Raj Karega Khalsa – what does this really mean? Why has it been part of so many controversies? In order to answer this, we must know its origin. Who wrote it? When was it written? What’s the context of it? How have the Sikhs interpreted it through the eras? How to perceive it today?
The motto Raj Karega Khalsa is part of a composition that early manuscripts label either as Nasihatnamah or Tankhahnamah. Nasihat means advice where Tankhah means salary; Namah is a letter. Essentially, it documents a Sikh code of conduct that cites penalties (salary as it perceived as Guru’s blessing) for transgressions as well as the aspirations of the Panth.
Scholars date it to 1718. However, its religious, social, and political content suggests it was penned between 1699-1708. It opens with Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’ (1633-1713) asking the questions, and Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, answering them. The dialogue spans the lifestyle, ethics, and politics of the Khalsa.
The text begins with:
Questions, Bhai Nand Lal Ji
Responses, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji
In the poetic genre of Dohra and Chaupai, it continues for fifty-five stanzas which detail the Sikh conduct (stanzas 1-43), the Khalsa (stanzas 44-55), and the Sovereignty (stanzas 56-62). Here’s my understanding of the third part which is most relevant to our exploration:
Nand Lal, listen to this truth:
I will establish the Raj (Sovereignty). (56)
The four categories will become one category,
I will recite Vahiguru (Awe-Wisdom) recitation. (57)
[They will] mount horses and fly hawks,
The Turks (empire) will flee seeing them. (58)
I will make one fight a hundred and twenty-five thousand.
I will free those Singhs (warriors) who ascend (die). (59)
The spears will wave and the elephants will be caparisoned,
The nine-instruments will resound from gate to gate. (60)
When a hundred and twenty-five thousands guns will discharge,
Then the Khalsa will be victorious from wherever the sun shines and sets. (61)
The Khalsa will rule and no one will be a dissenter,
All will unite after exhaustion, those who take refuge will survive. (62)
The Sikh Understanding
As per the Bards Satta and Balvand’s record in the Guru Granth Sahib (966), Guru Nanak Sahib established the Raj (governance or rule):
Nanak established the Dominion by raising
the fort of Truth on firm foundations …
With might and bravery of One’s wisdom-sword,
Perfection bestowed the gift of life …
The Light and the method were same,
the Sovereign only changed the body.
Impeccable Divine canopy waves,
the Throne of Guru-ship is occupied.
Raj Karega Khalsa motto carried the Panth triumphantly since Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s promise of the rule articulated to Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya,’ especially through the eighteenth century that saw multiple genocidal campaigns and multiple establishments of the Sikh Raj.
The Raj was envisioned and declared, institutions to establish the Raj were developed, and the Sikhs to govern justly were trained by the Ten Nanaks, Guru Nanak-Gobind Singh Sahib. The Sikh doctrine of Miri-Piri, that spirituality and politics are integrated, and consequently, the political dimension is complementary to Sikhs`spiritual activity, legitimizes capturing the political power as a fulcrum for social change.
The following authors have recorded how the Raj or rule was bestowed by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib and the Khalsa asserted the Sikh sovereignty in the Panjab as the divine guarantee. They are as follows:
- Chandra Sain Sainapati, Sri Gur Sobha, 1711
- Koer Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10, 1751
- Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Parkash, 1776
- Sukha Singh, Gurbilas Patshahi 10, 1797
- ---, Prem Sumarag, 1815
- Ratan Singh Bhangu, Sri Guru Panth Parkash, 1841
The Sikh greeting is also a testimony of what Sikhs’ memory has been carrying through centuries. Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa, Vahiguru ji ki Fatih! The Khalsa is of the Vahiguru (Awe-Wisdom), the victory is of the Vahiguru (Awe-Wisdom).
The Khalsa belongs to IkOankar (1Force), the Khalsa is victorious for creating Raj that sees and establishes 1-Ness. There are no “others” in any sense, class or caste, race, or gender. The Khalsa Raj as established under the command of Banda Singh Bahadur (1670-1716) freed all people from the Mughal empire; freedom from forced religion and from no discrimination.
