With Vaisakhi we are NOT celebrating the Sikh New Year. As per the "barah maah", the poem of 12 months (and thereby the poem of all seasons), contained within the Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev Ji in raag tukhaari and Guru Arjan Dev Ji, in raag maajh, declare the Sikh calendar to start with the month the "chet". Vaisakhi is the second month on this calendar. This was ordained well before 1699, and Guru Gobind Singh did not initiate a new calendar. In fact, the fair of Holaa Mohallaa celebrated in "chet" in Anandpur Sahib, very much during Guru Gobind Singh Ji's time, comes closest to a tradition of celebrating a New Year. Then why Vaisakhi of 1699? Even the Sikh calendar standardized from 1999 onwards, by the SGPC thanks to the efforts of Palinder Singh, declares "chet" as the first month.
Within Sikh historical records, the first occasion for the celebration of Vaisakhi, within the Sikh sequence of annual get-togethers, was ordained by Guru Amardas Ji, the third Nanak, when he gave permission to Bhai Paaro Ji Parmhans of village Dallaa to initiate this practice. Guru Amardas was on gurgaddi from 1552 through 1574, well before 1699.
The "saint-soldier" ethic, the role of a Sikh as a fighter against oppression, was crystallized by Guru Hargobind Ji, the sixth Nanak, when after he was given the gurgaadi in 1606, much before 1699. Guru Hargobind built the first Sikh fort, Lohgarh, built Akal Takhat with the ensuing significance of the temporal and spiritual authority, and wore kirpans, two of them at time, in fact. Earlier Guru Sahibaan emphasized physical conditioning, holding wresting matches during Guru Ramdas Ji's time, and emphasizing horsemanship during Guru Arjan Dev Ji's time.
The significance of the Sikhs being a separate nation was declared by Guru Nanak Dev Ji when he held congregations away from Hindu temples and Muslim mosques or dargaahs. Certain practices, unique to Sikhism were initiated by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, later documented and instituted by subsequent Guru Sahibs like the formal script, Gurmukhi. Guru Amardas Ji, the third Guru gave us unique rites for birth and death, and did away with "pardaah" and "sati" within the Sikh qaum. Guru Sahibaan established a Sikh church system via the peerhis and manjis, separate from the other "-isms". All of this happened way before 1699. Why the significance of Vaisakhi 1699?
The emphasis on presenting our social ethics, via specific institutions of pangat, langar, equal opportunity for women, had positioned our religion beyond a mere exercise of "bhagti"/meditation as some folks erroneously associate the period up to Guru Arjan Dev Ji with.
In the "bhagat rattnaavali" it is documented that the second Guru Sahib, who was ordained to be the second Guru, in 1539, by Guru Nanak himself, gave directions to Maalu Shah:
"aap upaadh kisaY naal na keejaY je judh zaroor aa-ay baNay ttaa(n) bahuttiaa, thorhiaa, kee shankaa naa kee-jaY" [never initiate unpleasantness with any one; yet if a battle does come upon you, then, do not fret about how large/big your side is; (jump into the battle)]
thereby dictating the appeal of the Sikh:
"att hee raN mey ttab joojh maro(n)"
[when the firestorm of injustices comes upon me, may I jump into the battlefield to confront it]
All of this happened way, way before 1699.
At times, the significance of the refutation of the various segments of society, the various classes, the first Punj Piyare belonged to, is highlighted during the celebration of the Vaisakhi of 1699. Yet, this was ordained well before that. In Guru Granth Sahib, the fourth Nanak, Guru Ram Das Ji, directs:
"pittaa jaatt ttaa hoee-aY, gur ttuThaa karay pasaao" - page 82, siri
This declares that we are all of the caste/tribe of our Guru. Hence, the claim that it was Guru Gobind Singh who first declared that henceforth he was the father of us all, and that it applies only to "amritdhaaris" is erroneous. Bhai Gurdas Ji, in Vaar 29, documenting an explanation of the concepts of Gurbaani states:
"chaar varan ik varan hoe, gursikh varhi-an burmukh gotte ...
saadh sangat mil daaday pottay"
This was declared so, in the first few years of the 1600's (before 1606). Well before 1699. Then why the celebration and commemoration of 1699?
Guru Ramdas Ji, the fourth Nanak, well before 1699, had given the divine message, contained within the Guru Granth Sahib:
"guru sikh sikh guru haY eko gur updes chalaae" - page 444, raag aasaa [those who live within/abide by gurmat, that person becomes the form of the guru; is synonymous with the Guru]
Hence, the 1699 Vaisakhi is not unique in the establishment of the tradition of:
"vaaho vaaho gobind singh, aape gur chelaa"
for Guru Ramdas Ji, the fourth Nanak, early on had declared, as contained within the Guru Granth Sahib:
"jan naanak dhoorh mangaY ttis gursikh ki
jo aap japaY avrah naam japaavaY" - page 306, vaar gaurhi
and emphasized by Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the fifth Nanak, again as contained within the Guru Granth Sahib:
"jo deesaY gur-sikh-rhaa ttis niv niv laago paae jeeo" - page 763, raag soohi [upon sighting a GurSikh, I bow lower and lower to her feet]
The above was stated by Guru Sahibaan, well before 1606. What are we then celebrating about Vaisakhi of 1699?
