INDIC NEW YEAR AND BAISAKHI


Spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world.   – Virgil A. Kraft

For many people of Indic culture, April 14 is  New Year Day. It is, in fact, a welcoming of the season of spring. It is sometimes called Yugádi, which means the beginning (ádi) of a yuga. A yuga, by classical Hindu reckoning, is one of the four cyclical eons (each lasting several hundred thousand years) through which the universe goes. The traditional belief is that the so-called New Year Day recalls the Day of a renewed  phase in the Cosmic Cycle. This stands to reason: The universe could not have started on some arbitrary date in the year. That day should be commemorated as the first day of the first year that ever was. In terrestrial astronomical terms it is taken as the day of the vernal equinox (mesha sankránti) when the sun is supposed to enter the constellation of Aries. In Thailand they celebrate the day as Songran.

The day has different names in different parts of India: Noba Barsha in Bengal,  Puththándu or Varushappirappu in Tamil Nadu, Rongali Bihu in Assam, Vishu in Kerala, etc. People celebrate  this auspicious day in a variety of ways:  going in large numbers  to sacred rivers of a purifying dip, participating in colorful fairs, singing and dancing, wearing new clothes,  paying homage to the Sun,  etc.

In the Sikh tradition, this day is called Vaisákhi or Baisakhi (pronounce: Baisaakhi). It begins the year as per their tradition.

Baisakhi has great historical significance in the Sikh framework. Briefly, it is as follows: Aurangzeb, the mean-spirited Mogul monarch who had ascended to the throne in 1657 after  murdering his kith and kin, started a frenzy of religious persecution whose goal was to Islamize the whole of India: world conversion is the goal of all proselytizing religions. His advisors told him that if he could convert the Brahmins, the rest would follow like sheep. He therefore levied exorbitant taxes on Brahmins and exerted other painful measures to achieve his goal. The Brahmins of Kashmir, in virtual panic, approached the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur for assistance. When Tegh Bahadur went to Delhi to negotiate with the emperor on this matter, he was promptly chained and thrown into prison: a not uncommon practice among rulers of his ilk in the bad-old days. It has been said, one would hope exaggeratedly,  that the Sikh guru was thrown into boiling oil and  killed in this terrible manner, then his body was thrown on the street. No one had the courage to remove it or give it proper funeral. Later two men came stealthily and removed the corpse and  gave a proper cremation.

When Tegh Bahadur’s son Gobind Rai heard about this, he was so ashamed of the cowardice of his people who had not dared go and claim his father’s body that he decided to instill some martial spirit in the followers of the Sikh Guru. So it was that on Baisakhi day in the year 1699, the new Guru Gobind (1666 – 1708) called for a meeting of all the Sikhs at Anandpur Sahib in the Punjab. He spoke to the crowd passionately, and brandished his sword as a sign of valor and determination. He called upon volunteers to commit themselves to a life of bravery and sacrifice; initiated a ceremony called   pahul (the equivalent of baptism), invested each of the five volunteers from different classes and sects with  five insignias of Sikhism; and asked them to baptize him in return. It was from that date that Sikh men stopped shaving and cutting their hair, started wearing a comb and an iron bracelet, and began carrying the dagger at their side. From then on, all Sikhs assumed the last name of Singh (Lion). This was the beginning of the Panth Khalsa (order of the Pure). That is why Baisakhi is of great significance to Sikhs: It is more than just a new year celebration.

It should be recalled that the Mogul emperor did not, indeed could not, leave the Khalsa in peace. In this he was also instigated by some Hindu rajas who did not like Guru Gobind’s repudiation of the caste system. But the emperor’s mighty army was roundly defeated by the valiant Sikh soldiers in a memorable battle in 1705 in a place called Chamkaur.  It is said that the Sikh Guru sent to the losing Aurangzeb a memorable letter written in verse in Persian. This Epistle of Victory (Zafarnáma), is it was called, has a long history of being lost, re-constructed, and preserved. It concludes famously with the lines,

All modes of redressing the wrongs have failed.

So raising the sword is pious and just.

This is a restatement of what prompted the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. It has also been a recurring theme in many other contexts in the history of the world. Appeals and appeasement seldom work against ruthless tyrants and intransigent enemies. Mindless oppressors understand only the language of  determined physical force.

Today, much of the sordid details of the history behind Baisakhi are kept in the background. Instead, one pays a visit to a gurudwara (Sikh house of worship) where special devotional songs are sung. There are also social dimensions to the celebration where one rejoices in festivities. People dance the dynamic bhangra which expresses the sheer joy of life. There are the rhythms of the dholak (drum) to add to the exhilaration. There are musical enactments of plowing and sowing and reaping, for this is as much a welcoming of spring and harvest in that part of the world.  And, like the internet and international capitalism, Baisakhi and other celebrations of regional festivals  have also crossed the seas and find expression all the continents of the globe.

April 13, 2016

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