Raj Karega Khalsa was realized for the first time as a republic during 1710-1716. For doing so, the Khalsa became the public enemy #1! As the state continued their campaigns to exterminate all Sikhs, the Khalsa continued their remembrance to establish the Raj. The Sikhs captured Lahore and Delhi, the Mughals and the Afghan were perplexed. The Khalsa remained focused on the Guru’s promise even amid two Ghallugharas (genocides) of the eighteenth century.
Until 1849, in the Sikh homeland in the land of the five rivers, Raj Karega Khalsa was evident to all. There was no confusion, in the letter or spirit. Raj Karega Khalsa was the incessant source of inspiration and strength for all Sikh affairs; it was their ecosystem. There was no debate that Raj Karega Khalsa was about political sovereignty which included the right to self-determination, self-rule, or nation-state.
Dr. Ganda Singh in The True Import of Raj Karega Khalsa, while commenting on the historicity of the motto, concluded it was “a permanent and inseparable part of the Sikh prayer and should be recited as such on all occasions of prayers by all Sikhs and Sikh congregations, where-ever they might be, in all Gurdwaras, historical or other.”
When the British Empire was scheming to annex the kingdom of Panjab, American-born Major-General Sir David Ochterlony was tasked to understand how the Sikhs gained their sovereignty. Charge-De-affairs of the East India Company at Ludhiana in the Panjab was Captain William Murray. His dialogue with Ratan Singh Bhangu, who was actually his instructor to learn about the Sikhs and the Panjab since 1809, recorded the question of the legitimacy of the Sikh Rule in 1841 publication:
Murray: How did the Sikhs attain power? And who gave them sovereignty?
Ratan: Sovereignty was bestowed on the Khalsa by the Satguru.
Murray: Who is the Satguru?
Ratan: Nanak is the Satguru.
There was no question among the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Muslims, and so on, as to what Raj Karega Khalsa meant. The Sikhs sang it, imbibed it, lived it, for it reminded them to perpetually work to realize the freedom, here and now!
The British masterfully dis-established many things after annexation in 1849; they were the first to “ban” the recitation of Raj Karega Khalsa at Sikhs gatherings. That “ban” is still in effect at Sri Harimandar Sahib, Sri Amritsar Jiu. When one loses their homeland, they lose many things, including their reminders on aspirations. Sirdar Kapur Singh in Raj Karega Khalsa elaborates:
How else can we explain the backsliding of almost 8,000,000 of Sikhs in 1849, to a mere 1,800,000 of Sikhs in the Census of 1862? What explains, if not decay of political power and might of the Sikhs in 1850, the conversion of Raja Sir Harnam Singh and Sadhu Sunder Singh to Christianity, the conversion to Islam of the learned ulema, Obeidullah Sindhi, and the father and family of internationally famous jurist, Sir Mohammad Zaffer-Ullah Khan? What made the scion of the martyr Bhai Mati Das, the late Bhai Parmand, his son and son-in-law, and the uniquely vital off-spring of a devout sahajdhari Sikh family, Dr. Sir Gokal Chand Narang break away from the gravitational orbit of Sikhism and stray into the barren wastelands of Arya Samaj? Again, during the short historical span of their existence, the Sikhs have seen much misunderstand and malice, prejudice and persecution, fierce onslaughts and genocide pogroms, victory and glory, power and prosperity, defeat and subjugation, ridicule and abasement, poverty and deprivation, and yet throughout these vicissitudes, neither friend nor foe, neither neighbour or stranger, through ill-will or ignorance has ever dared or cared to belittle or denigrate the great Sikh Prophets, the Gurus, in respect of their thoughts, words or deeds universally holding them in highest estimation, as men, leaders of men and religious Prophets. Malcolm, McGregor, Cunnigham, Dorothy Field, Tonybee, Sujan Rai, Khushwaqt Rai, Daulat Rai, Mohamad Latif display unanimity here though much multiniaity elsewhere, while writing on Sikhs and Sikhism.