The Sikhs well before 1699 had been doing "mathaa Teko" to the Guru. Why do we have this form of worship? A person, alone, walks all the way to the Guru, in front of all, raises his behind, up in the air, puts his forehead on the ground, puts the palm on the ground, and stays there momentarily. In western tradition this looks like a ridiculous, embarrassing posture. Is the Guru's purpose to embarrass us in front of all? We offer a token dollar also, in the process, but I shall not go into the semantics of that act, for it is not relevant to the topic at hand.
Why do not we coming up the stairs to the diwaan, mumble something like "paYri paYnaa ji" (I bow to your feet) in the general direction of the Guru Sahib, and sit down (usually next to the wall)? For that matter if it is the intent that matters, and I know I hold the Guru in huge reverence, why do not I merely come up the stairs, wave and silently say, "Hi, Guru Ji", and go sit in the congregation?
The "mathaa Teknaa" has a huge symbolism for the relationship between the Sikh and the Guru. The posture is the most defenseless, with our eyes looking at the ground, blind to any mischief of others around us, we demonstrate complete trust in the congregation. We trust none of them is going to kick us in the behind, or come pick our pocket. We trust such is the company of those around the Guru. This posture is of complete submission to the entity to whom we are bowing to. We effectively are offering our "head", in a very public manner, unassisted, through complete volition of ours, to the Guru.
We are realizing, symbolically the gur-command of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, contained within Guru Granth Sahib of:
"ttaY saahib kee je aakhaY, kahu naanak kiyaa deejaY sees vaDhay kar baYsan deejaY, viN sir sev kareejaY kio na mareejaY, jee-arhaa na deejaY, ja saho bhaiaa viDaaNaa" - page 557, raag vaD-hans [what should/can I offer to such a master, such a Guru; and the answer is: cut your head off, and have the Guru sit thereupon; without your own head/intellect go forth in service, in righteous deeds; meaning that have the Guru thereby be your intellect; Guru Sahib answers the subsequent query that crops up with: why not die for such an entity, which brings you within the grace of the Creator, the Lord?]
These same directives were given by other Guru Sahibaan too. For example, Guru Ramdas Ji, the fourth Nanak declares as our ethic to be:
"vaar vaar jaaee gur oopar, paY paYri santt manaaee ..." -page 757, vaar siri raag [may I repeatedly sacrifice my whole being upon the Guru, throwing myself on his feet]
"ttan man kaaT kaaT sabh arpee, vich agnee aap jalaae" - page 757, raag soohi
[chop my body and mind into pieces and offer to the Guru, and put my self through the fire ...]
Sikhs had been indulging in the symbolism of the "matha Teknaa" for more than 200 years. Sikhs had been singing the hymns, like those referenced above, that contained such concepts. Sikhs, for 200 years, had been reciting and understanding this very gurbaani, declaring it to be so great, such nectar filled, so enthralling, so rejuvenating, so liberating, had been understanding this very gurbaani via various techniques of saakhis, viaakhiaa and so on.
Currently, we sing an abridged version of the Anand Sahib, with reciting only the first five paurhis and the last, fortieth, paurhi during its Anand Sahib paath in the diwaan. Yet, it had been the custom, and remains so, within many households to do the paaTh, daily, of the whole Anand Sahib, which contains:
"aYsaa sattgur je milaY, ttis no sir saopee-aY, vicho aap jaa-ay" - anand sahib, pauri 30 [to such a Guru, give up your head, and renounce the affectation of ego]
Sikhs had been reciting his for 150 years; some had their grandfathers/grandmothers, their fathers/mothers and now themselves reciting it. And these were folks who considered themselves closest to the Guru.
On the Vaisakhi of 1699, Guru Gobind Singh said that folks you have been saying all of these things the past 200 years, have been understanding it all along, and claim these as the very core of your belief system, your very being. Well, then I need a head. This very head you claim you submit with the "mathaa TekNaa", the very head you supposedly are willing to cut into pieces and offer to the Guru, the very head you are willing to sacrifice, over and over, to your Guru. Heck, all this stuff of living within the command of the Guru, and delivering what the Guru asks of you. One head would do. There are thousands congregated here, just one head would do.
We all know what happened? Stark silence! Guru Sahib did not point to any specific segment of devotees and ask for the head; he said that anyone from any caste, any class, any race, any segment, who claims to be my Sikh would do. Guru Sahib did not dilute his request with, "okay, a finger would do". He declared with the naked kripaan in hand, which ethics declared was to be unsheathed only when to be used for cutting off something, that he need a head.
The congregation realized that the Guru Sahib, actually, I mean, really, wanted a head of a Sikh.
