Thursday, March 3, 2011

Revering and Remembering the Lion

            With bells tied to their feet, his friends danced and twirled their long black skirts in madness.  Those who had gone out into the dark street to lighten it up with pre-marriage festivities backtracked with thudding hearts.  There was sure to be a method to this madness and the elders of the family wanted to discover that very method.  Darshan Singh, their teenage son who was training under Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa to be a priest, was called from sleep.  Little did they know that he had just run barefoot on the muddy road from his uncle’s house to his own.  He opened the door sleepily and asked his uncle what the matter was.

“There are ghosts out in the street.  You’ve been training under Sant Ji, come on, let’s go see what that whole scare is about.”  His uncle suspected that Darshan Singh might have a hand in this ghost business; this was just a test. 

On the pretense of freshening up from sleep, he excused himself to go wash his face—the muddy feet disappeared before the cover of the dark night could be uplifted.  With a few other older men, they walked with unsheathed swords and a flashlight to where the ghosts had been sighted. 

“Let me hold the flashlight while you guys hold the swords,” Darshan Singh requested.  Slowly and slyly, he removed the batteries from the flashlight and replaced them in the incorrect manner.  The ghosts must have some very strong supernatural powers to have made the flashlight stop working.  These were the thoughts of all the men with Darshan Singh.  Still suspicious, his uncle asked to have the flashlight back and encouraged Darshan Singh to go ahead and investigate.  The ghosts remained silent and faded quietly into the night.  It’s because Darshan Singh studies religious scriptures, the ghosts became afraid of the power of God.

“I used to do a lot of mischievous things like this when I was younger.  I loved scaring people with fake ghosts.”  When you look into his eyes, that mischief is no longer blatantly visible.  His forty-nine year old eyes show wisdom and kindness, there’s concern in their graying-brown depth and the understanding that comes after seeing the different faces of life.  There’s a slight flicker of that mischievous child in his smile as he recounts this childhood adventure, but his long gray beard and mustache easily conceal that and instead show a great deal of serene composure. 

Darshan Singh was born in January 1961 in the village Rajgarh in the southern region of Punjab, India.  His grandfather and older sister, almost like a second mother, told him stories from Sikh history and encouraged him on the religious path from a very young age.  When he failed to do pass his twelfth grade examinations, Darshan Singh’s sister, knowing that their father would declare harsh punishment, encouraged him to leave home and go live with the Sants.  He went with his father’s older brother and made Mehta Chowk in Northern Punjab his second home. 

Punjab as a whole was undergoing a revolution against the oppressive treatment of minority religions in India.  Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa towered over this revolution and was rapidly gaining the support of young Sikh men like Darshan Singh.  Sant Ji, as he was fondly called by the Sikh congregation, did not hesitate to ask youngsters like Darshan Singh why they had not decided to commit themselves to their faith and their freedom.

During their first meeting, Sant Ji asked Darshan Singh, “Why aren’t you a baptized Sikh yet?”  Sant Ji had just lost thirteen companion revolutionaries in a massacre funded by the Indian government and carried out by members of a cult with the purpose of contorting Sikh history and beliefs.  Mid-April of 1978 proved to be a trying time for the Sikh race after the martyrdom of the thirteen Sikhs.  However, Sant Ji rapidly led the rest of the Sikh community into realizing that they were second-class citizens in their own nation. 

“It was like Sant Ji was Guru Gobind Singh himself in a different body.  Sometimes I look at my hands and consider myself blessed to have been able to serve him with them.  Honestly, it was like being close to God when you were near him.” 

Most young men joining Sant Ji knew that the only benefit of this alliance would be the opportunity to become martyrs for their people.  Sant Ji walked like a lion protecting his den; his six-foot height made him distinct even when walking with an entire battalion of soldiers.  The knee-length white robe whipped gracefully with his brisk and purposeful movements.  Like a true soldier, Sant Ji was always armed with an eleven-inch iron kirpan, dagger, hanging from a black holster-like cloth that graced his right shoulder and held the kirpan in place on the left side of his waist.  This kirpan was often accompanied by a larger, sheathed and embellished three-foot sword or a small handgun and bullet belt which he draped over his right shoulder as well.  Many rural residents knew him as the “teer-wala Baba,” the saint with an arrow, for the iconic steel arrow he carried in his hands. 

 Sant Ji’s eyes—large and angular, set deep within his sun-browned face and often shadowed by thick black brows—exuded determination and a sereneness only seen in those who have found inner-peace.  With his mustache and long, black beard, he looked like the lion that he was from within.  Sant Ji spoke of love versus hate, “If we speak to someone with hatred and try to assert our superiority, it will create hatred in the minds of everyone.  So long as we have the spirit of love…is there any power on earth that can subdue us?” 

He spoke of courage and true life, “I do not consider physical death to be death, but the death of one’s conscience is death indeed.”  The words he spoke on stages and in media interviews empowered even the fainthearted and weak-willed.  The Sikh army was growing and with it, the Indian government’s fears increased as well.

Darshan Singh expected that he too would be enlisted in this defense army, so when Sant Ji asked, “What do you want to do, Darshan Singh?”  He humbly bowed his head and stated that whatever Sant Ji wished for him, he would accept readily.