Sirdar Kapur Singh wrote The Hour of Sword which was also banned by the British. I have been looking for that work, which I presume speaks to how Raj Karega Khalsa was being re-imagined by the Sikhs during the British occupation of the Panjab. After 1947, many started “questioning” Raj Karega Khalsa. Again, Sirdar Kapur Singh in Raj Karega Khalsa remarks:
This startlingly tall and audacious claim has been publicly proclaimed by the Sikh people during the last three centuries, firmly and defiantly and it has moved many to sheer ridicule, others to fright, still others to resentment and boiling-head anger, many Sikhs themselves to chicken-hearted craven fear of shameless apologia, and to the political Hindus of the post-1947 euphoria, it has, almost invariably moved to greater contempt for those whom they see as already in their last death – throes. Be that as it may, it is legitimate to examine as to whether the Sikh doctrine itself is devoid of historical perceptiveness and realistic out-look, and whether it stands the test of scientific scrutiny. Thus alone its intrinsic validity can be judged, however, unpalatable or prima facie impracticable it might otherwise appear in the case of present day Sikh people, politically subjugated, culturally submerged, intellectually confused and barren, morally decayed, economically deprived and plundered through the Partition of India and religiously profaned, it cannot be, off-hand asserted or insinuated that this Sikh doctrine is prima facie ill-conceived or stupid or unsustainable.
The objections to Raj Karega Khalsa motto were amplified on 20 July 1975 at a convention in Patiala focused on planning the tercentenary celebrations of the martyrdom of Guru Teghbahadar Sahib. Bhai Jodh Singh, the former Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University, remarked as reported by The Tribune: “In celebration of Guru's martyrdom a vigorous campaign should be launched against the wrong belief that State Power was necessary to sustain any religion. Politics, he emphasized, must be insulated from religion."
Sirdar Kapur Singh continues:
Bhai Jodh Singh has been an active politician during the British as well as the post-British period under the guise of the religious man and he has never deemed it fit to insulate his own politics from his own religion, with the result that grateful and appreciative foreign rulers conferred upon him the high distinction and title of Sardar Bahadur in addition to other tokens of favour, and in the post-British period also he has been in much demand by those in political power.
A clear-headed person that Bhai Jodh Singh is, he did not say, in so many words that, ‘insulation of politics from a religion’ is a definite Sikh doctrine; he merely proffers it as his own piece of secular and pagan wisdom, for he is aware that Sikh doctrine and tradition both hold politics as isolated from religion as pedagogy, opportunism and unprincipled trickery. Only by implication and through insinuation he desires that the Sikhs should accept the views of those whose voice he is that, such, indeed, is the true Sikh doctrine.
The Sikhs who become part of the establishment must refrain from diluting the Sikh doctrine!
As far as the Guru and the state is concerned, the Mughal Aurangzeb offered grants to Guru Teghbahadar Sahib to stop all political activities; the Guru was martyred by public heading in Delhi. The Guru had set up a new state (suba), a new nation was emerging (millat-e-nau). The Guru is “Protector of the Universe” as documented in Sri Gur Sobha by Sainpati. “Protector of Dharam” or “Protector of Hind” reduces the Guru’s domain to only “Dharam” and “India,” especially in contemporary politics; these are too limiting for the Guru Sahib’s universe.
The argument that Sikh must not be political is completely unfounded. It reduces Sikhi to be merely spiritual, and that is not Gurmat or the Guru’s Way. The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh historical traditions, and the Khalsa lifestyle emphatically demand the Sikhs to be political-spiritual concurrently.
Six out of ten Guru Sahibs were either jailed, had political assassination attempts, or were martyred. How can one claim Sikhi is not political!
The Song & The (Appropriation) Dance
The Panjabi and Hindi film and music industry has been producing songs that seem to be going out of tune from the original Raj Karega Khalsa doctrine. Here’s a sample:
2016: “Raj Karega Khalsa,” A Flying Jatt movie, Daler Mehndi, Navraj Hans.