And what happened? Daya Raam stepped up and offered his head. Then 4 others stepped up and became they became the first Punja Piyaare.
That is why we celebrate the Vaisakhi of 1699. The realization of the Sikhs of the physical commitment, the actual, in physical, tangible terms, submission to the Guru. What our intent is, what we mean, our understanding of the concept, our allegiance in symbolic form, none of these matter. What we mean, has to manifest in what we do, what we are. There has to be the physical manifestation of our belief. Being brave or ethical inside is of no significance for the Guru, if that bravery or that ethical behavior does not manifest itself within our external deeds.
On the Vaisakhi of 1699 the Sikhs demolished the difference between the within and without . They manifested what they believed in. The Sikhs completed understood, and realized the message of Guru Nanak. That is why we celebrate the Vaisakhi of 1699.
To emphasize this significance, and for the Sikhs to realize this for generations to come, Guru Sahib prescribed a physical form. The physical form of the baaNaa, the kakaars, which emphasizes our identity and encompassed ethics publically and in every situation. The Singh and Kaur in our names, which took away our mere intent of not believing in caste, or merely considering ourselves belonging to the family of Guru. Guru Sahib, physically bowed to the Panj Piaare and asked for "khanDe dee pahul", to emphasize physically the status of the Sikhs who embody the teaching of the Guru.
Guru Sahib gave us specific directions for eating (representing a community affiliation), self-distinction, behavioral taboos, as well as a specific regimen of prayers, whereby we manifest the distinction outlined by Guru Nanak of seekers in a "sangat" empowering each other in spiritual pursuit, and fortifying each other in righteous deeds for the welfare of all humanity.
That the Sikhs realized the responsibility of the actual, real, physical manifestation within each of us, of the divine message of the Guru Sahibaan, from Guru Nanak Dev Ji on, is the significance of the Vaisakhi of 1699, and that is what we celebrate.
It is erroneous to state that the Khalsa was born on Vaisakhi of 1699.
Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, states on page 1429 of Guru Granth Sahib that:
"jo upjeo so binas haY, paro aaj kaY kaal ..."
[anything that is born shall die/be destroyed]
We do not say that Guru Granth Sahib was born on so and so date. Khalsa too was not born. It was revealed in stages, by each Guru Sahib. Guru Nanak did not reveal the whole Gurbaani in one day, to an astounded and confused populace. Each Guru Sahib revealed the gurbaani, and the ensuing Khalsa, in stages, depending upon the capacity of the audience to absorb it. Various aspects of the Khalsa were revealed and consolidated by each Guru Sahib, via various institutions they initiated. In Sarab Loh Granth, Guru Gobind Singh says:
"pragTeo Khalsa pramaatam kee mauj"
Hence the term to be used is that Khalsa was fully revealed on Vaisakhi of 1699 . This process of revelation was started by Guru Nanak. Khalsa surely, as I have hopefully expounded, with references above, was not created by Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Our constant reminder is contained within our greeting:
"Vaahguru ji ka Khalsa
Vaahguru ji ki Fateh"
It is not said "Guru Gobind Singh ka Khalsa ..."
The consequence of the realization in physical terms, in personal terms, of the divine message of Guru Nanak was that Guru Gobind Singh declared that there was no need for any individual person to be the Guru henceforth. The message has been understood, and those who understand it, realize it (in a physical sense, in a personal sense) become collectively the form of the Guru. This is documented in the Rehatnaama of Bhai Prehlaad Singh:
"sabh sikhan ko hukam haY, guru maaneo panth jo sikh mo milbo chahaY, khoj inhee may lay" [all sikhs are hereby commanded that consider Khalsa Panth as the Guru; that sikh who want to meet me (meet the Guru), should seek within these Khalsa]
This is the verbatim realization of the command of Sixth Nanak, Guru Hargobind Ji, who is documented in Gur Vilaas Paatshaahi 6, on page 299:
"sikh maYn mero roop suhaa-yo"
This is why we celebrate the Vaisakhi of 1699 . It, in a unique fashion in the whole world, lays the foundation of the Gur-gaddi to be given in 1708 to the collective body of the devotees. No messiah needed, no intermediary needed; each of us can reach the pedestal of the divine, when we manifest the message of the Guru. Each of us has the capacity to become the Guru persona. The revelation of Guru Nanak was complete. We, the common people got it!!
We celebrate by re-affirming what the Guru wanted us to be. We give meaning to the celebration. We keep the celebration alive by taking "khanDe dee pahul".
For the youth who may think the Khalsa-ethic as too daunting, too consuming to fit within its hectic schedule, I request that you, for the next year vow to embody just one aspect of it. Pick one, say "compassion". Then make it happen, whereby within your context when any one talks about compassion, they be impelled to give you as a living example, or living definition of the word "compassion". Let it be said, that he/she may be anything else, but boy, oh boy, she is the embodiment of compassion.
Just one quality!
Make it happen!