaning. Often the distinction gets lost in the heat of battle, but it remains crucial.

Sikh ethics hold for strict accountability. Revenge is a form of wild justice; it shoots wildly. Justice aims exactly and exactingly. It is a distinction that must be kept in mind.

In Sikh lore, there is also a surprising line in Persian, most likely from the poet Nandlal, a close associate of Guru Gobind Singh. He is reputed to have recommended for Sikhs to keep the name of God on their lips and harbor thoughts of war every day – “mukh meh har chit me(n) juddh bicharay.”

Looking at the totality of the Gurus’ teachings and our history in war and peace, I believe the interpretation here should not be quite so literal. This is not the place for a fuller analysis of the line but the idea of “war” here points to the enemies within the self that undermine us all.

The Second Amendment endows Americans with the right to be armed. The meaning is to be prepared for war, not to engage in war needlessly, and not to strut around looking for a fight. The Sikh teaching on being armed (shastar-dhari) needs to be similarly interpreted. In the present reality, being intellectually, morally, mentally, spiritually as well as physically disciplined and prepared speaks of many different weapons and a different armory. As always, the most powerful weapon remains the mind.

The Gurus were not pacifists, nor are the Sikhs, but Sikhi exemplifies certain conditions for rebellion and war. A moral revolution precedes resistance, rebellion and war. Non-violent methods of conflict resolution must be ernestly exhausted. You do not go looking for war; it must be thrust upon you. Wars are not to be fought for conquering territory, enslaving others or for economic benefit. Weapons are not picked up lightly; they are never to be used without grave and long consideration. Alternatives must always continue to be explored even during war. And arms must be laid down as soon as feasible alternatives appear.

The pursuit of justice makes a just war. A fallen enemy is to be treated as one’s own, and non-combatants must be protected.

Even so, forgiveness remains at the core of all actions.

From such reasoning, I conclude that the Gurus exhorted Sikhs to fight everyday on the battlefield of the mind. This is a battle that needs to be waged every day.

Wars become just, not because they are winnable or beneficent to us, not because they are ours, but because they are unavoidable, the cause is just and all other means have failed.

I end as I began – with Camus: Don’t wait for the last judgment – it takes place every day.

[Part of this essay is derived from: “Some Wars Are Just” inThe World According to Sikhi, by I.J. Singh, 2006. The Centennial Foundation, Toronto, Canada.]

Dr. Inderjit (IJ) Singh is a professor at New York University and a member of SikhRI’s Board of Directors. He has published several books on the Sikh journey and is a frequent contributor to Sikh blogs.

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