No political aspiration. Only the protection of people and that too via non-Khalsa identity with caste-accentuation.
2013: “Raj Karega Khalsa,” Diljit Dosanjh.
No political aspiration. Invokes fight against injustice, protection of the Sikh nation, and love for the Guru.
1997: “Raj Karega Khalsa,” Harbhajan Mann and Gursewak Mann.
Invokes Panth and Guru’s blessing to rule forever.
1975: “Raj Karega Khalsa,” a film by Deedara “Dara” Singh Randhawa was released, banned, re-released after renaming it to “Sava Lakh Se Ek Ladaun” and re-banned. Raj Karega Khalsa movie was caught between Congress, Akalis, and Nihangs!
Depicts the Khalsa fighting an oppressive state.
The Indian politics and sports are appropriating Raj Karega Khalsa too:
- 2020: Blackpainting “Aurangzeb Lane” street signs in New Delhi to fuel anti-Muslim Hindutva is described as Raj Karega Khalsa where a ruling Bhartiya Janta Party Member of Legislative Assembly and Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee president is leading the task. This is definitely not the Khalsa rule!
- 2016: ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’: Arvind Kejriwal plays the Panthic card in the Sikh heartland; newspaper headline invokes Aam Aadmi Party party’s aspirations to rule Panjab and India and offers “The Pure shall rule.” This is about electoral politics of the Indian state of Panjab and Indian politics, not about the Khalsa sovereignty!
- 2005: “Bat on it, Raj Karega Khalsa”; newspaper headline invokes Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, and VRV Singh as the Singh Parivar taking over Indian cricket. No relevance to the Khalsa or its rule.
- 1995: Supreme Court; stray slogans do not attract Section 124A pertaining to sedition Sikhs arrested for raising “Raj Karega Khalsa” slogans since 1984, convicted and overturned.
2020: Can We See Clearly?
In summary, the Khalsa’s political aspiration is to establish a sovereign rule. Consequently, subservience to any empire or ruler is unacceptable to the Khalsa. The right to bear arms and engage in military warfare are aids to acquire political power. Since the establishment of The Khalsa Raj by Baba Banda Singh Bahadar in 1710, Raj Karega Khalsa remains a constant reminder to the Sikhs about their political aim. And even today it is recited enthusiastically by all Sikhs regardless of their political activism or aspiration.
Raj Karega Khalsa expresses the collective Sikh will of sovereignty and continues to be recited after Ardas (Sikh collective prayer) at all Sikh occasions, from marriage to protest. That means it still lives in the Sikh psyche, even if it is not fully grasped.
Raj Karega Khalsa is a declaration that the Sikh collective will look after its own affairs. It is also a reminder to all that the Sikhs have Guru-Granted right to self-rule and they will confront unjust rule in all lands. This is where the current challenge is: How to assert sovereignty in all nations where Sikhs reside? In an illiberal democracy like India where 4 out of 5 Sikhs live? In liberal democracies like the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia? In Islamic republics like Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, and UAE?
Guru Arjan Sahib in the Guru Granth Sahib (73) reminds the fellow-travelers about what constitutes the 1Force’s (IkOankar) Raj, where the Sovereign is graceful, the constituency lives without fear, the rule is benevolent:
Now, the command of the Graceful has been issued:
No one causes grief to anyone.
All are living in comfort, this is the humble rule.
On 15 June 1606, Sovereign Timeless Throne (Akal Takht Sahib) was established by Guru Harigobind Sahib to practice Miri-Piri perpetually. After 36 years of the Third Ghallughara, the Sikh collective must revive their allegiance to the Guru to become political-spiritual, to revive Raj Karega Khalsa!
About the Author:
Harinder Singh is a thinker, author, and educator. He is the co-founder of the Sikh Research Institute. His current focus is on critical thinking in Sikh institutions and availing the wisdom of Guru Granth Sahib to a global audience. He tweets at @1Force.