“I want you to be trained in reading our Guru’s holy words and be able to train others in the years to come.”

Satbachan, Sant Ji.”  Darshan Singh accepted Sant Ji’s command and was introduced to Sodhi Ji, who would be his teacher from that day.

“Sodhi Ji asked me how educated I was, and I told him I had completed twelve grades.  I thought I would be started at an advanced level, but Sodhi Ji started me off with the Gurmukhi alphabet all over again.”  For nearly two months, Darshan Singh was made to practice the sounds that each of the thirty-five alphabet letters made when accompanied by the nine different vowel symbols. 

“I got so fed up of this basic lesson and not being allowed to move forward that I just went to my room and cried one day.  Sodhi Ji saw me crying and asked me why I was crying.  I told him that I’m sick of not moving on even after spending two months practicing the same lesson over and over again.”  Sodhi Ji smiled and told him that the purpose of this whole lesson is to make an individual ready for re-education. 

“This lesson is called muhaarni, which basically means that it’s a lesson that should be continued until the student’s mouth is tired of repeating it.  Once this lesson is successfully completed, a student is well-prepared to tackle the reading of the hymns written by our Gurus.”

“My daughter, Suneet, and my son and nephews were all educated by Sodhi Ji as well.  When I came to Yuba City in July 1983, I had to work in the fields for two months,” He laughs, remembering those days.  “I had never really done any physical labor, so working in the fields was very hard for me.  I was so happy when one of the community leaders of Yuba City came and told me they needed someone to read from the Guru Granth Sahib.  That was what I had been trained to do under Sant Ji’s command.” 

For about four years, Darshan Singh served as the head priest at the Yuba City Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship.  He was a priest at Yuba City when news of the Indian army’s attack on the Golden Temple reached the congregation on June 3, 1984. 

Some people were saying that Sant Ji had been arrested; some said he had dropped his weapons and came out with hands raised in surrender.  Every single congregation member was praying for the safety of their fellow Sikhs who had gathered at the Golden Temple as pilgrims to commemorate a religious holiday.  There was a high sense of confusion.  They knew that the Golden Temple was being fired upon, that tanks had been taken on the sacred premises of the historical monument, and that there were Sikhs from Sant Ji’s informal army who were firing in defense from places that the army could not locate.

“The Yuba City Gurdwara committee members were saying that it was certain that Sant Ji had been arrested.  That’s when I spoke up and declared that knowing Sant Ji, he would rather be martyred than be arrested.”  Several days later, on the sixth of June, the news was released that Sant Ji’s bullet-ridden body had been recovered from the thousands of other dead bodies.  Darshan Singh cried. 

He cried for the loss of a leader who has not been replaced to this day.  He cried for the deaths of innocent Golden Temple visitors.  He cried for the destroyed sanctity of the most holy Sikh shrine. 

“When I first went to the golden temple, I went with Sant Ji.”  While Sant Ji bathed in the sacred pool of nectar, Darshan Singh’s eyes kept looking in awe at how the Golden Temple emerged from the water like a lotus flower.  “I just kept wondering how this Gurdwara was standing in the middle of water.

“I remember another time when I went with Sant Ji’s group to Hazur Sahib,” located in Nanded, in the Indian state of Maharashtra.  Hazur Sahib is where the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh breathed his last and declared that the next Guru would be Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of divine hymns composed by the Sikh Gurus and enlightened saints of other religions. 

“We got there at night, but instead of sleeping, Sant Ji had all of us spend the night in meditation.  When we returned to Mehta Chowk, Sant Ji was to be arrested by the Indian police.  I still remember exactly what he looked like that day.  He was wearing a yellow turban and a long yellow cloth was draped over his shoulders.  There was no fear on his face, just bliss.” 

Before giving arrest however, Sant Ji had professed the wish to visit the Golden Temple.  He went there even after the police officials’ refusal.  There were a few Sikhs who upon Sant Ji’s return from the Golden Temple did not want him to be placed in police custody.  They flattened the tires of the police jeep and took their horses.  As a result, twelve to eighteen Sikhs were killed by the police that day.  Sant Ji allowed himself to be arrested without resistance and spent twenty days in jail. 

“After twenty days, they released Sant Ji because there were no charges against him.”  Tears shine in Darshan Singh’s eyes as he remembers the moments spent in the company of Sant Ji.  “He was a truly enlightened man.  Losing him, our religion lost its greatest leader.  But you know, the struggle for the freedom of the Sikh people didn’t end with him, he is the foundation.  He woke up a sleeping community; he made us realize that without our own government, we will never be able to walk freely on this globe.  It might be several years before another Sant Ji is born, but I’m sure it will happen.”  Darshan Singh’s distant gaze is not unlike the gaze that many other Sikhs get when thinking of a day that their religion will be autonomous.  After facing endless discrimination from the Indian government and being misunderstood by their fellow citizens in countries outside India, there’s a thirst within the Sikhs to be a self-governed religious society. 

The light that Sant Ji lit in the hearts of Sikhs will surely return in full luminosity in another lion-hearted leader, willing to take the reins of the community and guide it to sovereignty.  It is this hope and dream that holds the Sikhs together and unfortunately, tears them apart at times.